Elections and escalating violence in Ukraine, my latest at LobeLog

My newest looks at the recent Ukrainian presidential election, which saw the legacies of the failed, corrupt, ineffective, neoliberal Yushchenko and Yanukovych regimes swept aside and replaced by…a neoliberal candy billionaire who served in both the Yushchenko and Yanukovych cabinets. Now that’s Change You Can Believe In, and the rapidly escalating violence in the eastern part of the country is sure to help President-Elect Poroshenko hit the ground running, as it were.

With a reported 55% voter turnout, Poroshenko was the overwhelming victor, taking 54% of the vote, compared to the 13% received by former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Turnout was depressed especially in the eastern part of the country where pro-Russia militias and their supporters boycotted the vote and the continued unrest forced the closure of as much as 75% of the region’s polling places. The results were a blow to far-right parties Svoboda and Right Sector, the candidates of which each received only around 1% of the vote a piece. But another far-right candidate, Oleh Lyashko, finished in third place with just over 8% of the vote.

At the same time that Poroshenko was celebrating his victory, violence in the Donbas city of Donetsk moved the country closer to civil war. A group of pro-Russian separatists from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic reportedly took control of part of the city’s airport, prompting an assault by Ukrainian security forces that reclaimed the airport and may have killed as many as 35 separatists and 40 people overall. This was the most violent clash in the crisis since May 2, when more than 40 people were killed in Odessa after a pro-Ukrainian mob forced a crowd of pro-Russian protesters into a government building and set it on fire. Today separatists also reportedly shot down a Ukrainian military helicopter near the city of Slovyansk, killing 14 people, including a high-ranking general in the Ukrainian National Guard.

The Fall of Constantinople, 561 years ago today

I like to write (and read, for that matter) “this day in history” kinds of things, but I’m extraordinarily bad about actually checking to see if anything interesting happened on any given day. I know that doesn’t make any sense, but it is only slightly less silly than commemorating the 561st anniversary of something, which is pretty silly in its own right. But, you blog in the year you’re in, not the year you might want or wish it to be, so here we are, 561 years since the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans and the end of the Roman Empire, unless you count the Holy Roman Empire, and who really does that? I’m not going to write a full account of the campaign and the fall of the city–people have written entire books on that particular subject. But there are a few interesting tidbits about the day worth mentioning. Continue reading

Egypt’s neverending election, continued

A member of Egypt’s election committee released the committee’s turnout figures for the first two days of Egypt’s two three day presidential election, and they’re better than earlier estimates but still not good:

Tareq al-Shibl, a member of the election committee, was quoted by al Ahram, a state-run newspaper, as saying that more than 21 million people voted, or nearly 39 percent of an electorate of 54 million.

That would be less than the 40 million votes, or 80 percent of the electorate, that Sisi had called for last week.

Not only is turnout less than the 80% turnout Sisi wanted, it’s in real danger, pending how things went/are going today (still 3 minutes to get to the polls!), of being lower than the 52% who turned out in the second round of the 2012 election that voted the deposed Mohammed Morsi into the office.

Luckily, Egyptian election officials have unveiled the official excuse for the low turnout: it’s too hot. That must explain it, since the 2012 second round took place in the much more reasonable climate of, um, mid-June.

Egypt: when low voter turnout is probably OK

Tomorrow, Egyptians will go to the polls on day three of their two-day presidential election, because in the Glorious Sisi Era, the numbers 2 and 3 are interchangeable. The coronation election of President-for-life Sisi was expected to right Egypt’s ship of state after the troubles of the past three years or so, setting Egypt back on the path it was on before everybody got all crazy and started demanding that the government take steps toward democracy. Make no mistake, this free and fair exercise in popular sovereignty was inevitably going to lead to the election of the recently retired Field Marshal, who shored up his support in advance of the campaign through such tried and true democratic techniques as outlawing the opposition and also shooting the opposition. As it turns out though, President Sisi isn’t exactly being swept into office on a tidal wave of popular sentiment.

The reason why Egyptian authorities have extended voting through tomorrow, when it was supposed to end today, is because, go figure, nobody decided to show up to vote for the military strongman over his patsy opponent: Continue reading

Michael Kinsley, and other things that are incompatible with the term “liberal”

I’m always a little surprised to read about something Michael Kinsley wrote, in a “oh, yeah, that guy” kind of way. When I was a kid I remember Kinsley as being the archetype of the public liberal, especially since he was on Crossfire (I was a weird kid, OK?), but I couldn’t tell you the last time I thought, “hey, I wonder what Michael Kinsley has to say about this?”

