Jul 31 2009

Sonali Kolhatkar on Afghan women and the war, Dedrick Muhammad on Obama’s NAACP speech and ‘tough love’


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This week on CounterSpin: Some prominent feminist and liberal voices have recently lent their endorsement to the ongoing U.S. war in Afghanistan, based on the idea that the war is an effort to improve the lives of Afghan women and girls. That was a major argument at the war’s onset, but how does it stand up 8 years later? We’ll talk with Sonali Kolhatkar, co-director of the group Afghan Women’s Mission and host/producer of Uprising Radio.

Also on the show: Have you noticed how President Barack Obama always seems to be delivering a “tough love” message to certain groups and communities? According to many news reports his speech to the NAACP earlier this month was little more than a lecture on the faults of African Americans. Ditto his speeches to Africans from Ghana, and to Muslims from Egypt. Was “tough love” really Obama’s main message in those speeches, or is there something about the “tough love” theme that corporate media just like to report? We’ll talk to Dedrick Muhammad of the Institute for Policy Studies about how structural inequality impacts the way the news is reported.


War Does Not Equal Liberation, by Sonali Kolhatkar (Afghan Women’s Mission, 7/09)

Structural Inequality: News Not Fit to Print?, by Dedrick Muhammad (Institute for Policy Studies, 7/21/09)


That’s coming up but first, as usual, we’ll take a look back at recent press.

–“U.S. forces are about to get some much-needed help as they fight the Taliban in Afghanistan. Teams of elite foreign commandos will soon be headed there. They’re U.S.-trained and battle-tested, having defeated terrorists in their own country, Colombia.”

That was the cheery way that CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric introduced a July 27 segment, before handing off to star CBS correspondent Lara Logan, who maintained the upbeat tenor of the report, explaining that U.S.-trained Colombian forces “have become some of the finest soldiers in the world,” and had used their skills “to devastating effect against their enemy in the jungle, breaking the back of a 45-year-old insurgency.”

Logan suggests that because of the military, Colombia has turned away from a grim and bloody past: “This is Colombia today. The economy is thriving. Order has been restored.”

But oddly inserted into what was an otherwise perfect example of pro-Colombian propaganda, Logan remarked that “critics point out the military has been implicated in the killing and disappearance of civilians.”

But wait, didn’t Katie Couric say the military had defeated terrorists in Colombia? That sounds like they are terrorists. And what about that stuff about being among the world’s finest soldiers? Well, it’s a lot of nonsense. The Colombian military’s long-standing relationship with the country’s right-wing death squads has resulted in the murder of thousands, including the still-routine murder of journalists and labor activists. In 2007, the military, along with Colombian police forces, were directly implicated in the murders of 329 Colombian civilians. It was this record that prompted a Human Rights Watch Report last year describing Colombia’s human rights record as “appalling.”

U.S. journalists routinely downplay Colombia’s dismal record, but they usually stop short of extolling its most brutal institutions. And crediting Colombia’s military with delivering it from terrorism, that may be a first.

–“First Read,” described as an online “analysis of the day’s political news, from the NBC News political unit,” wondered on July 29 whether Obama was “losing the message war” on healthcare. The network’s Chuck Todd et al., cited as evidence questions from callers at a town hall meeting that referenced GOP scaremongering about “rationed” care and “the government coming to your house to ask how you want to die.” Not a factor in the “message war” or in people’s tendency to believe rumors is the media, evidently; in stories like this reporters themselves are usually invisible, merely passively reflecting the public mood and understanding.

Economist Dean Baker notes the same phenomenon on his Beat the Press blog, pointing to a recent report by NPR‘s Mara Liasson. Liasson reported a poll showing dwindling support for Obama’s healthcare plan, noting a pollster’s view that people had heard about the program’s “huge” price tag but less about its benefits. As Baker notes, whatever one thinks of Obama’s plan, it’s price tag is equal to about 0.5 percent of projected GDP over the next decade, while the Iraq war alone at its peak cost more than twice as much, 1.0 percent of GDP, without a media conversation focused largely on its “huge” cost.

–It’s pretty uncontroversial to say that healthcare coverage in the corporate media is pretty bad. A recent survey by the Project on Excellence in Journalism found that three-fourths of the coverage they studied in one week focused on political strategy and Beltway maneuvering.

