Body and Soul

Thoughts on the body politic, the human soul, Billie Holiday songs (and other people's) -- with a lot more questions than answers

Sunday, June 30, 2002

Some aspects of Japan's death penalty make ours look positively progressive in comparison. Prisoners are told of their execution only moments before they are hanged. Their families are told of the execution only after the fact and are then ordered to collect the body within 24 hours. The Ministry of Justice refuses even to release the names of those executed, except to their relatives, and won't confirm the number of prisoners on death row. I hope John Ashcroft isn't planning any trips to Japan. We wouldn't want to give him any new ideas.

The good news in the article involves a community of Japanese Christians who adopt prisoners to prevent them from facing total isolation. Because of the powerful role of shame in Japanese society, families are subject to ostracism, and usually disassociate themselves from criminal relatives. The Christians in Japan, with their abiding faith in atonement and redemption, have taken it upon themselves to provide support for people who have no other support.

Maybe sending John Ashcroft to Japan might not be such a bad idea after all. He keeps claiming to be a Christian -- it's about time he got to know some.

Okay, I've changed my mind again about the whole Pledge of Allegiance debate. I don't just think they should drop the words "under God." I'm beginning to think they should ban the whole damn pledge. It apparently makes people crazy.

Saturday, June 29, 2002

Atrios' response to Salon's article on school vouchers makes some really good points. This morning I said that for some students -- particularly minority kids stuck in bad urban schools -- vouchers may offer the only hope. And yet Atrios is right -- although the polling data is skimpy and inconclusive, much of it shows that urban African-American parents, whose kids would seem to have the most to gain from vouchers (if you believe the hype) don't like vouchers any more than white suburban parents do. It's a bad sign when you're letting a few anecdotes make your argument for you.

The strongest argument in favor of school vouchers is that it offers some students the only chance they have of escaping bad schools. I can't dismiss that argument. There are undoubtedly students who have gained from having another option. My problem with the argument is that when those few students gain, they do so at the expense of all the students who are left behind.

The strongest argument against vouchers for me is that at a time when everyone is talking about accountability, they encourage the exact opposite. Private schools are not required to give the same standardized tests as public schools, and even when they do, they are not required to release the scores. Even the schools that do release scores sometimes play games with them. I know of one local religious school where almost all of children starting kindergarten are 6 or very close to it (they park virtually all 5-year-olds in a pre-kindergarten class). Public schools here in California are required to take children who will not even turn 5 until several months after the school year starts. Public school parents sometime hold out kids who are not yet 5, but it's extremely rare to find even one 6 year old in a kindergarten class, let alone a class that is made up almost entirely of 6-year-olds (some of them pushing 7). That means the religious school children's test scores are being compared to those of children a full year younger. The test scores are roughly equal Ñ but since the public school children are younger, that means they are really doing quite a bit better. But unless you know the religious school's scam, you would not realize that.

And that is not even taking into account the fact that the school picks and chooses its students, taking only the easiest to educate.

More thoughts on school vouchers: The Supreme Court's ruling is expected to encourage the growth of companies running public schools on a for-profit basis. But according to Josh Marshall, Edison Schools, the largest such company, has been doing some Enron-style accounting lately. This is the best we can offer kids?

What kind of person asks himself "What would Jesus do?" and comes up with the answer "Make obscene phone calls and send threatening e-mails to uppity atheists?" Did I miss that part of the Bible?

Another thought on school vouchers: The nastiness of the Pledge of Allegiance debate suggests to me that the last thing we want to do right now is send more children to schools where they will be taught that God is on their side.

A thought on school vouchers: Several years ago I lived in a town that had two hospitals Ñ one Catholic, one non-religious. My children were born in the non-religious hospital, because when I went to an informational meeting for parents at the Catholic hospital a woman asked a question about birth control and recieved an icy response. They didn't just tell her that because they are a Catholic hospital they don't give out birth control information, they tried to make the woman feel as if even asking the question put her immortal soul at risk. I didn't like the idea of being in a hospital where I was afraid to ask health questions. But that was my choice. I certainly have no problem with someone else making a different choice.

But here's the problem. The non-religious hospital recently closed. The people in that town now have no choice but to be treated at a Catholic hospital. When it comes to their health, they are forced to live by Catholic rules.

I don't know what to do about that. But I think about it whenever I hear someone say that vouchers offer parents "choices." In every case I've heard of, the vouchers are small, not enough to come close to covering the tuition of non-religious schools. That means that the only choice parents have is between their local public school and a religious school. Although that's more choice than the people in my old town have when it comes to health care, it's still not much of a choice.

The Supreme Court ruled that it was irrelevant that 96 percent of the children enrolled in the Cleveland voucher program were enrolled in religious schools, since that make-up was the result of parents' choices, not government edict. In theory, that sounds fine. In practice, I'm not convinced those parents really had the opportunity to make completely free choices.

How the court's Pledge of Allegiance ruling affects some non-traditional believers.

An interesting argument that taking the words "under God" out of the Pledge of Allegiance could make Americans more genuinely religious because "bestowing an aura of authority on religion doesn't always serve the enterprise best."

I'm having second thoughts Ñ or maybe I should just say firmed up and less tentative thoughts Ñ about the Supreme Court decision on inserting "under God" into the Pledge of Allegiance. My first thought was that it really didn't matter much. But the truth is people don't make death threats over things that don't matter very much. The manic and sometimes vicious reaction to the decision demonstrates how important it is to keep politics and religion separate. I'm also disturbed by the fact that no public figure has had the courage to stand up for the separation of church and state, to accept the decision with the good grace that John Kennedy accepted the 1962 Supreme Court ruling throwing out prayer in public schools, when he said that even though people were understandably angry, we are a country of laws, and court decisions ought to be respected. Instead we've had politicians encouraging people to just ignore the ruling. The president used the decision as evidence that we need more "judges who understand that our rights were derived from God" and announced that those were the kinds of judges he was going to put on the bench Ñ thereby overturning the Constitution, which guarantees that no religious test will ever be used as a test for holding office. There is far more danger to democracy from representatives who say the hell with laws they don't like, and the hell with the Constitution when it's inconvenient than from the loss of two words Ñ out of place words at that Ñ from the Pledge of Allegiance.

I plan to write something eventually about school vouchers, but don't have the time to think it through right now. In the meantime, here are some useful articles.

NY Times: Supreme Court Upholds Voucher System That Pays Religious Schools' Tuition

The Refining of Religious Neutrality

NY Times Editorial: The Wrong Ruling on Vouchers

LA TIMES EDITORIAL: A Blow to U.S. Education

Voucher Backers See Opening for a Wider Agenda

Voucher Ruling Seen As Further Narrowing Church-State Division

Reactions to School Vouchers Ruling

SALON: While civil libertarians are furious over the Supreme Court's voucher decision, many low-income African-Americans are solidly in the conservative camp.

Despite the U.S. Supreme Court's decision on school vouchers, one expert says dramatic change could be decades away.

Green Light, Red Flag: Opening the floodgates for school vouchers won't help Republicans.

Who's Vouching for Vouchers?

Target: Public Education

From personal experience, Bill Keller has written the most intelligent and moving piece on the moral complexity of abortion that I have ever read.

Reading about President Bush's desire to resume assistance to the Indonesian military, I can't stop thinking about one of my favorite George Orwell essays, Shooting an Elephant. In the essay, Orwell describes his experience as a police officer in Burma, despising both his position as a representative of a colonial power and the people he polices. What is fascinating in the essay is Orwell's insight that colonialism leaves the oppressor just as powerless as the oppressed.

Called out one day to stop an escaped elephant that is rumored to be ravaging the local bazaar, Orwell finds himself, rifle in hand, followed by a crowd anxious to see an elephant shot Ñ both for the entertainment value, and for the meat. Orwell notes that he had no intention of actually shooting the elephant. He had picked up the rifle merely for self-defense, if necessary. A working elephant is a Burmese farmer's most valuable investment, and shooting one would be a vicious thing to do if it wasn't absolutely necessary.

When Orwell and the crowd find the elephant, it is peacefully eating, not hurting a soul. The logical thing to do is keep an eye on it, to make sure its mood doesn't change, and let it wander home when it is ready. There's only one problem. By now, two thousand people have gathered behind Orwell, expecting him to shoot. And Orwell realizes that he really has no choice in the matter. If he doesn't do what he knows is both stupid and wrong, if he doesn't shoot the elephant, he will look like a coward and a fool to the crowd.

