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

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.

I'm struck, in reading the NY Times account of the story of Mukhtaran Bibi, the young Pakistani woman who was "sentenced" to be gang raped because her 11-year-old brother was seen with a women of a higher caste, how misleading some of the earlier stories I read about the case were, and how inappropriate the outrage of some of the response to it was.

Outrage that a woman was raped is certainly a reasonable response. The only reasonable response. I wish there were equal outrage every time a woman was raped. But, in most cases, the high dudgeon that greeted this story had little to do with genuine concern over the rights of women. It was a little piece of evidence that "proved" what many people who heard it already wanted to believe -- that Islam is an ugly and brutal religon, that Arabs are animals.
The NY Times article brings up many details that the first reports got wrong, but the most important thing it talks about is the reaction of Pakistanis to this story.

The story would not have come to light at all if it hadn't been for the local imam, who heard about it and spoke up at Friday prayers, condemning loudly and unequivically what happened to Bibi. Score one for a man of genuine faith, a man who took that faith seriously.

Journalists picked up the story. The Pakistani government moved quickly, arresting all four of the rapists. And they did so, apparently, at least in part, because public anger over the case was so overwhelming. They've been flooded with calls urging them to crack down on the panchayats -- the tribal councils that sometimes administer justice in remote areas beyond the reach of central authority.

In other words, Pakistanis, Muslims, were as outraged over what happened to this young woman as Americans were. The tribal council of this remote village had as much to do with Islam as David Koresh had to do with Christianity.

The story is certainly one more piece of evidence of the tenuous rights of women around the world. And it's evidence that people often twist religion to bizarre and immoral purposes. But the moral of the story as a whole, it seems to me, is that Muslims have the same core values we do, and they are equally likely to stand up for those values.

Tuesday, July 16, 2002

Can Gerry Adams Have A Talk With Yasser Arafat?
I'm Irish. I grew up listening to old men nurse stories about their days with the "bold IRA," although by the time I heard those stories, the IRA were nothing but a bunch of thugs. I never thought the day would come when they'd issue a statement like this:

We offer our sincere apologies and condolences to the families of non-combatants...There have been fatalities amongst combatants on all sides. We also acknowledge the grief and pain of their relatives...The process of conflict resolution requires the equal acknowledgement of the grief and loss of others. On this anniversary, we are endeavouring to fulfill this responsibility to those we have hurt.

There is always hope.

While We're On The Subject of Theocracies...

I wrote last week about how bizarre I found Justice Scalia's comments on the relationship between Church and state Ñ as weird from a religious point of view as from a secular one. I was surprised to see very little comment on the Web about Scalia's scary thoughts, but I'm glad a lot of people seem to be picking up on the topic now.

Brad DeLong: There is something profoundly wrong about Scalia's worship of the state--any state, or, perhaps, any state that is not more oppressive than the Roman Principate that executed St. Paul--as something holy that commands our obedience for moral reasons. It is idolatrous. It is blasphemous. It is unAmerican.

Charles Dodgson: So, the guy who put Dubya in the oval office now seems to believe that his authority derives ultimately not from the Constitution, but from the Bible. This is certainly an unusual sentiment for a Supreme Court justice to express.

Avedon Carol: The framers couldn't have been more clear about the place of God in government, but Scalia wants to pretend to be a Constitutional Constructionist while simultaneously dissing the very foundations of our democratic republic. But his Christianity also leaves much lacking, as well.

Ted Barlow (scroll down to yesterday's post, his permalinks appear to be broken): This guy is Bush's favorite Justice, and a favorite to become the next Chief Justice. You don't need to be anti-religion to see what kind of trouble you can get into when the Chief Justice thinks that government's moral authority comes not from the consent of the governed, but from God Himself.

These anti-democratic sentiments deserve wider notice.

I have one quibble with some of the comments, though. Several writers have accused Scalia of hypocrisy for holding up a theocratic Christian model of government, but not feeling any obligation to support his Church in its opposition to the death penalty. I hate to stand up for Scalia, but he's technically right here. It's hard for a non-Catholic to understand (I'm a former Catholic, but this stuff was drilled into my head early), but Catholics are not required to support every position of the Church or even every opinion of the pope's. Only when an opinion is issued ex cathedra, with the stamp of papal infallibility, does it become a matter of dogma, something Catholics must accept if they are going to consider themselves Catholics and receive the sacraments. The Church's ruling on abortion (and, I think, even birth control) was issued ex cathedra. The position on the death penalty was not Ñ which leaves Catholics technically free to dissent.

So Scalia's right, but, as I said earlier, this loophole-hunting seems to me a peculiarly legalistic type of religion (which might be the best you can expect from a lawyer) Ñ reflecting the ugliest aspects of Catholicism, and more concerned with the letter of Church law than the spirit. Scalia's not a hypocrite (at least not in this instance), but he's not much of a man of law or a man of faith either.

As far as I can tell, it started here and continued here, with posts by John Weidner urging webloggers to join in a kind of chain letter of support for Iranian rebels who are currently rising up against the theocracy.Weidner cites Michael Ledeen's article in NRO as an inspiration and says Ledeen is the only one who has publicized what's been happening in Iran. He's a little off there. Thomas Friedman wrote a number of excellent pieces from Iran (here and here and here) in which he describes Iranians' growing opposition to the mullahs Ñ although he doesn't note, as Ledeen does, the government's mind-boggling failure to give even token verbal support to these people.

Weidner also has a link to Iranian (currently Toronto-based) blogger Hossein Derakhshan, which I found very useful. His understanding of Iranian politics is a lot more nuanced and insightful than anything you'll get from American writers.