A recent Politico report tried to get reporters to explain why the healthcare issue seemed to, well, bore them. One MSNBC host explained that it’s ‘bad ratings.’ CNBC correspondent and New York Times reporter John Harwood explained further: “It’s not only not a cable TV-friendly story; it’s not a journalism-friendly story.” Harwood lamented the difficulties in understanding cost controls and the like. NPR health reporter Julie Rovner concurred, telling Politico that “the problem with healthcare is that it’s so big and so complicated that the public is never going to really understand all the moving parts of this.”

Well, at least two thoughts come to mind. Number one, there are lots of complicated stories that involve economic forecasting and “moving parts.” But reporters don’t always run away from passing firm judgments on, say, the long-term financial viability of Social Security, and the need to cut benefits in order to preserve a system that doesn’t need saving anyway.

Number two, what should one make of journalists who complain that a subject as important as healthcare is too complicated, too difficult to explain, or just plain boring? If it’s really that difficult, perhaps they should find another line of work?

Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom, best known for his bestseller Tuesdays With Morrie, recently criticized the Obama healthcare reform effort as “the worst and most destructive form of politics: class warfare.”

Albom took particular offense at President Obama’s press secretary Robert Gibbs’ statement that “The president believes that the richest 1 percent of this country has had a pretty good run of it for many, many, many years.”

The “pretty good run” millionaires have had over the past two decades is well documented: the share of all after-tax income that’s gone to the top 1 percent has more than doubled since 1979, according to a recent Congressional Budget Office report.

But that was not the kind of class warfare that Albom was concerned with. He was disturbed by a proposed healthcare surcharge on taxpayers earning over $1 million a year. Albom remarked, “Ah. So that’s it. The old ‘You’ve had it good enough for long enough’ policy. That’s why a family earning a million dollars a year should now cough up $54,000 of that.”

If Albom, who has an MBA from Columbia, actually read the proposed bill, he would see that a family making $1 million a year wouldn’t pay an extra $54,000 a year in taxes from the proposed 5.4 percent surcharge, because that surcharge would only apply to income beyond the first million dollars of income. A smaller surcharge would kick in at $350,000, and increase at $500,000, but the total tax increase for a couple making $1 million would be $9,000, or one-sixth of what Albom claimed was a “grossly overweighted tax.”

But then actual numbers have rarely stood in the way of the corporate press’ defense of the most prevalent form of class warfare: that which is waged from above. There’s an article on this very phenomenon in the current issue of FAIR’s magazine Extra!

–And finally, while Mitch Albom wrestles with understanding marginal tax rates, Fox‘s Bill O’Reilly is defeated by the very concept of arithmetic.

During the viewer mail segment of his July 27 show, O’Reilly responded to a Canadian who asked “Has anyone noticed that life expectancy in Canada under our health system is higher than the USA?,” by explaining, “Well, that’s to be expected, Peter, because we have 10 times as many people as you do. That translates to10 times as many accidents, crimes, down the line.”

We trust that CounterSpin listeners understand that life expectancy is a mean age of death calculated over a population; the age that an average person living in a given country can expect to live; and that it’s affected by things like clean water, nutritious food, and as the writer says, healthcare; and yes, even by accidents and crimes, but not by the size of a country’s population. But just in case there are some O’Reilly fans listening, the answer is “No, Canadians don’t live twice as long as Chinese.”

The O’Reilly gaffe made us wonder if something in the water at Fox was causing innumeracy, as it reminded us of the time in 2003 that managing editor and anchor Brit Hume tried to downplay U.S. casualties in Iraq as “negligible,” explaining dimwittedly that “statistically speaking, U.S. soldiers have less of a chance of dying from all causes in Iraq than citizens have of being murdered in California, which is roughly the same geographical size.”

Since O’Reilly’s and Hume’s gaffes both serve Fox‘s nationalist agenda, and neither have been corrected, maybe it’s not the water, just the Kool-Aid.