I have to quote Orwell here: "It was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man's dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd--seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the 'natives,' and so in every crisis he has got to do what the 'natives' expect of him. "

We Americans have a strong sense right now that we are the only power that counts. We are the "leading actor." We don't need to listen to anyone else. We have the strength to act on our own. The irony is that we are being jerked around by every petty tyrant who can convince us that his little squabbles are our own. And so we, like Orwell, do what we know is both stupid and wrong.

In 1993 the Clinton administration, concerned about human rights violations, cut off American weapons sales to Indonesia. Even strict limitations on military aid were imposed in 1999. The army is the most powerful institution in Indonesia, and civilian control is a only a dream. It has the kind of power only money can buy, funded by a business empire , which includes airlines, hotels, banks and insurance companies, as well as prostitution and illegal logging in tropical forests. It's also not especially enamored of petty American values like human rights.

But recently a suspected operative of Al Qaeda was arrested in Indonesia and turned over to the United States. The Bush administration is using the arrest of this rogue elephant to pressure Congress to finance a new unit for the Indonesian Army. They seem likely to get money for nonlethal equipment like radios and computers and even allowing some Indonesian officers to receive noncombatant training in the United States.

The Indonesian military wants a great deal more. They are pressing for weapons and combat equipment, not radios and lectures on human rights. And they seem pretty certain that they are going to get what they want. Lt. Gen. Agus Widjojo, the military's senior member of Parliament, recently told an interviewer that the United States needs Indonesia more than Indonesia needs the United States.

The crowd is behind us, waiting to see if we will put aside our moral scruples and common sense and put ourselves on the side of business savvy thugs (who, by the way, have also been involved in training Islamic militias.) They're waiting to see if we have the guts to shoot the elephant.

Friday, June 28, 2002

More Pledge of Allegiance, religion and government stuff from Slate.

* When Benjamin Franklin proposed during the Constitutional Convention that the founders begin each day with a prayer to God for guidance, his suggestion was defeated.

* The Constitution mentions religion only to guarantee that godly belief would never be used as a qualification for holding office.

* It's unclear precisely where the idea of adding "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance originated, but one force was the Catholic fraternal society the Knights of Columbus. In the early '50s the Knights adopted the God-infused pledge for use in their own meetings, and members bombarded Congress with calls for the United States to do the same.

* The Congressional hearing on adopting the phrase "under God" focused on how important it was to promote religion Ñ which of course IS undeniably unconstitutional.

* In 1962 The Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional for public schools to allow prayer. When asked about the unpopular decision, President John F. Kennedy replied that he knew many people were angry, but that the decisions of the court had to be respected. He added that there was "a very easy remedy"Ñnot a constitutional amendment but a renewed commitment by Americans to pray at home, in their churches, and with their families.

I have no comment on any of that, except for the last part: I wish we still had a president as calm, reasonable and intelligent as Jack Kennedy. Maybe I should pray for one.

A new winner in the contest for dumbest remarks on the Pledge of Allegiance decision: Senator Joseph Lieberman called for a constitutional amendment to enshrine "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance and said, "There may have been a more senseless, ridiculous decision issued by a court at some time, but I don't remember it." Ñ Dred Scott? Plessy v. Ferguson? Korematsu v. United States? Bush v. Gore?

I was wrong. There are much dumber things to say about the Pledge of Allegiance decision than the Kit Bond quote I focused on yesterday. Christian right columnist Cal Thomas on the decision: "On the eve of our great national birthday party and in the aftermath of Sept. 11, when millions of us turned to God and prayed for forgiveness of individual and corporate sins and asked for His protection against future attacks, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco has inflicted on this nation what many will conclude is a greater injury than that caused by the terrorists."

There is no doubt there is bias in the media, but it's a lot more complicated than anything you can reduce to "liberal" or "conservative" bias. This article holds an example. The Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune recently ran a long puff piece on Katherine Harris, who is running for Congress. Democrats understandably complained that Democratic candidates didn't get anything remotely resembling the same treatment. The newspaper's managing editor responded with a stunningly honest e-mail. In a nutshell, she said that Katherine Harris is famous, and the Democratic candidates are "complete unknowns." Harris, the editor added, is going to win the election, so she isn't going to waste the newspaper's space covering the losers. Now that certainly sounds like a bias against Democrats, but wait. The editor also stated that she dislikes Katherine Harris and has no intention of voting for her. In fact, in defense of her journalistic integrity she notes that in spite of her own feelings about Harris, the newspaper ran what is seen as an extremely favorable piece about her.

That's not integrity. That's just a bias for celebrity over substance. And I'd suggest that media bias has more to do with that than it does with any ideological labels.

Why are we trying to undermine the International Criminal Court?

"Both left and right in America have moralistic streaks that are always admirable, often useful and sometimes disastrous." Ñ Nicholas Kristof

I just find that an interesting statement. Moralism in politics is certainly sometimes a wonderful thing, and sometimes disastrous. "Always admirable?" I'll have to think about that, but I doubt it.

The worst aspect of all the business/ political scandals that have erupted in the past eight months or so is that they are so huge and so convoluted that they're impossible for an ordinary person to wrap his mind around. I understand that Enron, Adelphia, WorldCom and all the other crooks stole more money that I can imagine by cooking their books. But I have no idea how, and I don't think many people do. The scandals exist under the national radar (while we all focus on meaningless symbolic issues like the Pledge of Allegiance, or salacious ones like the kidnapping of the teenager in Utah Ñ simple things we can understand) because while we all know that something stinks here, we're reluctant to say anything, because we know we really don't get it. Paul Krugman uses a simple analogy Ñ imagine they were all selling ice crearm Ñ and makes complicated business dealing clear even to a liberal arts major who can barely balance a checkbook.

Krugman makes an interesting point in this article Ñ all of the recent scandals involve shady accounting practices, but they were all different shady accounting practices. You can't easily write a law to cover all the ways people will cheat, because there are so many ways to cheat. We depend on regulators, on watchdogs. But politicians, stuffed with campaign contributions, are playing games with writing laws while eviscerating the watchdogs. Even while denouncing WorldCom, Krugman notes, George Bush is trying to appoint the man who drafted the "Enron exemption" Ñ a law custom-designed to protect the company from scrutiny Ñ to a top position with a key regulatory agency. There's no way we can deal with the business scandal unless we start with the political scandal.

When people are angrily screaming the name of God, it isn't a good sign. When the words "under God" are a throwaway line in a patriotic pledge, that's not a good thing for religion. Right now, this decision seems to be bringing out that angry, nasty edge that often lies under the surface of religion Ñ and that's even worse.

Thursday, June 27, 2002

I wonder if I'm the only person in the United States who has no strong feelings one way or the other about the court decision declaring the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional. Just a few (idle and contradictory) thoughts on the subject:

* It doesn't matter. Does anyone believe this decision will be upheld? It will be overturned even before the new school year starts in September. It will have no effect whatsoever on anyone.

* It doesn't matter for another reason. Even if it were upheld Ñ which is impossible to imagine Ñ it would have virtually no effect on anyone. Will either patriotism or religion wither if public school children fail to say the Pledge of Allegiance each morning? If anything, I suspect it might improve the state of both, since in the long run mindless recitations lead more to cynicism than to respect for what they promote. After eight years of reciting prayers in Catholic school, the one thing I thought I knew about God is that he was a bore. And maybe a little hard of hearing, since he needed you to repeat words over and over. I had to stop saying the mindless prayers before I discovered that wasn't true.

* The politicians' reaction to this is interesting, if a little depressing. Senators unanimously passed a resolution condemning the ruling and House members gathered on the Capitol steps to recite the pledge and sing "God Bless America." It sounds like some kind of superstitious ritual to ward off evil Ñ bad things are happening, let's sing a song. Republicans are scrambling to make political capital out of it. They know they have to do it quickly, of course, because the decision will probably be overturned very fast Ñ which doesn't give them a lot of time to milk this non-issue. (Although I wouldn't put it past them to continue trying to milk the issue even after it's dead.) Democrats are almost as absurd and desperate. Tom Daschle urged the entire Senate to be on hand this morning when they open with the pledge Ñ something senators usually don't bother to show up for. They're all terrified that the Republicans actually will get some traction out of this, and are trying to be the first to condemn it. The sad part is that there is so much important work to be done right now and our representatives are wasting time preening over an utterly meaningless, symbolic issue. What does it say about our priorities that the Senate halted debate on a military bill to work on a resolution criticizing the ruling? You can't entirely blame the politicians, though. Americans don't want to take the trouble to understand complex political issues, but they get all hot and bothered about stupid symbolic ones Ñ so that's what the politicians are going to focus on. Unfortunately, we have the government we deserve.

