AOL's Purchase of HuffPost Could Be a Stroke of Genius -- or Another Horrible Blunder

By Acquiring the Wildly Successful Online News Portal for $315 Million, Can the Internet Company Once Known as America Online Overcome Its Reputation for Making Bad Business Decisions -- From Its Failure to Adapt to the Rise of Broadband, to Its Disastrous Merger With Time Warner?


(Posted 11:30 a.m. EST Tuesday, February 8, 2011)

NOTE TO READERS: Due to a computer crash, this week's column is being posted six hours later than normal. We apologize for the delay.


When the announcement hit the business-news wires Monday, it struck with the force of an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale.

The Huffington Post, a five-year-old Web site that began as a blog but grew into one of America's largest online news sites, has reached an agreement in principle to be acquired by the once-dominant Internet service provider-turned news portal AOL Inc. for a reported $315 million.

According to the announcement, posted Monday on both the HuffPost and AOL Web sites, Arianna Huffington, the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the HuffPost, has been named president and editor-in-chief of the enlarged company -- to be known as The Huffington Post Media Group -- which will include all HuffPost and AOL content, including Engadget, TechCrunch, Moviefone, MapQuest, Black Voices, PopEater, AOL Music, AOL Latino, AutoBlog, Patch, StyleList, and others.

In a blog posting on HuffPost explaining her reasons for the sale, Huffington dismissed concerns about the sale tarnishing HuffPost's liberal editorial reputation -- or the apolitical reputation of AOL's news operations.

"Far from changing our editorial approach, our culture, or our mission," she wrote, "this moment will be for HuffPost like stepping off a fast-moving train and onto a supersonic jet. We're still traveling toward the same destination, with the same people at the wheel, and with the same goals, but we're now going to get there much, much faster."

Many longtime HuffPost readers, however -- particularly those on the political left -- are likely to be highly skeptical. And from a business perspective, given AOL's checkered past, the deal has a 50-50 chance of being either a brilliantly successful move -- or another of AOL's horribly disastrous blunders.

Wall Street so far isn't impressed. AOL stock fell 3.4 percent Monday to $21.27 a share on news of the HuffPost purchase and as of 11:30 a.m. EST today (Tuesday) dropped another 2.784 percent to $20.60 a share.


AOL is a company that is saddled with one of the worst public reputations of any Internet-related firm in the country -- a reputation that stems from a series of decisions the company has made over the past decade for which it was not fully prepared and for which it has never fully recovered -- to the point that AOL today is a company seeking an entirely new identity.

And AOL's poor reputation could potentially put HuffPost at serious risk of both editorial and commercial disaster, Huffington's new position as president and editor-and-chief of the expanded company notwithstanding.

AOL -- formerly known as America Online -- was founded in 1983 as Quantum Computer Services (renamed America Online in 1991) and quickly became the most dominant Internet service provider (ISP) in the United States. At its peak in the late 1990s under CEO Steve Case, AOL had become the ISP of choice for millions of Americans who were unfamiliar with computers, eventually eclipsing its rivals, CompuServe and Prodigy with its now-iconic "You've Got Mail!" greeting and online games.

But over the years, AOL made a series of decisions that proved to be disastrous for the company. AOL initially charged its subscribers by the hour, but in 1996 switched to a flat monthly rate. While this proved to be wildly popular with AOL subscribers, it resulted in a massive overload of AOL's servers, resulting in thousands of subscribers cancewlling because they kept getting busy signals when they tried to log on. AOL soon became the butt of jokes, with its initials derisively referred to by disgruntled users as "Always Off-Line" or "A-O-Hell."

The situation got so bad that it prompted Case to appear in an AOL television commercial in which he told viewers that the company was "working day and night to fix the problem."

AOL, with its dial-up Internet service via telephone lines, failed to keep up with changing Internet technology such as DSL and high-speed broadband, which were much faster and could carry far more graphics-heavy data than dial-up -- costing the company even more subscribers.

To this day, AOL's largest source of revenue remains its increasingly obsolete dial-up Internet service and e-mail. The problem is, most of AOL's 5.2 million remaining Internet-service subscribers are people for whom high-speed broadband is either unavailable (particularly in rural areas) or unaffordable; have obsolete computers that cannot handle today's graphics-heavy Web pages and/or they cannot afford to replace them.


In 1999, the National Federation of the Blind filed a class-action lawsuit against AOL, accusing the company of violating Title III of the Americans With Disabilities Act for not making its proprietary software compatible with screen readers used by the blind to convert information appearing on computer screens into synthesized speech or a refreshable Braille display.

The NFB argued that AOL's extensive entertainment, sales and other services make it a "public accommodation" that is required under the ADA to to be accessible to people with disabilities.

AOL and the NFB reached an out-of-court settlement in 2000.


But of all of AOL's missteps, none proved to be more disastrous to the company than its ill-fated merger with media conglomerate Time Warner in 2000 -- a deal that former Time Warner chairman and CEO admitted in a rare interview with CNBC's "Squawk Box" a year ago was "the worst deal of the century" and the business network called a corporate "marriage from hell."

Levin acknowledged his failure to foresee the dot-com bubble that burst in 2002 when he and Case announced the merger of AOL and the parent company of Time magazine and CNN on January 10, 2000. "I was the CEO. I was in charge," he said. "I'm really very sorry about the pain and suffering and loss that was caused."

The merger wasn't actually a merger in the truest sense of two companies combining into one. In fact, it was an acquisition, with AOL buying Time Warner for a staggering $164 billion in AOL stock -- which, as it turned out, was grossly overvalued. After the dot-com bust, the value of the combined company's stock plunged by 90 percent, which cost thousands of Time Warner employees their jobs and wiperd out their retirement savings.

For his part, Case acknowledged that he and Levin spent too much time focusing on internal company politics -- "and, frankly, on Wall Street" -- and spent too little time on "innovating for customers, and seizing the day."

Time Warner finally unloaded AOL in December 2009. When stock in the newly-independent AOL began trading on the New York Stock Exchange, it was valued at only a fraction of what it was a decade earlier, at $2.8 billion, according to stock-market analysts.


AOL's current chairman and CEO, Tim Armstrong -- eager to shed the company's tarnished image -- has concentrated on transforming AOL into a diversified online media giant and that its acquisition of the HuffPost is a major step toward that transformation.

"The acquisition of The Huffington Post will create a next-generation American media company with global reach that combines content, community, and social experiences for consumers," said Armstrong. "Together, our companies will embrace the digital future and become a digital destination that delivers unmatched experiences for both consumers and advertisers."

As president and editor-in-chief of the enlarged company's editorial operations, Huffington, said Armstrong, "is a singularly passionate and dedicated champion of innovative journalistic engagement and a master of the art of using new media to illuminate, entertain and enhance the national conversation."

Left unclear is whether the enlarged company will continue to bear the AOL name, given Huffington was put in charged of of what has been dubbed The Huffington Post Media Group.

Also left unclear is whether the HuffPost, with its image as a left-leaning news site, will move to the center -- or whether AOL's news operations, seen until now as apolitical, will take a left turn.

Given the toxic history associated with the AOL name, a change of brand identity might not be so bad. Nonetheless, only time will tell whether AOL's acquisition of the HuffPost will be a stroke of genius or another horrible corporate blunder.

# # #

Copyright 2011, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.



Mubarak Vows He Won't Seek Re-Election, But Obama Calls For 'Peaceful Transition Now'

82-Year-Old Egyptian President, in TV Speech to Nation, Declares He Won't Run for a Sixth Term After 30 Years in Power, But Protesters Vow They Won't Give Up Until He Resigns -- and Obama Makes Clear That 'Orderly Transition' to New Government 'Must Begin Now'

(Posted 5:30 a.m. EST Wednesday, February 2, 2011)


Inter-Press Service

WASHINGTON -- Hours after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak vowed to stay in place until September's elections, the Obama administration sent its strongest signal yet that the aging autocrat and one-time staunch U.S. ally must relinquish his hold on power sooner rather than later.

"I believe that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful and it must begin now," President Obama declared at a White House press conference Tuesday night, following the eighth day of mass protests across Egypt.

"The process must include a broad spectrum of Egyptian voices and opposition parties," he said. "It should lead to elections that are free and fair. And it should result in a government that's not only grounded in democratic principles, but is also responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people."

"After his speech tonight, I spoke directly to President Mubarak," Obama said. "He recognizes that the status quo is not sustainable and that a change must take place."


However, the form and depth of that change remain uncertain. Washington is clearly concerned that Mubarak's pledge not to run for re-election –- the most important concession he offered to the hundreds of thousands of protesters who again took to the streets in Cairo and other cities Tuesday –- will prove too little too late for an increasingly restive public.

Officials here were telling reporters on background as it became known Tuesday afternoon that Mubarak had no intention of resigning that they were disappointed that he had not heeded increasingly strong -- if still gentle -- hints by the administration since last Friday that he should bow out now, or very soon.

"People are sending a clear message it is time for Mubarak to step aside," CNN quoted one unnamed official as saying just before the 82-year-old president's appearance.


Indeed, Washington had sent a special envoy, Frank Wisner, a former ambassador to Egypt who has enjoyed a close relationship with Mubarak, to Cairo Sunday to urge him in that direction. Wisner, who returned home Tuesday, met with the Egyptian president but was reportedly told by him that he would not leave office before the end of his term in October.

"I think they must be surprised and disappointed by how stubborn [Mubarak] is," said one Egypt expert who attended a White House meeting Monday with senior national security staff. "The message we got was in the meeting was Mubarak's staying on was not going to be helpful to the kind of 'orderly transition' they're calling for."

While no official was willing to go on the record immediately after Mubarak's televised midnight statement, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, who has often acted on behalf the administration's behalf, tried to put the best gloss on the situation.

"This was an important announcement by President Mubarak to bring his presidency to an end and pledge that free and fair elections will be held," Kerry said in a written statement sent to reporters. "I believe that President Mubarak should now work with the military and civil society to establish an interim caretaker government."

"It remains to be seen whether this is enough to satisfy the demands of the Egyptian people for change," he added, expressing the big question that is official Washington and informed analysts are asking at the moment.


On that question, however, there is considerable doubt here.

"The government of Egypt has historically said nice things about its intentions to reform with little follow-through," said Joel Rubin, chief operating officer of the National Security Network, whose served for several years as a U.S. diplomat in Egypt.

"This is a step in the right direction, but actions are what needs to be seen, and immediately. If there's nothing tomorrow that shows he's serious about reform, it's going to require additional pressure, and, frankly, there will still the question whether the kind of reforms that are necessary can be done with Mubarak as president."

While Mubarak pledged not to seek re-election and oversee free elections, he did not indicate that he was prepared to appoint a new caretaker government -- as suggested by Obama and Kerry -- that might include representatives of the opposition, such as the new coalition headed by former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei.


The initial reaction to Mubarak's statement among demonstrators in Cairo's Tahrir Square was clearly negative, as the hundreds of thousands of people who had gathered there throughout the day chanted "Leave, leave!"

A subsequent attack by baton-wielding mobs chanting in support of the president on demonstrators in Alexandria was considered a particularly ominous sign that the eight-day-old political crisis could be headed toward serious violence, despite the army's apparently successful efforts to separate the two sides.

"Chaos will reign in Egypt unless Mubarak leaves the country and, from an American standpoint, this will empower more radical elements in society to rally against Mubarak," worried Michael Rubin, a Mideast specialist at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, who also noted that Tuesday marked the 32nd anniversary of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's return to Iran from exile in France, a key event in moving Tehran from a staunch U.S. ally under the Shah to its regional nemesis for more than 30 years.

