Come Back to Egypt

As Egypt observed the one-year anniversary of its revolution, one inventory item  weighed heavily: Egypt’s tourism rates dropped by 28.5 percent in January, the country’s tourism officials told Al-Masry Al-Youm/Egypt Independent on Friday. According to the same source, the decline in Egypt’s second largest industry began during the first week of the January 25th uprising, when 1 million tourists fled the country—at an estimated loss of $1 billion.

Since then, tourism authorities and industry have worked to reverse the trend with creative campaigns. Inspired by awakened sentiments of patriotism, concerned Egyptians turned to Facebook and called on fellow citizens to sponsor and boost local tourism. And attempts have also been made to use the revolution as a tourist attraction.

In “Sightseeing During the Egyptian Revolution” travel writer David McKay Wilson chronicles his September 2011 tour of Egypt’s classic routes. Squired by Academic Travel Abroad, an agency specializing in cultural travel, Wilson and journalist friends dined on the Nile at the invitation of the Egypt Tourist Authority. The official host told Wilson’s group that tourist visits were down by 46 percent since the January uprising. In the wake of an attack on Israeli’s Cairo embassy on September 10, the official was questioned about matters of safety: “How can I say that it’s safe when something like that happens?” he questioned back.

However, as Wilson also noted, the shortage of visitors improves the chance of securing free escorts by armed tourism police—as offered to his group—and he is reassuring about his own sense of safety throughout the trip, from the streets of Giza after dark, to the crowded streets of downtown Cairo.

Giza at dusk.

Still, the threat of anarchy is a present and discussed danger, and the Egyptian government has acknowledged the impact of recurrent outbreaks of violence on tourism rates. Other concurrent factors haven’t helped: the NGO crisis, growing instability in the region—Syria, Iran-Israel tensions—as well as changes in relations with Mubarak’s old friends—Saudi Arabia, Israel. In fact, the decline in tourism rates originated primarily from Israel, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kuwait. Topping the toll on an industry that employs over 2.5 million people (1-in-8 Egyptians workers), the climate of instability also promotes the exodus of capital from the country and slows the flow of foreign currency to the nation’s treasury.

The concerns of tourism authorities and industry are echoed by Egypt’s citizens. Shortly after Wilson’s sightseeing tour, a poll by the Charney Research for the International Peace Institute asked Egyptians whether they saw necessity or disruption in continued protests, “’ at time when Egypt needs stability and economic recovery”; 53 percent to 35 percent of respondents wanted to focus on economic recovery.

With an estimated 15 million Egyptians depending on the tourism sector, it is no surprise that many begin to weigh the cost of the revolution. “For the Egyptian tourism industry, freedom’s just another word for no one’s here to sight see,” wrote Wilson. Or, as a camel-tour businessman from Iza told the The New York Times, “The revolution was beautiful, but no one imagined the consequences.” The sharp decline of visitors and his loss of income had forced him to sell three-of-five animals to the butcher, and his horse buggies sat idling by, for days at a time.

While other sources of income held steady—Suez Canal, gas and oil, remittances from Egyptians working abroad—according to the same NYT article, and the Central Bank, tourism went from a record 15 million visitors in 2010 to a 42 percent drop and loss of $3 billion through September of 2011. And though authorities have also attempted to tap the allure of “sightseeing during the revolution,” Amr Elezabi, the chairman of the Egyptian Tourism Authority, told the New York Times, “You cannot sell Egypt throughTahrir Square.” At any rate,Tahrir Square alone could not make up for such staggering losses, and the ongoing instability and potential for violence detours the way to more marketable and profitable sites.

Revolutions, “they are processes, not events,” as Wael Ghonim, another voice of the Egypt’s awakening, told NPR earlier this year. And elections don’t settle differences and tensions–not in emerging democracies or established ones. As revolutionary dust begins to settle, even the right price of freedom is subject to debate, as expressed by these statements quoted in the NYT article, “Euphoria Turns to Discontent as Egypt’s Revolution Stalls”: “We are ready to live on dates and water for our freedom!” said a young protester. “If you want water and dates, fine, eat that yourself,” replied a business man. “Most of those who took part in the revolution were satisfied with the fall of Mubarak,” said a Coptic female pediatrician. The “wavering of public opinion” in the wake of the revolution is well documented in a February 2011 report by the International Crisis Group, and so is the evidence that such diverging sentiments will live on.