* First prize for the dumbest reaction by a politician: Senator Kit Bond (R-Mo.) said, "Our Founding Fathers must be spinning in their graves. This is the worst kind of political correctness run amok." If the phrase "political correctness" has any meaning at all (and it's been used so randomly, I'm not sure it does), wouldn't it mean avoiding saying things that are true (or at least deserve to be discussed), but make people uncomfortable? On the left, it means avoiding racial issues, because things that should be said make people politically squirmy. On the left, enforcing "political correctness" means not allowing people to say anything that might hurt someone's feelings. But of course political correctness exists on the right too. When Ari Fleischer tells Americans to "watch what they say." When John Ashcroft says asking discomforting questions is akin to treason. That's an attempt to say that some political ideas are out of bounds Ñ that they are "politically incorrect." It seems to me that the only political correctness evident here is all the politicians falling all over themselves making sure they are seen taking the "correct" (that is, popular) political stance.

* I'm not sure if it's a valid legal decision, but it doesn't seem to me to be an unreasonable one. According to the LA Times, a number of legal scholars said that while they certainly expected it to be overturned, "it represented a plausible interpretation of U.S. Supreme Court precedent." I'm no lawyer, but it seems pretty obvious that if the government leads children in expresssing the notion that our country is "under God," they are establishing a religion. It's a pretty bland and vague religion, but it's a religion nonetheless. In fact, I object more to the idea of the government establishing a bland and vague religion than I do to the overall idea of establishing a religion. I don't like the idea of government promoting religion, but I hate the idea of government teaching children that religion is bland and meaningless. In 1984, several liberal members of the Supreme Court, including Thurgood Marshall, Harry A. Blackmun, John Paul Stevens and William J. Brennan Jr., said references like "In God We Trust," which appears on United States currency and coins, were protected from the Establishment Clause because their religious significance had been lost through rote repetition. I find that really depressing: it's ok for the government to kill religion by reducing it to meaningless repitition. Is that what people of faith really want?

* The judge who dissented in the case wrote that the danger the phrase "under God" presented to the 1st Amendment was "picayune at most." Even though I don't see the court's decision as outrageous, I tend to agree with that dissent. The ironic thing is that I suspect most people who are angry about the decision would disagree. What the judge is saying is that having children recite the words "under God" doesn't really matter that much. The angry people think it matters a whole lot. And they're not all that enamored of the 1st Amendment anyway. If the 1st Amendment and the phrase "under God" really were in conflict, they'd seize "under God" and toss the 1st Amendment in a heartbeat.

* The dissenting judge went on to state that the ruling could jeopardize the singing in public settings of the nation's most treasured patriotic songs and even make vulnerable the words "In God We Trust" on coins and bills. " 'God Bless America' and 'America the Beautiful' will be gone for sure," he wrote. He's getting silly here, making people believe they aren't going to be allowed to sing "God Bless America" or "America the Beautiful." If the logic of the ruling were continued (and, once again, there's not a chance in hell of that happening), the government might not be allowed to lead people in singing those songs, but there's nothing to stop anyone from singing them in non-governmental public settings.

* Personally, I wouldn't miss "God Bless America." Ugly melody, simplistic and awkward lyrics and it always forms an image in my head of God dressed up like a World War I soldier. "America the Beautiful" is another story. There aren't many songs (and almost no patriotic ones) with melodies as soaring and lovely. And the lyrics are specific and poetic. Spacious skies. Purple mountains. It evokes a gorgeous image of a place you really believe God could shed his grace on.

*Personally, I wouldn't even miss the Pledge of Allegiance. I have nothing against its sentiments. Rather like them, in fact. I just hate reciting, especially group recitations. I like words, and when a lot of people try to say the same words at the same time, the fact that most people have no sense of rhythm becomes painfully obvious and the words turn to mush. I hate to hear "liberty and justice for all" (surely one of the noblest phrases ever) reduced to meaningles mush.

* And yet I love listening to children say the Pledge of Allegiance. Last year, I volunteered once a week in my daughter's kindergarten class, and the best part was the beginning of each school day, watching twenty 5- and 6-year-olds, with their hands over their hearts, pledging allegiance to ideals they've barely begun to understand. They looked so serious, sensing that they were doing something important, even though they weren't exactly sure what it was. It's an exquisite thing to watch. Maybe it's the transitory nature of that innocent faith in American ideals that makes it so beautiful. They will grow up. They will realize that "liberty and justice" are not fully available to all, and that at times we are all so cantankerous, even litigious, that we barely seem like "one nation" at all. They will become smarter and less innocent about America, hopefully not too cynical, but they will lose that look of awe. That's what growing up is all about Ñ but it's still a loss. I love watching small children pledge allegiance to the flag because while they are doing it, I can share a little bit of their innocent faith and their unquestioning awe.

* I'm not sure I understand why the man who brought this suit did so, unless he's just an eccentric professional complainer Ñ and there's some evidence that that's the case.. The court has already ruled that students can not be required to recite the pledge. It seems silly to object to his daughter even being exposed to the words "under God." Let's face it Ñ we live in a diverse country. Every child in school is, at some point, going to be exposed to an idea that his or her parents object to. The compromise is that we always give people the option of opting out. If your parents don't want you exposed to sex education, they can sign a form and have you sit in the library during the class. If they think Harry Potter promotes witchcraft, nobody's going to force you to read it. But you don't get to eliminate sex ed for everyone, or kick Harry out of the library because you don't like it. Isn't the same reasonable compromise called for here?

* The Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892 by a socialist, Francis Bellamy. Pledging ourselves to "liberty and justice for all" is, after all, a pretty radical notion, one that conservatives, while they're anxious to be seen reciting the words, don't really embrace Ñ at least not in any way that a 19th century socialist would recognize. I can't help but be amused by right-wingers' attachment to a socialist pledge Ñ and wonder why they aren't worried that in reciting the pledge, they are endorsing not just religion, but socialism.

* Just a note: All the headlines are wrong. The court didn't rule that the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional. It ruled that the 1954 addition of the words "under God" to the original pledge was unconstitutional. There is a difference.

* Jerry Falwell immediately started a petition drive to urge the Supreme Court to reverse the panel's ruling immediately. I'm sure he knows perfectly well that doing so is a waste of time, since the decision is sure to be overturned anyway (and would we want the kind of Supreme Court that is swayed by petitions in any case?). I'm also sure that this will be a great money-making issue for Falwell.

* The fact that the Christian right is having heart palpitations over this decision makes the decision seem smarter than it otherwise would. The phrase "under God" seems pretty bland and meaningless to me, but if right wing Christians are certain that it promotes God, maybe they have a better take on it than I do. Maybe it DOES promote religion Ñ which would be an argument in favor of the decision.

* Atheists and agnostics don't like being asked to pledge allegiance to a country "under God." That's understandable. I don't think the press understands, however, that atheists and agnostics aren't the only ones who object. So do people who are religious, but not monotheistic. And so do people who see God as transcending national boundaries. The notion of a God tied to a particular nation is deeply offensive to many religious peple.

* Michael A. Newdow, the man who brought the suit, has already recieved threats and obscene phone calls. He says he is worried about his daughter and so am I. Nobody can sink as low as people who call themselves religious and patriotic.

Wednesday, June 26, 2002

Seventy three percent of Catholics favor criminal charges against bishops who knew of an allegation of abuse and didn't call the police or remove the priest from duty. Only one in 10 believes they should be allowed to remain as bishops. I'm surprised by those numbers. I know the media has been reporting how angry Catholics are, but I grew up in the Catholic Church, and I'm also well aware of how angry Catholics can get at anyone who criticizes the Church in any way. When nearly three-quarters of Catholics would like to see some bishops behind bars Ñ it's a new world. A world I never expected to see in my lifetime.

Beliefnet has scratched the "Teflon Cardinal." Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles has tried to pass himself off as a church reformer, but this article notes that in fact he's one of "America's worst bishops." Hypocrisy just got a little tougher.

When Colin Powell gets tired of being kicked around by Republicans, maybe he can come over to the Democratic Party Ñ he'll feel a lot more comfortable at the rational end of the political continuum.

