Feb 26, 2010

Ion Barladeanu: 'homeless' Romanian artist has show in Paris

This week a Romanian artist named Ion Barladeanu had a show at the Anna de Villepoix gallery in Paris. A Guardian article describes him as looking "every inch the established artist" - a transformation almost as riveting as the extraordinary collages that have brought Barladeanu late breaking fame in his early 60's.

As recently as 2007 nobody in the art world had heard of him. Some articles about his life in Romania describe him as 'homeless' and a 'tramp'. He lived for some 20 years in the garbage room of a block of flats in Bucharest and made some coin from odd jobs. In his spare time he worked on the collages that he sometimes refers to as 'movies'... cinematic photograms that are darkly satirical, with shades of surrealism and dada.

Photos by PR Handout

Link here for the full gallery.

During the Ceausescu years Barladeanu created the collages from images he discovered in old magazines. There was personal risk involved because a number of the pieces take aim at the former dictator, the man who the artist refers to as "my greatest fear": "I knew that if he knew about my work Ceausescu would not sleep in peace in his grave... If people had found out about my work they could have chopped my head off … But this is my revenge."

A Guardian article 'Art world swoons over Romania's homeless genius' describes how the artist was discovered:

Eventually, in 2007, Barladeanu showed his collages to an artist who happened to also be combing through the garbage. Amazed, the artist called a gallery owner. From that moment on, Barladeanu's days in the dump were numbered. "I instantly thought it was something very important, at least for Romania," said Dan Popescu, whose H'Art gallery specialises in young, little-known contemporary artists. With badly decaying teeth and a face ravaged by over 60 Romanian winters, Barledeanu was not young, and his anonymity would not last long.

Within six months, he was given his first exhibition, a flat of his own and a brand new set of dentures. In 2009, he made his first trip overseas and showed some collages at the Basel art fair. This week, he jetted into Paris, saw the Eiffel Tower for real and had lunch with the actor and fan Angelina Jolie, in town for her next movie.

What gives Barladeanu's work its unique appeal is that he is very much an outsider, not a product of the art club. The authenticity of his vision is particularly impressive given the harsh conditions of his life and the personal risk involved during the Ceausescu years.

Feb 25, 2010

Notices in French state railway target Romanians

Official notices that appeared on French state railway trains serving the southwest area of France, singled out Romanians for negative attention.

A translation of the notice reads:

Over the past few weeks there have been worries with Romanians. Indeed, a number of bag thefts have been noted. We ask you to redouble your vigilance. Besides, all sightings of Romanians must be reported.

A local writer, Maloud Akkouche, spotted the notice when he was en-route from Fois to Toulouse. Initially he thought it was a joke of some sort. On realizing that this wasn't in fact the case, he lodged a complaint.

The incident has ignited a bit of a firestorm. Roumanophilie, a website that caters to Romanians living in France characterized the signs as "anti-Romanian racism". The French trade union, Sud-Rail, has also come out and condemned the signs as racist.

There have been sporadic reports of Roma (sometimes referred to as 'gypsies') being arrested for petty theft in France. But the Roma, despite the name, are not exclusively Romanian. They are a people with a distinct lifestyle and character irrespective of country-of-origin. They are frequently unfairly profiled in a generalized manner as thieves and con artists.

French railway - SNCF - has issued an apology for the signs. They claim that an individual guard was responsible for the notices. A spokesperson said: “This should not have happened. An internal inquiry is under way to determine how it occurred.”

If as alleged, the concerns outlined in the notice are a pressing problem for SNCF, it's interesting to note that not a single person contacted railway security to warn of "Romanians" after reading the sign.

Reports on the story include - BBC - Timesonline - Huffington Post.

Feb 23, 2010

Pravda disses Vancouver Olympics and Canadian 'cowards'

There has been a good deal of criticism surrounding the Winter Olympics in Vancouver both at home and abroad - some of it legitimate. Criticism has been aimed at the corporate nature of the games, safety and organizational issues, the use of unceded Indigenous land for venues and the cynical way the Harper conservatives have attempted to use the event for political spin-off benefits.

There has also been criticism that is more direct. A good example of this is an article on the Russian news site Pravda.

We all know Canada has problems with the future lines drawn on Arctic maps and we all know Canada lives in the shadow of its larger neighbour to the south. The abject cruelty shown by Canadian soldiers in international conflicts is scantily referred to, as indeed is the utter incapacity of this county to host a major international event, due to its inferiority complex, born of a trauma being the skinny and weakling bro to a beefy United States and a colonial outpost to the United Kingdom, whose Queen smiles happily from Canadian postage stamps.

