Friday, December 30, 2005

ITEM: Associated Press Utilizing Psychic Abilities!

Psychic powers are a boon to any reporter. So it's good to know that the Associated Press, the dominant wire service in America, has now got someone on staff who's got psychic powers and knows how to use them. Those powers are on full display in their latest dispatch on the National Security Agency.

Here's how the AP story starts off:

NEW YORK (AP) -- The National Security Agency's Internet site has been placing files on visitors' computers that can track their Web surfing activity despite strict federal rules banning most of them.

These files, known as "cookies," disappeared after a privacy activist complained and The Associated Press made inquiries this week, and agency officials acknowledged Wednesday they had made a mistake.

The psychic powers come in to play with the choice of the word "acknowledged." You can only say something has been acknowledged when you know that thing to be true. You can't, for instance, acknowledge that the world is flat. So for the AP to say that the NSA "acknowledged" that it made a mistake in utilizing computer technology that allows it to track the usage of visitors to its site means that the AP somehow knows this actually was a mistake.

Now, the AP might, in its modesty, claim that it doesn't know due to psychic abilities, but due to statements from the NSA. That would be just silly, however. Because any first-year journalism student (and, really, it shouldn't take much longer than that) knows that just because someone tells you something -- particularly something that's to their benefit -- doesn't mean it's true.

That's why reporters often use such technical language as: "Said," or "claimed." The fact that the AP chose not to use such journalistic jargon in this case leaves only two conclusions: That the AP chose to trust the secretive spy agency or that the AP has psychic powers.

Obviously, in this climate -- in which we see one story after another of the government trying to maintain secrecy about its surveillance and other activities -- no responsible journalist will simply take the word of a spokesman paid to protect the reputation of a secretive spy agency. Which means the AP must, therefore, have psychic powers.



Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Bravo, Rick Santorum

There. I said it. Philadelphia Senator Rick Santorum has done A Good Thing. And we (take your pick: liberals, atheists, smarty-pantses) ought to applaud him for it.

Santorum is, make no mistake, a douchebag. But we should not be so blinded by his douchebaggery that we fail to see positive moves and, as good behavioralists, reward them.

Right now, the liberal blogosphere (notably, Americablog, via Buzzflash) is going nuts hammering Santorum for hypocrisy or flip-flopping, or whatever, after he's renounced his support for the Dover, PA, school board and the various sham groups that backed its attempt to inject creationism into American classrooms.

I understand the reaction. There's blood in the water. Start chewing. And there's something to be said for the take-no-prisoners approach, for the idea that it's better, in some respects, to have our opponents assume their most radical form, that Americans might more easily recognize them for what they are.

But this isn't just a philosophical battle. It's not a game. This is an ongoing, real, practical battle being waged every day for control of our schools, our towns and our country. Real people pay the price every day. Students are having their educations -- i.e., their framework for understanding the entire world -- short-changed every day due to religious zealotry. We should therefore, I think, not penalize those of our enemies who see the light on particular issues. We should praise them. We should reward and defend them. Or else, we make conversion to our positions a no-win proposition.

And besides, as we've seen from how Republicans embrace Sen. Joe Lieberman, there doesn't have to be a realpolitik down-side in doing this, either, even on a strictly strategic level. Have Republicans lost anything by rewarding Lieberman for his adoption of their military tenets? No. If anything, they've used the opportunity to build bridges and make inroads. They look non-partisan, plus they get to use Lieberman, and their embrace of him, to appeal to fence-sitting voters. Democrats shouldn't be pouncing on Santorum. They should be pounding on his voters.


Define "Crazy"

A Mexican judge has ruled that a family's fatal exorcisms qualifies them for as long as 40 years in psychiatric hospitals (Mexican psychiatric hospitals, of course).

What's unclear is what makes them nuts (okay, aside from the catatonic one).

Is it their belief in demons and devils?
Is it their belief that said demons and devils are capable of corporeally possessing human beings?
Is it their visions of supernatural entities?
Is it their belief that deadly violence was the only remedy for possession?

The first three beliefs are relatively common among average Americans. Most Americans believe in a bad man named Satan. The Holy Roman Catholic Church not only ascribes the power of possession to Satan, it teaches some of its members how to combat that power. And right this moment, MSNBC is talking about the "holy bun" -- the latest object in which thousands of Americans have seen some sort of sight they interpreted as divine or of divine origin.

So, the only difference these "crazy" Mexicans have with many, if not most religious Americans, is their differing ideas on how to remedy demonic possession. It's not clear to me why that particular delusion makes them any more crazy than the other three do. Unless it's simply that it's not held by a majority.


Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Phelps Strikes Again

My friend Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (nee Operation: Truth), has forwarded this blog posting to me, with the hope of getting it noticed by people. Paul and Anthony Lappe (of GNN) and I had the Rev. Fred Phelps on the air when I produced a couple of their fill-in stints on the Mike Malloy Show on Air America Radio, to discuss precisely this issue.

The issue, in short, is that Phelps and his fag-hating friends, show up at the funerals of KIA Americans and, in essence, applaud the deaths. They do so because they view America's military casualties as divine retribution for America's tolerance of homosexuality. Which, as we all know, God hates.

Paul, I believe, abhors Phelps for his message, his lack of respect, his insanity and the pain he inflicts on friends and kin already in pain. I'm with Paul on all of this.

But I also think Phelps has something to teach us -- and, specifically, to teach Christians. I've written before that I find Phelps to be among the most logical and consistent Christians. What his actions ought to do is challenge current Christians to assess why they don't endorse Phelps. Do they disagree that the Bible condemns homosexuality? Well, then they're nuts, because the Bible is clear as day that homosexuality is an abomination in the eyes of, y'know, the Lord.

The only way modern-day, sophisticated Christians can dismiss Phelps is if they're willing to say that the Bible is open to interpretation. And once you've said that, you've taken a massive leap -- and you should recognize that you've done so. Because, if you don't accept the Bible as the literal word of your god, then you might as well file it on the bookshelf with any other cafeteria-style parable that helps you -- and acknowledge that you've elevated reason above faith (because reason, after all, is the tool you use to interpret the Bible), and see where that elevation takes you.


Activist President

President Bush is justifying his violations of the Constitution based on two related premises, that the United States is at war and that he will do whatever is necessary to defend the American people.

But that's not his job. The oath he swore upon taking office says:

"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

Not preserve, protect and defend the United States. Not preserve, protect and defend the people of the United States. But preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

That's it. Do the job.


Thursday, December 22, 2005

That Sounds About Right...

Here's how the White House starts off its list of the president's accomplishments during the past year:

Fact Sheet: President Bush's Accomplishments in 2005

A Week Of Accomplishments
If that.


When David Brooks Is You

Let's play "You're the columnist." Let's put you in the media bubble and see what kind of columns you write in real-world circumstances.

Because you are a columnist, you are expected to be brief about terrorist threats and other issues in this country. This brevity makes you as psychologically complex as an episode of "24," with descriptions of specific bad guys and their activities.

This has had a cumulative effect on your psychology. While many of your fellow citizens have relaxed as 9/11 has faded into history, you don't have that luxury. Your brevity, and the terrifying false alarms you hint at to the public, keep you in a perpetual state of high readership.

You know that one of the few advantages America has over the terrorists (other than military, economic, intellectual and numerical superiority) is technological superiority. You make it sound sure that the president should use every geek, every computer program and every surveillance technique at your disposal to prevent a future attack. You acknowledge that existing FISA laws enable and regulate intelligence gathering. You deem it a pretty good process. You acknowledge that the system works quickly and even, when you deem it appropriate, retroactively.