Awhile back, California Senator Dianne Feinstein revealed that during last summer's energy crisis the President and VP refused to meet with her. Meanwhile Dick Cheney was doing meetings left and right (well, mostly right) with representatives from Enron, who were busy ripping off the state. Today Congresswoman Lois Capps, who represents the once oil-slicked and now oil-shy Santa Barbara, wrote that while President Bush met recently with Bill Simon, the Republican candidate for governor, to discuss oil drilling, she can't get the President to meet with her or the state's senators.

The FBI is visiting libraries and checking the reading records of people it suspects of having ties to terrorists or plotting an attack. In and of itself, that doesn't bother me much. If the FBI has other reasons to suspect someone, knowing what they're reading may provide another piece of the puzzle. To want that piece of the puzzle seems entirely reasonable to me. The problem is, the FBI has a history of not being able to tell the difference between people who are genuinely dangerous and people who have ideas that are out of the mainstream. In the '60s they had a bizarre inability to see the difference between the Weather Underground and Martin Luther King (or even, for pity's sake, the president of the University of California, Clark Kerr ). I don't want to take away their ability to get the information they genuinely need, but I don't want them going on fishing expeditions looking for people whose ideas they don't understand and don't trust either. History suggests we ought to at least keep a close eye on them as they collect information.

Evidence that the left can be just as stupid as the right: Salon reports that two Israeli scholars have been fired from their positions on editorial boards of European journals, as part of a boycott against Israel. The whole idea of a boycott directed against Israel seems wrong-headed to me. I don't like what the Israeli government is doing right now, but Israel is no South Africa. But the idea of firing scholars because we don't like their government's policies seems especially insane. What good can come out of silencing Israelis?

Andrew Tyndall, whose New York-based Tyndall Report monitors television news, argues CNN's sensitivity to suggestions that their Middle East reporting was not sufficiently pro-Israel has less to do with responding to legitimate Israeli objections than it does with losing more conservative Christian viewers to Fox. We've got a real problem when what we see on the news is determined by people waiting for Armageddon.

Yoel Marcus's piece in Ha'aretz on Israeli's disenchantment with Sharon contains a bizarrely interesting tidbit: Sharon never leaves the house without make-up. He is always ready for the tv cameras. Even when he visited the site of a suicide bombing recently Ñ spontaneously, according to his handlers Ñ he was in full make-up. I'm curious now to check out footage of American politicians at the site of the WTC ruins back in September. Were they all camera ready? God help us, but I suspect they were.

Ha'aretz's Yoel Marcus writes that Israelis are becoming sick and tired of Ariel Sharon. I have no idea if he's right, but I'll cling to the hope that he is. Israelis are beginning to realize, Marcus argues, that "Prime ministers are elected to solve problems, not to tell us that our enemies are bastards." I like that sentence. I'm looking forward to the time when Americans realize the same is true of presidents.

In The Atlantic, David Brooks suggests that attacking Arafat has only made him stronger. What interests him in money Ñ not because he has any personal interest in luxury, but because he has used it throughout his career to create a coterie of loyalists. Choke off his money supply, Brooks says, and you destroy his power. I don't know if he's right, but it's an interesting suggestion, and it fits in with what many other people have said about Arafat.

Jonathan Freedland notes, in The Guardian, that Ariel Sharon is not the only one pleased by Bush's speech on Monday.
It also cheered the religious fanatics of Hamas and Jihad, who were able to mock moderate Palestinians for ever believing that politics, rather than violence, might bring results.

Another one of my naive questions: How come President Bush is ordering the Palestinians, who in fact held an election (monitored by, among others, Jimmy Carter), to embrace democracy, but he isn't asking the same of his friends the Saudis? Just curious.

"ISRAEL has barred foreign correspondents from entering major occupied towns, while Palestinian journalists are stuck under curfew, vastly curtailing what the world can learn about the latest West Bank operation. Israel - citing reporters' safety - said the measures were legitimate in a combat zone. But critics see the restrictions as an effort to prevent unflattering coverage and to silence potential criticism of the major military push."

And while Israel is keeping reporters out of occupied towns, its supporters in the US are pressuring American news outlets to slant their reports in pro-Israel ways.

Another musing: Two thousand Palestinian academics and intellectuals signed a petition calling for an end to suicide bombings. Within the PLO there are a number of articulate, young, highly intelligent and educated figures who have advocated internal reforms and democratisation. What can be done to encourage these people?

Just a thought: In his Middle East speech, Bush said one thing that is undeniably true Ñ Yasser Arafat is an impediment to peace. Unfortunately, he didn't say two other things that are equally true Ñ Ariel Sharon is also an impediment to peace and people have a right to choose their own leaders. It's possible, as Bush demonstrated, to say something that is accurate and still be wrong.

Britain's Independent has an interesting profile of Yasser Arafat Ñ a man with the skill to "retain power in a feral, armed and unstable environment," but, unfortunately, without the skill to run a government. Although he has little interest in personal wealth, he's obsessed with personal power, which he uses to reward his family and those who are loyal to him. What's interesting in the article is the idea that the US and Israel have supported this corruption, until recently, because they believed it helped "shore up a compliant Palestinian leadership." Robert Fisk has more to say on this.

I don't completely understand the president's Middle East speech, and I don't think that's entirely my fault. It was so vague, people will be debating for months what in the world he was trying to say. But if Arial Sharon reads it as a "green light" to continue attacking the West Bank and Gaza that can't be a good thing.

"Downing Street noted that the cardinal rule of the Northern Ireland peace process had been to leave each community to choose its leader." Ñ The Brits have a lot more experience than we do dealing with people who are using horrible methods in support of a justifiable cause. Maybe we should be paying a lot more attention to what they have to tell us.

This is probably a dumb question, but I can't help but wonder. If international monitors are needed anywhere right now, it would seem to be in the West Bank. Where's the UN?

The Village Voice reports on prisoners held in the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn, a high-security federal prison to which many Arabs and South Asians have been taken. It is, according to The Voice, "a black hole... where immigrants disappear for months into extreme isolation and deprivation, only to come out the other end accused of no crime that justifies their jail time." The article focuses on a man who spent seven months at the center Ñ all but a half hour per day confined alone in a cell, shackled when he was outdoors Ñ without charges. For several months, no one in his family even knew where he was. He was eventuall deported back to his home (in Canada), but his belongings, including his identification documents, were never returned to him.

Thomas Friedman continues his fascinating reports on changes in Iran and explores several ways the US government could help support reform in that country. "Iran is the one Muslim Middle East country," Friedman notes, "that is politically alive, full of ferment, with certain overlapping interests with the U.S., and worth a fresh look as to how it might be nudged in the right direction -- not just branded evil and ignored."

Friedman offers optimistic and sensible suggestions. But I can't escape the feeling that this administration is incapable of acting on something like this. President Bush hasn't shown any sign that he's capable of understanding that within a brutal and undemocratic power structure, there can be enormous good that requires nurturing. Everything to him is good or evil. There are opportunities here, but it seems almost certain that they will be lost.

Maureen Dowd suggests that the fears of '60s radicals, which at the time contained more than a hint of paranoia, have mostly come true. Corporate crime. Government coups. Rigged elections. Secret government plans to suspend the Constitution and round people up without charges. Dowd quotes Bobby Rush, the Black Panther who became a Chicago Congressman: "Our young hunches are now becoming mature realities."

The problem is those of us who are old enough to remember the '60s and early '70s feel utterly paralyzed by this reality. It's an incredible irony: we fought back when we were young and the right-wing trampling of the Constitution was more fear than reality. Now it's a reality, but we've forgotten how to fight back.

An interesting thought in an article today's LA Times. The article is about how Morton Klein, a hate-mongering Zionist, is gaining support among more and more American Jews for his view that the Arabs are exactly like the Nazis. It's a very sad article. The messengers of hate seem to be winning on all sides lately. But within the article is an interesting comment from J.J. Goldberg, the editor of the Jewish Forward newspaper in New York. He notes that since World War II, to be anti-Semitic is to be a pariah. That's a good thing Ñ any form of racism ought to be unacceptable. But as Goldberg notes, that gives the people who wield the word "anti-Semitism" a great moral power. They have the power to destroy someone's reputation. With this power, Goldberg suggests, there is a concurrent responsibility: "There ought to be a premium on Jewish civility. Phrases like anti-Israel and anti-Semitism should be used with caution." Ñ a small piece of wisdom we should all keep in mind, no matter what epithet we wield.

