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 20, 2002

Ann Coulter says "her people" live in Queens. A resident of Queens replies, and demonstrates some of the lessons Coulter might have learned if there were any truth in her claim.

NOTE: Thank you to the reader who recommended this story to me.

UPDATE: Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I didn't realize that the reader who called my attention to this story was also its talented author. Thank you to the author/ reader (who wishes to remain anonymous), for permission to link to your post, and for writing such an honest and moving story.

The Republican Party loses another voter

''After the terrorist attacks, I was so angry that I really didn't care to learn anything about Muslims. But I know now that refusing to learn is what causes more anger and confusion.'' -- Matthew Dale, 18, a freshmen at the University of North Carolina after a discussion of Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations, a book a conservative Christian group asked the court to block.

No wonder they wanted to block the book. If it weren't for anger and confusion, who would vote Republican?

Thanks to Patrick Nielsen Hayden for pointing me in the direction of this insightful piece on religion and politics by Sam Coopersmith at Liberal Desert. It's a topic that's been gnawing at me for a long time, too -- the way politicians call themselves Christians (or, in a few cases, deeply religious Jews -- anyone come to mind, here?), wrap themselves up in a mantle of faith (with its presumption of virtue) and expect people to take their religious faith into consideration when they go into the voting booth, and yet somehow it's considered bad form, even bigoted, to criticize a politician because of those beliefs.

For me, the worst example of that was when, during the election, George Bush called Jesus his favorite philosopher. The press took the remark badly, but it seemed to me they did so for the wrong reason. The press on the whole is far less religious than most Americans, and they often act as if the only way you can keep church and state separate is if politicians have no religious beliefs at all, or at least have the good grace not to mention them in anything beyond the most ceremonial and trivial way.

I have no problem with Bush talking about Jesus' influence on his life. But once he raised the issue, he should have had to explain it. He should have had to explain how Jesus taught him to use his business connections to scam investors and to mock a woman on death row who asked for clemency. If Jesus is so important to him, he ought to have to explain what Jesus would have to say about a follower who seems so anxious to play at war and does not show any interest in the victims left in the wake of that war.

And if he can't give convincing answers, the rest of us ought to feel perfectly free to say, sorry, but that isn't any kind of Christianity I recognize.

When President Bush decided last week to block 5.1 billion dollars in spending approved by Congress, it got a lot of negative press, mainly because several of the things being cut were politically popular. Cutting money for firefighters and ground zero rescue personnel, veterans' medical care, and domestic security doesn't seem like the smartest political move ever made.

When a president makes mistakes on that level, it's easy to miss smaller, or at least less politically deadly mistakes. So another cut didn't get a lot of notice: 134 million dollars for Afghan humanitarian aide, including 2.5 million dollars for the Ministry of Women's Affairs, which planned to use the money to build women's centers focusing on health, education, and vocational programs.

It doesn't seem like that long ago that Laura Bush was on the radio telling us that "The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women. " I guess at some point, when we weren't paying attention (and how often do we pay attention to the needs of poor women?) that stopped being true.

Two organizations -- Women's Edge and CARE -- are organizing a call-in campaign to the White House urging the release of the aide money. I'll make my obligatory call, mainly because I'd feel guilty if I didn't (hey, what good is Catholic school if it doesn't make you feel guilty the rest of your life when you don't do the right thing?)

But I don't feel very hopeful about this. If this president considers fire fighters and veterans expendable, what chance do Afghan women have?

A few years ago, Maureen Dowd won a Pultizer Prize for commentary for op-ed pieces on the Lewinsky affair that had no purpose except as a vehicle for Dowd to display her cynical and nasty cleverness. The Pulitzer Prize Committee could redeem itself after that moment of insanity by recognizing the remarkable achievement of Paul Krugman, whose stunning prose, willingness to say what no other mainstream voice has the courage to say, and ability to make complex issues comprehensible without sacrificing their complexity has been a godsend in recent months.

Krugman is especially good today, discussing the fake populism of George Bush. Don't miss it.

Conservatives are mad at the NEA. I suppose thatÕs somewhat redundant, isnÕt it? Conservatives come into the world angry and spend the rest of their lives hunting for places to pin that anger. For some reason, teachers always make a handy target.

The anger, in this case, is fairly specific.

September 11th will arrive not long after the school year begins. Two or three weeks with a new group of kids -- kids teachers have barely gotten to know -- and they are going to have to face a horrible anniversary with those children.

Welcome to school, boys and girls. We're going to have a wonderful year. Now let's talk about death. Let's try to make sense of evil.

Teachers are free to ignore the anniversary, of course. They can pretend that children donÕt watch television after they go home from school and that they donÕt notice the odd looks on their parentsÕ faces all day.

(I was ten years old when John Kennedy was shot, and my most vivid memory of that day is the way, when you asked a grown up a question, they just stared at you, and stared, and stared, and staredÉas if language itself had died.)

You can try to ignore it -- if you are an absolutely worthless teacher. People without children and people who are too important and too busy for their children (you know, the "family values" crowd) believe the schools are full of such teachers. I have two kids in school, and IÕve seen very few worthless teachers.

