Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Monday, September 26, 2011

Du musst gehen!



I don't have a problem with this just on constitutional grounds. I have a problem with it on theological grounds:

Operation Restore Our Community or “ROC”…begins next week. The city judge will either let misdemenor [sic] offenders work off their sentences in jail and pay a fine or go to church every Sunday for a year.

If offenders elect church, they’re allowed to pick the place of worship, but must check in weekly with the pastor and the police department. If the one-year church attendance program is completed successfully, the offender’s case will be dismissed.
Set aside the 1st Amendment problem (which ThinkProgress details very nicely), there's the theological, or I should say, ecclesiological problem: what is church for?

In other words, do I want these people in my church because they don't want to go to jail? And the answer is: No, I don't.

Because they are prisoners otherwise? Don't be ridiculous. The criminal charges against them mean nothing to me. No, the problem is: why are the "sentenced" to church for one year? Because worship has magical powers? Because God's presence is only felt on Sunday morning for an hour, and it's the only place we can be sure God is present, and on a regular schedule? Is it because it's the only place God is likely to get their attention, and once God does, that will straighten them out?

If I am taking this lightly rather than theologically, it's because it barely deserves serious consideration. But think about the assumption here: somehow "church" will provide something that is missing (shades of Augustine!) and that will provide the corrective to their behavior that jail manifestly fails to do (and when do we start having that conversation about justice and what prison is for?).

If this wasn't a small town in Alabama, I suppose it would make as much sense to sentence the offenders to be oblates at a monastery. I mean, look what that did for Kathleen Norris!

Okay, enough silliness. Let's consider the thinking, such as it is, behind the proposal. First, that God is only known in a place where God is always known to be. Well, then, consider the counter examples of Abraham (not sure where he was when God first spoke to him); Moses and the Burning Bush; Elijah and the whirlwind; Jacob's ladder; or even Nathan reproaching David. Or any of the prophets speaking to anyone who would listen in Israel. Where is the Biblical evidence that God is in the Temple and only available for revelations during scheduled visiting hours?

And then there's the famous story of Jesus at the Temple, watching the rich man ring in his money while the widow meekly contributes her mite. Things haven't changed much in 2000 years, but we still need Jesus to tell us what's going on; and we still need to listen.

And there's the rub: "He who has ears had better listen!," Jesus liked to say. But if we have ears and don't use them, will a year in church on Sunday mornings make us any wiser? And what is it we are to learn? Are we to see with our own eyes, hear with our own ears, and know with our own minds? Or is the truth known to believers the truth that is revealed by God? If God can harden Pharaoh's heart three times (look it up; Exodus. I'll wait.) before the Israelites are finally released from Egypt, then who do we blame for criminals who don't know enough right from wrong not to commit crimes? God, for not opening their hearts? Or the church, for not preaching loudly enough they can't help but get the message?

If the revelation comes from God, then the church can do nothing to forward it to the unbeliever and those to whom it hasn't been revealed. If the revelation doesn't come from God, then our knowledge is only what we discover, and what we know is only known through our senses (and we're all empiricists) or it is more importantly what we recover from our pre-birth memories (and we are all Platonists). Either way, it ain't Christianity; and that's the theological problem.

I suppose the idea is that if we are guilty by association, we will be redeemed by association, too. But I've been around church people, and a year around them might be must enough to convince me not to spend any more time around them than I had to. So there's another frivolous reason to condemn this silly idea.

But the central one remains: what is church for? For rubbing off on people? Or for being a place where, when you go there, they have to take you in? Which is better, but should it ever be a place where you have to go, or else?

Not my church; not the church I'm a member of, or the church I'm (if ever again) the pastor of.

Heat v. Light



This actually almost makes sense, if you think about this first:

Indeed, to be against the death penalty is to be against all such executions, whether the prisoner is innocent or guilty. Raising doubts about individual guilt, as effective as it may be in individual cases, will not stop the death penalty, but at most multiply procedures instituted to give a greater and falser assurance that the executed must be guilty.

