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

Tuesday, August 06, 2002

An interesting article in yesterday's SF Chronicle focused on how John Ashcroft's religion affects his politics (actually, not much -- I may write more about that tomorrow). One thing that interested me was the author's comment that most people assume Ashcroft is a fundamentalist, when in fact he's Pentacostal. She seems to suggest this reflects some ignorance about religious differences, but personally I think it's a reasonable assumption.

Ashcroft looks and sounds like a fundamentalist. Whatever you think of Pentacostals, they're usually colorful. Elvis was Pentacostal. Jerry Lee Lewis was Pentacostal. I don't know for sure, but Little Richard sure sounds Pentacostal. When you come right down to it, rock and roll is Pentacostalism's bastard child. Ashcroft really doesn't belong in their company. That's probably one of the reasons I don't like him.

Can I take back every good thing I've ever said about Colin Powell?

Exxon-Mobil paid the Indonesian military to provide security for its facilities. That military, which locals call "Exxon's Army," is "responsible for human rights abuses" including murder, torture, sexual crimes, and kidnapping, according to both Human Rights Watch and Indonesian human rights groups.

A court in Washington was hearing the case against Exxon, brought on behalf of a group of Indonesians who allege that they were victims of human rights abuses.

Today the State Department told the court that continuing to hear the case would "risk a seriously adverse impact on significant interests of the United States, including interests related directly to the ongoing struggle against international terrorism."

Translation: we need to be friendly with the Indonesian military and what they do to their own people doesn't make a whole lot of difference to us. The State Department letter also complained that the court case could hurt U.S. business interests and discourage investment in Indonesia.

Justice for the victims of rape and murder vs. risking profits. Tough choice. Good thing the president has his priorities straight.

The court isn't bound to respond to the State Department's objections, but it could kill the case.

Does this administration have any understanding of the concept that insuring people's access to basic human rights is a way of fighting terrorism?

The last time I wrote about public school a public school teacher forbidding a student to talk about Jesus, I said the teacher was wrong, but I think the rules are trickier to handle than people think, and every once in awhile a teacher gets overzealous. I have one child in public school and one who just graduated, and personally I've never seen a hint of that kind of bigotry. Patrick Nielsen Hayden picked up the story and said it wasn't a lack of clear guidelines, but the fact that some teachers "have the brains of potted plants." I thought he was a little harsh. I'm not so sure anymore.

BTW, Patrick's comment section got a fascinating conversation going on the topic.

My banner ad is gone! For all I know, it's been gone for some time and I just didn't notice (I'm very good at tuning out advertising -- all that expensive capitalist propaganda is just wasted on me). Anyroad, thanks to the kind soul (whoever you are) who made my site less blinky and obnoxious looking.

I don't like the Saudi government any more than anyone else does. But isn't there some in between point we can pause at instead of passing directly from "They're our friends, we can't say a word about their nasty schools, their treatment of women and their export of terrorism" to "do what we say, or we seize your oil fields?" Couldn't we just threaten to ban SUVs first?

Also, am I reading this right? Dan Quayle is on the Defense Policy Board? Dan Quayle?

We're in trouble here, aren't we?

Even the best op-eds usually disappear from your consciousness within days, but last October Richard Rodriguez published a piece that stayed with me. Writing only a month after September 11th, Rodriguez wrestled, as a devout Catholic, with a world in which it was impossible to deny that religion could be a curse. Many less honest writers took the easy way out and divided religious impulses into "ours" and "theirs" -- ours were peaceful and good, theirs hate-filled, violent and oppressive.

But everyone who heard Jerry Falwell blame feminists and gays for the murders of September 11th knows that there is a lot of theirs woven into ours. And anyone who has listened to American Muslims describe the true values of their faith recognizes that what we value most in our own religious traditions is equally a part of theirs.

Rodriguez drew an interesting line, not between Muslims and Christians, but between "feminine" and "masculine" religious impulses.

The masculine impulse is to stand, to prophesy, to defend the faith, to convert the infidel or to slay him. Prophesy and its interpretation are masculine, as are schism, holy war, inquisition, reformation, excommunication. The masculine impulse will fight to defend its theology against a variant theology of the same God. The feminine impulse recognizes itself among all religions. The feminine impulse touches bodies, rescues the Samaritan, accomplishes charity, regardless of male permission or orthodoxy.

Obviously a little embarrassed about invading Carol Gilligan's territory and suggesting that men and women have different psychologies, and even different moralities, Rodriguez repeats several times that it's not a matter of "male" and "female." Men are often drawn to the tolerant and nurturing "feminine" side of religion (as Rodriguez himself is) and women are not immune to the longing for doctrinal purity. But the choice of words isn't arbitrary. In most religions, men make the rules, women run the soup kitchens.

At the end of the essay, Rodriguez expresses optimism that masculine religion will increasingly be challenged by a feminine theology, and that women will prevail.

Two articles in today's paper bring Rodriguez's essay back to mind. One (via Hesiod) deals with seven women who were excommunicated by the Catholic Church for participating in an ordination ceremony and claiming to be priests. Hesiod notes that no pedophile priests have been excommunicated, and suggests that the Church is in a "major crisis" because of such obvious hypocrisy.

Look at it for a moment, though, from the Church's point of view. Sin doesn't threaten the Church, unless the sinner argues that there is nothing wrong with his sin. Once you've confessed a sin (to the Church, not necessarily to the authorities) and atoned for it (and atonement is sometimes tricky -- you can return something you've stolen, but how do you "atone" for destroying someone's life and faith?), as far as the Church is concerned, God's in his heaven and all's right with the world.

