Sunday, December 31, 2006

Jon Meachams and the Parallel Universes

Newsweek God Boy Jon Meacham tells Drudge that his magazine tomorrow is slapping Gerry Ford, rather than Saddam Hussein, on the cover, because Hussein's "death in 2006 matters less than his removal in 2003 does." As if Ford's death in 2006 matters MORE than his removal in 1977 did?

It's this kind of thinking (i.e., non-) that has so thoroughly defined the Ford coverage. Over on, Walter Shapiro tells us that "only the most stubborn and unyielding Nixon haters still question whether the cleanse-the-air pardon was justified." The problem is, the pardon didn't "cleanse" the air. The pardon was Lysol.

Every don't-hate-me-cuz-I'm-liberal pundit is out there now saying, "yes, of course, I see now that the pardon was the wise thing to do, so that we as a nation could heal." Only Nixon-haters, we are told, think otherwise.

The problem with this is that the only way you can know that a pardon "healed" this country better than a trial would have, is if you saw the trial, and the after-effects of it. The only people who have done that are those such as the Flash and the Fantastic Four who are capable of casual travel to parallel universes.

And everyone's prognostications about a trial seem to stop with the trial itself. The trial would be ugly. The two parties would fight over it. People would say mean things. Yeah? So? Then what?

Let's check out Earth-Nixon for ourselves. Maybe there's an ugly trial. Partisan divides run deeper than they did during Earth-Pardon's Reagan-Carter campaign. If anything, conservatives would be even more ticked off than they were. So let's assume Reagan still carries the day.

Is it maybe, just slightly possible that one of the tertiary or, um, four-iary, or five-iary effects of a Nixon trial -- along with humiliating testimony, certainty of guilt and actual punishment -- might have been a chastening of those who sought to expand executive power? Specifically, is it possible that the Nixon/Ford veterans who argued even back in the '70s that the White House can do whatever it wants, might have been humbled or scared enough to rein in those impulses? Or even genuinely question them?

If so, is it possible--just maybe--that by the year 2000, neither Ford/Nixon veteran Donald Rumsfeld nor Dick Cheney would be quite so eager to push their inexperienced new president to unprecedented heights of executive hubris and constitutional violation? I don't know. We'll never know. All the editorial we's out there do seem to know is that...the pardon was right.


Sunday, December 24, 2006

If Americans Don't Wake Up There Will Be Many More Christians Elected to Office

Thank you for your recent communication. When I raise my hand to take the oath on Swearing In Day, I will have the Constitution in mind and no religious text in my other hand. I do not subscribe to using the Koran in any way. Or the Torah. Or the Bible (unless someone fixes it). Virgil Goode, The Christian Representative from Virginia, was elected by the voters of that district and if American citizens don’t wake up and adopt the Thomas Jefferson position on separation there will likely be many more Christians elected to office and demanding the use of the Bible. We need to stop eroding separation totally and respect no establishment of religion and end the diversity faith policy pushed hard by President Bush and allowing many persons from the Middle Ages to come to this country. I fear that in the next century we will have many more Christians in the United States if we do not adopt the strict separation policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America and to prevent our resources from being swamped.

The Ten Commandments and “In God We Trust” are off the wall. A Christian student came by the office and asked why I did not have anything on my wall about the Bible. My response was clear, “As long as I have the honor of representing the citizens of America as the United States President, The Bible is not going to be on the wall of my office.” Thank you again for your email and thoughts.

Sincerely yours,
Thomas Jefferson
931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway
Charlottesville, VA 22902


Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Person of the Year Is Dead

Time Magazine's Person of the Year for 2006 is (yawn) YOU! Cuz you, y'know, did stuff. You posted videos on YouTube and, um, voted and stuff.

If it feels like another Time Magazine wimp-out, well, that astuteness is just one reason why YOU are Person of the Year.
Five out of the last six Persons of the Year have been bogus, safe, avoid-a-choices. The worst, of course, was Rudolph Giuliani in 2001. Yeah, sorry, no. That would be Osama bin Laden. If anyone's unclear on this, just build yourself a time machine and check out the history books of the future.

We all know that Time's ostensible criteria is not wonderfulness but impact, right? Not a moral choice, but, theoretically, a journalistic choice.

After Giuliani, we've had WHISTLEBLOWERS, SOLDIERS and THREE RICH PHILANTHROPISTS. The whistleblowers might've qualified if we'd had a Congress interested in whistles at the time. The soldiers might have qualified if they had done something other than what they were instructed to do by the commander-in-chief at the time (whose invasion of Iraq in 2003 is really the one thing that historically will justify Bush ever having been Person of the Year). Bono and Bill Gates? And, um, Mrs. Bill Gates?

Yeah, I think the world is still reverberating with the impact of their, um, stuff. What Time Magazine should have done was chosen one or a few of the architects of the Democratic seizure of both houses of Congress. You know -- the way they did when Newt Gingrich spearheaded a LESS successful coup. Howard Dean would have been the obvious choice, though Rahm Emanuel and Chuck Schumer would have been interesting, provocative additions, too.

See, Time seems to have made the mistake of forgetting they're looking for whomever has had the greatest PLURALITY of impact. In other words, assuming no one was responsible for more than 50 percent of the world's direction in a given year (the way, say, bin Laden was), then you go for whomever had not the majority of the impact, but more impact than anyone else.

Time Magazine has now succumbed to what would have been a brilliant Onion reductio ad absurdum of its wussyish inability to actually make a choice the past few years. They can't choose anyone, so they choose everyone. There's only one place to go from here.

In the year 2007, Time will actually have to return to doing journalism and choose whomever actually has the greatest impact on the year, or just give in and name Everything Ever as 2007's Person of the Year.

Oh, and I don't want to appear ungrateful to Time, of course, so, um, thanks for the recognition. It's going on the resume.


Wednesday, December 13, 2006


This actually isn't about Barack Obama. It's about...BARACK OBAMA. It's about the fact that, if Barack Obama is a presidential frontrunner, the Democratic Party is in trouble. I don't mean they're in electoral trouble because Obama is unelectable. He seems quite electable to me.

I mean that his status as a frontrunner indicates that the party has failed to use the example of the past six years to redefine the paradigm of presidential candidates and electability. George W. Bush won, in large part, because he had (to some people) more charisma than Gore or Kerry. He also won because he knew how to treat the media: Like dirt. Gore and Kerry treated the media as if they deserved respect, which, of course, the media knew not to be true and therefore reciprocated with contempt. Paging Groucho Marx.

Obama hasn't even announced (I'm not convinced he will, either) and already some of the savvier observers out there are giving the media shit for their boosterism. Nicole at Crooks and Liars thinks the media attention is disproportionate to the electoral support. And on the Daily Show, Jon Stewart's "correspondent" Samantha Bee gushed about Obama's Jesusian qualities.

In other words, he's winning on all the things the media wants in a candidate. By now, the Democrats should have changed the way the media and the public think about their candidates. That a senator with two years of experience in national politics is considered a frontrunner tells me that we're still -- despite Tora Bora, Iraq and Katrina -- treating this job as though it were class president.

It's time we started choosing presidents the way we would brain surgeons--based on track record, experience and competence, not on whether we'd want to have a beer with them. If Democrats don't start insisting on those boring criteria, it's only a matter of time until the Republicans whip up a machine that's better at generating flashy, pizzazzy candidates primed to lure away all the voters responding to whatever's sparkly and shiny.


Sunday, December 10, 2006

Let God Sort 'Em Out

I don't know if what I'm about to say is right or not. I'm not advocating it as a thought-out plan that I can defend rationally. This is an emotional response to Iraq, though I'd be interested in hearing what a political/historical/rational rebuttal would be.

David Brooks' Sunday column in the New York Times (free here) looks back from some unspecified day in the future to assess the damage done by a U.S. pullout from Iraq circa next year. As you might expect, the Middle East has fallen apart...from its, um, y'know, terrific current state.

I've opposed the Iraq War from the start. Call me nuts, but as a New Yorker, I was kind of interested in finishing the fucking job in Afghanistan/Pakistan. That said, once we went in to Iraq and fucked the place up, in a weird kind of way, the U.S. failure there made me, in essence, pro-war. Meaning, in Powell's phrase, I bought the idea that "we broke it, we bought it." I thought we had a moral obligation to protect the Iraqis from the chaotic forces we had unleashed. Now, it seems pretty clear, the Iraqis want us out.

And I'm a lot less sure these days that they, or the rest of the Middle East, deserve having American blood spilled to preserve their stability. And the reason for that is the rise of the militias. I'm sure there are lots, maybe millions, of Iraqis who embody the ideal Iraqi we were told about: The secular, free-market, tolerant, modernist Iraqi. There just aren't enough of them willing to fight for that kind of society.

