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 13, 2002

What is this -- torment the working poor day?

This morning I wrote a response to Brad DeLong's angry review of Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickle and Dimed, in which she describes working as a waitress, a hotel maid and a Walmart salesperson. Although I agree with the idea that the government can do a lot to help the working poor, and Ehrenreich shortchanges that, I also think it's important just to call attention to the lives of the poor.

As if to demonstrate the point that a lot of people don't understand much about minimum wage workers' lives, here comes a blogger to give lessons on how to make their lives a little more miserable.

I've never had to work as a telemarketer, thank god, but one of my best friends from high school did. It was a step up from being a hotel maid in Anaheim.

Lesson number one for middle-class fools: the person calling you on the phone doesn't own the damn company and hates MCI more than you do. She's working hard and making nothing, and she doesn't need your shit to go with the job.

Mark Leonard had an interesting piece in Sunday's Guardian-Observer arguing that the European left is not as dogmatically pacifist or as rigidly opposed to war with Iraq as the Bush administration thinks it is. There's room for persuasion.

I think what Leonard says applies as much to the American as to the European left -- but he's naive if he thinks Bush can ever make that left-convincing argument.

What would convince leftists to support war with Iraq? First, Leonard says, compelling evidence that Saddam's weapons pose a real threat to the west that cannot be met by continuing the policy of containment. That's an enormous hurdle, and one that so far Bush hasn't come close to meeting.

If Bush does manage to jump that hurdle, Leonard argues, the European left would grudgingly support a war. However the only way Bush will get strong support from Europeans is by convincing them that not only is the war necessary, but that it would have a positive effect on the lives of the Iraqi people.

That's a lot less obvious than conservatives think it is. You can posture all you want about how anything has to be better than Saddam Hussein, but anyone old enough to vote ought to have seen enough of life to know that no matter how bad things are, there's an infinite variety of ways in which they can get worse -- especially if no one is willing to put in any effort to make them better.

Leonard's argument is especially interesting because over the weekend the administration seemed to be making that very case, as Cheney met with Iraqi opposition leaders and expressed America's determination to replace Saddam Hussein's tyranny with a democratic government. The move seemed calculated to respond to fears both from Iraqis (especially the Kurds) and Europeans that the U.S. doesn't want a democracy in Iraq, just a friendlier dictatorship. Democracy, after all, is messy and hard to control, and might set a "bad" example for some of our more tyrannical allies in the region.

But if there's a case to be made for humanitarian intervention, Bush and company are the last ones to make it.

The most telling sign of their incapacity to get it right is a comment Donald Rumsfeld made, alluding to the administration's supposed vision of a democratic Iraq:

"Wouldn't it be a wonderful thing if Iraq were similar to Afghanistan, if a bad regime was thrown out, people were liberated, food could come in, borders could be opened, repression could stop, prisons could be opened?" Mr. Rumsfeld said. "I mean, it would be fabulous."

Perhaps Mr. Rumsfeld doesn't have a lot of time for reading, and missed Michael Ignatieff's long report in the NY Times on the anarchy that currently makes democracy in Afghanistan -- or a functioning state of any kind -- seem a fantasy. Maybe he missed the Washington Post's article on international donors' failure to live up to their promises to help rebuild the country. He probably didn't have time this morning to read the LA Times article on the black joke that faces Afghan children: the good news is you are liberated and can go to school, the bad news is we have no room for you in the schools. And I suppose anyone at Rumsfeld's end of the political spectrum wouldn't bother with Robert Fisk's recent Afghan reports. So let's summarize it for him: Afghanistan is run by warlords. There is a small, weak government which might have the possibility of developing into a functioning democracy if we gave it a reasonable amount of support, but we aren't interested in providing that support. Our money is on the thugs who are the real government of Afghanistan.

And we're supposed to believe things will be different in Iraq? I'm not sure how anyone could trust the vision of a man who looks at Afghanistan today and sees paradise.

Brad DeLong posted a review of Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickle and Dimed that baffled me with its hostility. He excoriates Ehrenreich first for her grating need to demonstrate how different she is from the working poor she writes about, but mostly for the lack of socioeconomic analysis in her book, and for her failure to discuss specific government actions that could improve the lives of the working poor.

The criticism of Ehrenreich's egotism and navel-gazing is fair. The book dwells too long on her life as a well-educated, upper-middle class woman. I wanted to know far less about Barbara Ehrenreich and far more about the lives of her co-workers. That's the major flaw in an otherwise excellent book.