Well, unless you happen to have had your life destroyed, but surely the Church counts for more than a single life (or even a few thousand lives).

But women standing up to the power of the Church -- now there's a threat. Ever since Joan of Arc told the priests that God was not telling her quite the same things He was telling them (and got roasted for her trouble), women's alternate theology has threatened the Church. I'm not trying to pick on the Catholic Church, which, as I've said before, I have a love-hate relationship with. (And I think women have always had a stronger voice in the Catholic Church than they do in many others -- but that's another day's topic). But women's voices threaten any orthodoxy. And the guardians of orthodoxy need to shut them up.

What's interesting now is not the Church's deafness, but how many Joans are talking back to the Church.

I think those freshly minted female priests might enjoy talking to this Pakistani journalist, who sees the administration of justice by tribal councils in Afghanistan and Pakistan, councils with what seem to her phony and anti-female notions of Islamic law, as nothing more than another tool for men to exercise power over women. And so she is speaking out against misogyny masked as tradition and religion.

Joan of Arc would be proud of her.

Monday, August 05, 2002

Thank you to Ted Barlow (scroll down, Blogger is messing with the permalinks again) for picking up on the story of the outrageous imprisonment of Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, which I wrote about yesterday. I included a link to a site that had organized a letter writing campaign for Dr. Ibrahim yesterday, but Ted has added useful links to the House and Senate, as well as media addresses. There are two more I should add:

President George W. Bush

Vice President Richard Cheney

Ted is absolutely right that paper copies are better than e-mail, but e-mail is better than inaction. Please do whatever you can today.

UPDATE: Here is a link to Democracy Egypt which is a good source of information on Dr. Ibrahim's case.


Here is my letter to President Bush

President George W. Bush
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear President Bush,

On July 29th, EgyptÕs Court of Cassation sentenced Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an American citizen and an internationally known advocate for democracy and human rights, to a seven year prison term. When the court read Dr. IbrahimÕs sentence, it did not state the counts on which he was found guilty. However, he had previously been tried on charges of embezzlement (for misusing European Union funds that the EU insists were not misused) and tarnishing EgyptÕs reputation. Dr. IbrahimÕs work focuses on voter education and election monitoring.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have declared the charges against Dr. Ibrahim to be "politically motivated" and condemned his trials as attempts to "muzzle civil society in Egypt."

Dr. IbrahimÕs case is important to us as Americans not only because we believe in freedom of expression as a fundamental human right, but because we recognize that, as we fight against terrorism, we must insure that people in the Muslim world have opportunities for democratic change within their countries so that they arenÕt left with nothing but Islamic fundamentalism as a source of hope. For both moral and practical reasons, the United States has an obligation to support Dr. Ibrahim.

The State Department issued a statement that it was "disappointed" by Dr. IbrahimÕs conviction and sentence. Disappointment is not enough. The United States should, in the strongest possible terms, advocate the immediate release on humanitarian grounds of Dr. Ibrahim, who suffers from a neurological disorder requiring constant medical care. We must also make it clear to the Egyptian government, which receives $2 billion in US aid every year, that we consider attempts to intimidate pro-democracy advocates and stifle dissent contrary to our national interest and that we take such matters seriously.

I sent the same letter to Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Powell, my two senators, my congresswoman, and David Welch, the US Ambassador to Egypt.

This article on Pakistan's blasphemy laws has give me a lot to think about, so I hope you'll forgive me while my brain explores a few strange and thorny trails, and probably gets a bit lost.

Blasphemy has been a crime in Pakistan since the days of British rule, and originally covered all faiths. The law was changed in 1986 to apply only to Islam. It gives Islamic fanatics free reign to attack Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Pakistan's population.

It also provides a legal way to pick on the mentally ill. You know the kind of guy who stands on street corners proclaiming himself the latest incarnation of John the Baptist? In this country, we all scoot past him with our eyes down, hoping not to get hit by the hailstorm of Leviticus. Here, Baptistman's an obnoxious eccentric. In Pakistan, he's dead.

And Christians and crazies are not the only victims. You have a land dispute with a neighbor? Accuse him of blasphemy. The woman you raped decides to speak up? Call her an infidel. Patriotism may be the last refuge of a scoundrel, but religion is next to last.

The obvious first lesson to draw from this article is that we should all thank those really smart dead white guys who had the foresight and courage to peel church and state apart and make them go stand in separate corners. Governments have enough power without the power to enforce orthodoxy. Thank you, DWGs.

And yet, there's more to this sad story than just a reminder that James Madison knew what he was doing. My thoughts at the moment are heavily under the influence of a wonderful book I'm in the middle of reading -- James Carroll's Constantine's Sword, which is about the history of anti-Semitism in the Catholic Church. I hate to over-simplify Carroll's beautifully complex and nuanced book, but one of the things I've learned from it is that people like me, who tend to romanticize the "good" early Church as more open and democratic, and less corrupt, than the later, politically powerful Church, are off base, at least when it comes to religious bigotry.

There have been times when the Church has exploited anti-Semitism in order to cement its own power. But more often bigotry rose up among ordinary Catholics -- often for personal, social and economic reasons havng nothing to do with theological differences. Whether that bigotry merely simmered or launched massacres depended to a great extent on the power of the Church at that time. The strong, politically powerful, "corrupt," Church often did a damn good job of controlling the worst instincts of ordinary Catholics.

