Josh Baker


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NEWS

Good whiskey is never enough

This past weekend, during a lively session of late-night — or early-morning, depending on your perspective — wassailing on a moonlit terrace overlooking New Brunswick's scenic Hamilton Street, two acquaintances and I began to discuss the merits of various distilled liquors. Our deliberations rapidly yielded the conclusion that whiskey is the finest, most wonderful and superlatively magnificent spirit ever to be conceived of by human minds, being superior in its taste, texture, history, iconography and pharmacology to such other popular liquors as vodka, gin, brandy, tequila and rum — especially that of the spiced variety. Of course, these other distilled alcohols are undoubtedly wonderful in their own right, each having a rich history as well as an extensive lineup of delicious cocktails of which they are the chief component. After all, surely no right-minded individual could deny the distinct sublimity of a perfectly balanced vodka tonic, of the splendorous mélange of flavors that characterize a dirty gin martini or of the traces of tropical paradise to be found in each glorious sip of a good Cuba Libre — that's a rum and coke with lime for those not privy to this particular bit of lingo. Nevertheless, none of them, in my estimation, approach the timeless perfection of a good whiskey, the flavor of which manages to be both simple and complex at the same time, standing alone among spirits in its inherent majesty. It is this reverence for the spirit that inspired Mark Twain to write: "Too much of anything is bad, but too much of a good whiskey is barely enough."

NEWS

Utah law potentially endangers mothers' rights

In May of last year, while in her seventh month of pregnancy, an unnamed 17-year-old Utah girl made a desperate and dangerous decision. After having been told by her boyfriend at the time that he would break up with her if she did not have an abortion, the girl offered to pay a man named Aaron Harrison $150 to physically assault her in hopes that she would miscarry her fetus. Harrison accepted the girl's proposal, reportedly taking her to the basement of his parents' house and brutally kicking her in the stomach over and over again. In the end, his attempts to terminate the pregnancy failed — the fetus survived the beating and was put up for adoption after being born in August. To answer the obvious question readers must be pondering, the girl likely took such drastic action — rather than simply going to an abortion clinic and having a legally-sanctioned procedure — because she was attempting to hide the pregnancy from her family. Since Utah law requires parental consent for minors to obtain abortions and also prohibits the practice after the 20th week of pregnancy (except in a few very extreme circumstances, such as if the mother's life or health is threatened or the baby is expected to be born with extreme defects), she could see no alternative course of action available.

NEWS

Sexuality not a military factor

Gay and lesbian Americans have been prohibited from serving openly in the U.S. armed forces for more than 16 years by Department of Defense Directive 1304.26, popularly known as the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Issued by former President Bill Clinton's administration, it reads, in part, "Sexual orientation will not be a bar to service unless manifested by homosexual conduct. The military will discharge members who engage in homosexual conduct, which is defined as a homosexual act, a statement that the member is homosexual or bisexual, or a marriage or attempted marriage to someone of the same gender." While the directive, which prohibited the longstanding practice of conducting official investigations against enlistees suspected of being gay or lesbian, was arguably an improvement over previous policies regarding homosexuality in the military, it upheld and further legitimized the practice of stigmatizing and discharging such individuals purely on the basis of their sexual orientation. More than 13,000 gay and lesbian members of the armed forces have been undeservedly dismissed under "don't ask, don't tell" since it was instituted in 1993, including 498 last year alone.

NEWS

Fans should focus on football

' The NFC Champion New Orleans Saints and the AFC Champion Indianapolis Colts will meet on Feb. 7 in Miami's Sun Life Stadium in Super Bowl XLIV. But the battle on the gridiron will not be the only one America's football fans witness during this year's championship event. An ideological clash is brewing, as well. As has become the norm, millions of viewers will tune in not just to watch the football game, but also the commercials. This year, however, among the cleverly-written Budweiser ads, celebrity-filled Doritos spots and buzz-generating movie promos, the television audience will also see a political message produced by Focus on the Family, an evangelical nonprofit organization based in Colorado Springs.