Anyway, I think this is a fabulous idea. Although he apparently missed Friedman's pieces, Weidner is right about the dearth of news articles on the growing Iranian democratic movement. If more Americans knew about it, I'm certain they would be expressing strong support for the dissidents, and the Bush administration would be under political pressure to come out in support of them as well.

But the most important thing is that Iranians realize how deeply and strongly Americans support them, not because we have anything concrete to gain from their overthrowing the theocracy (I'm sure we do, but at the moment that isn't what's most important), but because we identify with their cause. It's our cause. Our friends in the Middle East are not Hosni Mubarek and the Saudi princes. They are the brave people of Iran.

In the spirit of this movement to support the Iranians, I'd like to link for a second time to Kevin Raybould's terrific Fourth of July post, in which he proclaims that anyone who believes in freedom and human dignity is, in the deepest sense, American:

Every Saudi woman who wants to walk down the street without fear, every Venezuelan peasant who wants his voice heard, every Sudanese slave who dreams of a life without masters, every person anywhere who wants nothing more than to be accorded the simple dignity due them as a human being - they are all Americans.

The Iranian rebels are also Americans. They are standing up for American values. Let Americans, of all political persuasions, hear about this movement and they will recognize it instantly.

After his Iranian reports, Thomas Friedman wrote another piece, in which he which he discussed the "liberal Arab partners" available to us if we are just willing to stop treating the Arab world as "a big dumb gas station" and help them restructure their societies in more humane ways. That doesn't just apply to the Arab world, but to every developing country out there. We need to connect with and support the people who share our values. We need to find the "Americans" wherever they are. John Weidner's cause is a great step in that direction.

Monday, July 15, 2002

In all fairness, after saying yesterday that the Democrats had more to fear from being too pro-business than they did from being too anti-business, and suggesting that I wasn't even sure they were much better than the Republicans when it came to plugging corporate excesses, I have to link to Joe Conason's op-ed in which he presents a pretty convincing argument that the Democrats are better. They may be pro-corporate, but they're still not reliably pro-corporate.

Corporate ideologues don't want Democrats running any branch of government, because Democrats tend to question and even obstruct their brilliant plans to enrich themselves and impoverish the rest of us.

He's got a point. New York financiers didn't raise $500,000 to smear Tom Daschle for nothing.

But in a way, maybe Conason is just confirming my final point, which is that the Democratic Party needs to focus more on the interests of working people than on business interests. There's no way the Democratic Party is ever going to be pro-business enough for the "corporate ideologues." They have robotic support from the Republican Party, there's no way the Democrats can compete with that. They don't need to be reflexively anti-business, but they do need to be reflexively pro-worker. The corporations have a voice, the rest of us need one too.

Being basically clueless when it comes to business, I don't make any claim to understanding the Harken scandal, although my Catholic school girl instincts tell me that the whole thing stinks. But it seems to me there's another scandal here Ñ a press scandal. Most of this information was available in 2000, when Bush was running for president. I remember Harper's running an article on it at the time, but I never saw the story anywhere else. Why?

Harold Evans discusses one interesting theory: The press locks itself into certain images of candidates. Early on, Gore was typed as a poseur, Bush as a bumbler. Once that happened, the only stories that are added to the narrative are the ones that confirm the stereotype. If Gore stumbles over his words, it won't be considered important, but if Bush does, it's more evidence that he's a moron. Similarly, if Bush flat-out lies, it's irrelevant, but if Gore gets a single fact wrong, its proof of his fundamental character flaws. That Bush engaged in shady business practices doesn't fit into the Bush is an idiot narrative, so it doesn't get reported.

There's a lot of talk about conservative vs. liberal bias in the news, but I think this sort of bias is far more prevalent, far more important to be aware of.

In more than two decades of public life as state attorney general, governor and U.S. senator from Missouri, Ashcroft repeatedly pursued extraordinary means to achieve his political ends. State police blocked a father from taking his brain-dead daughter to a hospital in another state so he could remove her from life support. Nurses at a rural family clinic were threatened with prosecution for distributing contraceptives. A state official assisting a voluntary integration plan for St. Louis schools was threatened with the loss of her job.

Good profile in the San Jose Mercury-News of an attorney general who has a hard time telling the difference between church and state.

Now where did I put my copy of 1984?

The Republicans are picking on Muppets?
I have to admit that when I first saw the headline Sesame Street to Introduce HIV-Positive Muppet, my first thought was c'mon guys, is that really necessary?

But of course the headline was a bit of a come on. Sesame Street isn't introducing the character in the United States, but in South Africa. Forty percent of adult deaths in South Africa are attributed to AIDS. Because of AIDS, the average life expectancy in the country is expected to fall from 60 years to around 40 years between 1998 and 2008. There are a half million AIDS orphans in South Africa. Can there be a single small child in South Africa who has never heard of AIDS? Under the circumstances, not talking about the disease Ñ yes, even with preschoolers Ñ would be outrageous. Reducing the stigma that surrounds the disease is essential.

Should they introduce the character in the U.S.? My gut tells me no, but I'd certainly be willing to listen to a counter-argument. But until PBS seriously considers putting the new Muppet on the American Sesame Street, there's not much point in even talking about it. I've got enough to deal with without wasting time worrying about things that aren't likely to happen. That would be the reaction of most parents of young children I know.

Any chance we could count on politicians Ñ especially Bible-belt Republicans Ñto have the same low-key reaction?

Forget about it. The jackals are already out, demanding an assurance the character not appear in the US, asking questions about PBS funding of Sesame Street that seem to threaten reductions if the network doesn't back down.