Maybe it is this which makes the Canadians so…retentive, or cowardly. So it is not exactly a huge surprise to have international skating experts from the four corners of the Earth criticising the decision to award the Men’s figure skating Gold medal to the US athlete Evan Lysacekv over the reigning Olympic Champion Evgeny Plushenko, whose superior performance was inexplicably ignored.

Everybody who knows anything about Olympic skating, Winter Olympic sports and international politics will infer from the pitiful and dangerous conditions provided by the Canadian authorities, which already caused one death, that Vancouver is mutton dressed as lamb. Take off the outer veneer and the stench is horrific.

It is a surprise that any Russian athlete would wish to remain in that sort of environment for a second longer.

Read the article in full - here. Also be sure to check out the accompanying comment thread.

Olympic Opium

Harper prorogues Parliament again

Bob Marshall: disabled kids 'God's punishment'

Bob Marshall, a duly elected wingnut from Manassas, VA - aka "Sideshow Bob," - decided to use a Planned Parenthood bashing occasion in Richmond to go off on a bizarre rant about abortion. Marshall and fellow Republicans, along with 20 or so clerics want to strip Planned Parenthood of its state funding in Virginia. In 2009 state funding for the organization amounted to a meager $35,000 in Medicaid reimbursements.

According to Marshall women who have a first abortion are more likely to have children with disabilities:

The number of children who are born subsequent to a first abortion with handicaps has increased dramatically. Why? Because when you abort the first born of any, nature takes its vengeance on the subsequent children.He described it as "nature doing its vengeance on subsequent children.

He said: "In the Old Testament, the first born of every being, animal and man, was dedicated to the Lord. There's a special punishment Christians would suggest."

There is no scientific evidence that a first abortion creates long-term risk to subsequent children. Like a lot of reactionary blowhards, Marshall doesn't hesitate to make things up in support of bogus theories.

Great message for kids who have disabilities though... I'm sure it made their day. According to Marshall they might well be less-than-perfect because their mothers are being punished for an 'evil act' that goes against nature.

In explaining his 'disability thesis' to TPM Marshall used the analogy of drunkeness. This came on the back of his self-serving "apology".

This is nature. It's the same thing if you're talking about getting drunk. If God made nature, and made alcohol with certain characteristics, He's not to blame for me getting drunk and getting in a car and killing someone. This is the order of nature. You do these things, you pay consequences. That's not controversial.

Oh and the man from Manassas has no time for people who OK abortion in cases involving rape. Here's what he had to say on that topic on an earlier occasion:

Your origins should not be held against you [referring to the victim's unborn child]. The woman becomes a sin-bearer of the crime, because the right of a child predominates over the embarrassment of the woman.

Needless to say Marshall is down on contraception. He opposed Norplant, a contraceptive implanted under the skin that is good for five years: "It's a real tribute to women's intelligence. They feel so irresponsible they can't do something [take a pill orally] once a day?"

He informed the Virginia House of Delegates: "... we have no business passing this garbage out and making these co-eds chemical Love Canals for these frat house playboys in Virginia. We have no business passing this stuff out."

"Chemical Love Canals"? Co'eds in Virginia must be thrilled to know that they are being compared to toxic waste dumps.

Marshall and his associates are out to create the false impression that Planned Parenthood is mainly an abortion services provider. In fact it offers a wide range of much needed gynecological services in addition to cancer screening, HIV prevention and birth control for low-income women.

Interesting take on Marshall from Pharyngula - here.

Feb 19, 2010

Harriton High: webcams used to spy on students

The Lower Merion School District caters to the well heeled. It is one of only two districts in Pennsylvania to earn Moody's highest bond rating. The teachers are among the highest paid in the state. Harriton High School located in Rosemount, a wealthy suburb of Philadelphia, was rated by Philadelphia magazine as the 6th best public school in Pennsylvania.

Harriton High has also been accused of spying on students with the aid of embedded webcams placed in school issued laptops. Officials with the Lower Merion School District had the ability to intercept images from students' cams, capturing anything that appeared in front of the embedded cameras. This activity wasn't restricted to school property. The potential for electronic snooping followed students into their homes and bedrooms.

The extent of this 'official' invasion of privacy came to light when the vice-principal advised a student that the school had a picture of him 'engaged in improper behavior' in his home. Reports don't say what this improper behavior may have been.

The kid at the center of this is a grade 10 student named Blake Robbins. His parents, Michael E. and Holly S. Robbins, filed a lawsuit on his behalf. They are seeking class action status for the suit.

