Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Gitmo state of mind: Pingree visits Guantanamo, advocates closure

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Congress that keeping President Obama's promise to close the notorious military prison for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, would be difficult because of opposition from members of Congress. Maine 1st District Representative Chellie Pingree, however, is among those who support closing the base.

Last month, she was part of a bipartisan (if 10 Republicans and two Democrats is "bipartisan") group of members of the House Armed Services Committee who visited Gitmo to see for themselves what's going on.

"Some things we see are classified," Pingree says, beginning our interview by clarifying that she might not be able to talk about certain topics related to the prison — including ones that might be unclassified, because, she says, it can be difficult to remember what's classified and what's not in a particular briefing. (For example, certain details of what the prison is like are kept secret, but other details are not; keeping the categories straight can be a challenge.)

She was able to say, generally speaking, that "living conditions for prisoners — aside from the fact that they don't know when they are going to leave — have improved tremendously," with no waterboarding, no torture, no guard mistreatment, and no disorientingly loud music (as I described in "A Night in Guantanamo," June 20, 2008).

Obama's "different attitude" about torture — specifically, that this president won't use the techniques George W. Bush authorized but claimed were not torture — is to be credited, Pingree says. "It's become clear that better living conditions for prisoners make it easier for the guards to do their work" — and more information is forthcoming from prisoners who are being interrogated, she says.

While Pingree said Obama "has not fulfilled his promise that he was going to close Guantanamo," she did give the administration credit for "working very hard to sort through the huge range of issues," primarily relating to where to move the inmates now at Guantanamo, and where they should stand trial.

A key obstacle is politics. Buck McKeon, the California Republican who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, wants to expand the use of Gitmo, and is a strong supporter of the existing ban on bringing Gitmo prisoners to the US for any reason, including trial. (That law resulted from the firestorm around the trial of suspected 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, which was originally slated for a federal court in New York City.)

Pingree says much of the concern about bringing suspected terrorists to the US is "fear-mongering," observing that "we have a lot of trials in this country," including ones involving terrorism charges.

The Obama administration has been working with other nations' governments to repatriate their citizens when the US is ready to release them; as a result the inmate population has dwindled to 172 from a high of nearly 800 in 2002. Of the inmates remaining, Pingree notes, as many as 48 are "in limbo," with US officials believing they could be dangerous if released, but lacking (or unwilling to declassify) evidence that could aid in a conviction. Other inmates, such as several Uighurs, a central Asian ethnic group largely ruled by the Chinese, cannot return home because their home government will persecute them. (Ironically, that leaves them being incarcerated by a foreign power under the argument that being locked up by the US in Gitmo is better than a Chinese prison — or execution. And sadly, that argument is probably accurate.)

"The problems have now sort of shifted a little bit to how the trials will be conducted, where the trials will be conducted," Pingree says. At the cost of "an enormous amount of money," the US has built a massive courthouse at Gitmo, with room enough for trials with multiple defendants and extensive capability for closed-circuit televisions and teleconferencing with witnesses and attorneys elsewhere, including the US.

But even that initiative faces what Pingree calls "an increasing stalemate" because of complaints about the fairness of the military tribunal system set up to handle inmates' cases.

And ultimately, it is those kinds of problems that convince Pingree the prison does need to close. "To the rest of the world, Guantanamo is a symbol of a country that says it lives by the rule of law, (but) that denied habeas corpus, that used torture to get evidence," she says. If we do close it, we will affirm our belief in the law; if we don't, "they'll say we're just American hypocrites."

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Literati: So you thought you were special

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Reading Hannah Holmes's work is enlightening and entertaining — even when it's at its most depressing. And that is how the South Portlander's latest book, Quirk, starts. The intro smacks you with it: There is no "divine spark" that makes humans more special than other animals. Mice, which are as much a subject of the book as people, can be bred to have any of the behavior variations that we call "personality." Holmes goes for the jugular: "Personality isn't personal. It's biological," she writes. There is no "nature-versus-nurture" debate — 90 percent of what we think makes each of us unique is, in fact, embedded in our genes.

