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

Wednesday, July 31, 2002

If you're in California, Ann Salisbury has a surprisingly long list of reasons that Gray Davis deserves re-election. There was never a chance I'd vote against Davis, since he's running against an empty suit. A CEO empty suit. But I wasn't looking forward to the prospect. The list doesn't exactly make me thrilled about voting for Davis, but it makes me feel a bit less depressed, so thanks, Ann.

For anyone who believes Muslims have a lock on religious dementia:

Monks fight on roof of holiest place

Eleven monks were treated in hospital after a fight broke out for control of the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the traditional site of Jesus's crucifixion, burial and resurrection. The fracas involved monks from the Ethiopian Orthodox church and the Coptic church of Egypt, who have been vying for control of the rooftop for centuries...

Heaven-or-hell argument ends with shotgun slaying

GODLEY, Texas (Reuters) -- An argument over who was going to heaven and who was going to hell ended with one Texas man shooting another to death with a shotgun, police said Monday...

Ann Coulter Speaking At the University of Washington...

revealed that she has imagined Osama bin Laden on non-existent camels...

Hashem Said, a columnist for The Daily, objected to CoulterÕs use of the phrase Òcamel-riding nomadsÓ in reference to bin Laden and his organization, saying that there are no camels in Afghanistan... Coulter pointed out that Bin Laden has many times been shown riding camels.

demonstrated that her ignorance of the world was so profound that she has never heard of Martin Luther King (or any other liberal Christians, for that matter)...

Coulter...did say that most liberals she has met not only do not know a Christian, they donÕt know anyone who knows a Christian.

reiterated her strong moral support for murderers...

Coulter was asked why she condemns the terrorists so strongly, but not those who kill abortion doctors. She said that the latter have been extremely frustrated by the fact that they canÕt vote on this issue, thanks to Roe vs. Wade, and that they worked within the system for twenty years without success before turning to murder. She said that those individuals believe they had been left with no other routes for dissent in the face of an ongoing atrocity. Coulter further suggested that although she would not take it upon herself to take extreme actions on the abortion issue, she will not condemn those who do.

and informed the audience that she was an hysterical incompetent who no one should pay any attention to...

she elaborated by talking women become hysterical over problems while men simply fix them.

Thanks to Atrios for the link.

General Michael Rose, former head of Britain's UN forces in Bosnia, on the moral, legal and military problems of war with Iraq.

The U.S. Senate finally gets around to asking why we want a war with Iraq.

Richard Goldstein has an excellent piece in The Village Voice on the power that labeling ideas has to destroy real thought. I particularly like his take on the term "politically correct" because it says in a reasonable way something I've been on an incoherent rant about for years.

I first heard the term almost thirty years ago, when I was a student in Berkeley. In the early seventies, leftists used the term as a joke on themselves, or, more precisely, on the reputation of the "old left" for falling into jargon and using it as an substitute for thought. "I don't want to be politically incorrect, but..." was the beginning of a sentence which suggested, "I'm about to say something that may sound a little outrageous, but hear me out" or even "This is not something I'm entirely sure about yet, it's just an idle thought I'd like to explore." Being "politically incorrect" didn't mean insulting people, it meant indulging in a free flight of ideas, some you might even change your mind about in mid-flight.

It was a great phrase, actually, describing a great process. I haven't heard much of that kind of "political incorrectness" since I left Berkeley, and I miss it. In fact, one of the reasons I'm doing this blog is to indulge my own need for more of that brand of political incorrectness. That's why the description at the top says that I have more questions than answers. My answers change from day to day. I don't think that's a bad thing. I think it's a sign of a functioning brain. I have no problem with being inconsistent. Or outrageous.

Somewhere along the way, conservatives stole the term and twisted its meaning. In fact, at this point I'm not sure what it means anymore. For the most part it just seems to be a synonym for "liberal," but we've already got plenty of those, which makes it rather redundant.

And sometimes, in an even nastier mode, it seems to be a synonym for something else. A Republican friend of mine (yes, I do have some), recently used the term in a way that disturbed me. My daughter had just gotten a new Barbie (I'm a feminist and my daughter has a box full of Barbies -- how politically incorrect!) and was showing it off to everyone. She proudly displayed it to our Republican friend, who took one look at the doll's sleek black hair and Asian features and snapped, "What's that, the politically correct Barbie?" To be honest, the comment didn't even make sense to me until after he left and it had time to sink in that "politically correct" had evolved into nothing more than a synonym for "minority." It just makes anything that is related to minorities sound rigid and authoritarian.

To be "politically incorrect" these days is to be exactly what, in the seventies, we called "politically correct" -- using meaningless stock phrases as a substitute for thought. At the time we thought of it as a relic of the Communist, "old left." But nowadays the right owns political correctness -- the thought process as well as the term.

Joe Conason has an interesting addtion to The Rittenhouse Review's wonderful skewering yesterday of Michael Novak's sleazy attempt to claim the values of the rescued miners as "conservative." The Congressman who represents Somerset, PA is a Democrat with a solidly liberal, pro-labor voting record. I guess the miners forgot their "conservative" values when they went in the voting booth.

There is no way the United States can be taken seriously as a defender of democracy when we will not even stand up and say a loud and clear NO to a tyrannical "ally" who imprisons an ailing, 63-year-old AMERICAN CITIZEN for the crime of promoting democracy and human rights.

Yesterday in Cairo an Egyptian court for the second time sentenced the country's most important campaigner for democracy and human rights, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, to seven years in prison on patently trumped-up charges. Mr. Ibrahim, a 63-year-old sociologist and dual Egyptian-American citizen, has for years courageously and peacefully promoted the very values Mr. Bush has said must be strengthened in the Arab world: free elections, civic participation and nondiscrimination against women and religious minorities...More than most any other ruler in the Muslim world, Hosni Mubarak depends on U.S. support to prop up a regime that is both politically and economically bankrupt. Yet far from accepting President Bush's call for liberalization, Mr. Mubarak is directly challenging it. His jailing of an ailing professor who is both an American citizen and his country's foremost advocate of peaceful reform, at a time when anti-American and anti-Semitic hate-speech spew from government-controlled media, can only be seen as a calculated slap in the face to a U.S. administration and Congress that support his government with more than $2 billion in annual aid...Will Mr. Bush simply ignore that challenge? Or will he alter his administration's "development aid, diplomatic efforts, international broadcasting and educational assistance" to Egypt to reflect his own announced policy? At stake is not just the welfare of a single courageous man but the credibility of President Bush's policy toward the Islamic world.

An Interview with Saad Eddin Ibrahim

Tuesday, July 30, 2002

The Slacktivist has lately become one of my favorite blogs -- the only one (besides mine) that I've been able to find that is simultaneously liberal and interested in exploring religious issues. I mean, what's not to like about a liberal Baptist?

I'm especially interested in the question at the end of this post: When did the "war on terror" turn into the "war for the liberation of Afghanistan"?

Good question, one I haven't heard anyone else ask. The administration does seem to be expecting the by-product of the war (success in freeing the people of Afghanistan from the Taliban) to cover for the failure to accomplish much in terms of the main goal (where exactly is Osama bin Laden these days, and why do both the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. believe that our actions in Afghanistan have increased al-Qaeda's power?).

In fact, I'd suggest even the good news isn't all that good. As long as the war lords control the country, not a lot of liberation has taken place. It may in the long run, but it hasn't happened yet, and an awful lot of the reporting from Afghanistan is not promising.

But Eric Blair wonders if the emphasis on freeing Afghanistan is an attempt to drum up support for a war against another country with a nasty leader. We'll do for Iraq what we did for Afghanistan?

I think that's a reasonable reading of the issue. I also think, considering the chaos in Afghanistan today, we might want to think twice before making the connection. How does warlords with chemical weapons sound?

One further note: I assume Eric Blair is a psedonym? (If it is, I kind of like the idea of taking a psedonymous author's real name as your pen name.)

The Rittenhouse Review is always worth reading, but this morning's post on Michael Novak's attempts to seize the stories and values of working people and claim them as uniquely conservative, is a work of art.

Last week, I tried to make a similar point about Ann Coulter -- that there was something simply bizarre about an over-privileged young woman claiming a greater understanding of the lives and values of the working class than people from working class backgrounds have. There's an arrogance to that claim that is simply beyond my comprehension.

James Capazzola's rebuttal of Novak adds a couple of important points that I missed when I was writing about Coulter. One is that the assertion that the values working people live by -- "competence, excellence, teamwork, the spirit of community, discipline, the willing acceptance of every nuance of command set forth by an intelligent, directing authority, compassion for one another, prayer, faith, trust, and pride in one another" -- are things that liberals don't value. This is, as James points out, "a collection of lies."