But you fail to point out that FISA's shortcomings are inescapable consequences of a governing system predicated on keeping power in check. First, you claim that FISA is predicated on a division between foreign and domestic activity that has been rendered obsolete by today's mobile communications, without mentioning the fact that the division between foreign and domestic activity was predicated on the desire to prevent the executive branch from gaining excessive power to monitor American citizens on American soil. Second, you isolate FISA as involving cumbersome paperwork and bureaucratic foot-dragging, neglecting to point out that the current president's has had four years to reduce or eliminate both not just in the FISA process but in every aspect of defense and homeland security, rather than maintain these problems as scapegoats to justify increases in his power. Finally, you remind people that FISA's premise of case-by-case surveillance does not easily address new information-gathering technologies, which could allow the federal government to access private information about its citizens on an indiscriminate, wholesale basis.

Over time, you've become convinced that these new technologies are run by National Security Agency professionals who are shielded from political influence. You cite the self-serving claim that these new surveillance techniques helped foil an attack on the Brooklyn Bridge, without questioning whether physical structures are the only American features worth defending. The question you assume the president asked himself is, How do you regulate the new procedures to protect liberties?

You claim there are only three options. First, you say the president can ask Congress to rewrite the FISA law to keep pace with the new technologies. This has some drawbacks, you helpfully point out. How exactly do you write a law to cope with this fast-changing information war, you ask, as if the president would know how to write any law to cope with anything, and as if the U.S. Congress were not the most qualified legislative body in history, with a staggering array of resources, to address precisely this task as it has addressed other issues involving national defense and fast-changing information technology. Even, you ask, if the president could set up some sort of procedure - such as an electronic-mailing account, perhaps -- to get warrant requests to a judge, how would that judge be able to tell which of the thousands of possible information nodes is worth looking into, or which belongs to a U.S. citizen? You pause to congratulate yourself on the construction of this quandary, which is rendered unsolveable by the helpful absence of any case-specific details that would have generated and accompanied an actual warrant request. Swamped in the alleged data-fog that you have stipulated, you assert that the courts would just become meaningless rubber-stamps, blatantly exposing your utter lack of irony. Finally, you claim without any possible quantifiable methodology, there is at least a 50.01% chance that some member of Congress would leak details of the program during the legislative process, which you claim without explanation would destroy the program (as if the NSA has given up on warrantless wiretaps now that the cat's out of the bag).

Your second option is to suggest that this executive branch could plausibly consider itself qualified to self-police anything, with or without the Justice Department or the N.S.A.'s inspector general. This option, too, you allow, has drawbacks. First, it's legally dubious, or, as other columnists more committed to brevity might say, illegal. Second, you say, casting unfounded aspersions on the whistleblower, it's quite possible some intelligence "bureaucrat" -- damn those serving-their-country pencil pushers! -- will leak information about the program, especially if he or she is crazy enough to think voters should know which laws the president breaks before they vote. Third, you reiterate your baseless claim that exposure of this program will not only destroy the program, you predict -- and lament -- that executive power might actually be curbed as a result.

Your third option is to suggest what you might call informal Congressional oversight. You could congratulate your readers by pulling them into your fantasy and saying: "Look, given the allegedly fast-moving nature of this conflict -- which has lasted four years despite its allegedly fast-moving nature -- there is no way we can expect politicians to follow rules about what is permissible and impermissible. Instead we can trust them to trust each other with matters of national security and work out disagreements in a responsible manner."

These are your three options, Mr. columnist, and these are essentially the three options David Brooks limited himself when he hacked out his latest column last night. (He chose all three.) But before you decide, let me tell you one more thing:

But before you decide,
These are your three options, Mr. President, and these are essentially the three options George Bush faced a few years ago. (He chose Option 2.) But before you decide, let me tell you one more thing: Options 1 and 2 won't work, and Option 3 is impossible.

Options 1 and 2 won't work because your readers, the American people, know better than to scrap the legislative process that has served us so well for more than 200 years. Option 3 is impossible because your readers, the American people, know that the executive branch and members of Congress keep national-security secrets all the time, and they won't yield to your self-serving pessimism just because you suggest that they'd be sophisticated to do so. We don't have that kind of mistrust in America today.

That leaves you with Option 4: Face the fact that you will not be using your best thinking to address how we ought to use our best technology to monitor the communications of known terrorists. Face the fact that the odds of an attack on America will always be higher than they could be if we were willing to sacrifice all the principles that make us America.


Wednesday, December 21, 2005

What Comes After Creationism?

The history of science has, for centuries, involved its conflict with religion. Yes, apologists on both sides have said -- and still say -- that there is no inherent conflict. They are wrong, as the history books, newspapers and professional prognosticators can attest.

Religion espouses magic. Science espouses empiricism. As long as religion stakes a claim to the material world, there will be conflict. The ruling in Dover is a long way from ending the Christian right's attempt to roll back the clock to before Darwin opened the door for modern biology. But we are no longer in an era when only one monument of science, one advance in human understanding, will face the full wrath and malice of fundamentalist religion. Once, we got one Copernicus or Galileo or Darwin or Scopes per century. That won't be the case any more. Two battles are just over the horizon. One of them will likely remain at a negotiable, unchallenging detente for, um, god knows how long.

And that is the origin of the universe. I'm not up on my astronomy, or my astrophysics, let alone my quantum physics. But for a few decades now we've been in a period where scientific advances -- such as the Big Bang and theories I'm not even passingly familiar with about heat and light and such -- will seem poetically consonant with some of the metaphorical interpretations of Genesis. And that'll keep the Christian right at bay for a while.

That's not the real battle. The origin of the universe has nowhere near the immediate impact of the real battle. And it's real not only because it will fundamentally challenge how we think about ourselves, but it's also real because the factual arsenal that will come into play will be much more accessible to lay people than will discussion of heat-whatever and 11 dimensions and super-string theory and whatever else lies at the heart of universe creationism.

The real battle -- and you can already hear the weaponers at work -- will be over your soul. Literally.

The mainstream media, and national culture, haven't paid too much attention, but behavioral/evolutionary psychology have pretty much done away with Freudian thinking. And as the understanding grows of how the mind/brain works, the line between those two will vanish and the resultant understanding of human mental phenomena will not only leave no room for the concept of a soul, it will specifically, directly contradict it.

It's not instantly intuitive how this could be so. The soul, after all, is defined by its intangibility, its non-ness. It is by its very nature something outside the material realm. How could science, the study of material things, measurable, physical things, have anything to say about the soul? Let alone disprove its existence?

All true enough. But Christianity does make one material claim about the soul -- its necessary interaction with the mind. And the mind's status as an existential thing is dwindling rapidly. What happens when everything that happens in the mind is something understandable as something that happens in the brain? What happens when we can know the physical and electro-chemical causes of any given thought, any dream, any artistic inspiration? Where will that leave the soul?

And what about the soul's irreducibility? We are supposed to believe that a human soul is eternal somehow. Well, does that mean the everlasting human soul is a snapshot of our final mental state? Our first mental state? Some intrinsically, essentially unchangeable mental state? Well, the more we come to understand about the brain, the more apparent it is becoming that no "golden nugget" known as an intrinsic self resides within the brain. Our understanding of mental phenomena is becoming increasingly atomistic, which is decidedly not what souls are all about.