So, to David Brooks, I'm inclined to say, basically, bring it on. Let the Middle East go. If they want to kill each other over which descendant of Mohammed is Allah's real best buddy, well, then--what's the phrase?--fuck 'em. Are we really worried about what these messed up morons would do if they got a nation-state of their own?


At least we'd know where to find them. And I wouldn't mind giving Osama bin Laden the added burden of having to keep the potholes filled in whatever backwater state would have him as boss. What Bush has wrong about Iraq is that democracy is not a cure-all. The founding fathers knew you need more than just democracy. You need things like freedom of the press and religion. You need education.

Without those things, democracy can yield leaders like Hezbollah and Muqtada al-Sadr. The founding fathers also said you get the leaders you deserve. Maybe it's time to give radical, fundamentalist Islam a shot at the big time. If that's the way Iraq wants to go, or any other country, maybe we should allow the world to see how it fares. Not like Iran -- where the zealots inherited a western-style infrastructure in toto -- but starting fresh.

I think radical, fundamentalist Islam is incompatible with a successful nation-state. I don't think Iran's going to make it for the long haul in its current state.

And if such a state were successful, then what? Fight us? Fight Europe? Good. Any bets on how long that conflict would last?

I don't know, maybe all this makes me a conservative, or even a neo-con, but I do think to some extent the people of a society are responsible for the leadership they tolerate. If the Iraqis don't want us there, and don't have the collective will to support secular institutions, well, shit, what are we doing there?

I'm not saying we shouldn't have some kind of mechanism for helping or extricating modernist Iraqis if their fellow countrymen want to turn their country into a war of rival religious factions, but to keep propping up a TYPE of society that so few of them seem committed to (and voter turnout is not, as President Bush would suggest, endorsement of a TYPE of democracy, just of their willingness to choose) for such ill-defined goals seems criminal at this point.

Islamic fundamentalism wants a chance to run countries. Lots of Arab Muslims want to live in such a country.

Osama bin Laden was a bigger threat to us than Afghanistan was. As we saw, it's a lot easier to fight the Taliban. Maybe if we had more Talibans, we'd have fewer bin Ladens.

At least we'd know where to drop the bombs. If anyone wants to talk me off the ledge, I'm open to it.


Sunday, December 03, 2006

Kristof's Laziness and Lies

Nicholas Kristof's meek, predictable, unintelligent column in today's New York Times is headlined, unironically, "A Modest Proposal for a Truce on Religion." I say unironically, because whoever wrote the headline seems to be oblivious to the fact that "A Modest Proposal" was, in fact, an awful, hideous, stupid idea. As is Kristof's.

For one thing, the very concept of calling for a "truce" is disingenuous. A "truce" is generally something that benefits and harms both sides equally. Stop fighting, a truce says. But what Kristof is actually calling for is an end to the debate between those who argue that a truce is possible, and those who say it isn't. Which, of course, puts Kristof on the side of those who say a truce is possible.

Which side is that? The religious side, of course. There are three possible positions to take on atheism/reason/science vs. religion/faith/theism. You can argue that atheism/reason/science is right -- which some people do today. You can argue that both have their place -- which many/most people do today. Or you can argue that religion/faith/theism is right -- which virtually no one does today.


The idea that religion/faith/theism is right, without a place for atheism/reason/science, had a pretty good run. We now know it as the Dark Ages. Against religion's best efforts, the idea that humanity could/should rely on something other than faith to advance itself took hold in the Enlightenment.

That left religion two options: Give up, or start pushing the idea that, hey, it's a big world, there's plenty of room for our two contradictory epistemological systems to BOTH be right! With help from folks like Steven Jay Gould, eager to secure some safe territory for science, this view has come to predominate.

It has lots of appeal, because it LOOKS like moderation or compromise. Which may be fine things when you're not talking about determining objective truth. But it was a bogus compromise back when science needed it to survive, and it's a bogus one now that religion needs it, too.

Kristof exposes his bias, and agenda, in several lines. He cites both Richard Dawkins and a web site arguing that God hates amputees, to make the case that there is an "an increasingly assertive, often obnoxious atheist offensive...a militant, in-your-face brand of atheism that he and others are proselytizing for."

Assertive? Sure, Obnoxious? Compared to what? Pat Robertson? I'm not sure how Kristof defines obnoxiousness when he applies it to the side that uses sarcasm rather than to the side that says atheists are going to Hell.

Then he takes on the "acerbic" Sam Harris. What awful thing does Harris say?

Mr. Harris mocks conservative Christians for opposing abortion, writing: “20 percent of all recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage. There is an obvious truth here that cries out for acknowledgment: if God exists, He is the most prolific abortionist of all.”

There's no mockery there. There's no nyah, nyah. There's no name-calling. There's an argument. Kristof has bought into the lie that applying reason or logic to religious claims is out of line somehow. But if we're supposed to accept Kristof's claim that the two can coincide, shouldn't we ALWAYS apply reason to religion, in order to determine which parts of the world fall into which jurisdiction?

After referring to fundamentalist religions, Kristof makes this comparison: "Yet the tone of this Charge of the Atheist Brigade is often just as intolerant — and mean. It’s contemptuous and even ... a bit fundamentalist."

Intolerant -- and mean. Contemputous...fundamentalist. Is Kristof saying that the (non-existent) Atheist Brigade's methods are all these things? Their legislative agenda? No. Their tone. Boo-fucking-hoo. Jesus, grow up.

Kristof overlooks the obvious question: Are they RIGHT? If they're wrong, hit them on that. But if they're right, then, duh, is there any reason their "tone" shouldn't be intolerant or contemptuous? Of course, dealing with whether they're RIGHT would be a lot tougher for Kristof. He'd have to deal with tough things like science and facts. Not to mention public outcry.

So he takes the classic easy-media-way-out: Call for a truce between two sides whose positions can and should, instead, be rationally debated and assessed. But Kristof is too focused on debating at the level of the average high-school sophomore:

Granted, religious figures have been involved throughout history in the worst kinds of atrocities. But as Mao Zedong, Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot show, so have atheists.

Moreover, for all the slaughters in the name of religion over the centuries, there is another side of the ledger. Every time I travel in the poorest parts of Africa, I see missionary hospitals that are the only source of assistance to desperate people.

Okay, maybe we can address these tired and moronic points once and for all. Zedong, Stalin and Pol Pot might or might not have been atheists. What's meaningful is not whether they as individuals were, but whether they as leaders were. They were not. To whatever extent they eradicated religion in their regimes (and Stalin let it back in when it served his ends -- proving that atheism was not his end), it was to the same extent that they eradicated, co-opted or seized control of every other social institution. Does anyone really think that if the United Atheist Alliance had been a powerful political force in Cambodia -- lobbying for legislation, pushing policies, endorsing candidates, whatever -- that Pol Pot would have said, "Keep up the good work, guys! I'll be over here oppressing everyone else if you need me!"

Atheism isn't right or necessary or valuable because it will eradicate all evil in the world. It's just as stupid to advance an anti-atheist argument on that basis as it is to argue against a cure for cancer because there will still be AIDS. And the fact that religious people in religious institutions do good certainly doesn't undermine the argument that the world would be better off without religion.

Who knows, maybe if more people understood that goodness doesn't come from god, we might make it easier for other people to join and form organizations devoted to doing good. We might even use the collective power of our governments to do so. And even if there were some good in the world that religion -- and only religion -- could bring us, that still doesn't justify propagating or even tolerating it. Without heroin we wouldn't have the works of William S. Burroughs. Kristof should not be in the business of weighing the relative benefits of believing in something, he should have the balls to assess whether that thing is true or not.

He doesn't, which is why he closes with this laughable observation:

Now that the Christian Right has largely retreated from the culture wars, let’s hope that the Atheist Left doesn’t revive them. We’ve suffered enough from religious intolerance that the last thing the world needs is irreligious intolerance.

For one thing, who knew that the Christian Right had largely retreated from the culture wars? You'd think that kind of thing would have merited coverage on the front page of Kristof's paper. No such luck.

But more importantly, Kristof closes with the lie that atheists are just as intolerant as the religiously intolerant. What Dawkins and Harris and others won't tolerate is the notion that we're supposed to treat religious beliefs as though they have passed the laugh test. Other than that, Kristof's implication that the intolerance of both sides is somehow equal is the kind of false, poisonous slur that's only tolerated by people unwilling to do the hard work of following the facts.


Friday, December 01, 2006

Webb v. Bush: Who Swung First?