Anyway, I gather Kinsley is still calling himself a “liberal” these days, but he’s got some funny ways of showing it. Take his review of Glenn Greenwald’s new book, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, in which Kinsley seems less interested in reviewing the book than in unburdening himself of all his latent anger at Greenwald. Kinsley simply doesn’t care for this so-called “journalism” that reveals government secrets even without getting permission from the government, you see, and he rejects the idea that the journalist can be trusted not to let his or her reporting cross the line into irresponsibility. He also sounds like he’d be all in favor of locking Greenwald (or someone else in his situation) in prison on the crime of reporting a story without government permission. This piece by Eric Wemple and this one by Ted Rall do a pretty nice job of taking Kinsley’s fundamentally anti-journalist, illiberal position (an odd place for a supposed-liberal supposed-journalist to position himself) apart. Greenwald has written a response as well, if you’re so inclined. All I want to comment on is the final paragraph, in the context of Kinsley’s self-professed “liberalism”:

As the news media struggles to expose government secrets and the government struggles to keep them secret, there is no invisible hand to assure that the right balance is struck. So what do we do about leaks of government information? Lock up the perpetrators or give them the Pulitzer Prize? (The Pulitzer people chose the second option.) This is not a straightforward or easy question.

It’s not? Journalists get to report on stuff whether the government likes it or not, and we don’t put them in prison for it. We expect the journalist to use his or her judgment about what and how much to report, especially when sensitive national security issues are in play (and reasonable people can make up their own minds about Greenwald’s judgment), but unless they’re actually committing espionage then they don’t go to the slammer. For Pete’s sake, Geraldo Rivera went on TV and reported on American troop movements and positions in the middle of a shooting war and the worst he got was expelled from a place where he was at constant risk of being killed. If it’s not an easy question, I don’t see it being a particularly hard one, either.

But I can’t see how we can have a policy that authorizes newspapers and reporters to chase down and publish any national security leaks they can find. This isn’t Easter and these are not eggs.

I wonder if Kinsley, who’s never impressed me as a deeply reflective thinker, has considered this point from the other direction. Can we have a policy that gives the government final approval on which news stories are allowed to be reported and which are forbidden? Who gets to decide what information falls under Kinsley’s “national security” protection? The government? This isn’t Turkmenistan. I mean, is it? Would Kinsley prefer that it were?

Not that Turkmenistan isn’t a wonderful place, mind you (still waiting for that check, guys).

Bottom line: you can’t call yourself a “liberal” and then advocate the imprisonment of journalists who report news that hasn’t been approved by the government.

The search for an organic nuclear waste disposal method continues

Nuclear waste drums are exploding in New Mexico because somebody decided to switch Los Alamos’s brand of kitty litter:

In February, a 55-gallon drum of radioactive waste burst open inside America’s only nuclear dump, in New Mexico.

Now investigators believe the cause may have been a pet store purchase gone bad.

“It was the wrong kitty litter,” says James Conca, a geochemist in Richland, Wash., who has spent decades in the nuclear waste business.

Cat litter has been used for years to dispose of nuclear waste. Dump it into a drum of sludge and it will stabilize volatile radioactive chemicals. The litter prevents it from reacting with the environment.

And this is what contractors at were doing as they packed Cold War-era waste for shipment to the dump. But at some point, they decided to make a switch, from clay to organic.

“Now that might sound nice, you’re trying to be green and all that, but the organic kitty litters are organic,” says Conca. Organic litter is made of plant material, which is full of chemical compounds that can react with the nuclear waste.

Now, I don’t know about you, but if I can’t find my nuclear waste disposal materials at Whole Foods, I’m just not interested in disposing of my nuclear waste, sorry. Though I am starting to wonder what’s in cat urine.

Anyway, it turns out there are probably hundreds of drums of nuclear waste buried under New Mexico with the wrong kind of kitty litter, but don’t worry because those drums are enclosed in other, larger containers for safety. And those larger containers are totally safe; they’re the latest in organic containment, and instead of metal they’re made of a biodegradable plant-based polymer.* They’ll definitely hold up.

* As far as I know I just made that part up