Where tourism is concerned, the ruling Freedom and Justice Party has sought to quell public and industry fears (Egypt Independent). Meeting with the Union for Tourism in January, party leader Mohamed Morsy said that the FJC’s vision for developing the sector would require security, and political and economic support. As reassurance, he named God-given advantages that make the country an inevitable tourist destination: history, culture, weather, etc. But he also stressed that tourism is one of three main areas of concern, along with politics and the economy, and that Islamic law would inform all legislation, namely the writing of the nation’s constitution. As the article points out, secular Egypt fears that the infusion of Sharia in the constitution will impact minorities and impose religion-based changes to economic activities like tourism. “Tourism does not mean nudity and drunkenness. We Egyptians are the greatest religious people, and we don’t need that. We’ll prohibit alcohol,” a Muslim Brotherhood leader said at a December rally.

While the constitution is being drafted, in February the Ministry of Tourism announced a series of new incentives aimed at recovering 12-13 million visitors this year, and an estimated $11 billion in revenues (Egypt Independent, via Reuters). The campaign is heavily targeted at Emirati visitors and hopes to attract 1,500,000 tourists from the Gulf region. On the subject of safety, Samy Mahmoud, a ministry official said that 75 percent of tourist arrivals in Egypt head for sites outside Cairo—S-harm el-Sheikh, Hurghada and Marsa Alam—which he termed “very safe.” “By the end of June we’ll have a president and a strong government. This will boost tourism inEgypt,” Mahmoud added.

Hurghada Coral Reef.

But not all potential for violence and safety issues are, or can be, clearly tied to the revolution: a woman gunned down in rich Cairo neighborhood, a wave of car-jackings, soccer game turned deadly, armed gangs, etc.  And so it is that in the second half of February there was an intense police campaign to address the country’s greatest security challenges: escaped prisoners (during the ousting of Mubarak), former convicts and unregistered criminals. According to the Interior Ministry, the escalation of security forces resulted in a 60 percent improvement, and increased police presence will continue in the short-term.

With that reassuring news, we return to sightseeing with Mr. Wilson:

The Egyptian tourism destinations, meanwhile, were refreshingly uncrowded, as we traveled to the tombs at Saqqara, the Great Pyramid in Giza, and to Al-Azhar Park out by the university, where lovers strolled hand-in-hand as the mournful call to prayer echoed from nearby mosques. Here there wasn’t a hint of danger. Security was everywhere…

Al Azhar Park


Tunisia’s Media: Under Attack and Fighting Back

The Friends of Syria Conference in Tunis turned many eyes to Tunisia in recent days, but less attention has been paid to the intense internal strife and incidents of violence that dominated the months of January and February.

National identity debates, religious divisions, and tension between the religious and the secular appear to drive much of the unrest that has followed the first anniversary of the Jasmine Revolution. Today I will related events pertaining to one area of great concern: freedom of expression and the media.

January 23: Attacks on Journalists
–Journalists, activists and intellectuals have been the target of verbal and physical attacks since the fall of Ben Ali’s regime, but recent months registered an escalation of this violence. On 23, journalist Zied Krichen, and university professor Hamadi Redissi–along with lawyers and other protesters–joined the growing list of victims; they were publicly assaulted outside the court where TV executive Nabil Karoui was on trial accused of blasphemy and disturbing public order.

Krichen and Redissi filed a complaint against their attackers, a group of Salafists who rallied at the court to protest Karoui’s choice to air Persepolis; the French-Iranian film’s depiction of God as an old bearded man is seen as blasphemous by religious extremists.

“If the physical safety of journalists is jeopardized, we cannot start talking about freedom of the press,” Krichen said. Redissi, who suffered a violent beating, expressed fears that the secular revolution might be hijacked by a religious one. Sofiene Ben Hamida, another journalist victimized by an earlier assault, accused the ruling party, Ennahda, of using religious extremists as weapon to terrorize journalists and activistsbased on the government’s refusal to put an end to the violence.

But according to Tunisia Live there’s more to these attacks than religious radicalization, and they point to several beatings of journalists by police agents–including those of two female journalists covering a protest of university professors.