"Some Israelis said Bush's speech was too vague on the process for achieving his ends; they warned that it did not create a vision but potentially a vacuum in which either the status quo will continue or extremist elements will prosper...The core problem, as some Israelis saw it, is that Palestinians face a list of significant and immediate demandsÑincluding a virtual order to abandon the father of Palestinian nationalismÑwhile rewards loom years away."

Tuesday, June 25, 2002

As I said before, what we need is not more soldiers but more scholars and scientists. If I had to chose between a fantastic army and a fantastic public health system, I'd take public health any day.

William Saletan points out that the president's "peace plan" for the Middle East not only demands the impossible from the Palestinians, but doesn't offer them much of an incentive if they somehow manage to achieve it Ñ just "a 'state' with no defined borders, powers, or timetable (and no right to be represented by its present leadership)"

In today's NY Times, Nicholas Kristof writes in favor of sweatshops. Actually, the point he's making is valid Ñ sweatshop labor is a step up for workers in many desperately poor countries, and boycotting companies that operate in those places, encouraging them to move to countries where the wages are slightly higher, and working conditions slightly better, only penalizes the poorest of the poor.

He's right, but the article is still wildly off base. One problem is that Kristof castigates anti-sweatshop activists for failing to understand this basic economic fact, when in fact, activists I've heard emphasize that boycotts don't work because they hurt the very people you want to help, and focus instead on letter writing campaigns and political pressure.

I suppose you could argue that political pressure and the threat of bad publicity also discourages companies from investing in very poor countries. But I'm not sure what the alternative is. Kristof is more than a little disingenuous when he offers, as an example of the kind of thing anti-sweatshop people get angry about, a BBC report that that three girls in one factory in Cambodia were under 15 years old. He makes it sound as if labor standards were simply not quite up to American standards. But the truth is, several human rights organizations, including Oxfam have documented not just low wages and child labor, but grotesque abuses and lack of concern for workers' basic health and safety. American companies have also worked with repressive host governments to keep workers from organizing to improve conditions through arrests and threats of violence. And it's not just clothing manufacturers. In Indonesia, Exxon-Mobil paid the military for providing security for its facilities. That military, which locals call "Exxon's Army," is "responsible for human rights abuses" including murder, torture, sexual crimes, and kidnapping according to both Human Rights Watch and Indonesian human rights groups. I'm sorry, but that can not be the face the United States presents to the world.

I'm certainly no expert on the subject, but demanding that the Palestinians reform their government while the place is being smashed seems more than you can expect from any human being. Reform is obviously essential. But the question is, what can we do to help create conditions that will allow, even encourage, reform?

Monday, June 24, 2002

One of the strongest arguments against an invasion of Iraq is the fear that a dangerous chaos would follow the removal of Saddam Hussein. Dusko Doder, in The American prospect, looks at some of the men who are clamoring to replace Saddam and finds to trust that fear.

Doder also suggests a different, non-violent model for toppling Saddam: President Clinton's program of political and propaganda assistance to the opponents of Slobodan Milosevic. According to Doder, "After spending billions of dollars on military action intended to bring down Milosevic, the Clinton administration finally succeeded through nonviolent means -- and at a cost of less than $40 million, which it funneled through nongovernmental organizations. The money was spent on schooling the Yugoslav opposition in such things as the techniques of nonviolent resistance, and how to monitor an election. It also went to support many kinds of nongovernmental media...The actual heavy lifting to overthrow Milosevic was done by key elements in the society -- the students, the trade unions, the middle classes. The combination of student demonstrations and a miners' strike ignited a popular revolt. The United States also assembled an international coalition which, at the crucial movement, exerted political and diplomatic pressures that helped topple the dictator."

I'm especially interested in Doder's suggestion that "stirrings throughout the Muslim worlds that reflect women's desire for greater freedom" might make women "a key agent of change."


I'm amazed. We actually do seem to have a Congress. According to USA Today, Congress, which up to now has seemed to operate on the principle of nodding its head while the president does whatever he feels like doing, has decided that it wants a voice in what could be the next step in the war Ñ an invasion of Iraq. Henry Hyde, of all people, says, "As a practical matter, the president would not and could not undertake such a dramatic move in foreign policy without congressional approval."

Congressional leaders offer a few reasons why invading Iraq might not be such a great idea:

*House Intelligence Committee Chairman Porter Goss, R-Fla., says there is "insufficient information" to justify a vote for military action against Iraq. (I'm not sure if he means we can't "justify" invading Iraq because we have no information connecting them to terrorism or no information that their "weapons of mass destruction" exist and pose a genuine threat to us Ñ but both appear to be the case.)

* Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham, D-Fla., worries that a "premature" attack could "fracture the coalition" of nations helping the United States combat terrorism. (Translation: the dictators in the Middle East don't want the idea that a government can be overthrown to get too much traction.)

* Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., fears U.S. forces already are stretched to the limit. (And, I might add, they don't seem to be doing very well at the simpler job of keeping Afghanistan from falling into chaos Ñ that doesn't bode well for what they could accomplish in Iraq.)

* House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., has other priorities. "Our focus should be Israel," he says.

It's interesting how few Democrats are among those urging caution.

In an open letter to Karl Rove, John Dean, who knows as much about secrecy in government as anyone, says, " The continuing insistence on secrecy by your White House is startlingly Nixonian. I'm talking about everything from stiffing Congressional requests from information and witnesses, to employing an executive order to demolish the 1978 law providing public access to presidential papers, to forcing the Government Accounting Office to go to Court to obtain information about how the White House is spending tax money when creating a pro-energy industry Vice Presidential task force. The Bush Administration apparently seeks to reverse the post-Watergate trend of open government."

Will women be better off in the new Afghanistan than they were under the Taliban? At first glance, the answer to that question might seem obvious. How could any government be worse for women than the Taliban? But recent news from Afghanistan suggests that the improvements will be minimal at best. According to The Washington Post, threats from conservative Islamic groups have forced President Hamid Karzai not to fill the Women's Affairs Ministry. It is not yet clear whether he will defy demands from Islamic groups to eliminate the ministry, which has been attacked by Muslim groups who strongly oppose the emancipation of women and believe that the presence of women in politics violates the tenets of Islam. Sima Samar, a women's rights activist who served as minister of women's affairs for the past six months, came under attack by conservative Islamic clergy during the loya jirga. They accused her of opposing Islamic law. Samar also reportedly received a number of threatening notes and phone calls.

Somehow I doubt that brave feminist icon, Laura Bush, will be giving another radio address to express support for the embattled women of Afghanistan.

Sunday, June 23, 2002

Still more on women in Afghanistan: The Feminist Majority and other womenÕs organizations as well as the United Nations and the interim Afghan government have asked the Bush administration to expand US peacekeeping troops from 4,800 to 25,000 in order to protect the Afghan people. ÒTo do less. " says Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), "is to indicate that we do not care about Afghanistan and to underscore that we do not care about what is happening to the women of Afghanistan.Ó

And according to Human Rights Watch, Afghanistan's recently appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was quoted in press interviews as saying that Shari'a punishments including stoning and amputation would be retained. It is also worrisome that no one has been appointed to head the Ministry for Women's Affairs. This ministry is key to promoting and achieving Afghan women's rights.

More news on the precarious position of women in Afghanistan. The British troops who have been policing Kabul for the past three months will be gone within a few weeks. The Brits handed over control of the International Security Assistance Force to Turkey, a country with a less than stellar record on human rights in general, and women's rights in particular. What's worse, many of the warlords won't tolerate the ISAF in their territory and without international support, Afghanistan's leader, Hamid Karzai, has no option but to leave safety and human rights of Afghans in the hands of men who have a long history of brutality aimed especially at women. Under warlord rule, there have been frequent reports of intimidation of women by armed men on the streets. Women are being imprisoned for "crimes" such as seeking to marry a man of their choice. Northern Alliance members threaten to throw acid in women's faces if they fail to wear the traditional burqa. The United Nations has complained of attacks by gunmen, including the gang rape of an American aid worker. According to Human Rights Watch, the Taliban's special Police for the Protection of Virtue and Prohibition of Vice are still patrolling some remote parts of southern Afghanistan.

Karzai says he is prepared to "ask the international community" to intervene if the warlords refuse to disband their private armies. But it's unlikely he'd get a positive response Ñ especially from the United States, which has been paying some of these warlords for their "services" in the "war on terrorism."

Laura Bush told us we had done a great thing in liberating the women of Afghanistan and that we would continue "working to insure that dignity and opportunity will be secured for all the women and children of Afghanistan." I hope she's telling her husband that if he backs out on them now, he's nothing but a lying, gutless hypocrite.

