Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Foolprints in the Sand


One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord.
Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky.
In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand.
Sometimes there were two sets of footprints.
Other times there was one only.

This bothered me because I noticed
that during the low periods of my life,
when I was suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat,
like when I contracted AIDS
and when my son's leg was mangled by a thresher,
I could see only one set of footprints.

So I said to the Lord,

"You promised me Lord,
that if I followed you,
you would walk with me always.
But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life
there has only been one set of footprints in the sand.
Why, when I needed you most, have you not been there for me?"

The Lord replied,
"The times when you have seen only one set of footprints in the sand, my child,
is when I walked behind you, in your footprints,
so that I would have a better angle to inject you with AIDS
and steer that thresher over your son.
Okay, and one time I had to take off for, like, five minutes,
to create a tsunami.
Oh, and Darfur, obviously.
So two times."

(This poem is dedicated to those smart enough to understand that atheists don't hate god or blame him/them for bad things. They hate the irrationality that leads theists to credit god for the inner strength humans have to endure awful ordeals, but never to fault god for allowing those ordeals to occur.)


Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Author of Liberty: An Interview

Last night, in announcing that he had figured out a way to achieve the victory he wants in Iraq, President Bush revealed that he is placing is trust in "the Author of Liberty" to guide him. In His first sit-down interview, we spoke with the Author of Liberty about this influential work, and His other publications.
Q: Thanks for doing this interview.
A: No problem. Thanks for having me.
Q: You've written quite a few books over the years, under several different pen names. Why is that?
A: Well, I like to have each book taken on its own terms. And, frankly, it's kind of funny sometimes to see a particular book develop its own fan base. Then you end up with people arguing over which author really knows what's going on. It's pretty funny, if you think about it.
Q: So, did You hear the president's speech last night?
A: Actually, I helped write it.
Q: Really? That's pretty impressive. Is this your first collaboration together?
A: Oh, hell, no. We work together all the time. It's really not a big deal. He'll kind of call me up, very casual, and just ask me, you know, "what are some of the fundamental concepts of humanity?" So I tell him what I think. I mean, who's he going to ask for advice? His lower father?
Q: Are you worried that Liberty might not be selling well in Iraq?
A: I think we've all seen the sales figures and, yeah, they're not where We'd like them to be. Some of the guys in marketing suggested that we repackage Liberty, try to sell it as part of a box set with Education, Freedom of Speech, Freedom of the Press, Freedom of Religion and Minority Rights, but I didn't write those, so the copyright issues are sort of tied up with the lawyers right now. We'll work it out. Eventually, I mean.
Q: What made You decide to write Liberty?
A: Oh, honestly, I was just noodling around with a couple different concepts and that one just really seemed to click.
Q: What other concepts were You thinking about?
A: Um, I guess just, uh, non-liberty.
Q: So You went with liberty.
A: Seemed the way to go.
Q: I can actually see in some of Your earlier works, You seem to be wrestling with those two ideas. Can You walk me through Your decision-making there, how You decided to go with Liberty?
A: Well, I may not have specifically articulated Liberty in the clearest way right off the bat, but that's pretty much where I've always been.
Q: In Your best-seller 2,000 years ago, "The Book," You actually seem pretty much at home with the idea of slavery and even counseled people to respect the reign of Caesar, paying him tribute and so on. How would that square with Liberty?
A: You know, those were really different times. I mean, ask Strom Thurmond. He'll tell you. Really, the kind of Liberty I was addressing in "The Book" was much more of an internal, individual kind of Liberty. A freedom of conscience, if you will. So, uh...well, that's pretty much it.
Q: And yet, throughout "The Book," You Yourself are kind of telling people what to do. You know, when to plant, where to plant, what to eat, who to sleep with, who to worship, when to worship, how to worship, to worship. When exactly did Liberty of conscience, let alone nation-states, assume such importance for You?
A: I suppose I'd have to say it was the 18th century. I really wanted to inspire the American colonies to break away for themselves. I guess I sort of shed my authorial objectivity and took a real personal interest. I don't want to take too much credit. Those guys really took the ball and ran with it.
Q: Wasn't the concept of Liberty really advanced back then by people like Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and, especially, Thomas Paine, who didn't attribute the concept to You so much as to a rational, moral view of the universe?
A: Uh...maybe. I guess.
Q: You guess?
A: I mean, you know, sure, if you say so.
Q: Are You sure You actually wrote Liberty?
A: Of course I wrote Liberty! Hello!
Q: All right, then, what's the ISBN number?
A: What?
Q: The ISBN number of Liberty. What is it?
A: The IS...? Okay, okay! Look, all right? I didn't actually write Liberty, okay? Satisfied? Jesus.
Q: Really? Wow? This is kind of big news. What about all those other books?
A: Look, have you ever heard of ghostwriters? I'm not the only one who does it, you know.
Q: Wait, so You're saying, You pay these people to write these books so You can put Your name on them?
A: Dude, they don't even ask me! They just write whatever they want and slap my name on the cover! No release forms, nothing. I don't even get a taste.
Q: Well, have You ever thought of writing something Yourself?
A: Do you know how disciplined you have to be to be a writer, especially when you don't even exist?
Q: So, what, You can't stop these people from putting out books with Your name on them?
A: Look, most of them are actually very flattering, so I really don't see the harm.
Q: Does that mean we'll see more down the road?
A: Oh, yeah, at this point it's like the Hardy Boys.
Q: You mean because it's for kids, and their favorite one is always the first one they read?
A: No, I meant, because they're always coming out with new ones, and updating the old ones to keep up with the times.
Q: So, what's next for you?
A: Same old, same old.
Q: Which is?
A: Not existing, remember?
Q: Well, good luck with that.
A: Yeah, no kidding. Peace.


Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Iraq Debate Debate

So, you know how the president is going to reveal his thinking about Iraq on Wednesday night, and then the nation will have a chance to engage in serious debate about Iraq and the way forward (or backward or sideways)?

Yeah, well, I've got bad news for you...

At Monday's media conference, Tony Snow said Mr. Bush is "very close" to wrapping up all the details of his plan for Iraq.

However, while James Baker, the U.S. Congress, the media and the American people have been vigorously debating what to do in Iraq for months (and, obviously, for years), the president has refused to enter into that debate. In fact, Snow reiterated that refusal Monday:

...when the President's plan becomes known in detail, then people will be able to talk sensibly about the details and about how the pieces fit together. At this point, I think -- and Senator Reid and Speaker Pelosi will have their opportunities to express what they think is necessary for success in Iraq and how they define success. They'll have their opportunity to talk about how they support troops and what they think the troops need. So all of that will be part of the debate.

In other words, we shouldn't be getting into debate based on speculation about what the president's plan might be until we know what the president's plan actually is. He even says: "...wait until you see the whole package and then the debate will begin."

What makes Snow and the White House fundamentally un-American is a little fact that the media didn't seem to pick up on Monday -- namely, that after the president unveils his plan on Wednesday, it'll be too late for debate! Snow himself seems to have performed an act of internal mental dissociation from this fact, referring to the plan as "what the President is proposing." Proposing? A proposal is something the proposee has the option of rejecting. Anyone think that's what we're gonna get Wednesday?

Anyone--especially Tony Snow--who thinks the president will unveil his plan, and then say, "well, what do you think? Mull it over, get back to me and we can bat it around a little before going ahead with anything," is just as deluded as the people who get their guidance from a higher father.

Debate would have been good. Debate would have been American. We're still so used to the concept of debate that it didn't even occur to us, or the media, that the president's speech won't be the start of debate. It'll be the end.

It's just too bad that no one in the media called Snow on having it both ways--opting out of the debate before announcing the plan, because it wasn't ready yet...and opting out of meaningful debate afterward, because by then the debate will be moot.


Signing Statements May Define Battle Over Congressional Oversight

At a time when the arrival of a Democratic Congress, and President Bush's appointment of a Nixon/Reagan veteran as White House counsel, have raised intense speculation about an imminent constitutional showdown regarding oversight and access to information, a survey of White House signing statements reveals that the president has attempted to wall off Congress from information regarding a wide array of subjects, straying far from issues of national security.

Mr. Bush has famously used his signing statements to claim executive leeway on legislation concerning issues of national security, such as the McCain Detainee Amendment and, as revealed by the New York Daily News, even the ability to open mail without a warrant.

The Daily News story emerged only this year, despite the fact that the signing statement was posted online in December, with apparently no public reaction.

Now, a review of other statements posted online throughout the Bush presidency, shows that Mr. Bush has for years been staking a claim to unprecedented levels of secrecy on issues that have nothing to do with national security, ranging from Medicare to motor-vehicle taxation.

"National security" has long been a favorite refuge of presidents seeking to withhold information from Congress and the public. But a search of dozens of signing statements posted online at reveals that Mr. Bush repeatedly claims the right to withhold information not just for reasons of national security, but for virtually any reason at all, including:

- Impairing foreign relations (here, here and here),

- Impairing the performance of the Executive's constitutional duties (here, here, here, here, here, here and here),

- Impairing the deliberative processes of the Executive (here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here).
It should be noted that virtually any information that reflects poorly on the White House could be interpreted as potentially impairing foreign relations. Similarly, any information that reflects poorly on the White House could be construed to impair the president's political heft and thus his ability to do his job. Likewise, damaging information about White House decision-making could impair the deliberative process.

Critics of the White House argue that some information should be revealed precisely so that the White House will pay a price for it, even--or especially--if it impinges upon presidential power. In constitutional terms, impairing the Executive branch is supposed to be one of the central functions of the Legislative branch.

One signing statement even rejects a requirement for information on the basis that disclosing such information might "impair the performance of the Executive's constitutional duties, including the conduct of investigations and prosecutions to take care that the laws be faithfully executed." In other words, the president declined to faithfully execute the law on the grounds it might prevent him from faithfully executing the law.