That's an important point to make loudly and clearly. In the past twenty years, Republicans have convinced many people that liberals hate the flag and disdain God. Those are absurd notions, but they've been repeated so often that they've almost become common wisdom (the common wisdom is not always wise). Having gotten away with those lies, they seem to be moving on to see if they can get away with peddling the idea that liberals don't value anything at all. Competence? Liberals are terrible at their jobs and want everybody else to be too. Community? Something liberals know nothing about. Families? Don't be ridiculous, liberals don't have children (they probably don't even have parents).

We just can not let them get away with this garbage. You think it's so stupid they'll never get away with it? Recently, on a local talk radio show, I heard a right winger call in and tell the progressive guest that the trouble with "you liberals" is that "you've forgotten all about God." He was talking to a nun. No one seemed to think this was strange, not even the nun. That's how commonplace the idea that "liberals hate God" has become -- rightwingers can call a nun an atheist and no one will object.

The second important thing James notes is the condescension in Novak's tone. He's dead on in describing Novak's over-blown rhetoric as "a bit too much like American Stalinists of old who found delirium in their wholly misguided romantic fantasies about the working class. "

Those of us who grew up with poor and working class people, who still have friends and relatives who are poor and working class, gag on the way Novak romanticizes blue collar workers. My parents and my in-laws are people, not plaster saints.

Let me place myself in the social spectrum here. I'm a freelance writer, but most of the jobs I've held have been pink collar ghetto jobs. Most of the women I know work or have worked in those jobs. My father was a carpenter. My mother was a bank clerk. My husband is a teacher, but before he taught, he was a tailor. I have three brothers-in-law -- one is a cop, one is a plumber, one is a laborer who picks up whatever jobs he can find in construction. I have three retired uncles. One was a factory worker, one repaired televisions, the other was a NYC firefighter.

I'm mentioning all these people because there was a line in Novak's catalog of working class virtues that made me laugh out loud (and would have made all the people I've mentioned laugh out loud): "the willing acceptance of every nuance of command set forth by an intelligent, directing authority." In conversations with friends, relatives and co-workers I can not remember ever hearing anyone say, "My boss is such an intelligent man that I will submit my will to every nuance of his command." You don't listen to a lot of country music, do you, Mr. Novak? Sorry, sweetheart, but that's the kind of thing the boss tells himself his workers believe. Sort of like the plantation owner convincing himself that all that singing must mean the slaves are happy with their simple lives. Believe me, honey, that's not what your secretary is saying behind your back.

There was a similar condescension in Coulter's argument that liberals don't know anything about NASCAR, and therefore obviously don't understand working class people. If Coulter is trying to suggest that all working class people love NASCAR and not much else, I think she needs to get out more (or maybe just stray off into a few different neighborhoods.) Some poor people read books, Miss Coulter -- not your book, books by real writers. My plumber brother-in-law is into opera. When my husband was working as a tailor, he spoke four languages. I used to come home from my waitressing job, collapse on the couch, put up my worn out feet, and read Victorian novels (damn radical, that Thomas Hardy). The minds of working class people are as varied and complex as the minds of people Ann Coulter hangs around with. Maybe more so.

Third point: To pass yourself off as poets of the working class while simultaneously fighting against every piece of legislation that would make working people's lives a little easier is so slimy, it would take a new Dante to describe a circle of hell low enough and foul enough for such people.

They can't get away with this.

Monday, July 29, 2002

Joe Lieberman says Al Gore is too liberal and too anti-business. Suddenly Gore looks a lot better than he used to.

US ships Al Qaeda suspects to Arab states

In the war on terror, the US is careful to show how fairly it's treating the hundreds of orange-suited Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters locked behind the razor-wire of the US base at Guantanamo, Cuba. But what the US isn't trumpeting is a quiet practice of shipping key Al Qaeda suspects to the Middle East for interrogation.

One reason for this new approach, US officials privately say, is that in some cases these militants' home countries have a better understanding of Islamist groups, their contacts, customs, and language. But there's another reason, say US sources. These countries Ð Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, among them Ð use torture, which, some officials suggest, extracts information much more quickly than more benign interrogation methods.

Just out of curiosity, does this have anything to do with this?

California makes plans to join the rest of the developed world and give workers paid time off to deal with family situations. Would the rest of the country like to join us as part of the civilized world?

US 'tried to hide' bomb blunder

The Afghan Government has warned against any cover-up in the investigation into a US airstrike which killed nearly 50 people at a wedding party at the start of July.

The warning came amid reports that a preliminary United Nations investigation into the bombing had found that US officials removed vital evidence from the site after the incident.

The UN probe is said to have found that US troops cleaned the area - removing shrapnel, bullets and traces of blood.

According to The Times newspaper, the UN report says there was no corroboration of the US claim that the aircraft that launched the attack had first been targeted from the ground.

The Afghan Government says that 48 civilians died and more than 100 others were injured when US planes bombed targets in central Uruzgan Province on 1 July.

The American side said it needed several weeks to collect evidence and make a full report.

But locals say US officials arrived just hours after the raid, taking photographs and filming the scene and the bodies.

The UN investigation is also reported to have found that women at the bomb site had their hands tied.

Somehow I don't feel much like waving the flag at the moment. My heart is with them.

Blair warned: Iraq attack 'illegal'

Government legal experts say UN mandate is needed for action

Tony Blair has been told by the Government's own lawyers that British participation in an invasion of Iraq would be illegal without a new United Nations mandate.

I suppose we can't really count on international law carrying any weight with our own head of state, can we?

Mr O'Neill, meet my son. He's starting college in September. The college fund I've been putting money in since he was born has shrunk to a shadow of its former self. Can you explain to him about how terrific the economy is? For some reason, he doesn't believe me. You know how kids are -- they never believe their mothers. Maybe you can convince him.

I admit I'm a little slow when it comes to understanding money (which is probably why I have so little of it), but can somebody explain to me why foreign investment is supposed to save developing countries? Most foreign investment in Africa goes into oil and mining. Shareholders and corrupt government officials get the profits, ordinary Africans get next to nothing (in most cases, not even jobs), while the land that they live on and work on is destroyed.

I'm praying for these women.

Will the last person to leave please turn out the lights?

It continues to bother me that the Bush Administration is a sieve when it comes to strategy for how to invade Iraq, but seems to feel it has no need to explain to Americans why we should go to war with Iraq.

Remember us? The voters? I mean, I know most of us didn't vote for you, but you could at least pretend like you care what we think.

This is the way you apologize when you feel like you are forced to, but you don't really believe you should.

The easiest targets are the devout," because they can be conned more easily," said psychologist Gary Schoener of Minneapolis, who has counseled hundreds of clergy victims.

Sunday, July 28, 2002

The Bush Brothers role model?

I don't know what it is with my mood today, but I seem to keep tripping over the jewels of good news buried in tragic stories -- the Kurds creating a free society in the Middle East (although fearful of losing it), unveiled Saudi women demonstrating against the religious police, and now this. The headline may not promise inspiration, but the article does.

Remember Mukhtaran Bibi, the Pakistani woman who was "sentenced" by a tribal council to be gang raped? Her story aroused a lot of interest among people on the lookout for evil Muslim stories. But it seemed to me at the time that while what happened to her was an outrage, the more interesting part of the story was that Pakistanis were just as outraged as Americans were.

Now there's more good news. Since the story was publicized, reports of rapes have skyrocketed in Pakistan. In the town nearest to where Ms. Bibi lives, reports have increased from four or five per month to at least one per day.

That's not an increase in rapes. That's an increase in women opening their mouths.

Keep in mind that a woman who admits to being raped decreases her value in Pakistani society, and that 60 percent of women who report rapes are later charged with having sex outside marriage -- a crime under Pakistan's Islamic-based law. Every force is against those women, and they're standing up and telling the truth anyway.

It's a beginning.

I'm writing about something I know next to nothing about here, and I'm probably being hopelessly naive, but neither of those things has ever stopped me before.

There's a wonderful and terrible article in this morning's NY Times about the Kurds of northern Iraq and the thriving, free society they have managed to create, unlike anything else in the Middle East. Combine that with news about the unveiled women demonstrating in Saudi Arabia and there seems to be real reason to celebrate the astonishing human spirit, its constant reach for freedom and justice.

Right now the Kurds are protected by British and American planes that enforce a no-flight zone in the area, keeping out Iraqi troops. But the Kurds fear that if Saddam is overthrown, they will simply be absorbed back into Iraq. And they have no faith that the United States cares about a free Iraq. They think all we want is another tyrant, only one who is more compliant with American desires than Saddam.