NEWS

Obama employs same old methods

After three months of professedly exhaustive strategizing with top advisors, on December 1, President Barack Obama announced that the United States would send an additional 30,000 soldiers to fight members of al-Qaida in Afghanistan. The additional forces will be deployed over the next six months, the president stated in his address, and the U.S. will begin to reduce levels of U.S. military personnel in July 2011. Within a week, however, top White House officials started to shy away from any suggestion of a troop withdrawal deadline. It has become increasingly apparent that, rather than devising any sort of new war strategy, the president has decided to stay the course set by his notorious predecessor, former President George W. Bush. This essentially grants, in full, the requests of the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, and asks the American people to support a plan remarkably similar to the Iraq troop surge, something Obama criticized so relentlessly last year. While the open-ended nature of Operation Enduring Freedom has been clear since the campaign began in the fall of 2001, the strategy Obama endorsed last week marks a striking departure from his campaign promise to end the conflicts of indefinite duration and expense initiated the previous administration and championed by the neoconservative movement.

NEWS

Trial, terror in civilian court

People take advantage of the fact that the Internet is a free space to share information. They post Facebook statuses and tweet updates, links and personal thoughts day in and day out on these social networking sites. Voicing an opinion, or claiming a statement as a fact in the cyber world can be a very risky thing to do. Now not only do people have to worry about not getting jobs, or into colleges of their choice, they also have to be concerned with being sued for libel. We have to treat cyber space as real life to keep from getting ourselves into trouble.

NEWS

Wards needed for vital city change

Let us begin with the observation that New Brunswick is an incredibly diverse community, comprised of students, small business owners, families, academics and professionals — in short, people of virtually all creeds, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds. As a consequence of this diversity, each of the city's neighborhoods faces specific challenges and has unique needs. Unfortunately, under the current at-large system of representation, to use the term loosely, the needs and concerns of many New Brunswick residents, primarily students and minorities, have simply not been heard or, worse, have been deliberately ignored by Mayor Jim Cahill and the members of the city council. When the city's public schools need more funding and better facilities, when many of its neighborhoods are far more unsafe than others, when law enforcement resources are being used inefficiently, ineffectively and often unconstitutionally to criminalize peaceful activities, our least empowered citizens deserve, at the very least, some assurance that their voices are being heard, that their concerns matter as much as those of their more affluent neighbors. As it stands, the current system is inherently undemocratic, privileging the concerns of the city's wealthiest and most powerful interests over all others. The construction of luxury hotels, deluxe condominiums, overpriced restaurants and multistory parking decks in the downtown area, all to the benefit of the commercial sector, have dominated New Brunswick's agenda for years while ordinary residents have been lucky to receive the occasional platitude about job creation or safer roads. It is this type of unequal treatment that inspired concerned New Brunswick residents to launch a campaign for change.

NEWS

Protect workers, not businesses

On July 28, 2005, while working in Iraq for KBR, a defense contractor and then-subsidiary of Halliburton, Jamie Leigh Jones was drugged and gang raped by several of her co-workers. One of her rapists subsequently confessed his involvement in the assault to Jones, but because she was unconscious throughout the ordeal, her other perpetrators have never been identified. As alleged in the lawsuit filed by her attorneys, when Jones "awoke the next morning still affected by the drug, she found her body naked and severely bruised, with lacerations to her vagina and anus, blood running down her leg, her breast implants ruptured and her pectoral muscles torn – which would later require reconstructive surgery." Under the orders of her employer, Jones was then imprisoned in a shipping container by armed guards and told that her employment with KBR would be terminated if she left Iraq to seek medical treatment. She was held captive for approximately one day until she gained access to a mobile phone, which she used to call her father, Tom Jones. Mr. Jones contacted Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX), who notified the State Department of the situation. Agents from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad were then sent to remove Ms. Jones from the company's custody.