In fact, even as he has signed bill after bill into law, Mr. Bush has frequently attempted to rewrite portions of those laws that require officials in the executive branch to convey information to Congress or to congressional appointees. Some of the issues on which Mr. Bush has rewritten U.S. laws to block congressional attempts at oversight include:

- U.S. trade, including a provision of the signing statement that converts recognition of human-rights standards from a legislated mandate to a presidential prerogative.

- Prosecutorial decision-making at the Dept. of Justice.

- Justice Department activities related to the constitutionality of laws.

- Crime statistics.

- Investigations of alleged crimes or fraud related to specific National Transportation Safety Board projects.

- Medicare.

- Transportation issues, including motor-vehicle taxation and infrastructure financing.

- Proposed mission changes for agencies within the Department of Veterans Affairs.

- Taiwan's participation in the World Health Organization, the congressional reporting on which Mr. Bush unilaterally reduces from a requirement to "a matter of comity."

- NASA plans, recommendations and budget requests.

Virtually every signing statement was issued regarding laws passed by a Republican Congress. For that reason, Mr. Bush's claim to have the power to rewrite the law has rarely been challenged.

Now that Democrats are in power and vowing to subject administration activities of the past few years to rigorous scrutiny, it remains to be seen which and how many of these signing statements will be challenged, either in court or with new legislation. Furthermore, the Democrats can be expected to send Mr. Bush plenty of new legislation of their own.

It's not yet clear whether Democrats will attempt either to inoculate their bills against signing statements with specific provisions addressing and precluding them, or to rescue their bills by challenging any signing statements in court after the fact.

In either case, both past and future signing statements on the presidential prerogative to withhold information specifically called for by law can be expected to figure prominently at the center of the coming battle over congressional oversight of the executive branch.


Monday, January 01, 2007

Keith Ellison: Tip of the Iceberg

While everyone goes ooh and ah over new Rep. Keith Ellison's choice of magic book to place his hand upon when he says the magic words that will make the man in the sky ensure that he keeps his promise, folks seem to have missed something. Ellison's status as the first Muslim in the House was just the tip of the iceberg with this new Congress. There's an even bigger milestone that I haven't seen much mention of (with one exception).

In Susan Jacoby's essential "Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism," she quotes a North Carolina minister's objection to the proposed U.S. Constitution's ban on religious tests for officeholders. He called it, "an invitation for Jews and pagans of every kind to come among us."

Meet Hank Johnson and Mazie K. Hirono. They're two other members of the 110th Congress who are doing something no one in Congress has done before. Not even Ellison.

They don't believe in God. Not the Judeo-Christian God. Not the Muslim God. They're Buddhists. The first ever in Congress.

For the first time, as far as I can tell, bouncing around, the U.S. Congress as of Thursday will now include as members representatives who openly do not subscribe to any version of monotheism.

Johnson is from Georgia (4th district), for Christ's sake. And check out Hirono. She's from Hawaii. What does Hawaii's House Caucus look like in the 110th Congress?

Mazie K. Hirono -- Buddhist.
Neil Abercrombie -- "Non-Affiliated."

Hawaii only has two districts in the House. Neither member of the Hawaii Caucus will be an avowed member of Judeo-Christianity.

In fact, five other members of the House are also listed as "Non-Affiliated" by Americans for Religious Liberty. There's Mark Udall (CO-2), whose dad was raised Mormon and eventually decided he had no use for organized religion. His official bio makes no mention of a god or even church.

Then there's John Olver (MA-1), who's not only non-affiliated, he's a chemistry professor from MIT. Any guesses whether he believes in the god of Judeo-Islamo-Christianity? He's a Massachusetts Democrat, in office since 1991. His seat his safe--it's about time someone asked him point blank.

John Tierney (MA-6) is also listed by ARL as non-affiliated, and doesn't seem to have any overt religious references on his site, either. The others are Earl Blumenauer (OR-3), and Tammy Baldwin (WI-2), who, God bless her, listed her religious affiliation as GLBT. Unless that's a new version of the tetragrammaton, I'm guessing she doesn't have much use for magic super-powers-in-the-sky.

Oh, and according to veteran Washington reporter Jack Germond, speaking just last year, the secret atheists in Congress hide their lack of belief in magic by calling themselves Unitarians. As per, Germond is outing Sen. Kent Conrad, and/or Reps. Pete Stark and Nancy Johnson.

Toss in Mr. Ellison, of Minnesota's fifth district, and you're now talking about two non-theists in the House, one non-Judeo-Christian monotheist, six more possible non-theists and two allegedly possibly secret atheists. Add in Conrad in the Senate, and you have possibly as many as 12 members of the 110th Congress who do not subscribe to a Judeo-Christian worldview. By my calculation, that's more than two percent of the new Congress. One in 50. That's still woefully disproportionate to the vast (and growing) percentage of the U.S. population that's tossed off the chains of monotheism. But it's also a staggering leap at a time when the mainstream media is helplessly enamored of the faith-in-politics storyline.

Now, let's see which journalist has the brains and/or nads to start outing the Rational 12.

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