CounterSpin: “Afhgan Women Seethe With Anger; The Regime’s Repression and Abuse of Women Have Made Many of Them Welcome U.S. Action”. “If the U.S. Doesn’t Stand Up for the Women, No One Will”. “Afghan Women Optimistic; Brighter Future Expected With New Leadership”. Newspaper headlines from October 2001 remind us of the extent to which the liberation of Afghan women was represented as one of the assured results of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, helping to present the war as on some level a humanitarian intervention. Funny thing about pretenses for war, though, isn’t it? Yet, though less often discussed nowadays, the idea of invasion as a means of liberation for women and girls still seems to hold some persuasive power, as suggested by recent endorsements of the Afghanistan war by the Feminist Majority Foundation, for example.

Here to discuss what invasion and war have meant for Afghan women and their rights and what more war is likely to mean, is Sonali Kolhatkar, co-director of the group Afghan Women’s Mission, host/producer of Uprising Radio on KPFK in Los Angeles, and co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords and the Propaganda of Silence. She joins us now by phone from Los Angeles.

Welcome to CounterSpin, Sonali Kolhatkar!

Sonali Kolhatkar: Thank you very much, Janine.

CS: Well, I nearly broke my computer with a search on “Afghanistan” “Taliban” and “women’s rights” for the fall of 2001. Whatever they may say now, that very much was the conversation then, that “freeing” Afghan women from the Taliban was a key rationale for invasion, at the very minimum a positive byproduct. Well, many could and did declare that a misguided position even then, but now, 8 years on, we have history to test it against. So, what about that “brighter future” for Afghan women that U.S. papers told readers to expect?

SK: Well, on paper, in the Constitution of Afghanistan, a few things have improved for women and we should get those out of the way. The Constitution says that women are equal to men and there are no longer laws that dictate how women can dress or that bar women’s education and employment and healthcare. So on that front, in terms of the sort of legal structures, there has been some progress made. However, on the flip side in the Constitution there’s also a clause that was inserted at the last minute to appease the fundamentalists that said that Islamic Sharia law will be the supreme law of the land, which you can imagine can be interpreted in any way, particularly if fundamentalists are in power, which they are. Additionally, while opportunities are not barred for women regarding healthcare, education, and employment, there really are no opportunities or are very, very few opportunities. There’s so much grinding poverty in Afghanistan that indicators like maternal mortality, for example, have not changed. Afghanistan suffers from some of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, same with infant mortality, same with women’s literacy. And then you actually have had laws in Parliament that have passed very recently that have legalized women’s oppression in various ways. For example, there was a law that was written and passed by the Parliament and then signed by the President that dictated that women who are in the Shia community would have to obey their husbands in terms of offering them sex every four days. Many have criticized this as legalizing rape, which it certainly is. And women who have protested against this have been beaten back by counter-protesters. Also women Parlimentarians, like Malalai Joya, have been kicked out of the Parliament for speaking out.

Many women of the last eight years have been killed, women’s rights activists and human rights activists, and thousands of girls’ schools have been burned down by the Taliban and by warlord fundamentalists. And also, you had a huge epidemic of self-immolation in western Afghanistan, where women are burning themselves to death. Additionally the judiciary is an extremely fundamentalist one that Hamid Karzai appointed, which has imprisoned women in greater numbers than even during the Taliban for so-called honor crimes, like adultery or running away from home, and then also imprisoned them for being victims of rape. If they’ve come forward to say that they were raped by a man they have been jailed for quote illicit sexual relations rather than getting any form of justice. So in all these ways, things have either not changed for women or actually gotten worse in post-Taliban Afghanistan.

CS: So you don’t see it as a situation where slowly but surely, you know, perhaps those legal changes are just a first step, but it’s a way of moving towards material improvement of women’s and girls’ lives. You just don’t see it going in that direction as a result of the war?

SK: No, and there was a small opening after the war, but it was so squashed so fast by the direct U.S. policy of empowering fundamentalists and having them be part of the Cabinet and the Parliament that any effort now by women’s rights activists is going to face the most stiff resistance by men with guns and private armies. You know, one of the least reported aspects of the Afghanistan war has been the domination of the Afghan government by the worst war criminals, serial murderers and rapists in Afghanistan. This is a democracy that we’re supposedly defending through our occupation. How are women supposed to have any kind of liberation in this situation?