NEWS

Reform in Critical Condition

I would like to take this opportunity to respond to a number of criticisms leveled against my column of two weeks ago, "Health care reform in dire condition," in letters to The Daily Targum by some of our readers. Noah Glyn of the University's College Republicans, in his column "Leftists demonize insurance companies, make dubious claims" says he has "found faults and fallacies in nearly all" of my arguments. First, Glyn selectively quotes my column so as to make it seem as if I had claimed that all conservatives are against any type of health care reform whatsoever. Obviously, this is not the case, and I would never suggest such a thing, as numerous Republicans (including California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.; and Tommy Thompson, former Health and Human Services Secretary under President George W. Bush's administration) have publicly proclaimed a need for reform. What I wrote is that "many on the right have insisted that any reform is unnecessary or unwanted." I was not referring to all conservatives, not even most conservatives, just many of them. Perhaps Glyn should re-take "Expository Writing" and work on his reading interpretation skills.

NEWS

Health care reform in dire condition

As it was when I wrote my column of two weeks ago, health care reform continues to be among the most pressing political issues of our day. While many on the right have insisted that any reform is unnecessary or unwanted, an honest evaluation of the predicament faced by tens of millions of Americans shows that such claims could not be further from the truth. First, with regard to the necessity of reform, a study released by Harvard Medical School researchers last week found that almost "45,000 people die in the United States each year — one every 12 minutes — in large part because they lack health insurance and can not [sic] get good care." For the sake of perspective, this means that every year a group of Americans nearly equivalent in size to the population of the city of New Brunswick die needlessly.Those who contend that such untenable suffering and death might eventually be overcome by simply allowing private insurance companies to continue operating and competing with one another in the free market without any "oppressive" government regulations cannot possibly have given the matter — or, for that matter, the wellness of their fellow countrymen — much serious thought. As Paul Krugman, winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in economics and professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University, wrote on his blog this past July: "There are…no examples of successful health care based on the principles of the free market, for one simple reason: in health care, the free market just doesn't work. And people who say that the market is the answer are flying in the face of both theory and overwhelming evidence." In short, the ultimate goal of private health insurance companies is not to ensure the well-being of their clients, but to maximize their own profits. Thus, such organizations are categorically incapable of providing effective health care — at least not without strict government regulations to prevent the most unhealthy, or least profitable, Americans from being excluded or dropped from private coverage when they are deemed too expensive to insure.Reflecting on the above, it becomes virtually undeniable that health care reform is necessary. But is it wanted? A new web video released by the National Republican Senatorial Committee posits that a majority of Americans have "rejected" the public option. Furthermore, last month, Bill Sammon, vice president of the world's foremost beacon of journalistic integrity, Fox News, stated on air, "People are saying they don't want the public option, as that [Ipsos/McClatchy] poll demonstrates." Really? The people don't want a public option? That's quite interesting to hear, especially in light of the fact that the very poll to which Sammon refers actually found that 52 percent of Americans do think it is "necessary to create a public health insurance plan" while only 44 percent do not. Further, many other polls have found similar numbers, some putting support for a public option as high as 77 percent. Okay, maybe the majority of Americans actually do support the public option, but so what? Surely the doctors will never go along with it! Wait, what's that? The New England Journal of Medicine just published a study finding that 73 percent of physicians support a public option? Oh well, looks like it's time to break out the trusty centerpieces of the old right-wing playbook: labeling progressives as un-American, communist Nazis and disseminating misleading information to millions across the country. With regard to the former, GOP leaders in Congress and around the country have been questioning the patriotism of President Barack Obama and other Democrats since last year's primary elections and recently have gone so far to imply that their efforts to reform health care are really just part of a secret plot to kill your grandparents, while conservative pundits have relentlessly compared Democratic leaders to Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong.Regarding the latter, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services recently found that numerous Medicare Advantage organizations "have contacted enrollees alleging that current health care reform legislation affecting Medicare could hurt seniors and disabled individuals who could lose important benefits and services as a result of the legislation." This claim, though oft-repeated, does not come close to reflecting anything that was ever proposed in any of the dozens of health care bills produced in Congress. The NRSC, not to be outdone, recently mailed out a "survey" intimating that any government-run health system will discriminate by race.Writer Michael Lind summarizes the situation perfectly: "The most dangerous deficit that the United States faces is not the budget deficit or the trade deficit. It is the Democrats' demagogy deficit. Franklin Roosevelt, looking down from that Hyde Park in the sky, would not be surprised that conservatives are seeking to channel populist anger and anxiety, not against the Wall Street elites who wrecked the economy, but against reformers promoting health care reform and economic security for ordinary people. As he told his audience in 1936, ‘It is an old strategy of tyrants to delude their victims into fighting their battles for them.' But FDR would be shocked by the inability of his party to mobilize the public on behalf of reform." Considering both the forces arrayed against progress and the benefits we as a nation stand to gain should the health care reform effort succeed, we must now strive harder than ever to combat the fear and misinformation being propagated by the American right to proclaim our dire need and immutable desire for the basic health care which many of us have lacked for far too long. 

