January 2006 Archives

James Wolcott mentions Jane Hamsher’s comment about Fred Barnes’ fawning book on Bush:

"...Fred Barnes' chin will be dusted for George Bush's ball prints..."

Wolcott calls that “The Most Disturbing Mental Image of the Week,” but I call it:

Best. Book review. Ever.

Isaac Chotiner’s review at Washington Monthly, “Fred Barnes delivered the talking points,” notes that:

you can always find Barnes calmly toeing the administration's line. When even FOX News panelists seemed uncomfortable with the administration's position on torture, there was Barnes defending the policy. When the president nominated Harriet Miers—and most conservative commentators and intellectuals rebelled—there was Barnes supporting the choice. He is the perfect Bush hack.

For those who haven’t seen it yet, Barnes’ book is titled Rebel-in-Chief: How George W. Bush Is Redefining the Conservative Movement and Transforming America. The title is patently false, as Bush is the very apotheosis of the GOP status quo government rather than a rebel seeking to reform it. The subtitle is, however, quite accurate: Bush’s redefinition of conservatism is driving principled conservatives away as his minions labor mightily to transform America into a one-party banana republic.

The same basic observation of sycophancy can be made about Ronald Kessler’s A Matter of Character: Inside the White House of George W. Bush. I picked it up when it was released in August 2004, and began to read the inside flap:

Honesty. Integrity. Clarity of purpose. These are the qualities that Ronald Kessler, author of the New York Times bestseller Inside the White House, discovered while investigating our current president who is so scrutinized—and so criticized—at home and around the world.

I bemusedly wondered what color the sky is in Kessler’s world as I returned the book to its place on the shelf and continued on. Even by that point in time, Bush’s mendacity had been so well established that to assert otherwise was nothing short of deliberate deception.

I’m sure that both Barnes’ and Kessler’s books will be prominently displayed at Dubya’s Presidential Liebrary.

The New York Times has posted the full text of bin Laden’s latest statement, as translated by the AP. After mentioning the bombings in Madrid and London, bin Laden threatens that “similar operations” in America “are under preparation” and offers a truce.

When bin Laden writes about words allegedly found in the introduction to the book Rogue State, he gets the right author but the wrong book. The passage to which he refers is indeed by William Blum, but it’s from his article “Why Terrorists Hate America” in the September 2002 issue of Common Ground. (It is also printed on the back cover of Freeing the World to Death: Essays on the American Empire.) The entire passage reads as follows:

If I were the president, I could stop terrorist attacks against the United States in a few days. Permanently. I would first apologize to all the widows and orphans, the tortured and impoverished, and all the many millions of other victims of American imperialism. Then I would announce, in all sincerity, to every corner of the world, that America’s global interventions have come to an end, and inform Israel that it is no longer the 51st state of the USA but now -- oddly enough -- a foreign country. I would then reduce the military budget by at least 90% and use the savings to pay reparations to the victims. There would be more than enough money. One year’s military budget of 330 billion dollars is equal to more than $18,000 an hour for every hour since Jesus Christ was born. That’s what I’d do on my first three days in the White House. On the fourth day, I’d be assassinated.

I’m sure it galls Blum to have his words used by a terrorist like bin Laden, although it has done wonders for his book sales. Amazon shows an enormous spike in the popularity of his books; one can only hope that they will be read for more than this single paragraph. One could also hope that our foreign policy could be reoriented toward eliminating the threat of terrorism rather than wasting it on justifying military adventurism, but this may require a regime change.

Bin Laden’s accuracy is, however, far better than that of other right-wing cretins such as John Gibson and Scott McClellan. Kos documented Gibson as saying that bin Laden is “talking to America’s far left,” which, Gibson alleges, has been “working for him.” I have no doubt that, from Gibson’s perch at the far right of America’s corporate media, the majority of Americans appear to be on the “far left.” However, Gibson’s myopia is not reality. Gibson also declares that “a bin Laden tape is the far left's worst nightmare because it reminds Americans the war is real,” but this is also false. A bin Laden tape should be the Right’s nightmare, because it represents their continuing failure to neutralize the threat that he embodies. Kos notes that:

every time Bush's minions lie in this manner, it takes away attention from the real problems with the War on Terror and the war in Iraq. Focusing on the lie that the left is somehow conspiring with Al Qaeda deflects attention away from the true shortfalls in our national security.

John Kerry has observed that, “had they put Osama Bin Laden out of business in Afghanistan when our troops wanted to, we wouldn't have to hear this barbarian's voice on tape. That's what we should be talking about in America.” It’s too bad that talking big and smearing liberals are the GOP’s favorite sports, rather than hunting terrorists.

Hughes writes in “How about Today?” about Bush spinmeister Scott McClellan declaring that “We do not negotiate with terrorists. We put them out of business. The terrorists started this war, and the President made it clear that we will end it at a time and place of our choosing.” Hughes responds that, “Apart from his apparent future as an advertising copywriter, his final statement left me asking: If you can end it whenever you want, why not end it now? Now would be great.”

Bin Laden ends his missive with a warning:

Don't let your strength and modern arms fool you. They win a few battles but lose the war. Patience and steadfastness are much better. We were patient in fighting the Soviet Union with simple weapons for 10 years and we bled their economy and now they are nothing. In that there is a lesson for you.

I think he needs a history lesson. This nation’s founders started out by pledging their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor in conflict with the most powerful nation on earth. Our resolve against barbarism is no less complete.

In that, there is a lesson for bin Laden.

Thomas Frank's latest article, from the February issue of Harper's (pp. 85-8), focuses on Bernie Goldberg's screed 100 People, and reminds me of all the reasons I wish he were a more prolific writer. Frank's pen issues a devastating corrective to Goldberg's relentless insistence that liberals "through sheer verbal effort, and largely without access to the levers of power, nevertheless manage to empower America." (pp. 87-8)

Frank also makes the common-sense observation that:

"Not only is conservatism the ideology of the powerful but conservatives are in command of all three branches of government. And yet the offense-taking continues. Outrage is the melodramatic resolution to which all the action inevitably leads, the canned emotional response that every anecdote generates." (p. 85)

Eric Alterman uses his piece at AlterNet, "Debunking the Myth of a 'Liberal Media'" to do exactly what the title promises. He eviscerates the recent study "A Measure of Media Bias" (330KB PDF) for its severe flaws. He observes, after noting some of the study's methodological shortcomings, that the study

was the product of a significant investment by right-wing think tanks. In 2000-2001, Groseclose was a Hoover Institution national fellow, while Milyo has been granted $40,500 from the American Enterprise Institute. Both were Heritage Foundation Salvatori fellows in 1997.