Given our history in the Middle East, it's hard to disagree with them, hard not to share their fear that their "golden age" is about to end.
Here is where I'm sure I'm being naive: We say again and again that there are no democracies in the Middle East, that we have to work with dictators because that's all there are. Why, when we find the seeds of those democracies, aren't we doing everything in our power to help them grow? Why aren't we giving other nations in the Middle East models of what a Muslim democracy looks like? Why aren't we showing them that if they create those free and open societies, we will be behind them? Yes, I realize that Kurdish society has thrived in large measure because of American military protection. But why is Paul Wolfowitz saying things like "A separate Kurdish state in the north...would be unacceptable to the United States." Why are we undercutting them?

Are the Kurds going to be like the women of Afghanistan, whose victimization we trumpet to prove how evil our enemies are, but whose rights we don't give a damn about once they have served our purpose? Slam, bam, thank you, ma'am. Now get out of the way, we've got a war to fight.

It's becoming clearer and clearer that only a few rabid hawks believe that Saddam is a genuine threat to the United States. Why kill the beginnings of a civil society in the Middle East just to stroke George Bush's ego and let him believe that he finished a job his father started?

Why I am no longer a Catholic
The child sexual abuse problem has received especially intense scrutiny in the United States, plunging the American church into what some prominent Catholics say is one of its greatest crises ever.

But the pope, just a few dozen miles from the United States border for the last five days, is scheduled to fly over the country on Monday on his way to Guatemala and then Mexico for canonization ceremonies.

The United States was never part of his plans for this trip, which centered on the Roman Catholic Church's World Youth Day, a weeklong religious jubilee that was held in Toronto this year.

Vatican officials and experts said the United States was not included on the pope's itinerary for many reasons, including a lingering belief at the Holy See that the dimensions of the sexual abuse problem have been exaggerated.

If you have the energy to attend canonization ceremonies, you have the energy to deal with the most important issue facing the Church. If you can't do your job, resign. I hate to return to '60s cliches, but if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.

Stunning news in this morning's Guardian-Observer: the Saudi government may be on the verge of collapse.

One part of the threat stems from a turf war within the royal family, some of whom are angry over Prince Abdullah's "pro-American" stance and are sympathetic to al-Qaeda. If they succeed in taking over after the death of King Fahd, the threat to the US would obviously be enormous.

Simmering below that is the threat of a popular uprising. The Observer article lumps this in with the potential revolt of the princes, and it may play out that way, but I think there are signs, even within this article, that the situation is more complicated than that.

There have been a number of anti-government demonstrations, but it isn't clear whether the demonstrators oppose Prince Abdullah's ties to the American government (which might suggest -- or lead to -- al-Qaeda sympathies) or if they oppose the authoritarian government of the princes (the fact that the demonstrations were triggered by the religious police's refusal to allow girls to be rescued when their school caught fire, and that the majority of demonstrators were women, many of them unveiled, would suggest an opposition to religious fanaticism, not a longing for more of it).

Of course, those two points of view are philosophically opposed, but the real world is full of such contradictions, and it may very well be that the demonstrators hold both points of view at the same time. Sadly and ironically, by aligning ourselves with the princes, we've opened ourselves up to blame not only for our real failures (our lack of balance in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for instance), but also for things our "allies" do that virtually all Americans abhor (such as placing religious purity above the lives of 14 girls).

The people, especially the women, in the streets demonstrating against the actions of the religious police, are standing up for fundamentally American values. How tragic it will be if our "pragmatic" support for tyrants makes it impossible for us to communicate that to them, and impossible for them to believe it.

There is something I find myself wondering about almost every day when I read the newspaper. Does religion ultimately lead people toward evil or away from it? Everyone (except me) seems to have an answer to that question, although of course the answers aren't all the same:
    Religion provides rules that serve as a check on our worst impulses.

    The fundamental value of all religion is peace and acceptance, and therefore it encourages understanding.

    Evil uses of religion are misunderstandings, or even deliberate distortions of religion.

    Religious hatred is the source of much of the evil in the world -- that's true today and it's been true throughout history.

    Religious violence has no real roots in religion. The violence stems from social, cultural, political and economic sources -- religious language is just a cover.

    Religion is itself evil, because it encourages an infantile reliance on authority, which keeps people from developing their own instinctive ethical standards.

Contradictory as they are, I think there's some truth in all of those statements.

What got me started thinking about this was an article in the NY Times looking back at the riots in Gujarat, India last spring in which Hindus killed nearly one thousand Muslims. Killed is a mild word in this instance. The methods of slaughter include acts no sane human being would be capable of without religion or ideology spurring him on.

And although India is not a theocratic state, but a secular democracy, the government seems to have done almost nothing to protect the Muslims, and in an arrogant unwillingness to apologize for its failures, is currently doing little to heal the wounds.

Does religion really have nothing to do with this? Are the Hindus and Muslims really at odds for political or economic reasons? I can't tell from this article. But the press, on the whole, is so resolutely secular that it often seems to me that once they find a "religion makes everybody crazy" storyline, they don't let anything else in. I always find myself combing articles like this, looking for hints of something other than religion at the core. But it can be hard to find. Is religion the reason for the violence -- or the excuse?

This is a topic I'm sure I'll come back to.

Saturday, July 27, 2002

In Northern Ireland, anti-Semitic groups back Israel and Sinn Fein flies the PLO colors.

As we drove through a second Protestant area, called the Village, we noticed graffiti encouraging the Israeli prime minister to "Go on, Sharon, K.A.T." -- the last word an acronym for "Kill All Taigs" (derogatory slang for Catholics) -- in addition to spray-painted slogans melding Gerry Adams, president of the Irish Republican party Sinn Fein, with Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat, calling him "Gerry Arafat Adams."

Even today, if one visits the Northern Ireland Sinn Fein headquarters in West Belfast, Gerry Adams' main office, one will find a large Palestinian flag hanging next to that of Ireland.

At first glance, it looks like a horrible omen: the Protestants and Catholics of Belfast have adopted the symbols of the Middle East. The Protestants, identifying with a "chosen people" at the mercy of terrorists, wave Israeli flags and take heart from Ariel Sharon's agressiveness. The Catholics, opressed for eight hundred years in their own land (excuse the rhetoric, but I'm Irish, and the phrase "oppressed for eight hundred years" is imprinted on my DNA) display Palestinian flags. Does that mean the Irish conflict is about to re-erupt, worse than ever?

Martin Sieff thinks so, but while I find his history of how Irish attitudes toward Israel and the Palestinians have changed (and stiffened) over the decdes fascinating, I don't necessarily agree with his conclusions. Or at least I don't think that adopting those symbols of horrible intransigence, in and of itself, is a threatening sign.

Symbols are bizarre things, and there is no accounting for how people use them. A cross dangling from a rosary doesn't have the same meaning as a cross burning in someone's yard. A flag on a soldier's coffin is not the same as the flag at the front of a Fourth of July parade. We think we share symbols, but we all give them our own quirky meanings.

I'm thinking of something that happened long ago. For a year, when I was a little girl, I lived in my father's hometown, in the hills of east Tennessee, where my mother (who grew up in the west of Ireland and later moved to New York) and I (a child of the South Bronx) were utterly out of our element.

I could write endlessly about how out of place we were, but one image stands out. We were at a school function which began with the eighth graders tooting "Dixie" on plastic recorders. Even stranger than the music was the fact that the entire audience stood up, as if "Dixie" were the national anthem. I got up, too, because I was nine and wanted to fit in, but my mother stayed resolutely in her seat. You are not going to get an Irish Catholic New Yorker on her feet for "Dixie," especially not then, in the sixties, when, to a non-Southerner, the song seemed like a coded message -- go get your sheets, boys.

After we moved away from the South, my mother told that story many times, feeling pretty proud of herself for sitting here, ignoring the nasty looks. I'm proud of her too (although, to be honest, at the time I was just embarassed), but I also remember liking the off-key (literal and figurative) strength in the way everyone sang look away, look away, look away...

This was a sad little town. Three hundred and some people and two employers -- a lumber mill and a small factory where they made children's jackets. Actually, that only adds up to one employer, because the same man owned both places. He paid in scrip, good only at the one store in town (which, of course, he also owned).

New Yorkers have a reputation for being short-tempered and rude, but the bitterness in my father's town always seemed to me much deeper. One foot out of line and those people were ready to consign you to hell. They always seemed tired. Something was missing. Literally. I remember being shocked at a family gathering one day when I realized that nearly every man in the room was missing at least one finger.