NEWS

Bold action needed from Obama

Since his inauguration in January, President Barack Obama has been contending with a number of crucial issues that continue to affect virtually all Americans. Among the most pressing of these is health care reform. It is necessary to note here that, according to an ongoing Gallup trend poll, a sizeable majority — about 60 percent — of the public still sees the floundering economy as the nation's "most important problem." This figure has dropped steadily from a peak of 86 percent since the beginning of the year, while the number of Americans citing health care as their foremost concern has risen from 4 percent to 25 percent during the same time span. This trend is not at all surprising: As more and more Americans lose their jobs — and, concurrently, their health insurance — the demand for a publicly-funded alternative has increased. To be sure, the president has taken several steps in the right direction, bypassing Washington's infernal political bickering and taking his party's case directly to the people and addressing their concerns in a series of town hall meetings across the country over the course of the summer. But his actions, along with and those of the Democratic leadership in congress, have not as of yet gone far enough toward achieving the goal of universal health care.

NEWS

America obsessed with 'TMI'

I think that any member of our digitalized postmodern society would agree that the amount of information of all kinds available to us today is simply staggering, particularly when compared to previous historical periods. It has been estimated that "a weekday edition of the New York Times contains more information than the average person was likely to come across in a lifetime in 17th century England." At first, this claim seems a bit difficult to accept, but the moment we stop to truly appreciate the tremendous amount of information we encounter each day it becomes all too believable. To be sure, from our perspective in the early 21st century, the information in a single weekday edition of the New York Times is but a drop in the bucket. Information now comes to us through media as diverse as commercial text messages, printed T-shirts, product packaging, customized email alerts, textbooks, flyers and the Facebook news feed. Given the vast and continually increasing complexity of the information landscape we are made to contend with, it seems amazing that we are able to navigate it at all. Indeed, the store of information currently available to us is so vast the Web-based retrieval and categorization of data as diverse as encyclopedia articles, phone book listings, maps, restaurant reviews, TV news segments and movie show times has become a multibillion-dollar industry.

NEWS

Welcome to the gun show

Over the last several days, the nation has witnessed several instances of extremely brutal gun violence, all of which may well have been prevented with more stringent gun control legislation. In Binghamton, N.Y., 41-year-old Jiverly Wong blocked the rear entrance of the American Civic Association immigrant center with his car on Friday, effectively eliminating any escape route. He then entered the building through the front door armed with two handguns and proceeded to kill 14 people, himself included, before police could arrive on the scene. In Carthage, N.C., 45-year-old Robert Stewart entered a nursing home where his estranged wife works and killed eight people on March 30 — including seven elderly patients and one nurse — before being shot and disabled by Officer Justin Garner of the local police department. In Pittsburgh, Pa., 23-year-old Richard Poplawski killed three police officers on Sunday after they arrived at his home to deal with a domestic disturbance call. Poplawski owned several firearms, including an AK-47 assault rifle. On the same day in Graham, Wash., 34-year-old James Harrison used a shotgun to murder his five children, aged between 7 and 16, before taking his own life after learning that his wife was planning to leave him for another man. Just under one month ago, in the towns of Kinston and Samson in Alabama, 28-year-old Michael McLendon murdered 10 people, including five members of his own family and an 18-month-old girl, firing more than 200 rounds during the course of his rampage. And on Christmas, 45-year-old Bruce Pardo dressed up as Santa Claus and shot to death nine people, including his ex-wife, at a family holiday party before later committing suicide.

