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Monday, June 28, 2010

Death by Gadget

Blood diamonds” have faded away, but we may now be carrying “blood phones."

By Nicholas D. Kristof
The New York Times Op-Ed
June 26, 2010

An ugly paradox of the 21st century is that some of our elegant symbols of modernity — smartphones, laptops and digital cameras — are built from minerals that seem to be fueling mass slaughter and rape in Congo. With throngs waiting in lines in the last few days to buy the latest iPhone, I’m thinking: What if we could harness that desperation for new technologies to the desperate need to curb the killing in central Africa?

I’ve never reported on a war more barbaric than Congo’s, and it haunts me. In Congo, I’ve seen women who have been mutilated, children who have been forced to eat their parents’ flesh, girls who have been subjected to rapes that destroyed their insides. Warlords finance their predations in part through the sale of mineral ore containing tantalum, tungsten, tin and gold. For example, tantalum from Congo is used to make electrical capacitors that go into phones, computers and gaming devices.

Electronics manufacturers have tried to hush all this up. They want you to look at a gadget and think “sleek,” not “blood.”

Yet now there’s a grass-roots movement pressuring companies to keep these “conflict minerals” out of high-tech supply chains. Using Facebook and YouTube, activists are harassing companies like Apple, Intel and Research in Motion (which makes the BlackBerry) to get them to lean on their suppliers and ensure the use of, say, Australian tantalum rather than tantalum peddled by a Congolese militia.

A humorous new video taunting Apple and PC computers alike goes online this weekend on YouTube, with hopes that it will go viral. Put together by a group of Hollywood actors, it’s a spoof on the famous “I’m a Mac”/”I’m a PC” ad and suggests that both are sometimes built from conflict minerals.

Guess we have some things in common after all,” Mac admits.

Protesters demonstrated outside the grand opening of Apple’s new store in Washington, demanding that the company commit to using only clean minerals. Last month, activists blanketed Intel’s Facebook page with calls to support tough legislation to curb trade in conflict minerals. For a time, Intel disabled comments — creating a stink that called more attention to blood minerals than human rights campaigners ever could.

Partly as a result, requirements that companies report on their use of conflict minerals were accepted as an amendment to financial reform legislation.

A word of background: Eastern Congo is the site of the most lethal conflict since World War II, and is widely described as the rape capital of the world. The war had claimed 5.4 million deaths as of April 2007, with the toll mounting by 45,000 a month, according to a study by the International Rescue Committee.

It’s not that American tech companies are responsible for the slaughter, or that eliminating conflict minerals from Americans’ phones will immediately end the war. Even the Enough Project, an anti-genocide organization that has been a leading force in the current campaign, estimates that only one-fifth of the world’s tantalum comes from Congo.

There’s no magic-bullet solution to peace in Congo,” notes David Sullivan of the Enough Project, “but this is one of the drivers of the conflict.” The economics of the war should be addressed to resolve it.

The Obama administration also should put more pressure on Rwanda to play a constructive role next door in Congo (it has, inexcusably, backed one militia and bolstered others by dealing extensively in the conflict minerals trade). Impeding trade in conflict minerals is also a piece of the Congo puzzle, and because of public pressure, a group of companies led by Intel and Motorola is now developing a process to audit origins of tantalum in supply chains.

Manufacturers previously settled for statements from suppliers that they do not source in eastern Congo, with no verification. Auditing the supply chains at smelters to determine whether minerals are clean or bloody would add about a penny to the price of a cellphone, according to the Enough Project, which says the figure originated with the industry.

Apple is claiming that their products don’t contain conflict minerals because their suppliers say so,” said Jonathan Hutson, of the Enough Project. “People are saying that answer is not good enough. That’s why there’s this grass-roots movement, so that we as consumers can choose to buy conflict free.” Some ideas about what consumers can do are at — starting with spreading the word.

We may be able to undercut some of the world’s most brutal militias simply by making it clear to electronics manufacturers that we don’t want our beloved gadgets to enrich sadistic gunmen. No phone or tablet computer can be considered “cool” if it may be helping perpetuate one of the most brutal wars on the planet.


Sunday, June 06, 2010


By Cherie Priest
June 5, 2010

When I was about nine years old, I moved to Texas with my mom and sister. Our new home was in Orange, about six miles from the Sabine River, and maybe half an hour from the ferry to Galveston Island — where we day-tripped from time to time.