When you're done crawling under your rock, though, if you've managed to bring her book with you, it's a real treat to learn exactly how similar we are to cuddly, furry mammals — and cold, slimy reptiles — after all. But Holmes disputes the idea that we're being somehow demoted. Rather, she argues, animals are being promoted to the level of wonder we people have previously reserved for ourselves. (It's not just animals, either — Holmes is presently working on an article about the personality of bacteria.)

It turns out that's the only way we've managed to survive — and it may be the only way anything survives. "Every living thing contends with an unstable environment," the energetic, affable Holmes says over coffee. "The world is too chaotic for one personality type to be adequate for every situation, every challenge."

As a result, you're in luck: "for the most obnoxious person you can think of, there is a role in this world," she says cheerfully. For Holmes, these discoveries, laid out in her clear, smooth, amusingly self-aware prose, are "liberating," because they give us more to appreciate about the world as a whole. "We love what we love and there's no arguing it," she says, noting that no matter who we love, we have to get along with the wider group to stay alive in a world of threats, limited resources, and changing surroundings.

And at the end of the day, what we really have to do is behave as if personality is just like the color of our eyes, hair, or skin — something we're each born with, that we didn't choose and can't really change. So we're better off quitting sniping, and just getting along.

Hannah Holmes | reads from Quirk | February 23 @ 7 pm | Nonesuch Books, 50 Market St, South Portland | February 26 @ 2 pm | Bull Moose, 456 Payne Rd, Scarborough | March 2 @ noon | Portland Public Library, 5 Monument Square, Portland | March 8 @ 7 pm | RiverRun Bookstore, 20 Congress St, Portsmouth NH | March 10 @ 7 pm | Longfellow Books, Monument Way, Portland |

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Gubernatorial scorecard: LePage’s numbers

Published in the Portland Phoenix

This week, we introduce a regular feature, Gubernatorial Scorecard. We'll evaluate Governor Paul LePage's recent moves. We'll score him from 1 to 10 on his political savvy, and on whether what he's trying to do is good policy, and keep a running total. This first marking period, LePage got 43 out of 100 possible points. For a minority governor who garnered only 38 percent of the vote, that might not be too bad.

RACE RELATIONS | LePage has rhetorically run roughshod over the state's minuscule but vocal population of African Americans — it will be a long time before anyone forgets his "kiss my butt" moment with the NAACP.
POLITICS • Making enemies unnecessarily | 3/10 POLICY • Anti-equality | 1/10

BUSINESS RELATIONS | LePage has made no secret of the fact that he's going to be a pro-business, pro-industry governor. That includes courting wealthy out-of-state interests (many of which bankrolled his election campaign). He has promoted business-centric industry insiders to every cabinet post yet announced, and proposed environmental-protection rollbacks that please the chemical industry.
POLITICS • Doing exactly what he said he would | 4/10 POLICY • A scorched-earth job-creation effort | 4/10

MEDIA RELATIONS | LePage made a joke out of a claim he doesn't read newspapers. He has previously said he doesn't care about editorials.
POLITICS • Good play to his base, but overlooks that supporters too can use the media | 7/10 POLICY • Palin-like wilful ignorance is silly | 1/10

FEDERAL RELATIONS | For a guy who said he would tell President Obama to "go to hell," he's certainly asking for a lot of federal money, including disaster-relief funding that could give four Maine counties more than $1 million in federal cash to recover from December flooding.
POLITICS • Mixed message: Sensible people will applaud but rabid Tea Partiers might be disappointed | 7/10 POLICY • More help cleaning up rural Maine is always welcome | 10/10

EMPLOYEE RELATIONS | LePage has complained that some people he approached with offers of government positions declined because the pay cuts to move from the private to the public sector would have been too steep.
POLITICS • Not getting who you need could have consequences down the road | 3/10 POLICY • A pre-emptive defense that the best people won't serve? | 3/10

Running total | Politics 24/50 | Policy 19/50

Press releases: Talk time

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The state's largest newspaper company is about to negotiate its contract with its employees. With workers seeking a share of the company's newfound profitability, and owner Richard Connor striving mightily to stay in the black, this could go very smoothly, or be a bloody, destructive battle — with the quality of information available to Mainers hanging in the balance.