NEWS

The dogmatic and the pragmatic

During his highly-publicized first trip to Africa last week, Pope Benedict XVI made an extremely controversial statement regarding the use of condoms to protect against the spread of HIV/AIDS, a disease which has killed over 25 million Africans since the early 1980s and currently infects more than 22 million more. This past Tuesday, on a jet en route to Cameroon's capital city of Yaoundé, the pontiff stated to reporters that, "[AIDS] cannot be overcome by the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, they increase the problem." This statement has since been widely — and rightly — condemned as ignominious and potentially dangerous; it has also seen some limited support, most notably from the Russian Orthodox Church. But let us return to the issue at hand: to argue that condoms, one of the most effective means we have to combat the spread of HIV, somehow "increase the problem" is not unlike arguing that the wearing of seatbelts increases the risk of injury or death during an auto accident or that quitting smoking increases the risk of lung cancer and heart disease. Each of these hypotheses is ridiculous on its face. Of course, more extensive condom distribution is not a panacea for the AIDS epidemic — proper education about the risks associated with sexual activity, and how to reduce them, is also paramount, but the role of condoms in slowing rates of HIV infection is indisputable.

NEWS

Rushing to judgment

I would like to take this opportunity to respond to a number of criticisms leveled against my column two weeks ago by my friend Alex Giannattasio in a letter to this publication. The letter's writer first takes issue with my previous assertion that Obama's attempts at bipartisanship "may ultimately prove fruitless — at least in the short term." To clarify, by this statement, I meant that such attempts may not necessarily help him in obtaining the support of many Republicans, at least during his crucially important first 100 days in office. The writer contends that, because President Barack Obama's stimulus bill passed through Congress somewhat quickly and was not met with a filibuster in the Senate, the administration's bipartisan efforts have been successful. I think we would agree that the president's persuasion of three Republican senators to vote for the bill appears to constitute some degree of success in reaching across the aisle, perhaps even preventing a filibuster. However, "appears" is the operative word here. It is prudent to note that all three of these senators are career long centrists. A Feb. 10 piece in The New York Times about Sen. Susan Collins, R.-Maine, and Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, R.-Maine: "[the stimulus vote is] hardly the first time the two have broken from their party; it has occurred regularly over the years on budget, health, tax and environmental policy." If we also consider the fact that Collins and Snowe hail from a state in which Obama won fully 58 percent of the vote, we may see that their votes on this matter reflect the desires of their constituents along with their own independent attitudes. Much the same can be said of the third of these Republican "ayes," Sen. Arlen Specter, R.-Pa., who is among the most centrist members of Congress and also comes from a state which Obama won decisively. Considering these facts, we cannot definitively say that the personal efforts of Obama and his staff had any substantial effect on the results we saw in the Senate. On the other hand, if we look to what happened in the House, we may see a striking example of just how ineffective the administration's early attempts at bipartisanship have been. The very fact that Obama's plan went through the House of Representatives twice without earning a single Republican vote — despite the administration's numerous attempts to address GOP concerns with various amendments and revisions to the bill — proves that these attempts had virtually no positive impact whatsoever.

NEWS

When the going gets tough ...

Despite his best efforts and generally noble intentions, President Barack Obama is rapidly discovering how difficult it is to earn the support of the opposition party in Congress. As discussed in my last column, Obama and his staff have made several bipartisan gestures — most notably Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. These include several meetings, both at the White House and on the Hill, between the president and the Republican leadership in Congress to discuss their concerns about the stimulus bill. Specifically, these included their reservations about the bill's designation of federal funding for birth control and family planning — which was eventually removed from the legislation — as well as its professed lack of tax cuts, and the nomination of Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., for the post of secretary of commerce. Two weeks ago, as I wrote, Washington certainly appeared to be on its way to the sort of post-partisan era the president has continuously envisioned, but it now seems many of his efforts to create a more inclusive atmosphere may ultimately prove fruitless — at least in the short term. For example, Sen. Gregg withdrew his name Thursday from consideration for secretary of commerce, citing "irresolvable conflicts" between himself and the Democratic leadership regarding the details of the stimulus package and how best to conduct the 2010 census, creating yet another embarrassing setback for Obama in his endeavor to fill the Cabinet. Further, virtually no Republicans in congress voted for the stimulus — save three in the Senate — despite the eventual inclusion of several GOP-backed amendments in the latest version of the bill, which was passed in the House of Representatives twice without a single Republican vote.