There's no issue here, of course. The politicians (all Republicans) just see a chance to suggest to some of the voters in their districts that homosexuals are even taking over Sesame Street, and that they, fine public servants that they are, are the last hope for decency and common sense.

Don't they have better things to do? Osama bin Laden is apparently still out there. Should they really be wasting time attacking Elmo?

Sunday, July 14, 2002

Unarmed African women band together to take over an oil terminal to call attention to their plight, and what does CNN focus on? Nudity. Typical.

If the Republicans are looking for a new way to explain their innocence in all the corporate scandals, Charlotte Allen has one for them in today's LA Times (unfortunately, it's only in the print edition, or at least I can't find it on the Web.) The gist of it is this: We are all to blame. Today's scandals are nothing more than the unraveling of the prosperity of the '90s Ñ a "Clinton-era phenomenon" (you knew he had to be in there, didn't you?). And since we all enjoyed the prosperity and wanted it to last, we are all responsible for the crimes that grew out of it.

I'd love to swat that argument out of my path and point out to Ms. Allen that there is a world of difference between an ordinary working person longing for a reliable car and a college education for her kids, and the son of a president trading on daddy's connections to get a contratct from Bahrain that his little oil company wouldn't otherwise have had a shot at. (I'm not even going to get into Harken Ñ I'm allergic to numbers.) To call both "greed" seems to me to be stretching the definition of that word way beyond its reasonable limits.

But there's a kernal of truth in the argument. The glorification of greed didn't start with Clinton. Greed has always been around, of course, but it became a virtual religion when Reagan told us to forget about the lazy poor people and let the brilliant and saintly corporations do their magic thing. Film is always a few years behind the curve, but Gordon Gekko told us "Greed is good" five years before Clinton was elected. Still, Clinton didn't do a whole lot to rein it in, either. Perhaps he did more than the Republicans would have done Ñ we can argue that one til John Ashcroft grows a heart and Dick Gehphardt grows a spine and we still won't settle it. But Clinton won two elections at least in part by stomping on the image of Democrats as anti-business. The party that was wary of corporate excess and protective of working people's interests pretty much dried up and blew away. It blew so far away that today most Democrats can't find a trace of it. Evan Bayh and Joe Lieberman are both quoted in today's NY Times as worrying that the party will fall back into its old "stereotype" of being "antibusiness."

That's how bad things have gotten. Day after day the newspapers are filled with corporate crimes and malfee-ance (and the papers, of course, can't even touch the crimes American corporations have committed in other countries) and Democrats are worried about being perceived as anti-business?

At the moment , anti-business sounds good. Real good.

The point is that blaming every American with his retirement money in a mutual fund for Wall Street excess is absurd. "We" are not to blame. But to some extent the Democratic Party is, because it set aside its core values.

There's an enormous irony, however, in the Republicans trying to suggest that the Democrats are just as responsible as they are Ñ if not more so. The irony is that the error the Democrats made in the '90s was that they tried to be Republicans. And they weren't very good at it, which is why they got so much less from the corporations than Republicans did. It wasn't for lack of trying. Democrats just aren't any good at being Republicans. So now they're left with a good chunk of the blame for all that's gone wrong, but without their fair share of the benefits.

Maybe it's time to go back to being Democrats. And if the Republicans want to blame the Democrats for being too corporate-friendly, maybe they should try being Democrats too.

Republicans seem to thrive on deal-making, so I've got a proposal to make: Can we trade Joe Lieberman for John McCain? Politics would then make so much more sense.

Saturday, July 13, 2002

Sunday's Seattle Post-Intelligencer offers one of the best arguments for the International Criminal Court I've read (and it probably relates to the previous post): If there is no officially sanctioned international tribunal to investigate and to adjudicate war crimes -- in other words, when justice cannot prevail -- individuals will assume the role themselves.

Consider the World Trade Center. Was its doom sealed by the impunity of the International Monetary Fund, The World Bank and the World Trade Organization? And yet, who died in its destruction? Not those who created, maintained and carried out the decisions of those bodies present.

The unfortunate fact is when those in positions of power are not accountable for their actions, the price is paid by the people in the street. When justice is not the province of official organizations, it becomes the province of anyone with access to firearms or ordinary household chemicals.

In short, impunity is a myth. Punishment for war crimes will be exacted. The only questions are by whom and from whom.

I don't think the author of this piece is making some Chomskyite argument that the U.S. will be paid back for war crimes. But when people are prevented from getting justice, or even from telling their stories (and sometimes, as South Africa's experience has shown, that's at least as important as punitive justice), they are going to seek vengeance. And God knows vengeance has lousy aim.

Yesterday I struggled to put into words my frustration with the government's attempt to alter perceptions of the U.S. in the Middle East without taking into account where those perceptions come from. If anything Bush and Company seem to be doing everything in their power to prove those perceptions correct. Kevin Raybould at Lean Left phrases it better than I did:

Terrorists feed off the desperation and hopelessness of the world's dissatisfied - whether they be the poorest of the poor, whose only contact with the West is the government troops sent to protect some multinational's interests, or the well to do and privileged who recoil at the worse aspects of Western commercial society overwhelming their traditional beliefs.

The only sure way to eliminate terrorism is to eliminate hopelessness and desperation wherever it is found. This is not a war of armies and spies (although both will be needed at times). It is a war of ideas. The terrorist says to the world: "If you do as we say, if you turn your life over to us, then we will tell you what God wants you to do. We will study his writings, and, because we are devout and close to His heart, we will know what he wishes from you. If you do these things, your life will be full, and your children will live secure and safe in the arms of God's chosen people." It is a tempting an powerful idea, one not easily refuted.

