Tuesday, March 17, 2009

NJ's black lawmakers outline budget priorities

TRENTON, N.J. - New Jersey's Legislative Black Caucus says it will focus on health care, affordable housing and education in the coming fiscal year.

Sen. Ronald Rice, the Newark Democrat who heads the group, says it's also vital that construction companies run by women and minorities receive a fair share of contracts generated by the $2 billion in federal stimulus included in New Jersey's budget.

The caucus wants to make sure funds continue for programs affecting residents of the cities and people of color.

Gov. Jon S. Corzine last week presented a $29.8 billion budget proposal to the Legislature.

The budget increases funding for education, keeps funding for anti-foreclosure programs and food pantry assistance, and adds $25 million to expand preschools in poor school districts.

Rev. Lowery Released from Hospital

ATLANTA (MyFOX ATLANTA) - The Reverend Joseph Lowery was released from a local hospital Monday afternoon after a health scare. The civil rights icon was hospitalized Sunday after falling ill at an Atlanta church.

"I'm hoping to get a good night's sleep tonight," said Reverend Joseph Lowery.

Lowery was back at his southwest Atlanta home Monday after an overnight hospital stay.

"I guess I overdid it. I forgot my age, preached a little too long, a little too hard," Lowery said.

At age 88, the civil rights icon still keeps a busy schedule. In January, Lowery delivered the benediction at the presidential inauguration at President Obama's personal invitation.

On Sunday, the reverend was the keynote speaker at Ebenezer Baptist Church's 123rd anniversary. Dr. Lowery gave the church's congregation quite a scare when he fell ill after delivering a sermon at the church Sunday afternoon.

"After the service we were down front signing papers and taking pictures and shaking hands with the congregation and all of a sudden I felt lightheaded," said Rev. Lowery.

Lowery was admitted to Emory University Hospital in midtown where doctors ran a battery of tests.

"They came up with the fact that my blood pressure had got a little low, they adjusted my medication and sent me home," Lowery said.

Lowery was released from the hospital Monday afternoon. Dr. Lowery said he was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support he received.

"I'm thankful for all the concern, the caring expressed by you and all the people across the country and glad they found out I'm going to live a few more hours," said Lowery.

Obama Finger Food, With Curry Sauce and a Side of Racism

All the German frozen food company was trying to do was sell some chicken.

And they figured the best pitchman for the fried snack would be the world's most popular politician, President Barack Obama.

But now the company, Sprehe, finds itself embroiled in a stewing racial controversy over linking America's first black president with fried chicken.

Obama Fingers, the tasty treat served with a curry sauce, will undoubtedly leave some blacks with a case of indigestion. Not because they ate the snack but, because advertising that links black people to fried chicken or watermelon for that matter is deemed racist.

A company spokesman said they didn't know that naming their snack after Obama would cause a racial stir. I tend to believe them.

"It was supposed to be a homage to the American lifestyle and the new U.S. president," sales manager Judith Witting told Germany's Spiegel Online.

"Americans are more relaxed. Not like us stiff Germans," she was quoted as saying.

A lot of whites in America are unaware that some black folks don't like to be associated with fried chicken. And if we are going to be honest, lets acknowledge that plenty of black and white folks enjoy fried chicken - if the customer lines at fried chicken restaurants can be used a barometer.

Irony:This story comes a day or two after Obama gave a talk on food safety. So go ahead and enjoy your Obama fingers - and don't forget the curry sauce. They sound delicious.

Amy Winehouse pleads not guilty to assault

LONDON (AP) — Singer Amy Winehouse has pleaded not guilty to assaulting a fan at a party last year. The headline-grabbing diva attended a hearing at a London court on Tuesday.

Winehouse posed for photographers before entering City of Westminster Magistrates' Court. During a brief hearing inside she pleaded not guilty to a charge of common assault.

The 25-year-old is accused of attacking a fan who tried to take her picture at a charity ball in London on Sept. 26.

Judge Timothy Workman ordered Winehouse to stand trial in July. She was released on unconditional bail.

Natasha Richardson in ski accident

Natasha Richardson, the actress wife of Liam Neeson, is in a Montreal hospital after a skiing accident in Canada, her family has told the BBC.

There are no further details, but unconfirmed reports suggest the 45-year-old suffered serious head injuries at the resort of Mont Tremblant.

Neeson is believed to have flown to her bedside from the set of his latest film, which is shooting in Toronto.

They married in 1994 after appearing in the film Nell, and have two sons.

A member of Richardson's family, who spoke to the BBC but has asked not to be named, said the whole family was "very distressed".

Part of the Redgrave acting dynasty, Richardson is the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and director Tony Richardson, and the sister of Nip/Tuck star Joely Richardson.