But I think the rest of the criticisms are way off base. One of the main reasons minimum wages lag and decent health care for the working poor and reasonably funded schools for their children are not even part of the national discussion is that most Americans -- at least those upper middle-class Americans who are most likely to vote (in other words, Barbara Ehrenreich's audience) -- can't see the working poor.

I used to work for an answering service on which most of the clients were doctors. Some of them were well-known in town for the time and money they gave to progressive causes like abortion rights and the local free clinic. But if anything went wrong with our equipment (which was ancient) or if an operator made a single error, they would call back and let fly torrents of abuse. The only person who ever called me a "stupid bitch" was a doctor whose patients seemed to adore him. I'm sure he was a doll with his patients. He'd take 3 a.m. calls from worried parents without a word of complaint. But I was just a voice on the phone, a minimum wage worker -- not a human being.

That's what most minimum wage workers are to well-paid Americans -- voices and faces, not human beings. Barbara Ehrenreich's book brings those lives into readers' consciousness, and that's an invaluable service.

It's not the end. It's barely a beginning. But the discussion of how to better the lives of the working poor can only come after people are convinced of the necessity of the task. Nickle and Dimed is a step in that direction.

Monday, August 12, 2002

They are not done with the job in Afghanistan, but the Bush administration is eyeing Iraq. They haven't even arrived in Iraq and are already looking greedily at Iran and even Saudi Arabia. My seven-year-old daughter has a longer attention span. Every day, they look less like leaders and more like little boys playing with GI Joes.

In response to the Conference of Major Superiors of Men voting over the weekend not to defrock pedophile priests, Kevin Raybould comments:

I have moved through rage and come out the other side into grief. In my mind, the greatest single contribution the Catholic Church has made to morality is the idea that good acts are required of good people. Apologies are not enough. Good intentions are not enough. Remorsefulness is not enough. You must act on those feelings, you must demonstrate your sorrow.

I couldn't agree more -- although I'm still swinging back and forth between grief and rage.

Years ago, I learned from Catholic nuns that redemption begins with sincere contrition and is achieved only through atonement. How do you atone for destroying a child's life? You can't, of course. But that doesn't mean you toss up your hands and say, oh, well, nothing can be done, let's just get on with life. The only moral course of action, according to the Church's own teaching, is to keep trying, keep devoting yourself to finding ways of undoing, or at least mitigating, the damage you have done. The onus is not on the victims to forgive and forget, the onus is on the perpetrators (and those who have helped them) to earn that forgiveness.

There are individual Catholics -- many of them -- who are doing that. A great deal of Voices of the Faithful's work involves reaching out to victims and offering support. There are nuns and priests all over this country who contribute to that work. (And, to be honest, there are other Catholics who are fighting them every step of the way.).

But the Church as an institution has failed miserably. You can't claim moral authority while failing to live up to your own moral precepts. If the Church would just listen to the people in the pews, the people already engaged in the hard work of atonement, it might have a chance to regain its soul.

A little more than a month ago, a group of unarmed women from different tribes took over ChevronTexaco's main oil terminal in Escravos, Nigeria. They used an unusual, but effective tactic -- they threatened to take off their clothes, which would have shamed the Nigerian employees at the terminal. Their 10-day occupation ended with the oil company's promise that it would give their village a school and invest in electricity supply. The company also promised to help the women set up poultry and fish farms to supply the terminal's cafeteria.

What's interesting in this story is that Nigeria -- one of the world's top 10 oil producers -- has seen many violent clashes between machete-wielding young men and the army and police. That violence has achieved nothing.

The Christian Science Monitor reports today, however, that the Escravos women's technique is spreading, and non-violent protests by women are increasingly seen as the most effective tool in forcing social change in the region.

The CSM article is especially interesting because it puts the women's rebellion in historical and social context. Southern Nigerian women have a strong history of political dissent that goes back at least to the 1920s. There's also a great focus in southern Nigeria on market trading by women, and a lack of the Islamic restictions on women that burden the northern part of the country. Southern Nigerian women are used to fending for themselves and expect to be taken seriously.

Great things happen when women have the tools to stand up for themselves.

Sunday, August 11, 2002

There is something fascinating going on in the Catholic Church.

I'm watching this as an insider/outsider -- a "cultural Catholic" (I might occasionally call myself a "recovering Catholic," but only on days when the Church does something particularly pig-headed, or when I'm especially annoyed at my own Church-bred meekness), raised in the Church, with friends (conservative and liberal) in the Church, but no longer considering it my religion.

There's been a battle for the Church for a long time. It's been going on as long as I can remember, back to when I was in Catholic elementary school during Vatican II, and for all that time, the reformers operated at the margins. Catholics for free choice. Nuns who supported the ordination of women. Gay Catholics. Supporters of married clergy. Liberation theologists. Ordinary Catholics barely knew they existed, and didn't entirely trust what they knew of them.