The big debate, spurred by George Will's obtuse column, over whether incoming Sen. Jim Webb was rude to Pres. Bush in their exchange about Iraq, ignores the fact that Bush was rude first.

As Will put it, Bush merely "asked a civil and caring question, as one parent to another." If that were the case, Will would be right: Webb would have been rude.

But Will is wrong. Bush is not "one parent" asking a "civil and caring question." Bush is the man who put Webb's son in harm's way. If one parent who had put another parent's son in a dangerous situation then approached that parent to inquire about how the son was doing in that dangerous situation, the natural response of ANY parent would be what Webb's instincts told him to do: Belt him in the face.

The reason Bush asked this question is not that he is civil and/or caring (does anyone really still think either?) but that he is a bully. It was a bully's question because Bush instinctively understood that he could ask it safely behind the protection of the same office he abused to put Webb's son in jeopardy.

Anyone who gets Bush should understand the following: Bush was testing Webb. Bush was pushing Webb to see how much deference the presidency would buy him.

He got his answer.


Saturday, October 28, 2006


Despite the proliferation of flat-out wrong sweeping generalities about, um, all 300 million Americans, Peggy Noonan's latest represents not just yet another crack in the theocon foundation, but a whistleblower's report that some of the very pieces of the foundation want it to crumble, too.


Friday, April 14, 2006

"United 93" - Why We're Not Ready

"United 93" opens next week. But even before the critics got to see it, the first reviews were in. "Too soon," came the cry, literally, from the audience watching the trailers. "We're not ready," said the headlines.

Too soon. We're not ready.

These aren't complaints about the movie. It wasn't, "Too graphic!" Or, "You're insensitive!" The complaints about the movie were statements about us. It's too soon for us. We're not ready.

It's the same lament I used to have when I had failed to prepare for a test. I hadn't done my homework. I hadn't mastered the lessons. I hadn't read the books. It was too soon. I wasn't ready.

That wasn't the case after Pearl Harbor. "Remember Pearl Harbor" opened on May 18, 1942. That was less than six months after Japanese fighter planes had swarmed over American soil, killing almost 2500 people and destroying 12 American warships and 188 American planes. Well before the war even ended, it was the subject of countless films. America wasn't just ready for those films, they were hungering for them.

Sixty years later, aren't we supposed to be more inured to violence? Aren't we more sophisticated about our art, our visual media? What happened to that ironic distance we hide behind? If any audience should be able to stomach an intense account of an attack on our nation, shouldn't it be the media-savvy sophisticates of 2006, rather than the rubes of 1942? What's the difference between then and now?

The difference is pretty simple, actually. In the 1940s, America, government and populace alike, responded with terrible and awesome resolve, united in a purpose that assumed primary importance in everyone's lives. Four years after Pearl Harbor, America and its allies had defeated the enemy by taking the fight to them. On the home front, civilians bought war bonds. They planted Victory Gardens (which eventually would supply an astounding 40% of domestically consumed vegetables for the purpose of allowing the military to purchase canned vegetables cheaper). They rationed everything: Paper, rubber, food. They rationed food, ferchrissakes.

What have we done? How have we earned the sacrifice of United flight 93?

We have rationed nothing. Not even the oil that pays the terrorists' bills.

When our military had the killers of September 11th cornered at Tora Bora, our government backed off, and allowed them to escape. But we scoffed at the men who told us that, and re-elected that government anyway.

For years since, we have allowed the killers of September 11th safe harbor in Pakistan, because our government does not want to upset the political balance there. But out of ignorance or apathy, we go along with our government's fiction that Pakistan is an ally. And we re-elected that government anyway.

Our government exploited our fear and grief to sell us on a military goal they had cherished since well before September 11th. And when a few men and women dared to tell us the truth, to object to this craven desecration of flight 93's sacrifice, our leaders belittled them or questioned the one thing that obligated them to speak up: Their patriotism.

Instead of rejecting use of the weapon responsible for September 11th, religious fundamentalism, our government exalted and embraced it, claiming it as a basis for government policy.

Instead of admitting laxity and culpability in the days before September 11th, our government tried to cover up the truths. And even after those truths were revealed in documents such as the Presidential Daily Briefing of August 6, 2001, we re-elected that government.

Instead of demanding that our media return to its original intended function of keeping us informed about the world in which we were now supposed to be fighting a deadly struggle, within a few months we embraced the pap that was so much easier to produce.

And our media embraced and sold the conceit that they were refraining from showing the awful toll of war -- bodies falling from skyscrapers, carnage on the ground -- in order to protect our delicate sensibilities. In fact, they acted out of fear that we would judge them not as responsible journalists -- showing us painful but important images -- but as the entertainers they had become, focused on trivia and prurience and therefore suspect in their motives for showing us anything shocking or horrific. And, in fact, serving witness to the awful fate of our fellow Americans would have been the least we could have done and, at best, might actually have motivated sufficient anger and passion to guarantee an effective, sustained, meaningful response to the attack. Thankful for not having to bear the burden of those awful images, we congratulated our media for protecting our fragile eyes.

And that made it easier to return to watching pap. Why shouldn't we, when we never had to confront the specific realities of what had happened to 3,000 Americans?

If our government was failing to inspect more than 1 in 20 of the cargo containers entering America's ports, we didn't mind. We didn't even care enough to know about it.

If it took another planeload of civilians -- rather than aviation security -- to stop Richard Reid even after September 11, could we be bothered to hold a single agency accountable? To demand even one firing, let alone a transfer? Apparently not.

And when another terrorist struck on American soil, targeting not just civilians but citadels of our government with anthrax, were we able to stop our attackers or even identify them? Did we demand accountability among those charged with defending us?

And after such vulnerabilities were exposed, what did we do to prepare? Four years later, a simple thing like preparation of mobile hospitals goes unfinished.

And if we can't be bothered to remain informed about our enemy, or our own efforts or lack thereof to thwart the enemy, how do honor the heroes of September 11th?

Pat Tillman sacrificed fame and fortune and fun in professional sports to serve his country in its response to September 11th. But our government sent him to Iraq. And when he finally got to Afghanistan, his death by friendly fire was covered up by the military. And covered up again. And again.

And though Pat Tillman questioned both religion and the existence of a god, our media continued to spoonfeed us one of our favorite slurs -- no atheists in foxholes -- slandering Pat Tillman as he lay in the dirt unable to defend himself against the very people he died defending.

And to this day, the people he died defending consider him -- and anyone who dares reject their god -- as morally inferior even to those followers of the same faith that motivated September 11th.

New York City Detective James Zadroga gave his life for the city, succumbing this year to the effects of serving for hundreds of hours at Ground Zero. But even while our government was reaping political capital from New York's agonies, its leaders were lying to James and to the stricken city about the aid they would give us and about the very safety of that site. Their lies literally added to the death toll.

And what about the heroes of flight 93 themselves? They died to defend a free society. And yet, their sacrifice was invoked as somehow justifying measure after measure designed to restrict our freedoms. And because we lacked the bravery that arose on board flight 93, we shrank from the prospect of choosing freedom over security.

And then there's Mark Bingham. He was a rugby player on board flight 93. He assisted in rebelling against the hijackers. He gave his life to defend America's lawmakers, the targets of those hijackers. So how did they repay him? They condemned him. They said that Bingham didn't love the right way. They said that Bingham, were he alive today, would have no right, should have no right, to marry whomever he wanted. They used the gift he had died to give them -- their very lives -- to slander him for his love. And we re-elected them.

We spat on Pat Tillman's grave. We killed James Zadroga. We defamed Mark Bingham's love. Of course some of us aren't ready to experience the sacrifice of flight 93. We have squandered that sacrifice. Our cowardice made it a vain one. At every opportunity we have had to act nobly, to choose freedom, to honor the ideals of self-sacrifice and dedication to a cause, we have chosen the path of scared, lazy, callow children.

I know I haven't done all I could. And I've known a huge and awful shame at America's failure to prove worthy of the sacrifices of September 11th. I don't know whether I'll watch this movie. But if I don't, it won't be because they were wrong to make it. It will be because I and my country haven't done what we should have by now. Of course it's too soon. Of course we're not ready. We will never be ready, until we've earned it.


Monday, April 10, 2006


Drudge Report is reporting that Ann Coulter's new book is entitled, "Godless." It's meant, of course, as a slur. And the problem with Democrats is that that's how they'll take it. They'll respond defensively. Because they haven't learned a thing from the last two elections.

President Bush won by not apologizing for what he was. But Democrats will sputter and insist, "We're not godless! We love God! Almost as much as you do!"