Consider commissurotomies. This procedure -- developed, if I remember my Philosophy of the Mind class, as a way to halt the spread of electrical seizures in epileptics -- involves severing the nerves that connect the two hemispheres of the brain. What researchers have found is that one of the "selves" residing in that severed brain can know things and even communicate things that the other "self" does not know. Literally. Sometimes, whether the person knows something depends entirely on how the knowledge was presented, and how information about that knowledge is queried. For instance, I forget exactly how hand/eye/mouth/speech/sight functions line up, but this example I'm creating isn't too far off:

I show a picture of a cat to someone who's had a commissurotomy. I ask him to tell me what he sees. He tells me, "cat." But if I ask him to write down what he sees, he gets it wrong, makes it up, or writes nothing. Why? Because the part of his brain that controls writing can't communicate with the same part that sees the card (again, I'm making up the specifics and may be getting them wrong, but the point of the example holds) and therefore legitimately does not know.

So, does this person's soul see a cat?

In the light of new understanding about the mind/brain, just asking the question becomes ludicrous. But the consequences of clinging to "the soul" are not. For our society to advance -- in education, social progress, crime prevention, medical treatment, psychological treatement, the war on terror -- we need to understand better how the mind/brain works. You think religion has taken a toll on society because of how its objections have impeded the progress of biology and medicine? Wait until the battlefield moves from our physical selves to our mental non-selves. You think creationism is bad? Wait until the Christian right has to fight a battle to defend its very soul.


Why "Intelligent Design" Still Lives

Slate's Will Saletan asks "where to go from Dover"? He has some interesting answers about where the debate over so-called "intelligent design" goes from here. But he's left unanswered the bigger question of which scientific advance will provide the next challenge to historically unchallenged religious teaching. There are two answers. Both will redefine everything. But one will merely change the universe. The other, far more significantly, will change the world.

But first, Dover revisited. Saletan (whom I'm pretty sure was one of our guests when I was working on Jeff Greenfield's CNN program) seems to have cheated by reading Judge John Jones' entire opinion. These days, that practically counts as investigative journalism.

But Saletan (who is, as they say, A Smart Guy) stumbles a bit, I think, in his critique of Jones' opinion. He says:

The "contrived dualism" objection pretty much captures what's wrong with ID. But it also captures what's wrong with Jones' opinion. "Since ID is not science, the conclusion is inescapable that the only real effect of the [Dover] ID policy is the advancement of religion," he writes. The effect of the policy, in which the Dover school board instructed ninth-grade biology teachers to criticize evolution and mention ID, "was to impose a religious view of biological origins into the biology course, in violation of the Establishment Clause." Note the dualism. ID theorists assume evidence against evolution is evidence for ID; Jones assumes any unscientific theory is religious and therefore forbidden.
The "contrived dualism" to which Saletan refers is the implication by "ID" supporters that there are only two explanations for biological complexity -- evolution and "intelligent design" -- and that, therefore, where evolution fails, "intelligent design" must reign. But this alleged dualism (which we see in the "god of the gaps" fallacy) is NOT what's wrong with "ID."

What's wrong with "ID" is not some logical fallacy in its juxtaposition with evolution. What's wrong with "ID" is that it's wrong. It's both empirically wrong and a priori wrong -- any "theory" that complex stuff is so complex it must have been designed by something complex which can not be explained deserves to get laughed out of kindergarten, not dignified with a refutation as highfalutin as "contrived dualism."

And Jones doesn't assume "any" unscientific theory is religious and therefore forbidden. He marshals considerable evidence not just that "ID" is intrinsically, irreducibly unscientific, but that its genesis was overtly, intentionally, intrinsically, irreducibly religious.

Saletan goes on:
Jones acts like it's no big deal to declare ID unscientific, since science is just one kind of learning. "Supernatural explanations may be important and have merit," he says. "ID arguments may be true," could have "veracity," and possibly "should continue to be studied, debated, and discussed." But if unscientific theories are religious, and religion can't be taught, it's unclear how notions related to ID could be debated in schools, or how their truth or merit could be entertained. And that's bad news for science, because it offers people with creationist sympathies—roughly half the American public—no outlet in the public education system outside of the science classroom.
Boo fuckin' hoo. Is it bad news for racists that they're denied outlets in public-education discussions of slavery? Is it bad news for UFO enthusiasts that they're denied outlets in public-education discussions of the pyramids? Is it bad news for me that Petty Larseny isn't in curricula around the country? No one has ever argued or ruled that "intelligent design" ought not to be discussed in public schools. It should (as Saletan goes on to suggest) be discussed in Social Studies classes. It also would serve very well as a fitting example of how the scientific method renders some alleged theories unworkable on their face. Religion can be taught, and should, as a social force, not as theology or cosmology. And definitely not as biology.

More Saletan:
As Jones makes clear, the Dover case is lousy with evidence of explicit religious motivation on the part of local ID proponents. But is ID, by virtue of being unscientific, wholly and inherently religious—or is there, contrary to the judge's dualism, a third category?
There is, though, as I said, I think Saletan has misread Jones. Jones doesn't assume "ID" to be unscientific and THEREFORE religious. Jones has determined "ID" to be unscientific AND religious. Religion is a subset of unscientificness and nothing I've seen from Jones suggests that he's not open to the existence of a non-religious subset of unscientificness. Regardless, Saletan makes an important point about "ID"'s future:
Statements by ID leaders "reveal ID's religious, philosophical, and cultural content," [Jones] writes. A strategy document developed by the "Center for Renewal of Science and Culture" is full of "cultural and religious goals, as opposed to scientific ones." Proponents of ID fear "evolution's threat to culture and society," and the Dover board's collaborators have "demonstrably religious, cultural, and legal missions." Cultural, cultural, cultural. Not scientific, not necessarily religious, but cultural.

Is the pseudo-science of creationism ultimately being driven by religion? Or is this brand of religion, in turn, being driven by cultural anxieties? Is it possible to open a conversation with these folks and their kids, not in biology class but in, say, social studies?
What's puzzling about Saletan's conclusion here is his use of the word "or." It feels as though he wants us to experience this choice as a profound insight into the nature of the "ID" conflict, but the reality is that virtually every significant religion is inextricably intertwined with its host culture. (Natural selection abets the survival of religions that evolve parasitic traits.) The Christian right is certainly both a religious and cultural movement. But I'm not sure what Saletan has bought us by suggesting we see it not as the former, but as the latter. I think he's suggesting that the issue can be defused, and approached from a scholarly viewpoint. In which case, it's a really naive argument to advance, given how consistently the Christian right wields its religion as the shield of its unchallengeable exceptionalism. Look at what happened to the class in Kansas that proposed discussing creationism as a cultural phenomenon. And that was a college-level course.

Saletan's next, concluding paragraph is particularly confusing. See if you have the same trouble I did:
According to Jones, the founder of the ID movement has written that evolution contradicts "every word in the Bible." Every word? You mean, including the part about not killing or stealing? No wonder so many people cling to creationism. And no wonder scientists and judges can't make it go away.
Saletan seems to undercut the argument he made in the previous paragraph. As he suggests, the proponents of "ID" have made damn sure to cast this discussion in religious, specifically Christian, specifically Biblical terms -- when they're talking to supporters. When they're talking to the outside world, they mask "ID" as something else. But the reality is that, to its supporters, "Intelligent Design" isn't a scientific issue. It isn't an empirical issue. It's a MORAL issue.

What Saletan -- and maybe Jones -- doesn't get is that the only way this country will succeed in killing off "ID" and other creationist mutations, is not by making logical, fact-based arguments. The "ID" proponents have revealed themselves not just immune to, but dismissive of, reason and fact-based reality. No, the only hope of killing "intelligent design" is to acknowledge that it really is a moral issue. But it's not just about the alleged morals of serving an alleged deity, it's about the morals of serving our real country and our real children. If we really want to kill creationism, it may be time, as I've written before, to confront this issue not based on the facts behind it, but based on the reality ahead of it; to portray it as a choice, with the lives of our children at stake. Because that's what it is.