And then came Voices of the Faithful a Boston-based group that grew out of the Church scandals and ordinary Catholics' fury at Cardinal Law. This is not a radical group. I'm a radical. These guys are as devout (and as tough) as most of the nuns I had as teachers almost 40 years ago. All they want is a voice in their Church, a small say about the operation of a Church that failed them and their children.

Recently Crisis, a conservative Catholic magazine, sent an e-mail to its online subscribers, which suggests that by asking for any change within the Church, VOTF is aligning itself with radicals. There is no room in the Church, they argue, for individual thought: Too much emphasis on one's personal interpretation of the Spirit can very easily lead one away from the Church and its teachings.

The Crisis letter goes on to try to smear VOTF by noting that they have allowed people to speak at their conferences who advocate such outrages as "opening up leadership positions to all people, including 'women and minorities'. " They further suggest that by urging Catholics in Boston to donate money to a charity drive called Voice of Compassion rather than directly to the diocese, VOTF is "robbing" the Church. (Cardinal Law, reflecting the same attitude, turned down donations from Voice of Compassion because the money would not be under his control and therefore could undercut his power.)

What I find most interesting is that Catholics are saying that their disagreements with Church policies don't alter their basic faith in the Church, and at the same time, the conservative wing of the Church is telling them that they cannot disagree in any meaningful way and continue to call themselves Catholic.

Something's got to give here.

I have no idea where this is going. That a group as moderate as VOTF is reaching out to individuals and organizations demanding broad change in the Church suggests that there may be a change in the Church in the United States so deep and so broad that the Pope himself can't stop it. But the conservative Church's reaction to even these small, polite voices doesn't leave room for a lot of compromise.

It's a battle to keep an eye on.

You won't often hear me say anything good about George Bush, but there is at least one thing he has done since becoming president that I admire. It would have been easy, in the wake of September 11th, for him to exploit, or at least ignore, an incipient anti-Muslim hysteria. But by speaking up very quickly, reminding everyone that Muslim Americans were first and foremost Americans, describing Islam as a peaceful religion, visiting a mosque, and including Muslims in public ceremonies, Bush shoved the bigots outside the mainstream. For awhile he even made Jerry Falwell shut up, and you've got to have at least a grudging respect for a man who can accomplish that. There have been attacks on Muslims, but they haven't risen to the level that many of us feared, and Bush deserves a great deal of the credit.

But Deborah Caldwell suggests that Bush has lost the battle and may have given up the fight. The past few months have seen a resurgence of conservative Islam-bashing, and Bush, unwilling to confront his base, has failed to respond adequately. The administration is no longer meeting with Muslim leaders, no longer hearing their calls for a strong presidential condemnation of religious bigotry.

The irony is that continuing the initial policy of meeting regularly and publicly with moderate Muslim leaders would not only send a message to the bigots that their ideas are not acceptable, it would tell Muslims in this country (and Muslims around the world, for that matter) that we consider them a respected part of our nation. One of the best ways to decrease the power of fanatic voices is not to scream about the fanatics, but to support moderate alternatives.

World Youth Day was basically a nice p.r. trip for the Pope, who appeared on television surrounded by adoring crowds of young people, and pretty much avoided any real questions about Church policies (being Pope is a lot like being a war-time president). Of course, the Church doesn't think it should have to pay for all that nice publicity. The Canadians are stuck with the bills.

A Guardian interview with Robert McNamara raises an idea about the International Criminal Court (which McNamara strongly supports) that I hadn't considered. He argues that the existence of such a court would not only be a warning to tyrants that the world will take their crimes seriously, but it will also encourage American leaders to think through the legal and ethical implications of their actions. McNamara says that during the Vietnam war he never considered whether using Agent Orange and napalm were contrary to the rules of war -- and he should have. The existence of an international court isn't just a threat hanging over the most despicable leaders, it's a reminder to basically decent people that there are rules of conduct.

Saturday, August 10, 2002

Score one for the Internet

The first wave of revelations about pedophilia in the priesthood came in the '80s. Came and went, with few changes in the Church. Online Journalism Review has a wonderful article suggesting that the Internet may have altered the balance of power so that genuine change will take place this time. First, it's made information more widely available, so that it is impossible for cases of abuse to be written off as isolated local stories. More importantly, the Web provides forums for grass-roots organizations that can spread news, support survivors, and pressure Catholic authorities for reform. That gives progressive and reform-minded Catholics a chance to fight back that they didn't have twenty years ago.