Funding doesn't necessarily indicate biased results, but the two appear to be correlated in this instance. MediaMatters has already analyzed the study and found it wanting, as I mentioned previously.

Andrew Sullivan’s new essay, “We Don't Need a New King George” is online at Time. Sullivan looks at Bush’s expansive use of signing statements as a way to declare himself immune from laws passed by Congress. Sullivan notes that this is not a partisan issue:

A President…has every right to act unilaterally at times to defend the country. But a democracy cannot work if the person who is deputed to execute the laws exempts himself from them when he feels like it. Forget the imperial presidency. This is more like a monarchical one. America began by rejecting the claims of one King George. It's disturbing to think we may now be quietly installing a second one.

Evil Bible’s list of “Top Ten Signs You're a Fundamentalist Christian” covers several of the most common impediments to atheist-theist dialogue. Atheists identify items such as these as contradictions that theists need to resolve, and theists—for the most part—get defensive when their contradictions are exposed.

Do theists have a comparable list for atheists?

(Thanks to Atheist Revolution for the tip.)

William Rivers Pitt contends in his latest essay, “The New Fascism,” that fascism “is here with us in America today, and it is growing.” He purports to quote Umberto Eco at length from his 1995 essay "Ur-Fascism,”

"Parliamentary democracy is by definition rotten, because it does not represent the voice of the people, which is that of the sublime leader. Doctrine outstrips reason, and science is always suspect. The national identity is provided by the nation's enemies. Argument is tantamount to treason. Perpetually at war, the state must govern with the instruments of fear. Citizens do not act; they play the supporting role of 'the people' in the grand opera that is the state."

Unfortunately, these words are from Lewis Lapham’s paraphrase of Eco from an essay in the October 2005 issue of Harper’s. In using Lapham’s words rather than Eco’s—and thereby reducing a fourteen-item list to six—Pitt oversimplifies somewhat, but his conclusion is still a strong one:

We must disenthrall ourselves from the idea that our institutions, our traditions, the barriers that protect us from absolute and authoritarian powers, cannot be broken down. They are being dismantled a brick at a time. The separation of powers has already been annihilated. It is a whispered fascism, not yet marching down your street or pounding upon your door in the dead of night. But it is here, and it is laying deep roots. We must listen beyond the whispered fascism of today to the shouted fascism of tomorrow. We must look beyond the lies and the myths, beyond the dogmas by which we sleep.

Hitchens v. NSA

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Anonymous Liberal writes in "Hitchens v. NSA" about two separate lawsuits challenging Bush's domestic spying. He describes one of the complaints, which lists Christopher Hitchens as a plaintiff, his way:

The complaint, which names the National Security Agency as defendant, alleges that the warrantless spying conducted by the NSA since 2001 is illegal, that it exceeds the president's constitutional authority, and that it has infringed upon the plaintiffs' 1st and 4th Amendment rights under the Constitution. The complaint asks the court to declare the program unconstitutional--under the 1st & 4th amendment as well as separation of powers grounds--and to enjoin the NSA from utilizing the program.

Hitchens himself notes in “What Reason Do We Have to Trust the State to Know Best?" that:

We are, in essence, being asked to trust the state to know best. What reason do we have for such confidence? The agencies entrusted with our protection have repeatedly been shown, before and after the fall of 2001, to be conspicuous for their incompetence and venality.

[...]

The better the ostensible justification for an infringement upon domestic liberty, the more suspicious one ought to be of it. We are hardly likely to be told that the government would feel less encumbered if it could dispense with the Bill of Rights. But a power or a right, once relinquished to one administration for one reason, will unfailingly be exploited by successor administrations, for quite other reasons. It is therefore of the first importance that we demarcate, clearly and immediately, the areas in which our government may or may not treat us as potential enemies.

Kos vs. Sullivan

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Yesterday, Kos took umbrage at something Andrew Sullivan said over the weekend. One of Sullivan’s readers commented on the “repellant” “radical Left.” Sullivan responded:

Yes, there's nothing so valuable to George W. Bush and the religious right than Daily Kos, Moveon.org and Ted Kennedy. What would he do without them?

Kos referred to Sullivan as an “idiot” in his reply, and went on to say this:

…institutions like MoveOn and Daily Kos are a reaction to the Right Wing's tactics for the past 20 years. We are a reaction to the politics of personal destruction pioneered by the right's Clinton-hating brigades, the vile and corrosive rhetoric of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and company, and the politics of demonization which the Right practices against blacks, immigrants, and gays.

But when someone on the left fights back, it's the end of the fucking world.

I understand that it was easier for right-wing hacks to ply their trash when liberals unilaterally disarmed and took it with nary a peep. I understand they pine for those days when the best we could offer in rebuttal was Alan Colmes.

But they created the environment we now play in. They wanted a "culture war", an ideological fight, a partisan rumble in which only one side brought guns to the game. Those days are over.

They don't like it, they only have themselves to blame. [emphasis added]

Aside from his attack on Sullivan, Kos is right on the money. The Right has become so arrogant in their dominance that their first reaction to any kind of dissent is “How dare you!” They can only get away with feigned outrage because so few people are speaking out, and that will only change as the Left exhibits some more backbone.

Raw Story has the text of Gore’s speech, which the “liberal media” [sic] has largely ignored. Peter Daou notes at HuffPo:

Al Gore delivers a scathing indictment of Bush's power-grab. Flipping on the cable nets, CNN, MSNBC and FOX are covering 'breaking' news: an overturned tanker truck on a New York highway. This after a week of roadblock coverage of Bush's worn-out terror speeches.