In response to the events outside the court, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali addressed the Constituent Assembly to condemn the assaults and vowed to pursue offenders. The Ennahda party issued a similar statement, calling for dialogue between diverging ideologies, but also reiterated that accusations against party members lacked proof and government action would only deepen the divide.

The Tunisian League of Human Rights condemned the violence and promised to pressure the government to investigate.

February 1: Media Strike
—Tunisian newspapers declared a nation-wide media strike and printed a banner (image below) in support of “independence of the press, freedom of expression and justice for all those who trample on the rights of journalists and communicators.”

As expressed by Arbi Chouikha–renowned journalist,  professor at the Institute of Press and Information Sciences (IPSI) and  member of the National Committee of Information and Communication Reform, (INRIC)–“Tunisian journalists realized that freedom of press is jeopardized in Tunisia and felt the necessity to come together and unify their efforts.” The strike had the backing of several major media unions, and a committee of union leaders met with Mustapha Ben Jaafar, president of the Constituent Assembly, now drafting Tunisia’s new constitution. Their demands included constitutional guarantees on freedom of expression, the enforcement of the Press Code and the creation of the High Independent Authority of Audiovisual Communication (HAICA), an independent body to protect journalists and penalize those who violate their rights.

February 13: The Journalism Foundation Launches in Tunisia—On the upside, The Journalism Foundation launched the Tunisian project with a series of workshops and a closing lecture by The Independent’s Middle East correspondent, Robert Frisk. Present at the lecture was Evgeny Lebedev, Chairman of the Trustees of the foundation and proprietor of The Independent and The Evening Standard. He earlier met with Tunisia’s Prime Minister to discuss the role of free media in a democratic society.

February 15: Censorship and Arrests
—Following the publication of a partly-nude photograph, the publisher and two editors of the post-revolution Attounissia newspaper were arrested on charges of immoral publication and disrupting public order. While charges were dropped against the editors, publisher Nassridine Ben Said remained detained and on hunger strike until February 23. His trial is schedule for March 8.

“The Invisible Arab”: As Not Seen on TV

“They took everyone by surprise, including themselves,” reads the introduction to “The Invisible Arab: The Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolution,” an engaging new book by Marwan Bishara, Senior Political Analyst for Al Jazeera English. In a brisk, thoroughly reported narrative, Mr. Bishara traces decades of the social and political evolution of the nameless, invisible Arabs who dreamed and then willed the revolutions we have come to know as the Arab Spring. Acknowledging the vulnerabilities which still threaten the evolution of these movements, the writer yet declares them an irreversible break with the past.

Describing his book as an essay, Mr. Bishara—who is also the host of Al Jazeera’s “Empire,” a program on global powers and their interests—delivers a sweeping, provocative and at times entertaining tale, revolution jokes and all.

While recognizing the catapulting role of youth–60 percent of the region’s population—and their networking tools in bringing the people to the public square and toppling some of the world’s most notorious dictators in a matter of weeks, Mr. Bishara contends this is only the camera-ready part of the revolutions’ narrative.

Rising labor forces, women activists, community organizers—football teams!—and emerging Arab news networks are generously credited for their contributions to the Arab Awakening. At the same time, he scathingly exposes those who propped up, defended or cut deals with deceitful and influence-peddling rulers, allowing them to buy time with empty promises, slogans and peripheral reforms. Islamic groups—the big winners of the revolution–are also faulted for their lack of commitment to democratic principles.

International, regional and nationalistic interests and allegiances that justified and empowered repressive regimes across the birthplace of human civilization are wholly deconstructed. From Morocco to Iran, from Somalia to Turkey—skipping only the monarchy of Qatar—Mr. Bishara distills the complexity of the region into a succinct yet meaningful and insightful chronicle.

Western readers are in for an awakening of their own, as Mr. Bishara lays bare the stereotypes and misconceptions about Arabs—as people–which have kept them conveniently invisible to the world, feeding doubts about their appetite and capacity for democracy. He highlights the divide between the region and the West that he sees as amplified by Western media, and complicated by 9/11. Mr. Bishara does not hold back feelings, using strong, not-always-journalistic language to describe Western leaders, policies and world views. But for the willing reader, “The Invisible Arab” is a mind-stretching journey halfway across a cultural divide.