Let's start with the basics. When Connor bought the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, Kennebec Journal, and Central Maine Morning Sentinel in 2009, he did so with the help of the local chapter of the Newspaper Guild (part of the Communications Workers of America union).

To make the sale work, Connor not only laid off 100 people (a quarter of the company's unionized workers), but gave those who remained a 10-percent pay cut (under an agreement expiring June 30) and terminated company contributions to retirement funds. In exchange, the workers created an Employee Stock Ownership Plan, under which collectively the employees would own 15 percent of the company's value, in accounts that can be tapped for income upon retirement.

With the 15-percent stake, the papers' employees are the largest shareholder in Maine, according to Tom Bell, president of the local guild chapter and a staff writer at the Press Herald. (Larger shares of the company, he says, are held out-of-state by investors affiliated with the Texas-based HM Capital investment firm.)

Since taking over, Connor has announced that all three papers are profitable. Bell says the employees want to see some of the profits of the streamlined company.

"Our members' expectations are pretty high," Bell says. "We make 10 percent less . . . and our health-care costs are higher." (The company still pays 80 percent of employees' premiums, but co-pays and deductibles have increased, Bell says.)

In case there's any doubt, he clarifies: "The papers' finances have stabilized, and we'll be looking for raises" to make up the lost cost-of-living ground.

It's an unclear proposition, even in a company that looks stronger on paper than it was two years ago. Connor has sold off significant real-estate holdings (including the landmark building in Portland), but the proceeds have largely gone to pay down debt incurred in buying the papers. It's unclear how much of the company's profitability is due to an increase in revenue, as opposed to cost-cutting measures. That may mean that despite the lower debt load, there is no more operating cash than there has been.

Connor's not talking — he didn't return multiple requests for an interview for this piece, and Bell says he "had expected by now to have met with the company," but neither the union nor the company has yet asked the other to come to the table for a discussion.

• For those enjoying the spectacle that Governor Paul LePage and the Republican leadership in the State House have been creating, an excellent resource has been MAINEBIZ, the state's twice-monthly business newspaper. Most of its material, whether online, in print, or e-mailed to readers, has been culled from other media (with links and attribution). And that has its own usefulness. But when doing its own reporting, the publication has the sterling reputation and strong business-community connections to allow it to ferret out what really is — and isn't — affecting Maine businesses' efforts at job-creation. Since the LePage inauguration, Mainebiz has put out only two print editions, so a lot remains to be seen. But if the paper can separate itself from the business community enough to clearly discern what is partisan rhetoric claiming to be pro-business, and what is really something that would help Maine businesses and residents, Mainebiz will be a must-read.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Music Seen: Marie Moreshead + Ellen Tipper at Blue, January 28

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The dual CD-release party for Ellen Tipper's The Juggler and Marie Moreshead's self-titled full-length album was a stripped-down affair, which was a relief because Blue was packed to the gills.

Tipper opened with her keyboard folk, playing several songs based on her experiences spending time in other countries (Vietnam and England among them). She proved a mellow mood-setter for Moreshead's soulful guitar-based ballads.

The pair of duets they sang — one from each's album — showed the stylistic contrast between the two. When backing Tipper's song, Moreshead seemed to handle the literal story-telling lyrics awkwardly, as if missing the metaphors that season her work so richly. When playing Moreshead, Tipper's fingers flowed more smoothly than when her keyboard was center stage.

Despite a few technical problems (ably handled by semi-official roadie Pat and honorary roadie Drew), Moreshead's performance was strong and smooth, and well received by the standing-room-only house. (Her first show at Blue, a few years back, was in front of her mother and just one other person, Moreshead announced.)

Her words are often happy, but then laid over spare, sad melodies. In some ways it's an inversion of the work of 10,000 Maniacs, which told horrific stories in catchy riffs. And the deep, twangy edge in Moreshead's vocals also evokes Natalie Merchant (with perhaps a sprinkling of Erin McKeown). But whether set up that way or aligned on a single emotional axis, as in "Romans" and the brand-new "Secrets of the Bluebird," her songs really shone.