Here’s the video from C-SPAN’s archive. Al Gore’s own website also has the speech’s text. (Interestingly enough, the banner of his site now reads “Al Gore 2008.” Are you trying to say something, Al? It was only in October, during a speech in Sweden, that Gore said: "I have absolutely no plans and no expectations of ever being a candidate again."
I wonder if he would still say that today.

Gore notes that King himself was himself the subject of domestic spying from an out-of-control administration:

It is appropriate that we make this appeal on the day our nation has set aside to honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who challenged America to breathe new life into our oldest values by extending its promise to all our people.

On this particular Martin Luther King Day, it is especially important to recall that for the last several years of his life, Dr. King was illegally wiretapped-one of hundreds of thousands of Americans whose private communications were intercepted by the U.S. government during this period.

The FBI privately called King the "most dangerous and effective negro leader in the country" and vowed to "take him off his pedestal." The government even attempted to destroy his marriage and blackmail him into committing suicide.

This campaign continued until Dr. King's murder. The discovery that the FBI conducted a long-running and extensive campaign of secret electronic surveillance designed to infiltrate the inner workings of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and to learn the most intimate details of Dr. King's life, helped to convince Congress to enact restrictions on wiretapping.

The result was the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act (FISA), which was enacted expressly to ensure that foreign intelligence surveillance would be presented to an impartial judge to verify that there is a sufficient cause for the surveillance.

The GOP’s predictable response, from RNC Press Secretary Tracey Schmitt, is:

"Al Gore's incessant need to insert himself in the headline of the day is almost as glaring as his lack of understanding of the threats facing America. While the President works to protect Americans from terrorists, Democrats deliver no solutions of their own, only diatribes laden with inaccuracies and anger."

Her disclaimer is “Paid for by the Republican National Committee,” which is quite instructive in its own right. Gore has anticipated the inevitable GOP smears, but they apparently didn’t isten to what he was saying:

The President and I agree on one thing. The threat from terrorism is all too real. There is simply no question that we continue to face new challenges in the wake of the attack on September 11th and that we must be ever-vigilant in protecting our citizens from harm.

Where we disagree is that we have to break the law or sacrifice our system of government to protect Americans from terrorism. In fact, doing so makes us weaker and more vulnerable.

[…]

Don't misunderstand me: the threat of additional terror strikes is all too real and their concerted efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction does create a real imperative to exercise the powers of the Executive Branch with swiftness and agility. Moreover, there is in fact an inherent power that is conferred by the Constitution to the President to take unilateral action to protect the nation from a sudden and immediate threat, but it is simply not possible to precisely define in legalistic terms exactly when that power is appropriate and when it is not.

But the existence of that inherent power cannot be used to justify a gross and excessive power grab lasting for years that produces a serious imbalance in the relationship between the executive and the other two branches of government.


UPDATE (01/17 at 10:22)

ThinkProgress demolishes the GOP’s Clinton/Gore-did-it-too talking points with some facts about FISA. As ThinkProgress observes:

The fact that the Attorney General of the United States is resorting to such obvious deception shows that they have no real answers. The administration is getting desperate and grasping at straws.

Cenk Uygur writes in “Al Gore for President” at HuffPo about his dissatisfaction with how the media portray detractors of the BushCo regime:

Fox News Channel and their mindless clones at CNN and MSNBC will now try to paint Al Gore as out of control and a fringe player. This is the same playbook they used against Howard Dean. If anyone aggressively questions this extremist administration, the conservative talk show hosts and their minions at the cable news outlets claim they are the ones that are extreme.

The media have fallen for it hook, line and sinker every time so far.

[…]

The media is so careful not to offend the crazy religious right. How about us? How about the over 50 million people who have voted for a Democrat in the last two presidential elections? Somehow the media think it is okay to marginalize ALL OF US.

It’s time to let them know, it is decidedly not okay. [emphasis added]

He sounds even more dismayed and disappointed with the so-called “liberal” media than I am.


UPDATE 2 (1/18 at 13:19)

Gore corrects critics of his speech on Monday here:

There are two problems with the Attorney General's effort to focus attention on the past instead of the present Administration's behavior. First, as others have thoroughly documented, his charges are factually wrong. Both before and after the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was amended in 1995, the Clinton/Gore Administration complied fully and completely with the terms of the law.

Second, the Attorney General's attempt to cite a previous administration's activity as precedent for theirs -- even though factually wrong -- ironically demonstrates another reason why we must be so vigilant about their brazen disregard for the law. If unchecked, their behavior would serve as a precedent to encourage future presidents to claim these same powers, which many legal experts in both parties believe are clearly illegal.

(Thanks to Kos for the tip.)

MediaMatters has the details on how the “Media repeated Gonzales’s false claim,” and NewsHounds examines Fox’s use of the deceptive White House talking points.

It isn’t only civil-libertarian Democrats who are concerned about Bush’s warrantless wiretaps. In addition to Bob Barr, there is also the group Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances. Their press release calling for hearings into the NSA surveillance is here. It includes this quote from David Keene, chair of the American Conservative Union:

This is not a partisan issue; it is an issue of safeguarding the fundamental freedoms of all Americans so that future administrations do not interpret our laws in ways that pose constitutional concerns.

(Again, thanks to Kos for the tip.)

Thanks to The Rude Pundit for mentioning today’s conjunction of two important dates: Religious Freedom Day and Martin Luther King Day. Religious Freedom Day falls on January 16th because that is the anniversary of the passage of Jefferson’s “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom;” it just happens to fall on MLK Day this year. It’s tough to go wrong by spending at least a few moments today reading Jefferson and King:

Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom is here.

The Rude Pundit links to King’s interview with Playboy, but I consider King’s “Beyond Vietnam” address at the Riverside Church, especially relevant in light of Iraq, to be far more significant.

Virtual any words from either of these men is far more enlightening than the misleading puffery found on the Religious Freedom Day website. Their RFD Guidebook and their “Free to Speak” student handout both ignore the complexity of the religious freedom we cherish. The first amendment has two clauses dealing with religion: the free exercise clause with which RFD is so aware, and the establishment clause that they would rather ignore. (This is not surprising, given that RFD is, in their words, “a project of” Gateways to Better Education, whose motto is “Keeping the Faith in Public Schools.”)