Although we’d moved to Texas from Chicago, I had very firm and fond memories of living in Tampa, Florida (where I was born). I remembered the ocean quite vividly, and the sand that looked like sugar, and the weird little things left in pools or tangled up in the sea oats when the tide went out. Therefore, I had some fairly high expectations tied up in the idea of “beach.” These high expectations were, quite frankly, not always met on the Texas beaches. At the time, I was a snob about this as only a fourth-grader can be.

When my mother announced our early beach-visiting intentions to the locals, we were warned. They told us to, um, beware. Don’t bring your good towels, they told us. Don’t wear expensive bathing suits, they added. There’s offshore drilling and whatnot going on over there … and the beach isn’t so much … well … clean. Whatever you wear, bring, or tote is likely to come home with tar on it. Yeah. Sorry.

But in truth, I don’t remember it being that bad. I recall a ruined towel or two, and one particular tar-blob that was positioned at the unfortunate nook of my lower butt-crack, leading my little sister to tease me about having pooped my suit. Such is life.

Eventually we moved back to Florida and then I moved away from Florida, though I still considered it “home, over there.” It became that place I go on breaks from college, to visit family, and beach-comb, and shop, and body-board and sunbathe. (Yes, I was always kind of terrible at being a goth.) I’ve lived in Illinois, in the Texas panhandle, in Indiana, and Kentucky, and (for a rather long time) Tennessee. But at the end of the day, and in the back of my head … the Gulf Coast is my home. It’s where I was born, and where I always return.

I liked Tennessee a lot, and I’d half-planned to stick around there for a while; but always I’ve assumed that one day I’d go home.

* * *

So I’m finding it hard to talk about the BP oil spill. It is horrible in the most literal sense — it instills within me a sense of true, deep, abject horror. It is creeping and (for the moment, at least) unstoppable. It is killing everything it touches, and it is huge, and it is trying to touch everything.

Jesus Christ. We broke the ocean.

(Yes, we. All of us who drive when we could walk or ride our bikes or use public transportation; those of us who pick up the marginally cheaper product when it comes to these things and many others when there are often more responsible options available. All of us who haven’t been paying attention while the protective laws and regulations have been gutted, eliminated, and ignored. We did this. We made these oil companies rich. We gave them the power to do this. And therefore, we too are responsible – and if that sounds terrible, good. It ought to.)

The spill is leaping up and down on a whole host of my sensitivities. Besides the obvious — that it’s attacking my Gulf — it’s also tap-dancing on the same psychological nerve that compels me to be on time for everything. If you’ve ever met me, or had any occasion to rely on me for something, then you know it’s true: I’m ludicrously and insistently punctual. This applies to deadlines, too. I’ll stop eating and sleeping to keep from missing a deadline. It’s just one of those things I don’t let slide.

I can’t explain it any better than this — I feel like every moment that the spill goes unchecked, a deadline is being missed. The fix isn’t just late, it’s too late. It’s one of those nightmares where you’re trying to catch a plane, and things keep getting in the way, and you’re never going to make it — it’s going to leave without you — but you keep struggling toward it. I hate those nightmares worse than I hate the nightmares about having loose or broken teeth. I hate them because they trigger this same almost-physically-painful hysteria I experience when I’m going to be late for something. Is it irrational? Yes, totally. I don’t deny that for a moment.

But this fear. This hysteria. This horror. It is not irrational.
It is fair, and that makes it even worse.

* * *

Nobody knows what to do — that’s the real killer. There aren’t any ideas, at least not any good ones. Nobody knows how to fix this. Nothing is working, though God willing, by morning maybe the most recent management attempt will ease the situation. I pray. But I know better than to hope.

And even if it were fixed tomorrow … then what? How do you clean up everything that happened between the break and the fix? I’ve been wracking my brain, for all the good it does anyone. I’ve literally been losing sleep over this, because I keep wondering, what can I do? What can anyone do? And it’s not bad enough that I, personally, don’t know. It’s much, much worse that no one else does either.

I appreciate the internet’s attempts to crowdsource, though. I like that everyone from LiveJournal to CNN is asking for suggestions from everyone — from us all — and taking them, and posting them, and talking about them. On the one hand, they’re asking the wrong people. We aren’t experts in this kind of thing. But on the other hand, maybe that’s good. Maybe we’re exactly the right people to ask, because we don’t understand the limitations — and we know how to think past them, because we don’t know how not to.

I lie awake and fantasize about the things I know that pick up oil. Corn starch. Hair. Fabric. Hay. Bounty — it’s the quicker picker upper! And I dream of fleets of tugboats with nets that are weighted down and trawling with blankets of hair, filtering and flushing. I imagine them coming in waves, arcing behind one another until every drop is sopped. And I don’t have the faintest idea if anything like that is even possible, much less likely or useful.