Someone I don't understand: An assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Policy, who came to the United States as a refugee from Viet Nam, and whose current job is torturing the law to figure out ways to keep Muslim men in jail for an indefinite period on minor or no charges.

When will they ever learn? According to The Washington Times: "A provision in the bill seeking to create a Homeland Security Department will exempt its employees from whistleblower protection, the very law that helped expose intelligence-gathering missteps before September 11. The legislation now before Congress contains a provision allowing the director of the proposed agency to waive all employee protections in Title V, including the Whistleblower Protection Act. The act protects government employees from retaliation or losing employment for speaking out on waste, fraud and abuse." The way to make us secure is to make it harder for people to reveal when something is wrong? How Nixonian.

A lesson from history Ñ Richard Reeves on Watergate: "There will always be political scandal revealed in a country with a healthy free press."

We worry when we read about scandals. There's more of a threat when we are not hearing about them.

A surprising number: Sixty percent of the college students in Iran are women.

I think Maureen Dowd is saying something very similar to what I was suggesting yesterday: "What this president desperately needs is a few more geeky, scholarly analysts with thick glasses and shameful physiques, poring over memos and intelligence feeds at the C.I.A., F.B.I. and N.S.A. Toned bodies are well and good. But how about some toned minds?" In other words, cut all the macho posturing and listen to people who traditionally get very little respect Ñ women, scholars, geeks and nerds.

"The job of a citizen is to keep his mouth open" Ñ Gunther Grass

I have a lot of heroes. I seem to semi-consciously keep my eye open for them. Sometimes they are people who are long dead. Sometimes they are people who have accomplished great things. And sometimes they are people like Sally Regenhard, the mother of a World Trade Center victim. Ms. Regenhard is the head of a group called the Skyscraper Safety Campaign, which has pressured the National Institute of Standards and Technology to conduct a technical probe of the trade center collapse. Her organization also works with some of the other dozen groups of terror victims' families who are demanding that an independent commission investigate all aspects of the attacks. The families are also mobilizing for the battle over what kind of memorial there should be at the site of the WTC Ñ trying to insure that honoring their family members has priority over getting back to business.

Over the past nine months, I have heard the words "hero" and "patriotism" far more than I want to. Obviously I have nothing against heroes and nothing against patriotism, but words are important to me, and "hero" and "patriotism" are words that are probably used dishonestly more often than they are used accurately and honestly. George Orwell Ñ another of my heroes Ñ believed that there was something deeply unethical and dehumanizing about distorting the meaning of words, and I agree. The word "hero" is so subject to abuse. It's hard to define. Everyone has his own definition Ñ and that's reasonable. But it seems to me that no matter what your definition, only someone who has done something can be called a hero. It doesn't make any difference whether it is physical or intellectual courage they've displayed, but unsought martyrdom makes a victim, not a hero. I've heard the terrorist victims described as heroes, and soldiers in the first battle against terrorism over and over, and it's an absurd description. To say that they were victims, not heroes, is in no way to dishonor them. It is simply being honest with words. In fact, I think it is a dishonor to them to describe them as something they were not Ñ to lie about them. I think it is deeply unethical for politicians to describe them as heroic soldiers rather than people doing their jobs and living their lives. Maybe in our increasingly militaristic society, politicians can see value only in soldiers, and can't think of a way to praise someone except as a hero in battle. Personally, I think living your life and doing your job well is a difficult and noble thing. Dying while you are trying to do that is simply tragic.

But many of the family members of those victims are heroes. I'm not just talking about their emotional endurance. Endurance is something you have no choice about. Sheep endure. Cows endure. But human beings, heroic human beings like many of the WTC victims' family members, band together to help each other endure and stay together to help each other find answers.

Right now it is their search for answers that I find so inspiring and heroic. And so American. I think that one of the things that distinguishes this country is that we fight for answers to our questions. (That quality explains why the Vatican is finding American Catholics so incomprehensible at the moment. When we ask questions, we expect to be told the truth, and we expect necessary changes to be made very quickly.) That doesn't make us "the greatest country in the world," but it makes us a great country Ñ a noble one, and a strong one. We don't just accept what leaders tell us. And changes that need to be made get made because we don't shut up until we're satisfied with the answers we're given. It's the source of our progress.

My favorite moment in this Washington Post article about terrorist victims' families is when Sally Regenhard nails Hillary Clinton after a rally to ask Ñ no, more like demand Ñ that she support the investigation into why the towers collapsed when fire engineering and safety experts suggested that the buildings need not have come down. Senator Clinton politely ducks the questions, the demands. Heroes can be pests (that may, in fact, be one of the primary attributes of a hero). But everything about Sally Regenhard makes you certain she will never back down, that she is going to get answers (answers that will benefit all of us, not just the victims' families). Clinton, and all the other politicians at the rally, work for Sally Regenhard (and the rest of us) and she will not let them forget it.

That, to me, is the absolute essence of what it means to be an American Ñ believing that the government works for you and not the other way around. What Sally Reganhard does is what patriotism is all about. John Ashcroft has suggested that to ask questions is to give comfort to terrorists. I'd like to hear him try to tell that to Sally Reganhard.

Saturday, June 22, 2002

Bill Bennett is appalled that 79 percent of college students do not believe Western culture is superior to Arab culture. I am appalled that a former Secretary of Education could say something as banal as " this is the greatest nation in the world" and believe he is passing on some great wisdom that is not open to debate. An 18-year-old student in freshman composition wouldn't get away with a cliche like that, without explaining and justifying his terms (and shouldn't). What constitutes a "great" country? Wealth? Military power? The educational achievements of its citizens? Its art, music, and literature? The health, well-being and longevity of its citizens? Its ethical standards? The number of Nobel Prizes? The joy its people get from life? I'd say the United States ranks pretty high in all of those areas, but number one in only a handful of them. In a number of those areas, we're quantifiably not "the greatest" Ñ life expentancy, for example. There's no country that is "best" in all of them (and I'm sure there are many other indicators of greatness that don't immediately come to mind). Does that mean that maybe we should just drop the whole silly idea of insisting there is one "greatest" country.

Just out of curiousity, I'm wondering if Bill Bennett believes that this is "the greatest country in the world," does he have a country in mind for second place? Does he have a top ten? Also, is it necessary for every other country to acknowledge our undeniable superiority, or are they allowed to celebrate their own? Is an Irishman allowed to believe, for example, that Ireland is the greatest country in the world? Or would that be suggesting the unthinkable Ñ that truth depends on the viewer?

Two female delegates to the loya jirga in Afghanistan describe how the warlords won and democracy Ñ especially as it relates to women's rights Ñ lost. They still have hope for the future, but democracy will require " genuine international support for the rule of law."

Katha Pollitt argues that ratifying the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women is not just a matter of doing the decent thing. Women's rights are the key to human progress. Where women do well, everyone does well. As Pollitt points out, it's no coincidence that " Islamic fundamentalism flourishes in the parts of the world where women are most oppressed...The denial of education, employment and rights to women fuels the social conditions of backwardness, provincialism and poverty that sustain religious fanaticism."

Is there any way to make George Bush understand that giving women in poor countries a few more tools to fight for their rights is one of the best anti-terrorist investments we could make? And the cheapest as well Ñ unless the president is counting the cost of Christian fundamentalist votes and campaign contributions he might lose.

The Nation offers some persuasive reasons for not attacking Iraq.

*Since the Gulf War, Iraq's military capabilities have weakened significantly, to the point where they pose little or no threat to its neighbors.

*There is no evidence that Saddam has cooperated with Al Qaeda or other "terrorist groups with global reach." As the State Department said earlier this year, Saddam has not been involved in any terrorist plots against the West since his attempt to target Bush Senior during his 1993 visit to Kuwait.

*There is no reason for the Saddam to aid the apocalyptic goals of Islamic fanatics, who threaten his secular regime and his bid for leadership in the Arab world, and there is no evidence of Iraqi collusion with terrorist organizations.

* Not even Israel, which would be at the greatest risk of an Iraqi attack, seems to accept the priority of getting rid of Saddam Hussein. Ariel Sharon derailed the Administration's timetable on Iraq by pursuing its aggressive strategy in the West Bank.

*There is little danger that Saddam will put Iraqi weapons in the hands of Islamic terrorists. But in the event of an invasion, chaos could (in fact, almost certainly would) erupt. If US forces are unable to secure nuclear or biological materials, they could easily end up on the black market.