American readers are in for many a humbling moment throughout the book, particularly in a section titled “Manufacturing a Modern Day ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’” Former National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is quoted crediting the Bush administration’s “freedom agenda” with a role in the democratization of the Middle East. Cited in an interview with Fox News, former Vice President Dick Cheney makes a direct connection between the invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring. Needless to say, Mr. Bishara does not fail to contrast these claims with a 2004 visit to the Bush White House by Tunisian dictator, Ben Ali, and President Obama’s visit with Hosni Mubarak, six months before the Egyptian uprising.

As the Arab revolution continues to evolve and unfold–and the West gasps at the electoral wins of Islamist parties—Mr. Bishara debates the way forward, juxtaposing what he terms the “two faces of the new pan-Islamic revival”: the Turkish model of “cooperation and coordination” between the secular and the religious (favored by the revolutionaries) versus the Iranian theocratic framework where, elected parliament and president notwithstanding, all yield to the Supreme Leader.

“Fasten Your Seat Belts,” is the title of a section on the colossal difficulties ahead. Mr. Bishara’s closing thoughts include a warning about “victims becoming victimizers”; a call to Arab intellectuals to transform “the social and political revolutions into a cultural revolution that affects all aspects of Arab life”; and a strong defense of “a civic constitution that enshrines human values” and “protects the rights of secular and religious alike.”

Released on February 1 by Nation Books, “The Invisible Arab” is an insightful and absorbing read for inquiring minds, and a valuable tool for students of the Middle East. As globally resonant events continue to unfold in the region, a sequel is clearly in order.

Egypt: The Revolution’s Sense of Humor

In reading about the heroes of the Egyptian revolution this past week, I came across the word “fatalist” several times, in the writing of Western commentators [example]. I was surprised by the qualifier and wish to offer some counter-evidence with an example of Egyptian sense of humor. I am in the process of reading “THE INVISIBLE ARAB: The Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolution,” by Marwan Bishara, Al Jazeera English Senior Political Director, published by Nation Books, 2012 (I will review it shortly). In it Mr. Bishara shares some revolution jokes passed around Tahrir Square. Here’s a short sample:

The interior minister asks Hosni Mubarak to write a farewell letter to the Egyptian people. Mubarak replies: “Why? Where are they going?”

Never far from Tahrir Square?

Tahrir Square: Whose Revolution?

Anyone rooting for Egyptians and the progress of their revolution was up against a nerve-racking week of news and analysis surrounding the one-year anniversary of the first coordinated protests at Tahrir Square. Tension and uncertainty seemed to temper all: foreign policy experts sounded alarmed at the sweeping electoral victories of Islamist parties and possible implications for the US and Israel; Egypt’s brand-new parliament convening for the first time was off to a raucous and over-heated start; protest-weary Egyptians were calling for the end of all demonstrations to give the democratic process a chance; activists threatened to occupy Tahrir until the military lets go of its grip on power; and the crowds who returned to the Square to ratify the country’s break with the past and remember their fallen heroes scuffled [Associated Press reported] over the appropriateness of events, the role of the military, and the timeline of the next big test: the drafting of the constitution. (Arrived in Cairo on the night of January 24, Mara Revkin, assistant director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and editor of Egypt Source, has been reporting fromTahrir Square and keeping a detailed and engaging timeline of events and developments.

[Published on Jan 25, 2012 by AssociatedPress]

A week earlier, Wael Ghonim, the young Internet activist and former Google executive who lead the Facebook mobilization of the January 25th protests—also the author of a newly released memoir, “Revolution 2.0”—sat down for an interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep jump-started the discussion with this question: “What do you think has gone wrong?”

There’s a whole other book waiting to be written on the assumptions behind the question, but Ghonim’s measured answer echoes the under-appreciated political fortitude of a people who—contrary to Western perceptions—never quite capitulated to its brutal regime. “So, actually I think that there are a lot of achievements,” Mr. Ghonim said, naming the evidence: free elections, massive voter turnout and a democratically elected parliament.  “There are also many challenges,” he added, “which is expected, because revolutions, they are processes, not events, and it will take time.”