But when they sang "Dixie," they stood up straight and sang loud. I remember liking that song when I lived in Tennessee and hating it after I left. It must have been something in the way it was sung. I don't think it had anything to do with Lester Maddox or George Wallace or segregated schools. It was just grabbing a little piece of pride, and considering how little those people had to be proud of, that was a good thing.

Which doesn't make my mother wrong to have stayed in her seat. The song had an entirely different symbolism to her, and she was right not to stand up for it.

It doesn't matter whether its a flag or a song or a religious icon -- symbols are personal. Good luck trying to figure out what they mean to any individual.

So, do the Catholics of Northern Ireland fantasize suicide bombings and do the Protestants want to bulldoze Falls Road? I doubt it. If you want to know what the flags mean, you'd have to ask the people waving them. Their answers wouldn't all be the same. I suspect many wouldn't have any answer at all.

Friday, July 26, 2002

I've read a number of interesting posts in the past few days about the civilian deaths in Gaza, starting with Eric Alterman's surprisingly cold response, and continuing with what seem to me more humane and thoughtful responses from James Capozzola, Kevin Raybould, Demosthenes and many others.

I'm not really going to wade into the political or moral issues here. Anything I could say has already been better said by the people I just mentioned.

But something about this story has disturbed me ever since I saw the video of the Palestinian infant who was killed. The video shows the baby being carried through the streets as if the family is trying to make sure that the entire world witnesses the brutality. Part of me understands that need to bear witness.

But I have two children. And to the marrow of my bones I know that if anything were ever to happen to my children, my instinct would not be to show them to the world, but to cling to them with every ounce of my strength. You would not be able to pry them out of my arms. I have a very hard time understanding the motives of someone who displays the body of their murdered child. There is something odd in it. But never having lived in a place where children are constantly dying, I'm reluctant to judge it. I just don't know what conditions like that can do to a human soul.

And in any case, that odd display isn't unique to Palestinians, or other people who live with unending trauma. The Rittenhouse Review has an thought-provoking post today commenting on the oddness (the same sort of oddness, it seems to me), of the mother of Samantha Runnion appearing on Larry King only a little over a week after her daughter was murdered.

I don't have children, so maybe my expectations are distorted, but I truly believe that if something like this happened to my child I would still be in bed, all but lifeless, staring at the ceiling, unable to speak, to eat, or to face another human being.

I do have children. And that's a pretty good description of what I would be like, what most parents I know would be like.

I'm not really ready to draw any conclusions from this. I'm still full of questions, with no satisfying answers.

Michele Kayal has a marvelous op-ed in today's NY Times describing her experience living in Prague in the early '90s, under constant suveillance by neighbors on the lookout for anything unusual about her behavior (which, of course, they found, despite her fairly conventional life), and offering her experience as an example of what might happen in America if we begin keeping too close tabs on one another in the name of security. Such vigilance leads, Kayal suggests, to an isolated and paranoid society, in which everyone is obsessed with guarding their remaining scraps of privacy:

I, the watched, became like the watchers: scared, angry, on guard, protective of my mundane personal business, eager to shield myself from false accusations and willing to shirk civic interaction to do it.

Speaking of programs like the Justice Department's proposed TIPS, Kahal notes

Many have objected that such a program would violate civil liberties and basic American principles. But stoking people's fear to set neighbor upon neighbor, service worker upon client, those who belong against those who don't, does something more: it erodes the soul of the watcher and the watched, replacing healthy national pride with mute suspicion, breeding insular individuals more concerned with self-preservation than with society at large. Ultimately it creates a climate that is inherently antithetical to security.

I appreciate this piece because Michele Kayal and I speak the same language -- not a legal and political language, but the language of the "soul." I'm concerned right now, like most reasonable people on both the left and right, with the loss of civil liberties. But I'm also concerned with the soul of this nation, with an ugliness and a coarseness creeping in that wasn't there a few years ago. And paranoia is only one aspect of it.

I can't blame it all on fall-out from September 11th. I'm sure the change was brewing for a long time, although it was during the nasty aftermath of the 2000 presidential election that it first became obvious to me, and it was that infamous butterfly ballot that brought it home. I remember hearing about it and thinking what a tragedy for those poor people in Palm Beach. Legally, I couldn't imagine any way to undo the damage, but I felt very sorry for people who realized that they had accidentally voted for a man whose philosophy they despised. My head was with the Republicans -- what's done is done and you can't change it without creating even more problems -- but that didn't in any way diminish my sympathy for the victims of that messy ballot.

Something changed in me, though, when I witnessed the ugly reaction of the Republicans (which quickly spread to every comedian around and eventually to my neighbors). They didn't just say, well, it's sad, but nothing can be done. They immediately started making fun of the victims in truly vicious ways. Hey, if they're that stupid, they shouldn't be voting anyway. What do you expect from a bunch of blind old geezers? Like I said, I'm sure I was naive, but I was shocked. That was not the America I thought I lived in. I've criticized things my government has done since I was fourteen years old and the Vietnam War hit its peak. But I always believed I lived in a country of decent, caring people. After hearing those kinds of comments, I wasn't so sure. It seemed to me that a lot of nasty little bullies were on the verge of taking power, and I couldn't ignore the fact that most people I knew seemed to think those brats were pretty cool.

I bring all this up not to rehash old grudges, but because that callousness seems to me to have been the beginning of something I don't like in this country -- a hardening of the soul.

September 11th has only magnified the problem. I think a limited military response was necessary. But sometimes I listen to my local talk radio show -- where the host is a pretty nice guy, a soft-spoken moderate-liberal, not a hate-monger -- and I hear screams for blood, and above all, utter lack of concern with civilian deaths, and I wonder if it is possible to fight a war without becoming a militaristic society, a society where people can read about the loss of innocent life, even see it on their televisions, and not feel a thing.

A few nights ago, I watched a little bit of Phil Donahue's new show for the first time. His guest was Alexander Haig, and they were talking about the Israeli bombing in Gaza. Donahue showed a film of the infant who was killed in the bombing, and asked Haig to comment. "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," he snapped. I turned the tv off, unable to watch any more. It is perfectly reasonable to debate Israel's actions from both a political-military and a moral point of view. But to respond with that kind of callousness to the death of a baby is, or at least ought to be, beyond the pale.

Haig's response represents the kind of society I'm afraid we might become. I'm afraid we might become the kind of country where cruelty is not beyond the pale. Maybe we already have become that kind of country and I'm just hanging on to an old fantasy America.

Thursday, July 25, 2002

The main reason that middle age has not made me one bit more conservative: In order to qualify as a conservative, you have to have an unshakeable belief that some lives are more valuable than others.

Does George Bush simply oppose any and all international agreements on principle? It's beginning to look that way.

On Monday, the administration reneged on a promise of $34 million to the United Nations Population Fund (fortunately -- but to our embarassment -- the EU has stepped in to make up the difference). The UNPF provides reproductive and women's health care services in 142 countries. Some right-wing Christians claimed the money was being used for forced abortions in China, but the State Department found no evidence to support their claim. A woman dies every minute from pregnancy-related causes. But women's health is apparently not as important as appeasing the Christian right.

And now they've tried (and fortunately failed) to block the UN from setting up a system of unannounced prison inspections that would help it enforce its 1989 convention on torture. The only explanations given are that the US is "sensitive" about the issue because it fears UN inspection of the facilities at Guantanamo (but we've insisted that the prisoners are treated humanely, so why wouldn't we welcome the opportunity to demonstrate that?) and that the administration believes the plan would be unconstitutional because it does not recognize states' rights. I have to admit, that last point leaves me clueless. States have a right to torture people? I must have overlooked that section of the Constitution.

What is hard to overlook is the sense that there are not logical reasons for any of the administration's oppositions to treaties and agreements. If they had rejected an agreement or two, it would be possible to believe that they had some genuine problems with those particular agreements. Even if we disagreed with their logic, it would be possible to respect the decision. But after Kyoto, the ICC, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Descrimination Against Women, the UNPF, and the current objections to the convention on torture -- it's become apparent that real problems with the agreements aren't the issue. They just don't like any check on their power. And that attitude deserves no respect whatsoever.

Note to Jerry Falwell: If you take Christianity seriously (as a faith, not as a money and power-making operation), and use the intelligence God gave you, this is where it takes you.

It isn't (say it now and get it over with) a problem about Muslims, about some kind of religiousness that is 'naturally' prone to violence. It's true that Islam seems to think differently about its language for God from the way Christians and Jews do; Muslims will regard what we say as too ambiguous, too larded with irony or paradox, self-indulgent in comparison with the sober directness of the Koran.