"Most people making dark allusions to Iran [with respect to the current crisis in Egypt] forget that more than nine months passed between Khomeini's return and the seizure of the U.S. Embassy," he noted. "The question then becomes, what grievances can the Muslim Brotherhood or other anti- Western forces manufacture in those nine months to try to appeal beyond their natural constituency of perhaps 25 percent?"

Indeed, the biggest concern within and outside the administration is that Mubarak's refusal to resign –- particularly if it is coupled with a violent crackdown by the regime's security forces –- will strengthen Islamist elements, including the Brotherhood which has so far declined to play a prominent role in the protests.

"In an ideal world, it would be good if Mubarak could remain as head of a caretaker government and allow for an extended period of preparation for a truly free and fair election [because] you can't just stand up workable parties and a free media overnight, and figuring out how to create proper democratic institutions takes some time," according to Stephen Walt, who teaches international relations at Harvard University.

"The problem is that nobody in Egypt would trust Mubarak not have his thumb on the scale. So the demonstrators won't be mollified a bit by this speech, for good and obvious reasons," he added.

# # #

Special Report Copyright 2011, Inter-Press Service. Republished under Creative Commons License 3.0.
The 'Skeeter Bites Report Copyright 2011, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.



Amid Continued Anti-Mubarak Protests, Obama Bracing for Egyptian Strongman's Downfall

While it Won't Publicly Call for Mubarak to Step Down After Nearly 30 Years in Power -- Yet -- White House Already is Making Preparations to Deal With a New Post-Mubarak Era in Egypt

(Posted 5:30 a.m. EST Tuesday, February 1, 2011)
(Updated 8:45 a.m. EST Tuesday, Fabruary 1, 2011)


Inter-Press Service

WASHINGTON -- With new anti-government demonstrations expected in Cairo and other Egyptian cities Tuesday, the Obama administration appears to have concluded that the 29-year reign of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is coming to an end.

But it hopes to avoid calling publicly for Mubarak's departure, even as U.S. officials are scrambling to engage the different parties to the newly formed opposition coalition whose nominal leader, Mohamed ElBaradei -- the Nobel Peace Prize-winning former head of the United Nations' nuclear agency -- has urged Washington to be more explicit in urging the 82-year-old leader to step down.

That was the assessment of a number of independent foreign policy and Middle East specialists who met with senior administration officials at the White House Monday.


B-R-E-A-K-I-N-G   N-E-W-S



AMMAN, Jordan -- The king of Jordan dismissed his government Tuesday and appointed a new prime minister, a move follows protests calling for political reform.

King Abdullah II asked Marouf Al Bakhit to form a government that will implement "genuine political reform," the Royal Court said in a statement.

The government will "take practical steps, quick and concrete, to launch a process of genuine political reform, comprehensive development, and take genuine steps towards strengthening democracy," among other tasks, according to Al Bakhit's letter of instruction, which was also released.

Last week, Islamists, leftists and union members marched in downtown Amman, demanding more significant economic and political reforms to help struggling citizens. Police estimated several thousand people gathered in the Jordanian capital for the event, although about half of them demonstrated. There were protests in six other cities as well, authorities said.



Their meeting followed a statement issued by the White House Sunday that Obama had told several foreign leaders over the weekend that he "support[ed] an orderly transition to a government that is responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people," a phrase that was repeated verbatim Monday by a second statement about a conversation between Vice President Joseph Biden and Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.

"I got the impression that they're very focused on what will follow Mubarak," said one of Monday's White House visitors who asked not to be identified because the meeting, which reportedly included deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes and two senior National Security Council staffers, was officially off the record.

"There was general agreement that no orderly transition could take place with Mubarak and that it was highly questionable whether Soleiman could be part of any credible transition, too," the source told Inter-Press Service. He was referring to General Omar Soleiman, the former intelligence chief whom Mubarak named as his vice president on Sunday.

"A number of people commented that Soleiman was himself disdainful of the kind of democratic reforms we've been urging and that his accession to the presidency [if Mubarak resigned] was unlikely to diminish the ranks of the protesters," the source said.


Monday's meeting came amid calls by the opposition for a general strike and a "march of a million" in Cairo today (Tuesday) and the publication by the Egyptian armed forces of a statement in which they pledged not to use force against protesters.

"To the great people of Egypt, your armed forces, acknowledging the legitimate rights of the people …have not and will not use force against the Egyptian people," said the statement, which also "affirm[ed] that freedom of expression through peaceful means is guaranteed to everybody."

Despite that promise, however, Internet service, which was cut last week, has not been restored in Egypt. Train service has also reportedly been canceled, presumably to prevent protesters from bolstering their ranks in Tuesday's demonstrations.

Whether the military's pledge, which is consistent with repeated exhortations by top Obama administration officials, including the president himself, since last Tuesday's massive turnout for the first "Day of Rage" against the regime, will be respected remains to be seen.


But it appears clear that the Pentagon, which hosted Egypt's top military officials last week, is conveying the same message as the White House.

"I would say that the judgments in the Obama administration …are solidifying in the direction of advocating a managed transition to democratic election with the sponsorship and protection of the Egyptian armed forces," wrote Colonel Pat Lang, a retired former top Middle East analyst at the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) on his "Sic Semper Tyrannis" blog Monday.

"One can be sure that the lines of communication between the Pentagon and the Egyptian General Staff are wide open," he noted, praising the selection of both Soleiman and former Air Force Commander, General Ahmed Shafik, as the government's new prime minister.

But Mubarak's latest efforts to save his presidency by creating a new, supposedly reform-minded government are widely seen by Mideast experts here as far too little and too late.

"This is not a government of reformers," wrote Blake Hounshell, managing editor of, who worked for the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies in Cairo.

"In fact, the reformers …won't be in the new government," he noted, adding that the latest calls by both the U.S. and the European Union (EU) for a "transition", combined with the armed forces' statement, are likely to mean "Goodbye, Hosni."


Still, the administration is strongly resistant to calling explicitly for Mubarak's departure, although officials and independent analysts appear worried that the longer he clings to his office, the greater the risk that the current unrest will take a more radical turn.

"We can't be seen as picking a winner. We can't be seen as telling a leader to go," Rhodes was quoted by's "The Cable" blog as telling Tuesday's White House visitors, a number of whom, according to the Cable's sources, urged the administration to explicitly call for Mubarak's departure.

"What we were trying to tell them is that change is coming, the status quo is passing away, and the question is do we want to shape that change constructively or not," Michelle Dunne, co-chair of a bipartisan Egypt Study Group based at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the Cable. "For a long time, a lot of people have felt that question was just too hard."

Indeed, a number of analysts sympathetic to the opposition have urged Obama to err on the side of caution.

"[I]f there is any lesson to be learned from Tunisia, and from the U.S. policy in the region in the past few years, it is that these historic and indigenous events in Egypt must not become about the United States," Shibley Telhami, a Brookings Institute Mideast specialist, wrote Monday on

Telhami, an expert on Arab public opinion, reportedly was invited to Monday's meeting but was unable to attend.


"If and when the U.S. does take a forceful position, we must have no illusion about how it will be spun by many Arabs," he warned. "Washington is likely to be seen as attempting to control events –- moving to pre-empt the public will and engineering an outcome to its liking."

But, concerned that the longer Mubarak resists the tide against him, the stronger Islamist groups –- notably, the Muslim Brotherhood, whose close ties to the Palestinian Hamas have earned it the strong opposition of the powerful "Israel lobby" here –- will become, the administration may indeed be forced into making its position more clear, at least privately.

"I would say if the United States could essentially weigh in privately, calling for political change, and get other Arab leaders to basically tell Mubarak that you don't want to undermine or see destroyed all you contributed to Egypt and the last thing you can do that can help your country is to step down," according to Richard Haass, president of the influential Council on Foreign Relations. "Time is now the enemy."

# # #

Special Report Copyright 2011, Inter-Press Service. Republished under Creative
Commons License 3.0
The 'Skeeter Bites Report Copyright 2011, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved



While Super-Rich Get Tax-Cut Extension, Middle Class Get Rude Surprise: A Tax Increase

Republicans Not Only Forced Obama and the Democrats to Extend Bush-Era Tax Cuts for the Super-Rich, They Also Blocked an Extension of Obama's Little-Known 2009 'Making Work Pay' Tax Credit for the Middle Class, Resulting in Smaller Paychecks Since the Start of the Year -- and Continuing the Mutation of GOP Into 'Party of, By and For the Rich' Since 2001



(Posted 5:30 a.m. EST Tuesday, January 25, 2011)


When President Obama signed into law the highly controversial extension of the Bush-era tax cuts, it was thought that a massive across-the-board tax increase had been averted.

For weeks after Republicans took control of the House and increased their numbers in the Senate in the November midterm elections, Obama and congressional Democrats insisted that the Bush tax-cut extension be applied only for low and middle-income taxpayers. But Republicans insisted that the extension be applied to all taxpayers, including the nation's millionaires and billionaires.

Senate Republicans all but shut down the upper chamber, refusing to allow votes on any bills unless and until the Bush tax cuts were extended across the board.

Confronted with the GOP's intransigence -- and facing a massive tax increase at the start of the new year -- the president and congressional Democrats agreed to the Bush tax-cut extension, despite fierce opposition by liberals, including an old-fashioned, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"-style filibuster by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), that lasted for nine hours.

But if you thought that a massive tax increase had been averted, think again. Since the beginning of the new year, millions of middle-class Americans received a rude surprise when they opened their pay envelopes: Their taxes went up anyway.


And for that, you can thank a combination of Republican intransigence in Congress, the Obama administration and congressional Democrats' lack of backbone and the mainstream media's dereliction of duty to inform the public.

A little-publicized provision in President Obama's much-publicized American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 -- better known as the federal stimulus package -- provided a two-year, $116 billion "Making Work Pay" payroll tax credit for middle-class taxpayers.

Single taxpayers earning $75,000 a year or less received a $400 tax credit. Couples earning a combined $150,000 a year or less received an $800 tax credit.

While Senate Republicans used their filibuster power to hold all legislation hostage until Obama and the Democrats agreed to an extension of the Bush tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires, they adamantly refused to allow any extension of the Obama payroll tax credit for the middle class.

Neither the White House nor congressional Democrats -- having been effectively whipsawed by the Republicans into extending the Bush tax cuts for the super-rich -- were willing to put up a fight to retain the Obama middle-class tax credit.

As a result, the credit expired at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve and the payroll (federal withholding) taxes of millions of middle-class Americans went back up to their 2008 levels, reducing their take-home pay. In many cases, take-home pay went down despite a reduction in middle-class Americans' Social Security (FICA) taxes.

The death of the Obama middle-class tax credit is the latest in a decade-long series of moves made by Republicans that have resulted in a shifting of the federal tax burden away from the wealthy and toward the middle class, according to an analysis by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office compiled in 2004, when the Republicans controlled Congress -- and the CBO was headed by a former Bush administration senior economist.


In truth, there was no real effort by congressional Democrats to extended the "Making Work Pay" tax credit for middle-class Americans since last summer, when Obama proposed extending it.

Part of the problem was that the credit received very little publicity in the run-up to the passage of the stimulus package in February 2009 and the credit didn't go into effect until after the tax-filing deadline the following April. Because of the lack of publicity, few taxpayers were aware that the credit even existed, in spite of the fact that it covered 75 percent of all taxpayers.

The lack of awareness of the "Making Work Pay" tax credit was made even more evident during the battle over extending the Bush tax cuts. Much was said and written in the mainstream media about the fight over extending the Bush tax cuts to the nation's millionaires and billionaires. But there was almost nothing said or written in the mainstream media about extending the Obama tax credit to the middle class.