(PS: I haven't forgotten my pledge to discuss the next scientific/religious battles; I just got a little more caught up in Saletan than I expected. Stay tuned!)


Bush Is a Coward

I try not to indulge in attacks that are gratuitously -- okay, solely -- ad hominem. And I don't automatically disagree with everything President Bush says, or attribute to him every negative trait possible. But in the last week it's become increasingly clear to me that President Bush is a coward, and that this aspect of his personality is at least partly responsible for a number of the awful things he is doing to this country.

We've seen two signs of cowardice in the last couple of weeks. He's panicking, and he's lying to cover up his cowardice. Remember how shaky the president was in his first remarks after being informed of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Remember the look on his face when he was first told what had happened, and remained seated in a Florida classroom rather than rise immediately, excuse himself and go do his scary job.

Remember that Bush's very first reaction to the attacks was to treat them like criminal acts to be dealt with by law enforcement. Only when the scope of the nation's outrage revealed itself did he get serious. But then, like a child terrified that something bad might happen again, he pledged not just to get al Qaeda, but "to rid the world of evil."

President Bush said in the first days after Sept. 11, 2001, that part of the nation's responsibility now was "to rid the world of evil." I think, at the time, many of us saw this as rhetorical hyperbole referring to al Qaeda. I no longer think so. I think Bush was speaking literally. He was so terrified by what had happened, of its recurrence, of being blamed, that his instinct really was to eliminate any and all bad men. That's not how rational, calm, brave men respond to danger. They confront the danger. They don't panic and call for the end of all potential dangers. That's why the first President Bush, who had personal experience facing physical danger, could let Saddam Hussein remain in power -- because he could handle the reality of knowing that a bad man was still at large. Because he knew his job wasn't to eradicate all evil, but to protect the American nation and the American character.

President Bush keeps talking about how Sept. 11 has changed everything. Well, it didn't change everything, and it shouldn't have. Yes, preceding presidents could have and should have done more to bolster our defenses against asymmetrical attacks and to eradicate the source of those attacks. But they didn't need to see a Sept. 11 made manifest to understand its theoretical possibility. They recognized that possibility and yet still refrained from the sweeping overhaul and contravention of our nation's laws undertaken by the current President Bush.

When a previous president confronted the dangers of violent Muslims taking American hostages and commandeering American craft, he responded not by rewriting America's character, as expressed in its laws, but by defiantly proclaiming, "Millions for defense, but not a penny for tribute." Pres. Thomas Jefferson was talking about using military sacrifice to maintain American principle. He was, in essence, saying that submitting to blackmail would violate America's character and that he would rather spend the millions necessary to defend that character, and risk the lives of those Americans in harm's way (both the military and the hostages) than sacrifice a single aspect of America's character.

Pres. Bush has done precisely the opposite. He has stated, repeatedly -- even before, supposedly, he knew who had attacked us -- that they "hate us for our freedoms." Like a bully's victim, he responded almost immediately by working to erase those things he proclaimed made us a target: Our freedoms.

Pres. Bush is working to make us absolutely safe. What he fails to understand is that this is a fundamentally un-American goal. America, at its best, understands that freedom is not about safety. Freedom is a risk, one that, as Mr. Jefferson so calmly, confidently accepted, makes American deaths not just a likelihood but almost a necessity. The loss of American life in defense of liberty is not restricted to the actions of men and women in uniform abroad. It is also a price incurred by civilians, here at home. It was a price paid by men, women and children in Oklahoma City. But, perhaps because its methodology was familiar to us and its perpetrators not exotic to us, the attack led to a relatively restrained legislative response. And even then, there was considerable debate -- among honorable members of both parties -- about how far to go beyond chemically tagging fertilizer.

Not so with President Bush and Sept. 11. He has advocated wide-ranging abandonment of long-held, time-tested American principles about the necessary restraints on executive power. I no longer believe it's just because he's power-hungry. I believe he's scared and, feeling helpless and out of control, seeks to compensate by trying to accumulate as much power and control as he can. That's part of why, failing to get Osama bin Laden, he set his sights on an identifiable target (remember Rumsfeld's desire to hit Iraqi targets due to accessability, not Iraqi culpability) that his advisors assured him he could get. And then he began to act as though bin Laden weren't an issue to him, whistling past the graveyard.

In other words, when the issue is his failure to get bin Laden, bin Laden isn't important. But when the issue is how much power Bush should have, the answer is that his fear has driven him to seek virtually unlimited power, and the reason is bin Laden, even when the reasoning is unsound. Pres. Bush has suggested that those who disagree with him don't understand the situation, don't appreciate its gravity or lack his conviction in addressing it. None of those is true. They lack his fear. They're not so scared of terrorism or even death that they're willing to do anything, to sacrifice any American principle, to avoid it. In fact, they often summon the bravery to defy the president, and even the law, to defend both American principles and the American public's right to know when those principles are being subverted. So outraged was the president by the revelation -- which he knew was coming -- of how far his fear has driven him, that he not only took the highly unusual step of acknowledging what he had done, but he mounted an attack on the unknown patriot who exposed him. He said, "the unauthorized disclosure of this effort damages our national security and puts our citizens at risk." He was RIGHT. What his cowardice blinds him to is the reality that patriots WANT to be at risk. They don't believe that absolute national security is worth the price. "Give me liberty or give me death," wasn't just bravado, it was the expression of the new American ethos -- that some things were more precious than life itself.

Bin Laden's goal was not to physically destroy America. It was to isolate America and to turn America into something un-American. His weapon was not four airplanes. It was fear. The point of terrorism is not to kill, but to wield fear in such a way that it motivates your enemies to change the way they act. By this measure, Pres. Bush is losing the global war on terror and his own personal war with terror. Because, judging by our nation's recent laws, and the executive-branch violations of our fundamental, literally constitutional principles, we are no longer the home of the free. And judging by our president, we are no longer the home of the brave.


Intelligently Decided

John Jones, a federal judge appointed by President Bush, has struck down the Dover, PA, school board's creationist policies. "Smackdown" might actually be more appropriate. The ruling was so clear, so uncowed, so matter-of-fact, that it offers a template for how the left ought to start addressing the wacko Christian right that has managed to erode the scientific and cognitive underpinnings of this nation's entire educational system.

Look at what he says about testimony from supporters of so-called "Intelligent Design."

although Buckingham, Bonsell, and other defense witnesses denied the reports in the news media and contradicted the great weight of the evidence about what transpired at the June 2004 Board meetings, the record reflects that these witnesses either testified inconsistently, or lied outright under oath on several occasions, and are accordingly not credible on these points.
They "lied outright" and are "not credible." Would a Democrat be so bald? I'm tempted to say that's not a rhetorical question, but a plea. The case, Jones wrote, brought out "compelling evidence that Bonsell and Buckingham sought to conceal the blatantly religious purpose behind the ID Policy."

The proponents of "Intelligent Design," in other words, had a religious intent, denied they had religious intent and actively worked to conceal the reality that they had religious intent. And Jones called them on it. He didn't whine. He didn't scold. He didn't even go out of his way to condemn. He simply stated the clear, irrefutable facts.

Here's the conclusion of his ruling, in its entirety:
The proper application of both the endorsement and Lemon tests to the facts of this case makes it abundantly clear that the Board’s ID Policy violates the Establishment Clause. In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.

Both Defendants and many of the leading proponents of ID make a bedrock assumption which is utterly false. Their presupposition is that evolutionary theory is antithetical to a belief in the existence of a supreme being and to religion in general. Repeatedly in this trial, Plaintiffs’ scientific experts testified that the theory of evolution represents good science, is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, and that it in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator.