But shit. It’s not any dumber than some of what’s already been tried.

* * *

Bobby Jindal says that the marshes on the coast of Louisiana are dead. “There are no bugs out there. There’s no marine life out there. It is absolutely still. You cut the engines on your boat and it is the most deafening silence you have ever heard.

And the oil is still coming. Coming for Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. Coming for the Caribbean, and for Mexico. Coming for the Atlantic coast, too.

It makes my soul hurt.
But it does not care. And it is still coming.

Read the comments on the authors blog.

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Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Limits of a Welfare State

By George F. Will
The Florida Times Union
June 1, 2010

Today, as it has been for a century, American politics is an argument between two Princetonians -- James Madison, class of 1771, and Woodrow Wilson, class of 1879. Madison was the most profound thinker among the Founders. Wilson, avatar of “progressivism,” was the first president critical of the nation’s founding. Barack Obama’s Wilsonian agenda reflects its namesake’s rejection of limited government.

Lack of “a limiting principle” is the essence of progressivism, according to William Voegeli, contributing editor of the Claremont Review of Books, in his new book “Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State.” The Founders, he writes, believed that free government’s purpose, and the threats to it, is found in nature. The threats are desires for untrammeled power, desires which, Madison said, are “sown in the nature of man.” Government’s limited purpose is to protect the exercise of natural rights that pre-exist government, rights that human reason can ascertain in unchanging principles of conduct and that are essential to the pursuit of happiness.

Wilsonian progressives believe that History is a proper noun, an autonomous thing. It, rather than nature, defines government’s ever-evolving and unlimited purposes. Government exists to dispense an ever-expanding menu of rights -- entitlements that serve an open-ended understanding of material and even spiritual well-being.

The name “progressivism” implies criticism of the Founding, which we leave behind as we make progress. And the name is tautological: History is progressive because progress is defined as whatever History produces. History guarantees what the Supreme Court has called “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”

The cheerful assumption is that “evolving” must mean “improving.” Progressivism’s promise is a program for every problem, and progressivism’s premise is that every unfulfilled desire is a problem.

Franklin Roosevelt, an alumnus of Wilson’s administration, resolved to “resume” Wilson’s “march along the path of real progress” by giving government “the vibrant personal character that is the very embodiment of human charity.” He repudiated the Founders’ idea that government is instituted to protect pre-existing and timeless natural rights, promising “the re-definition of these rights in terms of a changing and growing social order.

He promised “a right to make a comfortable living.” Presumably, the judiciary would define and enforce the delivery of comfort. Specifically, there could be no right to “do anything which deprives others” of whatever “elemental rights” the government decides to dispense.

Today, government finds the limitless power of dispensing not in Madison’s Constitution of limited government but in Wilson’s theory that the Constitution actually frees government from limitations. The liberating-- for government -- idea is that the Constitution is a “living,” evolving document. Wilson’s Constitution is an emancipation proclamation for government, empowering it to regulate all human activities in order to treat all human desires as needs and hence as rights. Unlimited power is entailed by what Voegeli calls government’s “right to discover new rights.”

Liberalism’s protean understanding of rights,” he says, “complicates and ultimately dooms the idea of a principled refusal to elevate any benefit that we would like people to enjoy to the status of an inviolable right.” Needs breed rights to have the needs addressed, to the point that Lyndon Johnson, an FDR protege, promised that government would provide Americans with “purpose” and “meaning.”

Although progressivism’s ever-lengthening list of rights is as limitless as human needs/desires, one right that never makes the list is the right to keep some inviolable portion of one’s private wealth or income, “regardless,” Voegeli says, “of the lofty purposes social reformers wish to make of it.” Lacking a limiting principle, progressivism cannot say how big the welfare state should be but must always say that it should be bigger than it currently is. Furthermore, by making a welfare state a fountain of rights requisite for democracy, progressives in effect declare that democratic deliberation about the legitimacy of the welfare state is illegitimate.

By blackening the skies with crisscrossing dollars,” Voegeli says, the welfare state encourages people “to believe an impossibility: that every household can be a net importer of the wealth redistributed by the government.” But the welfare state’s problem, today becoming vivid, is socialism’s problem, as Margaret Thatcher defined it: Socialist governments “always run out of other people’s money.”

Wilsonian government, meaning (in Wilson’s words) government with “unstinted power,” is hostile to Madison’s Constitution which, Madison said, obliges government “to control itself.” Thus our choice is between government restraint rooted in respect for nature, or government free to follow History wherever government says History marches.