"The most curious aspect of the tax debate is the obsession with taxes at the high end," said Chuck Marr, director of federal tax policy at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in an interview last July with CNN. "But when almost every middle-  and lower-class American is going to face higher taxes, nobody's talking about it.

"Most people may have no idea they received it [the Obama tax credit] and no idea that it's going away," said Marr. "But what you can be certain of is that they'll have less money [in 2011] and they'll spend less -- and this is a terrible time for the economy to lose $60 billion of [consumer] spending."

Consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of the U.S. economy. But if 75 percent of American consumers are middle class -- and they get hit with higher taxes -- they're going to be forced to cut back on spending, exacerbating a sharp decline in spending by middle-class consumers already squeezed by high unemployment, which has remained stuck at over nine percent for more than a year and a half.

And that doesn't include the estimated 2.6 million long-term jobless Americans who, out of frustration, have given up looking for work and are no longer counted in the jobless figures, according to the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics. When you factor in those "discouraged workers," the jobless rate actually exceeds 11 percent, the worst since the record 25 percent jobless rate during the Great Depression.


Indeed, according to Bloomberg News, an increase in consumer spending in the latter half of 2010 has been almost entirely driven by the rich, with middle-class consumers continuing to hold back.

Sales at such luxury retailers as Tiffany's and Coach Inc. rose as wealthy consumers -- reaping a windfall from rising stock-market prices -- snapped up expensive items such as $6,000 diamond pendants and $1,200 leather handbags, the financial-news service reported.

On the flip side, more middle-class consumers are flocking to discount retailers such as Walmart, Big Lots and Dollar General -- and even to nonprofit thrift stores such as Goodwill, long a magnet for low-income shoppers -- as more and more "everyday Americans" are forced to live from paycheck to paycheck, a Walmart spokesman said.

Meanwhile, the Census Bureau estimates the poverty threshold for 2010 was $22,314 for a family of four, up from $21,954 in 2009.

"It’s striking," Dean Baker, co-director of the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research, told Bloomberg News. "Most of the rest of the country is still suffering while the wealthy seem to be largely insulated. You would think they wouldn’t have all that much to complain about. Instead they’ve had unending criticism for the Obama administration."


Incredible as it may seem, it was just a decade ago, as George W. Bush was sworn in as the nation's 43rd president after a hotly contested election (that some still dispute to this day), when the federal government's coffers were brimming with a record $236 billion surplus left by Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton -- despite conservatives' stubborn, revisionist attempts to deny its existence -- whose presidency was marked by the greatest economic expansion in the nation's history.

The Republican Party has had a reputation as the party of big business since the 1880s; under the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, the GOP became known for its strong advocacy of commerce, industry, and veterans' rights.

That reputation solidified in the 1920s, as the GOP, running on a platform of non-involvement in foreign affairs and non-interference in private enterprise, kept control of the White House throughout the decade -- until the Great Depression cost Herbert Hoover the presidency with the landslide election of Franklin D. Roosevelt that ushered in 20 years of Democratic control.

But under Bush, the Republicans mutated from being the party of big business into being a Robin Hood in reverse -- the party of the rich, by the rich and for the rich, with its naked determination to preserve the wealth of the nation's millionaires and billionaires -- who make up only two percent of the nation's population -- at the expense of the middle class.


In the process, the Republicans ran up staggering budget deficits under Bush that dwarfed the previous then-record red ink under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. But when it comes to dealing with the federal deficit, there is a huge difference between Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

As Reagan himself said, in an attempt to quote John Adams in 1988, "Facts are stubborn things." And there are several stubborn facts about Reagan and federal deficits that today's Republicans have chosen to ignore, but, in Adams' words, "they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."

Reagan's $275 billion in tax cuts of 1981-82 were made when the economy was mired then, as now, in a severe recession, which saw unemployment peak at 10.4 percent. But when the economy recovered in 1983-84, Reagan took back nearly $133 billion of those cuts by raising taxes in order to reduce the deficit -- and he did it with the solid approval of his fellow Republicans who controlled both houses of Congress. That is a fact that today's Republicans cannot sweep under the rug.

Not only did Reagan raise taxes to cut the deficit after the economy recovered from the early 1980s recession, he also vetoed scores of GOP-passed spending bills for the rest of his presidency, whereas Bush didn't wield his veto stamp at all -- until the Democrats took control of Congress in 2006. That, too, is a fact that today's Republicans can deny all they want, but cannot erase.


So what happened to the Republican Party in the 20 years between Ronald Reagan's election and George W. Bush's? Simply put, it was taken over by a generation of unabashed "greedheads" -- people who made their fortunes in the Wall Street boom of the '90s and were likely influenced by the "Greed is Good" mantra of the fictional Wall Street trader Gordon Gekko (played by actor Michael Douglas) in the blockbuster motion picture "Wall Street."

As Bruce Bartlett -- a former domestic policy adviser in the Reagan administration and a Treasury Department official under Bush -- recently wrote on his blog, "It may come as a surprise to some people that once upon a time in the not-too-distant past Republicans actually cared enough about budget deficits that they thought raising taxes was necessary to bring them down. Today, Republicans believe that deficits are nothing more than something to ignore when they are in power and to bludgeon Democrats with when they are out of power."


The greedheads in charge of the GOP made their mark in 1999 when they pushed through the repeal of a key provision of the Glass-Steagall Act, a Depression-era law that that prohibited a bank holding company from owning other financial companies.

Glass-Steagall put up a wall of separation between the highly speculative Wall Street investment banks and the more conservative Main Street consumer banks. Its repeal by the Republican-sponsored Gramm-Leach–Bliley Act -- which former President Clinton now admits he should have vetoed instead of having signed it into law -- set the stage for the creation and later collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market that led to the financial meltdown of 2008.


So, as President Obama prepares to deliver his State of the Union address tonight (Tuesday night) before a now-divided Congress -- with Republicans controlling the House and Democrats with a weakened majority in the Senate -- get ready for Phase II of a titanic struggle between Obama and the greedhead-dominated GOP.

And as conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote in a July op-ed column in The Washington Post, Republicans would be making a mistake by underestimating the president.

Aside from repealing the health-care reform law that House Republicans passed last week -- despite knowing full well that the repeal measure will die in the Senate -- the financial reform law passed last summer strikes at the heart of the greedheads' world.

"It will give the government unprecedented power in the financial marketplace," Krauthammer writes. "Its 2,300 pages will create at least 243 new regulations that will affect not only, as many assume, the big banks but just about everyone, including, as noted in one summary [The Wall Street Journal], "storefront check cashiers, city governments, small manufacturers, home buyers and credit bureaus."

Frankly, after the sub-prime disaster, the financial marketplace is long overdue for regulation. So, too, is an end to the fiscally irresponsible Bush tax cuts for the super-rich.

# # #

Copyright 2011, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.




Remarks on Arizona Shootings Confirm Palin Is a Demagogue Unfit for the Presidency

Palin Used Highly Inflammatory Rhetoric -- in Defiance of McCain's Directive to Tone it Down -- That Stirred Blatantly Racist Passions Against Obama During '08 Campaign and Has Continued to Employ Incendiary Language in the Two Years Since; Now Former Alaska Governor Deeply Offends Jews by Employing Anti-Semitic Phrase in Defiantly Partisan Speech on Tucson Tragedy

(Posted 5:30 a.m. EST Tuesday, January 18, 2011)



Almost from the day in August 2008 when Senator John McCain -- having secured the Republican presidential nomination -- plucked then-Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska out of relative obscurity and into the glare of the national spotlight as his vice-presidential running mate, Palin has found herself embroiled in one controversy after another.

Now, Palin has generated a new furor, this time over a videotaped speech in reaction to the January 8 shootings in McCain's home state of Arizona that left six people dead -- including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl -- and 14 others wounded, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat who represents Tucson.

And this time, Palin may have bitten off more than she can chew -- and permanently foreclosed any hopes she may have had of winning the presidency in 2012.


In a videotaped message posted on her Facebook page, Palin branded attempts by pundits and liberal activists to pin the blame on conservatives in general and herself in particular for the shootings during Giffords' "Congress On Your Corner" meet-and-greet event outside a Safeway supermarket in Tucson a "blood libel."

She defiantly accused her critics of attacking her in an effort to damage her politically. "Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them," she said. "Journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible."

But if Palin's intent was to humble her critics, she failed badly. On the contrary, she's now in serious hot water over her use of the term "blood libel," a violently anti-Semitic term that for centuries has been used to falsely accuse Jews of committing unspeakable crimes -- particularly the death of Jesus -- and to justify atrocities against them.

What made Palin's use of the term particularly galling is the fact that Congresswoman Giffords -- whose recovery from being shot in the head was hailed as a "miracle" by doctors at the University of Arizona Medical Center in Tucson and whose condition was upgraded from "critical" to "serious" on Sunday -- is Arizona's first-ever Jewish member of Congress.


"Instead of dialing down the rhetoric at this difficult moment, Sarah Palin chose to accuse others trying to sort out the meaning of this tragedy of somehow engaging in a 'blood libel' against her and others," David Harris, president of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said in a statement.

"This is, of course, a particularly heinous term for American Jews, given that the repeated fiction of blood libels are directly responsible for the murder of so many Jews across centuries -- and given that blood libels are so directly intertwined with deeply ingrained anti-Semitism around the globe, even today," Harris said.

Simon Greer, president of Jewish Funds for Justice, a New York-based Jewish civil-rights organization, also ripped Palin, calling her use of "blood libel" in her videotaped message "totally out-of-line."

Greer noted that Palin is a commentator at Fox News Channel. She posted her statement just days after Fox News president Roger Ailes said he issued a directive to the conservative-leaning cable network's commentators to tone down their rhetoric in the wake of the shootings.

"I told all of our guys, shut up, tone it down, make your argument intellectually. You don't have to do it with bombast. I hope the other side does that," Ailes said in an interview with hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons on Simmons' Web site,

(No similar directive was issued by NBC News chief Steven Capus to MSNBC's commentators, but the liberal-leaning cable network's top-rated pundit, Keith Olbermann, did call for a truce, blaming himself as well as his rivals on Fox for infusing public debate with violent imagery. "We need to put the guns down," said Olbermann. "Just as importantly we need to put the gun metaphors away permanently.")


The firestorm over Palin's use of "blood libel" in her video message -- a defiant defense of her brand of confrontational politics -- is only the latest in a series of insensitive and outright inflammatory remarks that the former Alaska governor has made in the more than two years since she entered the national spotlight. In the process, Palin caused deep problems for the McCain campaign and has roiled the Republican Party as no one else has since Pat Buchanan's infamous "culture war" speech at the 1992 GOP National Convention in Houston.

Indeed, a widening rift opened up between McCain and Palin as the campaign wore on and polls showed McCain badly trailing Obama, according to The Times of London, with McCain "alarmed about the fury unleashed by Palin . . . against Senator Obama. Cries of 'terrorist!' and 'kill him1' have accompanied the tirades by the governor of Alaska against the Democratic nominee at Republican rallies," the newspaper said.

That Palin was relishing the traditional role of the vice-presidential nominee to be the campaign's "attack dog" to a degree seldom seen in the annals of American presidential politics was cause for increasing alarm among McCain campaign staffers and the nominee himself, with the London daily quoting Mark Salter, McCain’s longtime chief of staff, as saying that his boss would rather suffer an "honorable defeat" than conduct the kind of take-no-prisoners, scorched-earth campaign that Palin and other conservative hard-liners in the GOP wanted him to conduct.


When McCain imposed a strict ban on his campaign raising the issue of Obama's former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Palin was furious.