To be sure, Darwin’s theory of evolution is imperfect. However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions.

The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.

With that said, we do not question that many of the leading advocates of ID have bona fide and deeply held beliefs which drive their scholarly endeavors. Nor do we controvert that ID should continue to be studied, debated, and discussed. As stated, our conclusion today is that it is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom.

Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist Court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.

To preserve the separation of church and state mandated by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and Art. I, § 3 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, we will enter an order permanently enjoining Defendants from maintaining the ID Policy in any school within the Dover Area School District, from requiring teachers to denigrate or disparage the scientific theory of evolution, and from requiring teachers to refer to a religious, alternative theory known as ID. We will also issue a declaratory judgment that Plaintiffs’ rights under the Constitutions of the United States and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania have been violated by Defendants’ actions.

Defendants’ actions in violation of Plaintiffs’ civil rights as guaranteed to them by the Constitution of the United States and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 subject Defendants to liability with respect to injunctive and declaratory relief, but also for nominal damages and the reasonable value of Plaintiffs’ attorneys’ services and costs incurred in vindicating Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.
Jones blunders, in my admittedly atheistic view, by deeming it "ironic" that those who tout their own religiosity would act unethically in defense of that religion. Jones has confused religion with morality. The proponents of "Intelligent Design" are not espousing Jesusian behavior, they are espousing Christian theology. There's nothing ironic about their willingness to sin in doing so. If anything, he could have substituted the phrase "time-honored." Also, it would have been nice if Jones had pointed out that the "bona fide" and "deeply held" beliefs of "intelligent design"'s proponents are not mitigating factors, but in fact the root of the problem. "Intelligent design" isn't their belief's side effect, but its weaponization. Biblical fundamentalism leads inevitably to creationism, which leads inevitably to anti-Darwinism which has been led by the forces of social selection (i.e., the courts) to "intelligent design." In other words, Jones is wrong when he implies that "intelligent design" is a random mutation; it is, in fact, a survival mechanism that has been selected for by environmental factors. If Jones were interested in making me utterly happy, he might also have pointed out the logical problem with a theory that explains complexity by attributing it to an unexplained complex being (i.e., alien or deity).

That said, Jones nailed this one as well as we could have hoped for in Bush's America of 2005. He refutes the "god of the gaps" by noting that a scientific theory's incompleteness does not constitute a fatal failure. If it did, of course, science itself would not be able to exist. And Jones also denies "intelligent design" the very camouflage it has sought all along: The notion that "ID" is just another scientific theory. Jones has not only made the point that "ID" is not science, he has revealed the contortions its proponents have undergone to portray it as science.

Not only are its proponents liars, the theory itself is fundamentally dishonest.

But what's so truly heart-breaking about Jones's ruling is that it's the epistemological equivalent of Nixon going to China. As unacceptable as the Christian right will find this ruling, can you imagine the reaction if a Democratic judge, appointed by Bill Clinton, had issued it?

Frankly, I have a hard time imagining it myself. And part of the reason for that is that Democrats long ago embraced this asinine notion of universal niceness and baseless respect that compels them to entertain every proposition and consider every position. It's exactly that tolerance -- there, I said it -- that allowed George Bush to get elected. Because a nation that understood how to draw lines between bullshit and reality would have laughed Bush off the stage at the first Republican primary. Instead, we've taught our children that everyone deserves respect, there are no dumb questions, everyone's opinions count and all this other garbage that flings our cognitive doors wide open for the stampeding ranks of the horseshit parade.

Judge John Jones sounds like what a Republican used to sound like -- the kind of guy who didn't have time or patience or respect for liars and prevaricators and dummies. We don't have enough of those Republicans around any more, and it's nice to see one poke his head up in a political shooting war as fierce as evolution. But what we really need is for Democrats to renounce the emotion-based, self-exalting, anything-goes ethos perfected by President Bush to the long-lasting detriment of this nation and the world.

In other words, as Jones has reminded us, what the country needs now is for Democrats to embrace some good, old-fashioned, American conservatism.


Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Meaning of the Meaning of Christmas

I've been thinking a lot about the real reasons behind the allegations of the existence of a "war on Christmas." At first, I thought that Fox News and the Christian right were hurting their own cause, because they're diluting the religious messages historically associated with Christmas. Then I realized, that's not an accidental side effect, that's their purpose. And I think I know why.

First, how are they diluting the religious message of Christmas? Well, both the New York Times and Salon had excellent pieces on the background of Christmas recently. As the Times reported, the first Europeans to settle here didn't even celebrate Christmas, due to the fact that its origins lay in paganism, not the Bible (a search of the King James version turns up not a single mention), and due to the fact that celebrations of it tended to be irreligious (i.e., prone to drinking and swearing and other awful things).

Celebrating Christmas was a crime for years in colonial Massachusetts. It wasn't, in fact, until the tame, family-friendly domestications of Clement Moore and Thomas Nast rendered Christmas innocuous, that Christmas began to enjoy broad-based support from both the Christian clergy and the lay community. (Both the Times and, especially, Salon, have a lot of fascinating such tidbits on Christmas history). And despite what the Christian right would have us believe about a recently emerging "liberal" or "secular" war on Christmas, it was only a generation or two after Christmas was popularized in the U.S., that the backlash arose -- from neither "liberals" nor atheists...but from Christians and Jews.

They had different laments. But interestingly, and tellingly, we only hear one today. Jews at the time had the audacity to oppose the fact that they were sending their kids to their public schools to have their teachers, paid with their tax dollars, lead the class in Christmas carols. That battle -- to end official, governmental endorsements of Christmas (as specifically prohibited by the First Amendment) -- still continues. The other part of the backlash came from Christian clergy who felt that the commodification of Christmas, and its implementation as a sales tool, watered down their intended message for the holiday (peace and love, I guess; the usual claims).

But today, it's only freaks who still fight that battle. We don't hear the commentators on Fox News decrying commercialization. We don't hear today's Christian leaders calling for an end to Christmas sales. These factions are the ones demanding Christmas sales, Christmas flyers, Christmas banners and Christmas marketing plans.

Why have today's defenders of Christianity championed the one element of Christmas rejected by the Christianity of that early-to-mid-20th-century era so cherished by the Christian right? I asked myself why we don't see Fox News, or the Christian right, demand the universal embrace and proclamation of Easter. The difference is that Easter has no competition.

It's the fact that Christmas has (admittedly scant) competition that makes the Christian right so nuts. That's why we don't hear them hollering about stores that have NO banners up and NO sales this time of year. It's not about ignoring Christmas; it's about including other people.

The one defining feature of modern, fundamentalist, conservative Christianity is its claim to exceptionalism. We saw it in the literally violent backlash against a proposed college course that dared not just to criticize so-called "intelligent design," but worse: Treat it as just another creation myth.

It's the one thing they can't stand -- the notion that their religion and their holidays and their slogans are just another constellation in the pantheon. That's why a Wal-Mart employee was fired for his e-mail about the origins of Christmas; not because he denied its religious message, but because he exposed the fact that it was a hodge-podge of elements from other religions. They don't care whether Christmas is commercialized. They don't care whether Christmas loses the original religious (or spiritual, if you must) message.

Because modern-day, American, conservative Christianity is not about active pursuit of the principles and social radicalism attributed to a guy named Jesus in a book of questionable authorship. Modern-day, American, conservative Christianity is all about claiming a personal relationship with a god that just happens to endorse all the stuff you believe.