(One thing I have learned over the years: the less time people spend in schools, the more they think they know about them. Those of us who work and volunteer in classrooms are far less certain than people who haven't been in a classroom in decades.)

September 11th is an anniversary teachers are dreading and wondering how to deal with far more than the rest of us -- and the topic wasnÕt covered in education classes. Somehow Piaget and Dewey didnÕt foresee Osama bin Laden.

So the National Education Association decided to help those teachers out with suggestions for how to recognize the anniversary, depending on the age of the students.

Conservatives read about this in their conservative paper, The Washington Times, which told them that the lesson plans would encourage teachers to "discuss historical instances of American intolerance," so that the American public avoids "repeating terrible mistakes."

What seems to have angered The Washington Times so much is a potential lesson on Tolerance in Times of Trial, which asks students to consider the ways legitimate anger at a countryÕs actions more than fifty years ago sometimes translated into a racist hatred of Americans who had originally come from that country. It asks students to understand both the anger (write a letter from the point of view of a "parent or spouse of a U.S. soldier killed by German or Japanese soldiers during World War II") and the innocent and misplaced victim of that anger ( write a letter from the point of view of a "recent German or Japanese immigrant, living in the U.S. during World War II" ). That history has some pretty obvious resonance in our time. And looking at the reaction of Americans more than a half century ago and comparing it to the response of Americans this year says something very good about this country, something that ought to incite more genuine patriotism than all the flag factories combined: we havenÕt made the same mistake. And as IÕve said before, a good deal of the credit for that goes to someone conservatives claim to admire.

And yet somehow conservatives, hearing that American children might be asked to take seriously the presidentÕs plea to distinguish between evil people and good people who share their religion or ethnic background, came to the conclusion that asking children to understand racism and intolerance would teach them that "America is racist, sexist, and imperialist" and would drive from their innocent minds the knowledge that America is "a place where the FDNY and the NYPD selflessly put themselves in harms way to save the men and women trapped in the World Trade Center."

Conservatives apparently believe that intolerance keeps the patriotic fires burning.

Or maybe they simply believe that American children are so small-minded and small-hearted that they cannot simultaneously care about more than one group of people at a time.

LetÕs give them the benefit of the doubt, and assume simple ignorance. They overlooked the lessons on patriotism and heroism. Certainly they overlooked the part of the lesson plan entitled Remembering the Uniformed Heroes at the World Trade Center, which asks students to choose one hero to write about, so that they can truly understand the enormous loss of each individual human being and celebrate their heroism. The lesson reminds students that when the history books are written, they will probably only list numbers of casualties. It reminds them that those numbers (like all the numbers they learn in their history books) represent human beings.

ThatÕs something liberals do -- we look past numbers at human beings. We care about individual human lives. IÕm sorry if that offends conservatives. IÕm sorry if they find that politically incorrect. ItÕs a little peculiarity of ours -- we care more about people than symbols, numbers and abstractions.

That isnÕt the only thing the lesson will ask of students, of course. It asks them to think about what it means to be a hero and what is an appropriate way to deal with our grief and memorialize those who died. Those seem to me questions that we are all asking ourselves. They've been in our heads and our conversations for almost a year. I don't see any reason to exclude high school students from the conversation.

As a mother, IÕm deeply offended by conservatives carping about my kidsÕ teachers' attempts to do a very difficult job. I wish they would just put their anger to rest for one day. On that very difficult day, teachers all across this country are going to be accomplishing something better than anything most of us will do in our lifetimes. They will try to help children feel safer, stronger and more in control in a threatening and confusing world. I have very little respect for people who think they have accomplished something by making that job harder.

(Story via Atrios, Max, and especially Kevin Raybould, who's written the definitive comments on the topic.)

Monday, August 19, 2002

I have cousins in Tennessee who think Elvis will always be king, but Saint Elvis?

Talk about a change of heart. A year ago, David Corn wrote a piece in The Nation headlined Al, Don't Run, arguing that Gore was a horrible campaigner and an unbelievable populist, and that Democrats ought to do everything they could to discourage him from running. His latest piece is called All For Gore in '04. The reason for the change is not a re-evaluation of Gore's populist credentials, but a sense that only Gore can stop Joe Lieberman from running.

At this point, I'll take any Democrat, including Lieberman, over Bush. But I think David Corn's change of heart is interesting and may reflect an increasing willingness of people on the left to accept the good and not hold out for the perfect.

I hope so.

Just to start Monday with some good news

Freedom House reports that the number of freely elected governments in the world has continued to climb, reaching 121 of the world's 192 independent countries this year.

More good news about the growth of democracy around the world.

Sunday, August 18, 2002

On blogging as an art form and a writer's worst nightmare

I don't have a place for comments on this site for two reasons. One is ineptitude. I once wasted a couple of hours trying to add them and it just wouldn't work. My computer skills are minimal, to put it mildly, and I figured if it was going to be that much trouble, it wasn't meant to be.