Palin and several top campaign officials -- as well as hard-line GOP conservatives -- insisted that an all-out attack on Obama's relationship with Wright was the only option McCain has left to cast doubts in voters' minds about his opponent. But McCain was adamant that to bring up Wright would almost certainly be seen as a last-minute desperation move and trigger accusations of McCain playing the "race card" against the then-senator from Illinois.

McCain was forced to confront open bigotry against Obama face-to-face at a campaign stop in Minnesota -- and was determined to tamp it down, even grabbing the microphone away from and rebuking a women who called Obama "an Arab," implying that he was not a native-born U.S. citizen and was a Muslim.

But that didn't stop Palin from stirring up racially-tinged animosity toward Obama during her solo campaign appearances. In a now-notorious campaign stop in Ohio -- captured on video by a reporter for the English-language international channel of Al Jazeera -- several Palin supporters, all of them white, let fly with vicious anti-Obama comments laced with racist and Islamophobic venom -- the latter in spite of the fact that Obama is a Christian.

Palin did nothing to stem the open displays of bigotry among her supporters. To the contrary, she did the exact opposite: She stoked the crowd into a frenzy of contempt against Obama by saying, "We know who the bad guys are," referring to terrorists. At Palin's mention of "bad guys," the crowd shouted, "Obama!"

Palin continued: "Those who sympathize and support those terrorists who would seek to destroy all that it is that we value -- those are the bad guys, OK?" Her implication was clear: Obama was, in her mind, a "bad guy." A terrorist sympathizer. An enemy of America. A traitor.


Fast-forward to December 2009. In an appearance on conservative radio talk-show host Rusty Humphries' program, Palin effectively joined the ranks of the birther conspiracy theorists when she declared that she "doesn't have a problem" with those who, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, still stubbornly insist that the president is not a native-born American, but a native of his father's homeland of Kenya.

This belief -- still being doggedly pursued by the birthers despite their utter failure to come up with any evidence to back up their claims -- has long since been dismissed by the Kenyan government as "madness" and "a red herring." Even many mainstream conservatives branded the birthers "loony."

(Palin distanced herself from the birthers within hours after The 'Skeeter Bites Report published a blistering editorial accusing Palin of joining forces with a movement engaged in a hate campaign against the president aimed at the forced removal of Obama from office.)


Fast-forward to last March. In the immediate aftermath of the passage of the health-care reform law, several lawmakers became the targets of vandalism and threats, including Giffords, whose Tucson district office was vandalized.

To his credit, then-House Minority Leader (now Speaker) John Bohener (R-Ohio) condemned the violence and threats: "I know many Americans are angry over this health-care bill, and that Washington Democrats just aren't listening," he said. "But, as I've said, violence and threats are unacceptable. That's not the American way. We need to take that anger and channel it into positive change. Call your congressman, go out and register people to vote, go volunteer on a political campaign, make your voice heard -- but let's do it the right way."

But what did Palin do? On March 23, amid the violence and vandalism, Palin posted on her Facebook page her now-infamous gun-sight target map, with Giffords' seat among the 20 held by Democrats targeted. Even more incendiary was this Twitter posting by Palin:

"Commonsense Conservatives & lovers of America: "Don't Retreat, Instead - RELOAD!" Pls see my Facebook page."

With a track record like this, is it any wonder why Palin has become such a lightning rod? And yet, not only does she still refuse to acknowledge any responsibility for contributing to our poisoned political discourse, she has the gall to attack those who take her to task for it.

It's the political equivalent of the old definition of Tourette's Syndrome, which for many years was thought to be associated with compulsive utterances of obscenities and/or socially inappropriate and derogatory remarks.


But with her "blood libel" remark, Palin may have gone too far. With the term's explosive anti-Semitic connotations, the former Alaska governor's political future -- already dealt a blow by the resounding defeat of Joe Miller by Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) in the hotly contested U.S. Senate race in her home state -- may have been fatally damaged.

For Murkowski, her write-in victory over Miller -- who denied her the GOP nomination in the primary -- was sweet revenge: In 2006, Palin had ousted her father, Frank Murkowski, from the governor's mansion. The two have been locked in a bitter political feud ever since (Although Miller, whom Palin strongly supported, said he would not contest the election results, he still has refused to concede defeat).

Already, an anti-Palin campaign Web site called Impalin' -- Stop Sarah Palin for President 2012 has been launched. And the "blood libel" firestorm is likely to intensify a stop-Palin movement within the GOP.

In any case, this latest episode has shown quite clearly that Sarah Palin is precisely what this column said of her in an October 20, 2008 editorial: That the former Alaska governor is a dangerous, fearmongering demagogue totally unfit to hold the most powerful job in the world.

# # #

Copyright 2010, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.



Sicko Westboro Hate Cult Says It Will Picket Funerals of Arizona Shooting Victims!

In Video Posted on, Cult Leader Fred Phelps Denounces Giffords as 'Avid Supporter of Sin and Baby-Killing' and Blasts Palin as 'Cowardly Brute' for Taking Down Controversial Crosshairs Map From Her Web Site -- Even Nine-Year-Old Girl Slain By Gunman Draws Westboro's Wrath

(Posted 2:30 a.m. EST Tuesday, January 11, 2011)



"How can someone hate so much to do something like this?"

The question was asked by a Tucson resident to NPR on Sunday about the gunman who went on a shooting rampage the day before outside a Tucson supermarket that killed six people, including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl, and wounded 14 others, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-Arizona).

But that same question can now be asked about the "Reverend" Fred Phelps. I'm putting the word "reverend" in quotation marks, for as far as I'm concerned, Fred Phelps is a disgrace to the Christian clergy. What Fred Phelps preaches is the diametric opposite of what the one whom Christians revere preached.

Indeed, a case could be made that to stare into the face of Fred Phelps is to stare into the face of the Antichrist, if not Satan himself.

In a video message posted Monday on its Web site,, the leader of the rabid hate cult Westboro Baptist Church announced that he and his followers plan to stage "God Hates America" protests at the upcoming funerals of the six victims who lost their lives in the tragedy.


Phelps, whose absolute hatred of homosexuality -- and of anyone he sees as aiding and abetting "fags" and "sodomites" -- is the driving force of his cult, denounced Giffords "an avid supporter of sin and baby killing" over her vote to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the 17-year-old law that forced gay and lesbian military personnel to keep their sexual orientation a secret, under penalty of discharge. He said Giffords was shot for "that mischief."

(I can only imagine what Phelps will say when he finds out that Daniel Hernandez Jr. -- the 20-year-old college student working as an intern for Giffords who is credited for saving his boss's life -- is openly gay.)

"Thank God for the violent shooter, one of your soldier heroes in Tucson," said Phelps -- apparently unaware that the alleged gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, 22, never served in the military, having been rejected by the U.S. Army. "God appointed the Afghanistan veteran to avenge Himself on this evil nation."

Phelps blasted former Alaska governor and 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin for removing from her political action committee Web site a controversial map that featured gun-sight crosshairs images placed on the districts of vulnerable Democrats in last November's election. Phelps branded Palin "a mouthy witch" and "a cowardly brute" for taking down the map.

"The crosshairs to worry about are God's -- and He's put you in His," Phelps said, adding that he and other Westboro members are praying "for more shooters, more violence and more dead, Praise God!"

Can you believe this sicko? He's actually praising God for bringing about a multiple murderer -- and praying for God to bring about more murderers! Forget Osama bin Laden; we have a cold-blooded, hatemongering jihadist right here in our own country who has the unmitigated gall to call himself a Christian!


Even the youngest victim, nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green, was not spared from Westboro's wrath. In a disgustingly-worded press release, the cult said this of the girl:

"That child was not innocent. This is a nation of depraved perverts who pass their children through the fire of their rage against God and all-consuming lust. From the womb, she was taught to hate God and mock His servants. That child is better off dead, so the cup of her iniquity will not overflow!"

What kind of sick, depraved mind would come up with such language about a nine-year-old? A mind so consumed with hate that it's a wonder how the 81-year-old Phelps can live with himself. How can he sleep at night knowing that he and his cult is causing incalculable harm to people who are at their most emotionally vulnerable?


There is something sick and twisted about Fred Phelps and his Westboro cult. There is something downright evil about Fred Phelps and his Westboro cult. As I mentioned earlier, a case could be made that to stare into the face of Fred Phelps is to stare into the face of the Antichrist, if not Satan himself.

Indeed, it could be said that Westboro is possessed.

Fred Phelps and his Westboro cult are posessed by pure, unadulterated evil, for what they preach is hate -- the diametric opposite of the love that Jesus preached. They are a hate cult. To openly preach hatred is to preach evil. Phelps and his flock are not Christians. They are Antichristians.

Only someone with an evil mind would say all manner of vile and ugly things about a nine-year-old girl whose young, innocent life was brutally snuffed out by an equally sick and depraved gunman.

I pray that the Supreme Court rules in favor of Albert Snyder, the father of Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder who was killed in Iraq, who sued Westboro in 2006 for defamation, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress on himself and his family when this despicable hate cult picketed at Matthew's funeral.

The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, but just as freedom of speech does not give one carte blanche to yell "Fire!' in a crowded theater when there is no fire, it likewise does not give one carte blanche to deliberately inflict emotional distress on people at a time when they are grieving the loss of their loved ones.

And for Westboro to do that to the grieving family of a murdered nine-year-old girl is to be the lowest of the low.

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Copyright 2011, skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.



Was Gunman in Deadly Arizona Shootings Influenced By White-Supremacist Extremist Group?

As Congresswoman Giffords Lies in Medically-Induced Coma, Homeland Security Memo Says Alleged Gunman Who Killed Six and Wounded 14 Outside Tucson Supermarket May Have Been Influenced By Newsletter Published By 'White Nationalist' Think Tank; Federal Judge Killed in Rampage Got Death Threats in 2009 Immigration Lawsuit

(Posted 5:30 a.m. Monday, January 10, 2011)



As an Arizona congresswoman lay in a medically-induced coma in a Tucson hospital a day after she was shot in the head at nearly point-blank range during a meet-and-greet with constituents, evidence mounted Sunday that the alleged gunman had plotted to assassinate her -- and that the plot may have been politically motivated.

Jared Lee Loughner, 22, of Tucson was formally charged by federal officials Sunday on two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of attempted murder and one count of attempting to kill a member of Congress in the shooting spree outside a local supermarket that killed six people -- including a federal judge, an aide to Giffords and a nine-year-old girl -- and wounded 14 others, including two other members of Giffords' staff.

Meanwhile, a memorandum by the Department of Homeland Security disclosed by Fox News on Sunday said that Loughner may have been influenced by a newsletter published by a white-supremacist think tank.


The memo noted that Loughner had made several references in postings on his MySpace page to American Renaissance, a newsletter and Web site operated by the New Century Foundation, a group described by the Anti-Defamation League as a white-supremacist organization that "promotes pseudo-scientific studies that attempt to demonstrate the intellectual and cultural superiority of whites and publishes articles on the supposed decline of American society because of integrationist social policies."

The Foundation was founded in 1990 and is headed by Jared Taylor, who also edits American Renaissance. While the newsletter "generally avoids the crude bigotry and stereotyping characteristic of many other racist publications and Taylor himself personally refrains from anti-Semitism," according to the ADL, "Taylor promotes his views by attacking racial, ethnic, and religious diversity, which he calls 'one of the most divisive forces on the planet' and therefore 'dangerous.'"

In a separate report, the hate-group watchdog Southern Poverty Law Center says that American Renaissance "regularly features proponents of eugenics and blatant anti-black racists" and that the New Century Foundation "also sponsors conferences every other year where racist "intellectuals" rub shoulders with Klansmen, neo-Nazis and other white supremacists."