Assistant principal at Harriton High, Lindy Matsko, “cited as evidence a photograph from the webcam embedded in” Robbins’ school-issued laptop.

According to the suit “Many of the images captured may consist of minors and their parents or friends in compromising or embarrassing positions, including various stages of undress.”

There is no knowing how many students this 'peeping Tom' surveillance impacted. Last school year the district issued laptops to 2,290 students. The purpose was to promote more "engaged and active learning." No mention of promoting more engaged and active viewing.

The lawsuit alleges that the use of embedded webcams violates the US Constitution's guarantees of privacy, Pennsylvania common law, the US Civil Rights Act and other laws. It also contends that the school had 24/7 access to the students “by the unauthorized, inappropriate and indiscriminate remote activation of a webcam.”

The school district has stated that that the webcams were for tracking down laptops that had been stolen. They claim that the cams allowed trackers to get a photo of the new user and this along with IP address and location, helped in retrieving lost or stolen property. Remote activations helped the district retrieve 18 missing laptops.

The Robbins' case isn't the first time a school has overstepped the bounds. Lillie Coney, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center said she was aware of another case where school officials were alleged to have monitored student behavior at home.

As for the Robbins' case she said: "this is an outrageous invasion of individual privacy - it shocks the conscience."

The FBI is investigating to see whether Lower Merion School District officials broke any federal wiretap or computer intrusion laws.

A sophomore at the school recently reported that the class was studying the 'Big Brother' novel "1984" by George Orwell. It has also been reported that some students have taken the step of taping over the webcam and microphone in their laptops.

Toronto Star report - here.

Feb 17, 2010

Italy's government seeks to regulate online video

Italy's government has a decree in the works that will require the vetting of copyrighted videos before they are uploaded. If the legislation goes through, internet sites that deal in porn or violent content capable of being accessed by minors could be shut down by telecom providers or hit with hefty fines. There are fears that the controls could be much more far reaching.

There is something a little rich about Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's premier lothario, getting exercised about porn on the internet. The idea of Papi pushing for legislation and seeking to police material on sites such as YouTube is kind of ironic when you consider the trashy shows his Mediaset empire routinely inflicts upon Italians.

This is by no means the first time Berlusconi has expressed concern about the internet. The move to crack down on video content is less about defending the family values of Italians and more about extending his media empire. Greater controls might also reduce potential liabilities. Who knows what incriminating scenes some guest might have recorded in the course of a weekend of fun and frolic at the Villa Certosa in Sardinia.

The decree flies in the face of the EU directive by attempting to apply the rules of television to online videos. Effectively Italy will be in the business of putting in place an administrative authority that will decide what can go online and what can't... bureaucratic controls that threaten to tie up web communications with red tape.

Technology News notes that the decree:

... inherently challenges the YouTube business model, shared by other hosting platforms, of allowing users to upload video without being controlled -- the principle at the center of the Milan trial of four Google executives charged with defamation and violating privacy for allowing a video to be posted online showing an autistic youth being abused.

Google says it removed the video as quickly as it could. A verdict is expected in the coming weeks, with the executives facing possible jail sentences.

Google's concern is that the decree takes aim at user-generated content, which drives YouTube, that is by its nature not managed in the same way as TV network content is. That was not the intention, Google argues, of the EU directive that Italy has taken to include Internet controls.

Democratic lawmaker, Paolo Gentiloni said: "The decree subjects the transmission of images on the Web to rules typical of television and requires prior ministerial authorization, with an incredible limitation on the way the Internet currently functions."

If implemented this effort at bureaucratic censorship risks putting Italy in a similar league to China, Iran and North Korea when it comes to web controls.

It is yet another example of the over-reach of Silvio Berlusconi who already controls a large part of the Italian television system. His Mediaset company plans to extend its reach to include internet TV. The move into IPTV explains why Mediaset is keen to limit the number of videos in circulation.

Mediaset is suing Google for $800 million in damages for uploaded clips of its Big Brother reality show. Last month a civil court in Rome ordered the removal of the material.

Articolo 21, an Italian organization that defends freedom of speech, likened the decree to the earlier attempt by the Berlusconi government to crack down on Italian bloggers... part of a wrong-headed effort to make them answerable to the same obligations and responsibilities that apply to newspapers.

There has been a backlash in Italy against the proposed clamp down. Perhaps in an effort to mollify critics, government spokespersons have said that the decree still needs work and may be subject to key changes. Berlusconi has blustered before and then retreated... so it will be interesting to see how this plays out over the next few weeks.