The reason James Carroll's book comes to mind as I read about Pakistan's blasphemy laws is that the article describes a similar situation -- the hostility to people of other faiths, or people with different (usually more peaceful) Islamic beliefs is not something imposed from above. It wells up among ordinary people and often, at its heart, has nothing to do with religion. That doesn't mean powerful people don't exploit that bigotry for their own purposes. Sometimes they do. And sometimes they just do whatever they can, with whatever scraps of power and influence they've got, to keep a lid on it.

One of the saddest stories in this article is about Mohammed Yusuf Ali, who was jailed for blasphemy because he argued that the view of Islam promoted by much of the religious clergy was wrong, and that true Islam was about developing "a culture of peace, tolerance, and respect for each other by promoting values of human dignity and excellence." Ali was murdered by another inmate in June.

It's easy to jump to the conclusion that the religious figures Ali spoke against have too much political power. But the fact is, dozens of Islamic scholars testified or wrote letters in Ali's defense. It is just as reasonable to argue that those religious men didn't have enough power. I don't know much about Islam, but I know it is much more decentralized than Catholicism. The lack of a Muslim "pope" with the power to stand against bigotry masquerading as theology might be a very good thing.

As you can probably tell, this article haunts me, and I've barely begun to figure out what I think of it. But it certainly tells me that complaining about the "power" of the clergy in Muslim countries and insisting that governments in those countries "crack down" on fundamentalists are beside the point. I wish it was that simple. I wish it was that easy.

Oh, what the hell. Let's attack the Hague while we're at it. And I've never been all that fond of Switzerland either.

16 Die as Violence Sweeps Mideast

History teaches us that men and nations behave wisely when they have exhausted all other alternatives. -- Abba Eban

Would someone please tell Arafat and Sharon they've run out of alternatives?

Well, I suppose you could call him a Redskin...

Now this is a politically incorrect school mascot. (But what do I know, my son is a banana slug.)

Sunday, August 04, 2002

How many people have to die before you call it a massacre? Is there a fixed number you have to reach before anyone is allowed to mourn?

Those are strange and inhuman questions, and yet I have to ask them after reading Jonah Goldberg's poisonous response to the UN's report on the Israeli invasion of Jenin:

As various people have been noting in the Corner for months, the Jenin "massacre" never happened. The UN, which always bends over backward to make Israel the bad guy, issued a report today which found that Israel's casulaty estimate was entirely accurate. Alas, the news networks which touted the "massacre" as fact for weeks have ignored the report almost entirely.

Is death easier to handle if you swaddle it in quotation marks?

I'm not sure how the UN report could have proved, as Mr. Goldberg asserts, that Israeli casualty estimates wre "entirely accurate," since the UN report does not say how many people died or were injured in Jenin. How could it, when the Israelis did not allow the UN to investigate?

What the UN reported is that 52 Palestinian deaths in Jenin have been documented, "up to half of them civilians." Those aren't UN numbers. Blocked from conducting a first-hand inquiry, the UN simply gathered together the research of humanitarian groups.

The documentation of 52 deaths comes from Human Rights Watch, which spent three weeks in Jenin shortly after the fighting ended. The number is not a final count, or even a best estimate. It's the number one highly respected human rights group could document in a short period of time. In its report, HRW said it expected the number to rise as investigations continued. The real number is certainly higher.

And irrelevant.

Twenty-nine Israelis were murdered at the Passover seder in Netanya which motivated the retaliation in the West Bank last March. I don't think Mr. Goldberg would wrap that massacre in little quotation marks, and neither would I.

Twenty-nine innocent people were massacred in Netanya.

We will never know how many people were massacred in Jenin.

Or killed, or slaughtered, or whatever word you prefer to use. Under the circumstances, I don't give a damn about diction. I do give a damn about those human beings.

When people die needlessly, we mourn. We ask questions. We try to figure out who's responsible and what we can do to make sure it never happens again. It's what makes us human and not "human."

The UN did no first-hand investigating in Jenin, but Human Rights watch did, and their report is disturbing. Summary executions. Using civilians as human shields. Direct attacks on medical and humanitarian workers. These weren't rumors. HRW found strong evidence of all of them.

Read the stories in the HRW report of the people who died in Jenin and then try to adopt Jonah Goldberg's don't bother me with petty details detachment. Try to tell yourself the numbers aren't high enough to evoke your sympathy.

In today's NY Times, Thomas Friedman takes up the case of Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the Egyptian pro-democracy advocate (who, by the way, is also an American citizen) sentenced last week to seven years in prison at hard labor (this is a 63-year-old man with health problem we're talking about) with barely a whisper of complaint from the Bush Administration. The State Department pronounced itself "disappointed" in the decision. As Mr. Friedman ably points out, disappointment is what you feel when your team loses. We give Hosni Mubarek's nasty little house of torture $2 billion dollars every year (making it the second largest recipient of American aid after Israel). There's room for more than disappointment here. Friedman suggests "outrage" would be good. If I weren't basically a nice Catholic girl at heart, I think could come up with a few more appropriate words.

Egypt has more than its share of anti-Semitic hounds baying for the deaths of all Jews and the Americans who support them. Terrorism is a major export. There are enough dangerous men in Egypt to keep any good old-fashioned police state merrily humming. But who does the government consider really dangerous, so dangerous they need to lock him up for seven years and risk killing him? A man whose work focused on teaching Egyptians how to fill out a ballot and how to monitor elections. Oh yes, he's also made some films revealing fraud in Egyptian elections.