But the truth is, if I were one hundred percent convinced I really wanted them, I probably would have kept playing with the HTML until I got it right. My incompetence just provided an excuse to do what my instincts were already telling me: don't give up control.

I'm a writer in part because I'm a control freak -- and writing is something you can control. (Unless you have a really bad editor -- and I'm the only writer I know who doesn't have a single bad editor story to tell.) I polish stories until they are as perfect as I can make them. I've had a few stories land on the page needing little revision (thank you, God), but in most cases, I do hundreds of drafts. Galleys are hell for me, because at the last moment I always see far more changes I'd still like to make than I know even the kindest editor will let me get away with.

Blogging is already a loss of control. It's fast and unpolished, closer to journal writing than traditional published writing -- and yet it's public. Unless you have an ego far larger than mine, an absolute conviction that every word you write is gold, you realize that you've just invited people in to look at the messy and sometimes incredibly dumb contents of your brain. I usually proof-read what I write a couple of times, but for someone who's used to spending months on stories, and even a few days doing last minute proof-reading before putting a story in the mail, that doesn't feel like much. I hit publish, and send posts out into the world (a small world, admittedly, but the world nonetheless), knowing there are uncaught typos, misused words, awkward phrasings, and spelling errors a sixth grader shouldn't have made. Worse, there are ideas that if I'd thought about them for a day or so would make me recoil at their shallowness or wrong-headedness. I've looked at several posts a few days after I've written them and thought, What in the world made me say that?

I feel obligated to leave the dumb ideas there as well as the reasonable ones. I'm not sure why. When I write what I realize is a hopeless story, I have no mixed feelings about throwing it in the trash. But somehow this is different.

Comments would take away even more control. I like getting e-mail from people about things I've written, but I'm not sure I want to open it up to the point that anyone can put anything they want on here. I feel about this site the way my daughter feels about her teddy bear -- this is mine, nobody can touch it.

Yet I sometimes find other people's comments fascinating. One of the best threads I've read recently began with Patrick Nielsen Hayden's comments on the debate over Spinsanity's attack on Media Whores Online. Patrick's initial remarks -- basically agreeing with Spinsanity -- were interesting, mainly because they differed from almost everyone else's, but they weren't detailed. At first, I agreed with all the defenders of MWO, although my own defense was pretty tepid, reflecting, I think, some rather mixed feelings about MWO.

Reading through the comments on Patrick's post, though, my mixed feelings started hardening into the anti-MWO camp. I won't get into the reasons I changed my mind. If you read through the thread and watch Patrick refine and develop his idea, I think he makes the case eloquently and convincingly. I have nothing to add.

What interests me right now, though, is not so much the idea itself as the way it came about -- developed and deepened by the give and take on the comments board.

I got interested in doing this blog in part because it's a kind of writing I don't know how to do. In fact, it's a kind of writing nobody knows how to do yet. Everyone is still sort of figuring out what works and what doesn't. Can you mix the personal and the political? How much and in what way? How creative can you get with links before it starts getting merely annoying? Are there any real rules and forms at all? (Probably not yet, but eventually there will be. What constituted a novel stayed a pretty open concept for awhile -- and those early is this a novel? novels are some of my favorites.)

I know how to write an essay, a story, a prose-poem, a sonnet and villanelle. I have no idea how to do what I'm doing at the moment, and if you love writing, that not knowing is exciting.

It's also exciting when you begin to see a form develop. A comments board, at its worst, is nothing but people cutting each other, but at its best, it's a kind of group essay that forces everyone to think and rethink until it comes to a meaningful end. In a really good personal essay, you usually see the writer's thoughts evolve. On a good comments board, you watch several people evolve, overlap, come together, and come apart. Sometimes it works so well -- as it does in the comments I mentioned -- that it's hard to believe it's organic. It looks choreographed.

I have a feeling this may be one of those posts that embarrasses me the day after I write it -- old comparative literature students have to find some strange way of using their useless skills at literary analysis -- but I find something really intriguing and potentially artistic in that.

UPDATE My iffy feelings about comments, however, just hardened into a definite no. I just got my first truly nasty (and semi-literate) e-mail. I'm afraid that sort of thing brings out the English teacher in me. Semi-literate bothers me at least as much as nasty (and anyway, I'm a firm believer that there's a connection between the two.) I'm not putting anything on my site unless I can red pencil the errors.

But I appreciate it when other people do it. I guess that's my own little piece of hypocrisy.

Saturday, August 17, 2002

Republican Hypocrisy Watch

Republican fund-raisers, relatives and golfer Ben Crenshaw are among dozens of White House overnight guests President Bush and first lady Laura Bush have played host to since moving in last year.

The issue of White House sleepovers first arose in the Clinton administration when it was learned that the Democratic Party was rewarding big donors with overnight stays in the Lincoln Bedroom.

The Bushes' roughly 160 guests include at least six of President Bush's biggest fund-raisers and their families. White House spokeswoman Anne Womack said she didn't know whether donors, or any other Bush guests, have slept in the Lincoln Bedroom.

A friend of the devil is a friend of mine?