Related story here.

Berlusconi: bunga bunga break

Berlusconi concerned about pornography access online

Feb 16, 2010

Mahmoud al-Mabhouh killing: whodunit?

At a press conference Monday, Dubai's police chief, Lt. Gen. Dhahi Khalfan Tamim, said that the people suspected in the murder of a Hamas commander at the al-Bustan Rotana hotel used tennis clothes, fake beards and wigs in an effort to disguise their identity.

Sounds like a plot from a Pink Panther movie. The operation though was efficiently carried out... far from the work of amateurs. The group of eleven has been linked through videos, in which they are seen standing in pairs or in groups of 3 and 4 - at times standing in the lobby of the hotel. The video footage also captures them coming and going out of elevators.

Dubai press conference

Video footage of suspects in al-Mabhouh killing

Members of the group used different mobile phone cards to avoid traces and only paid in cash.

Four of the assassins gained access to Mahmoud al-Mabhouh's room using an electronic device. They waited for him to return. The killing took place just 5 hours after al-Mabhouh arrived at the hotel and within 19 hours all of the members of the hit squad had departed the United Arab Emirates.

Dubai police have released the names, nationalities and photos of the suspects. Investigations by the British and the Irish appear to be leading to the conclusion that the passports and ID's are fake.

Hamas is pointing the finger of accusation for the killing squarely at Israel. It is certainly true that the Dubai assassination has a number of characteristics in common with Mossad operations in the past. In addition the al-Mabhouh assassination occurred at a time when Israel is being accused of engaging in a subversive, undeclared war in the region.

A Sheera Frenkel article in the London Times is very clear on this point:

Israel is waging a covert assassination campaign across the Middle East in an effort to stop its key enemies co-ordinating their activities.

Israeli agents have been targeting meetings between members of Hamas and the leadership of the militant Hezbollah group, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

They are also suspected of recent killings in Dubai, Damascus and Beirut. While Israel’s Mossad spy agency has been suspected of staging assassinations across the world since the 1970s, it does not officially acknowledge or admit its activities.

The Frenkel article gives examples of attacks in recent years in which Israeli involvement was suspected. A "tourist bus" carrying Iranian and Hamas officials exploded outside Damascus. A meeting between Hamas and Hezbollah in southern Beruit was also targeted resulting in a number of deaths.

Since ex-paratrooper Meir Dagan took over as Mossad chief, there has been an increase in assassination attempts. Senior Hezbollah members in Lebanon have been targeted in a series of operations. Mossad is also suspected in the Damascus car bombing that killed the Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyah.

Israel-Palestinian hostilities are increasingly moving out of the traditional sphere of conflict and becoming more regional. The exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal told the London paper al-Hayet that future wars with Israel would not be fought soley on the Gaza strip.

Diplomats in the region say there has been an increase in covert Israeli operations. An Egyptian diplomat was quoted as saying: "They are trying to embroil us all in their conflict."

Israel clearly had a heightened level of interest in the activities of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. The Hamas commander has been accused by Israeli officials of being a 'key figure' in the effort to procure long-range rockets that could be fired at targets in central Israel. He was also on Israeli radar because of his involvement in the kidnapping and killing of two Israeli soldiers in 1989.

When the Israel Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, was asked about the Dubai killing, he smiled and responded with: “All the security services make, thank God, great efforts to safeguard the security of the state of Israel.”

The Israeli national security specialist, Yossi Melman in speaking about the Dubai operation, told Haaretz: "The intelligence was reliable and accurate. Even though Mabhouh knew Israeli ­intelligence had him in its sights and took stringent precautions they still managed to get him."

al-Mabhouh's body

Mossad has been behind numerous assassinations in Europe and across the Middle East. In many instances the assassins were posing as foreigners.

None of this is a surprise. Mossad has long made use of the passports of other countries to carry out its operations. In 2004 New Zealand authorities accused Mossad of securing their country's passports with the help of the Israeli Embassy in Australia. Canadian passports were also popular with Mossad a while back.

A former Mossad agent, cited in the London Times, was very frank on the subject of passport use: “Sometimes these were legitimate passports of people who held dual citizenship, other times they were acquired. An Israeli passport raises red flags and is best avoided.”

Feb 15, 2010

Dresden citizens block neo-Nazi march

For years the German far-right has used the annual memorial ceremonies marking the 1945 allied bombing of Dresden to put on a show of force. Last year saw a record turn-out for the Dresden "march of mourning." Photos and story here.

