Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Reading is Believing?

Americans are usually very proud of their freedom of speech and press, and tout it as an exemplary way of life to other nations, especially those in which democracy doesn’t exist or is limited and perhaps corrupt. Generally we think of this freedom in the form of a writer being able to tell the truth, which would be the ideal. And one is also free to express his or her views, but in that case great care should be taken that something isn’t presented as a fact if it is just an opinion.

Nothing unfortunately prevents a crooked or biased journalist or reporter presenting fiction or lies as truth. If given a choice, people usually choose an interpretation of news that pleases them the most, or whets their appetite for scandal and sensation. During the first years of the war in Iraq many Americans turned to Fox News because it painted a rosy picture of the U.S. and the coalition forces’ success. The network presented the war in a more victorious way than CNN, for example. It was as if questioning the reasons for the occupation, or mentioning the casualties, was unpatriotic, and something we didn’t want to hear and read about. Of course, today people no longer blindly believe all the fairy tales coming out of the White House press room. Assassinating Saddam’s sons and capturing the former Iraqi leader himself was supposed to bring hostilities to a quick end. As this didn’t happen, we found a reason: Al-Qaida was sending foreign terrorists to Iraqi soil and all the mayhem was their doing. Not to worry: we had a handle on the situation and in no time the country’s own police force was going to take over and bring peace to the people (and cheap oil to us). While some of this was true (there have been a number of foreign militants in Iraq who have entered the country to drive the infidels and occupiers out), our leaders flatly denied that at the root of the chaos was sectarian violence, hatred between different Muslim groups. The press secretary and Mr. Rumsfeld have been quick to dismiss any talk about civil war, something that seems quite obvious today to most people aware of the situation, including our own military leaders in Iraq.

Recently the Lancet, a very respected medical journal, published its detailed study on the amount of casualties in Iraq. It came up with a number of completely different magnitude than we had seen before, with probably over 600,000 Iraqi victims. Statistical error margin puts the figure at 200,000 at the low end and close to a million at the maximum. Our government and Neo-Conservatives were immediately ridiculing the study, without even bothering to examine the methods used to come up with the staggering number of dead. For many people, hearing the President say that the Lancet article ‘was not true’ was enough, although how would he himself know. Obviously there is more than a little bit of truth behind the journal’s conclusions. A few decades from now, or possibly even before, the United States may no longer be the world’s leading superpower and then it will be feasible to picture us being accused of war crimes. Of course this country will protect its former leaders and other people suspected of guilt, but it would only isolate us further from the rest of the global community. We have always insisted that it was a ‘must’ to drop nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, causing hundreds of thousands civilian deaths. Since we won, we could never be condemned for this atrocity in an international court. But what if Germany had been successful with its own atom program and dropped a bomb on Britain, another one on the Soviet Union, possibly forcing them to negotiate a quick peace agreement? Would today’s history books claim that Hitler, Himmler, Göring and others were great war heroes? Would the Allies have been punished for bombing German cities with cluster bombs? History is always written from the perspective of the winner, at least for many decades to come.

Compared to years ago, today’s people are far more skeptical about what they read in newspapers and magazines, or what they hear on radio and television. Yes, they have become more suspicious but perhaps not enough. We all know how masses can be manipulated by propaganda, and a journalist or a reporter with an agenda can plant seeds of his own bias in the minds of ordinary readers or listeners. Too many of us think that if it was in the paper, it must be true. John Mark Karr was declared guilty by the media of the little Ramsey girl’s murder, although there was no solid evidence. Of course now we all know he is but a fruitcake, who on ‘Larry King Live’ promised to write a book and do other things to benefit from his undeserved fame and short time in our media’s spotlight.

Recently, colleagues of mine have been accused of terrorism in the workplace, according to local papers. I haven’t read the stories, but have been told about them by many of these people. They claim the accusations are false, and were purposely planted in the media with the help of reporters, who either wanted to stir trouble, help their friends or had other motivations. To an outside observer, the ‘facts’ as they supposedly have been reported, sound rather retarded and created by someone with an elementary or middle school mentality. The accused have been very upset, and I can understand how they feel, having been targeted enough times by slanted journalism. It is sad if a respected paper tolerates lies that suit a seriously flawed writer’s agenda, and agrees to publish them without verifying facts or hearing from all sides. Such a reporter should be dismissed immediately and never allowed to publish again. A serious newspaper is not afraid to act in this manner. We have witnessed, in recent years, prominent journalists getting fired from their high profile jobs, for falsifying facts. Freedom of press and expression carry a responsibility with it, to be unbiased and fair in reporting, or if that is not possible, clearly make sure the reader knows this is only the opinion of an individual.