She has starred in a number of Hollywood films and acted opposite an 11-year-old Lindsay Lohan in 1998's The Parent Trap.

But she is better known for her work on the stage, winning a Tony award in 1998 for her starring role in Sam Mendes' Broadway production of Cabaret.

Is the Internet killing the news media?

The latest Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism report on the state of the U.S. news media makes for sobering reading if you are a student thinking of pursuing a career in journalism or if you are already in the business. The bottom line is that the business is toast unless you are in the Internet side, and even there it's toast.

The report's first few sentences tell most of the story:

* Twenty percent of the journalists who worked in newspapers have lost their jobs in that time period.

* Ad revenues were down last year in local TV news more than 5% (even in an election year).

* The traffic at the top news sites went up more than 25% last year.

* The ad-based model for funding journalism is unlikely for the future.

Not a pleasant picture if you are in the journalism biz. Not even a pleasant picture if you like to read newspapers -- one of the two newspapers that I get delivered to my house is on the list of the 10 papers most likely to fold in the next few years.

The report makes for very interesting, if a bit depressing, reading. There are a number of observations that portend a fundamental restructuring of the way that Americans, and likely folks in other countries, get their news. The three most important observations to me are that power is shifting from institutions (like newspapers) to individual journalists; that people increasingly want news "on demand" rather than scheduled, like the evening news; and that there has been a raise in importance of "minute-by-minute judgment in political journalism." These trends greatly benefit the Internet and Internet-based journalists. The latter two trends also benefit the full-time cable news channels, but only when the cable is available. And, in the office, cable is not generally available.

So far, most newspapers have had a hard time figuring out how to move to the Internet. Overall, the report says, online ad revenue for newspapers fell slightly in 2008 and represents less than 10% of newspaper revenue. Search engines, such as Google, are doing fine -- they are getting much of the growth in ad revenue (up almost 15% in the first three quarters of 2008). The local sites, like newspaper Web sites, are seeing a bleak outlook.

Will the Real Obama Please Stand Up?

Since Barack Hussein Obama launched his Presidential campaign, debates have raged about who the real Obama is. Liberals and conservatives alike have argued about the direction that Obama will take the United States, and progressives in particular have rallied behind the call for “hope” and “change.”

For South Asians in the U.S., Obama’s presidency poses an array of questions that are significant for what they ask about our own political futures in this country, as well as the alliances and fissures that unite and divide us.

The fact that Obama is the first African American president of the U.S. is a reminder to immigrants, such as those from India, that most of us are relatively recent newcomers to a long, ongoing struggle over inclusion and exclusion from belonging and citizenship in the United States, and Obama’s invocations of the American Dream resonate powerfully with those who see this country as a mythologized land of freedom and democracy, and of achievement, mobility, and success.

For many African Americans, Obama represents the symbolic achievement of the first Black president in U.S. history. But they are also aware that he is not a Black American who traces his genealogy to the slaves who helped build this country’s economy, but rather to the narrative of immigration and “multicultural” America. Obama’s multiracial identity speaks to a long tradition of mixed-race Americans, particularly mixed Black/White Americans, serving as the bridge between the black/white polarity of U.S. race politics, but also assuaging the anxieties of white Americans about the specter of losing white privilege.

Obama’s “Post-racial” America?

Obama’s skillful oratory was also strategic in evoking the notion of a “post-racial America,” in which race does not matter because racism no longer exists. While Obama acknowledged the challenges facing those who are marginalized and impoverished, he did so not by challenging the basic premise of the American Dream, but rather by promising to reform the United States. It is very apparent that his political vision departs from the critiques of earlier generations of Black activists, who rejected the myths of U.S. freedom and democracy and challenged the foundational narratives of a nation built solely by immigrants. Those activists revealed that this country was built through slave labor and the dispossession of native peoples, as well as through a series of exclusions of immigrants through discriminatory immigration and citizenship legislation since the 19th century, including (South) Asians.

Obama distanced himself from these histories, in many ways, and most clearly from the specter of Black nationalism and militant civil rights leaders; he disowned his own pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who represented a more uncompromising but also threatening critique of U.S. nationalism and a discourse of spiritual and political resistance to the ravages of racism for which African Americans find succor in the Black church. As Jonathan Farley succinctly pointed out in an article on the “The New Black Politics” (Black Agenda Report, originally published in the Harvard Crimson), “Just because you are a first for blacks, doesn’t mean that blacks are first for you.”