We'd better acknowledge the sheer danger of religiousness. Yes it can be a tool to reinforce diseased perceptions of reality ... God always has to be rediscovered. Any really outrageous human action tests to the limit our careful theological principles about God's refusal to interfere with created freedom. That God has made a world into which he doesn't casually step in to solve problems is fairly central to a lot of Christian faith.

He has made a world so that evil choices can't just be frustrated or aborted (where would he stop, for goodness sake? He'd have to be intervening every instant of human history). They have to be confronted, suffered, taken forward, healed in the complex process of human history, always in collaboration with what we do and say and pray.

Bombast about evil individuals doesn't help in understanding anything. Even vile and murderous actions tend to come from somewhere ... it does not mean that those who did them had no choice, are not an swerable, far from it. But there is sentimentality too in ascribing what we don't understand to 'evil'; it lets us off the hook. If we react without ... self-questioning, we change nothing. It is not true to say, 'We are all guilty,' but perhaps it is true to say, 'We are all able to understand something as we look into ourselves.'

It is just possible to deplore civilian casualties and retain moral credibility when an action is clearly focused and its goals are on the way to evident achievement. It is not possible when the strategy appears confused and political leaders talk about a 'war' that may last years ... From the point of view of a villager in Afghanistan whose family has died in a bombing raid, a villager who has probably never heard of the World Trade Centre, the distinctions between what the US forces are doing and what was done on 11 September will be academic.

Can we stop talking so much about 'war' and reconcile ourselves to the fact that the punishment of terrorist crime and the gradual reduction of its threat cannot be translated into the satisfying language of decisive and dramatic conquest? Can we try thinking more about the place of risk and even loss in ordinary civil society and about the moral resources needed to grapple with the continuing problems of shaping a lawful international order? Can we, for God's sake, let go of the fantasies nurtured by the capacity for hi-tech aerial assault? As if the first move in any modern conflict had to be precision bombing?

If we stopped talking about war so much, we might be spared the posturing that suggests that any questioning of current methods must be weakness at best, treason at worst. We could ask whether the further destabilisation of a massively resentful Muslim world and the intensifying of the problems of homelessness and hunger in an already devastated country were really unavoidable. We could refuse to be victims, striking back without imagination.

The hardest thing in the world is to know how to act so as to make the difference that can be made; to know how and why that differs from the act that only releases or expresses the basic impotence of resentment.
-- Rowan Williams (incoming Archbishop of Canterbury), from Writing in the Dust, Reflections on 11th September and its Aftermath

A lot of people wonder why Colin Powell stays in an administration that constantly undercuts him. But given the fact that we're stuck with this administration, I'm just glad there's one sane person in there, having whatever tiny moderating effect he can have.

Wednesday, July 24, 2002

I don't usually care much about fact-checking right-wing screeds and my normal reaction to people like Ann Coulter is simply to pretend they don't exist, but in yesterday's Daily Howler, Bob Somerby picked apart a particularly interesting "fact" of Coulter's. It wasn't interesting just because she got everything horribly wrong, but because of what the things she got wrong reveal about her and about the conservative way of viewing the world.

According to Somerby, Coulter attempts to use press coverage of the death of Dale Earnhardt to demonstrate how out of touch with average Americans "liberals" are. She focuses on the "fact" that almost every paper across the country carried the story of Earnhardt's death on the front page the next day, except the "liberal" New York Times, which, failing, in its elitist haze, to understand the enormous respect ordinary Americans had for the NASCAR champion, ignored the story for two days, and even then wrote about it in a way that suggested (this is a quote from Coulter, not Somerby), "tacky people were mourning Dale Earnhardt all over the South."

It shouldn't be surprising to anyone who's ever read a single paragraph Coulter has written that her story is a lie from beginning to end. In fact, the Times carried the story of Earnhardt's death on page one the next day, just like virtually every paper across the country. It carried a second story two days later, which was about as far from being a mockery of "tacky people" as you can get.

The second story, Racer's Death Leaves Hole in Heart of His Hometown was by Rick Bragg, one of the Times' finest writers (if not its very best). Bragg is best known for his two memoirs, All Over But the Shoutin' and Ava's Man, about growing up dirt poor in Alabama, and about the intelligence and nobility his family brought to their difficult lives. That to the bone understanding of the lives of the poor and working class is something Bragg always brings to his reporting, whether he's writing about the rural south, Oklahoma City after the bombing, or the desperate poverty of Haiti. It earned him a Pulitzer in 1996.

Read Bragg's story. See if you can find the tiniest hint of the tone Coulter thinks she hears -- a Park Avenue liberal looking down his nose at working class people. It is simply impossible for any sane person to read Rick Bragg writing about these North Carolinians and hear a note of condescension. It just isn't there.

There's only one way I can make any sense of Coulter's mind-boggling misunderstanding of the story. Perhaps she read the details of working people's lives -- shopping at Wal-mart, working the "third shift as a supervisor at the local Philip Morris factory," remembering fondly "a time when a man tested his car's electrical system by grabbing a wire to see if it shocked him" -- and the details seemed to her so shoddy, so tacky that she assumed that must have been the author's point of view. Reading is never a pure act; we all bring pieces of our own experience to it. Viewing the article's opening line -- His death brought a silence to the Wal-Mart. -- as an insult to ordinary Americans says a lot more about Ann Coulter than it does about Rick Bragg or the newspaper that uses his talents.

The reason this interests me is that it reveals something truly perverse in the way we talk about class in America. When someone from Rick Bragg's background (and continued sensitivity to the lives of working people) is mocked as an elitist snob and Ann Coulter (a native of New Canaan, Connecticut, a graduate of Cornell University) can get away with passing herself off as the champion of the working class, the only one who can guide us now is Rod Serling, because we have truly entered the Twilight Zone.

I suppose that shouldn't be surprising when we have a president from a background of enormous wealth and power passing as a small town businessman, but it's weird and it's scary.

Tuesday, July 23, 2002

I've already written twice about the bands of unarmed Nigerian women who have occupied four ChevronTexaco pumping stations and have won a promise from the oil giant that it would give their village a school, electricity and clean water, but I'm fascinated by what they are achieving in their non-violent struggle.

They're still there, demanding environmentally-friendly policies and sharing of profits with the host communities. Some of their demands are a little strange ("two palaces for their traditional king"), some just aren't going to happen ("two deep-sea trawlers and 500 million naira -- four million dollars), but overall they're on the right track, and I really admire what they're doing

I just wish the media would cover the story a little better so I didn't have to dig so hard to find out what's happening.


In a series of little-noticed executive orders intended to ease the tax burden on corporate America, the Bush administration has implemented a number of new policies that will provide corporations with billions of dollars in tax relief without the consent of Congress.

They never give up, do they? And they don't appear to need legislation to help their friends out either.

(via Avedon Carol.)

Steve Earle on "John Walker's Blues":

I'm happy with the way the song came out, but I'm nervous, not for myself, but I have taken some serious liberties with Walker, speaking as him, in his voice. I'm trying to make clear that wherever he got to, he didn't arrive there in a vacuum. I don't condone what he did. Still, he's a 20 year-old kid. My son Justin is almost exactly Walker's age. Would I be upset if he suddenly turned up fighting for the Islamic Jihad? Sure, absolutely. Fundamentalism, as practiced by the Taliban, is the enemy of real thought, and religion too. But there are circumstances. Walker was from a very bohemian household, from Marin County. His father had just come out of the closet. It's hard to say how that played out in Walker's mind. He went to Yemen because that's where they teach the purest kind of Arabic. He didn't just sit on the couch and watch the box, get depressed and complain. He was a smart kid, he graduated from high school early, the culture here didn't impress him, so he went out looking for something to believe in.

Wow, nuanced thinking. An attempt to understand the unusual, even reprehensible. You think we can handle it?

Antonin Scalia not only doesn't appreciate our secular form of government, he can't even accept that people whose religious beliefs differ from his are both sane and patriotic.

Spinsanity, which calls itself "the nation's leading watchdog of manipulative political rhetoric," is a great source of logic and reason in an often insane political world. But it seems to me they often try a little too hard to be "fair," in a plague on both your houses sort of way and end up equating venal sins on the left with mortal sins on the right.

Today's piece by Ben Fritz is a case in point. He's trying to compare Republicans claiming that Democrats want the economy to fail (or are even working to make it fail) in order to reap some political benefits with Democrats arguing that the Republicans' twenty-year love affair with de-regulation "caused" the current corporate scandals. Both charges, Fritz claims, are cheap stabs at political manipulation.