Friedman wrote this piece in Sri Lanka, which gives him an interesting twist on the story. It's importance, Friedman points out, goes beyond the tragedy of one brave and good man's life, and beyond its effect in cementing the power of a monster like Mubarek. People around the world are paying far more attention to this story than we are. He interviewed a Sri Lankan human rights activist who argued that the only reasonable alternative for expressing discontent and promoting change is democracy (I have a vague memory that we used to believe the same thing in this country). Saad is the voice of democracy in Egypt and if we don't protect it, we are telling people, not only in Egypt but around the world, that that alternative will not be permitted. We leave them with nothing to turn to but horrendous faith in an avenging God, and the determination to help that monster-God in his plan.

I know George Bush likes his memos short and to the point, so let's put it in terms even he can understand: You stand up for Saad Eddin Ibrahim, or you get Mohammed Atta.

Radhika Coomaraswamy, the human rights activist Friedman interviewed, added something that ought to embarrass every American into action:

None of us in the human rights community would think of appealing to the U.S. for support for upholding a human rights case -- maybe to Canada, to Norway or to Sweden -- but not to the U.S. Before there were always three faces of America out in the world -- the face of the Peace Corps, the America that helps others, the face of multinationals and the face of American military power. My sense is that the balance has gone wrong lately and that the only face of America we see now is the one of military power, and it really frightens the world.


My letter to Hosni Mubarek:

Your Excellency,

As an American who cares deeply -- as all of my countrymen do -- about people's right to seek and receive information about fundamental freedoms, including the right to vote, I am deeply concerned about Egypt's Court of Cassation's recent sentencing of Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim to a seven year prison term. I believe Dr. Ibrahim was persecuted for exercising his right to freedom of expression.

Egypt has long been a close friend and ally of the United States, but it is difficult for American citizens to continue to support this alliance when we see our fundamental values turned aside in this way.

I urge you release Dr. Ibrahim immediately on humanitarian grounds so that he can travel abroad and receive the medical attention he urgently needs.

I also ask you to reconsider any further attempts to stifle political dissent in Egypt. Dr. Ibrahim's case goes to the heart of human rights issues that are important to all Americans.



I'm still working on my letter to George Bush. I have to calm down first. It's going to take every bit of diplomacy I can muster. (I could use some help. Anybody know Colin Powell's pager number?)


One more reminder (I'm a mother. I nag. It's what I'm good at.)


Saturday, August 03, 2002

In his comments on Brian LinseÕs Lefty Directory (which I think is a great idea, despite the fact that IÕm not on it) (hint, hint), Max Sawicky recently argued that leftist bloggers ought to link to each other indiscriminately, ignoring political differences. The differences between socialists, anarchists, DLC Democrats, Naderites and Chomskyites are smaller and less important than the things that divide us from the current government, and we ought to keep that in mind and encourage more dialog between factions on the left.

I agree, although thereÕs a problem with indiscriminate linking: the blogs most of us put on our lists are ones weÕd like to call attention to. Huge lists mean that the voices weÕd like more people to hear are less likely to be noticed. I have political differences here and there with the some of the bloggers on my list, and some are better written than others, but every one consistently has things to say that I find interesting and worth thinking about. If I could double the number of hours in a day, IÕd read every one of them every day. As it is, I try to get through a good chunk of them. I donÕt want them to disappear in a sea of links. If anything, I already have too many links, but I can't find any I want to drop.

But the importance of opening dialogs on the left canÕt be emphasized too strongly, a point Joe Conason makes eloquently in his Salon blog.

Maybe the compromise is for all of us to link to the Lefty Directory, so we have access to all the voices without diluting the ones we consider the best.

Graham Calls Bigotry a Sin

Gee, thanks for clearing that up, Rev. Graham. What's God been telling you about murder lately?

Jesus for President

A Brazilian election judge sues Jesus for early campaigning.

In late May a federal court dismissed the lawsuit of a Sacramento atheist who tried to stop President Bush from referring to Jesus in his speeches. U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton said the courts don't have the authority to tell the President what to say. In Brazil, meanwhile, a religion-and-politics case focused on Jesus himself. Presidential election judge Wellington Carvalho Coelho sued Jesus after noting a bumper sticker reading JESUS CHRISTÑTHE BEST WAY FORWARD, reported the Ananova online news service. Rules for the October presidential election explicitly prohibited the display of stickers and posters until July. Judge Eva Evangelista dismissed the case, noting that Jesus isn't running this year.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the Democrats have gotten kind of desperate for a good candidate...

What would Jesus do? This.

Colin Powell is a national treasure. I have to admit that my first thought on reading his assertion that that there is no contradiction between the Bush administration's war on terrorism and a continuing U.S. commitment to human rights is that too much contact with Bush must have driven him mad because I canÕt think of a single way in which this administration has demonstrated any commitment to human rights. The International Criminal Court. The UN Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The UN Convention on Torture. Every time Bush has had an opportunity to stand up for human rights, heÕs taken a nap.

Further on in the article though, Powell is quoted as saying that in dealing with governments that have questionable records on the issue, he always brings up human rights. And then it hit me that dealing with Bush is a lot like dealing with the leader of a police state who thinks there is no limit to his power. Confrontation will get you nowhere. Tell him heÕs a great guy with a wonderful heart and everybody knows he loves the people. Tell him how much everybody will adore him when they see how much he cares about human rights. Hope that by feeding his ego, at some point you will encourage him to act as if he cares about human rights.