This year - the 65th anniversary of the allied bombing - it was a different story. Dresden's citizens mobilized to shut down the march.

Anti-fascist demonstrators blocked streets around the train station in Dresden's Neustadt district where the march was to begin. In the city center some 10,000 residents took to the streets and formed a human chain.

Dresden citizens out in force

The anti-fascist group, Dresden Without Nazis, helped to mobilize the citizen resistance. It includes politicians and trades unionists who had earlier made calls for city residents to block the rally. Spokeswoman Lena Roth said: "We have for the first time succeeded in preventing the biggest neo-Nazi march in Europe."

Dresden mayor Helma Orosz, a conservative Christian Democrat (CDU) said of the annual invasion: "Dresden doesn't want them and these groups do not belong here."

The turn-out in opposition to the far-right presence was so well coordinated there was no way the march could proceed. Police contained far-right demonstrators in a restricted area outside the train station and after a rally many of those who had come to Dresden to stage the annual march left the city by train.

There has been high praise in the German media - Sächsiche Zeitung lauded the stand taken by citizens: 'For 11 years, the neo-Nazis defined defined the image of Dresden on this day. Today the city was defined by 10,000 who formed a human chain through the historical center.'

Related story here.

Feb 14, 2010

Ko Siu Lan: 'censorship' of work in Paris

Chinese artist Ko Siu Lan banners satirize Sarkozy

Chinese artist Ko Siu Lan has accused the prestigious French art school, Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, of censorship after the school took down her banner installation on the grounds that it was "overtly political."

The banners satirize a campaign slogan of Nicolas Sarkozy. The notorious phrase "Work more to earn more" has been altered, with individual banners bearing words that read "earn  less - work  more."

At a time when France is experiencing an economic downturn the banners speak to a hard reality. They also fit very well with the theme of the exhibition: "The sevenday weekend."

Beaux-Arts issued a statement to say that Ko's work had been removed because of its "explicitly political" message which could violate "public service neutrality". The school reportedly received complaints from the ministry of education about the installation.

Ko Siu Lan said she was shocked and saddened by the decision. She said: "I come from China and we know what to expect there but I would not have expected this kind of brutal censorship in France." She added: “Who are they to decide what is and what is not neutral... France is not as ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’ as people think. The directors are lacking in moral courage and I don’t even think even they know what they are doing. This is an almost fascist control of art.”

It certainly appears to be an act of blatant censorship that runs counter to the values Beaux Arts should be defending. Predictably politics comes into it. France 24 reports that the exhibition's curator, Clare Carolin, received an email that summoned her to meet with the school's director, Henri-Claude Cousseau.

France 24 coverage includes an excerpt from the email: “I was told by Henri-Claude that your work was too explosive to stay in situ, that it had already caused offence to [college] staff members and people from the Ministry of Education, that this was an especially sensitive moment given that [college] is about to renew its funding agreement with the ministry, that the consequences of leaving it there after 5 pm this afternoon could be disastrous.”

The school has accused Ko of 'manipulation.' It claims that she set up the work earlier than planned and said it should have been clearly labeled as a work of art and part of an official exhibition. The statement by the school also said that the banners as presented were an attempt to manipulate the establishment.

The school said it was willing to display Ko's work indoors as part of the larger exhibition - an offer the artist refused on the grounds that “It would ruin the integrity of my art and render it meaningless.”

Ko Siu Lan says the school had known since December exactly how her work would be presented. She showed France 24 a catalogue for the exhibition in which her work was clearly in evidence.

It would seem the outcry over the 'take-down' may have had some impact. France’s Culture Minister Fédéric Mitterrand has called for Beaux Arts to put Ko Siu Lan's work back on display.

France 24 report - here.

Guardian story - here.

Ko Siu Lan YouTube video - here.

Feb 12, 2010

Glenn Beck Show in UK short on ads

There's something weirdly entertaining about guys with cultish personas who spin tall tales, pull funny faces and fill up a chalkboard with apocalyptic hot button terms such as "AntiChrist," "Global Gov in Babylon" and "World washed in blood."

Just a few of the reasons why Glenn Beck is compulsive viewing for millions of Americans who can't get enough of his brand of tabloid analysis. That he's a conspiracy nut and self-described "rodeo clown" only adds to the fascination for some.

So it's no surprise to learn that the Glenn Beck Show has crossed the Atlantic and is now playing in the UK. The British have always had a soft spot for the circus. Seems though that while Brit viewers check out the show, advertisers appear to be much more cautious.

