World Population now exceeds 6.6 billion

I’m seeing in a number of places that the current world population–now reported by Worldwatch Institute in an e-mail newsletter to exceed 6.6 billion people–is unsustainable. The UN explains, however, that the archetypal image of overpopulation–in Asian nations like India and China which are not so poor anymore–misses a discrepancy in impacts at various levels of prosperity. “The ecological footprint of an average person in a high-income country is about six times bigger than that of someone in a low-income country, and many more times bigger than in the least-developed countries . . . [while] 2.8 billion people—two in five—still struggle to survive on less than $2 a day.”

It is also the poor who often have the least access to sustainable technology. Having only recently developed this technology, capitalists seek a return on their investments, set high prices, and make sustainability a luxury.

‘The arrogance of America . . . has won’

An Italian judge has ruled that Italy does not have jurisdiction in the case of U.S. Army Specialist Mario Lozano, who killed “Nicola Calipari [who] was escorting Giuliana Sgrena, an Italian journalist who had just been freed by kidnappers.” Calipari, an Italian intelligence agent, “was mourned across Italy.” Italy announced it would withdraw from the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq that same month, with “Italy’s prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, say[ing], ‘We have to have an exit strategy.'”

How to Understand Jihad. . . . Oh, and, um, Evangelical Protestants

The article, a review, written by Malise Ruthven, of five works, is entitled “How to Understand Islam,” but it highlights varying interpretations of jihad and what behaviors are permissible in war. Ruthven writes, “The scholars who interpreted the Prophet’s teachings addressed issues such as the permissibility of using ‘hurling machines,’ or mangonels, where noncombatants including women and children, and Muslim captives or merchants, might be endangered. In the ‘realm of war’ outside the borders of Islam a certain military realism prevailed: for example the eighth-century jurist al-Shaybani (who died in 805) stated that if such methods were not permitted the Muslims would be unable to fight at all.”

“Military realism” is troubling, because it rationalizes all manner of atrocities, as we see in the Bush Administration’s “War on Terror,” but in Muslim history, “the truth of Islam was vindicated on the field of battle.” This leads to exceptionalism, also a feature of U.S. attitudes, that the god of Abraham is on the fighter’s side, that the fighter fights for that god, and therefore any crimes committed are in the name of that god, the ultimate and final judge. Sounding familiar?

But there’s more. “Full-blown democracy, where the Muslim voice might simply be one among many, implying a degree of moral equivalence between Islam and other perspectives, would be ‘dangerous, not only for the standing of the Muslim community, but for the moral life of humankind.'”

Since the god in which a vast amount of emotional energy has been invested appears to have said different things to the various individuals claiming to speak on his behalf, belief in the certainties held by one tradition necessarily excludes the others. This is especially so in the Abrahamic family of Western monotheisms, where confessions are deemed to be exclusive. In the mainstream, orthodox versions of these faiths, one cannot be a Muslim and a Christian, or a Christian and a Jew (although hybrid versions, such as “Jews for Jesus,” undoubtedly exist). In a globalized culture where religions are in daily contact with their competitors, denial of pluralism is a recipe for conflict.

Yet acceptance of pluralism relativizes truth. Once it is allowed that there are different paths to ultimate truth, an individual’s religious allegiance becomes a matter of personal choice, and choice is the enemy of the certainties that religions—especially monotheistic ones—are supposed to uphold. Fundamentalism is one contemporary response to the crisis of faith brought about by awareness of differences.

As Jesus supposedly said in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” It is an extraordinarily intolerant, absolutist approach, that leads to an appearance that the forces fighting in the Middle East deserve each other; but the carnage they inflict does not discriminate between absolutists and those who would choose a greater tolerance. And Ruthven writes:

A famous hadith (tradition) of Muhammad states that differences of opinion between the learned is a blessing. Sharia reasoning is therefore “an open practice.” In Islam’s classical era, up until the tenth century, scholars exercised ijtihad—independent reasoning—in order to reach an understanding of the divine law. Ijtihad shares the same Arabic root as the more familiar jihad, meaning “effort” or “struggle,” the word that is sometimes translated as “holy war.” Ijtihad is in effect the intellectual struggle to discover what the law ought to be. As Kelsay remarks, the legal scholars trained in its sources and methodologies will seek to achieve a balance between the rulings of their predecessors and independent judgments reflecting the idea that “changing circumstances require fresh wisdom.” The Sharia is not so much a body of law but a field of discourse or platform for legal reasoning. Recently, it has become an arena for intellectual combat. . . .