Colin Powell has a lot of experience dealing with moody tyrants. That skill must get a work out in the White House.

A democracy operates under the rule of law. If a government can arrest people without naming the person being held and explaining the reasons for the detention, there is no accountability. There is no way for citizens to know if their government is operating within the bounds of the law. An unaccountable government is not a democracy.

Good news: So far we are still a democracy.

This article is especially interesting if youÕve read the Michael Ignatieff article I linked to yesterday. Hamid Karzai is saying exactly what Ignatieff says -- Afghanistan desperately needs American help right now in controlling the warlords and helping it build the infrastructure and civil institutions that will keep it from descending back into civil war. And a functioning Afghan state is as much in our interest as it is in theirs.

The ironic detail this article adds to the story is that there are currently 10,000 American troops on the ground in Afghanistan, and with little sign of al-Qaeda left in Afghanistan, they donÕt have a job.

Thousands of fresh troops rotate into Afghanistan but find little to do. A U.S. helicopter pilot, wandering around the sweltering base here in shorts and a T-shirt, chafed at the inactivity. "It's so boring," Chief Warrant Officer Mike Smith said last week. "We're trying to figure out what we're still doing here."

Like other soldiers who have spent months in this dust bowl that was once a Soviet military base, Smith described a gradual tapering off of the U.S. mission. It has been at least a month since he has transported any prisoners on his helicopter, he said, and even longer since the soldiers on his chopper have come under enemy fire.

"I can see why we're going to be here for an indefinite period of time, but somebody should make a decision," he said. "If we're going to go into a humanitarian phase, we should just do it, so we can have something useful to do."

IÕm not sure about soldiers as nation-builders, but I have little doubt they could help Karzai break the grip of the warlords and protect the humanitarian workers who know more about grassroots nation-building than the Pentagon does. We have a good military, we just need a commander who knows what to do with it.

Friday, August 02, 2002

Kevin Raybould had a throught-provoking response to my recent comments on the how Catholics are responding to the pedophile scandals. There's a great deal I agree with in it, but I'll stick by my original thoughts in a few areas as well.

First, I couldn't agree more that being Catholic is "as much a cultural designation as a religious one." Even if you leave the Catholic Church, you never entirely escape it. I've been trying to explain to non-Catholic friends for years that it's possible to define yourself as Catholic even while you are at odds with much of the dogma in the same way that many Jews who have no interest whatsoever in religion and were not even raised in religious homes nevertheless find the core of their identity in their Jewishness. I think Kevin is saying something similar to that and I'm glad to find someone who gets it -- although I don't think it's just a matter of taking the nice aspects of the theology through life, there's a lot of baggage that comes with it as well (although maybe Kevin didn't get as much of that in CCD classes as I did in Catholic school. My Catholic friends who only got religious training on Saturday mornings all seem a lot saner than me.)

It is equally true that Church doctrine is an odd mixture of the inhumanly authoritarian and the genuinely decent. No, decent isn't a strong enough word. The Catholic Church sometimes stands as a glorious beacon in a dark, greedy, heartless world. In almost every city in this country, the best, most humane and most important work is being done by priests and nuns. I worked side by side in the anti-war movement with priests and nuns thirty years ago and there are few people in the world I have more respect for. The toughest, most active and most articulate progressive voice in the town I currently live in is a nun who does social justice work at the Newman Center. I adore her. When I mentioned, in that previous post, nuns reaching out to the victims of priestly abuse, that wasn't a throw away line. There was an article a couple of months back in the National Catholic Reporter (which I read religiously -- see, you never escape) about nuns whose ministry consists entirely of listening to victims. Those nuns understood, as the bishops (and, in all honesty, most of the priests) do not, that the very first thing that the Church needs to do is put aside the arrogant belief that it is going to find the correct solution to the problem. Just shut up and listen to the victims. They'll tell you what you need to do. (I searched for that article because I wanted to link to it, but unfortunately NCR's archives aren't easily searchable and I couldn't track it down.)

This is the Church of Pope John XXIII and Bobby Kennedy, Cesar Chavez and the Berrigans, Archbishop Romero, Dorothy Day, Father Greg Boyle, Sister Helen Prejean and Father Roy Bourgeois. That's a hell of a legacy -- if you'll excuse the lousy word choice.

But the Catholic Church is much more than its history and its dogma. It doesn't just consist of screwed up ideas about sexuality and gender and liberating ideas of social justice. It's a culture as well. And that culture is authoritarian. It tells people to shut up and don't reveal secrets. Don't air any dirty laundry.

I grew up in a home of daily domestic abuse and I got the shut up message as much in school as I did at home. After my father took off, I was raised by a single mother, and I learned early to recognize the look that warned me not to say any more when I let it slip that I didn't have a father at home. A girl in my sixth grade class told me flat out that she couldn't invite me to her birthday party because she came from a good Catholic family and wasn't allowed to have people like me in her house.

My experience in the Church is, I gather, both older than Kevin's (I was in Catholic elementary school in the '60s) and more recent. Despite my mixed feelings about the Church, I sent my daughter to a Catholic preschool three years ago. It seemed like a good idea when she started. It ended up as a nightmare. There was no sexual abuse, or anything like that, but children were treated in harsh and punitive ways that only got worse and worse as the year progressed. There were favored children who could get away with anything and unfavored ones who were punished for nothing (and God forgive them, it seemed to have a direct correlation to how much money the children's parents had given to the Church; I'm sure it was unconscious, but the prejudice was there nonetheless.). By the end of the year, the children had figured out the pecking order, and the favored ones were stomping on the unfavored.