Stopbeck.com reports that even though the Beck show has run ads in the past in the UK, for three days (and counting) this week the show hasn't run any commercials at all... zero. Instead of ads the station cuts to SkyNews updates or the weather.

More companies are thinking twice about having their ads associated with the font-of-misinformation that is Glenn Beck... known for off-the-wall remarks of the 'Barack Obama is a racist' variety. There will always be takers of course, but they are less numerous.

When explaining why her company had chosen to pass on Beck, Sargento spokesperson Barbara Gannon told the conservative Business and Media Institute that “we do not want to be associated with hateful speech used by either liberal or conservative television hosts.”

In total Beck has lost over 100 sponsors in both the US and the UK. The list of companies who have dropped his show (and/or Fox News ) can be found here.

Beck's high numbers explained: freak appeal

Italian TV critics muzzled by Berlusconi

Silvio Berlusconi and his cronies are up to their tricks again. This time it involves a clampdown on political talk shows in the run-up to next month's regional elections in Italy.

The centre-right alliance (PDL) holds a majority on the parliamentary body that oversees the public broadcaster RAI. Berlusconi partisans have succeeded in pushing through rules that will as good as jettison the most popular talk shows in their current format.

New rules, in force from February 28 to March 28, require that any RAI shows that intend to air political debate must include all 30 or so parties running in the elections... an absurd proposition which effectively makes televised debate untenable. Shows that don't comply with the rules will still be allowed to air political discussion, but during the graveyard shift when most of the Italian population has retired for the night.

This cynical move is typical of Berlusconi who views the media through the lens of his infinite narcissism. It has to be all about him or those things that appeal to him most - girls, football and soap operas. Criticism that he can't abide at the best of times, becomes particularly onerous with an election around the corner.

He has been angered in the past by talk shows on RAI that delved into the murkier aspects of his private life. An interview with the escort Patrizio D'Addario, who knows Papi up-close and personal, was aired by the RAI debate show Annozero. D'Addario dismissed the notion that Berlusconi didn't know she was a call girl when he went to bed with her. This infuriated Berlusconi who complained about the "criminal use of television". Annozero has also explored Berlusconi's alleged links with the Mafia.

This cynical strike against RAI is part of the turf war Berlusconi has been waging for years against his media critics. The attack on the rights of TV journalists is being justified by the premier's associates on grounds of 'neutrality' in the run-up to the elections.

The leader of the opposition Democratic Party, Fabrizio Morri, said the centre-right coalition had "voted for the suppression of journalistic analysis."

He added:

This sort of censorship wouldn't happen in a proper democratic country....I doubt very much whether the communications watchdog will cancel Matrix or any other of Mediaset's political shows.

Considering that Berlusconi owns the Mediaset empire that operates three of the six main Italian TV channels, I would say Mr Morri has that one right.

Related Guardian article - here.

Feb 10, 2010

Freshwater case: Mount Vernon divided

In 2008 I posted about the story of a Mount Vernon, Ohio, science teacher named John Freshwater who used a Tesla coil device to mark the arms of several students with what looked like the outline of a cross.

Freshwater has been presenting the Tesla 'tattoo' as harmless and painless. Not everyone bought that explanation. The mother of a student named Zach Dennis complained to the school about the cross that had been burned on her son's arm (a doctor later testified that Zach had sustained second degree burns).

The company that produces the device wasn't buying it either. The product includes the warning that it should not be used on individuals. Written instructions from the company that were sent to investigators include: “Never touch or come in contact with the high voltage output of this device, nor with any device it is energizing.”

Although Freshwater was essentially fired, in Ohio the law allows for a hearing in such cases and he decided to go that route. Following the hearing it will likely be a couple of months before Freshwater's fate is finally decided. The whole exercise has cost the school board around $500,000.

A Guardian article describes Jennifer Dennis' reaction when she first saw the effects of the Tesla coil on her son's arm:

When I looked at it, the shape was definitely a cross, like a Christian cross. Zach said his teacher did it with an instrument that gave off something like a lightning bolt. It was red, like a sunburn or if you burn your arm on the oven.

After Jennifer Dennis lodged a complaint, the family became a target for criticism. The way Freshwater backers saw it... the teacher had been targeted because of his Christian beliefs.

Some in Mount Vernon see Freshwater as a martyr to the Christian cause. His supporters have made a point of advocating on the teacher's behalf. T'shirts announce "I support Mr Freshwater." Pro-Freshwater students organized a "bring your Bible to school day."