Sorry, but that's bull. If there is any truth whatsoever in the Republican charge, it is a small one, and a political constant -- every politician knows that bad news creates political opportunities, and you could probably say that deep down in their hearts, they give a little cheer when they hear some bad news they can campaign on. Republican hearts dance a little, for instance, when crime statistics blip up. No one would accuse them of wanting crime to increase just to give them a campaign issue, although everybody's aware that it's good news for them. It's the same for Democrats and the economy.

On the other hand, while there's certainly some rhetorical overkill on the Democratic side (yes, the economy was far better under Clinton, but it's also true that it had begun to slide before he left office), the fundamental argument is absolutely true -- freeing business from oversight has been having negative effects on this country for a long time (and business scandals are only the tip of the iceberg.)

Fritz's attempt to take down the Democrats is just bizarre. He notes, for instance that Dick Gephardt backs up his charge that Republicans wanted to "totally deregulate American business" with "only a single quote as evidence." Did he need more than that? Has anyone heard a Republican running for office at any level for the past twenty years who didn't argue that it was essential to get government off the back of business?

Fritz goes on to argue that even though the Republicans may have resorted to some anti-regulatory rhetoric, they haven't been terribly successful at putting that rhetoric into practice, and therefore it can in no way be blamed for current scandals.
Fritz notes that "only one piece of anti-regulatory legislation proposed by the Contract -- a bill that made it harder to bring securities fraud suits -- was passed into law." Note the disclaimer "legislation proposed by the Contract" (that would be Newt Gingrich's infamous Contract on America) -- we'll just overlook twenty years worth of promoting business interests and killing off the watchdogs that preceded or followed Gingrich's crusade. But even if we consider only that one piece of legislation, isn't it fairly obvious that if you reduce executives' exposure to shareholder lawsuits, it will make it easier for them to operate in ways that do not reflect the shareholders' interests? Is that the entire reason for Enron, WorldCom and all the rest? Of course not. But it certainly was a contributing factor.

And the more salient point is that deregulation has been the Republicans' favorite child for a generation. They want still less regulation -- even at a time when it's obvious to anyone paying any attention at all that we need a good deal more. That makes everything Gephardt said relevant and accurate, despite any rhetorical tricks he may have relied on to get his point across.

UPDATE: Check out this Consumer Reports item on de-regulation's effects on American life (via Nathan Newman.)

Monday, July 22, 2002

If you ain't impressed yet, just tell me what you wanna hear...

The ruckus over Steve Earle's new song made me get out some CDs and this song, one of my favorites, jumped out at me. Could it be the right-wingers hate Steve Earle cause he knows what they're selling?

I'm a little annoyed at Atrios (scroll down, I can't get the right permalink) for talking about one of the best songwriters ever as if he were some jerk nobody ever heard of, but if he's never heard Steve Earle -- his loss. Go get yourself a copy of Ain't Ever Satified, child, (just for a sampler). He's one of the immortals.

But thanks for linking me to the lastest conservative shot in the culture wars. According to this guy, Earle has written an "ode to Johnny bin Walker, Osama, and the Taliban, glorifying them as Christ-like figures."

I've been listening to Steve Earle for a long time -- and that would really surprise me. His songs, like Bruce Springsteen's and early Bob Dylan's, contain some of the best storytelling around. He gets inside characters -- not always noble ones -- and reveals entire, complex lives in the space of a four or five minute song. In fact, think what Springsteen would sound like if he sang country and you've imagined something pretty close to Steve Earle.

Now I figured it was always possible that he was doing drugs again (he was a heroin addict for many years) and had gone completely off the deep end, so I followed up the link to the story in the NY Post, and sure enough it sounds pretty bad:

Earle's lyrics describe the United States as "the land of the infidel." Those fighting Osama bin Laden's declared jihad against the United States and Jews are said to have hearts "pure and strong." The song says when Lindh dies, he will "rise up to the sky like Jesus."

The Post article adds that "friends of the outspoken singer believe Earle will welcome any controversy generated by the new song," which makes it sound as if he created something deliberately controversial just to spark a failing career, which would also be strange, since Steve Earle has spent his entire career as an "outlaw" who didn't fit into the pop-country scene and obviously didn't care. He's never shown any hunger to be a star.

But this still doesn't smell right, so I went on a hunt for the lyrics. I couldn't find the complete lyrics, but this Reuters article, a lot more balanced than the Post article, at least has a sample:

We came to fight the jihad, our hearts were pure and strong./
We filled the air with our prayers and we prayed for our martyrdom./
Allah has some other plans, a secret not revealed./
Now they're dragging me back with my head in the sack to the land of the infidel./
If I should die, I'll rise up to the sky like Jesus.

and later this:

I'm just an American boy, raised on MTV,/
And I've seen all the kids in the soda pop bands,/
But none of them look like me./
So I started looking round, and I heard the word of God./
And the first thing I heard that made sense was the word/
of Allah, Peace be upon him.

All I can say is that if the NY Post writers (who I assume graduated from high school) have so little understanding of character development and even irony that they misinterpreted the meaning of the song that badly, English teachers should be ashamed (and as a former English teacher, I'll take some of the blame). Repeat after me, children: A first person narrator does not necessarily speak for the author. It is a writer's job to explore his characters, not glorify or condemn them.

How come the same right-wingers who are always complaining about the quality of the educational system always turn out to be the ones who never paid attention in school?

UPDATE: Okay, there is at least one conservative who didn't sleep through English. Ignore the snide comment about Steve Earle being "a tedious left-winger," though. Proud company Ñ Dylan, Springsteen, Guthrie, Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, John Lennon. Conservatives are just jealous because all the great ones lean left. You'd be jealous too if the best you had to offer was "God Bless America." Imagine a country where all the music was written by right-wingers and try not to cry.

Demosthenes links to a thought-provoking article in Foreign Affairs on why it is impossible to achieve "moral clarity" in a "war on terrorism."

First, you need to define terrorism, and if you focus entirely on universally despised tactics (such as deliberately attacking civilians or attempting to frighten people into submission), you're left accusing some widely admired groups and nations of terrorism (the ANC and the French Resistance, for instance -- and, if we're going to be fair and honest, even the U.S. at Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Stay with the OED definition of a terrorist as a "member of a clandestine or expatriate organization aiming to coerce an established government by acts of violence against it or its subjects," and you end up arguing bizarrely that Saddam Hussein's slaughter of the Kurds isn't terrorism, but any Iraqi attempt at a violent overthrow of his government would be.

It's not just a matter of semantics. The point is, that while it's possible (in fact, essential) to protect ourselves from individual terrorist organizations, fighting "terrorism," as a method is not only doomed to failure, but opens us up to impossible moral dilemmas.

The article is well worth reading.

Well-written column by Geoffrey Alderman in the Guardian on the idiocy of British academics' "boycott" of all things Israeli, including the work of Israeli scholars. Alderman points out that even the South African boycott of the eighties was directed against the country's government and businesses, not its universities, and that contact between scholars is almost always a good thing. Also, if anything calls for a boycott by scholars, it should be repression of scholars by a government. Last year, the Egyptian government tried 28 scholars for "impugning Egypt's international reputation." Many were imprisoned, some with hard labour. There's cause for outrage and room for effective pressure there, if anyone had the moral courage to do it.

Sunday, July 21, 2002

According to a Newsweek poll coming out in this week's edition:

Nearly half (49 percent) of Americans feel Bush took advantage of the system for personal financial gain when he made his Harken Energy stock transactions, though a slim majority (52 percent) believe he acted within the rules at that timeÑand they are evenly divided on whether Bush is intentionally covering up information about his stock transactions that could be damaging to his reputation.

Newsweek tries to make it sound as if the slim majority who believe Bush acted legally is the good news for the President. But, as I was saying earlier, I don't think it's necessarily good news. I think an awful lot of people recognize that Bush's plying his connections stinks -- whether it was technically legal or not. There are probably people out there who will admire his chutzpah (in fact, I know some of those people), but it makes those of us who live by the spirit as much as the letter of the law angry.

Your Tax Dollars at Work

Joseph Duemer, over at reading & writing, has an interesting take on the class issues raised by that Christopher Caldwell article that has aroused so much interest. He points out the irony in the fact that a president who "clearly established a record of failing his way to success" arouses more animosity in comfortably middle class people than in the working class. He speculates that Bush "embodies their fantasies of hitting the lotto jackpot." I think there's quite a bit of truth in that. Weirdly enough, despite all the unearned benefits he has reaped throughout his life, Bush has done a spectacular job of portraying himself as just a down home, common sense sort of guy who made fortune on charm and good luck, not brains, or hard work -- and there are a lot of Americans without many educational opportunities, who don't view themselves as particularly smart (at least not in a bookish way) and who work damn hard already and don't want to think about having to work any harder, who identify, or at least would like to identify, with that myth.