This letter appeared yesterday in my local newspaper:

Democrats remain fixated on perceived mistakes

A recent letter attacked the electoral college for putting President Bush in office in 2000, his tax breaks, high deficits, going into Iraq, staying in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina relief, torturing prisoners, violating the Geneva Conventions and our rights under the USA Patriot Act.

That the electoral college is as old as the Constitution, that Bush's tax breaks have grown the economy, that the unemployment rate is the lowest in decades, that every intelligence service in the world agreed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, that we have not been attacked since 9/11, that Democrats mismanaged New Orleans for decades prior to Katrina, that U.S. policy is not to torture, that al-Qaida regularly violates the Geneva Conventions by killing women and children and refusing to wear uniforms, and that no one's rights are being abused under the Patriot Act that both Republicans and Democrats passed in 2001, is irrelevant to a liberal mind-set fixated on perceived wrongs.

What Democratic congressional leaders Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi haven't yet learned is that people vote for leaders who will protect them, rather than clueless whiners who tell them the sky is falling.

[name redacted]


Here is my response:

Republicans ignore Bush’s failures

A recent letter writer described Democrats as “clueless whiners,” but he needs to get a clue for himself. He was correct about the age of the Electoral College, and wrong about everything else.

• Bush’s repeated tax breaks for the wealthy have siphoned amounts of money upward into the pockets of those who need it the least. This caused the recovery from the 2001 recession to be far weaker than it could have been if the tax cuts had gone to the poor and the middle class. In addition, Bush’s massive deficit spending spree is doing long-term structural damage to our economy.

The current unemployment rate is not “the lowest in decades.” December’s seasonally-adjusted rate of 4.9% was equaled by 1997’s rate. 1998 through 2000, each less than a single decade ago, had lower unemployment rates of 4.4%, 4.1%, and 3.9% respectively.

• The world’s intelligence services agreed that Iraq did have WMDs, but that was in the 1980s when Reagan and Bush’s father were Saddam’s suppliers. The inspection program was successful in neutering Saddam, and the administration's repeated assertions that WMD were found in Iraq are as false as their attempts to link Iraq to 9/11.

• The Army Corps of Engineers’ assessment of the New Orleans levees and FEMA’s bungled response to Hurricane Katrina were both failures at the federal level, and the latter was mismanaged by Bush’s buddy, Mike “heck of a job” Brown.

• Bush talks out of both sides of his mouth on torture. After being publicly shamed by former tortured POW John McCain into signing a ban on torture, Bush then declared that he would violate the ban whenever he wishes.

• Al Qaeda’s violations of the Geneva Conventions do not excuse Bush’s violations of them, such as “enemy combatants,” secret prisons, and the “extraordinary rendition” program. As with torture, Bush wants to claim the moral high ground while not actually living up to his lofty rhetoric.

• The so-called USA-PATRIOT Act does indeed sanction civil rights violations. Section 215 conflicts with the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments to our Constitution, as the ACLU has noted.

These issues are not “perceived wrongs,” they are actual wrongs. It appears that the soothing inaccuracies of talk radio and other right-wing media can lull some people into complacency about our nation’s future, and blind them to every miserable failure of the Bush administration.

[editor's note: fixed a typo]

Richard Dawkins' two-part television program "The Root of All Evil?" is reviewed in The Guardian by Madeleine Bunting. Her description of Dawkins' work as "unsubstantiated assertions, sweeping generalisations and random anecdotal evidence" with a "whiff of panic" is better suited for American fundamentalists and their perseuction complex than their critics, Dawkins included.

"The Root of All Evil?" may well be "a piece of intellectually lazy polemic which is not worthy of a great scientist," but I will avoid commenting until I can see it for myself. Dawkins' description of faith as a "process of non-thinking" is quite on target, despite Bunting's assertion that "For thousands of years, religious belief has been accompanied by thought and intellectual discovery." Bunting manages to ignore the fact that much of that thought inspired by religious belief has been dedicated to rationalization rather than rationality. (Need I even mention the many genuine intellectual discoveries that were opposed by religion?) That all those minds over all those centuries wasted so much time and effort devising all those useless ideas, from original sin to purgatory, to buttress the existing system of dogma is perhaps the greatest tragedy of humanity's history. Many efforts to such ends are better described as intellectual masturbation than intellectual discovery.

It is a difficult matter for atheists to strike out from family and culture in order to think deeply about the most important issues of existence rather than merely regurgitating the unexamined beliefs of our ancestors. Increasing numbers of us, though, consider it the only intellectually responsible option. Bunting's eagerness to parrot GK Chesterton's statement that we "believe anything" is a perfect example of how intellectual discovery is misrepresented and demonized when it is deemed religiously incorrect. Perhaps this is the real reason why we atheists are "angry."

Melissa Rogers, visiting professor of religion and public policy at Wake Forest University Divinity School, notes in “Religious Freedom for All” some of the distortions promulgated at the Family Research Council’s “Justice” Sunday III event. The event’s flyer read “From our founding forward, Americans have celebrated liberty and honored God in ways both public and private. Now activist judges seek to end all mention of God in the public square,” and Rogers observes that:

If the goal of this effort is to cause religious people to feel fear, alienation and anger, it succeeds brilliantly. If the goal is to tell them the truth, it’s a miserable failure.

Faux persecution was indeed the event’s goal, and factual distortions were the means toward that end. Rogers debunks several of these distortions throughout her article (e.g., FRC President Tony Perkins’ claim that “our children don’t have a right to pray” and FRC’s allegation that the judiciary shows “hostility toward the church and Christianity in particular").

Rogers concludes this way:

The rhetoric and advocacy positions of the Family Research Council and its partners reveal that … they want to reintroduce school-sponsored prayer in a variety of settings and ensure that the government has wide latitude to erect religious monuments and otherwise endorse religion. They express a broad desire to use the machinery of the state to promote their faith.