I remember, while in law school, in the late 1970's,it was assumed that the death penalty had been effectively nullified by the Supreme Court because of the concern that discretionary procedures led to discrimination against the poor and racial minorities. The result was an abandonment of discretionary procedures, and a resumption of execution--and, strangely, it was still the poor and racial minorities who disproportionately suffered.
Douthat's argument is generating a great deal more heat than light, but then, it's not a terribly coherent argument. The heart of it seems to be this:

Simply throwing up our hands and eliminating executions entirely ... could prove to be a form of moral evasion -- a way to console ourselves with the knowledge that no innocents are ever executed, even as more pervasive abuses go unchecked....

This point was made well last week by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, writing for The American Scene. In any penal system, he pointed out, but especially in our own -- which can be brutal, overcrowded, rife with rape and other forms of violence -- a lifelong prison sentence can prove more cruel and unusual than a speedy execution. And a society that supposedly values liberty as much or more than life itself hasn't necessarily become more civilized if it preserves its convicts' lives while consistently violating their rights and dignity.
Which rightly draws derisive questions about why we can't do both, but I think Douthat has inadvertently touched on the question of how we do both, and that's where the context provided by Rick's comment comes in.

At one time we depended on the evil of discretionary procedures to flush out the death penalty; we even declared it dead ("Death, thou shalt die!"). Not so fast, of course; and now the Troy Davis case seems to mean the death penalty shall die again because the system cannot tolerate the death of the innocent.

Well, of course it can. It tolerates the incarceration of the innocent. Just ask the Innocence Project. Now, should it do so? No. But the system is not established to do justice; it is actually established to get convictions. The fact that our prisons are crowded "can be brutal, overcrowded, right with rape and other forms of violence," is a consequence of this efficiency, as much as it is a result of our neglect of prisoners (out of sight, out of mind). Douthat actually makes this point, although most of his harsher critics seem to have overlooked it:

Instead of dismissing this point of view as backward and barbaric, criminal justice reformers should try to harness it, by pointing out that too often our punishments don’t fit the crime — that sentences for many drug crimes are disproportionate to the offenses, for instance, or that rape and sexual assault have become an implicit part of many prison terms. Americans should be urged to support penal reform not in spite of their belief that some murderers deserve execution, in other words, but because of it — because both are attempts to ensure that accused criminals receive their just deserts.
What's to disagree with here? Well, maybe this, the first two sentences of the next paragraph:

Abolishing capital punishment in a kind of despair over its fallibility would send a very different message. It would tell the public that our laws and courts and juries are fundamentally incapable of delivering what most Americans consider genuine justice.
Douthat is jumping off a moral cliff there, and trying to take us with him. He has a point: if we can't reform the system, then the alternative seems to be to declare the system broken and irreparable, but be fair: how far has reform of Washington gotten? And how many people don't think it is broken beyond repair, and the only solution is to start over again with new political parties, or even new, and even more ideological, politics? Douthat has thrown up his hands and declared this state of affairs the norm for public policy and the discussion of public issues. But does it need to be?

Interestingly, Douthat has implicitly put the death penalty at the heart of the criminal justice system. I agree with him on that. And yet we don't have to simply throw up our hands and toss out all claims to the death penalty.

First, this isn't an issue as fundamental to the republic as federalism or states rights. No one complains today of the heavy hand of the Supreme Court in this arena (for better or worse).

Second, the issue is a question of justice, not just of punishment: it's high time we had a public discussion about the distinction between those two.

Third: we cannot rely on any system to do this work for us: the death penalty will not fall of its own weight, it must be actively and openly rejected, and rejected on the grounds of an understanding of justice that doesn't allow a death penalty to be available, not a vague idea that it is just too unfair or personally debilitating in its execution (i.e., either that it is a discretionary procedure that results in unfairness, or that it is pre-meditated murder which takes a toll on the executioners. Society will always be unfair and will always find willing executioners.).