Iran and North Korea have their papers and other news media, too. We don’t rush to accept their articles at face value, but rather ridicule their point of view. However, to the people in those countries who read and hear them, they represent the only truth they are exposed to, and America’s opinions are mere propaganda in their eyes. To a person in a neutral country, both views are probably equally biased and faulty. There are plenty of affluent and well-educated people in Western societies who understand the desperation and frustration that many of this county’s ‘enemies’ experience, although they probably will not agree with it. But neither do they see American values as something worth bragging about. If you threatened to take health insurance, unemployment benefits or free college education away from EU citizens, they would create civil disobedience of a magnitude never witnessed here. Freedom comes in many forms: you could also say that we don’t have to work, go to college or carry health insurance. We are also free to accept lies.


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Do-Not-Ations and Con-Tributions

Having just gone through financial records while getting data ready for my accountant, I realized how much money we have donated over the years to non-profits, more than many people make in a year. In hindsight, much of it has gone to institutions unworthy of a dime. People often feel obligated to help, thinking their aid makes a difference in humanitarian or cultural causes. Only a few of us bother to check the percentage of our aid that actually goes to benefit the intended recipients, which is often minimal. Yet much of the information is available on the web, mandated by law, although finding it takes some digging.

Great tragedies, either global or national, usually create an immediate response from caring people who want to help. Interestingly, events such as 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, gave birth to a large number of new non-profits. In most cases the reason behind creating such organizations is hardly humanitarian, but an opportunity for shrewd people to make a big bundle of money for themselves. It is well known how even the help from the government and big national institutions has had trouble reaching the truly needy and suffering victims. People have lied about having had a relative or significant other perish in the World Trade Center, in order to collect money. After Katrina, once it got its help program started after an amazingly long wait, the government was handing out $2,000 debit cards to both the needy and those who used the cards to gamble, buy luxury items or take vacations. There was hardly any accountability. Nobody has really researched thoroughly, to my knowledge, how much of the privately collected money was distributed to the families of 9/11 victims. Of course, the more time it has taken to locate such people in need, the more the people running such a fund have had an excuse to collect salaries and other administrative fees. These can amount to a lot: although not through donations but mandatory taxes, car owners here in Seattle have paid many years for a Monorail that doesn't exist and probably never will. Yet all the money is gone and many have obviously benefited financially from the huge amount of money collected. And what about the cost of planning the new Ground Zero monument in New York? Contests were held, winners declared, yet plans were thrown out and the circus began again. It would be interesting to have a study that showed how much certain individuals have earned from that mess.

Back to charitable contributions: hardly a day goes by when the phone doesn't ring off the hook from calls for donations. By now, we no longer pick up calls from any toll-free numbers, or those from solicitors whose names we recognize. These days callers have become smarter and block their identities. If I pick up and it turns out to be a request for money, I usually ask why the caller is doing so anonymously. Often they just hang up then, rather than come up with a made-up excuse. At other times I have asked how much overhead expenses there are, in other words how much of the money actually reaches the target. Most of these telemarketers don't have a clue or are unwilling to give out such information. Then there are all the War Veteran organizations. As I know how miserably this country (the U.S. is hardly alone, though) has taken care of those who have served and come home wounded or an emotional mess, incapable of leading a normal life, I would like to help. Soon I came to realize how many groups there are with almost identical names, all claiming to represent the same people. I have checked the background of many such groups and been astonished at the high overhead percentage. Also, there are a number of groups that according to their name are linked to law enforcement or police when in fact they have nothing to do with it. Certainly I would like to keep kids out of trouble, but not fatten the pocketbook of someone who is running the scheme. Often solicitation requests come from national professional fund raising companies who siphon off easily a third of the money. They will never tell you their true identities unless you ask, or check the phone number on your Caller ID, and decipher the name with the help of Google.