CS: Well there is some editorial conversation that we hear around the necessity to “attach non-military goals” to the war, is how it’s often phrased, and that phrasing tells you everything about the priorities there. I understand that you think this whole approach of “Well, let’s win a military victory and then we can set about the business of improving lives,” you think that’s backward.

SK: Absolutely. I mean first of all, define victory, right? Obama needs to define what he means by victory or defeating the Taliban. Does it mean kill every last member of the Taliban? How do you tell a member of the Taliban from ordinary Afghans? What about the difference between al Qaeda and Taliban, etc. etc.? And also the way in which, I mean you just have to look at the numbers: only about 10 percent of the funding for the U.S. military’s operations in Afghanistan is aimed at so-called development efforts, which you can even argue that those development efforts are going to go into the pockets of corrupt warlords as long as they’re in power. But only 10 percent, so you really have to look at these development efforts and these efforts to help women as the sort-of sugar coating, the PR, the marketing of the military occupation. If they really cared about Afghan people, that ratio would be reversed: 90 percent going to development and 10 percent to some perhaps peacekeeping efforts, which arguably are needed, rather than war fighting efforts. So if you just look at the money, there’s no way that I think any rational, compassionate person could justify this U.S. war, because a small percentage of the funds are going towards development. It’s like taking nine steps backward and one step forward.

CS: So if you’re talking to journalists who are reporting Afghanistan, either on the rights of women in particular or not, is that what you see as the biggest missed thing, or the aspect of coverage you’d most want changed?

SK: I think that the media has done a terrible job on exposing how women’s rights have actually gone backward over the last eight years, how our occupation has actually fueled misogyny. They’ve also done a terrible job on the warlord domination of the government, which is part of that same story. They’ve done a terrible job on exposing Hamid Karzai as a pro-fundamentalist president, who is an opportunist and who has betrayed the people of Afghanistan and is deeply, deeply unpopular. They’ve done a terrible job of showing how incredible Afghan resistance has been to the occupation, to the Taliban, and the warlords. There’s ordinary people every day who are struggling against it or speaking out or fighting back, risking their lives. They should be profiled by the newspapers. Malalai Joya, this dissident member of Parliament that I mentioned, her being kicked out of Parliament should have been on the front pages of the newspapers. She is completely against the occupation. That’s why she is not given credence. Because the people who are struggling for human rights and women’s rights in Afghanistan are also naturally against the occupation, they are not given enough coverage in the mainstream media. The mainstream media has just walked lock step along with the liberal democrats and President Obama, who are also currying big favor with the Republicans in supporting the war on Afghanistan.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Sonali Kolhatkar, co-director of the group Afghan Women’s Mission, host and producer of Uprising Radio on KPFK in Los Angeles, and co-author of the book, Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords and the Propaganda of Silence.

Thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin!

SK: Thanks so much, Janine.


CounterSpin: According to several news reports, at the NAACP’s 100th anniversary on July 16, President Barack Obama delivered a “tough love” message to the group. By “tough love” journalists were referring to the fact that Obama’s speech contained passages critical of African Americans and sectors of the African American communities. This is nothing new, according several other news reports, since emerging on the national political scene, in addition to giving several of these “tough love” speeches to African American groups, he has also delivered the same message to Africans in a speech from Ghana, and to Muslims in a speech from Egypt. But what is it with Obama and all these “tough love” speeches?

Joining us now to help answer that question is Dedrick Muhammad. He is the senior organizer and research associate for the Inequality and Common Good Project of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. His article on the NAACP speech, “Structural Inequality,” was published on July 22 on CounterPunch.org.

Dedrick Muhammad, welcome to CounterSpin!

Dedrick Muhammad: Thank you for having me.

CS: Well, you wrote about the NAACP speech in your piece on CounterPunch. What did you find when you looked at Obama’s actual address, as opposed to the lessons the corporate media saw fit to report on from the speech?

DM: Yeah I was actually quite taken aback. I was reading, before I heard the speech, or read the speech, I first was reading the New York Times, and read an article, and it was titled “Obama Tells Blacks, ‘No More Excuses,'” and it was a review of the speech and it focused on how President Obama was telling black people that, you know in effect, they need to pull themselves up by their boostraps and do better in school, and in this way will race relations and African American improve in this country. So I went back to look at the actual speech on the Internet, and I was just really surprised to see that, though President Obama did talk about the need for black self-improvement and black self-advancement, he also talked about that as a whole this country needs to come together and deal with what he referred to as the structural inequality, and that there’s government responsibility and government policy that is necessary in order to make up for the present discrimination and the years of past discrimination. And I saw that this was a very different speech than what the New York Times and the other news outlets had been writing about.