A covert American program during the Reagan administration provided Iraq with critical battle planning assistance at a time when American intelligence agencies knew that Iraqi commanders would employ chemical weapons in waging the decisive battles of the Iran-Iraq war, according to senior military officers with direct knowledge of the program.

These officers, most of whom agreed to speak on the condition that they not be named, spoke in response to a reporter's questions about the nature of gas warfare on both sides of the conflict between Iran and Iraq from 1981 to 1988. Iraq's use of gas in that conflict is repeatedly cited by President Bush and, this week, by his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, as justification for "regime change" in Iraq.

The covert program was carried out at a time when President Reagan's top aides, including Secretary of State George P. Shultz, Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci and Gen. Colin L. Powell, then the national security adviser, were publicly condemning Iraq for its use of poison gas, especially after Iraq attacked Kurds in Halabja in March 1988.

During the Iran-Iraq war, the United States decided it was imperative that Iran be thwarted, so it could not overrun the important oil-producing states in the Persian Gulf. It has long been known that the United States provided intelligence assistance to Iraq in the form of satellite photography to help the Iraqis understand how Iranian forces were deployed against them. But the full nature of the program, as described by former Defense Intelligence Agency officers, was not previously disclosed.

Maybe it's time to put the outrage over Saddam's use of poison gas on hold. The outrage is legitimate, but the outraged have a little hypocrisy issue.

Pope calls for end to war and suffering

Could he be just a little more specific? Nothing like a religious figure willing to go out on a limb and take a brave and controversial stand.

Texas Business Ethics

A report to the war crimes trial of Slobodan Milosevic revealed that Bell Helicopters of Texas sold spare helicopter parts to Serbia during a U.N. embargo. At the time, Serbia was involved in a genocidal war using helicopters.

A spokesperson for Textron, which owns Bell, was asked if there were any discussion about the wisdom of selling the parts to a country that could use the equipment in a genocidal war?

"There would be no reason to discuss the advisability of a commercial civilian sale, unless you think the customer is not going to pay," she replied.

It's so encouraging to discover businesses that know what values are really important.

Ann Salisbury draws attention to a bill in the House that would allow churches to endorse candidates and raise funds for them without losing their tax exempt status.

I had a moment of thinking that didn't sound terribly unreasonable, but Sam Heldman's thoughtful commentary pulled me back to reality. The key phrase here is not free speech, it's tax free. I know there are people (among them, many of the sponsors of this bill) who think those two kinds of freedom are the same thing, but they're not.

If any lawyers are reading this -- help me out here, but I think churches are currently already allowed a lot of political activity without it threatening their tax status. They can discuss issues, conduct forums, invite candidates to speak, and just about anything else that falls short of endorsing a specific candidate or piece of legislation.

Churches aren't being discriminated against because they are religious institutions. They're operating under the same rules that apply to every other non-profit group. The PTA, for instance, has to walk that same line between advocating for children and education and not specifically endorsing candidates or legislation. Exactly where the line is drawn, I don't know, but it doesn't really matter as long as the rule is the same for everyone.

Conservative religious groups are playing a game here -- and it seems to fall into a pattern. They tried to argue that if schools don't teach children to say "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, it is a threat to their free speech, and if the University of North Carolina asks incoming freshman to read a book about the Koran (while allowing them to choose something else if this conflicts with their beliefs), it is forcing Islam on Christians (Does that mean my son was proselytized when his junior year AP English teacher forced him to read parts of the Bible? To my knowledge, no religious groups objected to that). Now the implication is that if the government doesn't allow churches to campaign (at least not without acknowledging that they are advocacy groups, and therefore not entitled to non-profit status), they're putting the churches in a different category than everybody else, taking away their free speech. It's an interesting pattern -- defining free speech as the right to force others to say words or prevent them from reading books you disapprove of, and insisting on your right to be paid by the taxpayers (because that's basically what a tax-exemption amounts to, if a group doesn't pay taxes, the rest of us pick up their share) to campaign for candidates and legislation.

Being treated like everybody else does not make you a victim.

Via Atrios (with interesting comments by Max and Patrick Nielsen Hayden.)

It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones. -- Luke 17:2

The man Jeb Bush selected to head Florida's child welfare agency believes that striking children hard enough to cause bruises and welts does not constitute child abuse. His definition of a healthy family not only does not include gay couples, it also apparently excludes working wives, Christians married to non-Christians, and husbands who don't insist on having the last word in a disagreement.

There's a temptation to feel almost gleeful at the exposure of Bush family hypocrisy: the "family values" people trusting children's welfare to a man who promotes what sane people call child abuse and disparages most American families.

But the glee wears off fast. Children in Florida's foster care system have disappeared. Children have died from abuse and neglect. To put a man who opposes current child abuse laws and has rigid and bizarre ideas about what constitutes a good family in charge of protecting those children and finding homes for them is either negligent or vicious.

It looks like negligence (of which there seems to be a lot in Florida when it comes to the interests of children). Asked if Governer Bush was aware of his appointee's eccentric writings on the topic of families and children, an aide responded that he was not, but quickly brushed aside the question with a strange comment, "Many of our nation's finest public servants past and present have been men and women of faith."