Jennifer Dennis described the difficulties her family faced: "We've gotten phone calls, things in the mail, anonymous letters. They send scriptures and how you should raise your children, implying we're not raising our children correctly. Everywhere we go I feel like people know it's us so they don't talk to us or they will say things. Even in church."

The uninvited attention drove the Dennis family out of town. They now live in a community some 35 miles away.

Tesla coil 'cross branding' of students (Freshwater claims they were X's not crosses) wasn't the only activity in the science class that suggested the teacher was running an eccentric Christian crusade. He kept a Bible on his desk and had at least four posters of the Ten Commandments on display, along with posters that featured verses of scripture. During the hearing it came out that he pinned up a poster of George Bush and Colin Powell at prayer. Another poster advertised an evangelical meeting. A fellow teacher says Freshwater would tell students to consult the Bible for 'additional science research'... a bizarre concept in and of itself.

American students have a constitutional right to be educated without being subjected to  indoctrination and/or having Christian symbols burned on their arm. Freshwater has admitted to using the Tesla coil hundreds of times on students during his 21 year teaching career.

Despite the compelling evidence, in God-fearing Ohio it would be a mistake to underestimate the capacity of some believers to turn the story of a teacher-who-screwed-up into a mini religious crusade on behalf of a 'persecuted' Christian. The mistakes Freshwater made tend to get blurred by those on the right who are seeking to use his case to score political points.

Other Christian voices in the community offer a more realistic assessment. Ann Schnormeier who attends the First Congregational United Church of Christ said: “The whole issue has been an embarrassment... People have faith here in this town, but Mr. Freshwater was crossing the line, and the school board has rules. There are laws, and he needs to leave his teaching position.”

John Freshwater doesn't share that perspective. He filed a lawsuit against the school board seeking $1 million in damages for violation of his first amendment right to free speech, discrimination based on religion, and defamation.. He has received support from Christian groups such as the right-wing Minutemen. His pastor, Don Matolyak, has also been supportive. He takes the view that the Freshwater affair is evidence of 'bigotry against Christians'.

Guardian article - here.

New York Times article - here.

Feb 8, 2010

Sarah Palin: palm reading at the Tea Party Convention

At the recent National Tea Party Convention, Sarah Palin delivered a speech for which she was reportedly paid $100,000. During the Q&A session that followed the speech, Palin was recorded checking out a list of words she had scribbled on the palm of her left hand.

When she addressed the 'real' Americans in the audience... mostly white-folk-of-a-certain-age-who-all-dress-alike, she couldn't resist making a crack about Barrack Obama: "This is about the people and it's bigger than any king or queen of a tea party and it's a lot bigger than any charismatic guy with a teleprompter."

It's a bit much for Palin to take a shot at teleprompter-use since she uses them herself and obviously required the assistance of palm-notes-to-self in order to jog her memory. By contrast the President has fielded many tough and challenging Q&A sessions without consulting his palms or the insides of his fingers for back-up.

Cheat notes written on the palms is something kids have been known to do before exams. I'm sure most teachers are familiar with the 'palm squint' as the poorly prepared check out flesh notes for inspiration. The palm crib has now graduated into American politics with Sarah Palin doing the squinting.

Scribbled on her palm were the words "energy, tax, lift American spirits." There were also words that looked like "budget cuts" with "budget" scored out. How is it possible that the person a sizable percentage of Republicans believe is more qualified to be President than Barack Obama, can't even get through a Q&A session with adoring fans without palm-points to keep her on track.

Some might argue that she simply jotted down likely question topics, which suggests the question order had been pre-arranged. Considering that the Q&A session had the look of being carefully orchestrated, with strategic pauses for partisan applause, it makes you wonder just how choreographed Palin needs to be in order to stay on-track.

Palin palmprompter

Sarah Palin writes talking points on her palms

Feb 5, 2010

James O'Keefe: Louisiana arrest

Right-wing video propagandist, James O'Keefe, has been arrested for planning to tamper with Lousiana Senator Mary Landrieu's phone lines. The version of events that O'Keefe and Breitbart have been peddling on the media about what really went down in Landrieu's office is a joke that they seem to expect Americans to take seriously.

During media appearances O'Keefe has claimed that he and his associates went to the federal building where Landrieu's office is located to determine whether she was 'trying to avoid constituents' following the Senator's declared support for the Senate health care reform bill. There were complaints by constituents and others that they were unable to lodge complaints because calls to Landrieu's office were being forwarded to voice mail, or not forwarded on account of voice mail being full.