I talked to other parents about it, thinking maybe I was imagining it, maybe it was not as bad as it seemed to me, maybe my ideas of how children ought to be treated were more out of the mainstream than I thought they were (and that, too, is a legacy of a Catholic girlhood -- it takes us longer than other people to trust our own senses; we wait too long to be told what we are supposed to see). But I found out other parents knew about it too, and hated it. But no one was willing to confront the school either. They'd whisper (always whisper) their horror stories, and then add, "But don't say I told you that." One of the teachers in the school even whispered to me that it was so bad she had taken her own children out of the school, but she couldn't leave herself because she needed the job. "But please don't tell anybody," she said. I left that school with everyone's secret frustrations, everyone's buried anger rattling around in my head.

I have a friend whose daughter still goes to that school and she says there are many things about it she dislikes, but she can't stand the thought of her daughter not going to school in a place where she will learn about "the beauty of the faith." It didn't seem all that beautiful to me while my daughter was there. It looks better from outside.

I sent my daughter to Catholic school assuming things must have changed since I was a child. They haven't changed. No one wants to see what's wrong. Everyone is afraid to be the person who sees what's wrong. And so I still think the woman who is afraid she won't be welcomed back into the Church after abandoning it is probably right. And I think it will take more than a few changes in the Church bureaucracy to insure that there won't be a new round of secrets revealed in another twenty years. (For those who don't keep track, the last round of revelations was in the eighties. The victims were folded back into their silence, and life went on.)

Kevin also said that he didn't think the scandals had done much damage to people's faith in the Church. I don't think so either. That's what scares me.

UPDATE: I just wanted to add that, since I mentioned the National Catholic Reporter, non-Catholic (even atheist) leftists might also want to check it out. It has some excellent reporting on social justice issues that the mainstream media (and often even the progressive media) misses.

UPDATE 2: I should add that it isn't just the loud Catholic Worker style Church I admire. Check out these very smart and always interesting women.

UPDATE 3: Kevin has an eloquent response to my response to his response (I think we should stop here, don't you?). I'm not sure I agree. I'm not sure I disagree either. Let's just say that I pray his optimism about the Church proves more accurate than my pessimism.

Thanks to links from Ted Barlow, Patrick Nielsen Hayden and Max Sawicky, I had about eight times the number of visitors to this site yesterday that I had the day before. Thanks for the links and the compliments. I just hope a few of you new people plan to come back and visit from time to time.

I also got bombarded with e-mail yesterday. Thank you to the people who wrote to say how much they enjoyed my site, and a special thanks to those who took time to share ideas about specific posts.

To the people who complained that my archives were down, I apologize. I tried to republish them yesterday, but it didn't do a thing. I think it's Blogger's fault, not mine. In any case, they seem to be back up today, so to those of you who have a masochistic desire to read the old stuff -- enjoy it while you can. I wouldn't count on Blogger being reliable for very long.

UPDATE: They're down again. Blogger really is a hopeless case...

UPDATE 2: ...and they're up again. I give up on trying to make sense of this. I'm going back to worrying about simpler things like peace in the Middle East.

An article in the Fayetteville Observer deals with how the culture of silence and lack of support for victims in the military abets domestic abuse. It reminds me of the don't talk about it culture of the Catholic Church, which can be equally damaging to women and children.

Via Tres Producers

Ann Salisbury has also started an interesting discussion on this story.

Has anyone heard of Jack Chick? He's a "Christian" comic book artist (I'd put artist in quotation marks as well, but I used to teach English and I retain a professional opposition to quotation mark abuse). The only reason I know his name is that my son (who has inherited his mother's warped sense of humor) thinks his work is hilarious. He's been reading it since junior high school, when little bands of Christians used to hand out Jack Chick tracts in front of campus. I gather from my son that Jack Chick tracts are a source of the same sort of humor for his generation that people of my generation used to get from anti-drug films.

Anyway, out of curiosity, I decided to check one out and this is what I found. A note to Catholic friends who think that reporting on scandals in the Church is nothing but Catholic bashing: This is what Catholic bashing looks like. Just remember this cartoon when you consider alliances with the Christian right.

Sean Elder has an interesting problem. And the fact that he knows women who think George Bush is hot is the least of it.

I get three newspapers on Sundays, which is more than I have time to read. The result is that the New York Times Magazine usually winds up on the coffee table, staring me in the face and reminding me I ought to read it, until I finally give up at the end of the week and toss it, unread, on the recycling pile.

Which is my excuse for not writing sooner about Michael Ignatieff's must-read article in last Sunday's magazine. I didn't get around to reading it until last night. Blame some of my reluctance on laziness, but the cover title also played a part. How To Keep Afghanistan From Falling Apart: The case for a committed American imperialism.

Imperialism? I'm a left-wing, child of the sixties, Berkeley-educated American who grew up in the Bronx listening to old Irish men spin stories about how they personally defeated the Brits -- that gives me a lot of reasons to wrap a vinegar-soaked scarf around my face and grab a large rock when I hear the word imperialism.

But the word is a come on. In fact, Ignatieff's article is about the need for the United States to commit itself to reconstructing Afghanistan. Right now, Ignatieff argues, there is no Afghan state. There are warlords fighting each other for control (and occasionally using us as proxies to fight their battles). While George Bush is nursing the high (and the poll numbers) of "winning" a war in Central Asia, the only people who really seem to have gotten what they wanted are men like Abdul Rashid Dostum. Under the best of circumstances, it will be many years before the government in Kabul is strong enough to be described, with a straight face, as the government of Afghanistan.