*There is no leadership waiting in the wings to help insure stability and to offer the beginnings of democratic rule. Iraq's collapse into anarchy cannot be ruled out.

Recently President Bush announced a supposedly "important new" anti-AIDS program for Africa. Compassionate conservatism at work. One problem: he was taking credit for money already approved by Congress, which he had, in fact, opposed, lobbying Congress to lower spending for this activity. Also, the funding doesn't come close to meeting the need. Kind of like patting yourself on the back for saving Afghan women while stalling on a treaty to help insure their rights. What a nasty game.

Here's a strange argument: John Ashcroft's opponents use his religion to slander him. Nonsense. No one is attacking his religion. What makes both secular and genuinely religious people angry is the way Ashcroft cloaks hate in the language of religion. He's really got the game down. It's the same principle he uses to shred the Constitution in the name of patriotism. Opposing that isn't attacking patriotism either. The problem with John Ashcroft is not that he's too religious and too patriotic, it's that he's neither, but steals the language of people who are.

Writing in Salon, Michelle Goldberg has more explanation of John Ashcroft's attempt to kill the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Seems we should blame Bush as much as Ashcroft. The administration is afraid of alienating the Christian right by signing the treaty, which would offer some protection of basic human rights for women around the world. Women don't need rights, the Christian right is arguing, all they need is the Bible. And they hold the rather odd belief that a document which states "Parties shall take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women" will somehow encourage prostitution.

By while appeasing the Christian right, the administration also doesn't want to undermine the State Department, which has already endorsed the treaty as one that is "generally desirable and should be approved."

Rather than being put in the position of having to piss off one or another group of supporters, the administration is playing a game Ñ asking for a postponement of Senate hearings so the Justice Department can "review" the treaty. Even if the Senate goes ahead and ratifies the treaty (which it seems likely to do), Bush can avoid signing it, without flat out opposing it, because he can simply say he wants to wait for the Justice Department to finish its ongoing investigation.

The treaty has no enforcement mechanism, but it's already had positive effects in some of the 169 countries that have ratified it. National governments have used it as a standard in dealing with women's rights in their country. Third world women's groups have found it useful in their work. Courts in Columbia, India, Tanzania and Nepal have all cited the treaty in decisions that protected women's rights in those countries.

It wasn't long ago that Laura Bush was on television giving the country a collective pat on the back for restoring Afghan women's rights. The feminist credentials of the Bush administration were always a bit laughable (I suspect the president sent his wife out to do the bragging because he could not have uttered the phrase "women's rights" without smirking, perhaps even gagging), but if the administration isn't willing to get behind a treaty that will help insure legal rights for women in places like Afghanistan where those rights, while somewhat improved, remain very weak, it really Ñ in all justice Ñ ought to stop claiming credit for having accomplished anything in that poor country.

Fifty-five percent of Americans say that they are unwilling to give up civil liberties in exchange for national security. I don't have a lot of faith in polls, but I find that number interesting. Not only am I not sure of exactly what people mean when they tell a pollster something like that, I suspect most people who answer the question haven't thought for themselves precisely what they mean. If you started pinning them down on specific rights, I think the rejection of the idea of giving up rights would start peeling away. I also suspect most Americans are more than willing to have OTHER people give up their rights, without seeing the connections to their own rights. But maybe I'm just being cynical. I'm also intrigued by the question itself, which seems to suggest that there's an obvious trade off to be made. It seems to me that we have given up many civil rights in the past nine months, with no gains in security to show for it. Patricia Williams has some interesting things to say on this subject.

It's becoming impossible to read any news from the Middle East without feeling hopeless. Ironically, the only people who can see any light are the people who view all that's going on as one-sided. If you care only about Israel, I suppose you can see some hope in the idea that the Israelis plan to just move in and seize the entire West Bank.

But those of us who wish both the Israelis and the Palestinians well read about Israeli settlers going on a rampage after the funeral of a mother and her three children, and killing a Palestinian man can't escape a sense of unending tragedy.

Talk of negotiations and peace plans seems both essential and utterly irrelevant.

There's an interesting article in today's Los Angeles Times about intelligence gathering in Afghanistan. It emphasizes how the "war on terrorism" is more reliant on linguists and analysts, and interrogators with great psychological instincts (reading body language and facial expression, for instance Ñ traditionally feminine skills), than people with more traditional skills of war, yet they don't get a lot of respect from their peers who go into combat. It's not macho work.

Of course, we've seen what happened at the F.B.I. when the people who break down doors and arrest people are respected a lot more than the people who translate and analyze information. The cult of the tough guy meant that the most important work didn't get done.

The interrogation unit at Bagram AF base commissioned a wonderful T-shirt Ñ it reads: "The greatest battle is the battle of wits."

Much of the article is about a female interrogator whose gender works to her advantage. Five feet tall and 21 years old (but looking more like a teenager) she can't physically intimidate anyone. But because she is not what prisoners are expecting, she throws them off guard and sometimes can get information a more physically imposing interrogator couldn't. One important prisoner, in fact, grew to trust her, revealing secrets someone who threatened him probably wouldn't have gotten. Most of the 70 or so prisoners this young woman has interrogated have been cooperative and even exhibited signs of gaining new respect for her gender.

This article intrigues me because I feel like we're quickly becoming a more militaristic society, with hard-edged, masculine values, and yet in reality even the military work is being accomplished by men and women with quieter, more analytical talents. I wonder how long it will be before the country will see translators and psychologists as heroes.

Wednesday, June 19, 2002

Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah of Jordan and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt have all delivered the same message to President Bush: the Palestinians need hope. They need confidence that the Israeli occupation will end, and that there will be a viable Palestinian state. The irony, of course,is that people in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt have even less chance of gaining viable democratic states than the Palestinians do. Nevertheless, they're right. One of the fascinating ironies of politics: you can be a slimy hypocrite and still be right.

Edward Said, in the Egyptian paper Al-Ahram, on the need for Palestinians to ignore the corrupt Arafat and the insane exortations of the "so-called martyrs" and reclaim their own struggle: "A just cause can easily be subverted by evil or inadequate or corrupt means," Said argues. And a functioning and just Palestinian state cannot be created unless the Palestinian people themselves (joined with " an Israeli component made up of individuals and groups with whom a common basis of struggle against occupation can and indeed must be established.") "construct the legitimacy they need to rule themselves and fight the occupation with weapons that don't kill innocents." A good piece Ñ and good advice for all of us: find ways to work around the thugs that lead you, create your own justice.

Interesting. The British have their own problems with right-wingers attacking the head of government's intelligent and opinionated wife. I guess sexism (along with right-wing desperation) is universal.

Some Israeli's argue that to create a provisional Palestinian state now would be to reward the terrorists. The irony,of course, is that a Palestinian state is exactly what the terrorists of Hamas least want. Interestingly, The Jerusalem Post also sees the bombing as an attempt to undermine any peace proposal and keep " the fires of destabilization burning." But they also argue that this serves Arafat's purpose. I honestly can't see what Arafat gains from destabilization.

Certainly not the worst, but one of the saddest aspects of constant war is the way it brutalizes fundamentally decent people. And the license, even prestige, it gives to fundamentally brutal people.

Thomas Friedman's reports from Iran are feeding my optimistic side. As Iranians search for a way to balance religion and a democratic state, all decent people wish them well. Would it be politically (religiously?) incorrect to say I'll be praying for them?

The proposed Department of Homeland Security would remove the State Department's traditional authority to issue visas and transfer it to the new department, which would issue the rules for granting and denying visas, according to this morning's NY Times. Let's hope the first change they make in those rules deals with this loophole.

Something struck me as I was reading the NY Times report on the latest terrorist murders in Israel. According to the article, some Israeli officials urged that Israel refrain from retaliating for at least 24 hours, to avoid displacing in the news media the horrific images of the bombing with ones of an Israeli reprisal. What was interesting was that the way the NY Times article was written confirmed what they said. The Times is generally far more sympathetic to Israelis than to Paletinians, but the lead of the story is not the bombing, but the retaliation. You have to read to the very end of the article (which the majority of readers are not even going to do) before you find the heartbreaking images of teachers desperately checking their classlists to see who is missing and a twelve-year-old boy confronted with his bleeding, possibly dying friend. I despise Ariel Sharon, I think he and Arafat are a matched set of thugs, but I think it is extremely important that we be reminded of the savagery the Israelis' confront every day. What they are doing is self-defeating, but it's not monstrous or fascistic the way many Palestinians (and some of their supporters) make it out to be. Retaliation may be a dumb response, but it is also an understandably human one. By responding before the world had a chance to take in what they were responding to, I think the Israelis handed control of the narrative to the Palestinians. This despite the fact that, according to Ha'aretz, the Israeli government is so aware of the need to get out their side of the story that they are training rescue personnel to immediately get reporters to bombing sites. Ha'aretz also suggests that Ariel Sharon's appearance at the site of Tuesday's attack (his first appearance at the site of a bombing since taking office) was done primarily to attract press attention, to be sure the world did not fail to be aware of the enormous Israeli suffering. A worthy goal Ñ but all the major papers lead this morning with the Israeli announcement that it will retake parts of the West Bank.