For its part, American Renaissance hotly denied having any connection to Loughner. In a statement posted on its Web site Sunday, the newsletter claimed that the DHS memo "is so hopelessly wrong that it is hard to believe it is a genuine government document.

"No one by the name of Loughner has ever been a subscriber to American Renaissance or has ever registered for an American Renaissance conference," the statement said. "We have no evidence that he has even visited the AR website.

"American Renaissance condemns violence in the strongest possible terms, and nothing that has ever appeared in it pages could be interpreted as countenancing it," the statement said.

Yet even as the newsletter denied having any connection to Loughner, the lead article in its January 2011 issue touted "a dramatic uprising against the policies of President Obama and the Democratic Congress" in the November midterm elections, specifically citing "the decisive factor of the white vote" in making "the crucial difference as Republicans scored historic gains in dozens of elections both state and nationwide."

The article was headlined, "The Great White Wave."


Loughner posted numerous anti-government rants on his MySpace and Twitter pages. Both social networking sites quickly took Loughner's pages offline.

Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik told reporters at a news conference that the suspect had a YouTube channel under an account called "ClassItUp10." Loughner's YouTube profile stated, among other things, that some of his favorite books were Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto, George Orwell's Animal Farm and Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf.

One video told viewers that they "don't have to accept the federalist laws," called for a return to the gold standard, and accused the government of mind-controlling and brainwashing the citizenry.

Loughner attended Pima Community College in Tucson until college authorities suspended him last fall after receiving complaints of inappropriate behavior in class. Loughner chose in October to drop out rather than having the mental health evaluation and clearance which would have been required for him to re-enroll.

According to court records, Loughner had two previous offenses, one of which was for drug possession.

U.S. Army officials said that Loughner had attempted to enlist, but his application had been rejected as "unqualified" for service in 2008. They declined further comment due to confidentiality rules, but military sources who spoke on condition of anonymity said Loughner had failed a urine test, disqualifying him for service.


Doctors at the University Health Center in Tucson said Sunday that although Giffords was shot in the head at nearly point-blank range, the bullet did not strike any critical parts of her brain. "This was a devastating wound that traveled the length of the brain on the left side," Dr. Peter Rhee, the hospital's trauma director, told reporters during a press conference.

The bullet entered the back of Gifford's head and exited through her forehead, according to her family. She was put in a medically-induced coma and on a ventilator after surgery that doctors said will help her brain rest and recover.

The next few days and weeks will be critical to determine how much brain function Giffords has lost, if any. Also of importance is how much swelling there is of the left side of Gifford's brain and whether she'll be able to recover speech and movement on the right side of her body, which the left side of the brain controls. "Brain swelling is the biggest threat at this point," Dr. Michael Lemole, chief of neurosurgery at the University of Arizona, told ABC News.


Among the six people killed in Saturday's rampage was John Roll, the chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona. Judge Roll, 63, was not appearing at Representative Gifford's event in his judicial capacity, but rather as a courtesy visit, according to AZ, the Web site of The Arizona Republic newspaper of Phoenix.

A statement posted Sunday on the district court's Web site called Roll's death "a grievous loss," hailing him as "a warm, compassionate judge and inspirational leader in what is one of the busiest districts in the country. His death will leave a significant void in the District of Arizona and the entire federal judiciary, and we are all deeply saddened."

Roll was appointed to the federal bench in 1991 by then-President George H.W. Bush and had served as chief judge of the district since 2006.

Roll had presided over some of Arizona's most contentious court battles, many of them having to do with illegal immigration. At the time of his death, Roll was the presiding judge in a federal lawsuit that challenged the constitutionality of a recently-imposed ban on Latino ethnic studies in the Tucson Unified School District.

Roll had previously received numerous death threats in 2009 while he presided over a $32 million civil-rights lawsuit filed by illegal immigrants against an Arizona rancher who made citizens' arrests. A jury dismissed the plaintiffs' claims of civil-rights violations, but did find the rancher liable for assault against several of the plaintiffs.

During the trial, Roll informed everyone in the courtroom that he had received telephoned death threats and that court security would be tightened. Passions over illegal immigration were running so high that Roll's office received more than 200 threatening phone calls in a single day.

Callers threatened not only Judge Roll, but also and his family. "They said, 'We should kill him. He should be dead,'" U.S. Marshal David Gonzalez told The Arizona Republic at the time.


The youngest victim of Loughner's alleged rampage was only nine years old -- and, as it turned out, her life both began and ended amidst a major national tragedy.

Christina Taylor Green, the youngest granddaughter of former Philadelphia Phillies manager Dallas Green, was born on September 11, 2001 as the nation was reeling in shock from the terrorist attacks that destroyed the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center, damaged the Pentagon and killed more than 3,300 people.

Ironically, Christina had come to see Representative Giffords at her meet-and-greet after having been elected to the student council at her elementary school. Her parents, John and Roxana Green, both saw their daughter as a future politician.

"She was a good speaker. I could have easily seen her as a politician," John Green, a supervisor of amateur scouts for the Los Angeles Dodgers, told the Arizona Star-News. Roxanna Green said of her daughter: "She was all about helping people, and being involved. It's so tragic. She went to learn today and then someone with so much hatred in their heart took the lives of innocent people."

Dallas Green, vacationing at his winter home in the Caribbean, was stunned by the news. "It's pretty hard," he told the New York Daily News. "We're all hurting pretty bad. I can't believe this could happen to any nine-year-old child. [It's] the worst thing to ever happen to us."


The shootings have sparked a nationwide debate over what observers say is the increasingly poisonous histrionics and superheated rhetoric that has dominated political discourse in recent years, particularly over illegal immigration. Sheriff Dupnik blamed the shootings on what he called "The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country," and that, "unfortunately, Arizona . . . has become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry."

Giffords became the target of numerous threats against her last spring after she voted in favor of the health-care reform law. Her offices in Tucson were vandalized. Giffords was one of 20 members of Congress who were placed on a political "hit list" by former Alaska governor and GOP vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin on her Web site, which included a map of the U.S. that featured gun-sight crosshair images placed on the districts of vulnerable Democrats in last November's elections.

In a March appearance on MSNBC following the vandalism at her Tucson office, Giffords lashed out at Palin. "Sarah Palin has the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district and when people do that, they’ve gotta realize there are consequences to that action," she said.

In a statement on Facebook, Palin said “my sincere condolences are offered to the family of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the other victims of today’s tragic shooting in Arizona. On behalf of Todd and my family, we all pray for the victims and their families, and for peace and justice."

The controversial target map was subsequently pulled from the Web site of Palin's political action committee, SarahPAC, but numerous screenshots of the map remain online elswhere.

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Copyright 2011, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.



Bush's 'Obsession' With Saddam Got NATO Stuck With Taking Charge of Afghan War

In Media Interview, an American Military Officer Claims Washington Didn't Want to Be Distracted From Its Plans to Topple Saddam Hussein's Regime in Iraq, So the North Atlantic Alliance Was Given the Major Role in the War Against the Taliban -- 'It's More About NATO Than It's About Afghanistan,' He Says


(Posted 5:30 a.m. Tuesday, January 4, 2011)


Inter-Press Service

WASHINGTON -- The official line of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the NATO command in Afghanistan, is that the war against Afghan insurgents is vital to the security of all the countries providing troops there.

In fact, however, NATO was given a central role in Afghanistan because of the influence of U.S. officials concerned with the alliance, according to a U.S. military officer who was in a position to observe the decision-making process.

"NATO's role in Afghanistan is more about NATO than it is about Afghanistan," the officer said in an interview with Inter-Press Service.

The alliance would never have been given such a prominent role in Afghanistan but for the fact that the Bush administration wanted no significant U.S. military role there that could interfere with their plans to take control of Iraq.

That reality gave U.S. officials working on NATO an opening.


General James Jones, the supreme allied commander in Europe from 2003 to 2005, pushed aggressively for giving NATO the primary security role in Afghanistan, according to the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the political sensitivity of the subject.

"Jones sold [then-Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld on turning Afghanistan over to NATO," said the officer, adding that Jones did so with the full support of Pentagon officials with responsibilities for NATO. "You have to understand that the NATO lobbyists are very prominent in the Pentagon –- both in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and on the Joint Chiefs of Staff," said the officer.

Jones admitted in an October 2005 interview with the American Forces Press Service that NATO had struggled to avoid becoming irrelevant after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. "NATO was in limbo for a bit," he said.

But the 9/11 attacks had offered a new opportunity for NATO to demonstrate its relevance.

The NATO allies -- particularly France and Germany -- were opposed to the U.S. war in Iraq, but they wanted to demonstrate their support for stabilizing and reconstructing Afghanistan. Jones prodded NATO member countries to provide troops for Afghanistan and to extend NATO operations from the north into the west and eventually to the east and south, where U.S. troops were concentrated.

That position coincided with the interests of NATO's military and civilian bureaucrats and those of the military establishments in the member countries.


But there was one major problem: public opinion in NATO member countries was running heavily against military involvement in Afghanistan.

To get NATO allies to increase their troop presence in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, Jones assured member states that they would only be mopping up after the U.S. military had defeated the Taliban. On a visit to Afghanistan in August 2004, Jones said, "[W]e should not ever even think that there is going to be an insurrection of the type that we see in Iraq here. It's just not going to happen."

Reassured by Washington and by Jones, in September 2005, NATO defense ministers agreed formally that NATO would assume command of southern Afghanistan in 2006.

But conflicts immediately arose between the U.S. and NATO member countries over the NATO mission in Afghanistan. Britain, Germany, Canada and the Netherlands had all sold the NATO mission to their publics as "peacekeeping" or "reconstruction" as distinct from counterinsurgency war.


When the Bush administration sought to merge the U.S. and NATO commands in Afghanistan, key allies pushed back, arguing the two commands had different missions. The French, meanwhile, were convinced the Bush administration was using NATO troops to fill the gap left by shifting U.S. troops from Afghanistan to Iraq - a war they strongly opposed.

The result was that one NATO member state after another adopted "caveats" that ruled out or severely limited their troops from actually carrying out combat in Afghanistan.


Even as the Bush administration was assuring its NATO allies that they would not have to face a major Taliban uprising, U.S. intelligence was reporting that the insurgency was growing and would intensify in the spring of 2006.

General Karl Eikenberry, who had just arrived as commander of all U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2005, and the newly-appointed U.S. Ambassador Ronald E. Neumann were warning Washington that the well-publicized domestic debates in NATO member states over troop commitments were "generating a perception of NATO political weakness", as Neumann recalls in his memoirs on Afghanistan published in 2009.

Neumann wrote that both he and Eikenberry believed "the insurgents would see ISAF's expansion and the U.S. contraction as the moment to rekindle the war."

But Eikenberry assured the news media that the insurgency was under control. In a December. 8, 2005 press briefing at the Pentagon, Eikenberry asserted that the more aggressive Taliban tactics were "very much a sign of weakness."

Asked if he wasn't concerned that the situation in Afghanistan was "sliding towards an Iraqi scenario," Eikenberry replied, "[W]e see no indications that such is the case..."

A few weeks later the Taliban launched the biggest offensive since its regime was ousted in 2001, seizing control of much of Helmand, Kandahar and several other southern provinces.

Eikenberry, under orders from Rumsfeld, continued to carry out the policy of turning the south over to NATO in mid-2006. He was rewarded in early 2007 by being sent to Brussels as deputy chairman of NATO's Military Committee.


Eikenberry -- now the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan -- acknowledged in testimony before Congress in February 2007 that the policy of turning Afghanistan over to NATO was really about the future of NATO rather than about Afghanistan. He noted the argument that failure in Afghanistan could "break" NATO, while hailing the new NATO role in Afghanistan as one that could "make" the alliance.