Which, of course, is precisely the wrong way for them to reply. What they should say is, "Yes, some of us are godless. Some of us aren't sure about God. Some of us believe in God with all their hearts. Our politics don't impose anyone's god on anyone else. Our politics are true to the Constitution of the United States, not someone's personal idea of what god wants. If our politics are godless, if our party is godless, it's because our party has room for everyone's idea of god, whatever it might be."

The way to beat the Christian Right is to marginalize it, to claim everyone (you know: The MAJORITY OF AMERICA) who doesn't self-identify as Christian Right. Making a blatantly disingenuous play for Christian votes is the one thing guaranteed to fail.


Saturday, April 08, 2006

Libby's Secret Target: It Wasn't Just Wilson

Vice President Dick Cheney's Chief of Staff, I. Lewis Libby, wasn't just out to sink the credibility of Joseph Wilson when he met with New York Times Reporter Judith Miller on July 8, 2003. He had another target, too.

We've known for a while that Miller agreed to falsely attribute the information Libby fed her to a "former Hill staffer." But the new filing by prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, as revealed by the New York Sun, makes clear not only that Libby specifically requested to be identified as a "former Hill staffer," but, according to Fitzgerald:

In fact, on July 8, defendant spoke with Miller about Mr. Wilson after requesting that attribution of his remarks be changed to “former Hill staffer.”
Changed. Intriguingly, Fitzgerald never identifies what attibution Libby previously requested. Was it "White House insider"? "Senior White House official"? "A knowledgeable source in the executive branch"?

Why a "former Hill staffer"? Why not a former Defense Dept. staffer? Or a former State Dept. staffer? He's worked for both. If Libby wanted the intelligence on Iraq to be seen as credible, why not attribute it to one of them, either of which would be closer to the source of the information than the Hill?

It's true, Libby's work as a "former Hill staffer" was more recent. But let's look at a chronology of his work history to see whether that's really sufficient to make it an appropriate way to attribute intelligence about Iraq:
  • 2001-2005 - Assistant to the President, chief of staff to the Vice President and national security affairs adviser to the Vice President
  • 2000 - Adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney in the 2000 presidential campaign
  • 1995-2001 - Dechert, Price & Rhoads, Attorney
  • 1992-1995 - U.S. Department of Defense, deputy under secretary-policy
  • 1989-1992 - U.S. Department of Defense, deputy undersecretary-strategy and resources
  • 1985-1989 - Dickstein, Shapiro & Morin, attorney
  • 1982-1985 - US Department of State, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, special projects director
  • 1981-1982 - US Department of State, policy planning staff, member
Libby's congressional staff position doesn't even rate a mention. Is it possible that he lied to Miller, or that he and Miller agreed to publish a blatant falsehood by referring to him as a "former Hill staffer"? Not exactly.

The official appendix of the Cox Committee confirms that Libby served as a "legal advisor." But the committee's appendix also specifically says that it was in operation for a "limited time...(effectively from July 1998 to the end of December 1998)..." Six months. And not only was it just six months, but those six months came while he had a day job as an attorney. So it could hardly have been a full-time effort.

And what was the Cox Committee investigating, anyway? Iraq? Proliferation of WMDs? After all, that would explain why Libby's work with them would be relevant to his citation as a source for Iraq intelligence. Here's how the committee report itself explains its mission (starting with its official title):
The Select Committee on U.S. National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns with the People's Republic of China (the Select Committee) was established pursuant to House Resolution 463, adopted on June 18, 1998 (included at Appendix C). The Resolution authorized the Select Committee to investigate a broad range of issues relating to the transfer of U.S. technology to the People's Republic of China.
Not Iraq. Not the Middle East. The People's Republic of China.

So, six months of work, on a part-time basis, with no relevance to Iraq, eight years ago. How and why would Libby choose this particular part of his life for Miller to use in identifying to the world the source of classified information about Iraq?

The answer is not just to insulate the White House. He could have done that in ways that would have given the Iraq intelligence more credibility. It's not that he views his Hill position as particularly important work. On the site where he's trying to drum up support and cash, his time at the House of Representatives is listed last.

He chose Congress because the White House has consistently tried to undermine legislative oversight of the executive branch by trying to make Americans think members of Congress can not be trusted with classified information, that Congress might even leak classified information, for political purposes. President Bush has tried to push this notion in order to win support for his attempts to escape congressional oversight.

President Bush limited what his staff are allowed to tell Congress (see the memo here). He disputed legal requirements on executive-branch disclosures to Congress (here). (The Federation of American Scientists has a great set of links here.)

Here are some of Bush's public comments disparaging openly, or by implication, the trustworthiness and patriotism of politicians other than himself and his staff.

In discussing the Plame leak itself:
This is a town of -- where a lot of people leak. And I've constantly expressed my displeasure with leaks, particularly leaks of classified information...
In discussing his clampdown (see above) on releasing information to Congress:
We had some security briefings take place up on Capitol Hill that were a discussion about classified information and some of that information was shared with the press...

These are extraordinary times. Our nation has put our troops at risk. And therefore, I felt it was important to send a clear signal to Congress that classified information must be held dear, that there's a responsibility that if you receive a briefing of classified information, you have a responsibility. And some members did not accept that responsibility, somebody didn't. So I took it upon myself to notify the leadership of the Congress that I intend to protect our troops.

And that's why I sent the letter I sent. It's a serious matter, Dave, it's very serious that people in positions of responsibility understand, that they have a responsibility to people who are being put in harm's way. I'm having breakfast tomorrow with members of Congress. I will be glad to bring up this subject.

I understand there may be some heartburn on Capitol Hill. But I suggest if they want to relieve that heartburn, that they take their positions very seriously, and that they take any information they've been given by our government very seriously. Because this is serious business we're talking about...
Pres. Bush has had a lot of success demonizing Congress. The right wing has picked up on the idea that America is endangered if Bush shares information with Congress (see one representative rant here).

Libby chose to have Miller lie to the world and claim that classified information about America's enemy, Iraq, was leaked not from the White House (which claims it had legal authority to do so, and therefore should have had no motive to shield its identity as the source) and not from State or DOD (which would have reduced suspicions of political motivation while also boosting empirical credibility), but from Capitol Hill. It wasn't an honest attempt to characterize Libby as something other than a White House staffer. And it wasn't just a passing slur on the nation's legislative branch. It was part of a consistent White House message -- still in effect -- that Congress shouldn't have oversight of the White House because Congress can't be trusted.

Thanks to Fitzgerald, its a lot clearer now who can't be trusted, and who needs oversight now more than ever.


Double Standards

When this religious fanatic kills people for God, Americans vote that insanity is at work.

When this one does it, not so much.


Friday, April 07, 2006


When I was at CNN, I worked with both Keith Olbermann and, on a different show, with Brian Unger (a former Daily Show correspondent). I'm a fan of both guys, and it turns out that Brian is filling in for Keith Olbermann tonight on his MSNBC show, Countdown. I don't normally tout Keith's show because, frankly, everyone's already talking about it.

But I want to put everyone on notice that Brian is smart, sharp, really funny and, although I have no clue what he's got in mind for tonight, I can certainly vouch that it's worth checking out. Let me know how you think he does.


Thursday, April 06, 2006

How Bush Will Finesse the Libby Leak

The media went nuts today over the Sun's report that Bush authorized Libby to leak information to the New York Times. How will Bush parry this? Very easily.

Bush will admit it. He did nothing illegal. It’s within his right to declassify information however he wants. So what?

Remember that Tom Clancy/Harrison Ford movie (I'm thinking it was "Clear and Present Danger") where the White House wrestles with how to explain the president’s friendship with a man killed in a drug war? The president’s aides suggest downplaying the friendship, saying the two men had met, but weren’t friends.

Harrison Ford says, no, “If they ask you whether you were friends, say, ‘No, we weren’t friends. We were good friends.’ Give them nowhere to go.” That’s what this administration does, and very well. They give the media nowhere to go, because the media are going for the gotcha, rather than the meaning of the gotcha. If the gotcha moment is undercut from the media, they don’t know how to proceed to the meaning of the gotcha, because they view that as “subjective” territory.

And once the media have to deal with something that can be construed as subjective, whether it is or not, they're lost.


Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Air America Saved?

According to Radio Equalizer, Danny Goldberg's days are over at Air America Radio. I had a feeling that, after killing Morning Sedition, Goldberg's stock had gone down with the board.

Whether Goldberg's departure comes in time to save Air America, I have no idea. A lot of it will depend on whether the board is smart enough to bring in someone who knows what they're doing and is willing to work closely with the people -- those who are still left -- who made Air America a success, rather than continue to be bamboozled by the people who excell at claiming to have made Air America a success.


Maybe We Should Invade?

Iraq's leader defies U.S., U.K. and the international community!