One of the most encouraging pieces I've ever read on the power of the Web.

Slate has a fascinating profile of Father John McCloskey, the right-wing Catholic priest ("A liberal Catholic is oxymoronic," he says) whose ministry is aimed at "opinion-makers and people of influence." He's been pretty successful, too. Among his recent converts have been Senator Sam Brownback, Lawrence Kudlow, and Robert Novak. It's an interesting (and scary) form of lobbying for the Church -- trying to make sure that the voice of Catholicism that powerful people hear is the rigid and doctrinaire one, not the voice demanding increasing democracy and social justice. There's a battle for the soul of the Catholic Church going on, and McCloskey is fighting it in Washington.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." -- Martin Luther King

What is George Bush doing -- angling for the war criminal vote? If Cheney opts out, will he ask Slobodan Milosevic to be his running mate in Õ04?

In May, Bush "unsigned" the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court. Then he threatened to pull out of our U.N. police mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina unless Americans were given immunity from the ICC. Now heÕs warning foreign ambassadors that their countries will lose all American military assistance if they become members of the ICC without signing an agreement not to extradite Americans to the court. Short of you talk to the court, you sleep with the fishes, IÕm not sure how much more hostile to the idea of international justice the Bush administration can get.

In the 20th century, 174 million people were victims of genocide. Last year alone there were over 120,000 political and religious murders. The is no permanent, international mechanism for punishing such crimes (and Republicans are supposed to have unshakeable faith in tough punishments as deterrents.) The ad-hoc tribunals that came into being after genocides in Yugoslavia and Rwanda are time-consuming and expensive to pull together, and therefore will rarely be used -- and potential war criminals know it.

The situation we have now is the equivalent of shutting down all our courts, closing the prisons and announcing that if anyone commits a felony, weÕll start talking about building new courts and prisons. Every time a crime is committed weÕll start from scratch.

Some threat.

The International Criminal Court is a permanent court that would have the resources to investigate and bring to justice those who commit war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, when nations whose leaders are guilty of such crimes cannot or will not bring charges. It has no jurisdiction to arrest or try individual military people who commit isolated crimes in time of war. The court has jurisdiction only in cases when war crimes are not aberrations, but are repeated acts that are part of a governmentÕs (or political groupÕs) overall policy. The idea that the court might go after American soldiers who make mistakes or are over-zealous in their actions is nothing but a smokescreen.

IÕm not a lawyer, and the ICC may have flaws. President Clinton didnÕt sign the treaty until shortly before he left office, and even then recommended against ratification. I think he was wrong. But at least Clinton demonstrated how a principled and mature leader behaves. He stayed with the process and attempted to work with other countries to insure that there was nothing in the ICC contrary to genuine American interests. BushÕs bullying hostility to the court does nothing but make the United States look bad and give comfort to war criminals.



Independent Student Coalition for the ICC

Genocide Watch

Human Rights Watch: Summary Of The Key Provisions Of The ICC Statute

Friday, August 09, 2002

I just discovered through my referrer log that a Fox News blog has linked -- approvingly (or at least neutrally) -- to something I wrote. Somehow I am not honored. I must be doing something wrong.

The right-wing response to Al Gore seems to be every time he gets cooking, make up a story about him. Eventually it will be revealed as a scam, but the revelation will get a lot less coverage than the original story. I'm not Gore's biggest fan, but every time they do this I like him more and more. You've got to be doing something right to piss off Fox.

We are living in strange times when Dick Armey is the voice of reason.

I mentioned yesterday that the sound of war drums in recent weeks had made me think a lot about "just war" theory, and I linked to some resources on the topic. The truth is, I'm far from an expert on the subject, and logically, I think I ought to wait until I bring my ideas into semi-coherent form before writing about them. Most liberal Christians are either pacifists or devoted to just war theory, but I've never been entirely comfortable with either approach. I draw on both traditions, and learn from them, but I can't entirely accept either one. I'm feeling around in the dark for what I believe, and that makes it hard to write.

Maybe it's because I'm a storyteller, not a philosopher. I'm not good at reasoning about abstract ideas because I've never been able to separate them from the real world, from people's lives. Flannery O'Connor once said that the difference between writers and normal people is that writers are slower. It takes us longer to figure things out. And I think the reason that's true is that we don't tie our thoughts up in neat boxes and put them on the shelf so that we're ready to pull out an opinion whenever one is called for. We deal with human beings, and people's lives are messy and confusing. Human chaos makes it harder to find things like abstract ideas.