Fortunately, we have an idea of our own, one even more powerful, one that has been chosen by people all over the world, wherever the choice was possible: "All men are created equal. We will not tell you how to live, we will not force you and yours to bend to what we tell you God wants you to do. We will set you free to find your happiness how and where you will. We will allow your voice to be heard, and we will count your opinion. And we will not place the whims of the government over the rights that allow you and yours to pursue your happiness."

That idea is our greatest asset, but for it to be effective, we must try to live by it precepts. George W. Bush and John Ashcroft do not appear to understand this reality.

I would only add that I'm concerned not only with the message that our willingness to set aside civil liberties sends to hopeless and desperate people around the world, I'm also concerned with the message it sends to people like Hosni Mubarek. It tells them they don't even have to pay lip service to human rights anymore, since the most powerful (and, theoretically, democratic) country on earth has come around to seeing things their way. If we don't care about due process, why should he? If we can speak casually of torture, what's to hold him back? And when people in countries like Egypt grow justifiably tired of such persecution, I'm afraid it will not be Mubarek who pays the price.

Masters of War (2002 remix)
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together. -- Dwight Eisenhower (1961)

Kellogg Brown & Root, a unit of Dick Cheney's old company, Halliburton, builds the cells for the prisoners in Guantanomo. They have exclusive contracts with the Army and Navy to provide services like cooking, construction, power generation and fuel transportation. The contracts could eventually be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, although no one knows exactly what they're worth right now because the whole process is "shrouded in secrecy" (a Cheney specialty).

I know there's nothing illegal in this, but it stinks none the less. Whether or not Cheney played a role in helping KBR win those contracts (and I assume he did not Ñ that would require a level of arrogance I can't imagine even from this arrogant administration), the company had an edge because, as a Pentagon criminal investigator who looked into some of KBR's shadier contracts noted, "they knew the process like the back of their hand." And one of the reasons they knew the process so well was that their CEO was the former Secretary of Defense.

War profiteering is always a nasty business. I wonder what Dwight Eisenhower, who famously warned us all about the dangers of the "military-industrial complex," would have to say about a vice-president helping to carry out a war (I'll refrain from the cheap shot that "helping" probably understates his role) while his old buddies at Halliburton reap millions off it. Probably just "I told you so."

The weirdest part of this is that the Army and Navy could do the work KBR has been contracted to do at significant savings to American taxpayers (aren't those the people Republicans are always telling us they care so much about?) and the company has already been caught cheating on its contracts with the government.

That's not the way things are supposed to work. Well, it didn't used to be anyway.

Friday, July 12, 2002

The most interesting article I read today was Samer Shehata's piece in Salon on the State Department's ham-fisted stabs at p.r. in the Middle East. A Web site devoted to Sept. 11th (one percent of people in the region have access to the Web). A pamphlet on terrorism (illiteracy is wide-spread in the Arab world) And 500 million dollars for an Arabic language satellite t.v. station to broadcast the American side of teh news.

This is what you get when businessmen run the government Ñ reliance on the idea that you can sell people anything. Not that we don't have a good product. We Do. Government by the people. Due proces. The rule of law. Religious freedom. Freedom of speech. Great product. The only trouble is, we seem to be keeping the real goods in the wherehouse, and shipping the cheap knockoffs. And the customers know it. Three percent of Saudis and one percent of Pakistanis consider the U.S. government trustworthy. Some of that mistrust comes from nasty local propoganda, but a lot of it comes from experience. We talk about freedom in the Middle East, but our money's on dictators. Flashier commercials aren't going to sell anything if we keep cheating the customers by sending out the wrong product.

Shehata makes two suggestions that I think are excellent Ñ help Arab countries fund basic education, with an emphasis on literacy (as a mother, I'll vouch for that one Ñ put money in my kids' schools and you're my friend for life) and fund American studies centers at universities in Muslim countries to create a generation of professionals who understand the United States and will be able, as future opinion makers, to explain it to others.

Religion nurtures bigotry Ñ but what aspect of human existence doesn't. Race? Class? Gender? Nationality?

I think of myself as both drawn to the values at the core of every religion (Karen Armstrong describes herself as a "freelance monotheist" Ñ and that's as good a definition as any I've heard of my own religion) and at the same time extremely skeptical of religion, especially the institutional kind.

I rarely come across any writers who agree with me. Religious writers are way too religious for me and secular writers far too secular.

John Liechty's mixture of respect and wariness in this article is nice to come across.

Martin Woollacott has an insightful piece in the Guardian on the danger of over-estimating American power.

No sensible person wants a weak America, but nor should they want an overestimated America. For one thing, it takes others off the hook. One could draw a metaphor from the misdeeds of the accounting industry. The exciting discussion about the extraordinary power of the US canters on, generating a higher and higher valuation of the stock, while the day to day difficulties and failures are totted up in a different column. It is time they were put down on the same page.

Good point. There is certainly a danger for the United States in ignoring the opinions of other countries (as the NY Times opines today). There's an equal danger for other countries in assuming that the U.S. can't be influenced, and that they can leave everything up to us.

The Saudis have a counter-culture?

Any time a handful of non-conformists stand in opposition to a repressive society, good things have the potential to happen. The questioning spirit of the sixties is alive (not strong, but alive) among the Palestinians and the Iranians Ñ and apparently even among the Saudis. You just can't keep a good thing down.

Some words of wisdom for emerging dissenters:
"There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all."