Certainly there are worthwhile organizations doing important work. The Red Cross rushes to help victims of disasters and wars globally (although they weren't allowed to go into New Orleans when the need was its greatest, if I remember correctly). Doctors Without Borders is an incredible group and there are many others. We have supported an orphan in Rwanda, and give money to UNICEF monthly. Here in Seattle we have a wonderful library system which however is short on money, thanks to the increasingly tight budget of the city. I don't think contributions to the Seattle Public Library Foundation go to waste and since this family uses the system's resources practically every day, we feel more than happy to be of help. It is hard to picture the head librarian of the system driving a luxury import, although I could be mistaken, of course.

A good indication of a non-profit's moral health is the salary and lifestyle of its executives. Such an organization, by its very nature, should not be compared to the private sector, yet many executive directors and other figureheads seem to expect similar pay packages and perks. Big local arts organizations, such as opera companies and symphony orchestras, often have people on their payroll that earn salaries that we associate with professional athletes or successful movie and television stars. If an orchestra has 10,000 subscribers (a dream for most) and every one of them would donate a hundred dollars in addition to their expensive season tickets, that extra money wouldn't, in many cases, even pay for the Music or Executive Director's salary. Of course, a number of well-to-do donors give much more, but to some less affluent such an extra contribution is possible only after serious consideration. They must believe that this gift is really needed and will make a difference. How would they feel if they were told that this money would barely pay for a free meal or two for 'more important' donors at the director's house where such entertainment is frequent, often many times a week? Or that the sum would cover 0.02% or less of an overpaid soloist's fee for the week, or sometimes just one night? There are needs and then there are needs. If an arts organization, and for that matter a private company, is having a hard time making ends meet, wouldn't it make sense that those who earn the highest salaries would be the ones having to make the greatest financial sacrifices? But as we know, the opposite is more the norm than the exception.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been often criticized for not distributing its wealth to the arts community, as with such enormous capital it could keep a large number of organizations 'healthy' and their executives well fed. However, they seem to have a different focus, something I wholeheartedly agree with: improving health of the needy worldwide through research and direct funding, paying for schools (which even in our rich country have been neglected), and having an interest in libraries which are a key to education and a treasure chest for the average world citizen. Granted, we all have paid dearly for our Microsoft products, but it is good to know that at least some of the money is being used in a truly meaningful and humanitarian way.

Next time you are about to say 'yes' to a pledge drive or donation request, think about it for a while. By agreeing to pay for something without caring where the money ends up is foolish and wrong. Demanding to know details is not only your right but also a moral responsibility: accountability is something sorely lacking in our society (think Enron or Halliburton), and by firmly asking for facts
these organizations will actually be forced to become fiscally more responsible. Sharing is important and makes one rightfully feel good, but remember that there are a great number of crooks out there trying to con us and in essence wanting to sell us snake oil. That hundred dollars could save many children's lives in Africa, or provide help to a small local arts group. It could also pay for someone else's Filet Mignon and two glasses of fancy wine.

Monday, October 09, 2006

WMD Again, This Time For Real

Our intelligence agencies must really be red-faced now that even the most die-hard hawk has had to come to terms with the fact there were no WMDs to be found in Iraq, our official reason for attacking and occupying that country. Instead one of the poorest nations, starving North Korea, has managed to detonate a nuclear bomb right under our nose on the Korean Peninsula. With its highly irrational leader, the country could feasible even use such a weapon against its rich neighbors. No wonder the mood in Japan and in South Korea is rather somber and people are frightened. Uncle Sam is using verbal threats of sanctions as usual, and our president has condemned the ‘nucular’ test, but I doubt China or even Russia would allow the U.N. Security Council to pass any meaningful countermeasures. It is hard to remember that during Clinton’s last presidency we were actually talking with this rogue state in a civilized manner and peace seemed within grasp. A Madame Albright Mr. Bush is not, nor is anyone else in his cabinet. If military action was called for, we couldn’t come up with the manpower needed with our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not that we would want to fight the North Koreans again as they taught us a lesson by almost wiping out the U.S. army during the early 1950s.