Understandably, many non-Christians are alarmed by this agenda. As a Baptist Christian, I am alarmed as well. […] While its rulings on these issues have not been perfect, the Supreme Court deserves great credit for striking the right balance. It’s a balance Christians should seek to preserve rather than undo.

George Will's column in the Washington Post today, "For the House GOP, A Belated Evolution," suggests that the stegosausus, "so neurologically sluggish that when its tail was injured, significant time elapsed before news of the trauma meandered up its long spine to its walnut-size brain," should be the new symbol for House Republicans. In between excoriating GOP profligacy and proposing solutions, Will has this gem:

"K Street conservatism" compounds unseemliness with hypocrisy. Until the Bush administration, with its incontinent spending, unleashed an especially conscienceless Republican control of both political branches, conservatives pretended to believe in limited government. The past five years, during which the number of registered lobbyists more than doubled, have proved that, for some Republicans, conservative virtue was merely the absence of opportunity for vice.

(Thanks to Andrew Sullivan.)

amazon.com
Various Artists. Higher Ground: Hurricane Relief Benefit Concert (Blue Note, 2005)

I picked up the "Higher Ground" NOLA benefit CD last week, and was struck in particular by the trumpet-and-piano rendition of "Just a Closer Walk with Thee." While thumbing through the liner notes today, I was astounded to learn that trumpeter Irvin Mayfield dedicated that song to his father, who at the time of the concert (17 September 2005) was missing in New Orleans. Sadly, the elder Mayfield has since been declared a victim of drowning as a result of hurricane Katrina.

I certainly don't wish the belittle the skills of trumpeters Wynton Marsalis or Terence Blanchard, both of whom I admire and appreciate, but Mayfield stole the show. Two reviews of the "Higher Ground" CD at www.AllAboutJazz.com praise Mayfield's heart-wrenching performance: Sandy Ingham

The most riveting performance was by trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, who dedicated "Just a Closer Walk With Thee'' to his father, Irvin Sr., who was missing at that time and whose death by drowning has since been confirmed. Mayfield, leader of the brilliant New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and the city's official cultural ambassador, played the somber hymn with grace, but imbued it with pain, and even rage, over what he and so many others had suffered.

and R. Emmet Sweeney:

Even more remarkable is trumpeter Irvin Mayfield's take on the traditional hymn "Just a Closer Walk With Thee." With Ronald Markham on piano, it is light-footed and joyous, a celebration not only of Mayfield's enormous technical ability, but also of turning the self-abnegating tone of the original into a tune of idiosyncratic bliss. The performance was dedicated to his father, Irvin Mayfield, Sr., who was missing due to the hurricane at the time of the concert. Since then he has been declared another victim of the disaster, his son's performance now standing as a shimmering, rafter-shaking memorial.

Mayfield was quoted in the Times-Picayune on 17 November, at which time his father was still missing, as saying:

"Everybody's been asking me, 'How do you deal with this thing with your dad?' Moreso than ever, we've got to do what it is that we do. What I do is play the trumpet and write music. So that's how I'm dealing with this."

The CD is selling well (it's currently #54 at www.amazon.com) and raising money for an important cause. As described on the Blue Note website:

All net profits from the sale of the CD will be donated to the Higher Ground Relief Fund established by Jazz at Lincoln Center and administered through the Baton Rouge Area Foundation to benefit the musicians, music industry related enterprises and other individuals and entities from the areas in Greater New Orleans who were impacted by Hurricane Katrina and to provide other general hurricane relief.

I have no doubt that a DVD of the concert would also be successful.

"Justice" Sunday III

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The Washington Post article has an article, “Christian Right Mobilizes For Judge: Conservative Tilt Sought on Bench,” covering yesterday’s fundamentalist festival over Alito’s nomination, Justice Sunday III. The article quotes Greater Exodus Baptist Church (Philadelphia PA) pastor Rev. Herbert H. Lusk II, who it described as “a Bush supporter whose organization has received more than $1 million in federal grants under the administration's Faith Based Initiative” as saying:

"My friends, don't fool with the church because the church has buried a million critics. And those the church has not buried, the church has made funeral arrangement for."

I don’t know what passes for sermons at his church, but that sounds rather like a threat. Who does he consider to be “church critics?” Atheist groups? The ACLU? Everyone on the Left? As Andrew Sullivan observes:

Every now and again, you see the violent and intolerant subtext of fundamentalist Christianity - especially with respect to their opponents - emerge into the mainstream daylight.

With all due respect to Sullivan, fundamentalist violence and intolerance is hardly a “subtext” these days. As anyone on the pro-choice side of the abortion debate will attest, the Right’s propensity for violence has been out in the open for years. It’s well past time for religious moderates to publicly condemn this kind of rhetoric, before the wingnuts start terrorizing “church critics” with faux anthrax mailings, pipe bombs, and random assassinations.

20060109-taintedlegacy.jpg
Schulz, William. Tainted Legacy: 9/11 and the Ruin of Human Rights (New York: NationBooks, 2006)

William Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International since 1994, wrote Tainted Legacy: 9/11 and the Ruin of Human Rights in 2003. This book is a follow-up of sorts to his previous work: In Our Own Best Interest: How Defending Human Rights Benefits Us All.

Neocons of all stripes (from George W. Bush to PNAC) and their dream of a 21st century Pax Americana comes in for heavy criticism from Schulz--not for their pro-freedom rhetoric, but for how inconsistent their actions are:

The problem is not that these neoconservatives think the world would be better off with less democracy or fewer regimes that respect human rights. The problem is that they have a very narrow, ideological understanding of human rights and would impose that understanding on the rest of the world. (p. 54)

[...]