That's why Fox News commentators want Christmas acknowledged by name, but not in principle. I originally thought they and the Christian right were losing the alleged Christmas war by fighting for commercialization of Christmas, and for its osmosis into a generic, essentially secular event, devoid of challenging Jesus stuff. But that's not a loss for them. That's a victory. They want something they can use, not something they have to serve. Because the Christianity they want to see prevail isn't a text-based Christianity; it's the Christianity of President Bush, a Christianity that makes no demands, that requires no introspection, that elevates one's alleged "heart" to the status of divine interlocutor.

The Christianity they want to see triumph is just as valid an interpretation of the Bible as any other (that's the beauty of a vague, self-contradicting, maybe-it's-literal-maybe-it's-metaphorical, committee-edited mess). But its validity isn't the point. The point is that they want their version of Christmas, and Christianity, to triumph not in order to serve some beneficial ethic underlying it, but because their version serves them. In other words, they're fighting their own war on both the historical and religious Christmas for one simple reason: They consider it better to receive, than to give.


Sunday, December 11, 2005

Suck It, New Orleans

Back when Hurricane Katrina first struck, and the magnitude of its devastation -- and ineptitude of the response -- were becoming clear, I planned to write three postings on why Katrina wouldn't change a thing. I only got to one, on the media. I had two others planned. The next would be on how politicians wouldn't change. Reality overtook me on that one, making it almost immediately clear that politicians and American politics wouldn't change.

Now, it's becoming strikingly clear just how indifferent President Bush and his administration really are to the plight not just of a city that's a genuine American, and world, cultural treasure but of the entire, stricken gulf region.

Thanks to Think Progress for finding and posting word from the Washington Post that the White House has moved on. The New York Times this morning went into some detail on the subject. (Tip to MyDD)

Why don't the media and politicians give a shit? I don't think the easy, quick answers are the right ones. Okay, sure, there's some element of truth to them. But it's silly to suggest that they don't actually give a shit. They do care -- in some way that feels like caring. The Washington Post is asking about it. Meet the Press is talking about it. The New York Times is opining about it. In Vanity Fair, Brian Williams said, "I watched Americans die for lack of food and my own country, before my very eyes. If this disaster doesn't lead us into a national conversation on the subjects of class, race, urban planning, the environment, Iraq, and oil, then we have failed."

They care. Williams clearly cares. By his own criteria, he's also clearly, spectacularly failed. But why should the disaster have led us into a national conversation on the subjects of class, race, urban planning, the environment, Iraq, and oil? Why couldn't BRIAN WILLIAMS lead us into a national conversation on the subjects of class, race, urban planning, the environment, Iraq, and oil?

Well, the answer to that leads me to the final thing I wanted to write about, the final thing that I thought wouldn't change after Katrina. And that final thing was you. Or, to be fair, us.

Please don't misread this as some lament about how young people today suck and things were better in the olden days. That's usually horseshit and it's definitely horseshit today. Young people today are, basically, less violent and more responsible than several preceding generations of Americans have been. I'm not talking about young people. I'm talking about their parents, and the generations of Americans who actually run things these days.

We care about the wrong things. We cry over sad pictures. We feel genuine anguish over the despair of others. But it's as if we've bought the Baby Boomer myth of never having to grow up, and perverted it to mean that we never have to take responsibility. Growing up is supposed to mean that you don't need sad pictures or sad stories to understand that people are suffering, to follow the causality of public policy, to imagine the impact of our decisions on people we will never know anything about. We're supposed to care about the Army Corps of Engineers before hurricanes happen, before sad pictures make us cry and inept politicians make us mad, and we're definitely still supposed to care long afterwards. Because that's what grown-ups do. They remember why bad things happen and how to prevent bad things from happening in the future. They don't just react emotionally to immediate, proximal stimuli and then move on. They fix things. The Christian Right's alliance with a particularly venal and ugly strain of corporate capitalism isn't winning because they outnumber the rest of "us" or even have more money than "we" do. They're winning because they actually get off their asses and take care of fucking business.

"The price of freedom is eternal vigilance" doesn't refer to the need to watch our borders. It refers to every single citizen's duty to participate in government and the body politic, to be informed, to understand the principles that we're supposed to hew to especially in times of fear and panic. It's boring, boring stuff. That's the goddamn point. If it were sexy, it wouldn't require our vigilance; we'd be riveted by it. Instead, we feel as though we're vigilant because in our heart we experience something that feels like caring; we feel bad when we catch a glimpse of poor, sad, black people on the TV; we blog and read blogs. For some reason, we no longer guard the most important element of American freedom -- our nation's character -- with the zeal and vigilance that are required, choosing instead the exciting, adrenalizing "vigilance" of obsessing about terrorism or the easy, fun, undemanding "vigilance" of just railing against whomever we don't like and characterizing them as our enemy. And because we've elevated the pure, good-intentioned "heart" in society over the callous, calculating "brain," we've lost sight of what patriotism, vigilance and true, meaningful caring actually mean.

(Here's a good definition of meaningful caring: Caring that leads to action. So: Crying about sad TV pictures and then flipping the station is not caring; crying about sad TV pictures and then sending money that will momentarily alleviate someone's suffering but change nothing in the long term is okay caring; voting against the politicians responsible is okay caring; pressuring local media to cover relevant issues in such a way that politicians will respond and minimize chances of repeat occurrences -- and then patronizing media that actually respond to your pressure -- that's a lot closer to meaningful caring, and it's a template for how the evil Christian Right get their work done).

Anderson Cooper, quoted in the same, aforementioned issue of Vanity Fair, also clearly cared. He said, "The anger's here. It's not frustration. People are not frustrated -- people are dying. I am lucky. I can ask people questions. But there are no answers, just questions."

It's a common, revealing and fundamentally wrong conceit. THERE ARE ANSWERS. And more to the point, we don't need the news media to ask people questions. We need the news media to acknowledge that there are answers, even though that creates, for them, the burden of doing the work to identify them, and taking the heat for revealing them. This is a causal world. It's complicated, yes, but no less causal for that. We don't need the media to care for us. We need the media to give less air time to caring and to asking questions than it does to unearthing and sharing the answers.

Even after it was revealed that two out of the top three national disasters predicted by FEMA had come to pass, no one has even tried to launch a national discussion about the third. The problem isn't that we don't care, the problem is that we think we do. And the bigger problem is, we think that's enough. In reality, we've lost the right to claim we give a shit about New Orleans. The reality is, we don't. That's why we're still willing to risk another 9/11 and another New Orleans; because we haven't changed the fundamental notions we hold about how we think, what caring is, and what we consider patriotism.

Because, in the 21st century, the price of freedom isn't eternal vigilance. It's internal vigilance.


Bush Doesn't Know Jesus, Kristof Does

Nicholas Kristof has imagined what would happen if President George Bush were to meet Saint Peter at the pearly gates of Heaven. The dialogue is destined to make the rounds of both secular and religious liberals. They will laugh at it and append remarks to their e-mails, such as:


"So true!"

Some particularly droll wag will remark, "as if George Bush would even get to heaven!" Delicious!

I guess I'd be considered on the left, politically. I certainly oppose just about everything there is to oppose about George Bush. And yet, my reaction to Mr. Kristof's mischievous, impertinent fiction is, in essence, "And who the fuck are you?"

After all, if arrogance is one of Bush's failings, along with his religious certitude, then what the hell is the point of Kristof asserting that HE knows what the arrayed forces of heaven (not just Jesus, but all of heaven) REALLY want George Bush to spend his time doing? (UPDATE: In fact, in his latest column, Kristof asserts this knowledge again, juxtaposing Bill O'Reilly with "authentic" religious conservatives. Why exactly does Kristof get to designate religious authenticity?)

Kristof is making the exact same argument that Bush is making: Each suggests they represent the "real" Christianity. Bush has done this not just with his own religion, but with others, as well. He has told us what "real" Islam is and is not.