"The long view of the Afghanistan campaign," said Eikenberry, "is that it is a means to continue the transformation of the alliance."

The Afghanistan mission, Eikenberry said, "could mark the beginning of sustained NATO efforts to overhaul alliance operational practices in every domain." Specifically, he suggested that NATO could use Afghan deployments to press some member nations to carry out "military modernization."

But Canadian General Rick Hillier, who commanded NATO forces in Afghanistan from February to August 2004 and was later chief of staff of Canadian armed forces from 2005 to 2008, wrote in his memoir, A Soldier First, published in 2009, that NATO was an unmitigated disaster in Afghanistan.

He recalled that when it formally accepted responsibility for Afghanistan in 2003, NATO had "no strategy, no clear articulation of what it wanted to achieve" and that its performance was "abysmal."

Hillier said the situation "remains unchanged" after several years of NATO responsibility for Afghanistan. NATO had "started down a road that destroyed much of its credibility and in the end eroded support for the mission in every nation in the alliance," Hillier wrote.

"Afghanistan has revealed," wrote Hillier, "that NATO has reached the stage where it is a corpse decomposing..."

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Special Report Copyright 2011, Inter-Press Service. Republished Under Creative Commons License 3.0.
The 'Skeeter Bites Report Copyright 2011, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.



Presenting the Fourth Annual 'Skeeter Bites Awards for the Most Outrageous People of 2010

In the Tradition of the Razzie Awards for the Worst Films of the Year, The 'Skeeter Bites Report Presents its 'Dishonors' for the People Who Have Had the Most Outrageous Impact on Politics, Society and Culture in America -- and the World -- in the Year Now (Mercifully) Ending


(Posted 5:30 a.m EST Tuesday, December 28, 2010)


As the year 2010 draws to a close (Did you start saying twenty-ten instead of two-thousand-ten?) it's that time again to take a look back at some of what's transpired over the past 12 months, make resolutions for 2011 (Yes, twenty-eleven, because two-thousand-eleven sounds really weird) -- and, of course, cast an eye on the crystal ball and predict who'll win what in the upcoming awards season.

From time immemorial, it seems, we mark the early months of each new year by bestowing awards to honor the best among us -- the Golden Globes, the Grammys, the Oscars, the Tonys and the Emmys -- and to dishonor the worst among us as well, such as the late Mr. Blackwell's annual "Worst-Dressed Women" list and the Golden Raspberry Awards -- better known as the Razzies -- for the worst movies of the year.

In 2007, The 'Skeeter Bites Report chose to join in the awards-giving parade, but in the tradition of Mr. Blackwell and the Razzies, we chose to join in the bestowing of "dishonors" to the most richly deserving crooks, liars, power-mad despots and others who've made life a lot more complicated for Americans and the world at large -- and, in some cases, even the "dishonorees" themselves -- in the previous 12 months.

Not surprisingly, the list of nominees for 2010 was longer than in previous years, making the selection of the "winners" more challenging -- at least in some categories. In other categories, the selection was a no-brainer. But, here goes . . .


The 15th-century Italian philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli is perhaps best known as the one of the main founders of modern political science. His most famous book, The Prince, is a manual to acquiring and keeping political power. But Machiavelli is perhaps more infamous for his belief that morally wrong actions are sometimes necessary to achieve morally right outcomes; that actions can only be considered morally right or wrong by virtue of the morality of the outcome.

In other words, "The ends justifies the means."

If there's anyone more deserving of this year's Machiavelli Award, it's Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), the Senate minority leader, for his public declaration on the day after Republicans took back control of the House and gained six seats in the Senate in the November midterm elections that his top priority for the next two years is for he and his fellow Republicans in the next Congress to render President Obama so politically impotent as to doom his chances to win re-election in 2012.

"Over the past week, some have said it was indelicate of me to suggest that our top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term in office," McConnell said in a November 4 speech to the conservative Heritage Foundation. "But the fact is, if our primary legislative goals are to repeal and replace the health spending bill, to end the bailouts, cut spending and shrink the size and scope of government, the only way to do all these things is to put someone in the White House who won’t veto any of these things.

"We can hope the president will start listening to the electorate after Tuesday’s election,"McConnell continued. "But we can’t plan on it."

The fact is, McConnell has been working to render Obama politically irrelevant from the day the president took office. Under McConnell's leadership, Senate Republicans have imposed an unprecedented -- and unconstitutional -- tyranny of the minority in the Senate, in which Republicans require a 60-vote "super-majority" for passage of legislation.

That the 60-vote requirement is not supported by the Constitution -- nowhere does the nation's supreme law gives the minority party the authority to tie up all legislation by requiring a "super-majority" for passage -- doesn't bother McConnell.

But it now appears that McConnell's iron grip on the Senate Republican caucus may be slipping. Not only did 13 Republicans break from McConnell and vote with the majority Democrats to ratify the new START arms-control treaty with Russia -- as well as six GOP senators who voted to repeal the ban on gays and lesbians serving in the armed forces "out of the closet" -- but he faces a class of Tea Party-backed GOP freshmen who've made it clear they won't bow to the party leadership when it comes to reducing spending.


Speaking of "Don't Ask Don't Tell" (DADT) -- the final repeal of the 17-year-old law was a long-overdue righting of a wrong in which President Bill Clinton, in one of his earliest acts after taking office in 1993, sought to end through an executive order the military's outright ban on gay men and lesbians serving in the military, only to be overruled by Congress when it passed DADT, a "compromise" measure that allowed gays and lesbians to serve -- but only if they "stay in the closet" and keep their sexual orientation a secret.

President Obama vowed during the 2008 campaign to repeal DADT. it took him nearly two years to do it, but he finally signed the repeal bill into law on December 22.

Passage of the DADT repeal measure by a 65-31 vote in the Senate was greeted with both celebration and relief by gay-rights advocates. But they were stunned and angered by the fierce opposition to the repeal by Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) -- even in the face of a study released by the Pentagon that found that 70 percent of armed forces personnel said that allowing gay and lesbian service members to finally "come out" posed little risk to military cohesion.

McCain, however, would not be swayed. In unusually caustic remarks on the Senate floor, the Arizona Republican -- who ironically was elected to the Senate seat once held by the conservative icon Barry Goldwater, who famously said that "You don't need to be straight to fight and die for your country. You just need to shoot straight" -- blamed "elite liberals with no military experience" for "pushing their social agenda on troops during wartime.

"[Our soldiers] will do what is asked of them," McCain said. "But don't think there won't be a great cost [by allowing gays to serve openly]."

That McCain remained steadfast in his opposition to repealing DADT, even in the face of the Pentagon study, revealed that persuading him to change his mind was akin to talking to a brick wall -- which makes McCain, who now must struggle to live down accusations that he's homophobic, this year's shoo-in winner of the Pink Floyd Brick Wall Award, named in honor of the British rock band's song from their now-iconic album 1980 album, "The Wall."


Each year, one 'Skeeter Bites Award is reserved for a foreign leader whose actions outrage the world. For 2010, that foreign leader is North Korea's Kim Jong-il. He richly deserves this year's Darth Vader Award for his country's November 23 attack on South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island, which lies off the west coast of the divided peninsula near a disputed maritime border.

The North Korean barrage of artillery shells that killed to South Korean soldiers and sent hundreds of the island's residents scrambling for cover was the first direct military attack by the North on the South in nearly a half-century, since the 1950-53 Korean War.

The attack -- and the subsequent heightening of tension on the Korean Peninsula -- was the latest of a series of belligerent North Korean action in recent years. Now, according to secret U.S. diplomatic cables made public by the whistleblowing Web site WikiLeaks, even China -- North Korea's longtime ally -- is "fed up" with with the regime in Pyongyang, with senior Chinese officials quoted as derisively branding North Korea "a spoiled child."

The cables reveal China's mounting private frustration with North Korea in the four years since Pyongyang's provocative underground nuclear tests and test firings of its long-range Taepodong-2 ballistic missiles.

In a February 17 cable, South Korea's Deputy Foreign Minister, Chun Yung-woo, told Kathleen Stephens, the U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, that senior Chinese officials told him that Beijing "is fed up with the North Korean regime's behavior and would not oppose" the unification of the Korean peninsula under South Korean control.

When even China says it's fed up with North Korea's bellicosity, there's got to be something seriously wrong going on in Pyongyang. And since Kim Jong-il is the undisputed leader of North Korea, it is he who must bear responsibility for what actions his country takes. Which is why Kim Jong-il -- whom Curtis Sliwa, founder of the Guardian Angels civilian anti-crime patrol and now a New York radio talk-show host, derisively calls "Kim Jong Mentally Ill" -- is the 2010 winner of the Darth Vader Award.


Last year's winner of this award -- named in memory of the late "gonzo" journalist Hunter S. Thompson's magnum opus, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" -- was Fox News host Glenn Beck. Who would have thought that someone would rise to the occasion and outdo Beck in instilling the kind of fear and loathing -- with the emphasis on loathing -- that Thompson talked about in his novel?

But someone has indeed "stepped up to the plate" -- actually several someones. Most of those someones bear the surname Phelps and all are members of a gay-hating cult that's outraged America for their protests at the funerals of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The father of one such soldier has taken that gay-hating cult to court, accusing the Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church of inflicting emotional distress upon himself and his family as a result of its protests. The case has gone all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to issue its closely-watched ruling by spring.

As issue in the case, Snyder v. Phelps, is: Where does the First Amendment right of free speech end and where does defamation of character begin?

Make no mistake: Westboro has succeeded in making enemies of just about everybody, regardless of political leanings, with their protests at military funerals drawing sharp condemnation from across the political and social spectrum. Everything Westboro does is motivated by the sect's extreme hatred of homosexuality.

In short, Westboro -- whose members are almost exclusively relatives and in-laws of its iron-fisted leader, Fred Phelps -- is an extremely paranoid hate cult. Aside from its hatred of homosexuality, Westboro has a dirty secret it doesn't want the world to know: That Fred Phelps has a history of alcohol and drug abuse and of physically abusing his wife and children -- a history that The 'Skeeter Bites Report brought out in 2006 and repeated in 2009.

Talk about generating fear and loathing. Nobody does it better than Westboro.


A close second to Westboro in generating fear and loathing, however, is former Tea Party Express leader Mark Williams, who made headlines in May with his highly inflammatory anti-Muslim remarks and his fierce opposition to the construction of an Islamic cultural center and mosque in New York near the site of the destroyed twin towers of the World Trade Center.

The New York Daily News, citing a blog posting on his Web site, reported that Williams branded the project "a monument to the 9/11 terrorists" and wrote that Muslims "worship the terrorists' monkey-god."

The 13-story glass-and-steel building, which includes a 500-seat theater and athletic center, is under construction just two blocks from where the twin towers were destroyed on September 11, 2001, when two hijacked California-bound jetliners crashed into them and exploded in massive fireballs.

Williams has also made inflammatory anti-Muslim remarks about Obama -- despite all evidence that the president is a Christian -- calling Obama "an Indonesian Muslim-turned-welfare thug" and a "racist-in-chief."

But Muslims weren't the only targets of Williams' bigoted screeds. In July, Williams had the gall to accuse the NAACP -- the nation's oldest African-american civil rights organization -- of being "professional race-baiters" after delegates to the NAACP's annual convention in Kansas City passed a resolution condemning "extremist elements" within the Tea Party movement and calling on the movement's leaders "to repudiate those in their ranks who use racist language in their signs and speeches."

In an interview with NPR, Williams branded the NAACP "professional race-baiters . . . who make more money off of race than any slave trader ever. It's time groups like the NAACP went to the trash heap of history where they belong with all the other vile racist groups that emerged in our history."