So what do we care? We went to Afghanistan to make it impossible for terrorists to operate there -- not because they were threatening Afghanistan, but because they were threatening us. If eliminating that threat is our only goal, once we destroy the training camps, gather whatever intelligence is piled in caves, and kill or capture as many al-Qaeda members as possible, we can go home, or at least get out of Afghanistan, right?

That seems to be the plan at the moment. So long, Afghanistan, next stop Iraq.

Except there's this small moral issue dangling over our heads, one simple enough for a kindergartner to understand: You made the mess, kid, you clean it up. (If I ever get a chance to speak to the president, that's the one thing I will tell him before he moves on to more important people. I'm a mother -- believe me, I can say it with conviction. I can say it in a way that makes it very clear you don't want to mess with me over that rule.)

Of course, cleaning up the mess in Afghanistan is not quite as simple as putting Legos back in the box. At the very least it ought to mean rebuilding demolished buildings and de-mining the place. It ought to mean reparations for families of innocent people we killed. But when we bombed Afghanistan, we didn't just shatter buildings and deposit lethal little packages ready to explode all over people's farms. We destroyed their government.

Now, I realize that sounds outrageous. Their government was the Taleban, and destroying it did the people of Afghanistan, especially the women, an enormous favor. But the Taleban came to power in large measure because they seemed like some kind of alternative to the vicious anarchy of warlord rule (does it say anything about how bad the warlords were if the Taleban seemed like an alternative?). Taking out the Taleban and leaving Afghans to the mercy of the warlords is kind of like grabbing a lame person's wobbly, duct-taped cane because it isn't a good one. Once you take it, you're morally obligated to give him something better in return.

And then there's the practical argument. Chaos in Afghanistan left a hole big enough for Osama bin Laden to drive a fleet of camels through (see the picture below). Leave the mess, and we'll be fighting the same battle in a few years. (If you want a deeper understanding of the practical issues, read Ignatieff's article. I'm better on ethical matters than practical ones.)

Ignatieff argues that simply pouring money into Afghanistan would be a mistake. Past experience suggests it will disappear into a black hole of corruption. But we shouldn't try to get off cheap either. We ought to focus instead on helping Afghans "rewrite the criminal code and train a new generation of lawyers" (I know everyone is cringing at the thought of more lawyers, but it really does make sense) so that the rule of law has a chance to replace the rule of brute force. Money should also go to women, because if you give women the tools to make demands, they demand things like schools, libraries, health care, electricity, and potable water. "It's a grass-roots strategy for building up local leadership," Ignatieff writes, "as well as undercutting local commanders."

Maybe we should hand out copies of the Port Huron statement as well, since it sounds a lot like participatory democracy to me. Because it involves "interference" in another country's affairs, Michael Ignatieff calls it good imperialism. The word choice seems a little weird to me, but if we do the right thing, you can call it whatever you want. If I have to, I'll swallow hard and call myself an imperialist.

Thursday, August 01, 2002

Oops, my mistake. Ann Coulter was right about Osama bin Laden's camel rides.

Photoshopped by
Angelo Maceri.

Note from Angelo: As the picture is refusing to show up occasionally, go here if you have problems.

What a strange day -- Norah Vincent has something sensible to say. There is something ugly in seeing God as a "cheap and bribable" rabbit's foot, whether you're hoping for something as inconsequential as a home run or as important as peace in the Middle East. And seeing proof of God's existence in the survival of the Pennsylvania miners assumes a God who turned away from all the other miners who have died over the years. Not to mention children who have been murdered and boys abused by priests. Superstition is the form religion most commonly takes, and it's a form we can do without. A God who grants wishes and is selective in whom he cares about would be grotesque.

Since this is a Norah Vincent column, there had to be at least one sour note, and there is, in the form of her assertion that "we are in a religious war with militant Islam, every bit as much as we are caught in a clash of civilizations, and God is in the middle of it." Christians versus Muslims? The Crusades 2?

Or maybe she is still saying something reasonable, and just not phrasing it very well. Or maybe I'm jumping to conclusions just because this is the ever-nasty Norah Vincent.

God is part of this, although not in any simplistic Christians vs. Muslims way. This is a war of ideas about what a state should be, and about the importance of keeping religion and politics separate.

But it's also about the nature of God. Muslims in the United States feel compelled to assert again and again that God is not the monster Osama bin Laden pretends he is. Christians ought to feel the same compulsion to assert that He's not the monster Jerry Falwell believes in. And it is equally important not to settle for the cheap sentimentality of seeing God on our side and not on other people's, not to believe that if we wish hard enough, God will gives us victory.

On the political side, the best way to "fight" terrorism is by commiting ourselves to the rule of law that people like bin Laden despise. Not through silly statements about how "they hate us because we're free," but by continuing to hold on to the constitutional rights that make us free.

On the religious side, the best way to fight is not by arguing over which religion is better and who God loves and cares about the most, but by refusing to accept simplistic and superstitious notions of deity.

My heart goes out to public school teachers trying to figure out what are reasonable references to religion in school and what crosses the line into proselytizing. The lines aren't nearly as clear as anyone would like them to be. Their job is impossible. But this seems to me to be a pretty clear cut case, and the school was completely wrong. If children are allowed to share hobbies, favorite tv shows, and just about anything else that interests them, a child ought to be allowed to share a book about Jesus. No child should be told that what is important to her is forbidden in school.