Whether attempting to reflect American public perceptions, or the impatience for the process of change that trammels our own, older democracy, Inskeep insisted:  “Although, haven’t more secular or liberal forces in Egypt lost ground in the last several months compared to where they seemed to be at the beginning of this revolution?” Young Ghonim was unfazed:  “I really think that this doesn’t matter. What matters is that there is democracy, and that people are empowered to make their own choices.”  He argued that, this time around, Egyptians cast their votes on the candidates’ reputation; next, they would vote on the candidates’ performance. Mr. Inskeep: “[…] they would lose credibility. Is that what you’re saying?” Wrong. Ghonim is not waiting on the sieve of credibility: “I don’t want anybody to lose credibility. I want all the Egyptians to unite and fix their own issues, because the issues are much bigger than a party or an ideology to solve.”  (Barely, barely resisting the parallels and the lessons to our own politics.)

Idealism? Wisdom? Much-needed hope? With two thirds of the population under 30-years of age, and an unemployment rate of thirty-five percent among the same age group, growing economic distress is, unfortunately, the safest prediction to be made about Egypt’s near future, and its youth will need all the hope they can muster. But these young millions—the sons and daughters of Arabs who dreamed and willed the revolution for decades—took dictators and the world by surprise, and, inEgypt, they even took the established and organized opposition by surprise! (And they were none too-quick to join them on the Square.)

In an upcoming post, I will be reviewing, “The Invisible Arab: The Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolution,” by Marwan BisharaAl Jazeera English senior political analyst, published by Nation Books (February 1, 2012). In it, Bishara traces decades of the social and political seeds planted by “invisible” Arabs who never wearied of the long process of change.

A note to Arab readers:
This and future posts on the evolution of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions are part of a novel experiment: a blogged master’s thesis. I am particularly interested in hearing from Arab women, youth, artists and labor activists. I welcome your comments and would love to hear your story, here or on Facebook. Invite me to follow you on Twitter @AmadorSq.

America’s Digital Divide, 30 Years From Now

As more aspects of our lives move online and grow dependent on fast-speed Internet, new data on broadband access in the U.S. show a widening gap that leaves behind the poor, rural areas, and minorities. While the majority of Americans with high-speed Internet gain easier and faster access to an information-based world, an equally significant number of people stand to miss out or lag behind on education, job and business opportunities, healthcare services, entertainment and culture—and grow more isolated.

Exploring the Digital Nation,” a recently released report by the Department of Commerce’s Economics and Statistics Administration and National Telecommunications and Information Administration, found a strong correlation between broadband adoption and income. While 7-out-of-10 households in the U.S. enjoyed broadband service in 2010, the rate dropped to 4-out-of-10 in households with annual incomes below $25,000. However, socio-economic factors alone do not account for the racial, ethnic and geographic lines of the digital divide. According to the report, only 65 percent of Black and 67 percent of Hispanic households had a computer; and only 55/57 respectively subscribed to broadband—compared with 72 percent of whites.

In “The New Digital Divide,” an essay published in The New York Times, author Susan Crawford, a former special assistant to President Obama for science, technology and innovation policy, divides the Internet into two marketplaces: “high-speed wired and second-class wireless”—superhighway versus “bike path,” as she puts it. Referring to the same report, Crawford notes that while 200 million Americans are wired at home, millions more remain offline, and are economically or geographically limited to phone-line connections or smartphone wireless—subject to carriers’ data caps and slow connection speeds.

The high-cost of wired infrastructure, its concentration in urban and suburban areas, and a lack of alternatives or competition in less populated areas, contributes to rising costs and increased adoption of wireless only. And so it is that, according to Crawford, the U.S. ranked 12th in broadband access among other developed countries (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development). Crawford credits other nations’ progress on regulatory policy that promotes competition and lower prices.

OECD Graphic

More importantly, when economic concerns continue to justify hardships for the most vulnerable and breaks for the wealthiest among us, Ms. Crawford makes a compelling economic case for high-speed information access:

The new digital divide raises important questions about social equity in an information-driven world. But it is also a matter of protecting our economic future. Thirty years from now, African-Americans and Latinos, who are at the greatest risk of being left behind in the Internet revolution, will be more than half of our work force. If we want to be competitive in the global economy, we need to make sure every American has truly high-speed wired access to the Internet for a reasonable cost.