The FBI press release paints a different picture from O'Keefe's version of events. It states that O'Keefe and associates were arrested "for entering government property under false pretenses for the purpose of committing a felony."

From left, James O’Keefe, Stan Dai, Robert Flanagan
and Joseph Basel.

When O'Keefe and friends showed up at the Hale Boggs Federal building in New Orleans, they were dressed in work attire... blue jeans, blue work shirts, green flourescent vests, tool belts and even a construction hats to complete the look. They said they were there to "fix problems with the telephone system"... a task to be undertaken while one member of the crew hung out in the reception area, cell phone in hand, "so as to record."

If they were simply interested in knowing the status of the Senator's phone system as O'Keefe claims, they could have asked staffers. The FBI complaint makes no mention of any such query directed to staff. Instead 'the repairmen' asked where the wiring closet was located - apparently with a plan to tamper with the phone system.

Phone ops and hidden video isn't O'Keefe's only claim to notoriety. A Max Blumenthal article titled "James O'Keefe's race problem" raises questions about the underlying motivations behind the crusader's 'corruption buster' activities:

His right-wing admirers don't seem to mind that O’Keefe's short but storied career has been defined by a series of political stunts shot through with racial resentment. Now an activist organization that monitors hate groups has produced a photo of O'Keefe at a 2006 conference on "Race and Conservatism" that featured leading white nationalists. The photo, first published Jan. 30 on the Web site of the anti-racism group One People's Project, shows O’Keefe at the gathering, which was so controversial even the ultra-right Leadership Institute, which employed O'Keefe at the time, withdrew its backing.

According to One People's Project founder Daryle Jenkins, O'Keefe was manning the literature table at the gathering that brought together anti-Semites, professional racists and proponents of Aryanism. OPP covered the event at the time, sending a freelance photographer to document the gathering. Jenkins told me the table was filled with tracts from the white supremacist right, including two pseudo-academic publications that have called blacks and Latinos genetically inferior to whites: American Renaissance and the Occidental Quarterly.

O'Keefe's arrest comes with news that ACORN office director in Philadelphia, Katherine Conway-Russel, has filed suit against O'Keefe and Hannah Giles, claiming that they "purportedly sought information regarding housing and mortgage opportunities in Philadelphia, but were in reality imposters who deliberately and surreptitiously created video and audio recordings in an attempt to discredit plaintiff Conway-Russell and ACORN Housing Corporation," and that they subsequently "disseminated the illegally obtained recordings in a manner calculated to harm and injure" her.

On Fox News O'Keefe has been complaining that he's the real victim... a target of "flat-out slandering" and "journalistic malpractice."

Earlier this month a few of his deep thoughts were posted on CampusReform.org, a site that promotes conservative activism. He told his admirers that "The more you put yourself out there and you take those calculated risks" the more “you’re actually going to get opportunities."

Vatican accused of smearing Catholic editor

Dino Boffo

Vittorio Feltri, editor of the Belusconi newspaper Il Giornale, has made the claim that bogus documents used to smear Catholic editor Dino Boffo came from an 'authoritative institutional source' in the Holy See.

Last year Il Giornale broke the news that Dino Boffo, editor of the Bishop's Conference daily Avvenire, had been fined in 2004 for making harassing phone calls. It claimed that the target of the harassment was the wife of Boffo's alleged gay lover. The paper made a point of referring to Boffo as "a reknowned homosexual."

Boffo admitted that he had been involved in a harassment case but denied the suggestion that it related to a gay relationship.

The smear campaign took a toll on Mr Boffo's private life. He described the "defamatory attacks" by Il Giornale as "a violation of my life." He said he had decided to resign as editor of Avvenire because his name had been besmirched "for days and days in a war of words which has wrecked my family and stunned Italians".

In his capacity as editor of Avvenire Boffo had made no secret about his disapproval of Silvio Berlusconi's colorful lifestyle, describing it as "immoral." Suspicions that the attacks had been orchestrated by the Berlusconi camp weren't a stretch since Il Giornale editor, Vittorio Feltri, had made noises about a "counteroffensive" to "unmask" critics of the Prime Minister.

In a surprising turn of events, Feltri is now making the accusation that the Holy See was the source of the bogus documents used to attack Boffo. He described the source as "a very authoritative, and institutional source at the Holy See." Feltri confided these claims to Dino Boffo during a lunch in Milan.

The Vatican issued a categorical denial. It's press spokesman, Frederico Lombardi, characterized Mr Feltri's claims as 'mischief-making' and went on to say "I can categorically deny these claims, which are designed to create confusion and false rumours."