I understand that people make mistakes.I understand that innocent people die even in justifiable wars. I do not understand mocking and blaming victims. I do not understand denying responsibility. I do not understand making the same stupid mistake over and over again and never learning from past mistakes. I do not understand the arrogance of people who think they can just walk away from 54 deaths. Am I terribly old-fashioned to believe that we have a moral responsibility to undo, to the best of our ability, any damage we do? The nuns who drilled that precept into my head thirty years ago are mostly gone. I'm glad David Corn is around to continue in their spirit.

Thursday, July 11, 2002

In January, Antonin Scalia spoke on the relationship between church and state. A few days ago, in the NY Times, Sean Wilentz argued that Scalia wanted to trade in our tried-and-true secular democracy for a brand new theocracy. (Iran seems to be getting tired of theirs, maybe they'd be willing to sell it to Justice Scalia really cheap).

I think Wilentz is a little unfair in accusing Scalia of trying to "get secular humanists off the federal bench." Scalia is actually more frightened of Catholics who take the Church's social justice teachings too seriously than he is of secular humanists.

But Scalia did make some strange statements. Among the JusticeÕs eccentric beliefs:

Democracy undermines morality. It is easy to see the hand of the Almighty behind rulers whose forbearsÉwere supposedly anointed by GodÉIt is much more difficult to see the hand of God Ñ or any higher moral authority Ñ behind the fools and roguesÉwhom we ourselves elect to do our will, Scalia said, and went on to suggest that democracy breeds "civil disobedience" Ñ the strange (to Scalia, anyway) notion that citizens determine the justice of laws. Is a Supreme Court Justice in the worldÕs oldest democracy maligning the very system of government he is sworn to uphold?

Life is less important to Christians than to non Christians, because they believe in an afterlife. Anti-Muslim bigots have said this about Muslims recently. Who would have expected to hear such an anti-Christian slur from a man who calls himself a Christian?

Christians have faith in the law, because they assume punishments are merited. That would be an odd belief for followers of the man who represents the most infamous case of judicial injustice in history. How can anyone hold the story of Jesus in his head and heart without an understanding of injustice?

The Catholic Church has become too democratic (a charge even most devout Catholics will find hilarious). Scalia finds evidence of this horrible modernity in the ChurchÕs opposition to the death penalty, which, he notes, was considered moral at the time of Christ (Scalia fails to note the irony here). If it was moral in JesusÕ day, it still is, since the "moral orderÉdoes not change." (I hate to think what Scalia makes of the Bible passages that support slavery.) Scalia refers snidely to the anti-death penalty stance in "the latest, hot-off-the-presses version of the catechism" and reminds his audience that it is "non-binding" Ña view of religion only a lawyer could conceive: ethics that never change, but have plenty of loopholes in the contract.

Finally, Scalia suggessts that

the Church should drop its opposition to the death penalty, because it is unpopular. If Catholics in the United States are forced to oppose the death penalty, Catholic politicians will lose their races, Catholic judges will have to resign and Catholic citizens wonÕt even be able to sit on some juries. The ChurchÕs stance, Scalia warns, will cut Catholics off from civil life.

As Sean Wilentz points out, such an argument promotes the old stereotype of Catholics as sheep under "papist mind control," which seemed to have been laid to rest with John KennedyÕs election.

But just as disturbing to me is ScaliaÕs practical morality. Scalia even says that the Church could adopt two positions: one for the United States and one for "secular Europe." Scalia believes that morality is unchanging and therefore it is wrong to let human standards evolve, but for political reasons, the Church can hold different places to different moral standards.

That isnÕt faith, itÕs cynism of the highest order. A lawyerÕs religion. And a lawyerÕs religion is nearly as ugly as a theocratÕs state.

I've been thinking more about Donovan Jackson, the 16-year-old boy who was beaten by the police in Inglewood. I saw the video on television yesterday and literally jumped when that child's head was slammed against the car. I don't care what spin they give it, there is no way that slamming down the head of a slender teenager already in handcuffs is right. I have a teenage son, and although, as a middle-class white kid he's an unlikely police target, somewhere in my bones I felt that that boy could be my son. In a broad, human sense, I suppose he is, and that's why I felt something akin to what I would have felt if I'd witnessed the same thing happening to my son.

Unfortunately, my 7-year-old daughter walked into the room just as the video came on, and so she saw it too. She asked me what was happening and I told her the police were arresting someone. She wanted to know if he had stolen something (at this point in her life, the worst crime she can imagine). I told her I didn't know what he had done, because I simply could not explain to her that he hadn't done anything. It was a misunderstanding. I'm not ready for her to know that sometimes the nice policeman can make a mistake. Conservatives probably don't believe that progressives like me think this way, but I want her to be able to trust the police. She's still wrapped in the comforting cocoon that says adults don't make mistakes, they will always be there to protect you. I'd like to keep her there awhile.

In any case, we watched the video together, and I hoped she really didn't understand what was going on, but when it was over, and Connie Chung started jabbering again, she asked me, "Were the men who were hitting the boy the good people or the bad people?" I told her sometimes it's hard to tell, which was a dumb answer, but at that moment, I couldn't come up with a better one.

Ellen Goodman has a good piece on the chasm between this administration's talk about fighting for women's rights and its action in attempting to smother the U.N.'s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

I'm curious about something: I've noticed the story Goodman begins with Ñ about an teen-age girl in Pakistan who was "sentenced" by a tribal council to be gang-raped for her 11-year-old brother's "crime" of walking with an unchaperoned girl from a different, higher-class tribe Ñ has gotten a lot of play on right-wing websites, offered as "proof" of Muslim depravity. Why don't crimes against women bother conservatives unless they are committed by men they don't like?