...neoconservatives particularly love it [natural law theory] because it is imprecise enough to allow them to pick and choose the rights they like and discard the ones they find inconvenient. How interesting that, though the biological needs for food and shelter are probably the common human traits least difficult to establish, neither Fukuyama nor his neoconservative counterparts would ever be caught dead arguing that social and economic rights (as opposed to the right to property and corporate competition) are indisputable imperatives derived from human nature. (pp. 115-6)

Schulz takes a hard line toward the inconsistencies and outright contradictions in our foreign policy, such as our 1980s assistance to Iraq that included, among other things, "satellite photos, a computerized database to track political opponents, helicopters, video surveillance cameras, chemical analysis equipment, and numerous shipments of 'bacteria/fungi/protozoa.' A 1994 Senate Banking Committee investigation discovered that the United States had shipped dozens of biological agents, including strains of anthrax, to Iraq in the mid-1980s." (p. 70)

He also notes of our stance toward Israel that "the United States' frequent failure to condemn Israeli human rights violations... leaves America open to the charge that it promulgates a double standard." (p. 76) He also excoriates our extra-judicial prison at Guantanamo, observing that it provides nations such as Egypt and Pakistan "a veil of sanction for their own miscreant deeds and sends a signal that, regardless of what we profess, we believe that international agreements like the Geneva Conventions apply to us only when it is convenient." (p. 95)

The elevation of Alberto Gonzales (who called the Geneva Conventions "quaint") to the position of Attorney General makes this observation even more relevant. Schulz then goes on to discuss 9/11 and demonstrate how it has given cover to the Bush administration in numerous circumstances:

In its "anything goes" mentality in the fight against terrorism; its inclination to downplay, if not ignore, even the most egregious human rights violations of its allies; its tendency to see terrorists under every turban; its conviction that international covenants mean little and matter less, the Bush administration has done more to damage human rights in its two and a half years in office than the occasional hypocrisy and frequent indifference of nine previous presidents put together. And it has done so largely with the acquiescence of the American people. (pp. 105-6)

He also points out the example of our unsanctioned 2003 invasion (and ongoing occupation) of Iraq, noting that: "One of the great paradoxes of the war on terrorism is that at the very time the United States is most determined to defend its own sovereignty from attack, it is more inclined than ever to violate the sovereignty of other independent states." (p. 135) Far from being a starry-eyed idealist, though, Schulz uses the 1994 Rwandan genocide to illustrate the perils of ignoring necessary intervention:

Under extreme circumstances, state sovereignty may well appropriately give way to intervention, whether it be to pursue terrorists, end grave abuses, or deter the conflation of the two. But in the long run there is a far better solution to human rights crimes than military retaliation, and that is international justice. (pp. 147-8)

Schulz closes the book with an idealism that is stronger by being tempered by realism, noting that human rights "sometimes require a big stick in addition to soft speaking. [...] Human rights are not for the faint of heart; they are not the province of wimps, but of the stubborn and the robust." (p. 210)

One can only hope that Schulz plans a follow-up book on the Bush administration torture scandals--from Abu Ghraib to extraordinary rendition--which came to light after Tainted Legacy was published. Amnesty International's 2005 report on the United States (which covers the events of 2004) shows some of the items from which such a book could be assembled.

I don’t have any comment on this New York Post article. It’s just too appalling:

Mayor Bloomberg intervened yesterday in a holy war between the city Health Department and Hasidic leaders who are battling over a controversial mouth-to-penis circumcision practice that health officials claim infected five infants with herpes -- one fatally.

Bloomberg agreed to negotiate with rabbinical leaders after they marched out of a meeting with Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden last week.

"It was an open and frank dialogue," said a Bloomberg spokesman.

A source who attended the meeting with the mayor said, "It's still at an impasse," although he noted that yesterday's sit-down was not as heated as the earlier meeting.

The Raving Atheist has already said everything that I wanted to say:

In a sane world, grown men who chew the foreskins off little babies, infect them with diseases and kill them don't get to arrogantly walk out of meetings with health officials. They don't get to create impasses with powerful mayors. In fact, they don't get to meet with health officials or mayors. They're dragged out of their beds at 4 a.m. by police officers, locked up in prison for life and, if they ever get out, forced to register as sex offenders until they die.

Columnist Dan Savage has this answer to a critic who accused him of being “intolerant and hypocritical” with regards to a previous “sacreligious” joke:

Joking about Christianity isn’t evidence that I’m intolerant—hell, I’m perfectly willing to tolerate Christians. I have never, for instance, attempted to prevent Christians from marrying each other, or tried to stop them from adopting children, or worked to make it illegal for them to hold certain jobs. I don’t threaten to boycott companies that market their products to Christians, and I don’t organize letter-writing campaigns to complain about Christian characters on television.

It would indeed be hypocritical for me to complain about fundamentalist Christians who’ve done all of the above to gay people if I turned around and did the same thing to Christians—but, again, I’ve done no such thing. Intolerant? Hell, I’m a model of tolerance! Oh sure, I joked about the Virgin Birth because I think it’s silly and sexphobic. And I’m free to say as much, however unpleasant it is for some Christians to hear. [emphasis added]

quote of the day

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Majikthise quotes the following in her Sunday Sermonette:

The desire to be right and the desire to have been right are two desires, and the sooner we separate them the better off we are. The desire to be right is the thirst for truth. On all accounts, both practical and theoretical, there is nothing but good to be said for it. The desire to have been right, on the other hand, is the pride that goeth before a fall. It stands in the way of our seeing we were wrong, and thus blocks the progress of our knowledge. [emphasis added]

--W.V. Quine and J. S. Ullian, The Web of Belief Random House, New York, 2nd edition, 1978), p.133

Quine and Ullian have summed up my reasoning for gladly making corrections of fact: learning should be a lifelong process, but too many people ossify while still young. Their book is now perched near the top of my to-be-read list.

In “Data Mining and Amazon Wishlists,” security expert Bruce Schneier talked about the implications of an AppleFritter post “Data Mining 101: Finding Subversives with Amazon Wishlists” by Tom Owad. As Schneier notes:

Of course, there are applications where this sort of data mining makes a whole lot of sense. But finding terrorists isn't one of them. It's a needle-in-a-haystack problem, and piling on more hay doesn't help matters much.

Owad observes that “few things tell you as much about a person as the books he chooses to read,” and details the thirty hours of technical effort it took him to extract data from 260,000 Amazon wishlists. He then generated maps of the readers' location using their shipping addresses.