Outside the ranks of a small intellectual elite, the theological obstacles to dialogue are indeed formidable. In the ninth century the caliph al-Ma’mun and his immediate successors tried, and eventually failed, to impose as orthodoxy the belief that the Koran had been created in time (with the implication that its teachings might be contingent and time-specific). In reaction to this policy the majority Sunni tradition espoused an antirationalist theology that holds the Koran to be “uncreated” or co-eternal with God. In consequence the extraordinary veneration of the Koran has dominated Muslim religious thought and popular culture for more than a millennium.

Whereas historical criticism of the Bible has been accepted by most Protestants (except for fundamentalist die-hards) as well as by Reform Judaism and, belatedly, by the Catholic Church (following the Second Vatican Council of 1962–1965), “higher criticism” of the Koran has yet to take root despite the impressive achievements of individual scholars such as the late Fazlur Rahman, Mohammed Arkoun, and Farid Esack (all of whom work, or have worked, in Western universities). For [Hans] Küng,

It can only help Islamic faith if Islamic scholars begin to tackle the historical problems. This can still be dangerous for a Muslim today, just as a heterodox view was for a Catholic at the height of the Inquisition or for a liberal Protestant in Calvin’s Geneva.

But this focus actually dismisses the role of Christian “fundamentalist die-hards” who now control the White House, and fails to address the appeal that fundamentalism continues to hold for a significant portion of the population, not just among Muslims, but among evangelical Protestants in the United States, and Orthodox Jews in Israel. Ruthven narrowly focuses on what Islam needs to do, writing:

The problems do not lie in the realm of theology, where Muslim intellectuals have charted retreats from the received certainties of the medieval paradigm that are just as ingenious and (for true believers) just as plausible as the efforts of Western theologians. The obstacle lies rather in the absence, in the majority traditions, of structures of leadership through which reformist ideas can be effected at the popular level.

Yet this resembles the attitude that Karen Hughes, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, took to the Middle East on a 2005 trip to improve U.S. image. “‘I am here to listen and to learn and to work to strengthen the relationship and close partnership between our two countries,’ Ms. Hughes declared in Turkey,” where “American officials have not only had to defend the Iraq war but also to counter erroneous press reports of large numbers of rapes of Iraqi women by Americans. Earlier this year, many papers reported that the tsunami in Asia last December was caused by an American undersea nuclear explosion.”

A study two years ago by a panel led by Edward P. Djerejian, a retired diplomat, indicated that anti-American sentiments around the world had risen to alarming levels. Mr. Djerejian said recently that 80 percent of the hostility derived from American policies, especially on Israel, Iraq, the treatment of Iraqi prisoners by Americans at Abu Ghraib prison and the detention of people captured by the Americans at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

“Karen understands that ‘it’s the policies, stupid,'” Mr. Djerejian said in a recent interview. But the other 20 percent, he said, could be addressed by a sophisticated media strategy that Ms. Hughes should be able to provide.

To state the obvious, the policies have not changed; we are still in Iraq, we rattle our sabers at Iran, and we continue to sustain Israel.

[Hughes] addressed several policies, but in concise sound bites rather than sustained arguments. In American campaigns, such messages repeated over and over can have an effect because a presidential candidate dominates the news with every statement he makes, and if that fails to work, money can be poured into saturation advertising. . . . But Ms. Hughes made it plain that “public diplomacy” was not a one-trip exercise and that she would continue to travel around the world, hone her message and show that the United States was capable of listening — and to urge State Department officials to think in those terms as well.

Hughes’ role is not to change policy, but to advocate existing policy, as if that message could be injected into Arab publics in the old “hypodermic needle” paradigm of media effects. Even the old linear communication model includes a channel for feedback, but messages here travel only in one direction; Hughes’ “listening” is without substantive effect. Her message–and any like it–fails to address a sense of secular values as corrupting values and fails to carry the legitimacy that could only come from a meaningful response to Arab grievances. It is exactly the sort of message we would expect from one set of fundamentalists to another, even as the killing continues.

Tell me again what the difference is?

In another demonstration that Democrats are not an alternative to Republicans, abstinence-only education “could even get an increase [in funding] with the aid of an unlikely ally: House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.), one of the old liberal lions,” according to a Los Angeles Times article. “Expectations that a Democratic-controlled Congress would gut abstinence-only education rose this spring after a major federally funded study concluded that such programs do not appear to have any effect on sexual abstinence among youth, nor on age of sexual initiation or number of sex partners.” But Obey is not alone; according to the article, “some Democrats are suddenly protecting the programs.”

“The Democrats, and most notably Henry Waxman, used the abstinence-only issue as the cornerstone of the claim that the Bush administration was putting ideology and politics ahead of science,” said James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth, a nonprofit policy organization on sexual health. “Now they suddenly have gone mute and silent when their own people are in power. There is an element of political hypocrisy here.”