Buried in the response is an enormous insult hurled at people of faith. What did the aide mean? Yes, his ideas are nuts but he's religious -- you know how religious people are?

The people of faith I know (and that includes some fairly conservative Christians) don't believe in beating up children and recognize women as human beings equal to men. But they get mad when people equate stupidity, meanness, weak male egos, and temper control problems with religion -- a notion shared by some atheists and most politicians trolling for votes on the fringes of the Christian right.

Jerry Regier was presumably not appointed for his ugly interpretation of Jesus' plea to "suffer" the little children to come unto him. But the reasons behind his appointment don't speak any higher of Jeb Bush's ethics or concern for children. Regier was recommended to Bush by his fellow Republican governor, Frank Keating of Oklahoma. Regier had previously served as an Oklahoma cabinet secretary, where his chief accomplishments were saving the state $1 million by rooting out phantom employees in the state's health department (which Keating described to Bush as a crisis "similar" to Florida's difficulty in protecting its foster care children) and wasting $10 million in funds intended for poor families on a program to curb divorce.

(I have no disagreement with people who say divorce is bad for children. I just wish those same people understood that lack of food, health care and education aren't great for children either.)

Even if you operate with an accounting system where saving $1 million and wasting $10 million puts you ahead, something is very wrong when the governer of a state is informed that children are disappearing and dying, carefully considers the situation, and decides that what is most needed to solve the problem is a man who knows how to save the taxpayers some money.

Save money or save children? Ethics are mostly a matter of choices. Jeb Bush's choice says a lot about what he worships.

Friday, August 16, 2002

Locust Eater has an interesting post on conservatives who are "outraged by the immorality of our times but incapable of seeing moral failure in more than merely sexual terms." It hadn't occured to me until I read that, but where are all the guardians of morality and the defenders of Western values now that government, business and churches are all wallowing in scandal? When it's all Clinton's fault didn't catch on, they seemed to have given up the fight. Surely William Bennett can find some way of blaming Enron on Eminem. And somehow the movie industry has got to have something to do with Halliburton. They're just not trying hard enough.

I know I'm a pushover, but I almost feel sorry for Bill Simon. There's so little left of his campaign for governor of California that he's reduced to hitting the conservative talk radio circuit -- not even Limbaugh and O'Reilly, but Limbaugh and O'Reilly's feeble local imitators -- trying to hang on to the shreds of his base. It's sad. That's not supposed to happen to you until after you lose the election.

My sympathy does have its limits though. If it ever happens to Bush, I'm throwing a party (you'll all be invited).

Avedon Carol's defense of MWO against Spinsanity's charge that they "pollute the public discourse" is not only an essay everyone should read, it's the kind of piece we should re-read when we need reminding of what we're up against -- a media that holds left-wingers to a standard that God couldn't meet on his best day, while letting right-wing lies, hypocrisy, misconduct, and even crimes pass unnoticed.

Spinsanity's comparison of MWO to people like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter is absurd. MWO uses over-cooked rhetoric to describe reality. They've never deliberately spun a fake story, and their mistakes have been small and infrequent -- their accuracy level beats any mainstream press outlet in the country (despite the mainstream press's far greater resources). Coulter and Limbaugh use rhetoric to add a little entertainment value to spreading hatred and out and out lies.

I shy away from angry language -- which is one of the reasons MWO is an occasional indulgence for me, not something I read every day (it's also the main reason I don't have it in my links). But there is a world of difference between getting so angry you scream the truth and using a manufactured anger to put an entertaining face on your lies and your bigotry.

I prefer a quieter, more reasonable language -- but I'll take the truth in whatever form I can get it.

Nicholas Kristof makes anger an art form in today's NY Times. He argues that the protection of women's rights in Asia and Africa is the "pre-eminent moral challenge" of this century -- our equivalent to fighting slavery in the 19th century, and fighting the assorted varieties of despotism in the 20th.

And President Bush, Kristof says, is on the wrong side of the battle.

Bravo! It's an argument I've been bugging everyone I know with for a long time. If the war with Islamic fundamentalists is, as many have said, a war of ideas, one of the most obvious ideas we're fighting for is the rights, in fact the very humanity, of women. With cuts in funding to the United Nations Population Fund which supports women's health programs, blocking the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and undercutting international efforts to support rural health care for poor women, we're siding with Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. We may not be shrouding women, but we're saying just as clearly that women don't count.

I wrote yesterday that Dick Cheney's dismissal of the Kurds' request for a pledge of US protection seemed inexplicable to me. Defending a group of people who have carved out the foundations of a civil society with freedoms that exist nowhere else in the region seems both the right thing to do and in the United States' national interest. In addition, if the US is serious about seeking international -- and in particular, European -- support for a war with Iraq, they would have much better grounds for claiming that support in the name of defending a free people than they would in going after a regime that most Europeans do not believe poses a real threat to the west.

Josh Marshall offers a possible explanation of Cheney's strange response -- it was a dumb, evasive answer, and it was meant to be. The only reasonable explanation is that the Bush administration is not serious about war with Iraq -- at least not yet.