I’ve mentioned my unusual reading habits before [LINK], and Amazon does maintain some data about me. I doubt that anyone in the NSA/CIA/FBI would be able to draw any useful conclusions from what they find, and I certainly hope they haven’t bothered to look. How can they find any terrorists if they continue wasting time harassing peace activists, civil libertarians, and writers of anti-Bush books?

CNN reported this morning that “a senior U.S. intelligence official” made assurances to them that “the National Security Agency did not target CNN's chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour or any other CNN journalist for surveillance.” The article continues:

The senior official said that from time to time NSA surveillance overseas "inadvertently" acquires recordings or copies of communications involving Americans -- or what the government calls "U.S. persons," which includes most U.S. residents and employees of American companies. By law, however, such materials are required to be erased or destroyed immediately, the official said.

We can all sleep easier now, unless we’re not CNN journalists.

Steve Cobble writes in HuffPo about last month’s John Conyers report "The Constitution in Crisis: The Downing Street Minutes and Deception, Manipulation, Torture, Retribution and Coverups in the Iraq War" and notes that:

Even before King George got caught in this latest spying scandal, Rep. John Conyers and his talented staffers were documenting W's high crimes and misdemeanors (not to mention his low crimes and felonies...)

Conyers’ original announcement is here at HuffPo (cross-posted to other blogs). DemocraryRising has the Executive Summary as well as a link to the full report (4MB PDF).

Kickback Mountain

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Creative people are starting to have too much fun with the combination of GOP antics (especially homophobia and hypocrisy) and the movie poster from Brokeback Mountain. Here’s another good one:

20060106-kickbackmountain.jpg

(Thanks to John at AmericaBlog.)

Katrina vanden Heuvel’s “The GOP Corruption Machine” from AlterNet discusses the Lobbying and Ethics Reform Act introduced last July by Russ Feingold (D-WI). As she notes:

The bill's key provisions are designed to reduce the power of special interests by forcing lobbyists to file disclosure reports quarterly instead of twice a year, prohibiting lobbyists from taking trips with members of Congress and their staffs, and requiring former members of Congress and some senior executive branch officials to wait two years after leaving government service before working as a lobbyist. And, as Feingold told The Hill, the bill would prohibit "lobbyists from giving gifts to members" or staff and require "members and campaigns to reimburse the owners of corporate jets at the charter rate when they use those planes for their official or political travel."

Some conservatives will decry such legislation as an over-broad and unconstitutional restriction on free speech. Their presupposition that equates money with speech is an error that can be exposed with one simple example: Imagine a driver who is pulled over for speeding. Trying to argue the cop out of issuing a ticket is free speech; slipping the cop a fifty is bribery.

It’s no different when it involves lobbyists and members of Congress.

Media Matters has the goods on Pat Robertson’s declaration that Ariel Sharon’s stroke was because:

He was dividing God's land, and I would say woe unto any prime minister of Israel who takes a similar course to appease the EU, the United Nations or United States of America. God said, "This land belongs to me, you better leave it alone.”

Robertson also believes that "the same thing"—his god’s brutality—was responsible for the assassination of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Andrew Sullivan has the best commentary:

Here are the specific responses to Ariel Sharon's stroke by two leading fundamentalists in the world, Pat Robertson and Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. Julian cites them below.
Robertson:

"He was dividing God’s land. And I would say, Woe unto any prime minister of Israel who takes a similar course to appease the E.U., the United Nations or the United States of America. God says, This land belongs to me. You better leave it alone."

Ahmadinejad:

"Hopefully the news that the criminal of Sabra and Shatila has joined his ancestors is final."

The difference, of course, is that only one of these maniacs is on Karl Rove's A-list rolodex.

I listen to Robertson—and other wingnuts—for various reasons, but I don’t understand why people believe him. Robertson hasn’t issued any statements about how much his god hates West Virginia coal miners, because that fits neither his political agenda nor that of those who fund him.

Jan Frel’s “The Scoop from State of War” at AlterNet discusses James Risen’s new book in detail.

As Frel notes, The Guardian has published an extract from the book which details how the CIA gave nuclear blueprints to Iran. It’s a devastating expose of intelligence failures.

Andrea Mitchell’s interview with James Risen is here. Yes, this is the interview from which NBC mysteriously deleted this question:

Mitchell: You don't have any information, for instance, that a very prominent journalist, Christiane Amanpour, might have been eavesdropped upon?

Risen: No, no I hadn't heard that.

TV Newser speculates that there is an investigation brewing, based on NBC’s statement that “We removed that section of the transcript so that we may further continue our inquiry.”

Curioser and curioser…

James Moore (author of Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential) writes in “Branded” at HuffPo about his experience with the no-fly list.

After being told by some TSA clerk that “there is something in your background that in some way is similar to someone they are looking for,” Moore asks: "One last thing: this guy they are looking for? Did he write books critical of the Bush administration, too?"

He describes his Kafkaesque situation with a certain bemusement:

I have been on the No Fly Watch List for a year. I will never be told the official reason. No one ever is. You cannot sue to get the information. Nothing I have done has moved me any closer to getting off the list.

Moore concludes:

there's always the chance that the No Fly Watch List is one of many enemies lists maintained by the Bush White House. If that's the case, I am happy to be on that list. I am in good company with people who expect more out of their president and their government.

Hell, maybe I'll start thinking of it as an honor roll.

John at AmericaBlog observes that Bush’s “signing statement” on the torture ban implies that his status as Commander-in-Chief entitles him to override law at will. The Boston Globe article he cites says this:

When President Bush last week signed the bill outlawing the torture of detainees, he quietly reserved the right to bypass the law under his powers as commander in chief.

After approving the bill last Friday, Bush issued a ''signing statement" -- an official document in which a president lays out his interpretation of a new law -- declaring that he will view the interrogation limits in the context of his broader powers to protect national security. This means Bush believes he can waive the restrictions, the White House and legal specialists said.

What was that about “a government of laws, and not of men” again? (Conservatives have apparently forgotten, so liberals must remind them.)

God Is for Suckers! has posted this image of a Bible with a warning sticker.