That same day on CNN, Williams went further. Asked if the Tea Party movement should tell bigots that they're not welcome, Williams replied, "Racists have their own movement -- It's called the NAACP! They're a bunch of old fossils looking to make a buck off skin color!"

If Williams was trying to be cute, he failed miserably. He also failed in his apparent attempt to draw attention away from his own record of making highly inflammatory, bigoted remarks -- a record that is well documented, despite his best efforts to sanitize it. He therefore is the 2010 recipient of the David Duke Bigot of the Year Award, named after the former Ku Klux Klan grand dragon and avowed "white nationalist."


Those of you over a certain age will probably remember the TV sitcom, "Bewitched," that starred the late actress Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha Stephens, a typical 1960s-era suburban housewife -- except that Samantha was a witch. Her advertising-executive (and mortal) husband, Darrin (played by Dick York and later by Dick Sargent), insisted that Samantha limit the use of her witch powers to the bare minimum (This was, remember, the pre-feminist '60s).

As cliched as "Bewitched" was, the series was the first on television to portray witches in a positive light, if only to draw laughs. But the old stereotype of witches -- real-life witches -- being strange at best and evil at worst still persists even to this day. And Tea Party-backed U.S. Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell did nothing to dispel them.

Within hours of O'Donnell's stunning upset victory over former Representative Mike Castle in the Delaware GOP Senate primary, O'Donnell's past role as an arch-conservative social activist with ties to the Religious Right came back to haunt her -- and to cause deep embarrassment for GOP leaders.

Video clips quickly surfaced on the Internet and cable-news channels in which O'Donnell, who first gained national exposure in the mid-1980s as a spokeswoman for conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly's Concerned Women for America, made a series of highly controversial statements on the use of condoms, the fight against AIDS and the role of women in the military.

But none drew more attention -- and ridicule -- than O'Donnell's admission during a 1999 appearance on Bill Maher's now-defunct ABC late-night talk show, "Politically Incorrect" that she "dabbled" into witchcraft.

"One of my first dates with a witch was on a satanic altar, and I didn't know it," O'Donnell said. "I mean, there's a little blood there and stuff like that." She insisted, however, that she never joined a coven.

Many voters dismissed O'Donnell as a kook, while members of the Wiccan community blasted her for perpetuating negative stereotypes of Wicca, a nature-based Pagan religion that is alternately known as the "Craft of the Wise."

O'Donnell didn't help herself when she put up her first TV ad of the fall campaign. The very first words she uttered in that ad were, "I'm not a witch." O'Donnell's attempt to dispel the witch controversy blew up in her face; instead, it haunted her for the rest of the campaign (Not to mention a controversy over alleged embellishments on her academic resume).

For this, Christine O'Donnell wins the Samantha Stephens Memorial Award.

AND FOR 2011 . . . WHO KNOWS?

Of course, there a lot of other notorious names that I left out, particularly Laurent Gbagdo (pronounced BAG-bo), the president of the West African country of Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) -- who, after losing that country's November 28 presidential election, has not only refused to concede defeat, but has clung tenaciously to power, with the support of the country's military. Gbagdo's refusal to step down threatens to plunge the country -- once one of Africa's most stable -- into civil war.

Of course, if I included everyone deserving of this year's awards, this article would run far too long for anyone to read. Suffice it to say that 2010 was a strange year. One can only hope that 2011 will finally see the light at the end of the tunnel for millions of unemployed Americans.

Happy New Year!

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Copyright 2010, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.




Christians' Worries About So-Called 'War on Christmas' Ignore Holiday's Pagan Roots

New Survey Shows That While More Than 90 Percent of Americans Observe Christmas, Only 51 Percent Emphasize its Christian Religious Aspects -- Not Surprising, Given That the Holiday the World Celebrates Each Year on the 25th of December Is Actually Thousands of Years Older Than Christianity Itself -- and Is Celebrated by Billions of Non-Christians Around the World

(Posted 5:30 a.m. Tuesday, December 21, 2010)

DEAR READERS: When I first published my Christmas article a week after The 'Skeeter Bites Report made its debut in 2005, I had no idea that it would become this column's single most popular article of the year. I received many e-mail requests in 2006 to repeat it -- to which I gladly obliged, deciding to follow the tradition started by the late advice columnist Ann Landers in 1956 to republish an updated version of her Christmas column annually. Every year since, from Thanksgiving 'til New Year's Day, my site's visitor tracker has shown a major spike in traffic to the site's archives for the article. And so -- updated for 2010 -- here is my sixth annual retelling of "The Pagan Roots of Christmas."

COMING NEXT WEEK: The fourth annual 'Skeeter Bites Awards -- "dishonors," in the tradition of the Razzie Awards to the worst films of the year -- to the people who in 2010 have done more to bring misery to the lives of millions than anyone else. Blessed Be and Happy Holidays.

# # #


Ah, December.

'Tis the season when most of us are thinking about opening gifts under brightly lighted trees. Of kissing someone special under the mistletoe. Of eating, drinking and making merry. And, above all, of hoping for peace on Earth and goodwill to all.

But in 2010, on what ought to be the most festive time of the year -- despite the lingering recession -- "goodwill to all" again appears to be in short supply in America among certain people, who continue to rail against what they perceive as a so-called "War on Christmas" because of what appears to be a lessening in recent years of the Christian symbolism of the holiday.

And a new survey out this week is likely to add to the conservatives' worries.


A battle of dueling holiday billboards has erupted between the New York-based Catholic League and the New Jersey-based American Atheists, with the atheist group's signs blaring "You Know It's a Myth! This Season, Celebration Reason!" -- referring to the birth of Jesus, and the Catholic League's billboards blaring back, "You Know It's Real! This Season, Celebrate Jesus!"

The League, angered by what it saw as an anti-Christmas billboard put up by the atheist group at the New Jersey entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel that connects New Jersty and New York City, countered by putting up one of its own on the New York side of the tunnel.

"We decided to counterpunch after a donor came forward seeking to challenge the anti-Christmas statement by American Atheists," Catholic League president William Donohue said on the organization's Web site.

But David Silverman, president of American Atheists, insisted, in a statement to CNN, that his group's billboard isn't aimed at believers, but at "the 50 million atheists in this nation" and to get passing commuters to "think hard about whether or not they actually believe in what is, in reality, an invisible magic man in the sky."

This isn't the first time that atheists and Catholics have clashed over Christmas. In 2008, the atheist group Freedom From Religion erected a sign in Olympia, Washington that didn't sit well with some christian conservatives.

Freedom From Religion's sign, aimed at staking its own claim on the holiday season, proclaimed the atheist reliance on reason, rejects common religious beliefs and asserts the independence of the natural world:

At this season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail.
There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell.
There is only our natural world.
Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.

The sign drew a sharp rebuke from conservative Fox News talk-show host Bill O'Reilly, a devout Catholic, who branded it part of a "War on Christmas" by secularists that he's been railing against on his TV program every December since 2003.


Two new surveys released Monday aren't likely to quell conservatives' anxiety about Christmas becoming less and less about the birth of Jesus.

The polls -- conducted by Gallup and by LifeWay Research, a Nashville-based Christian research organization -- found that more than 90 percent of Americans observe Christmas, regardless of whatever faith they follow -- or not follow.

But the surveys, published Monday in USA Today, also found a wide discrepancy in how American view the religious aspects of the holiday. In the LifeWay poll, 74 percent regarded Christmas as primarily a religious holiday, but in the Gallup poll, only 51 percent felt that way.

The LifeWay survey found that more than a third of Americans who celebrate Christmas place little to no emphasis on the holiday be a celebration of the birth of Jesus -- as USA Today put it, for this group, "O Come-all-ye-partiers trumps O Come, All Ye Faithful."

"A lot of Americans celebrate Christmas like they participate in yoga: Unaware and unconcerned about its religious roots," Ed Stetzer, LifeWay's president and a Southern Baptist pastor, told the newspaper.


Yet Stretzer and other Christians who lament what they see is the "de-Christianization of Christmas" are ignoring the fact that the holiday's roots go back farther -- much farther -- than the birth of Jesus.

They're also ignoring the fact that there are literally millions of Americans who are not Christian and have December holidays of their own. Why should Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or Yule not get the recognition they richly deserve? Why should those holidays be ignored or subsumed under Christmas?

And contrary to what O'Reilly and other conservatives say, Christmas is not a strictly Christian religious holiday in the first place. If it were, Christmas could not, under the U.S. Constitution, be designated a public holiday without violating the First Amendment's ban on the government favoring one religion over another -- Good Friday and Easter Sunday aren't public holidays for that very reason.

Christmas is observed not only by millions of non-Christians in America, but also by billions of non-Christians around the world and is a public holiday even in countries where Christians are a minority, including Nigeria, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, China (Hong Kong and Macau), India, Indonesia, Israel, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Palestinian Territories, Singapore and Taiwan.

Christmas has never been -- and will never be -- a Christian-only celebration and the time has come for Christian conservatives to stop denying the holiday's true origins, for it didn't start with the birth of Jesus in a Bethlehem stable. The truth is, the holiday the world celebrates each year on the 25th of December is the most ancient holiday on the planet.

What we now call Christmas is actually the Christian adaptation of the many millennia-old Pagan celebrations of the Winter Solstice. With the notable exception of the Nativity creche, all of the symbols and decorations that we associate today with Christmas -- the tree, the wreath, the holly and the ivy, the lights, the mistletoe, the eggnog, the Yule log, the caroling and even Santa Claus -- are of Pagan origin and have nothing to do with the birth of Jesus.

Indeed, the very word "Christmas," with its direct reference to Jesus as "The Christ" -- which is derived from the Greek word kristos, or "savior" -- is almost exclusive to English-speakers. In only nine other languages -- Dutch (Kerstfeest), Farsi (Cristmas-e-shoma), French (Noel), Greek (Kristouyenna), Indonesian (Natal), Italian (Natale), Portugese (Natal), Spanish (Navidad) and Ukranian(Khrystouvym) -- does the name of this holiday come even close to referring to the birth of the Christ child.

Many Americans often refer to Christmas as "the Yuletide." And no wonder: Yule is the Winter Solstice. Most modern Pagans still celebrate Yule. Even most Christians use "Christmas" and "Yule" interchangeably to describe the season without even thinking about its Pagan origins.

Yule celebrates the beginning of the sun's light and warmth returning to the northern hemisphere after reaching its southernmost point on the Earth at the Tropic of Capricorn on the Winter Solstice -- which this year will occur this evening (Tuesday) at 6:38 pm EST, some 13 1/2 hours after the end a spectacular total lunar eclipse that took place during the pre-dawn hours of this morning. It is one of the two very ancient Pagan holidays that are still widely celebrated in the Western world -- and beyond -- relatively intact. The other is our modern celebration of Halloween.

[In the interest of full disclosure, this writer is obliged to state for the record that I, a former Roman Catholic, am a Pagan; more specifically, a Wiccan. Yule has special significance for me personally: It marks the anniversary of my conversion in 1984 to Wicca, the largest and best-known "denomination" of modern Western Paganism.]


If you really want to be historically accurate, then the Christmas tree should rightly be called the Yule tree, for it dates back nearly 5,000 years to the Celtic Druids. They revered evergreens as manifestations of deity because they did not "die" from year to year, but stayed green and alive when other plants appeared dead and bare. The trees represented everlasting life and hope for the return of spring.

Best known today for their celebrations of the Summer Solstice in June at Stonehenge, the Druids decorated their trees for the winter solstice in December with symbols of prosperity: a fruitful harvest, coins for wealth and various charms such as those for love or fertility.