The evil that is done in the name of religion never fails to astound me.

Gems from TNR:

The presidents with the lowest reputations over the past hundred or so years were all Republicans, and they were all guided by the conviction that their job was to side with the powerful in any potential conflict with the poor.

In 1952, Charles Wilson, President Eisenhower's secretary of defense, opined that the good of the country and the good of General Motors could be entwined. Often ridiculed, his statement is, in comparison with the policies of the present administration, a model of statecraft. General Motors, after all, was unionized, so what was good for it was also good for huge numbers of American working-class families. And automobiles, its major product, offered to the upwardly mobile Americans of the period a dramatic opportunity--in that age before the politics of smog--to improve their living conditions. The companies that the Bush administration confuses with the public interest, by contrast, stand out for their rapaciousness in a generally vicious business climate. Enron, to which the president was unusually close, not only destroyed the retirement prospects of its own workers, it also schemed to cause deliberate discomfort to California's energy users...The business of the Bush administration is not just business, but sleazy business.

Presidents such as Bush, who jog softly and carry no stick at all, signal to every entrenched interest that nothing will stand in the way of an inclination to have government always on the side of those who already possess influence and power.

During the 2000 election, Bush's advisers discovered something that no one before had ever quite known: there are simply no limits to how much you can lie in American politics and get away with it.

The Bush administration... treated the informal rules of the political game as territory for suckers

Instead of a president who can speak to the best in all of us, we have a president willing to listen only to some of us.

The Bush administration knows that the tradition of Republican stewardship of the nation came to an inglorious end with the watered-down version represented by the current president's father, and it has no plans to resurrect it. Noblesse oblige is dead; ignobility is to be praised, and obligation is to be shunned.

The rich did get richer in the last two decades of the twentieth century, and to a considerable degree their gains came at the expense of everyone else. In times past, such periods of excess gave rise to opposition in forms ranging from utopian novels to political re-alignments. Yet neither political party during this period felt called upon to respond. At a time when the right was concerned with abortion and homosexuality and the left pushed affirmative action and multiculturalism, the single most important moral issue facing the country--the right of every individual to be treated by government with equal dignity and respect--went all but undiscussed. As a result, a once-vibrant populist tradition degenerated into the vile Pat Buchanan and the narcissistic Ralph Nader.

An administration with no mandate pursuing with grim determination policies with no public support--and yet which must nonetheless operate within a system that has a free press, an investigative legislature, and an independent, if compromised, judiciary--has little choice but arrogance. It could decide, of course, that cooperation with other branches of government is actually a good thing for democracy and that the best policies are those pursued through informed public debate, but then it could hardly hope to reward the rich and the powerful. And so it does the opposite, shifting as much of the country's wealth as it can to those who need it least, while launching invective and attributions of bad motives to anyone who opposes its goals.

There's a well-written piece in The New Republic on the silly Republican attempt to blame Bill Clinton for the wave of corporate scandals. The whole idea is absurd, of course. As TNR points out, the current wave of corporate crime isn't new. White collar crime has always been with us, but it first grew out of control in the eighties, when Ronald Reagan was president (and we stopped watching and trying to make rules, because businessmen are, at heart, artistic souls, and rules and regulations disturb their creative impulses.) In addition, there isn't much of a relationship between sexual sins and economic ones, and in any case, corporate CEOs are not generally the kind of people who would look to a Democratic president for moral guidance. (It's as silly a charge as blaming the FBI for being too liberal, too multicultural.) And then there's the inconvenient fact that while he was president, Clinton did his best to rein in white collar crime by increasing enforcement. Clinton vetoed the 1995 bill that shielded corporate executives from shareholder lawsuits, and his SEC chief, Arthur Levitt, proposed barring accounting firms from consulting for firms they were simultaneously auditing. Unfortunately, Clinton's veto was overridden.

None of that analysis is original with TNR. What's interesting to me in this piece is the way it zeroes in on the core problem: "the basic tension within conservative ideology between cultural traditionalism and economic libertarianism." Conservatives love "traditional values" and they love business. But business does a great deal more to undermine traditional values than the '60s ever did. The sex and violence in moves has nothing to do with liberal ideology or counterculture values, and everything to do with making money. There are all kinds of good arguments to be made for the profit motive as a creater of economic growth. There are no reasonable arguments to be made for the profit motive as a force for decency. If it makes money, somebody's going to try to sell it Ñ no matter what "it" does to people's lives, not matter what effect it has on families. That's a basic contradiction within capitalism. Conservatives just can't deal with contradiction Ñ so they try to foist blame anywhere they can make it stick. No matter how absurdly.

Michael Kinsley notes how strange it is that everyone seems to assume that at some point in the not too distant future we will be going to war with Iraq and yet there is little discussion, little debate over whether or not that's a good idea. This is especially bizarre considering that "events are proceeding in a deliberate, slow-motion way that leaves plenty of time for citizens to debate and decide." This is not a sudden event that calls for immediate action. "On the issue of war and peace," Kinsley says, "the United States is no longer a democracy." I'm afraid he's right.

I admit it: John Ashcroft got one right Ñ he's at least sending civil rights lawyers to investigate the police beating of a 16-year-old boy in Inglewood. It bothers me that a senior Justice Department official admittted "this has become a very public issue, and [Ashcroft] felt there was a real need to let the public know how concerned he was about this." I don't need to know that Ashcroft is concerned, I need to know that learning disabled boys can't be beaten up by the police with impunity. But politicians are going to cover their asses, and I guess it doesn't do any good to slam them for that. That's just what they do. At least in this case the ass-covering might accomplish something.