One of the reasons I'm not entirely comfortable with just war theory is that I'm old enough to have heard the words used many times to justify things that seemed to me unjustifiable. The first time I heard the phrase, in fact, was in eighth grade, which was 1967 -- not a good year to try to justify war. We learned in school about Thomas Aquinas's insistence that a just war could be waged only by a legitimate authority, a "sovereign," to use Aquinas's disturbingly regal term. That made the Vietnam War right in the eyes of God, I was taught, because the Viet Cong were fighting against the authority of the South Vietnamese government, and the US was right to help the Vietnamese authority hang on to its legitimate control. (I realize that even at the time there were Catholics who rebelled against that idea, but I had to leave the Church to hear about them.)

Even at fourteen, I thought there was something grotesque in that -- locking people into power systems that oppressed them. At the time, my mother was a couple of years out of a marriage that required her (and, for the last year or so, me) to be a punching bag. The Church told her she had made that choice and was stuck with it. What the Church told my mother and what it told the people of Vietnam seemed to me all of a piece -- the status quo is God's will and you're just going to have to live with it.

Most people I know who drifted away from the Catholic Church did so because they didn't like the Church's positions on gender and sexuality. I grew disenchanted because I could no longer bear the language of morality being used to hurt people.

The irony, of course, is that the Church was building on a tradition stretching back to St. Augustine's noble attempt to make the horrible less horrible, to put moral brakes on an amoral chaos, but it was using the letter of that law to make people's lives worse.

But my problems with just war theory are not just problems of experience. I suppose when you come right down to it, I admire the spirit and the tradition while choking on some of the details. I'm enough of a realist to acknowledge that wars will happen no matter how hard we work for peace. And I think there is a tendency once war begins to say all rules are off. I think Augustine's reminder that all rules are not off is one of the high points in human history. The spirit of Augustine's writing on just war is that life is precious and therefore you can't wage war for reasons that are either capricious or predatory. Finishing what your daddy started is not a good reason, and neither is your craving for oil. And, according to Augustine, the need to keep moral law in mind doesn't end just because you have a good reason for going to war. I love Augustine's specificity on this topic:

The passion for inflicting harm, the cruel thirst for vengeance, an unpacific and relentless spirit, the fever of revolt, the lust for power, and such things, all these are rightly condemned in war.

Augustine had an astonishingly detailed and psychologically acute understanding of what comes to seem natural and reasonable to people once they go to war. Natural, reasonable, and horrible.

The best thing you can say about just war theory is that it places civilians out of bounds. Centuries of tradition in just war theory have emphasized that you can't kill civilians. Unfortunately centuries of ass-covering tradition has also added unless it's an accident. It's always an accident.

I'm uncomfortable, too, with the emphasis on authority. I don't like it when it's used to rule out wars of rebellion and I don't even trust it when its used, as it was recently by Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford, to argue that since the UN is a higher authority than any individual nation state, the US would need to seek a UN mandate before going to war with Iraq. I think the need to seek international consensus is a good thing, a check on arrogance, and I would love to see the UN evolve into a higher authority, but it's still a very weak institution. We're in trouble if we look to it for moral authority.

I'm also ill at ease with the notion, stretching back to Augustine that "a just war is wont to be described as one that avenges wrongs, when a nation or state has to be punished, for refusing to make amends for the wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly." Setting things right is one thing. Stopping an aggressor is legitimate. But avenging wrongs seems to me a dangerous business. Maybe we're more aware of that danger in our time than Augustine had the opportunity to be (I'll leave it to someone more knowledgeable about history than I am to decide if Augustine was a child of his times or just a damn fool), but today there's no excuse for failing to recognize the evil that results from endless cycles of avenging wrongs. In the Middle East no one on either side really believes any more that their actions accomplish anything. As Yossi Sarid says, in a heartbreaking piece in today's Ha'aretz:

The war being waged at this very moment is the cruelest war there is, because it is senseless. People have even stopped saying "may this be the last victim," because everyone knows that there will be plenty more. It's become a kind of routine. Despair and stupidity have reached such depths that all we are left with is vengeance: Murder for murder.

Who is talking these days about plans, strategy, peace, security? The name of the game is revenge. We act today not to deter or prevent, or even to punish, but solely to pay them back, to inflict pain. The Palestinians take revenge, we retaliate, and vice versa, "and God of retribution appears" (Psalms 94:1). They have lost hope that their murderous deeds can achieve anything, and we have lost hope, and we take comfort in blood revenge, like two tribes of savages.

I suppose Augustine foresaw that result when he said that you can not have a just war without a reasonable hope of success, that fighting for lost causes is a waste of lives. What he didn't say is that when you begin with vengeance, you end up without hope of success.