Duemer's comments made me think about weird things that have happened with the whole idea of class in this country during my nearly half century of life. I grew up swinging between poverty and the lowest rungs of the lower middle class (translation: lower middle class is when you eat starchy foods seven days a week; poor is when you eat the same food five days a week and go hungry the other two days). I grew up thinking of kids whose fathers had union jobs as "rich." I've spent most of my adulthood pretty much smack in the middle of the middle class (translation: I drive a twelve-year-old car and my biggest worry at the moment is paying for my son to go to a state university -- while the college fund I've been paying into since his birth sinks in the stock market). And somehow I find myself typed as an over-privileged liberal, even an "elitist" by people who have had more privileges in life than people like me can even begin to imagine.

I think that's one of the reasons I dislike George Bush more than I've disliked any president in my lifetime. Even Reagan. Even Nixon. At some level, he represents every spoiled rich boy I've ever met. Everyone who was handed all the things I had to work for and then some. And at the same time he and his cronies treat me, and people like me, as if we were the ones who had somehow gamed the system. It's weird. It's wrong. It turns reality upside down. And it makes me angry to the bone.

My hope is that if the story of Bush's career gets disseminated, a lot of people he's scammed will see the hypocrisy.

You might want to think about that metaphor, guys (or maybe not)...

The Party believes that the practice of sodomy tears at the fabric of society. -- from the Texas Republican Party platform, via Atrios.

I was happy to see Josh Marshall express pretty much the same idea I was getting in my post a couple of days ago about Christopher Caldwell's article in the NY Press -- that Caldwell's piece cuts to the heart of the matter by focusing on the fact that Bush's business problem is not one single incident which may or may not have been illegal, but a pattern of gaming the system, of getting breaks and deals and assistance that isn't available to ordinary mortals.

Marshall takes this a step farther, pointing out that whether or not what Bush did was legal is entirely beside the point. In fact, that these grossly unethical and unfair business practices probably were, for the most part, entirely within the law, says something far more damning about the system than does the fact that any single "bad apple" defied a law.

Best of all, Marshall links to a Bush 2000 campaign speech, "An Era of Responsibility," in which the future president said, "In my administration we will ask not only what is legal, but what is right. Not just what the lawyers allow, but what the public deserves. In my administration we'll make it clear there is the controlling legal authority of conscience. We will make people proud again, so that Americans who love their country can once again respect their government."

Can anyone today believe there's a single honest word in that paragraph? Anybody feeling any respect?

Saturday, July 20, 2002

Alan Lomax (1915-2002)

Alan Lomax is gone and in my admittedly eccentric opinion that's the most important item in the newspaper today.

If all Alan Lomax did with his life was be the first person to record Muddy Waters and Leadbelly, that would have been a pretty well-lived life. If all he did was help get Woody Guthrie's Dust Bowl Ballads recorded, that would have been an accomplishment worth bragging about. And if all he did was record hundreds of hours of music that reminded America of its musical roots and inspired just about every piece of worthwhile popular music of the past half century, that would be more than enough for any man.

But the reason I'm writing this is that I think Alan Lomax's career was the manifestation of the most fundamental American value Ñ the idea that every voice counts Ñ and I just want to take a moment to celebrate that and mourn its passing.

Mr. Lomax saw folk music and dance as human survival strategies that had evolved through centuries of experimentation and adaptation; each, he argued, was as irreplaceable as a biological species. "It is the voiceless people of the planet who really have in their memories the 90,000 years of human life and wisdom," he once said. "I've devoted my entire life to an obsessive collecting together of the evidence."

Lomax's recordings weren't all music. They also included interviews with the musicians, about their lives as much as their music. He gave voice to the voiceless. Lomax knew that people from the mountains of east Kentucky and the Mississippi Delta (and later Spain, Italy and the Caribbean) had stories to sing and tell that had never been heard, that they knew truths just as valid as those of richer and more powerful people. That's a powerful belief Ñ and I'd put it up against any legal and legislative victories poor and minority people have won in the past century. To have your story heard is power Ñ maybe the most important kind of power you can have.

As I've been writing this, I've been listening to the Complete Plantation Recordings that Lomax made with Muddy Waters in 1941 and '42. In the album's liner notes, there's a quote from Muddy Waters about those recordings:

I'd never heard my voice. I used to sing; used to sing just how I felt, 'cause that's the way we always sang in Mississippi. But when Mr. Lomax played me the record I thought, man, this boy can sing the blues.

We live in a time that is, in so many ways, anathema to everything Alan Lomax's life was about. You need money, position, celebrity, even to be heard. I just had to pause and say thank you to a man who let Muddy Waters hear the amazing sound of his own voice (so that the rest of us could hear it too), and reminded me, and a lot of other people, that everyone has a story, and they're all worth listening to.

Friday, July 19, 2002

Via Kevin Raybould and Jason Rylander and Jeff Cooper and Ted Barlow...(this sure is one promiscuous little article, isn't it?)

This is an astonishing piece, so important that I'll try to ignore the author's snide mockery of people with accents and his designation of any woman who doesn't tat her own lace as a "feminist hag" (I'll try to take it as a compliment).

This j'accuse on Bush's miserable business ethics is important not just because it comes from the right, demonstrating that objections to Bush's business dealings are not a matter of Democrats scrounging for a issue. It's important because Caldwell tells the story the way it needs to be told Ñ the way the Democrats haven't been telling it.

Harken isn't important. Harken is boring. And unless you live for law and business (and that doesn't describe many people I know) Harken is incomprehensible. Did Bush do something illegal? If he did, it seems like a minor matter. Maybe it's bigger than it seems, but I don't care enough to try to figure it out, and I don't think most people do. Pursuing it smells of payback for Whitewater, which is understandable -- but cycles of revenge are as bad an idea in politics as they are in war.

But while Harken doesn't matter, Bush's career as a whole does, and that isn't the least bit complicated or hard to understand. He wasn't a successful businessman. He was an utter failure. Every business he touched went down the toilet -- which shouldn't be surprising considering that he is a not very bright man with an obvious aversion to hard work. Most of us live in a world where you have to deal with the consequences of that kind of failure. Not Bush. As Caldwell points out, Bush's career reveals "the story of the spectacular unfairness with which moneymaking opportunities are lavished on the politically connected." And that's letting Bush off easy. He milked every drop he could get out of being the president's son. Worst of all, he did it while lecturing the rest of us on accountability.

It's not what you know, it's who you know -- that's the theme of the novel we're all currently in the middle of reading in the daily papers. And if Bush isn't the villain of that novel, he's surely the villain's apprentice.

I may not know much about law or economics or business, but I know a good story when I hear it. Skip the numbers, tell the tale.

Fighting terrorism is one thing, but family values come first:

After 9/11, when Jeb complained that new restrictions on foreigners making international flight connections in the United States were hurting Florida's tourism, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) loosened the rules.

It's fascinating to see the recent change in press coverage of the president. This kind of thing Ñ the last two paragraphs of a Washington Post article Ñ wouldn't have been mentioned at all a month ago (remember the demonstrators at that graduation in Ohio who were expunged from the news?). It will be interesting to see if protesters start making their way up from the tail ends of articles.

Attendees at presidential events are so carefully screened, and the police barricade so many blocks around the halls where Bush appears, that the president and his entourage rarely see a demonstrator, let alone hear one. Today, three Bush opponents slipped into the Oakland University gym and began shouting "Stop your war!" partway into his speech. One unfurled a banner saying, "Thief," an apparent reference to the circumstances of Bush's inauguration.

Presidents quickly learn that the shouting of audience members usually cannot be heard by the television audience. So Bush kept speaking, just slightly louder, and the audience drowned out the demonstrators with applause. And he ad-libbed, "See, we believe in freedom of speech. We believe in freedom of the press."

And am I over-sensitive, or does that last line sound like he's mocking the idea of freedom of speech and freedom of the press? (That seems to be a pattern with this administration. They barely even pay lip service any more to civil rights and American values.)

Thursday, July 18, 2002

The IRA apologized for the deaths of civilians and a few hundred unarmed Nigerian women have taken over five oil pipeline stations, forcing concessions from ChevronTexaco, which has agreed to build schools, provide water, electricity and a community center, help the women establish poultry and fish farms to supply the terminal's cafeteria, and hire at least 25 villagers over five years.

Does Yasser Arafat read the newspapers?