CS: Well, you know it’s funny, exactly a year ago, when Obama gave a speech to the NAACP while on the campaign trail, FAIR noted on its blog that the Washington Post led with the fact that Obama stressed responsibility in the black community, while burying the speech’s main focus about government and corporate responsibility. Why does this happen, what need does it serve for journalists to go with only what they want to hear when it comes to race?

DM: Well, I think it is just that. I think that in, not just journalists, but in our country as a whole still has a very difficult time coming to terms with the racial inequality that still exists and the racial inequality of the past, and so oftentimes the country wants to possibly somewhat acknowledge past wrongs but act like presently we are at a place of racial parity and move forward in that type of framework. And I think that what has occurred with reporters is they themselves manage to weed out the talk about current discrimination, current need for government action in remedying the racial inequality that still exists in this country, and get to what they’re much more comfortable with, which is that blacks should take care of the situation themselves, if they would just work harder everything would be fine. And, you know, it speaks very poorly to what is labeled as journalism when it comes to issues around racial inequality.

CS: You know you mentioned the New York Times, but we found that this was true of media outlets across the board. We saw many and you found that it wasn’t just true of traditional mainstream or corporate media but even some liberal sites indulged in this sort of selectively quoting Obama’s speech.

DM: Yes, and I was surprised to see the Huffington Post seemed to follow along that same line, at least one of their initial stories, so it wasn’t just mainstream corporate, it wasn’t just conservative media outlets, it was pretty much across the board.

CS: Well, granting that media often willfully ignore the parts of Obama speeches that fault the society at large for the continuing burdens of racism and discrimination, doesn’t it somehow play into the larger frame of structural inequality, that to be taken seriously by the larger society, black leaders seem to be required to spend a certain amount of time chiding African American communities?

DM: That partially explains as well the balancing act that President Obama feels like he must do every time he deals with issues of racial inequality, is that he must hold African Africans to work harder, to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. What’s interesting is President Obama’s trying to do a balancing act, he’s trying to do some of that, but he’s also trying to talk about government responsibility. And as President Obama had voiced to the Washington Post reporter Eugene Robinson, he’s had concerns why only one side of the message is being promoted. And I think we can see some of this inability of the press to deal with issues around structural inequality and racism in this more recent escapade around Henry Louis Gates being arrested at Harvard, and now President Obama is having both the police officer and Henry Louis Gates over for a beer and somehow that is being positioned as dealing with racial inequality.

CS: Well, tell us a little more about that. How does the story about the flap over Professor Henry Louis Gates arrest at the hands of the Cambridge police play into your theme of structural inequality?

DM: I think the problem is that the press is looking for, when talking about racial inequality and racism, they’re looking for one evil, bad person who they can say is a racist and they’re looking for another innocent victim who did absolutely nothing wrong and is blameless. And so when the story first comes forward, that is the narrative which is attached to this particular incident, and then when it appears that the officer might not be a blatant racist and might have African American friends, then all of a sudden the headlines start being well you know, that the officer is the persecuted one and that there was no issue of racism, instead of examining, okay, if you really want to do issues of racial profiling, let’s look nationally. Have there been problems with racial profiling? Have there been problems at Cambridge with racial profiling? Has Professor Gates had a history of experiencing different types of racial profiling, and what does that say to the country as a whole? And that type of examination really wasn’t happening much. It would happen here and there at the margins but kind of the general story of ‘Well this officer must be a horrible person” to “Oh, he you know he works in the community, he’s a great father,” so the idea that there could be racism involved in this is false, is what is perpetuated in the press. And you know race, racism, racial inequality has always been much more complex and I think if the press was doing a better job the American public would have a better ability to deal with these complex issues.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Dedrick Muhammad of the Institute for Policy Studies, you can read his piece about the NAACP speech at CounterPunch.org.

Thanks again for joining us on CounterSpin today, Dedrick Muhammad!

DM: Thanks again for having me.