We can't wait for the U.N. to dither and delay while Ibrahim Jaafari continues to consolidate his power and thumb his nose at the world. We must take action now!


Tuesday, April 04, 2006

AP, Fuck the Facts, Fuck the Future, Fuck America is headlining an Associated Press story this way:

Officer: 'Miracle' that everyone survived.

Plane size, position of fuel may have helped

Here are the top two grafs:

DOVER, Delaware (AP) -- A huge military cargo plane faltered after takeoff and belly-landed short of the Dover Air Force Base runway Monday, breaking apart and drenching some of the 17 people aboard with fuel but causing no fire or life-threatening injuries.

"It is a miracle. Absolutely a miracle," said Lt. Col. Mark Ruse, commander of the base's 436th Air Wing Civil Engineering squadron.
Not until the ninth paragraph is there a suggestion that forces other than magic were at work:
Pilots familiar with the plane say its sheer size -- roughly that of a football field -- likely contributed to the fact that there were no deaths.
"Contributed," meaning, I suppose, made it easier for The Lord?

Only by the 11th and 12th paragraphs do we find out that actual people -- employing actual knowledge and actual skills acquired during lifetimes of actual education and training -- played some role:

The fact that the fuel is stored in the wings, which unlike many other planes are mounted atop the fuselage, may explain the absence of fire, said Larsen [no relation], director of the Institute for Homeland Security, a think tank in Arlington, Virginia.

Larsen also said that if the crew was able maintain some control of the aircraft, it was not surprising that they survived.

The headline and article itself represent an obvious violation of the Ten Commandments of Covering Religion, of course. In this case, it results from a few unfortunate tendencies in journalism (opposition to which is usually pooh-poohed as fuddy-duddyism): Lack of training and familiarity with matters of math, engineering and science;Easy sensationalism; the mindless feel-good-ism wrongly associated with supernatural intervention.

Ironically, in the American past so longed-for by the Christian right, journalists would have played this story very differently. Back in the Eisenhower era, especially after Sputnick, some smart journalist -- hell, some smart agency flack -- would have tracked down the engineer responsible for the fuel-tank placement and made a hero out of them. We would hear all about the exacting training and top-notch skills of the pilot, co-pilot and their team.

And some kid seeing that story -- and, yes, covetous of the glory -- would aspire to design planes, or build them. In short, once upon a time we recognized rational, adult modes of causality (investment in and prioritization of design, training and education yields superior planes and superior crews and American technical and military superiority) and that led us to make investments wisely and to vote for politicians who valued those causes and to raise children who idolized the people and systems devoted to those causes.

We no longer have that. Now we have a brain drain. CNN and the Associated Press are contributing to this culture that denigrates hard work, intelligence, skill and rationality, and exalts juvenile, simple-minded superstitions. I wish I could say the consequences are so far off that our kids will pay the price. They will, but we already are.


DeLay: This Is the Day

In his interview with Time, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay rationalizes why he's a whining little quitter who knows he'd get his ass kicked in November if he didn't drop out of the race.

Here's the money quote, (which Time's Mike Allen would have challenged, had he not chosen to violate the Ten Commandments of Covering Religion):

My main point was that this country was built on morals and religion. Our greatest leaders were very strong believers. There is a connection between religion and politics, and religion and government. There has to be for this country to have accomplished all it's accomplished and for its future. How many times have the great leaders—Ronald Reagan, Roosevelt, Lincoln, George Washington—have said there is a connection between morals and religion. And there has to be. The people that go to church understand that a country has to be based on some sort of religion and fear of God because they understand that.

Any member of Congress so ignorant of or willing to distort the beliefs of the general who fought the Revolutionary War and then led the country as its first president, doesn't deserve to be in Congress. Here are some of Washington's actual thoughts about religion and morals:

There is nothing which can better deserve our patronage than the promotion of science and literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness.

To give opinions unsupported by reasons might appear dogmatical.

Religious controversies are always productive of more acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause.

...I beg you be persuaded that no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution.

...the path of true piety is so plain as to require but little political direction. (This in response to the day's DeLay analogues, who whined that the Constitution didn't mention their boyfriend, Jesus).

In discussing how events might unfold, he said of "the great ruler of events":

...we may safely trust the issue to him, without perplexing ourselves to seek for that which is beyond human ken, only taking care to perform the parts assigned to us in a way that reason and our own conscience approve of.
You can find more here. And more here. One of the things DeLay will be packing up from his Washington office is a plaque that eloquently combines mystery and certitude in referring to the magical return of Jesus. "This could be the day," it says. Well, apparently, it didn't come soon enough for Tom. ("Where's your savior, now?")

Instead, he's running away because earthly justice is coming for him and making it impossible for him to remain in office. In his attempt to hijack Washington's clear preference for reason over religion in political matters, DeLay is leaving office as he attained and held it: As a liar.


Sunday, April 02, 2006

Wanted: Impotent Scapegoat

The New York Times has a great piece on President Bush's inability to find someone willing to take Michael Brown's old job as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. They've done a nice bit of digging to root out several people who've turned down the FEMA job.

But I think they could have done a lot more in explaining why. The Times suggests that the top candidates are "unconvinced" that the administration is serious about "fixing" FEMA. But the reality is, whether the job candidates were being diplomatic or not, the administration has, if anything, been serious about breaking FEMA. I'm talking about Bush's vision for FEMA from before 9/11 and Katrina -- when there was no political motive for concealing his true ideas of what FEMA should and should not be. Here are the specifics on why the job is so undesireable:

President Bush came into office openly praising the job FEMA had done under President Clinton.

But as soon as President Bush took office, he began dismantling FEMA. Project Impact and the ANSS were among the first to feel the pain.

Then, Bush's budget guy, Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels, made clear what the administration's view of FEMA was. In April, 2001, he reportedly said: "The general idea--that the business of government is not to provide services, but to make sure that they are provided--seems self-evident to me."

The next month, Bush's first FEMA director, Joe Allbaugh -- like his successor, Michael Brown, a political appointee -- made similar remarks before the Senate. I've emphasized language Allbaugh used to signal that, under Bush, FEMA was to assist and encourage LOCAL disaster responses, rather than take the lead in preparing and responding itself, around the nation. Specifically, he said:

During my tenure in this position of public trust, we will...

* Implement pre-disaster mitigation programs that encourage the building of disaster resistant communities;

* Guide the Federal Insurance Administration to implement policies encouraging the purchase of flood insurance and reducing the costs of flood related disasters...

* Pay special attention and strengthen those volunteer and non-governmental organizations responding to disasters...

In recent decades, we have seen Federal emergency management swing from overly prescriptive preparedness programs and a single focus on response and recovery, to a more comprehensive approach that incorporates mitigation, by taking prudent protective measures to reduce losses. At the same time, we have seen soaring disaster relief costs that need to be managed more effectively.

The Administration's budget request for FEMA this year will build on this progress by emphasizing Responsibility and Accountability. This budget request asks individuals, communities, States, and FEMA to take on an appropriate degree of responsibility while empowering them with the tools to accept greater responsibility. Built into this budget request are sound public policy tools to ensure greater accountability to each other and the American taxpayer...
Two things to note here. One is the mindset that the federal government is apart from the people. Most people, I think, consider the federal government a device that the people themselves have created and support in order to do things exactly like respond to disasters. In reality, however, President Bush sees people as individually responsible even for such matters as disaster preparedness and response. And his vision of government denies them the ability to act together, collectively, in ways that not only pool individual resources (i.e. tax dollars), but also allow them to deal from a position of strength. In other words, if individuals are responsible for disaster preparedness, they're stripped of the power collective bargaining would give them in dealing with contractors, suppliers, insurance companies, etc.

More from Allbaugh:
Disaster mitigation and prevention activities are inherently grassroots. These activities involve local decision-making about zoning, building codes, and strategy planning to meet a community's unique needs. It is not the role of the Federal Government to tell a community what it needs to do to protect its citizens and infrastructure.
It's a nice formulation, but it denies the reality that local communities -- such as New Orleans pre-Katrina -- have been trying to tell the federal government what IT needs to do to protect its citizens and infrastructure. No one has advocated for an imperial federal disaster agency, which is why such an agency is a straw man argument. Advocating for an active, federal lead in disaster response does not automatically mean advocating an authoritarian policy-making federal agency.
The original intent of Federal disaster assistance is to supplement State and local response efforts. Many are concerned that Federal disaster assistance may have evolved into both an oversized entitlement program and a disincentive to effective State and local risk management.
Translation: The Bush administration views your claim that the government protect you from floods and fires and terrorist attacks as an "entitlement," and views local government as failing to view floods and fires and terrorist attacks as sufficient disincentive on their own.
Expectations of when the Federal Government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level. We must restore the predominant role of State and local response to most disasters. Federal assistance needs to supplement, not supplant, State and local efforts.