"Follow the money and you will find what we truly care about and stand for as a nation." -- Marion Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund

Between 2001 and 2010 the wealthiest one percent of Americans with average incomes over a million dollars will receive almost a half trillion dollars from the Bush tax cuts. Ñ
Citizens for Tax Justice

The vast majority of taxpayers have already received most of their tax cuts from the 2001 legislation. Freezing the Bush tax cut at 2002 levels would have little or no effect on 99 percent of all tax payers. Ñ Citizens for Tax Justice

As of 2000, 9.2 million children under 18 had no health insurance. 90 percent of those children live in homes where at least one parent is working. Ñ
Children's Defense Fund

As of 2000, 11.6 million American children younger than 18 lived below the poverty line. More than three quarters of these children came from families where at least one person was working.Ñ
Children's Defense Fund

We may not understand the need to invest in children, but some people do.

Wednesday, July 10, 2002

A piece by Richard Cohen contains an interesting tidbit: After a lifetime in journalism, I can tell you that some members of Congress are religious skeptics. Some are even agnostics or atheists. That's true of society in general and it is no less true of our national leaders.

Atheists in Congress? I hope that doesn't start some McCarthyite hunt for the offenders. The more interesting point is this: What does it say about this country that skeptics, agnostics and atheists are afraid to express their beliefs?

For more than two hundred years the United States has stood as a model for emerging democracies Ñ not always perfect, certainly, and sometimes hypocritical in our championing of freedom, but nevertheless a model of due process and the rule of law. But the way some dictators see it, the world has changed. In the new world, developing countries will not emulate America; America will emulate the wiser, more practical police states. Hosni Mubarek, for instance, sees recent U.S. fondness for military tribunals for civilians and limits on the civil rights of suspects, along with its newly acquired willingness to deport prisoners to countries where they will be subject to torture, as an indication that in the future the American justice system will be more like the justice systems of police states in the developing world. Mubarek thinks America is proving him right, that freedom and justice are luxuries few countries can afford. I wonder how many Americans right now would be willing to say he's wrong.

Meanwhile, Hamid Karzai seems to have an astonishing commitment to building a real democracy out of rag and bone. Egypt is the second largest recipient of American foreign aid (after Israel). Can we take some of the money we're wasting in Egypt and give it to Karzai's Afghanistan? He deserves our support and it looks like he has a great deal to teach us about reasonable priorities in a democracy.

Tuesday, July 09, 2002

On September 11th, everything was supposed to have changed. We were all going to become more serious, less focused on the trivial and ephemeral, less hungry for cheap thrills. But Michelle Goldberg argues that rather than redeeming us, the tragedy brought out the worst in us. Ten months later, our response reveals our cheap sentimentality, our crudeness, our voyeurism, our addiction to violent spectacle, and our ability to merchandize anything and everything.

Recently, I saw a woman wearing a tee-shirt that said, on the back, AMERICA UNDER ATTACK 9-11-01, and I immediately thought of those rock tour shirts with the list of concert dates on the back. That is not what a tragedy ought to bring to mind, but so much of the memorializing has an "I lived through something exciting" air to it, when, of course, the vast majority of people wearing those tee shirts haven't lived through anything except what they saw on television. Maybe they can't tell the difference. There's something truly obscene about it. On the fourth of July I wrote about the things I love about this country, but this is one of the things I hate.

Everyone knows that our allies are less than enthusiastic about plans for an invasion of Iraq. The Guardian points out that even Republicans are "tepid" on the idea.

Zionism is not racism. So why are some right wing Israelis trying to prove that it is by proposing to amend the Israel Lands Law so that state land can be allocated to Jewish-only settlements? Yes, yes, I know that Arab Israelis have more rights than Arabs in surrounding countries. But it is increasingly difficult to defend Israel as a democracy as it moves closer and closer to apartheid. Israel, like the United States, is a beacon. It stands for something. At least it's supposed to.

In a somewhat half-hearted defense of a bill, President Moshe Katsav said, "Just as there are Arab communities which because of their special character do not want Jews there, it should also be understood that there are Jewish communities that want their special way of life," Any American old enough to remember segregation ought to be extremely uncomfortable with that sort of language. Talk of a "special way of life" that keeps people separate is something we got over. I'm hoping it's something Iraelis reject as well.

Ha'aretz, to its credit, editorialized that the bill "would constitute a blatant declaration of the effective collapse of Israeli democracy." Israel defines itself, Ha'aretz notes, as a "Jewish and democratic state." It needs to demonstrate that there is no contradiction in those adjectives.

"All I can tell you isÑis that in the corporate world, sometimes things aren't exactly black and white when it comes to accounting procedures," the president said.

I find it sad, funny and astonishing that President Bush recognizes that everything isn't black and white Ñ but only when it comes to business ethics. This is a man who thinks human behavior is simple, lacking in nuance and complexity, a matter of good guys and bad guys, but accounting practices are complex and the source of enormous moral ambiguity. Very strange way of looking at the world.

Monday, July 08, 2002

David Horowitz is convinced that the NY Times publication of leaked Iraq invasion plans is part of a leftist plot to stop the attack. Does that mean the Pentagon is crawling with Saddam-loving leftists? Or maybe the State Department? Or the White House itself?

I mean the plan was leaked, right?

Where's good old Joe McCarthy when you need him? He'd have the list (secret of course) of all those fifth columnists in hand by now. Horowitz is just not the man his role model was.