In todayÕs Salon, Michael T. Klare suggests that the impending war with Iraq has as much to do with Iraqi oil as Iraqi weapons.

By 2020, according to recent Department of Energy calculations, the United States will need to import 17 million barrels of oil per day -- 6 million more barrels than today. Some of this additional oil will probably come from fields in Latin America, Africa, Russia and the Caspian Sea basin, but most of it will have to come from the Persian Gulf area, because only the Gulf possesses sufficient reserves to increase production substantially. Saudi Arabia, with estimated reserves of 262 billion barrels, has the greatest capacity to accelerate production, but Iraq, with 113 billion barrels, comes in second. Together with Iran, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), these countries possess two-thirds of the world's known oil reserves.

The Bush administration is well aware of America's (and the world's) growing dependence on Persian Gulf oil. In the National Energy Policy report issued in May 2001 (also known as the Cheney Report after its key author, the vice president), the White House observed that "by any estimation, Middle East oil producers will remain central to world oil security," and thus will remain "a primary focus of U.S. international energy policy." This means, in particular, convincing the Gulf countries to substantially increase their daily output and to export more of their oil to the United States.

It would be possible, in theory, for the United States to satisfy its need for increased oil supplies with added imports from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE alone. But American officials are well aware that conflict and disorder in any of these countries, or a lack of adequate investment, could prevent the delivery of adequate supplies. It is therefore U.S. policy to diversify its dependency as much as possible, by increasing imports from other suppliers. Hence the current drive to acquire additional supplies from Russia, Nigeria and the Caspian Sea countries. But none of these alternative producers can compare to Iraq in its capacity to boost production substantially. With 113 billion barrels of proven reserves and indications of vast untapped reservoirs in as-yet-unexplored areas of the country, Iraq is the only country besides Saudi Arabia that can add millions of barrels per day in additional production over the next 10 to 20 years. It is for this reason that Iraq looms so significantly in America's foreign energy policy.

I donÕt know whether or not Klare is right, but the administrationÕs belief that it can go to war without having to fully explain and defend its reasons for doing so tends to confirm such speculation. We get leaks about strategies for invasion Ñ which surely should not be leaked Ñ but it would be a lot better if we had a few leaks (or Ñ howÕs this for a bizarre concept? Ñ even straight-out, no-nonsense explanations) of reasons for that invasion. Last time I checked, this was a democracy. TheyÕre supposed to let us in on that sort of thing.

In Afghanistan, itÕs still a crime to be female:
On Nov. 13, when the Taliban left Kabul, the women's jail emptied. But in the last six months, women and teenage girls have started trickling back in, arrested for many of the same crimes that got them jailed during the Taliban era.

Of 29 current prisoners, 60% were jailed for eloping or leaving their homes, and 20% were accused of adultery.

Puppets 1, Muppets 0

Wednesday, July 17, 2002

Many conservative Republicans see the State Department as a bastion of liberal views about the world because of its contacts with non-Americans who do not share their values.

The State Department has contact with foreigners? How un-American! We must stop this right away!

By the way, General Powell -- let them send their e-mails. I think it might be considered cruel and unusual punishment to have to work with members of Congress without being allowed to make fun of them.

In an interesting rumination on the obsession of men like John Ashcroft with John Walker Lindh (who has incited a hatred way out of proportion to his importance), Eric Weinberger offers this insight: To people whose lives are built around absolute certainties, the most frightening thing is someone with different certainties.

I'm not sure he's right. I suspect people who live with complexity and without certainties may be even more threatening. But it's an interesting thought.

Christopher Hitchens on religion: I have many political disagreements with all kinds of people, but they are irrelevant compared with the ones between me and anyone who is a religious believer...ItÕs such a disgusting idea Ñ the idea that you would want permanent, inescapable supervision from the cradle to the grave . . . and itÕs a fantastic vanity Ñ ÔThe universe is about me. God cares what IÕm up toÕ Ñ masked in the most horrible way as modesty and resignation. ItÕs the element in us that is slavish, stupid, childish, superstitious and bigoted. Yes. It bids to all the bits of us that are not properly evolved. ItÕs horrible. I hate it, and IÕve only hinted to you how much I hate it.

The schizophrenia of my ideas on religion hit me when I read this quote and realized that, although I think of myself as a religious person, I agree with every word of it.

Al Gore was if some Democrat other than Gore would just deliver the sermon.

But not Lieberman.

Robert C. Hinkley, who is a corporate lawyer proposes that we amend the law which says that directors of corporations must use their best efforts to maximize profits for shareholders with the words but not at the expense of the environment, human rights, the public health or safety, the welfare of communities or the dignity of employees.

According to Hinkley this would both " free follow their conscience...without fear of being sued by shareholders," and clear a path for "civil lawsuits brought by or on behalf of the people whose interest the corporation damages."

President Bush has insisted that the recent business scandals are just a matter of "a few bad apples." But just as we need a government that is based on laws that protect all of us, not dependent on the good-will of the person at the top, we need corporate laws that protect all our interests. The "bad apples" will always be with us. There's no reason to make ourselves dependent on them.

I think Hinkley is on to something.

'Godless Americans' Plan March on Nation's Capital

Atheists, secularists and humanists from across the United States are planning a "Godless Americans March on Washington" this fall to protest what they see as the growth of religion in U.S. culture and government, especially since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"We are participating in this march to reclaim the American nation as a secular nation because we feel it's being moved more and more to a religious nation," said Katherine Bourdonnay, a spokesperson for the Council for Secular Humanism.

"While America has many religious roots, it was founded as a secular nation, with a distinct separation of church and state," she said.

I hope they plan to invite Justice Scalia.

Organizers of the Godless Americans March claim they are working to restore the original secular nature of the United States government, which they say was displaced as organized religion began to play a larger and larger role in American society. Conservative Christian opponents, however, counter that the opposite is true -- that American society originally had a deeply entrenched religious devotion that became diluted over time.

Can both of those statements be true? I think they are, although I can't find many people who agree with me. This country began as both devout and devoutly secular. That contradiction has played out throughout our history, and it continues to play out today -- as complex, confusing, and important as that other, more noticed contradiction we were born with -- the incongruity of a slave nation with a stated belief in equal rights for all.

The Founding Fathers did a lot better job with the issue of religion than they did with the issue of race. They couldn't have made it much clearer that they wanted no governmental interference with religion and no religious interference with government. When religious leaders attempt to blur those boundaries, it has more to do with power grabs than religion. When politicians blur it, it's the nastiest kind of pandering.

And yet faith -- for both good and evil -- is so much a part of our history that you can't make any sense of that history without it.

When my daughter was in kindergarten, a couple of years ago, her class made a book about the pilgrims, which she practiced reading to me so many times I have it committed to memory. There was a line in there that disturbed me. It said that the pilgrims came to America because the king "stole" their "freedom." Huh? If I hadn't known the story (which of course most kindergartners don't) I wouldn't have been able to make any sense of that bland and, I think, deliberately meaningless statement. How do you "steal" freedom? What kind of freedom did the king attempt to take away?

I object to such vague use of the word "freedom" for the same reason I'm not really wild about mass recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance -- because I don't want a word like freedom to be a cold plaster saint that my daughter genuflects to, I want her devoted to it because she really understands the word.

In school, they don't talk about the pilgrims' desire to worship God in their own way, in the way their consciences told them they must, because to do so is to walk along a boundary many teachers fear. Are we promoting religion here?Ironically, that same year, my daughter made another book in her class that consisted of the lyrics of America the Beautiful -- including God shed his Grace on thee -- and, of course, recited the Pledge of Allegiance with its 1954 wording. Why isn't that as dangerous as telling small children the real reason why the pilgrims came here? I think because the song and the pledge are ceremonial. No one expects the words to really be heard, to be taken to heart -- which has always seemed to me rather blasphemous.

To tell why the pilgrims came, on the other hand, is to deal with genuine religious ideas, to suggest that religion plays a deep and important role in people's lives, that it shapes their values. And if you've been told to keep religion out, because a school is a secular place, that's a very difficult issue to deal with.

But it's an essential one. And it's one progressives ought to care about even more than conservatives, because the progressive side of our history is intimately bound up with religion. Just try making sense of Dr. King without taking his faith into account.

This is all rather vague and confusing, I know. I started writing this weblog not because I had answers and truths I wanted to lay on the world but becauase I had a lot of questions I wanted to explore. Issues I wanted to consider. And this seemed to me an interesting way to do it. And so, I expect this won't be the last thing I write that doesn't completely make sense. It won't be the last thing I write that is more a question than an answer.