The latter is the discussion even Douthat doesn't want to have, and is the weak reed on which his argument rests: that any such outcome will itself depend again upon the system to do the work for us. In that he is right: so long as we expect someone else to do something good, nothing good will ever happen.

And probably, the situation will even get worse.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

"Doubt" is not a thing


But it should be:

In 2007 the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, the body which has the final say in the state on whether executions should go ahead, made a solemn promise. Troy Davis, the prisoner who is scheduled to die by lethal injection at 7pm local time on Wednesday, would never be put to death unless there was "no doubt" about his guilt.
The Guardian article goes on to list 10 reasons why Troy Davis should not have been executed, based on "doubts." As Rachel Maddow noted last night, the convicted murderer of James Lee Byrd was executed in Texas last night, too. But no vigil was held to mark his passing, no last minute stay was requested from the Supreme Court, no articles were written in the Guardian or in other papers protesting his execution, no cable channels covered the act as if it were a funeral (MSNBC was practically draped in black crepe last night).

Should we have been more concerned about the death of Lawrence Russell Brewer? Ross Byrd, James Byrd's son, thought so.

“You can’t fight murder with murder,” Ross Byrd said. “Life in prison would have been fine. I know he can’t hurt my daddy anymore. I wish the state would take in mind that this isn’t what we want.”
I'm not trying to equate the two events, except to point out our own public ambivalence about crime and punishment. Somehow it seems easier to defend Troy Davis against execution for a crime so many are now so sure he didn't commit, than it is to protest the execution of a white supremacist like Lawrence Brewer for a crime so hideous we still don't want to think about it (there was forensic evidence that James Byrd was alive through the ordeal almost until he was decapitated by the ordeal). But that's the real problem with protesting executions: not that they are hard to protest, but that the situation itself is so complicated.

In the case of Troy Davis, many were proclaiming his innocence, based largely on reports that witnesses 22 years later had recanted their stories. But who, after 22 years, wouldn't reconsider what they knew then and whether or not they were accurate? One of the grave weaknesses of the criminal justice system is the reliance on eye-witnesses. But once the justice system has relied on those witnesses, under what conditions does it reconsider their testimony? When the witnesses change their minds? When, then do we ever decide a conviction is final, and the case is closed? Never? A system like that is no system at all.

On the other hand, if there is no system for review, no chance to correct errors, there is no justice. So the system has to have a stop; but that stop cannot be arbitrary.

I'm not a criminal lawyer, nor an expert on the laws and procedures surrounding death penalty cases. I don't know why some people are released from prison based on new evidence, and other people are executed in the face of new evidence. But the burden the death penalty puts on the "justice" of the criminal justice system, is shown by the Troy Davis case to be too heavy a burden to bear. We are warping justice out of any semblance of that goal when we murder people in the name of the state and "justice done."

The former warden of the Georgia Diagnostic prison was on MSNBC last night and said, from his experience overseeing executions in that prison, that executions are "pre-meditated murder." Those were his word. Some commentators on MSNBC last night were critical of the US Supreme Court in this case, especially as it wouldn't issue another stay of execution for Mr. Davis in a case he was clearly winning in the court of public opinion. But my ire was, and is, directed mainly at the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, who could have granted clemency in this case, and refused to do so. The Supreme Court acted as I expected them to. The system acted, as best I can tell, as it has to (after 22 years, what witnesses might not change their minds, what jurors might not decide differently? Who in prison doesn't say they are innocent?).

There was an issue of ballistics evidence that even the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said was invalid evidence. I don't know why new evidence in this case never led to a new trial, but new trials based on new evidence are notoriously difficult, and must be, else criminal convictions would never be final. It is a matter of procedure. A judicial system must have procedures, otherwise it is merely an ad hoc arrangement responding to those with the greatest public sympathy at the time, or the loudest megaphone, or the mere whims of those on the various judicial benches. Although "ad hoc" seems to perfectly describe the systems in states like Georgia and Texas where a Board of Pardons and Paroles is expected to act as a dispenser of clemency. Funny, they never seem to think dispensing it is really such a good idea.