Egypt’s Elections: Owning the Revolution

Egyptians young and old, educated or illiterate—and unprecedented numbers of women—were early to rise and quick to line outside polling stations to participate in the first free elections in 30 years, nine months after the ousting of Hosni Mubarak.

Women voters outside a polling station in Alexandria. Photo by Evan Hill/AlJazeera

News and analysis of Egypt’s elections have been largely about looming dangers and uncertainties facing the country, the violence and divisions of recent weeks, and the worries and skepticism of the International Community.

But for Egyptians, Tunisians, and anyone who has ever experienced life under a dictatorship, the site of people lining up to vote is cause for jubilation and the most reassuring sign that the revolution is working.

Some Egyptian activists chose to boycott the election, partly because they feel the same old guard is in charge of the process—“a circus,” one Egyptian blogger and activist called it (Al Jazeera). A complicated and staggered election system (Reuters), hundreds of parliamentary seats to fill, thousands of unknown candidates, and even the predictability of results (CFR), are all less than ideal circumstances. But Egyptian voters deserve their day of pride and jubilation. Considering voter turnout, and the remarkable engagement of youth and women voters, they also deserve to be hopeful and be trusted with their future.

The New Arab Revolt, an e-book published by the Council of Foreign Relations in May of this year, begins with a reference toPortugal’s 1974 “carnation revolution,” a bloodless military coup that ended 48 years of fascist ruling. I remember walking to the market after school that day in April and wondering about the cheers in the distance. Soldiers stood on armored cars circling the market, while vendors and shoppers clapped, cheered, and threw flowers. In those days, the country had but two state-run TV channels which aired only in the afternoon and evening. It was mostly word-of-mouth that spread news of the revolution, and with such limited means of speech, it’s hard to imagine how the people, instead of the military, could have overthrown the regime. Tumultuous years of political and social upheaval would follow, but the democratic process was nonetheless established.

Nearly a year ago, one young Tunisian man—Mohamed Bouazizi—could not have imagined the revolutions his tragic protest would spark across the Middle East(see this interactive timeline at The Guardian). The human cost of these movements must be present to individual countries and the International Community, as they choose their place in this new world order. But youth, their aspirations and demands, have been at heart and helm of these bold revolutions. Media and technology have played a powerful role in mobilizing protesters and exposing authoritarian rulers and regimes. Political consciousness and solidarity have given shape and strength to civil societies, making it increasingly difficult for recalcitrant establishments to go unchallenged.

And that’s enough to feel hopeful for Egyptians as they go to the polls.

[Note: This post appeared in the Huffington Post]

Teaching children to eat healthy is too costly for US Congress

Fighting childhood obesity–who could argue against it when 17% of American children, ages 2-19, are obese, and childhood obesity has nearly tripled in the last 30 years? (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) The US congress has argued and ruled against it! This mostly-male institution, made up of many fathers and grandparents, has decided that teaching healthier eating habits to America’s children is simply too expensive—never mind the long-term health care costs of childhood obesity—and besides, government shouldn’t be telling children what they can and cannot eat, GOP leaders defended.

Photograph leading Le Monde's article, "To American Congress tomato sauce on pizza is a vegetable"

Against the recommendation of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, the US Department of Agriculture—as well as Mission: Readiness, a group of retired generals who sees America’s steep trend in childhood obesity as a threat to national security–the House and Senate voted to loosen the standards on healthy foods being served in school cafeterias–by calling pizza a vegetable, a main ingredient being tomato paste! (Why not call soda and candy vegetables too, a main ingredient being sugar—produced from sugar cane, a vegetable!)

Whose recommendations did our government follow instead? Those of Big Food lobbying interests:

“This agreement […] recognizes the significant amounts of potassium, fiber and vitamins A and C provided by tomato paste, ensuring that students may continue to enjoy healthy meals such as pizza and pasta,” said Kraig Naasz, president of the American Frozen Food Institute.

Bloomberg News: Congress Pushes Back on Healthier School Lunches
Huffington Post: Pizza is a Vegetable? Congress Defies Logic, Betrays Our Children
Le Monde: Pour les élus américains, la sauce tomate des pizzas est un légume

UPDATE–November 28, 2011

The Washington Post: No, Congress did not declare pizza a vegetable

Congress passed a revised agriculture appropriations bill last week, essentially making it easier to count pizza sauce as a serving of vegetables. The move has drawn widespread outrage from consumer advocates and pundits, who see “pizza is a vegetable.” as outlandish.