The BBC reports an interesting detail in the lawsuit brought by relatives of September 11th victims against various Saudis, including members of the royal family. What's intriguing is a point the reports I read in American newspapers skipped: the relatives also target the US government for failing to pursue the Saudis thoroughly enough because of oil interests.

Is this suit as much about forcing the Bush administration to reconsider its support for Saudi Arabia as it is an attempt to punish the Saudis? The American press focused on the latter motive, but the first has more potential for positive results.

We should have begun a serious debate about our "alliance" with the Saudis on September 12th, if not sooner. For its own reasons, Bush and company have shoved that debate to the dark crannies of political journals and the even more obscure corners of weblogs that nobody but political junkies pays any attention to. If the victims' suit focuses attention on the shady game the Saudis have played for years -- posing as moderate allies while directing anger about their own repressive policies at America and Israel -- and about how the Bush administration has played along with that game, they will have rendered this country a great service.

UPDATE: There's been some confusion over this post, so I think I should explain. Hesiod, and then Atrios picked up the story, and, as in the old children's came of telephone, it changed a little each time it was passed on. By the time it got to Atrios, the story was the the U.S. government was a defendent in the case. If my original language was confusing, I apologize. I didn't say -- or at least did not mean to say -- that the US government was named as a defendent in the case. I said that the relatives "targeted" the U.S. government's dealings with the Saudis. Whether or not it's part of the suit (and I assumed it wasn't, although it wasn't perfectly clear), I still felt (and continue to feel) it was interesting that the relatives and their lawyers were raising the issue, but the American press was ignoring it. The impression I have is that the relatives are at least as interested in forcing Bush to re-evaluate our relationship with the Saudis as they are in getting money from the House of Saud. At the link I provided, there is also an interview with Leon Wieseltier of the New Republic making a similar point (about the relatives' purpose, not about the press) and expanding on the idea somewhat. It's well worth listening to.

Robert Fisk is continuing to do, in Afghanistan, what he does better than almost anyone -- report the effects that decisions by powerful people have on the powerless. One of Fisk's reports from Afghanistan this week focuses on the relationship between the United States and the Afghan Special Forces, who torture Pashtun prisoners to get information, without direct CIA involvement, but with CIA agents in the room, allowing it to happen. Humanitarian workers in northern Afghanistan also describe massacres by US-sponsored Afghan warlords. Technically, the United States has nothing to do with these mass murders. But they're our thugs, everyone in Afghanistan knows they're on our payroll, and we overlook their crimes.

A second report deals with conflicts between the US military and humanitarian organizations working in Afghanistan. The US military has little interest in humanitarian work, but even the little they've done has been done badly. Non-governmental organizations working with the UN complain, for example, that while the military has engaged in some humanitarian work, such as repairing a ward in a local hospital and rebuilding destroyed bridges, the soldiers wear civilian clothes but carry weapons, and also have no interest in the political, cultural and social lives of Afghans. This creates a dangerous situation for NGOs, who fear that Afghans can not distinguish between the military and unarmed humanitarian workers. With Afghan anger being stoked by American bombing raids that have killed hundreds of innocent Afghans, those workers' lives are being put at risk.

Fisk's reporting underscores the dangers of the game we are playing in Afghanistan -- supporting thieves and thugs as our proxies in war and hoping the backlash against their crimes doesn't strike us. (Some NGOs believe that, in fact, blurring the boundaries between the military and humanitarian workers is deliberate, an attempt to insure that if there is a response, it hits the more vulnerable NGOs, not the military.) As Fisk points out, it's a game we tried to play in Vietnam, and one the Russians previously attempted in Afghanistan. In both cases, the game led to disaster. The local people were smart enough to see who was pulling the strings.

Fisk emphasizes that there is not yet a strong backlash against the United States in Afghanistan, although people are beginning to talk about giving the US just a little more time to cut the arrogance and live up to its promises.

The sadly inevitable outcome is, if a backlash comes, Americans will be furious -- we "liberated" these people from the Taliban, after all. We fed people, we built roads and hospitals, we sent children to school. Why aren't they grateful? Why can't anyone appreciate all the good America does?

Thursday, August 15, 2002

Anti-Baghdad Talks Shunned by Top Kurd

Our treatment of the Kurds increasingly resembles our lack of support for Hamid Karzai's struggling government -- and in both cases, the reasons behind the arrogant dismissal are baffling.

Other than Israel, there's no such thing as a functioning democracy in the Middle East. But there are small islands of hope here and there, from pro-democracy forces in Egypt, Iran and even Saudi Arabia, to the government-on-paper of Afghanistan (which is in no way a democracy -- or even much of a government -- but seems to be making a genuine and somewhat desperate effort to respond to the needs of its people), to the thriving community the Kurds have carved out in northern Iraq.

We can't create democracies, but we ought to be ready to support them whenever they arise or stumble into the light.