Farley and other Black commentators have observed that Obama was appealing to such a broad spectrum of Americans because he was not confrontational, and was strategically compared by the U.S. media to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—though only to the early Dr. King, Jr., not the radical anti-war critic who marched with janitors and denounced U.S. imperialism in Vietnam toward the end of his life. In fact, the power of Obama’s appeal, in addition to his charisma and eloquence (not to mention his ability to speak grammatical English, after eight years of Bush-isms!), was underscored in a conversation between a Puerto Rican and an African American airline steward. The Latina woman spoke about how her mother voted for the first time in many years, suggesting that because Obama was mixed-race, Puerto Ricans could relate to him because he was mulatto. The African American woman did not respond, but her friend went on, “You know, he’s a universal man.”

That simple statement helps shed light on the ways in which Obama has been produced and packaged like a cipher, or as Norman Solomon, author and media critic observes, a Rorschach test onto which a range of Americans, as well as others, project their own hopes, fantasies, and desires for the future.

Obama’s Foreign Policy: Whose Lives Matter?

The hopes that people have of Obama and the desires for a change from the neoconservative regime of anti-democratic and militaristic programs are real. The trouble is that Obama’s actual policy positions, not his rhetoric, do not represent a real departure from the project of U.S. military, economic, and political domination. His Cabinet choices make this only too apparent, from the selection of Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel—formerly a member of the Israeli military—to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Larry Summers, Robert Gates, and others who represent continuity with, rather than change from, previous Democrat and Republican regimes.

Although Obama has called for a withdrawal of troops in Iraq (still ambiguously defined in negotiations over the Status of Forces Agreement), he has also expressed desire for a continued military and economic presence in the region, effectively continuing intrusions that began with the sanctions and flexing of military might under Presidents George H. Bush and Bill Clinton. Obama has not been willing to reduce the Pentagon’s budget, and more immediately, he has announced that he will shift the major theater of war from Iraq to Afghanistan, and also Pakistan. In fact, Obama was the only Presidential candidate who declared that he would wage a unilateral war against Pakistan, under the guise of “rooting out terrorists.”

This is the very same logic that Bush used to wage war against Iraq and Afghanistan, where civil society has been destroyed and the Taliban has re-emerged. How a continuation of the same policy of military force, with even less investment in rebuilding the shattered infrastructure of a country destroyed by 25 years of war and violence, is going to bring peace and democracy to Afghanistan should be lost on anyone who genuinely opposes war. Furthermore, one of the first attacks that the U.S. military launched immediately after Obama came into office was a missile strike on northwest Pakistan, where the U.S. has been engaged in direct as well as indirect attacks that have killed innocent civilians, further enraging local populations.

Although Obama was widely applauded for ordering the closure of Guantanamo during his first few days in office—not surprising, since the prison has brought provoked such serious negative publicity and condemnation of the U.S. around the world as well as increasing domestic criticism—he has yet to reflect on what he plans to do with the detainees. Many commentators and D.C. pundits have suggested that he may opt to bring Guantanamo onto U.S. soil by setting up administrative courts that do not operate with the same criminal protections as other criminal courts. Thus, the detainees would receive the same inhumane treatment they have received in the infamous detention center, just under the guise of (unfair and racist) U.S. laws to guard against “terrorism.”

Furthermore, the new President has no plans to shut down Baghram prison in Afghanistan, where illegal torture is practiced outside of the media’s attention, and which is sure to see much more of this if the War on Terror is revived in Afghanistan, let alone to close Abu Ghraib (now under a new name). Another less discussed fact is that Obama and his administration have recently backed the Bush administration’s policies on “extraordinary rendition”—the process of seizing “terror” suspects and sending them to a third country (where U.S. laws on torture may not apply) for questioning. In fact, much of the opposition to General Musharraf in Pakistan led by the lawyer’s movement was sparked by outrage over the illegal detention of Pakistanis who have disappeared under the U.S.-backed War on Terror.

Just a year ago, Obama spoke of strengthening the military and protecting “national interests,” using the phrase in order to move ambiguously between the interest of stopping terrorism against U.S. citizens and the interests of big capital. He, like candidates before him, bowed to the power of the Israel lobby and AIPAC (American Israel Political Action Committee) instead of taking a firm stance against settler colonial policies, occupation, sanctions, and genocidal violence in Palestine which has been denounced by the world community and by almost every member of the United Nations (including India) except the U.S. and Israel.

Given this loyalty, it was disappointing, but not surprising, to watch as Obama remained silent when 1,300 Palestinians were massacred in unprecedented violence in Gaza, including the slaughter of 400 children, in Israel’s war on the imprisoned civilian population who are held hostage by Israel’s blockade. This refusal to condemn the assaults was supposedly because he was still President-Elect, yet this circumstance did not prevent him from issuing a statement of sympathy and condemnation of the attacks in Mumbai in November 2008, as he should have. Do Palestinian lives not matter to the President, too?