Scandinavian Pagans, particularly the Norse, became the first to bring their decorated trees indoors, as this provided a warm and welcoming environment for the native fairy folk to join in the festivities.

The Saxons, a Pagan tribe from what is now Germany, were the first to place lights on the their trees in the form of candles (an extremely dangerous fire hazard by today's standards). For centuries, the ancient Romans decorated their homes with evergreens at the winter solstice festival of Saturnalia -- which also marked the Roman New Year -- and exchanged evergreen branches with friends as a sign of good luck.

Christians' use of the tree symbol for the December holidays did not begin until the 16th century, when devout Catholics in what is now Italy brought decorated trees into their homes. The German-born Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, is credited with starting the tradition in England in 1841 when he brought the first Christmas tree into Windsor Castle.


Nature's cycles of winter, spring, summer and fall (and everything else in between) are so much a part of human life and society on Earth that to acknowledge, celebrate and even sanctify those cycles is a primal need we simply cannot ignore. Just ask any ski-resort operator in winter or swimming-pool operator in summer -- or any farmer, for that matter.

Yet those who follow the world's three great monotheistic religions -- Christianity, Judaism and Islam -- have long been reluctant to do so and instead instituted their own rituals, holy days and festivals. The fact that many of the major Christian, Jewish and Muslim holidays -- and even some civic and national holidays -- often occur in tandem with the eight major Pagan holidays during the course of the year is no accident.

In addition to the Winter Solstice celebration of Yule on December 20-22 (depending on the actual date of the solstice itself from one year to the next), the other seven Pagan holidays are:

• Imbolg or Candlemas (Groundhog Day, February 2) -- also known among Catholics as St. Brigid's Day;

• Eostre or Ostara (Spring Equinox, March 20-22);

• Beltaine (May Day, May 1);

• Litha (Summer Solstice, June 20-22);

• Lammas or Lughnasadh (Midsummer's Day, August 1);

• Mabon (Autumn Equinox, September 20-22);

• Samhain (pronounced SOW-en), the Wiccan New Year (Halloween, October 31).

This is one reason why Easter (whose name in English is a derivative of Eostre) always falls on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the Spring Equinox and why Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, almost always falls in close proximity to the Autumn Equinox.

Jews transformed the three ancient harvest festivals of the Canaanites into the three festivals of Creation (Tabernacles), Revelation (Pentecost), and Redemption (Passover). Likewise, Christians and Muslims transformed their ancient, Nature-based festivals into celebrations of the singular events in, respectively, the life of Jesus and the career of the Prophet Mohammed.


After Christianity was proclaimed the state religion of the Roman Empire by Emperor Constantine in 312 C.E. (Common Era), the early Christian church -- now the Vatican -- used the transformation of the ancient holidays and festivals as a tool to convert Pagans to Christianity throughout the empire and beyond.

Yet the church barred Christians from holding any kind of celebration to honor the birth of Jesus, primarily because the actual date of his birth was unknown -- and remains unknown to this day, although there is some astronomical and archaeological evidence suggesting that Jesus was actually born in the spring.

The church's ban was lifted in 350 C.E., when Pope Julius I proclaimed a feast day to celebrate Jesus' birth -- and deliberately chose December 25 as the date to hold "Christ's Mass" to absorb and Christianize not only Yule, but also Saturnalia, which honored Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture.

Saturnalia was celebrated with feasting, gift-giving and role-reversal between men and women and between slaves and their masters. It was also marked by the unabashed enjoyment of sensual and erotic pleasures, which many conservative Christians today strongly condemn as wanton debauchery, but still survives in our time (primarily around New Year's Eve).

And because Saturnalia also marked the Roman New Year under the Julian calendar, the changeover to the present-day Gregorian calendar in 1582 resulted in the one-week interval between Christmas Day and New Year's Day.

Upper-class Romans also celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the sun god, on December 25. It was believed that Mithra, an infant god, was born of a rock. For them, Mithra's birthday was the most sacred day of the year -- especially since the daylight from the sun began to lengthen on the 25th, following the winter solstice.


The current debate in the United States over "Christmas" versus "Holiday" trees, decorations and greetings is part of a much deeper clash of cultures that has gone on for centuries: Christianity vs. Paganism.

Paganism is pantheistic and circular; Christianity is monotheistic and linear. Pagans celebrate the eternal natural cycle of being. Christians venerate the linear concept of progress, from creation to ultimate redemption.

Pagans live in the realm of the eternal recurrence. Pagan rites maintain harmonious relationships among the gods; thus, these rituals guarantee the continuity of Nature's cycles, which Nature-based human societies depend on for their sustenance.

Christians (as well as Jews and Muslims) worship the God who created all natural things and stands above them. To them, when God intervenes in the world, it is not to create a disruption of natural events, but rather to generate some wonderful new direction in human affairs.

It is at the Winter Solstice -- more so than at any other time of the year -- that people of Judeo/Christian/Muslim faith feel most acutely the tension between the origins of their religion in Pagan Nature worship on the one hand and the evolution of their faith into belief in a single God and a linear remembrance of historical events and teachings on the other.


And for many conservative Christians in particular, that tension could only have grown sharper in recent years as the number of Americans who do not identify themselves as Christian has been growing sharply since 1990, according to data compiled by the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), a private poll conducted by researchers at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and funded by the Lilly Endowment and the Posen Foundation.

The U.S. Census Bureau is constitutionally barred from directly compiling data on the religious affiliations of Americans, thus the ARIS survey -- the third conducted by Trinity College since 1990 -- is considered authoritative.

The latest ARIS survey of more than 54,000 people conducted between February and November of 2008 and released in March of this year showed that the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Christians -- inclusive of all its denominations -- has fallen to 76 percent of the population, down from 86 percent in 1990.

Those who do call themselves Christian are more frequently describing themselves as "nondenominational" "evangelical" or "born again." Significantly, the ARIS survey found, this increase corresponds strongly with a dramatic decline in the number of Americans who identify themselves as so-called "mainline" Protestants -- particularly Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians -- which fell from 17 million in 1990 to only five million today.


At the same time, the ARIS survey found the proportion of Americans who declined to state any religious affiliation has skyrocketed, from 8.2 percent in 1990 to 15 percent today, with the vast majority of this group identifying themselves as "spiritual, but not religious."

This group is most heavily concentrated in northern New England and the Pacific Northwest. Vermont leads all other states in this category by a full nine percentage points, with a record-high 34 percent of its residents identifying themselves as "spiritual, but not religious."

Out of a total U.S. adult population of 175.4 million people who professed a religious or spiritual belief system in the first ARIS poll in 1990, 151.4 million, or roughly 85 percent, identified themselves as Christian.

In the second ARIS survey in 2001, 159.5 million out of a total 207.9 million believers -- 76 percent -- identified themselves as Christian.

Now, out of a total U.S. adult population of 228 million believers, 173.4 million identified themselves as Christian, unchanged in percentage terms from the 76 percent the ARIS survey found in 2001.


The 2009 ARIS survey notes that America’s religious geography -- particularly of the nation's 57.2 million Roman Catholics -- has been transformed since 1990. "Religious switching along with Hispanic immigration has significantly changed the religious profile of some states and regions," the survey's principal authors, Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, reported.

"Between 1990 and 2008, the Catholic population proportion of the New England states fell from 50 percent to 36 percent and in New York state, it fell from 44 percent to 37 percent, while it rose in California from 29 percent to 37 percent and in Texas from 23 percent to 32 percent."


Other key findings in the 2009 ARIS survey:

• Baptists, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, have increased their numbers by two million since 2001, to 36.1 million, but continue to decline as a proportion of the population, from 16.3 percent in 2001 to 15.8 percent today.

• Mormons -- members of the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints -- have increased in numbers enough (3.1 million) to hold their own proportionally, at 1.4 percent of the population.

• The number of Muslim Americans continues to grow, from 527,000 in 1990, to 1.3 million today. Immigration accounts for the most of the increase, including Iranian refugees from the 1979 revolution, Bosnians from the 1990s war in the Balkans and Somalians from the still-ongoing violence there.

• Adherents of co-called "new religious movements" -- including Wiccans and self-described Pagans -- have grown faster this decade than in the 1990s. While there was no census of American Pagans in 1990, the 2001 ARIS survey did report at least 307,000 Americans identifying themselves as such, with 134,000 professing to be Wiccans, 33,000 as Druids and 140,000 as eclectic "neo-Pagans" of a wide spectrum of traditions.

(For the 2009 survey, there was no faith-specific breakdown of adherents in the "new religious movements" category, instead listing 2.8 million such Americans today, compared to 1.7 million in 2001.)

• The number of American adherents of Eastern religions -- Buddhism, Shinto and Hinduism -- which more than doubled in the 1990s -- has declined slightly, from 2.02 million in 1990 to 1.96 million today. However, the number of Buddhists alone edged up slightly from 1.08 million in 2001 to 1.18 million now.

(Buddhists have their own major holiday in December: Bodhi Day -- December 8 -- which celebrates the story of how the philosopher Siddartha Gautama of India became the Buddha by sitting under a bodhi tree and vowing to remain there until he achieved total enlightenment.)

• In strictly religious terms, Jewish Americans continue to decline numerically, from 3.1 million in 1990 to 2.7 million today -- 1.2 percent of the population. However, when defined more broadly as an ethnic group, including those who do not practice the faith, the American Jewish community has remained remarkably stable since 1990.


The number of Americans who call themselves atheists or agnostics remains relatively small, the new ARIS survey found. But based on stated beliefs, 1.62 million, or 2.3 percent, are atheists (believe there is no God) and 1.98 million, or 4.3 percent, are agnostics (unsure if God exists or not).

The 2001 ARIS survey counted an even smaller number of Americans -- 53,000 -- as identifying themselves as "secular" and still fewer -- 43,000 -- calling themselves "humanists." There was no accounting of either group in 1991 and they were dropped from the 2009 survey as statistically insignificant.

The truth is, America at the close of the first decade of the 21st century is more religiously and spiritually diverse now than it's ever been before in its more-than-234-year history -- and conservative Christian majoritarians are going to have to deal with it, whether they like it or not.


If they wanted to, today's Pagans could reclaim the Christmas tree -- indeed, all the decorative trappings of Christmas, save for the Nativity creche -- as being rightfully theirs, since Pagans created them in the first place.

But modern Pagans are a practical lot, with most viewing Christmas simply as the Christian world celebrating Yule in their own way -- albeit, three to five days after the actual winter solstice -- and thus see no conflict in celebrating at least the secular aspects of Christmas themselves.

And December isn't called the holiday season for nothing. There's also Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Boxing Day and scores of other holidays and festivals around the world this month -- all of which culminate in the ringing in of the new year at midnight on December 31.

Thanks to the adoption of the Gregorian calendar as the universal calendar used worldwide and the global system of 24 time zones, New Year's Day is our only truly global holiday -- which we all got to watch unfold on our TV screens in all its joyful glory a decade ago as we greeted the turn of the millennium (albeit, a year too soon, since there mathematically never was a Year Zero).

So whichever way you celebrate the holidays, may yours be filled with joy, peace and love.

Blessed Be! And Happy Holidays.



Pagan Christmas: The Plants, Spirits, and Rituals at the Origins of Yuletide by Christian Rätsch and Claudia Müller-Ebeling (Paperback - November 4, 2006).

The Origins of Christmas by Joseph F. Kelly (Paperback - August 2004).

Yule: A Celebration of Light and Warmth by Dorothy Morrison (Paperback - September 1, 2000).

The Shortest Day: Celebrating the Winter Solstice by Wendy Pfieffer (Hardcover - September 22, 2003)


Copyright 2010, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.





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