20060104-biblewarning.jpg

If you can't make out the text on the advisory label, it reads:

WARNING: This is a work of fiction. Do NOT take it literally.

CONTENT ADVISORY: Contains verses descriptive or advocating suicide, incest, bestiality, sadomasochism, sexual activity in a violent context, murder, morbid violence, use of drugs or alcohol, homosexuality, voyeurism, revenge, undermining of authority figures, lawlessness, and human rights violations and atrocities.

EXPOSURE WARNING: Exposure to contents for extended periods of time of during formative years in children may cause delusions, hallucinations, decreased cognitive and objective reasoning abilities, and, in extreme cases, pathological disorders, hatred, bigotry, and violence including, but not limited to fanaticism, murder, and genocide.

I wonder what rating the MPAA would apply to the Bible, if it was faithfully (no pun intended) adapted for the screen. Honesty and consistency would dictate that it not be shown in most theaters, and not sold in most video stores.

In the wake of Jack Abramoff’s guilty plea to three felony counts (conspiracy, mail fraud, and tax evasion), ThinkProgress has posted a “comprehensive look” at the Abramoff scandal: “Abramoff: The House That Jack Built.” The New York Times referred to the Abramoff situation as the “biggest scandal in Congress in over a century,” and it looks like that assessment is right on the money. (Given the nature of the corruption, I couldn’t resist the pun.)

Lest anyone cry that the investigation into this massive corruption is a partisan affair, several Democrats have been implicated as well: Senators Byron Dorgan (D-ND), Tom Harkin (D-IA), and Harry Reid (D-NV) have accepted donations from Abramoff's clients--but not, unlike Republicans, from Abramoff himself. The fact that the overwhelming majority of l’Affaire Abramoff is on the GOP side of the aisle in no way excuses Democrats; if they want to win back Congress this November, they have some housecleaning to do as well.


update (01.04.2006 at 09:59)

John at AmericaBlog observes in “What was that about Abramoff giving money to Democrats?” that the Abramoff donations/bribes are indeed skewed to the right. The FEC (Federal Election Commission) data shows:

$172,933 - Republican
$88,985 - special interest
total: $261,918

That's 229 donations and not a DIME to Democrats.

(The AmericaBlog post has links to the sites that aggregated the data, if you’re interested in the details.)

Science Must Destroy Religion” is the latest post from Sam Harris at HuffPo. Disappointingly, much of this article consists of restatements of his previous writings.

Harris’ title, surely chosen to inflame his many critics, was an unfortunate decision. The Religious Right doesn’t need any excuse to parade their persecution complex before the public, and a phrase like “destroy religion” in this context only serves their ends. Now they have another rhetorical example to point to as “proof” of their persecution, their “war” on Xmas, or whatever is currently their crusade du jour.

His declaration that “Science, in the broadest sense, includes all reasonable claims to knowledge about ourselves and the world” is an overstatement. Science wouldn't include simple historical claims (such as the life and teachings of Jesus, for example) although it can decisively rule out alleged miracles, resurrections, and other fables. (Thomas Jefferson did a fine job separating the moral wheat from the biblical chaff, and there's no reason why others cannot follow his example.) Harris is correct that religious faith is "on the wrong side of an escalating war of ideas," and here his piece is especially strong:

To win this war of ideas, scientists and other rational people will need to find new ways of talking about ethics and spiritual experience. The distinction between science and religion is not a matter of excluding our ethical intuitions and non-ordinary states of consciousness from our conversation about the world; it is a matter of our being rigorous about what is reasonable to conclude on their basis. We must find ways of meeting our emotional needs that do not require the abject embrace of the preposterous. We must learn to invoke the power of ritual and to mark those transitions in every human life that demand profundity — birth, marriage, death, etc. — without lying to ourselves about the nature of reality. [emphasis added]

update (01/04 at 10:30):

RJ Eskow has posted “Reject Arguments for Intolerance – Even from Atheists” at HuffPo as a rebuttal to Sam Harris. He takes Harris to task for his statement that moderates have an "inability to criticize absurd ideas," saying that:

Harris' argument is flatly wrong. Islamic moderates have issued fatwas condemning terrorism. Christian moderates have been in the forefront of the battle against American fundamentalism. Jimmy Carter is one of our most effective spokesmen against intelligent design.

Eskow is correct to the extent that Christian moderates are willing to be labelled “not Christian” by their co-religionists (as Jerry Falwell did [LINK] when confronted by some non-conservative Christians). Not all moderates, though, are able to stand up to their well-funded fundamentalists within their ranks.

Eskow slams Harris by proclaiming that “logic isn’t Harris’ suit—proclamations are,” and falls prey to the old Hitler-was-an-atheist canard, which is easy to refute for those who care to examine the evidence [LINK]. A question he asks of Harris, “Why isn’t the enemy blind dogma, then, rather than religion?” is a valid and reasonable one that I would like to hear Harris answer.

Eskow tries to refute Harris’ claim that “The maintenance of religious dogma always comes at the expense of science,” and provides a counter-example of the pre-fundamentalist Islamic Caliphate’s belief that “scientific research was a form of worship, by studying Allah’s creation.” This may be dogma, but it is clearly not the sort of impediment that Christian fundamentalist has become—particularly in the United States.

In his complaint about Harris choosing to emphasize “militant, bloodthirsty-sounding lines” from religious texts rather than “repeated statements of peace—or of religious tolerance,” Eskow completely misses the point. The presence of contradictory passages in an allegedly “inerrant” text allows adherents to use that text to justify anything: war or peace, ignorance or knowledge, freedom or slavery—thus reducing the text from a moral authority to a convenient rationalization.

One passage from Eskow’s article stands out in illustrating the common-sense common ground that the religious share with the non-religious:

I was struck by Ron Reagan Jr’s response when an interviewer asked him if he planned to run for office. “I can’t get elected in this country,” he said matter-of-factly. “I’m an atheist.” That kind of blind prejudice is a tragic flaw in our country, and it should be fought. But it should be fought with wisdom, with sound logic, with compassion – and, for those who believe that way, with faith.

Bravo!

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