But the finality of a death sentence changes everything. And the system still doesn't recognize that it changes the situation enough that the system simply cannot sustain the burden of killing another human being in cold blood.

And that is the problem.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

O brave new world


That has such creatures in it!

This successful exercise in autonomous robotics could presage the future of the American way of war: a day when drones hunt, identify and kill the enemy based on calculations made by software, not decisions made by humans. Imagine aerial “Terminators,” minus beefcake and time travel.

The Fort Benning tarp “is a rather simple target, but think of it as a surrogate,” said Charles E. Pippin, a scientist at the Georgia Tech Research Institute, which developed the software to run the demonstration. “You can imagine real-time scenarios where you have 10 of these things up in the air and something is happening on the ground and you don’t have time for a human to say, ‘I need you to do these tasks.’ It needs to happen faster than that.”

The demonstration laid the groundwork for scientific advances that would allow drones to search for a human target and then make an identification based on facial-recognition or other software. Once a match was made, a drone could launch a missile to kill the target.
Before James Cameron's "Terminator," there was a Philip K. Dick story about killer robots, which didn't involve time travel or happy endings. Machines had been created to kill people, and the machines were very, very good at it. So much so that in the world of Dick's story, human beings had largely abandoned the planet and moved to the Moon, the better to oversee the slaughter of the enemy on earth. Most of the killing machines, of course, looked like machines. But in the story, the machines (which were already producing the killing machines; if you can manufacture machines that can kill, why not manufacture machines to manufacture the machines that can kill?) start producing machines that look human (terminators!) so they can get past all the defenses humans use to keep the machines from killing them (the killing machines aren't terribly discriminating; a human target is a human target. Much more efficient that way.)

At the end of the story, it turns out the machines have produced several different types of "human" killing machines, and one of them boards a rocket for the Moon before the people on the Moon can be warned of this new development. Like I said, Dick doesn't deal in the happy endings Hollywood prefers. And yes, it's quite a leap from programmed drones to anything resembling the world of the Terminator or Dick's nightmare.

But tell me again why we are even thinking about going there. Is it really because it's more efficient, because "It needs to happen faster than that"?

This is when "where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" can be a frightening insight.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Death Works, Inc.


The point is, ladies and gentleman, that death -- for lack of a better word -- is good.

Death is right.

Death works.

Death clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the [American political] spirit.

Death, in all of its forms -- death [instead of] life, [instead of] money, [instead of] love, knowledge -- has marked the upward surge of [power].

And death -- you mark my words -- will...save...that...malfunctioning corporation called the USA.
Don't know what made me think of that. Oh, wait, yes, yes I do.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Do you know what it means to miss....?


So whaddya do when the Web gets boring?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Regarding the Deaths of Others


I'm going to give up reading the news. It's too depressing.

Thoreau was right, too much of it involves situations in which I am not involved, and in which I have no interest. On the other hand, Derrida was right, and we can't seem to imagine that our deaths are possible. Your death, certainly; but mine? Heaven forbid!

GINGRICH: Historically, we had charity. We had places that say, if you are down on your luck, if you failed to be responsible, we will take care of you, but that doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily going to get a private room, that you’re necessarily going to get everything somebody would get who’s been prudent and who has taken care of themselves. [...] Yes, we’re going to make sure they’re taken care of, but they ought to understand that’s charity.

BLITZER: But that money should come from charitable organizations, not from taxpayers? Is that what you’re saying? [...]

GINGRICH: I would prefer to see it come from charitable organizations.
A man who has never had to rely on the kindness of strangers to pay his medical bills is the best representative of the idea that others should do so because, after all, their deaths are perfectly imaginable.



My death is a cruel hoax against the idea of a loving God. Your death, however, may well be a convenience.