Hypocrisy? Would Wagoner still call it mere hypocrisy if one of the over 750,000 U.S. teens who get pregnant each year was his daughter? When it is well-established that abstinence-only education does not stop children from having sex, but only from using protection, this can only be about keeping children in ignorance so that conservatives can point to teen pregnancies (though the rate of teen pregnancy is in decline) as evidence of a “decline of traditional values.”

Pot wants Kettle to steady its nerve: trouble at the BBC

Those of us in the United States who benefit from BBC programming at no cost might be a little slow to pick up on the significance of recent travails. Ian Bell worries in the Sunday Herald, though, that the BBC has lost its nerve.

This wallowing in self-harm began with the Hutton report. The BBC was sloppy, but not wrong – a small detail – in its reporting of the government’s efforts to con us into a war. It faced the sort of whitewash for which God created pliant judges. But rather than put up a fight it abased itself, dumped both its chairman and director-general, and bent over for a kicking from Alastair Campbell, a man whose job it was to defend the version concocted by a government given to ignoring every relevant fact. Yet the BBC folded. It caved. Its only concern was to find a form of words so abject as to put its future reliability beyond doubt. The weakness became a habit. From that, bizarrely, the affair of the naming of the Blue Peter cat became a hanging matter.

So what? The BBC survived Hutton; it will survive Queengate, surely? So this: if it has lost its courage, if it is more interested in picking errant fluff from its navel and forcing out distinguished broadcasters such as Fincham, how reliable can it be? In news and current affairs, in particular, a degree of courage is necessary. There has to be a willingness to risk you will get things wrong sometimes. If the BBC eviscerates itself, that becomes impossible.

Bell can’t imagine Britain without the BBC, which epitomizes “the odd idea of an independent state broadcaster.” Yet, at least from a perspective eight time zones away, it seems like for all its advantages, the BBC leaves room for a newspaper business far more vibrant, far more willing to challenge the government, and far more dedicated to the notion that news reporting ought to be independent than in the United States. I wonder if it is that the BBC has served in some way to keep others honest, to set a standard, as Bell writes, of “an ethical Olympus, elevated by a historic duty to inform, educate and entertain, without fear or favour. The rest of us pick our way through the moral maze as best we can, if we can.”

Bell isn’t the first I’ve seen–even of the BBC’s putative competition–to write of the BBC’s importance. It is a relationship quite unlike anything I see in this country, where news organizations often seem intent on ignoring their competition in broadcast or publication, even as they imitate each other so faithfully as to raise some question of independence. David Croteau and William Hoynes (2003), in Media/Society: Industries, Images, and Audiences (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge), write that “news accounts have a tendency to look similar because reporters all follow the same basic routines. They talk to the same people, use the same formats, observe the same basic dos and don’ts, and watch one another closely to make sure that they are not out of step with the rest of the profession” (p. 133). “In fact,” they write, “if news differed substantially from outlet to outlet, questions would be raised about the method of objective reporting, likely signaling a new crisis for the profession” (p. 134).

In Britain, however, newspapers adopt divergent political views; while the better ones acknowledge a responsibility to truthfulness, a standard apparently set by the BBC, they feel no obligation to cast events in the same light as their competitors. The U.S. has no comparable institution to the BBC. Voice of America is strictly intended for foreign audiences, not to compete with domestic news organizations, and though, from what I’ve seen, it strives for credibility, no one would expect it to be anything other than a propaganda organ of the government.

Indeed, it was the British press that broke the story of the Downing Street Memos, which revealed an assessment that the Bush administration was adjusting evidence to rationalize an invasion of Iraq, and it was the U.S. press that downplayed the same story for several weeks until activists finally compelled news organizations to pay it some heed. It is now hardly even open to question that the Bush administration was dishonest in its efforts to persuade the public to support the war, but it is the British press we have to thank for this knowledge, not the organizations supposedly protected by the First Amendment.

While media scholars generally do not share conservative views of a “liberal” media bias (they point instead to multinational corporate conglomerate ownership and advertiser support as affecting coverage in any of a number of ways), there is little question that the news media in this country have failed in their role to inform the public. Consider for instance, the divergent treatment given to stories exposing Bush’s failure to fulfill the terms of his Vietnam War draft-dodging obligation to the Texas Air National Guard–while sending the National Guard to war in multiple tours of duty in Iraq–and the slanderous claims of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth against John Kerry, who did serve in Vietnam. The Swift Boat claims critically wounded the Kerry campaign, and eased the path for Bush’s “re-election” in 2004, but Bush’s family connection-arranged draft dodging was seen as “old news.”