The administration's decision -- announced yesterday -- to tie increases in aid to Egypt to the release of pro-democracy advocate Saad Eddin Ibrahim suggests that Bush has at least some understanding of the relationship between fighting terrorism and standing up for human rights and democracy. But Dr. Ibrahim's case was extreme. Egypt imprisoned an elderly American citizen with an international reputation for human rights advocacy, probably in part to test how far they could push the limits of world (and especially American) tolerance. If we didn't support Dr. Ibrahim, the message to Egypt would have been that there was no repression we wouldn't overlook. Bush passed the first test. The question now is, will we keep up the pressure until Dr. Ibrahim is actually released? And will we still be there for less well-known dissidents?

Just as, in Afghanistan, the most important question to answer (after, where the hell did Osama bin Laden go?) is, are we willing to help Karzai build a functioning nation, or are we going to let Afghanistan shoot its way back into the chaos that spawned the Taliban in the first place?

And, in the same vein, will we support the Kurds? If we really believe the Iraqis are entitled to a democracy, then we ought to support those Iraqis who have already found many of the ingredients for one. We can't impose a democracy, but we can nurture and protect one. It is pure hypocrisy to use the plight of the Kurds as an excuse for invading Iraq, while telling the Kurds (as Dick Cheney did on Saturday) that we won't necessarily support them if our war talk pushes Saddam into a pre-emptive invasion. It is hypocrisy, as well, to keep bringing up the fact that Saddam "gassed his own people" without giving those people the training and equipment, the gas masks, and the mobile clinics to treat chemical weapons victims that they have asked for.

During the cold war, conservatives used to talk about countries as dominoes -- if one country became communist, every country in the region would follow. It was a silly theory -- why would any country turn to poverty-stricken dictatorships as models for their development (unless what they had was even worse, and they had no opportunity to gain anything better)? But a thriving democracy would be a beacon. Democracy is contagious. At least I think it is. Cheney's dismissal of the Kurds suggests he either doesn't agree with me, or doesn't really want to see democracy in the region.

Eric Alterman makes a case today that Marwan Barghouti, the Palestinian leader whose trial began yesterday in Tel Aviv, is "the very definition of a freedom fighter," and exactly the kind of man Israel could make peace with.

In an interesting development, one of the observers at Barghouti's trial will be a man with some experience in the area of both political trials and peace-making -- Nelson Mandela. The former South African president reportedly said that Barghouti's trial reminded him of the South African government's attempt to de-legitimize the African National Congress by trying and imprisoning him.

I have to admit I have no idea what the merits of Israel's case against Barghouti are. But in the court of world opinion, I think they've already lost the first round. At this point it looks exactly like what Mandela suggests: an attempt to destroy Palestinian government in the world's view by putting on a show trial of one of its more moderate members. Unless there's a lot more here than most people believe, I think Israel is making an enormous mistake.

The Guardian drew an interesting lesson from the British experience in attempts to control occupied people:

The British, in the days of empire, repeatedly found themselves having eventually to negotiate with leaders they jailed. Barghouti has emerged as the front-runner to replace Arafat. His direct involvement in the uprising has given him a credibility at street level that is lacking in the Palestinians Israel would prefer to deal with. The trial is likely to boost his popularity further. The Israelis could do worse than negotiate with Barghouti.

Sometimes old imperialists have hard-won wisdom to offer.

I've just added a new link to my weblog list. It's called Locust Eater and it focuses on the places where politics and Christian ethics come together (and come apart). To quote John Davis's self-description:

Christianity in the U.S. has become little more than a civil state religion. We find this to be a bad thing. Many conservative Christians practice an idolatry of the Bible. Many liberal Christians practice a contentless, feel-good spiritiuality. Neither position is helpful; both end up nullifying much of the good Christians could otherwise do in the world.

Us? We draw on both; we are critical of both. We are not conservatives. We are not liberals.

I would say he leans more to the left than the right, theologically and politically, but he's not predictable, he's extremely articulate and he's always interesting to read.

The best news of the day must be that the Bush administration, under pressure from human rights organizations, has decided to oppose any increase in aid to the Egyptian government to protest the imprisonment of human rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim and the harrassment of pro-democracy organizations. The State Department has also begun a study of U.S. aid to Egypt and what role it can play in helping to encourage the development of free speech and democracy in Islamic countries.

Wednesday, August 14, 2002

We could save ourselves a lot of grief if we just passed a law that said the sons of former presidents cannot become president, and the sons of world famous evangelists cannot preach. Why does the second generation always seem to be made up of idiots?

The Christian sects who share the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem have been at each others' throats so long they won't even trust each other with the key to the church. So it's opened each day by a Muslim. It's been that way for more than a millennium. The current doorkeeper says he is "protecting Christianity to give them their freedom to pray."

It's not an important story and I'm not going to try to find any great meaning in it. But it's nice to find a small note of grace in the Middle East.

Thomas Friedman is a must-read today on why pressing our "moderate" allies in the Middle East for democratic reforms is one of the most important parts of the battle against terrorism.