"Arafat is of course no different than bin Laden. The P.L.O. and the Palestinian Authority is equal to the Al Qaeda." -- Uzi Landau, Israeli minister of public security.

Arafat is a thug, but he's no bin Laden. Sharon is a thug, but he's no Hitler. One of the surest signs of an ideologue is absurd comparisons like this that take no account of history and circumstances, and focus on superficial similarities while missing obvious differences.

This morning's Los Angeles Times reports that "hell is being frozen out" of religious sermons. Preachers are playing down the physical torments of damnation, and viewing hell as "separation from God." Many are even arguing that everyone eventually ends up in heaven, because, as Father Wilfredo Benitez of St. Anselm of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Garden Grove. asked, "How can something as wonderful as redemption ... be based on fear?"

I'll be stunned if there aren't a few letters to the editor in the paper in the next few days saying that's what's wrong with the world Ñ not enough people believe in hell, not enough people fear the wrath of God. Personally, I've always felt that being good only to escape punishment was kind of morally immature, but I'll have to write more about that some other time. Right now, let's just say I think this article is very good news.

Tuesday, June 18, 2002

Web gives a voice to Iranian women
I love this story. There are more than 1,200 Persian blogs, many of them written by women. For the first time in the contemporary history of Iran, women speak publicly (although, of course, anonymously) about themselves and how they see the world. One Iranian woman blogger said she had received e-mail from men saying she had completely changed their image of women in Iran. Combine this with Thomas Friedman's article in last Sunday's NY Times about changes in Iran, and there's real cause for optimism. As Margaret Atwood once said, "A word after a word after a word is power."

One more reason to pay attention to what women have to say: the whistle-blowers in huge recent scandals have mostly been women. Why? According to Stanford Professor Deborah Rhode, who chairs the American Bar Association's Commission on Women in the Profession: "If you're not one of the good old boys to begin with, it makes it easier when you see something flat- out wrong to raise your voice." Women have achieved enough power in the last generation to make them aware of what's going on, but retain an outsider status that allows them to follow their ethics without feeling they are betraying the team. I suppose that means that as soon as women really gain equality with men in the workplace, they'll be just as likely to play along with ethics violations. But complete equality is so far down the road it's out of sight. For the forseeable future the lesson is: Listen to women.

I admit to having virtually no understanding of the invade Iraq/ don't invade Iraq debate. But every now and then I come across an article that seems to contribute a little piece of the puzzle. Today's Guardian has one such piece. The president has made it pretty clear that the main thing he wants to accomplish as president is to get rid of Saddam Hussein (I'm sure he wouldn't put it quite that way Ñ but it does seem to be the thing that most animates him). Since the departure of the UN weapons inspectors in 1998, the sole source of information about what is happening in Iraq has been the Iraqi National Congress, a dissident group led by Dr Ahmad Chalabi in London. The INC has helped arrange the defection of several high-ranking officials with crucial information. The organization also has contact with a network of agents inside Iraq, some of whom have access to political and military secrets. The INC is funded by the US Congress, with money controlled by the State Department. Considering what they have to offer, that would seem to be one of the government's more intelligent investments. If we're trying to incourage and insurgency, information about what's going on in Iraq would appear to be pretty essential. So why in the world did the US government inform Dr. Chalabi last week that all funding would be cut off unless the INC stopped its information-collection program?

The authors of this article argue that the State Department is wary of the INC's "pro-democracy agenda." Now I'm really confused. If we managed to get Saddam Hussein out, wouldn't we want "pro-democracy" people to replace him? I'm sure that is a hopelessly naive question, but as I said, I'm still just trying to make a little sense of all this.

The Washington Post expands on The Feminist Majority report on the fundamentalist Christian-Islamic alliance. According to the Post, the Bush administration may consider Iran part of the "axis of evil," but they're so comfortable with their positions on the rights of gays, women, and children that officials from the two countries "huddled during coffee breaks" at the U.N. summit on children, apparently comparing notes and strategies. "We have tried to point out there are some areas of agreement between [us] and a lot of Islamic countries on these social issues," a U.S. official said.

Adrienne Germaine, president of the International Women's Health Coalition pointed out the irony of the US government's position: "On the one hand we're presumably blaming these countries for unspeakable acts of terrorism, and at the same time we are allying ourselves with them in the oppression of women."

The Feminist Majority Foundation has noted that some conservative American Christian groups have joined with fundamentalist Islamic governments to halt the expansion of political protections and rights for gays, women and children at United Nations conferences, and that these groups have had an influence on Bush administration appointments to key positions on US delegations to UN conferences on global economic and social policy. The conservative Christian John Ashcroft's decision to join with countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran to kill any threat of basic human rights for women looks more like a pattern than a fluke.

Nicholas Kristof has given me another reason to fear John Ashcroft. The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women has been ratified by 169 countries so far. The treaty would have little effect on women in the United States. We already have the right to be protected by the same laws as men, the right to an education, to choose our husbands, to hold jobs, to run for political office. It was designed to help insure the basic human rights of third world women, who often lack any legal status. It would protect women in places like Pakistan, where young women are forced into marriage or domestic labor, where women are traded to settle debts, where they are subject to havng acid thrown into their faces on the street Ñ and the government does little or nothing to protect them. It would offer some protection to women in Nigeria, where rape victims can be charged with adultery and executed.

What does this have to do with Ashcroft? The United States is one of only 22 countries that has not ratified the treaty (others include Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Sudan, and Afghanistan.) It has languished in the Senate since President Carter sent it there for ratification in 1980. The Bush Administration Ñ or, more specifically Colin Powell's State Department Ñ expressed support for ratification. Unfortunately, John Ashcroft got wind of the treaty and now the Justice Department is looking into it, and, according to Kristof, trying to kill it.

Isn't it great to have a fundamentalist Attorney General who sides with religious fascists who view women as nothing but property?

Monday, June 17, 2002

"Every government is run by liars, and nothing they say should be believed." -- I.F. Stone

Why a First Strike Will Surely Backfire
"A preemptive all-out invasion of Iraq would represent one of the most fateful deployments of American power since World War II. Given the stakes, the policy discussion in official Washington has been remarkably narrow." Ñ Absolutely. I'm amazed at the way the Democrats all seem to be jumping on the invade Iraq bandwagon. The cases for and against haven't been made yet. Although this article offers one of the best against arguments I've seen.

The Telegraph reports speculation that Colin Powell may resign after the November elections because he is tired of being repeatedly undercut by the White House. The Telegraph doesn't seem to have any real news here, just speculation. But it seems only reasonable to wonder when Colin Powell will realize he's probably not really a Republican, and he's certainly not a right-wing Bush Republican.

ABC news reports that among the prisoners being held at the U.S. facility at Guantanamo Bay are citizens of Britain, France, Australia, Sweden and Denmark. So, when are we going to start racially profiling Swedes?

Open Door for Saudi Terrorists
If you want a visa to come to the United States, you need to go to the US Embassy or consulate Ñ unless you live in Saudi Arabia. Resident Saudis Ñ whether or not they are citizens Ñ can apply for visas at travel agencies. All they need to do is submit a photograph and fill out a two-page form. The U.S. consulate in Jeddah reviews the applications, and reserves the right to interview anyone whose application doesn't pass muster, but interviews are rare. Even in the 30 days following September 11, the U.S. consulate interviewed only two of 104 Saudis who applied for visas, and no one was turned down. Keep in mind that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, and that three of them had gotten their visas in Saudi Arabia under this special applicant-friendly program.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that has this privilege. A senior official at Consular Affairs, an agency within the State Department that oversees embassies and consulates, described the program as "an open-door policy for terrorists."

Why in the world are we coddling the Saudis this way?