And all of that adds up to why I can't run through the list of requirements for a "just war" -- legitimate authority, last resort, just cause, proportional response, reasonable hope of success -- to decide if the standards have been met. I know the people who do it mean well, but it seems coldly inhuman to me, and likely to let you off the hook of making real moral decisions in any case.

Thursday, August 08, 2002

Although insisting that he had "many Muslim friends," Rev. Franklin Graham (son of Billy) said the Koran preaches violence and that Islamic extremism is "a greater threat than anyone's willing to speak [of]."

I'd hate to hear what he says about his enemies.

The division of church and state is a tough issue for me. On the one hand, I'm a cheerleader for the DWGs (that would be the dead white guys) who knew that when the state dictates theology and churches write laws, you end up with slimy religion and slimy government. (One more and you'd hit the trifecta).

But the majority of my heroes have been people who had a hard time drawing nice clean line between politics and faith. It starts with childhood heroes (Bobby Kennedy -- I'm a little young for John, and he wasn't that Church-soaked anyway, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, Phil and Daniel Berrigan), reaches back into history (Lincoln, Gandhi, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton) and runs right up into the present (Helen Prejean, Desmond Tutu, Roy Bourgeois). I know you can fight for peace and justice without faith (pace Emma Goldman and Clarence Darrow), but an awful lot of the things we have accomplished in this country, from freeing slaves to votes for women to ending legal segregation, would have taken far longer if it hadn't been for people who drew their political values from their religious ones. And many churches continue to be both strong voices on social justice issues and providers of hope in communities.

Those mixed feelings are the reason an article like this one, throws me. The article is about how John Ashcroft's religious faith influences his politics. Now if you hate Ashcroft's politics and gag on his notion of religion, picturing the two joined together is like imagining the two ugliest people you know in bed. The whole idea makes me want to scream for church and state to go to opposite sides of the room and not touch.

But when you look closely, the writer of this article can't come up with very many religion-rooted policies, and neither can I. When he was governer of Missouri, Ashcroft vetoed a bill allowing liquor sales on Sunday. He asked judicial nominees if they drank or cheated on their wives (and was willing to overlook an occasional drink). That's about it. Okay, maybe those tasteful blue togas on the naked statues had some vague connection to religion, but James Madison's not exactly spinning in his grave over it (unless he's doing a dance for the sheer pleasure of pissing off John Ashcroft -- which would be a worthy pursuit.)

The only major influence seems to be that Ashcroft believes God is on his side and he should never waver in the course he believes is right. Personally, I've always thought self-doubt was a fine quality, but it's hard to condemn a man for having the courage of his convictions. If Ashcroft had humane values to match that courage, you might even call it a good thing.
So I'm mildly amused when I read an article in which the writer catalogues some of the odder Pentacostal rituals (none of which Ashcroft participates in) in order to suggest there's something dangerous in his beliefs. (And I can't help but see a seedy class bias in the portrait of Pentacostalism, which has traditionally been a religion of the poor and uneducated -- Ashcroft being the odd duck here). The problem, the article suggests, must be that the Attorney General is too religious.

John Ashcroft's problem is not too much religion, or that he takes his religion too seriously. His problem is that he's a semi-competent man who has found himself in a job light years beyond his skill level. And if he has a religion problem, it is that his religon isn't much more than a few petty rules hiding in a truckload of arrogance. It doesn't have anything to do with mingling the secular and the theological. It's just that both Ashcroft's secular and theological sides are cheap and thoughtless.

But they don't threaten the division of church and state.

And that's probably the best defense of John Ashcroft you'll ever hear from me.

Reading through a lot of people's thoughtful posts evaluating reasons to invade or stay out of Iraq, got me thinking about just war theory and wondering if I should write something about it.

The Slacktivist came to my rescue with some great links on the topic. I'll come back to the subject later, in the meantime; there's a lot of interesting reading here.

I'm a day late in writing about Maureen Dowd's odd little Gore-bashing piece because, while it annoyed me, I wasn't quite sure why.

Awhile back I wrote a similar Ann Coulter-bashing post, so it would be a little hypocritical of me now to say that Dowd has no right to slam the wealthy and privileged Al Gore for posing as the friend of the working class. If I get mad at Princess Ann of New Canaan (and Little Lord George of Andover) for doing it, why can't Dowd feel equal annoyance with the populism of a St. Alban's preppie?