Having Federal assistance supplement, not supplant State and local efforts is, most likely, going to be one of the more difficult measures aimed at responsibility and accountability that this Administration will have to work through.
At last, something we can all agree on. But what's really telling about this remark, is that it reveals our current problems with FEMA as not the fault of Michael Brown, or even government "bureaucracy," but as the fault of the fundamental vision Bush has for what FEMA should be. What's truly frustrating, of course, is that by implementing his vision of an impotent, useless FEMA -- and then blaming its failings not on his emasculation of it, but on individual personnel and the mythical "bureaucracy" beast -- he can make the case that it, and government, are not up to the task, rather than the fact that he, and his administration, don't want or believe in the task.

More Allbaugh:
We will pay special attention to volunteers and non-governmental organizations responding to disasters. Disasters hit hardest in communities and neighborhoods, and our solutions to disaster problems rely on local solutions. Faith-based groups at the community level, like the Salvation Army and the Mennonite Disaster Service, play critical roles in disaster relief, as does the American Red Cross...

As the President's Director for emergency management, I am also aware of the expectations of our citizens that their government protect their lives and property when an emergency or disaster occurs, whether it is a hurricane, earthquake, flood, tornado, or as the result of an act of terrorism.

As we implement criteria empowering State and local governments to assume greater responsibility for people and property, we need to equip them to do this.
One reason the Bush administration wants smaller, decentralized disaster response is that it's easier for the powers that be, whether it's big money, big business or big religion, can more easily influence faith-based organizations, state and local governments, than they can the federal government. Why? Primarily because it's much more difficult to rally significant opposition to that influence. What public accountability is there for faith-based organizations? How much do you know -- and how much do your local media cover -- the ins and outs of your state or even local government?
As President Bush said in his February address to the Joint Session of Congress, "Our new governing vision says government should be active, but limited; engaged, but not overbearing." We think you will see that the budget proposal for FEMA truly reflects the President's goal of restoring a proper balance - moving away from the expectation that the Federal Government is the option of first resort to the option of last resort.
Exactly. Katrina didn't reveal FEMA's shortcomings, it accelerated Bush's goal for FEMA: Does anyone today still have expectations that the federal government is the option of first resort? Mission accomplished.

Even after Katrina, the media continued to miss the telling ways Bush's language revealed his vision for FEMA. I dissected one particularly telling speech here. The reality is, that American cities and towns don't have the money to each develop and maintain standing disaster-response teams on the same level the federal government can muster. It would be silly, redundant and wasteful even if every city and town were capable of it. That leaves only the corporate option -- turning to private contractors for emergency disaster response. That's real end-game here, taking the federal government out of the equation, so that people are forced to turn to Halliburton and friends.

What the New York Times misses, I think, is that no respectable disaster specialist wants this job, because the job doesn't entail disaster response or preparedness any more. Thanks to a concept of the role of federal government that has been consistent from day one and has withstood the onslaughts of 9/11 and Katrina, FEMA and the federal government are, just as Bush wanted, no longer in the disaster business.

Ironically, Bush has so effectively disabled America's ability to respond to a disaster that now FEMA really, finally, actually is an appropriate position for Joe Allbaugh or Michael Brown.


Friday, March 31, 2006

Solid Journalism Doesn't Have a Prayer

Watch the news today to see the anchors and correspondents struggle awkwardly with how to report the massive study that showed third-party prayers have no effect on the recovery of heart patients. The bad journalism has already begun.

I haven't read the Times piece yet, but you can find it here.

The Associated Press has a truly awful, one-sided, aggressively biased piece that you can find here.

I haven't read the Reuters piece yet, but just its headline tells you that someone fucked up. The study didn't "fail" to find prayer's power any more than telescopes fail to find the gleaming spires of heaven. Telescopes showed us that heaven ain't there. This study has SUCCEEDED in showing us that heaven ain't there.

Can you imagine if the study had shown a better recovery rate among patients who had been prayed for? The TV anchors would be positively gleeful today -- and you can bet they'd be playing the story higher than they will be now.

This outcome, however, will see them somber and neutral. Count on some bubble-headed hairdo to tag out of a piece with some moronic attempt at feel-goodity like, "well, a lot of people know that prayer works for them!" or some other such horseshit.

What most people fail to understand is that a universe in which prayer worked would be a miserable, frightening, awful place. Imagine if physical causality were not the
chain that led to illness or recovery. Imagine if there really were an invisible magic man making life-or-death decisions based on, well, his whim. Would you really feel better in a world where we had no hope of and no reason for pursuing advances in medicine? Would you really feel better knowing that, at any second, for any reason (including, but not limited to, moral judgment of who you are, or the pleading of people who just don't like you) you could be stricken with a flesh-eating virus? Imagine how stigmatized sick people would be in this world (the way they used to be) if everyone knew that Magic Man had decided not to heal them. How would you feel toward Magic Man if he let your Mom waste away from cancer? How would other people feel about your Mom if Magic Man decided she wasn't worth saving from cancer? Listen for half a second to people today who believe in god when they struggle to understand why he didn't save them or their loved ones from 9/11, Katrina, the tsunami, whatever. Do they seem happy and comforted by their faith?

Fuck, no. But that won't stop the media from happily reporting on efforts to keep them in fold, or soft-pedaling this study in order to minimize the potential bummer effect.

It would be nice to see someone with credibility and skepticism report this story. Like Peter Jennings.

Please everyone, post here your thoughts on the coverage of this story. All anecdotes and links appreciated!


Thursday, March 30, 2006

Blind Spots

I witnessed a car accident today.

It was a three-lane service road. The right-hand lane peeled off into local traffic. Ahead of me, in the leftmost lane, was a blue compact car. Immediately prior to the point at which the right lane split off, the blue car veered suddenly and sharply to the right, in a clear, last-minute bid to try to make the turn-off.

Unfortunately, there was another car in between her and the turn-off. She slammed right into it.
I pulled over ahead of the two cars, got out and checked with their respective drivers. Both women were fine. I gave my name and number to the woman whose car had been struck and told her I'd be willing to give a statement saying what I had seen.

The other woman was a little shaken. She kept repeating how the other car had been "in [her] blind spot." As I prepared to leave, I told her that if I were asked, by the police or insurance companies, I would tell them that I saw the whole thing and that, in my view, the accident was clearly her fault.

The woman then became pissed at me -- not raging or anything, but irritated and frustrated. She repeated her previous statement, emphasizing that the other car had been in her blind spot.

I almost wish I had had the time to discuss this with her. Clearly, the fact that the other driver had been in her blind spot was supposed to change my assessment of culpability. Leave aside for the moment the fact that she had veered so suddenly there hadn't been a realistic window of time in which she could have adequately checked her path. In her view, it was reasonable to believe that:
a) She was in the right to have driven into another lane without checking to make sure that there was a car in her blind spot
b) The fact that she didn't see the car absolved her of blame in hitting the car
c) Other people (e.g., me) would understand these views.

Basically, she didn't know whether there was a car in her path, and therefore, she wasn't morally responsible for hitting it.

In reality, of course, she had two other options: Slow down enough to look before switching, or don't switch. Instead, her ignorance became her excuse. Ignorance is supposed to -- and, I think once did -- constitute a reason for caution, rather than an excuse for the consequences of lack of caution.

I have no evidence for this, but I feel as though this is not an uncommon mindset. I'm not just referring to the obvious political analogies. I'm also referring to the people who vote for these politicians. I'm referring to everyone out there who thinks they're free of a moral burden to apply rigorous logic to their place in the world and the consequence of their actions. I've written before that I think a stereotypically liberal mindset -- that we're all due respect, every emotion and impulse we have is great and worthwhile, feelings are all that matter, logic is bad, etc. -- has enabled the emergence of a political culture in which people actually vote for president based on the having-a-beer-with criteria, and think that's okay.

Ignorance is not an excuse. We have a moral duty to stop exalting emotion and instinct at the expense of logical assessment. We have to start embracing what once were stereotypically conservative values -- hard-headed rationality -- if we want to get back to a government and a politics that holds people -- politicians included -- accountable for their actions.


The Secret War of Christianity

I love, and I'm glad they nailed it here, but I think they missed a larger point. At best, you can argue that there is a war on government endorsement of Christianity. That war was started by the founding fathers when they wrote the First Amendment. That war also helps to ensure that Christianity thrives as much as it has in this country (as opposed to other nations that nominally endorse specific denominations).