And besides, the poor are not dying from poverty, they are dying because of the government. Which means their deaths are not my responsibility:



The golden thread here is responsibility; yours, not mine. I've been responsible and avoided serious illness. You, on the other hand, were imprudent, and got sick. Or you were imprudent and were born poor and never worked your way up to wealth. Which is sort of like saying every little boy who enjoys a sport is imprudent if he doesn't become a professional athlete, although the number of professional athletes is a vanishingly small percentage of the entire population of males (I exclude females for simplicity's sake). Clearly if you were prudent you would be a wealthy white male like Rand Paul or Newt Gingrich, and medical care wouldn't be a concern for you (since prudent white males also avoid getting sick).

Or you were imprudent and lost your job and with it your medical insurance. Sucks to be you, but that's what being imprudent gets you. What am I, your keeper? Who are you, my brother? My sister? What a ridiculous idea! Where do you get a silly idea like that?

Rand Paul is most likely an atheist, but Newt Gingrich wraps himself in religious language whenever it suits his purposes. Religion doesn't, or rather shouldn't, teach us to be selfish and greedy and self-concerned. Christianity, at least, has a definite answer to the question: "Am I my brother's keeper?" And the answer is not: "Yes, but only through a government approved charity." Christianity also understands the nature of the struggle represented here by politicians and crowd reactions.

"When you start a fire, you want it to burn." Dom Crossan attributes those words to Jesus of Nazareth. He bases it on Luke 12:49: "I came to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already ablaze!" Frightening words; disturbing words. And no wonder we seldom hear them preached about, or regard them in some spiritual fashion, akin perhaps to the "tongues of flame" Luke later describes at Pentecost, or to a fire of faith and conversion often associated with mass, and safely historical, events like the Great Awakening. But you don't have to take the words literally to take them out of the safe remove of "Oh, that's just God talking." Think about it a moment: the wisdom of the metaphor is clear. When you start a fire, you do want it to burn. Unless you are an arsonist intent on destruction, that's not a bad thing.

Quite by coincidence, considering how to end this post, I ran across this from Matt Yglesias:

Conservatives write and call Congress at a much higher rate than progressives, and more-or-less ordinary people hear conservative political messages from preachers and business executives all the time.
The conservatives, the people who blame the poor and hate the immigrant and even those who want the uninsured and the criminal to die, are all anxious to start a fire which will burn down what they see is wrong with this country, with this society, with us. Obviously I think that's a bad thing, that their fire is arson, that their goal is destruction. But what about us? What fire could we start? What goals do we have that we want to see effected, what defense of the poor do we offer, what changes would we propose to counter the arguments of Newt Gingrich or Rand Paul? How do we respond to the crowds that cheer for death? Do we cluck our tongues, or do we answer them? Is this the society we want to live in? If not, what are we doing about it? We need a challenge to our complacency. We need to be willing to start our own fire. We need to be willing to let it burn.

Is something missing? Is something needed? Then why don't we find it? Why don't we have it? What are we missing? What do we need? What do we believe? Nothing? Then we should be ashamed of ourselves. What do we believe? Something worth believing? Something worth living for? Something worth starting a fire for? If we don't, what good is it? Discard it, and find a belief worth something. Pray, sleep, eat, meditate, read, confer, worship, sing, shout, whisper, be perfectly still and silent. Whatever it takes, but do it! What is missing? What? Find it! Go out, now, into the world, into the void, into the mystery, into the deepest depths of your soul or the uttermost parts of the world, but find it! Take it with both hands and run laughing back to the caves with the fragment of fire that burns your hands but that you know will light the world! Something is worth it! We are better than this! We know we don't have to suffer this! We know they are wrong, we know we must oppose them, we know they would burn the world down and we would make it burn brightly and light the world up, not leave it a cinder! We know this, we know this, we know this!

It's time we did something about it. "My death, is it possible?" Maybe this is your death, this uselessness, this inactivity, this listlessness. Maybe this is your death, and you should be out seeking your place of resurrection. What are you waiting for! Go! Do it! Find it! Find God! God is out there, among the poor, among the tired and the criminal and the downtrodden and the feeble and the sick and the lame, God is there waiting for you to figure it out and join them and light up the world with them! What else do you have to do with the rest of your life?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

What the meaning of "is" is


Politifact boldly concludes that Jim Hightower told a whopper:

Upshot: Hightower’s statement, suggesting Republican legislators slashed the budgets of fire departments on the front lines of the wildfires, misrepresents the cuts in state grant funding for equipment and training as if they were a direct cut to volunteer fire departments. The state doesn’t fund the operating costs of local departments.