The obvious answer is that while money can certainly get in the way of understanding the lives of people without it, it's not an impenetrable wall. Neither Eleanor Roosevelt nor Bobby Kennedy were exactly working stiffs, but they got it. Maybe it was because they were outsiders in other ways (ways that had nothing to do with money and class), but they truly understood and communicated the problems of the poor and working class. Poor people have had precious few political voices they could really call their own. They've often had to rely on the rare outsider who understands.

What annoys me in the "populism" of people like Coulter and Bush (father and son) is that it focuses on the trivial and superficial, and tries to pretend that that substitues for the important stuff. George I told us he ate pork rinds and listened to country music and that was supposed to be more important than expecting charity to pick up the slack for slashed government programs.

My idea of populism runs more like this: take care of people who need help, and you can have all the caviar and Bach you want.

The thing is, I'm not sure Al Gore is one of the people who gets it, so I'm reluctant to jump on his bandwagon. Welfare "reform" and Gore's own ties to corporate interests may look pretty pale next to Bush's place in the class war, but they don't exactly bring Bobby Kennedy to mind either. Nevertheless, he's talking about real needs, not snack choices and pop music. He's not making vague, sentimental speeches about the "values" of working people, speeches reeking with condescension. I'm not quite ready to start campaigning for him yet, but I think the things Gore has been saying lately deserve a lot more respect than they got from Maureen Dowd.

Yuval Rubenstein posted an interesting bit of memoir about how the "untruths, myths, and legends" he learned in Hebrew school distorted his perception of history and how it continues to distort the perception of many Jews about the current situation in the middle east.

Noticing and criticizing the biases of a group you're a member of is a dangerous but essential business.

I grew up in three different myth-drenched groups, so I sympathize. My mother is Irish and I spent the first nine years of my life in an Irish neighborhood in the Bronx hearing tales of the "bold IRA" and it took me awhile to realize that nasty methods can kill the noblest goal. My father is a southern Baptist from the hills of east Tennessee and while I only lived there for a year, and never knew my father all that well (he was a violent drunk -- which sort of discourages conversation), my grandfather told me stories about the war of northern aggression that were so good -- all those noble rebels standing up to the money-grubbing yankees -- that I still half wish they were true. And then there's the eight years in Catholic school. Around the middle of high school it came as a great surprise to me to learn that most people didn't think the Crusades were one of the ethical high points of human history.

The point of all this is that it's easy to criticize the blindness of others. But if you don't see your own blindspots, you lose the right to complain about everybody else's. It's not just a matter of hypocrisy, but of shallow criticism. A fair criticism comes from a deep experience. And that's something only an insider has.

Every time I see something like this attempt to show how dangerous the ideas of others are, I think about what Catholic-bashers could say (and have said) about some of the stuff I grew up on. I knew an awful lot of Catholic kids who craved gruesome martyr stories and liked to combine them with horror movie images. (The story Sister Jarlath told us in seventh grade about the "saint" who was consigned to hell because she tried to claw her way out of her coffin would have made a great Vincent Price movie). Weird, sick kids -- and most of them ended up as fairly sane and decent human beings.

President Bush promised Wednesday to consult with Congress before deciding to invade Iraq, and Vice President Cheney said the administration would seek international consensus.

Is this anything like his election year vow to work closely with Democrats in Congress? The international consensus seems to be a pretty clear don't do it and the administration's posture up to this point has been an equally clear we ignore wimps. I'm not seeing any room for consensus-building here.

The London Times sees a softening of rhetoric and a realization that you can't simply start a war without explaining a few things.

I hope they're right, but I'm not even surprised any more by Bush's ability to put a friendly "compassionate consevative" face on ugly policies. I don't have a lot of faith.

Wednesday, August 07, 2002

Eric Blair at Slacktivist connects to Studs Turkel's interview with Paul Tibbets (in honor of Hiroshima Day) in yesterday's Guardian and makes what I think in an important point about the danger of militarism. Wars may be unavoidable, but they are also horrible. In war, people do things that they would not do under other circumstances. And while it is possible to "acknowledge sorrowful deeds with regret while still holding up one's head," pride in such actions is atrocious. A country too much in love with its own military will often begin to express that kind of nasty pride and disparage those who feel no pride in killing.

Tibbets takes great pride in killing and continues to have no ethical problems with targeting civilians. In response to Turkel's question about whether he believed we should have used nuclear weapons in response to the massacre at the World Trade Center, Tibbets replied:

Oh, I wouldn't hesitate if I had the choice. I'd wipe 'em out. You're gonna kill innocent people at the same time, but we've never fought a damn war anywhere in the world where they didn't kill innocent people. If the newspapers would just cut out the shit: "You've killed so many civilians." That's their tough luck for being there.

A man whose son was murdered by terrorists sees things more clearly.