I just stumbled on a fascinating website. It's called The Political Compass and it points out that our old categories of "left" and "right" in politics are overly simplistic, which I think is indisputable. No thinking human beings fits entirely into one cateogory or another. And people who have "opposite" political philosophies often find points of agreement. The site includes a test to locate yourself on the political spectrum Ñ which they divide into four basic categories, not the traditional two: right-wing authoritarian, left-wing authoritarian, right-wing libertarian and left-wing libertarian. I came out smack in the middle of left-wing libertarian, in the same neighborhood as Gandhi, which sounds about right. My polar opposite is a free-market authoritarian like Pinochet.

The site is British, and the examples they use to show where people lie on the political spectrum are mostly unfamiliar to me (and the ones that are familiar surprised me Ñ Tony Blair is a right-wing authoritarian? Ñ but then I make no claim to understanding Brit politics). It would be interesting to try to place some American politicians on this graph.

If we recognise that the traditional left-right line is essentially an economic line it's fine, as far as it goes. We can show, for example, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung and Pol Pot, with their commitment to a totally controlled economy, on the hard left. Socialists like Mahatma Gandhi and Robert Mugabe would occupy a less extreme leftist position. Margaret Thatcher would be well over to the right, but further right still would be someone like that ultimate free marketeer, General Pinochet.

That deals with economics, but the social dimension is also important in politics. That's the one that the mere left-right scale doesn't adequately address. So we've added one, ranging in positions from extreme authoritarian to extreme libertarian. Both an economic dimension and a social dimension are important factors for a proper poltical analysis. By adding the social dimension you can show that Stalin was an authoritarian leftiist (ie the state is more important than the individual) and that Gandhi, believing in the supreme value of each individual, is a liberal leftist. You can also put Pinochet, who was prepared to sanction mass killing for the sake of the free market, on the far right as well as in a hardcore authoritarian position. On the non-socialist side you can distinguish someone like Milton Friedman, who is anti-state for fiscal rather than social reasons, from Hitler, who wanted to make the state stronger, even if he wiped out half of humanity in the process. The chart also makes clear that, despite popular perceptions, the opposite of fascism is not communism but anarchism (ie liberal socialism), and that the opposite of communism ( i.e. an entirely state-planned economy) is neo-liberalism (i.e. extreme deregulated economy).

President Bush will be giving a speech on Wall Street tomorrow, trying to get out in front of the corporate scandals by portraying himself as a reformer. As Paul Krugman, and others, have pointed out, that's a tough sell for a man whose business career was marked by small scale examples of the kind of ethical violations that have shocked us all for the past eight months.

In today's LA Times Ron Brownstein points out that the irony doesn't just involve the president's own ethical lapses. His whole attitude toward business has always been that if you leave corporations to do what they want, everything will work out for the best. But his approach Ñ letting the foxes guard the henhouse Ñ is exactly what has proved disasterous. President Bush worries about stifling business. At the moment, a lot of Americans would like to see a good deal more stifling going on.

It's good for Bush to add his voice to the demand for more ethical corporate behavior. But his words would carry more weight if matched with action. If Bush is sincere about confronting corporate misbehavior, he'd be changing direction not only at the SEC but at the agencies protecting the environment, the workplace and public lands too. Eric Schaeffer, who resigned in protest as head of civil enforcement at the EPA earlier this year, asks the right question: Does it make sense to rely "on corporate self-policing" to safeguard the public "after what we've learned about corporate responsibility from Enron and others."

Sunday, July 07, 2002

Americans are famous for not having any interest in history, and not learning from past mistakes Ñ but the stereotype isn't always true. I think most Americans recognize the insanity of interning Japanese-Americans during WWII, and, fortunately, there's been little call for that kind of thing in this war. This time around Americans as a whole seem to be able to distinguish between an enemy and other Americans who happen to share the enemy's religion or ethnicity. That's something to be proud of. That shouldn't, however, blind us to the fact that we aren't completely free of old hatreds.

Wade Davis, in the Toronto Globe and Mail explains why really dealing with the threat of terrorism necessitates addressing "the underlying issues of disparity, dislocation and dispossession that have provoked the madness of our age. "

Before we even consider taking on Iraq, we ought to be damn sure that we're committed to helping ensure that whatever replaces Saddam Hussein is really an improvement. What's going on right now in Afghanistan doesn't bode well for Iraq. We've proved we can smash things. We haven't yet proven we know how to build.

"Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." (Mark 12:13-17)

When Jesus was asked whether it was right for people to pay taxes, he pointed to the face of Caesar stamped on a coin and told the questioner that we should give back to Caesar the things that were clearly marked as belonging to Caesar. It was an ambiguous and perhaps evasive answer, but if it means anything, it suggests keeping separate the world of God and the world of the state (or, more specifically, the world of money.)

If you stamp "In God We Trust" on coins, doesn't that fly in the face of Jesus' admonition? Doesn't it trivialize God to make him part of the monetary system (at least for those of us who don't worship money)? Theodore Roosevelt thought so, which is why he expressed a "very firm conviction that to put such a motto on coins . . . not only does no good but does positive harm."

There was a time when presidents took both faith and country seriously, and could tell the difference between the two.

Paul Krugman isn't going to let up up the hypocrisy of a president who made his fortune in Enron-like business practices trying to pass himself off as a reformer, is he? Good for him.

The point is the contrast between image and reality. Mr. Bush portrays himself as a regular guy, someone ordinary Americans can identify with. But his personal fortune was built on privilege and insider dealings -- and after his Harken sale, on large-scale corporate welfare. Some people have it easy.

Ralph Nader has also jumped on the bandwagon, urging a probe of the man he helped elect. Feeling a little guilty, Ralph?