It’s also incorrect to conclude that the cut to the grants’ fund hampered any department’s effort to combat recent wildfires; the reduction just took effect.
Tell that to the volunteer fire departments:

"These grass fires have taken off and we're having a hard time stopping them," said Somerset Fire Department Chief Eddie Dugosh.

Dugosh spends many days repairing one of his trucks. "Within the last week, I've lost five tires at $2,500," said Dugosh.

The department paid that cost out of pocket because the money the department gets from the state isn't enough.

"That (money) just covers our monthly expenses, that does not cover damages," Dugosh said.

State funding for volunteer departments was slashed this year, dropping from about $30 million to $7 million.

But costs are increasing thanks to the worst fire season in state history.

More flames means more repair bills. Dugosh said it becomes a safety issue.

"These trucks break down in the middle of that fire, you're in trouble."

So departments like Somerset look elsewhere for funds, conducting boot drives once a month to raise money.

"It's just, we're doing well with what we have," said Dugosh.
And in Abilene:

Since 2001, the Texas Forest Service has been issuing money from the state to help those departments update old equipment.

After budget cuts their grant money has shrunk from $23 to $7 million.

"The advantage of replacing is their dependability. We have trucks in service that date back to the 60's", said Gary Young, with the Taylor County Rural Fire Committee.

Departments said it's their expensive equipment that helps save land and lives. They count on grant money to keep it up to date.

"We go into meet the initial call with enough equipment and enough man power to meet the initial surge to prevent the fires from getting bigger. Like we saw in Bastrop, it doesn't stop at city limits, it just keeps going," said Young.

And with no relief from fire danger in sight the loss of funding worries many.

"I've been doing this for over 20 years," said Young. "I just don't see where it's going to come from with that being pulled away."
Or, to put it yet another way:

“If we didn’t have the funding cuts, we could make sure the fire departments have the resources they need and rely on Texas resources to fight Texas fires,” Barron said. “When you have to stretch [$7 million] across 1,400 volunteer fire departments, it doesn’t go very far.”

Barron said the cost of the fires, the worst of which has burned more than 1,550 homes in the Austin area, is “well over $120 million,” which the state will have to pay back to the U.S. Forest Service during the next legislative session.

“I don’t know what else it’s going to take to show the lawmakers and the public that the fire service is greatly underfunded,” Barron said.
And actually, current costs are a problem, because of the way fire fighting is funded in Texas:

As of Thursday, the tab for fighting the state's 2011 wildland fires had already reached a staggering $202.84 million — $63.75 million alone for plane and helicopter rentals.

Generally, the Forest Service doesn't have that sort of cash. So it collects the bills and then asks the Legislature for enough money to cover the tab when it meets every two years. This past session, lawmakers appropriated $121 million to cover firefighting costs racked up in earlier years — about five times what the agency itself spends on fire suppression each year.
So the Forest Service is spending money it just received for fires it has already fought. Which means the cuts are affecting fire fighting now.

Politifact called the usual suspects. All I had to do was use Google. Is Hightower wrong? Seems to depend on who you ask, and how you interpret their answers.

I don't think I'd call Jim Hightower a liar quite so quickly if I were Politifact.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Hi! I'm not home right now, but if you want to leave a message....



Following the 9/11 ceremonies yesterday, and the breathless weeks of analysis that preceded it, with the relentless focus on how "we" have changed in the past decade, I went trolling through my archives looking for some answers. We start, appropriately enough, with Spencer Tracy rendering:

Judgment at Erewhon

Simple murders and atrocities do not constitute the gravamen of the charges in this indictment. Rather, the charge is that of conscious participation in a nationwide, government organized system of cruelty and injustice in violation of every moral and legal principle known to all civilized nations. The Tribunal has carefully studied the record and found therein abundant evidence to support beyond a reasonable doubt the charges against these defendants.