Obama, South Asian Americans, and the Meaning of Change

What was clear in the Obamania that swept the country is that many progressives and even leftists were willing to sacrifice concerns about Obama’s foreign policy, in effect sacrificing the lives of innocent Pakistanis, Afghans, and Palestinians. As South Asians, this is an inconsistency that is troubling, but one that was evident among even Indian progressives, which is even more disturbing. If we oppose war, on principle, we need to oppose it against all peoples, and even when it is couched in the pretext of a “just” or “humanitarian” war, exposing the hypocrisies and contradictions of such rhetoric that is, after all, just a continuation of the logic of the War on Terror of the previous regime. Now it is South Asian terror we must root out, not just Arab terror, but the rhetorical justification and cover-up of U.S. strategic interests is just the same.

Some will argue that Obama has had to take these positions, particularly during his Presidential campaign, because he needed to get elected, and there was no way that he could express the politics of a progressive community organizer, especially since he is of African descent, if he wished to get elected. However, this rationalization of what was essentially an increasingly centrist platform (note that the center in the U.S. has increasingly shifted to the right anyway) also reveals the limited political horizon of electoral politics, where electability is allowed to supersede political vision and a corporate-lobby sponsored campaign appears to be outside the “system.” In any case, Obama’s cabinet selections since his election have made it only too clear that this regime does not represent the significant shift that many had hoped for, leading to some disappointment and disillusionment.

Many supporters of Obama understandably longed for a change in U.S. policies because they were opposed to the unilateralist policies of the neocons and the contempt of the Bush administration for constitutional rights and true democracy. We share this desire, but we also want to raise the question: “change” for whom? Is this a real shift to a more democratic order, or a change only for (certain) people who live inside the U.S., but not those outside its borders, including in South Asia?

It is apparent that eight years of the Bush administration have made many feel that any change is the dawning of a completely new era, but we must not delude ourselves and allow euphoria to blind us to the facts on the ground. As Indian Americans, we want real change, not just symbolic shifts, and not just for us or for our fellow Indians, but also for all South Asians and for others around the world.

Pope leaves for Africa; first stop Cameroon

Pope Benedict XVI gestures from the airplane before leaving from Rome's Leonardo da Vinci airport for a trip to Africa that includes stops in Cameroon and Angola, Tuesday, March 17, 2009. (AP / Pier Paolo Cito)

ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI says the distribution of condoms is not the answer in the fight against AIDS.

Benedict insisted that the church is in the forefront of the battle against AIDS in Africa. He spoke Tuesday aboard the papal plane on his way to Africa, his first trip to the continent as pontiff.

Benedict said "you can't resolve it with the distribution of condoms." He said that "on the contrary it increases the problem."

The Vatican encourages sexual abstinence to fight the spread of disease.

The pope departed earlier Tuesday from a Rome airport. The seven-day pilgrimage will take him to Cameroon and Angola.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

ROME (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI has departed from a Rome airport for a trip to Africa that includes stops in Cameroon and Angola.

The pope's Alitalia flight left Rome's Leonardo da Vinci airport shortly after 10 a.m. (0900 GMT, 5 a.m. EST) Tuesday. It will arrive in Yaounde, Cameroon, about six hours later.

The seven-day pilgrimage is Benedict's first trip as pontiff to Africa, the fastest-growing region for the Roman Catholic Church.

He says he wants to bring a message of hope to a continent suffering from poverty, disease and armed conflict.

US home construction accelerates

The rate of construction of new homes in the US soared by almost a quarter in February compared with the previous month, official figures have shown.

The US Commerce Department said the construction of new homes and apartments rose to an annual rate of 583,000 in the month.

In January, the annual rate to fell to 477,000 homes, the fewest in 50 years.

The jump, driven by an increase in apartments, came as a surprise to analysts, who had expected a drop.

But even with February's big jump in building activity, housing construction is still down by almost a half compared with the same month a year ago.

Sign of recovery?

The January rate was the lowest since the US Commerce Department started keeping records in 1959.

Some analysts were at a loss to explain the rise seen in February.

"We see no specific factor that might explain this jump," said Ian Shepherdson of High Frequency Economics

"This is an encouraging sign for the US economy. It is good signal of what is to come"

"Multi-family starts are always noisy, but this is exceptional. With new home sales still falling and the [recent] months' supply at a record there is no reason for homebuilding to rise."

Applications for building permits, which are seen as a reliable indicator of future building activity, were also up by 3% to an annual rate of 547,000.

Wider impact

The collapse of the US housing market was a key factor in the global economic downturn.

And some analysts believe these housing figures are a sign that the economy may be on its way to recovery.

"This is an encouraging sign for the US economy. It is good signal of what is to come," said Matt Esteve at Tempus Consulting.

"With the rally in equities, we hopefully have seen a bottom for the economy here."

Others, however, were rather more circumspect.

"This is a temporary rebound, not a recovery," said Mr Shepherdson.