This case is tougher. If the school had a panel on "religion and homosexuality" -- probably not a great idea in a high school, where nobody brings much wisdom to either sex or theology -- they need to allow students to express religious opposition to homosexuality, as long as that doesn't take the form of harassing or insulting other students. In fact, it might be a great lesson for the religiously intolerant to learn that many religious people see nothing in their religion that requires them to probe into other people's sex lives.

But something in this story doesn't smell right. Was the student forced to take a politely worded religious objection to homosexuality out of her speech, or did she jump to the conclusion that a request that she think about what she was saying was censorship? I've spent too much time with teenagers not to know how quick they are to take offense, and too much time with narrow Christians not to have noticed how bizarrely insulted they can get at the notion that religious ideas are the beginning of thought, not the end. I smell some Christian right group digging for a story here.

Connie Chung has an interesting concept of free speech: it ends the moment you step outside your door.

What You're Not Allowed To Read In Saudi Arabia

Among my favorites:
Amnesty International's report on political prisoners in Saudi Arabia

The Anne Frank House

St. Luke's Primary School

33 Jazz Records
Jews for a Just Peace

Catholic Women's Ordination

Abiding Faith Lutheran Church's Homepage

So I guess the Saudis don't like English schoolchildren, jazz and nice Wisconsin church ladies. They also would prefer it if no one in Saudi Arabia knows that the world doesn't think much of the Saudi legal system, that women have theological ideas of their own and that Jews are human beings.

They're right to be scared. Knowledge is revolutionary stuff.

Hillary Clinton came back with a fairly clever response to the president's statement that the prosperity of the 1990's was "a binge" that had left America with "a hangover." She recalled Lincoln's response to people who complained about the inebriated but militarily successful Ulysses S. Grant's drinking: "Find out what brand of whiskey Grant drinks," Lincoln said, "because I'm going to send a barrel to each of my generals." In other words, a strong economy is nothing to turn up your nose at.

Seems a pretty straightforward meaning to me, but the right-wing, more sensitive to imagined slurs than your average junior high school girl, is convinced that Senator Clinton was looking for a back-handed way to remind voters of Bush's old drinking problem.

I don't think Americans care one bit about long past drinking problems (as long as they stay past). George Bush certainly knows that, or even he wouldn't have been dumb enough to use that metaphor in the first place. But why are his supporters so hyper-sensitive to this?

An amendment to the welfare reauthorization bill would permit 10 percent of welfare recipients in any state to meet the work requirement by attending college. George Bush told a $1,000 a plate fund-raising crowd that going to college wouldn't help anyone understand "the importance of work." Well, no, not if you ride through college on one long frat party. But for most of us it was work, honey. I know you have no experience with having to work in college, so you'll just have to trust those of us who didn't haven't Congressman daddies who went to Yale and can pull a few strings on this one. It's work.

We have read all the stories of children abused by priests, about lives twisted and faith destroyed, and now, I suppose, we're are going to see more stories about priests whose careers are taken away from them because of a single "mistake." I have mixed feelings about this. I believe everyone has a story that needs to be heard, and the press is right to cover this side of the story. There's also a small bit of sadness in my heart for someone who loses what he loves, even if that loss is his own fault.

And yet I hate these stories, because I grew up in the Catholic Church, and they remind me of the uglier side of the Church I left. The side that "understands" and "forgives" every sin of the powerful (and basks in the certainty of following Christ's example in doing so), while inventing sins for the powerless.

The press is spinning a story right now of ordinary Catholics versus the powerful bureaucracy of the Church. The bishops don't get it, ordinary Catholics do, and they are angry and demanding more power over Church policies.

There's some truth in that. There are Catholics, particularly nuns, bless them, who have reached out to victims in ways that put the bishops' weak response to shame. And certainly Catholics are angry, although my Catholic-bred instincts tell me that anger stems as much from being forced to hear what they don't want to know as it does from any genuine acknowledgment of the Church's failures.

But when the stories first came out, victims met verbal, sometimes even physical abuse from "ordinary Catholics." Too many "ordinary Catholics" still see Catholic-bashing in the press reports. And within this story, of a priest leaving because of an old offense, there is a mention of a woman who left the parish because of the priest's actions, but plans to return now that he's gone. She expects people will not forgive her for having left. My experience in the Church tells me she's right.

The bishops are not as far removed from the world of ordinary Catholics as the press would like to believe.

June Leavitt writes movingly of the constant suffering of Israelis and how that pain feeds the need for revenge. How pain twists the soul so completely that it compels someone at a funeral to scream out, "Kill innocent Arabs! So that our innocent people shouldn't die."

I wonder if we will ever see a similar piece by a Palestinian writer trying to explain -- through narrative, not logic -- the inexplicable, the unforgivable desire to see innocent people die. And if the NY Times were to publish such a piece, would they be bombarded with letters to the editor accusing them of justifying terrorism? Will they be bombarded with angry responses to June Leavitt's piece, telling them that they are justifying genocide?

I would love to see more writing like June Leavitt's invade the pages of the NY Times. It's a personal prejudice, I suppose. My "real" writing, my published writing, is fiction, and I believe very strongly in the power of narrative to explain what logic can't. And that includes someone telling their own story honestly -- and Leavitt's piece is utterly honest -- as well as fiction.

If there is anything the Middle East needs right now, it is people hearing each other's stories.

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.