Heir Rolfe, in his very skillful defense, has asserted that there are others who must share the ultimate responsibility for what happened here in Germany. There is truth in this. The real complaining party at the bar in this courtroom is civilization. But the Tribunal does say that the men in the dock are responsible for their actions, men who sat in black robes in judgment on other men, men who took part in the enactment of laws and decrees, the purpose of which was the extermination of humans beings, men who in executive positions actively participated in the enforcement of these laws -- illegal even under German law. The principle of criminal law in every civilized society has this in common: Any person who sways another to commit murder, any person who furnishes the lethal weapon for the purpose of the crime, any person who is an accessory to the crime -- is guilty.

Heir Rolfe further asserts that the defendant, Janning, was an extraordinary jurist and acted in what he thought was the best interest of this country. There is truth in this also. Janning, to be sure, is a tragic figure. We believe he loathed the evil he did. But compassion for the present torture of his soul must not beget forgetfulness of the torture and the death of millions by the Government of which he was a part. Janning's record and his fate illuminate the most shattering truth that has emerged from this trial: If he and all of the other defendants had been degraded perverts, if all of the leaders of the Third Reich had been sadistic monsters and maniacs, then these events would have no more moral significance than an earthquake, or any other natural catastrophe. But this trial has shown that under a national crisis, ordinary -- even able and extraordinary -- men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination. No one who has sat at through trial can ever forget them: men sterilized because of political belief; a mockery made of friendship and faith; the murder of children. How easily it can happen.

There are those in our own country too who today speak of the "protection of country" -- of "survival." A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat. Then, it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient -- to look the other way.

Well, the answer to that is "survival as what?" A country isn't a rock. It's not an extension of one's self. It's what it stands for. It's what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult!

Before the people of the world, let it now be noted that here, in our decision, this is what we stand for: justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.
Except, of course, when we need to torture single human beings in order, we think, to protect others. The problem is:

Torture does not work

After a few days, the contractor attempted to once again try his untested theory and he started to re-implementing the harsh techniques. He moved this time further along the force continuum, introducing loud noise and then temperature manipulation.

Throughout this time, my fellow FBI agent and I, along with a top CIA interrogator who was working with us, protested, but we were overruled. I should also note that another colleague, an operational psychologist for the CIA, had left the location because he objected to what was being done.

Again, however, the technique wasn't working and Abu Zubaydah wasn't revealing any information, so we were once again brought back in to interrogate him. We found it harder to reengage him this time, because of how the techniques had affected him, but eventually, we succeeded, and he re-engaged again.

Once again the contractor insisted on stepping up the notches of his experiment, and this time he requested the authorization to place Abu Zubaydah in a confinement box, as the next stage in the force continuum. While everything I saw to this point were nowhere near the severity later listed in the memos, the evolution of the contractor's theory, along with what I had seen till then, struck me as "borderline torture."

As the Department of Justice IG report released last year states, I protested to my superiors in the FBI and refused to be a part of what was happening. The Director of the FBI, Robert Mueller, a man I deeply respect, agreed passing the message that "we don't do that," and I was pulled out.

As you can see from this timeline, many of the claims made in the memos about the success of the enhanced techniques are inaccurate. For example, it is untrue to claim Abu Zubaydah wasn't cooperating before August 1, 2002. The truth is that we got actionable intelligence from him in the first hour of interrogating him.
Perhaps the contractors could argue he was only following orders. The problem with that, aside from the obvious historical one, is that it also point out that:

The Fish Rots From the Head

Conclusion 1: On February 7,2002, President George W. Bush made a written determination that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which would have afforded minimum standards for humane treatment, did not apply to al Qaeda or Taliban detainees. Following the President's determination, techniques such as waterboarding, nudity, and stress positions, used in SERE training to simulate tactics used by enemies that refuse to follow the Geneva Conventions, were authorized for use in interrogations of detainees in U.S. custody.