The reality is, neither Bush nor Kristof get to define Christianity or Islam. Who does? Christians and Muslims. Is Christianity a religion of violence? Yes. Is Islam a religion of peace? Yes. Is Christianity a religion of peace? Yes. Is Islam a religion of violence? Yes.

Is Kristof right, that Christianity is "supposed" to be all about lepers and prostitutes? Or is Bush right, that Christianity is about knowing something in your heart that you call Jesus? Yes. And yes. And both are wrong when they deny the "reality" of anyone else's Christianity or Islam or other religion.

The reality is that most successful religions succeed by NOT being any one thing. Most successful religions -- like most successful species -- succeed by dint of adaptations and mutations that allow them to evolve. Christianity has been violent when violence best propagated it. Christianity has been peaceful when peace best propagated it. And it can do both at once. This is not an accident of Christianity or Islam, this is the one, essential feature of both.

C.S. Lewis wrote in "Mere Christianity" that "Christian" was not a synomym for "a good person." A "Christian," he wrote, was merely someone who believed that Jesus is humanity's savior. The Bible, and the Koran, were written, edited and, most importantly, interpreted throughout history in ways that allowed them to survive in hostile environments and allowed them to spread in nurturing ones. The entire idea of the "Rapture" didn't even arise until 1800 years after the Bible was written -- how's that for an unclear text?

Bush is right when he says Islam is a religion of peace. Osama bin Laden is right when he argues that Islam endorses slicing box-cutters across the throats of flight attendants and sending airplanes loaded with aviation fuel stabbing into occupied buildings at 300 miles an hour. That's Islam. So is opposition to it.

The problem is not that one Islam is winning or losing. The problem is not that America is embracing the "right" or "wrong" Christianity. The problem is with everyone who thinks they know which.


Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Torture Is Not US

I don't know whether torture is effective. John McCain in his book says he gave up information he shouldn't have -- and he received only moderate torture, due to his father's status in the Navy. But torture's effectiveness is not the issue.

Victory is the issue.

And if we become the enemy to defeat the enemy, the enemy still wins. That's what President Bush means when he says Osama bin Laden hates our freedoms. To some extent, Bush is right. We do have freedoms bin Laden doesn't want. We do draw the line at doing things to people in the name of our cause that bin Laden will do in the name of us. The reason for this is that we are not Osama bin Laden. But even if we kill him, if we end up becoming him, he will still have won.

I just got word from Operation Truth of a new campaign to boost support for McCain's anti-torture legislation. It's called Torture Is Not US. As long as that's true, we're still winning.


Tuesday, December 06, 2005

In the Name of God

This is what happens when a religion mutates into a faith that's all about loyalty and obedience, rather than the so-called moral/ethical principles it supposedly espouses.

Paul Mirecki, a University of Kansas professor who dared PROPOSE teaching so-called "intelligent design" as what it is, a creation myth, reports that two men followed him and beat him up, while making reference to his class.

This is what happens when religious leaders espouse faith over works. If you don't understand that, ask yourself, Who Would Jesus Beat?

Let's see whether the religious, dominionist men trying to hijack America and make it a theocracy speak out against this actual violence -- physical and intellectual violence -- as vocally as they do against fictional violence.

(Thanks to the reader who e-mailed me to alert me of this story and pass on the link. I'll post more info as it emerges.)


Sunday, December 04, 2005

Dear Mizz Dowt...

Sorry if I got yer name wrong. I wuznt sure if it was Morein Dowt, Maureen Dowd, Mizz Dowt, Mizzd Owt or Misses Dowt.

Anyway, ah ain't much fur books, so I ain't red yore book, "Are Men Necessary: When Sexes Collide." But I dun read yer exerpt, "What's A Modern Girl To Do?", in the New York Times.

And, well...ah luv you gurl. And now ah know you luv me, two.

We are sole mates.

Just lack ah bin wronged by wymen, you bin wronged by men. Men should fuckus on whut madders, knot on superfishal stuff.

Lack you say: Men want purty young things. Men want womyn de-voted to them, who don't intidimate them or be smarter than them.

It ain't raht and it ain't fare. Ah understaind eggsacly what you mean. Because whimin have discrinimated aginst me, too.

But ah no you won't due that, Mo.

Ah no yewll luv me fur who ah aim. You won't care ah ain't got no edgeoccasion. You won't care ah ain't good-lookin'. You won't care that ah cant reapreduce. You won't care ah ain't got know money. You won't care ah ain't got no kreer. Cuz you no bedder. You ain't a slave to eveillusion.

After all, ah ain't never even herd of the felllows you dated: Aaron Sorkin, John Tierney and Howwell Rains.

Sew pleas call me soon, Mo. Ah ain't got much time, cuz ahm 86 and dine of AIDS. (Of coarse, yuh dont have to, but ahd be honerred if you'd take my name).


Adolf Dahmer


Saturday, December 03, 2005

Once More Unto the Information Battlespace

The Washington Post today reports on the U.S. military admission that it paid to have propaganda pieces appear in Iraqi media, without revealing their source. This is bad and dumb in more than just the obvious ways.

Here's how the Post summarized the issue:

In a statement, the command said the program included efforts, "customary in Iraq," to purchase advertising and place clearly labeled opinion pieces in Iraqi newspapers. But the statement suggested that the "information operations" program may have veered into a gray area where government contractors paid to have articles placed in Iraqi newspapers without explaining that the material came from the U.S. military and that Iraqi journalists were paid to write positive accounts.

"Serious allegations have been raised that suggest the process may be functioning in a manner different than is intended or appropriate," the statement said. Commanders are "reviewing these allegations and will investigate any improprieties," it said.
The Post's implication and interpretation (which I'm guessing is at least not contradicted by whatever background briefings they were given) is that the MNF-Iraq statement says that paying to place articles in Iraqi newspapers without explaining the source, and paying Iraqi journalists to write positive accounts are operational developments "in a manner different than is intended or appropriate" and that it is these two allegations that will be investigated as possible "improprieties."

But that's not what the actual MNF-Iraq news release says. Here's the relevant excerpt:

As part of our operations, we have offered articles for publication to Iraqi newspapers, and in some cases articles have been accepted and published as a function of buying advertising and opinion/editorial space, as is customary in Iraq. Third parties have been employed in an effort to mitigate the risk to publishers. The procedures for doing so undergo policy and legal review to ensure compliance with the law and regulations.

Serious allegations have been raised that suggest the process may be functioning in a manner different than is intended or appropriate.
In other words, the MNF-Iraq release defends precisely the policies the Post says MNF-Iraq will be investigating. "Buying...opinion/editorial space" is "customary." Paying a middleman in order to conceal the material's source (from at least its readers and possibly even from its publishers) is "an effort to mitigate the risk to publishers [through]...procedures...[that] undergo policy and legal review to ensure compliance with the law and regulations."

What's unclear is which allegations remain that the process might be "different than is intended or appropriate" -- given that the allegations were made about a process that MNF-Iraq is now claiming were "customary," and in "compliance with the law and regulations"!

The release defends the military's practice of subverting the free marketplace of ideas, and duping Iraqi readers, with the following explanations:

The information battlespace in Iraq is contested at all times and is filled with misinformation and propaganda by an enemy intent on discrediting the Iraqi government and the Coalition...

Information Operations is an essential tool for commanders to ensure the Iraqi population has current, truthful and reliable information...

Information operations are powerful and essential to military success...As with all combat operations, Coalition Forces have a number of programs designed for providing factual information to the local population.
Even assuming the reasoning is well-intentioned, it betrays a staggering lack of understanding about the basics of journalism, propaganda and nation-building. If the Pentagon were truly interested in nurturing the kind of journalism a successful representative democracy needs, it would protect threatened journalism not with deceit but with protection.