Some world leaders may breathe easier, strangely enough, as this news has replaced a lot of embarrassing items on the front page. Vladimir Putin might be one of them, after the assassination of “Russia’s Conscience”, journalist Anna Politkovskaya, in her apartment building’s elevator. The writer had been one of the remaining critics of Putin and Russia’s war in Chechnya, so one cannot help but be suspicious about the motive of the murder. Russia’s flirtation with freedom and democracy seems to be rapidly coming to an end. Putin rules the country like the old timers did, with a fist of steel. Perhaps that is what Russia needs: many elderly people still remember Stalin as a great man and miss the good old times; never mind that some twenty million Soviet citizens died or disappeared during his long dictatorship. Not that our country’s past is all that exemplary either, as so many progressive civil leaders were assassinated in the 1960s alone. Will the killer or killers in Moscow be caught and will the investigation reveal the truth behind the brutal murder? Of course Putin has promised this, but it is highly unlikely, as we will probably never learn the true political reasons for killing the Kennedy brothers or Martin Luther King.

The old mentality of getting rid of people who speak the truth is unfortunately alive and well even today. On a personal note, there have been people who have wanted to destroy me and my family. Short of using bullets or poison, they have tried just about every dirty trick in the book, unsuccessfully however. Of course, for a Finn all that just builds character. I’m wondering whether I need to start wearing body armor, just to be safe. A few nights ago I saw the Devil in a dream, for the first time that I can recall. He had some familiar facial features, but otherwise looked like a troll. It was a powerful dream in which evil was everywhere to start with, but little by little goodness prevailed. The Devil ended up being powerless in front of me and I ordered him to fix the house’s toilets. I’m still trying to fully understand what the symbolism was, the incarnation of evil being reduced to a plumber. There was a time in my life when a ‘Kakkenputz’, a poop cleaner, was hired by an organization to take care of its unpleasant business, so this could have been behind the dream. Had I been a prophet, I could have written another Apocalypse for a religious book based on this ‘vision’, although it would have been more optimistic than the one we now read, and “666” could have become “285” or something of the sort.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Is The Earth Flat, Too?

Last week the N.Y. Times published a story about 'Flat Daddies'. A life-size picture from the waist up is made of a soldier in Iraq or Afganistan and sent to his/her family here, so that the children can pretend the parent is still present with them. Although it may bring comfort to some young ones, the idea is bizarre. Of course this country is willing to accept almost anything as truth these days, so why not 'flat daddies' as replacements for the real thing.

So, what's next? Could we replace the President and other public servants with life-size cut-outs and have others make the decisions, faceless behind the flat pictures? The entire congress could look all smiles, and be present 100% of the time. The actual voting could happen via the internet; trained actors could deliver 'speeches' on C-SPAN. What about doing this in something like the arts? Concerts and opera productions could use music from the best recordings available via a sound system. Pictures of singers could be moved with strings: Pavarotti could be in every production, from the Met to Des Moines. Imagine an orchestra where every musician would look happy, young and skinny, and Toscanini and Bernstein could be awakened from the dead easily. A couple of strings attached (no pun intended) would make the conductor move about in tempo, and to an audience's delight he could also now be facing the audience: no more staring at the backside of a local maestro. Every performance would be perfection, a music lover's dream. Like the soldier's child, listeners, too, would be pleased with the visual image. Like the Flat Daddy who doesn't suffer from nightmares and want to take his frustrations out on his family, the musicians would be the perfect orchestra, and a cost effective one, too.

It took a long time for the world to accept the fact that our Earth was round. The church and most sovereigns were opposed to the idea and people didn't know better. Our society is kind of going back towards those times. Evolution is no longer accepted by a majority of Americans. We want to believe in a divine design in which we were created after G-d's image. Never mind that our gene pool is almost identical to that of the great apes; what do scientists know after all.

If we had only one eye, we wouldn't percieve anything as three-dimentional, and couldn't really tell the difference between a flat image and the one in 3-D. A blind earthworm can only go forwards or backwards. It is happy in this one-dimensional world which is all it knows. Perhaps one of the true fundamentalists could tell us if our Creator is also a 'Flat Daddy', although an almighty one?

Photo: Katie Zezima, NY Times