But while I'm glad C&L pointed out the war on gays and science, the reason that war is possible is that the real theological war in this country is being waged against atheists. Here's the proof. Gays and minorities still, clearly, suffer from discrimination. But there are gay and black and Latino and Asian members of Congress. Are there any atheists?

Atheists make up a comparatively large percentage of the nation's top scientists, leading America in technology and research. The most praised casualty of the war on terror was a man whose family said had no use for religion. Atheists base their morals on rational choices, rather than on the coercion of unseen forces. That makes them MORE moral, not less. And yet, still, people in this nation treat them like moral lepers. Fortunately, our numbers are growing. The internet is allowing more and more people to escape the cognitive confines of even the most remote, shuttered communities. We're making progress, but we won't make real strides until we can get the mainstream media -- or even our friends at C&L! -- to recognize that atheists are a disenfranchised, persecuted target of religious-based bigotry. Everyone who champions tolerance ought to make sure that they're including atheists (and, of course, agnostics), among the ranks of those being defended.


Your Soul Is Keeping Us in Iraq

When we think about religion and politics, we tend to think in terms of religious leaders and demographic blocs exerting political influence. But that's not the most pernicious effect religion has on the public sphere. The most insidious religious beliefs, the ones that damage our society and culture most, are the ones that are held by everyone of a religious bent, from fundamentalist conservatives to the most radical lefties who say they reject god and superstition yet cling to superstitious, religious notions such as souls and spirituality and even fate.

For instance, if you believe in such a thing as souls, you're a part of the reason for some of the support he still has for the U.S. war in Iraq. Here's how.

On Wednesday, President Bush spoke yet again about the war. He made one interesting comment which got a lot of play on cable news, but I haven't seen it picked up in print yet. I suspect that's because the certainty of his delivery made for good TV better than the insubstantial content made for good print. Here's what he said about the (presumably monolithic) enemy in Iraq:

They're not going to shake my confidence, I just want you to know. I understand their tactics and I know their designs. But I also believe that Iraqis can and want to self-govern. That's what I believe. And so when you see me make decisions, or make statements like I make, you've got to understand it's coming from a basic set of beliefs. That's what I believe. And that's what a decision-maker ought to do. The decision-maker ought to make decisions based upon deep-seeded beliefs. You don't need a President chasing polls and focus groups in order to make tough decisions. You need Presidents who make decisions based upon sound principle. Now, people may not agree with the decisions; I understand that. But I hope after this talk, those of you who didn't agree at least know I'm making my decisions based on something I believe deep in my soul.
There are, in fact, people who are uncertain (at the very least) about this war, but who actually do take solace in the fact that his decision to send U.S. troops to invade another country was based on a belief that's located not just in his soul, but deep within it, away from the surface of it.

There are actually people in this country who believe that and, worse, think that it matters. If you believe in souls, then you have to support the idea that they matter (in some way, somehow), in which case, you can't logically deny Bush the political shelter he's just claimed by ascribing his war-mongering (which we know is actually politically motivated) to the soul (which, of course, we all know, is where purity and "essential" goodness reside).

In a world where journalists observed the Ten Commandments of Covering Religion, Mr. Bush's remarks would have demanded several follow-up questions from the journalists in attendance, such as:

  • Why should people care whether this belief is held in your soul, rather than in your brain?
  • Is a belief that resides in a soul intrinsically better or more credible than a brain-based belief?
  • We have it on good authority that other people believe in their souls -- at an equal depth -- that the war in Iraq is wrong. What mechanism can you suggest for comparing and assessing soul beliefs that are held at equal depths?
  • Why does it matter to you that other people know where you hold this belief?
  • Have any other of your soul beliefs -- of equal or greater depths -- ever turned out to be wrong?
  • Have any soul beliefs of yours at any depth ever been proved wrong?
  • What is the greatest depth at which a soul belief of yours has turned out to be wrong?
  • By what mechanism did your soul communicate this belief to your brain?
  • How did your brain recognize this belief as originating from within the soul and how can you assure the American people that this belief was not planted either in your soul or in your brain by Satan?

If the American president will reap political gains by ascribing beliefs to an ethereal, supernatural expression of some essential "self," then American journalists have a duty to pursue all of these questions and more. But as long as you treat souls like real things -- with an understood but unchallenged (and absurd) set of governing principles -- then journalists will have no reason to ask precisely the questions that would deny him the political safe haven that has afforded him the ability to start and wage this war.


Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Card Shuffled Out; New Head Waiter Installed

Andy Card has resigned as White House chief of staff. He's being replaced by Josh Bolten.

Bolten will now assume the responsibility of obtaining for the commander-in-chief his presidential cheeseburgers.

Nothing will change about the Bush administration or its impact on people's lives. Who implements Bush's orders will not matter unless Bush decides to start listening to people who disagree with him and applying logic and empirical results to differing arguments, and choosing courses of action based on those results, rather than on the same "gut" that told him to ignore the Aug. 6, 2001, PDB; dismantle FEMA; invade Iraq rather than pursue Osama bin Laden; vacation during Hurricane Katrina; violate U.S. laws against warrantless wiretaps; detain alleged terrorists without affording them due process; dismantle Iraq's army; endorse Vladimir Putin, Michael Brown, Julie Myers, Harriet Miers......


The Ten Commandments of Covering Religion

For too long, American journalism has treated spirituality with condescension, neglect or disdain. This was a moral and professional error even before this nation was both attacked by and led by people who define themselves in religious terms. It is an even more grievous error now. And the time has come for a change.

From this day forward, let every journalist who wishes to call himself or herself a thorough, responsible, thoughtful journalist know that religion can no longer be ignored. Religious coverage can no longer be relegated to the ghetto of the so-called culture wars, focusing on trivial issues such as ritual language and symbols, while ignoring the profound consequences religious thought has had for the course of history.

Journalists must now elevate religion to the same status as other areas of legitimate inquiry. They must accord it the same weight. They must address religious issues in every story to which those issues relate. They must apply the same tools, the same methods of inquiry. They must utilize the same sharpness of eye and pursue the same depth of inquiry. To that end, journalists must observe the following ten commandments:

The Ten Commandments of Reporting on Religion

1. Thou shalt have no other god without confirmation. Journalists must confirm, specifically, which god is being worshipped and which religious system has been chosen. If a politician claims to have "faith" or belief in "God," a good journalist must ask that politician to identify their specific denomination, as well as their specific concept of "God," so that people might know whether the politician believes merely in something as vague as "a sense of connectedness," or in the actual definition of "God" as a sentient, all-powerful, all-knowing creator. If they swear to belief in the Bible, that belief must be elucidated: How do they reconcile its internal contradictions and errant prophecies? Do they believe in a literal interpretation? If not, how do they decide which parts to take literally and which to treat as metaphor? How do they know that their method of distinguishing is reliable?

2. Thou shalt not make the grave mistake of assuming uniform adherence to denominational tenets. If a politician claims to be a Methodist, a good journalist must ask what kind of Methodist, and whether they diverge from any tenets of their branch of Methodism. Once that politician's religious beliefs have been fully articulated, then the good journalist must hold them accountable for adherence to or departure from those beliefs. The politician enjoys political benefits from espousing that belief; it is a journalist's job to ensure that those benefits are not falsely gained from a populace left unawares by the journalist's failure to scrutinize that belief.

3. Thou shalt not take the Lord's word in vain. The word of God comes not just through scriptures, but also through preachers. A good journalist should identify the preacher or preachers chosen by the politicians they cover, hold politicians accountable for the content of those sermons, and pursue with those preachers the precise meaning, logic and sourcing of their messages.

4. Remember the soul, to keep it wholly in mind. The concept of a soul has been a cherished one throughout recorded human history. Any assault on the soul must be chronicled in full. Even the tiniest conceptual shift could have far-reaching implications for societal notions about psychology, sociology, justice, motivation, causality and the very self. Already, advances in neuroscience are rendering obsolete traditional claims that mental phenomena such as love and even religious faith originate from an eternal, ethereal spirit-self, rather than from the brain itself. A good journalist should not report on new findings in neuroscience without explaining the implications for widely embraced beliefs about souls.

5. Honor thy first source and thy second source. A good journalist does not merely rely on two sources before repeating a claim; a good journalist relies only on sources uniquely positioned to know, empirically, the truth value of their claim. For instance, the claim that dead people somehow go to "a better place" is a claim that no one can empirically prove, let alone know, and therefore ought not be repeated as fact by a good journalist, no matter how many sources claim it as fact.

6. Thou shalt not kill heterogeneity. Every faith differs from every other faith. Every denomination of a faith differs from every other denomination. Every adherent of a denomination differs from every other adherent. Some politicians will try to sway journalists into treating believers, denominations, faiths, or even all religions, as monolithic. They are not; a good journalist will explore and illuminate the differences.