Too be fair, I'm expanding on Eric's ideas and mingling them with my own. You need to read his comments without the fog of my interpretation. He's very clear and very good.

My beloved son Arik, my own flesh and blood, was murdered by Palestinians. My tall blue-eyed golden-haired son who was always smiling with the innocence of a child and the understanding of an adult. My son. If to hit his killers, innocent Palestinian children and other civilians would have to be killed, I would ask the security forces to wait for another opportunity. If the security forces were to kill innocent Palestinians as well, I would tell them they were no better than my son's killers.
-- Yitzhak Frankenthal

That's what I think the voice of God sounds like.

I'm feeling somewhat hypocritical this morning. Reading, a few weeks ago, about the Christian right's pressure on Bush to freeze the US contribution to the United Nations Population Fund because of a bizarre claim by a extreme right anti-abortion group that UNFPA money is used for coercive abortion and sterilization in China (a claim the State Department has investigated and denied) infuriated me. In fact, the UNFPA does essential, irreplaceable work in programs in maternal and child health care. Their work focuses on voluntary family planning, screening for reproductive tract cancers, promoting lactation and preventing HIV/AIDS. It saves the lives of women and children throughout the third world.

I'm not sure what makes me madder -- foreign policy set by churches or a theology that fixates on an imagined sin (being defiled by contributing to abortions in China) and thereby causes an enormous one (the deaths of thousands of women and children -- not to mention, ironically, the 1,215,000 abortions the agency expects to be caused by the lack of access to birth control.). A story like that renews my commitment to the separation of church and state.

And then something like this comes along. This morning's LA Times reports growing opposition in Europe to the idea of attacking Iraq. The only European leader who has suggested he would support the attack is Tony Blair, and he is under increasing pressure to oppose military intervention. A lot of that pressure -- and what many people are suggesting may be the most effective component of it -- is rooted in religion:

"It is our considered view that an attack on Iraq would be both immoral and illegal, and that eradicating the dangers posed by malevolent dictators and terrorists can be achieved only by tackling the root causes of the disputes themselves," a group of clergy said in a declaration delivered to Blair's 10 Downing Street office Tuesday.

The appeal from the Christian peace movement Pax Christi was signed by nearly 3,000 people across the religious spectrum, including the new head of the Anglican Church and archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

"It is deplorable that the world's most powerful nations continue to regard war and the threat of war as an acceptable instrument of foreign policy, in violation of the ethos of both the United Nations and Christian moral teachings," the document said.

The governments of Spain and Italy are both headed by conservatives who might be expected to support military action, but so far they've been silent, possibly out of fear of alienating pacifist Catholic voters.

And I applaud that, of course, but not without an awareness that if I want to be fair, I can't applaud religious influence when it's advocating something I want, and deplore it when it seems to me ugly and mean-spirited. I either need to admit that there's nothing wrong with right-wing Christians forcefully advocating their positions (which I oppose on moral and theological as well as political grounds), decide that religious pressure is a bad thing even when it's for a purpose I approve of (which would force me to say that Dr. King should have tended his flock and shut up about political issues), or oppose right-wing religious influence because it's different in kind from the sort of religious influence I admire.

There is nothing wrong with right-wing Christians advocating their religiously influenced positions. But I think there is something different about the sort of pressure brought in the case of the UNFPA. Bush didn't back down on supporting UNFPA because he decided that support was morally wrong. He backed down because he needed to toss a bone to the Christian right. The bone he tossed was the health and the lives of thousands of women and children.

The possible influence of Catholic pacifism in Spain and Italy bothers me in a similar way, because it doesn't seem to be that leaders are taking ethics into account, but rather they are simply responding to the prejudices of voters. I'm prejudiced toward peace, too. I'm not an absolute pacifist, but I wouldn't support any military action without being convinced that there was no other alternative (and I'm not easy to convince). But "peace is always good" can be as mindless a prejudice as "abortion is always a sin," and that kind of pressure -- if it forces leaders not to think beyond simplistic ethical notions -- is as likely to be negative as positive.

But the Christian peace movement's attempts to influence Blair seems to me very different in kind. Blair is a former theological student who is not adverse to thinking through the ethical implications of his decisions. And Rowan Williams, the new archbishop of Canterbury, who was one of the signers of the Pax Christi declaration, is not a political manipulator, but a man who quietly and articulately affirms Christian principles, and leaves it to others to work out their own consciences. I think Williams and the Pax Christi people are doing nothing more than trying to reintroduce Blair to his better angels. That is the kind of religious influence I can applaud -- and would applaud even if it were advocating positions I disagreed with.

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.