OPINION

On becoming bipartisan

Throughout the 2008 campaign season, then-Sen. Barack Obama repeatedly promised to bring a new political dynamic to Washington to end our recent tradition of inter-party squabbling and to promote a transparent and truly bipartisan government. Two weeks into his presidency, Obama indeed appears to be attempting to make good on his word. Since his inauguration, the president has made numerous efforts to accommodate the concerns of the Republican Party and to encourage a friendlier relationship between its members and those of his own party. This Sunday, Obama invited a bipartisan group of 15 legislators to the White House to watch the Super Bowl with him and his family. Reportedly, there was not much political discussion during the gathering, but it is just this sort of generally open, friendly and neighborly attitude that will allow for the establishment of the post-partisan spirit that Obama desires in Washington.

OPINION

Toward a truly United State

This past Tuesday, as Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States of America, we saw a seemingly endless crowd of onlookers and supporters filling the national mall, elated and hopeful.  Watching all of those smiling citizens welcome their new leader, I couldn't help but wonder: Were they more excited to see the Obama era begin or to see the Bush era end?  This, as far as I am concerned, is a perfectly legitimate question — George W. Bush left office with an abysmal 22 percent approval rating, while Obama had been enjoying an approval rating of about 80 percent for his handling of the transition, according to polls conducted since mid-November.  So mathematically at least, it seems that the nation's positive sentiments about the new president and its negative sentiments about the old one are about equal. 

NEWS

Identity politics in political parties

Since November 4th, one of the most widely discussed topics in the public sphere has been the future of the GOP in national politics. If we think back to this year's Democratic and Republican National Conventions we may see exactly why. Looking at the crowds that filled the stands at each party's convention, the contrast could not have been greater: at the Democratic convention in Denver, we saw a highly diverse and youthful group of people who really did look like America's future; at the Republican convention in Minneapolis, we saw a group of people which was almost entirely white and noticeably older than its Democratic counterpart, calling to mind images of our country's not-so-distant exclusionary political past. If we look at the composition of each party's membership in Congress, we may notice an equally stark contrast: Democrats have among their members many women and blacks, along with a number of Hispanics and Asians, as well as all three openly gay members of the federal legislature (Barney Frank of Massachusetts, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, and the newly-elected Jared Polis of Colorado); Republican members of Congress, on the other hand, are, as far as I am aware, entirely white (with the exception of Anh "Joseph" Cao, a Vietnamese American, who was just recently elected to Congress from Louisiana's 2nd District) and have a significantly smaller proportion of women among their ranks than do the Democrats.

OPINION

The lamest duck

Last week we saw Americans turn out at the polls in unprecedented numbers, thanks in large part to the Obama campaign's brilliantly orchestrated organizing efforts across the country. The Illinois Senator's 53 percent of the popular vote — the largest plurality won by any presidential candidate since George H. W. Bush 20 years ago — translated into a 364-163 Electoral College thrashing of GOP nominee Sen. John McCain (with the fate of Missouri's 11 electoral votes still up in the air). The rest of the Republican ticket did not fare much better: the Democrats gained 19 seats in the House, with six still undecided, and six seats in the Senate, with three still undecided. (About 80,000 absentee ballots in Alaska still have not been counted; in Minnesota the two leading candidates are separated by mere hundreds of votes and a statewide recount has begun; and in Georgia — because neither candidate in the November 4 contest won a majority of the vote, which is required by state law to be elected to the Senate — a runoff election will take place in the next few weeks.)

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