Is it an accident that India has the largest Muslim minority in the world, with plenty of economic grievances, yet not a single Indian Muslim was found in Al Qaeda? Is it an accident that the two times India and Pakistan fought full-scale wars, 1965 and 1971, were when Pakistan had military rulers? Is it an accident that when Pakistan has had free elections, the Islamists have never won more than 6 percent of the vote?

Is it an accident that the richest man in India is an Indian Muslim software entrepreneur, while the richest man in Pakistan, I will guess, is from one of the 50 feudal families who have dominated that country since its independence? Is it an accident that the only place in the Muslim world where women felt empowered enough to demand equal prayer rights in a mosque was in the Indian city of Hyderabad? No, all of these were products of democracy. If Islam is ever to undergo a reformation, as Christianity and Judaism did, it's only going to happen in a Muslim democracy.

People say Islam is an angry religion. I disagree. It's just that a lot of Muslims are angry, because they live under repressive regimes, with no rule of law, where women are not empowered and youth have no voice in their future. What is a religion but a mirror on your life?

Message from India to the world: Context matters -- change the political context within which Muslims live their lives and you will change a lot.

Caryl Rivers says that despite her politics, Ann Coulter is a "feminist success story." The fact that she can claim an audience suggests that things are better than they were in the seventies, when women's voices were barely heard at all.

Nonsense. There's always been room at the table for a cute bubblehead in a very short skirt and even in the seventies women could get an audience by telling other women to get back in their places (Phyllis Schlafly was not exactly starved for attention.) All Coulter did was combine the two into a particularly nasty package.

Feminists have to be pretty desperate for good news to call that progress.

Atrios (scroll down -- permalinks on again off again) calls this "the most wretchedly stupid editorial in history."

You'll have to register for the op-ed piece, so in case you don't feel like going to the trouble, I'll summarize. It's written by a guy who works as a telemarketer. I admit it's full of some nauseating, suck-up lines about the kindly telemarketing firm that gave him a job when no one else would. The tone is basically that of a high school kid grinding out an essay on how his job at McDonald's taught him the meaning of the word responsibility.

But the piece ends with an important point nonetheless:

I grew to know many of my telemarketing brothers and sisters. Mostly minorities, they come from many walks of life.

Some had successful professional careers before they were splattered on the windshield of life's bad breaks. Others never have had a job as good as telemarketing. Many are single mothers trying to support two, three or four kids. Others are older and just trying to hold on until they can start drawing Social Security.

One thing they almost all have in common is a fierce work ethic. They refuse to go on welfare. They are determined to work as hard as they can to secure a better life for themselves and their loved ones.

I know telemarketers who get up at 4 a.m. in order to catch two buses and one train and get to work by 7 a.m.

These people are good, hard-working Americans. They only ask a little tolerance. Is it too much to ask to treat them with respect and either listen to what they have to say or simply reply, "No, thank you"?

That's the most wretchedly stupid thing Atrios has ever read? A reminder to treat low-paid employees with a little courtesy?

MCI could offer me free calls for life and I wouldn't take it -- that's how sick I am of their phone calls. Since my son graduated from high school, I've been inundated with calls from tech schools at all hours of the day. I would love to see telemarketing made illegal.

But that has nothing to do with the people who make the phone call. They have a lousy job and they deserve to be treated with respect. You don't have to listen to the spiel, but you don't need to slam the phone down on them or call them names either.

It astonishes me sometimes that people who call themselves "progessive," who care about things like fair wages and adequate health care, can't seem to distinguish between lousy companies and the company's employees.

As a general rule, if you're getting the run-around from a company, the person you're dealing with, the face of the company, is getting the shaft worse than you are.

There was a Jack Nicholson movie that came out in 1970 called Five Easy Pieces. I've heard it's a good movie, but I'll never know because I walked out on it and I will never sit through it. The problem was the famous coffee shop scene where Nicholson verbally spars with a rigid waitress who won't make substitutions on his order. If I remember right, he ends up having a tantrum and tossing the food on the floor (to cheers from the audience I saw the movie with.)

I was in high school, and working as a waitress in a coffee shop when I saw that movie. Not long before, I'd had a drunk stand up and throw the hot water I'd just brought for his tea in my face because I told him I wasn't allowed to make a substitution he wanted. I wasn't in the mood to watch Jack Nicholson be cheered for bravely standing up to the system, when "the system" was just some person like me who was working in a job she hated. I'm still not. I still get mad when people try to show how cool they are by mocking poor people.

I guess I just don't have a sense of humor about it.

Hesiod is so good. An intelligent response to an NRO piece, showing why the destruction of Carthage is not exactly a terrific historical model for the United States to use in its relations with Iraq (anyone up for a little genocide?). Links to FreeRepublic mockery of the victims of the Hebrew University bombing. And a note on the new depths to which the marketing of Harry Potter has sunk. (although I'm in the middle of reading The Prisoner of Azkaban to my daughter -- and I'm going to have to try very hard to block Hesiod's post out of my mind as I read tonight. Yuckies, as my daughter would say.) Carthage, Freepers and Harry Potter -- how much more wide-ranging can you get? If he keeps it up he'll more than deserve that Alterman link he's begging for.

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.