There’s just one little misperception: Congress didn’t declare pizza to be a vegetable. And, from a strictly nutritional standpoint, there’s decent evidence that lawmakers didn’t exactly bungle this decision.

Let’s revisit the facts: Despite what one might expect from the headlines, if you scour the agriculture appropriations bill, referenced in numerous stories, you won’t find a single mention of the word “pizza,” or even “vegetable,” for that matter.

This is not a fight over pizza. It is, instead, a fight about tomato paste. Specifically, it’s a fight about how much of the product counts as one serving of vegetables.

[full article…]

Thank you, Andrew Revkin, Dot Earth/NYT, for pointing this out–a good example of how easy it is, for professionals and the amateurs relying on them, to “overplay” any news. But as Revkin, a blog veteran, also noted in an email exchange, “on the Web it’s very tough to get to bedrock, but the power of the web community lies in the reality that assertions and assumptions are all tested 24/7.”

Tumblr Leads Push to Stop Web Piracy Act

Tumblr users who logged in to their accounts today, were given the experience of a censored Internet. All images and text were blacked out, and this announcement appeared at the top of the page:

Filling out the form below with a phone number and zip code, and selecting, “Call My Representative,” would prompt an immediate call from Tumblr founder, David Karp. He encouraged users to stay on the phone to be connected to their US Congress Representative. “Be polite,” he urged, but tell your representative how important it is to keep “an open and uncensored Internet.”

As Karp explained, the US congress held a hearing today on the proposed “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA). The bill has bipartisan and bicameral backing and is a seemingly well-intended piece of legislation: “to protect American intellectual property from counterfeiting and piracy.” However, SOPA would give broad new powers to copyright owners, other private entities and law enforcement officials to demand that Websites block access to copyright infringers, and to hold Web companies liable for pirated content.

You need only to Goolge “stop online piracy act” or “protect ip act” to get the nervous-to-angry pulse of the tech community on the subject. The Tumblr announcement links to a letter to the Judiciary Committee signed by AOL, eBay, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Mozilla, Twitter, Yahoo!, and the Zynga Game Network–yes, gamers, this could affect you as well! You can follow the debate at Twitter’s #SOPA. According to a Tweet by EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation),  “@Tumblr is generating 3.6 calls per second to Congress opposing #SOPA!”

US Congress:
 The House Hearing
Huffington Post: SOPA, Stop Online Piracy Act, Stirs Controversy
The Washington Post: Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) sparks backlash from Facebook, Google
The New York Times:  Stop the Great Firewall of America (opinion)
Reuters: Google Argues Against U.S. Online Piracy Bill
ars technica: Revised ‘Net censorship bill requires search engines to block sites, too
EFF: SOPA: Hollywood Finally Gets A Chance to Break the Internet


Sandusky, Cain: What’s a Parent to Say?

Parents of young people have a lot of explaining to do these days if their kids are exposed to the leading news headlines.  For the last two weeks, newscasts of sex-related allegations against Herman Cain and Penn State’s former football coach Jerry Sandusky have been prefaced by disclaimers of potentially offensive or inappropriate content. It is now two days in a row that 7:00 a.m. NBC’s Today Show opens with the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky scandal, immediately followed by the latest damage to Herman Cain’s campaign—which inevitably brings up the allegations of sexual harassment first released by Politico.

It’s hard to ignore the irony, or the sadness, of back-to-back reports of questionable sexual conduct involving two American leaders—a former Penn State football coach and educator; a business and religious leader and presidential candidate.  On the matter of guilt, many have differentiated between the eyes of the media, the public and the law, and rightfully so, but the old smoke-fire association has also been raised in these stories.

As the parent of a high-school senior, I often wish my child and his circle of friends took greater interest in what goes on around the country and the world. But for the last two weeks, I have found myself shielding my soon-to-be college student from the news out of Penn State. As is, conversations that pit the costs of college education against employment and other future prospects can leave parents gasping for success stories to inspire their kids. Penn State isn’t helping.