However cockeyed the British media system may appear from a U.S. perspective, it somehow functions to serve the British public better than its U.S. counterpart serves the U.S. public. So the defanging of the BBC is of serious concern to us here, perhaps even more than it is for the British, for it is the U.S. that is the “sole remaining superpower” and the most dangerous nation on the planet and it may only be through British reporting that any serious challenge to the U.S. system of domestic propaganda may be raised.

Pot calls Kettle black: Sanchez says U.S. can only hope to “stave off defeat”

The BBC reports that a U.S. General with a checkered past has blasted the strategy in the Iraq war, which he described as “a nightmare with no end in sight,” and “labelled US political leaders as ‘incompetent’ and ‘corrupted.'” Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez “retired last year in the aftermath of the scandal over detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. He was cleared of any wrongdoing.”

However, Human Rights Watch includes Sanchez with high-ranking Bush administration and military figures who should be charged with war crimes. The Human Rights Watch report includes a chapter on Sanchez. “Although Gen. Sanchez testified before Congress that compliance with the Geneva Conventions in Iraq ‘was always the standard,’ it has since been revealed that Gen. Sanchez, ‘despite lacking specific authorization to operate beyond the confines of the Geneva Conventions’ (in the words of the Schlesinger report), took it upon himself to declare some prisoners ‘unlawful combatants.’

“As noted by the Schlesinger panel, during the early and mid-2003, General Sanchez’s troops interrogated detainees at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere relying ‘on Field Manual 34-52 and on unauthorized techniques that migrated from Afghanistan.’ Members of the 519th MI Battalion, which had previously been accused in a Criminal Investigation Command homicide investigation of abusive interrogation practices in Afghanistan, were left to devise interrogation rules on their own. In so doing, they were said to have copied rules ‘almost verbatim’ from the ‘Battlefield Interrogation Team and Facility Policy’ of Special Operations Forces/Central Intelligence Agency Joint Task Force 121, a secretive Special Operations Forces/CIA mission seeking former government members in Iraq. That policy reportedly endorsed the use of stress positions during harsh interrogation procedures, the use of dogs, yelling, loud music, light control, isolation, and other procedures used previously in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

I’m sure I’ve commented here before that torture is not a means of interrogation that yields “actionable” intelligence–victims will say anything they think their torturers want to hear–but a means to intimidate entire communities. Sanchez is surely aware of this, yet according to the BBC article, “he blamed the US disbanding of the Iraqi military as well as the failure to set up civilian government quickly and cement ties with tribal leaders.”

Torture of individuals operates to gain compliance from a fearful subject population; it is inconsistent with any intention to in any way empower that population. It is entirely consistent with “disbanding . . . the Iraqi military” and “the failure to set up civilian government quickly” [or at all]. And under such a regime, there exists little motivation for “ties with tribal leaders.” Torture is simply a message from an imperial power to all its subjects irrespective of their roles in any pre-invasion political or social structure.

So it is unsurprising that in Iraq, there exists no credible government authority, that factions have arisen in defense of their own interests, and that violence is a response to a carnage that has taken over one million lives. The United States has reaped what it has sown. “The best we can do with this flawed approach [the ‘surge’] is stave off defeat,” declares Sanchez, obviously attempting to obscure his own role in what some of us identified from the beginning as an historic defeat.

Pot calls Kettle black: Rice accuses Kremlin of concentrated power

In what must surely be one of the more ironic Bush administration claims, “US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has voiced concern about Russia’s direction by saying too much power is concentrated within the Kremlin.”

What this all really seems to be about is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s objections to U.S. plans to install an “anti-missile shield” in the Czech Republic, supposedly to guard against Iranian attack. The Bush administration has ignored Putin’s suggestion that it should be located closer to Iran and protect all of Europe rather than just a portion outside Russia. But because Rice’s answer is to Putin’s idea is inadequate, Rice complains about anything she thinks she can make stick.

And while Putin is hardly an example of democratic leadership, Bush administration crimes against humanity and moves to consolidate power in the executive branch, abrogate civil liberties, and broaden U.S. hegemony aren’t very democratic either.

48% of abortions worldwide “unsafe”

The British medical journal, Lancet, today focuses on maternal health. Sedgh, Henshaw, Singh, Åhman, and Shah write that:

An estimated 42 million abortions were induced in 2003, compared with 46 million in 1995. The induced abortion rate in 2003 was 29 per 1000 women aged 15–44 years, down from 35 in 1995. Abortion rates were lowest in western Europe (12 per 1000 women). Rates were 17 per 1000 women in northern Europe, 18 per 1000 women in southern Europe, and 21 per 1000 women in northern America (USA and Canada). In 2003, 48% of all abortions worldwide were unsafe, and more than 97% of all unsafe abortions were in developing countries. There were 31 abortions for every 100 livebirths worldwide in 2003, and this ratio was highest in eastern Europe (105 for every 100 livebirths).