7. Thou shalt not commit adulteration. If a politician says that they believe in "God," or "fate" or "heaven," a good journalist shall not condescend to that politician and substitute their own meaning for these words. A good journalist shall consult their dictionary and treat that politician as they would anyone else who claims belief in supernatural phenomena. Journalists shall pursue the implications of these beliefs to their logical ends. For instance, a politician who espouses belief in evil spirits -- such as Satan -- that cause wrongdoing in this nation, ought to be asked to outline their plan for researching (the way prayer's impact on health has been researched) the method through which evil spirits influence our nation, and methods our nation might employ to insulate or defend ourselves against such influence.

8. Thou shalt not steal the boundaries between faith and reason. A good journalist knows that every religion ultimately rests on faith. But a good journalist also knows that many believers start with a premise of faith and then use reason to extrapolate or justify rules about the world and about moral behavior. A good journalist should never presume to know where someone's logic ends and faith begins. Until the source specifically says that they have reached the end of reason and must now rely solely on faith, it is a journalist's duty to pursue the logic of any religious claims. Further, in those matters when someone employs logic for their claims, a good journalist will subject that logic to the fullest rigor, including but not limited to extrapolation of their reasoning and comparison to past acts and statements.

9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor's religion or lack thereof. Now that religion has assumed a place in the marketplace of ideas, a good journalist shall no longer weight stories in favor of religion. Thus, a good journalist will not refer to unexplained phenomena as miraculous phenomena; a good journalist will not refer to belief in a supernatural being or beings as a mark of character or integrity; a good journalist will not presume to know whether a violent sect or a pacifist sect more accurately represents their faith; a good journalist will not ascribe purity or innocence to motives of a religious rather than rational nature; a good journalist will not conflate religion with ethics, or a lack of religion with a lack of ethics; a good journalist will not assume that the having of faith or reclamation of faith are intrinsically good things or that the absence of faith or eschewing of faith are intrinsicaly bad things.

10. Thou shalt not covet privacy for religion. The taboo against discussing religion and religious beliefs ended when religious advocates won a place for religion in the town square. If the town is to accommodate religion in the marketplace of ideas, the townspeople must be free to examine, discuss and assess all aspects of any religion or religious belief wishing to compete in an atmosphere of free intellectual trade.
Until now, some -- be they atheists, secular humanists or simply members of the political left -- might have considered journalistic neglect of religion to be appropriate. They are wrong. And the time has come for a revolutionary change in American journalism: The full embrace and engagement of religion as a viable, vital topic.

Religious people of every political stripe have long called for journalism to recognize and address the religious component of life in America. This call has come most vocally, but by no means exclusively, from the Christian right. That has, unfortunately, made it easy for the gatekeepers of supposedly mainstream media to write off such calls as politically motivated, intended to demonize the media or to promote the agenda of the Christian right.

It's time for that to end. Regardless of the agenda pursued by some of its supporters, the notion that journalism must confront religion and religiosity head-on is indisputable. The only question should be, "How?" Some guidelines can be found in the aforementioned commandments. But the focus ought not come solely on the religious right. When Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), for instance, railed against immigration laws because, she said, they might have criminalized the Good Samaritan or Jesus, a smart reporter should have held her to her reasoning and asked whether she supported abolition of any laws that Jesus or those he held close might have transgressed. Did he disturb the peace or trespass when he chased the moneychangers from the temple? Would he have co-sponsored laws legalizing prostitution? If not, how does Senator Clinton select which Biblical edicts to incorporate into U.S. law and which ones to ignore? What is it about her methodology that she feels ought to make American voters comfortable with this decision-making?

As I've mentioned previously, Dan Dennett's important new book, "Breaking the Spell," is calling for a scientific inquiry into the nature of religious belief. I believe it is equally urgent, if not moreso, that journalism incorporate the same sort of inquiry into its pursuit of truth. In a nation whose government funds initiatives based on religious faith, the people have a right to know all there is to know about those faiths. The general assumption of a monolithic, but vague and ephemeral, religious aspect of this nation and its people has long outlived any use it might once have served. The time has come to explore exactly what people believe, why they believe it, and how those beliefs shape our lives and the course of our country's future.


Monday, March 27, 2006

Breaking the Spell

The current issue of the New Yorker includes H. Allen Orr's review of "Breaking the Spell," Daniel Dennett's new book calling for scientific inquiry into the phenomena of religious belief. Dennett, as I mention at every opportunity, was my faculty advisor in college, so his position is not surprising to me.

Orr's review ends with the usual, waffly, ahistorical science-and-religion-explore-different-terrain silliness. Here's a prime example:

Science can certainly undermine particular factual claims made by religion (the universe was created in six days), but it’s far less clear that it can challenge religion’s general metaphysical claims (the universe has a purpose). To insist on this distinction is to recognize what it means for something to be a metaphysical, not a physical, claim. What experiment could prove that the universe has no purpose? To suppose that a kind of physics can demolish a kind of metaphysics is to commit what philosophers call a category mistake.

That may well be (my scholarship was sufficiently slovenly that I don't recall what a category mistake is) but it's also a mistake to claim, as Orr does, that saying the universe has purpose is to say something metaphysical rather than physical. Who says? There are two possible meanings to the phrase, "the universe has a purpose." One is that the universe was created to fulfill an end. The other is that the universe itself has intentionality. Both of these interpretations belong just as firmly in the realm of the physical as does the claim, "Britney Spears has a purpose." If someone created her to fulfill an end, that is something that can be determined physically. If Britney Spears herself has some purpose of her own, that, too can be determined physically. Eventually, we will be able literally to see that purpose as a neurochemical configuration in the brain of either Britney Spears or, if she was created to fulfill an end, in the brain of her creator. The MEANING of the universe may be a metaphysical debate, but whether it - or its creation - is or was imbued with intentionality, is not.

That said, I've been thinking a lot about Dennett's challenge to science, that it confront religion head on, not as an adversary but as a subject. I think the time has come for journalism to do the same thing, and in my next post, I'll attempt to lay out what a Journalism of Religion ought to look like.


Monday, March 13, 2006

Law and Order Democrats

Sen. Russ Feingold has a short, effective explanation up at dailykos of his call to censure President Bush. I think it's particularly meaningful that Feingold begins by reminding us of how we all felt on September 11, 2001. I think the right wing (i.e., not all Republicans, and not all conservatives) doesn't necessarily appreciate just how supportive millions of Americans who hadn't voted for him felt toward President Bush then.

I didn't vote for him, and I viewed him as an embarrassment. In the first few days after September 11, 2001, President Bush disappointed me because he wasn't tough enough. Remember? His very first outings were tentative and meager. He didn't yet appreciate the scope of what had happened. He spoke in terms that were criminal, rather than martial. I was enraged. I wanted vengeance. I wanted hell unleashed.

Finally, after almost a week, either someone made things clear to Bush or the impact of coming here to New York genuinely hit him. He vowed that America would respond mightily and I was behind him all the way. He gave the Taliban a chance to turn over bin Laden and, when they failed to do so, he waged war on them. And I was behind him all the way.

Let me repeat that for emphasis: I backed President George Bush, wished him well and cheered his war on Afghanistan.

That's what the right wing doesn't get. Criticism of Bush from the left doesn't come (primarily) from radicals, people constitutionally incapable of backing him. It comes from mainstream people on the left -- who've even crossed party lines on occasion -- who were willing and eager to put aside their partisan (or non-partisan) assessments of Bush in order to support him as our president in a time of war.

Ideally, I'd prefer that Bush were censured, impeached, convicted, imprisoned not just for lying to the American people to mount an elective war that has killed 2,300 American soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis, but for the dereliction of duty he displayed in NOT mounting the war necessary not just to roust the Taliban, but to accomplish the entire point of rousting the Taliban: Capturing Osama bin Laden. There are millions of Americans just like me who don't mind that American troops are deployed overseas -- We just wish they were in Afghanistan and Pakistan, wrapping up the War on al Qaeda, rather than in Iraq, perpetuating the definitionally-unwinnable War on Terror.

But I don't know that we have the body of evidence we need for that.

We do, however, have the body of evidence we need to convict President Bush of wiretapping. Namely, his confession. President Bush won't be convicted, of course. He won't be impeached. He won't even be censured. But just because you know your position won't rule the day doesn't mean you ought not stand by it. It's not going through the motions, it's not even futile. It's denying those who would defend President Bush the ability to claim that no one disagrees with them, that no one cares. If we can do nothing else, we can do that at least. Call, e-mail or write your senator. Let them know we want a party of law and order.

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