But the bigger point is that Iraqis have to learn not to trust their journalists, but how to assess their journalists. The issue is not as simple as getting the Pentagon's good news out there. The issue is that Iraqis have to learn how to practice and consume good, independent journalism, as is far from "customary" in Iraq.

By failing to provide Iraqis the truth about the source of information, the military tacitly endorsed the notion that people don't, or even shouldn't, assess journalism with a critical eye that weighs journalists against their rivals and their track records and possible personal or corporate biases. In other words, they've acted as if consuming journalism ought to be a passive endeavor. And they've given those disinclined to participate in that endeavor all the more reason to throw up their hands, give up the effort and proclaim, "it's all lies anyway." They've undermined not just American credibility, but far more importantly, the credibility of an emerging journalistic system in a newborn nation. And that, I fear, will contribute in Iraq to a trend in America that, with President Bush's support, has already had devastating consequences: The rejection of the notion of objective truth.

UPDATE: A former regular guest on my old show, Morning Sedition, was instrumental in breaking this story, and has his own take on some of the themes I've touched on, in an interview he gave to Anthony Lappe at


NewsNight: The Other Casualty

In all the (justified) lamentations for the loss of Aaron Brown from CNN, the end of NewsNight cost us another, far-more-underappreciated, journalist's work.

One of the many smart things Aaron Brown did was to give Correspondent Beth Nissen a de facto home at NewsNight. Following NewsNight's demise and Brown's departure, I'm pretty sure Nissen is still at CNN, but I don't know to what extent other CNN programs are taking advantage of her unique skills.

I should at this point confess that I worked with Nissen (as she preferred to be called) on several occasions when I was a producer on ABC's overnight program, World News Now, back in the late '90s. At the time, Nissen was one of ABC's pre-eminent storytellers, and would occasionally grace our graveyard shift with her presence (and omnipresent tea set) when we needed a substitute anchor. I was simultaneously intimidated, charmed, smitten and intimidated. As well as intimidated.

At the time, I was lucky enough to do subversive TV virtually every day -- working with terrific, game anchors such as Anderson Cooper and Juju Chang, but also Kevin Newman, Mark Mullen, Thalia Assuras and many, many others. Most of them were willing to indulge me -- and a thrilling handful were just as professionally suicidal as I was (if anyone has transcripts of the stuff Anderson and I used to get away with on the overnight, we'd both be ruined forever). Most of them were interested in making our viewers think differently about the subjects we were discussing (or at least in challenging the prevailing conventions about those subjects) and about our medium itself. Often, we were just bored and wanted to do things differently to keep ourselves entertained. (Okay, I should probably emphasize that I'm speaking for myself here). Anyway, Nissen definitely fell into the category of terrific, game anchors. But while most of us (or, I should reiterate, "I") usually operated in the realm of gallows humor, or sardonic remove, Nissen was different. Nissen didn't just care about the stories she was discussing, she was, I thought, utterly vulnerable to each and every one of them. In journalism, we speak sometimes of the concentric circles. You know -- anything that happens on your block is news; the further away it is, the bigger it has to be to qualify as news. Nissen had no circles. She felt it all. While most of us struggle to connect a day's headlines (i.e., tax cuts) to the people they affect down the road (i.e., people), Nissen couldn't separate the two. The latter was implicit in the former and she bore the weight of it as if it were about her. Scratch that: It clearly weighed heavier on her if someone else was affected.

You may never have heard of her. And you rarely saw her face. That's because she was never assigned to cover Beth Nissen. As far as she was concerned (again, this is my observation, not a claim to know her mind), there was no reason to show her face, when she could show an image that would advance the story, or make it more palpable to our viewers, or complement the covert poetry of her words.

If her writing sounded jarring to you it was due to the relative rarity of her style of writing: Good. She didn't write like a television correspondent. She wrote like a writer. She took time to tell her stories because stories take time to tell well. And because she didn't buy the mantra of bad producers and programmers who will swear up and down that viewers have no attention span and thus no story should exceed a minute-fifteen. (This claim being advanced about a generation that embraces hour-long reality shows in which nothing happens).

I don't know whether commercial, televised journalism has a place for Nissen these days. I'm not sure whether commercial, televised journalism has a place for journalism these days. Still, I hope CNN takes advantage of the fact that it has a skilled, empathetic, responsible, whip-smart, bona fide journalist in its midst. Almost more than that, I hope CNN decides to develop programming that provides an appropriate fit for a skilled, empathetic, responsible, whip-smart, bona fide journalist.

It's a cliche that we get the government we deserve. But I think we also get the journalism we deserve. I hope we still deserve Nissen.


Friday, December 02, 2005

How To Start a Presidential Speech

Quick quiz, two questions.

1. You're the president of the United States. Two and a half years after your invasion of Iraq has led to the deaths of more than 2,000 members of the U.S. armed forces, and one year after your campaign disparaged the military service of a decorated veteran of the U.S. Navy, how do you start your speech at the U.S. Naval Academy outlining your strategy for victory in Iraq:

a) Thank you for that gracious welcome. Your discipline and comportment only confirm my long-standing regrets that I myself never enlisted as a young man.
b) Thank you very much. I know how hard each and every one of you worked to attend the Naval Academy and avail yourself of the unique opportunities offered here, so I won't keep you longer than I have to.
c) Thank you for that warm welcome. It's not much of a secret that I didn't exactly apply myself when I had access to some fine educators, and you have access to some unparalleled instructors here, so I hope you'll keep that in mind when you head back to class.
d) Thanks for the warm welcome. It's good to be back at the Naval Academy. I'm pleased to provide a convenient excuse for you to miss class.

2. You're the president of the United States. On the occasion of World AIDS Day, how do you begin your remarks on a still-incurable disease that has killed millions of people:

a) Thank you very much. I want to thank my wife for introducing me. As she mentioned, the federal government next year will double its spending on AIDS research.
b) I want to thank my wife for that introduction, and for making the point that we can no longer allow personal religious beliefs to influence policy decisions on how we prevent the transmission of AIDS.
c) Thank you, Laura. Thank you all for being here. As you know, AIDS is no laughing matter.
d) Thank you all. How about my line of work, where you get introduced by your wife? (Laughter.)


What the Fuck Is the Matter with Kansas?

The one hopeful sign out of Kansas lately -- a college course that would have taught so-called "intelligent design" as what it is, a politically-charged creation myth -- has been canceled before it even hit the classroom.

The Chronicle of Higher Education is reporting (article is available here for five days after this posting) that University of Kansas Religious Studies Chairman Paul Mirecki, who would have taught the class, decided this week to pull it from next semester's schedule. Why?

Mirecki, it turns out, is partially responsible. He did something dumb by telling an e-mail group that his course, "Special Topics in Religion: Intelligent Design, Creationism, and Other Religious Mythologies," was "a nice slap in their big fat face." It was, reportedly, in reference to the Christian right.

Mirecki tells the Chronicle he got 1,200 e-mails in response. Most of them were positive, but enough were hostile or threatening, that he felt "the learning environment was going to be ruined." Rather than salvage it, he totalled it.

The class came under such fire for committing the gravest of sins against Christian fundamentalism: It denied its claims for exceptionalism by lumping it in with other mythologies and refusing to pretend that it has any greater claim to truth than they do.

It remains unclear exactly what the focus of the course would have been. But it's truly a shame that Kansas, the state that apparently needs it most, missed an opportunity to consider just how "intelligent design" fits into the overall pattern of religious creationism.

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