Conclusion 2: Members of the President's Cabinet and other senior officials participated in meetings inside the White House in 2002 and 2003 where specific interrogation techniques were discussed. National Security Council Principals reviewed the CIA's interrogation program during that period.

Conclusion 19: The abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own. Interrogation techniques such as stripping detainees of their clothes, placing them in stress positions, and using military working dogs to intimidate them appeared in Iraq only after they had been approved for use in Afghanistan and at GTMO. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's December 2,2002 authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques and subsequent interrogation policies and plans approved by senior military and civilian officials conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were
appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody. What followed was an erosion in standards dictating that detainees be treated humanely.
And what else did that erosion in standards erode?

For Your Reading Pleasure:

KATHERINE EBAN: Well, you don't make an ethics policy by citing a few positive examples. There has been an army or military line and an APA line that are surprisingly similar, which is that psychologists make interrogations safer and more effective. But what my reporting found is that the interrogations they make safer are the interrogations that had been made more dangerous. In other words, you take some very dangerous methods, like reverse-engineered SERE tactics -- it’s basically like letting a tiger loose in the interrogation booth, and then you get in an animal trainer to make sure that the animal doesn't go crazy, but why did you put the tiger in the booth in the first place? In other words, psychologists were initially used in the SERE program in order to prevent against behavioral drift. So what the military is saying and what the APA is saying is, psychologists can play that role in interrogations, but those are the interrogations in which these reverse-engineered SERE tactics are being used. Now, presumably, if you didn't use those tactics, you wouldn't need psychologists to safeguard them.
So, if the erosion of ethical standards reached professional caregivers, we are left wondering:

Is Our Children Learning?

The report found, among other things, that the techniques being used "are outmoded, amateurish and unreliable," and the "interrogation methods — possibly the most important source of information on groups like Al Qaeda — are a hodgepodge that date from the 1950s, or are modeled on old Soviet practices."

"...in meetings with intelligence officials and in a 325-page initial report completed in December, the researchers have pressed a more practical critique: there is little evidence, they say, that harsh methods produce the best intelligence."
Maybe there's little evidence harsh methods produce anything of value; but we did establish that torture was legal; so long as you accept what the definition of "torture" is. And if you don't, well, then, we're left to wonder is there is any:

Morality for Thee

[The questioner is Dan Abrams; JA=John Ashcroft; AG=Alberto Gonzales, both Attorneys General under George W. Bush]

Let me follow this. The U.S. military prosecuted our own troops for using waterboarding in the Philippines, tried the Japanese for war crimes for using it against the Allies and the U.S. troops in WWII. And yet, we’re suggesting that it’s not torture. [Applause]

JA: First of all, the word waterboarding can be defined in a lot of ways.

Let’s talk about the definition that was used in these memos—this is a legal document—of the definition of waterboarding. “Lying on a gurney that is inclined with an angle of 10-15 degrees from horizontal, with the detainee on his back. . . head toward the head end of the gurney, cloth pasted over the detainees’ face, and cold water poured on the cloth approximately 16-18 inches—this is the definition. The question is—

AG: Dan, the opinions have been withdrawn. There are no longer binding position of the department…

I understand that, but that doesn’t mean, as lawyers, we can’t sit and discuss whether this was a correct legal assessment. Because it seems to me, in my opinion, that it is impossible to explain how this particular procedure would not be considered torture. [Applause]

JA: Members of the department went and underwent the procedure.

Once or twice, not 266 times.

JA: Many members of our military in training undergo the procedure—

Once or twice.

JA: Were you there?

No, the memos explain it. It’s once or twice.

JA: OK. I don’t know how many times they underwent it. Let me just put it this way. We relied—I relied—on the best judgments of the lawyers in the department. There are 110,000 employees in the department, the lawyers are expert, and they came up with an opinion that became part of a memo. Later, some lawyers came to me and said "We’re not confident that that memo best expresses the law here." And I said to myself, "Well, I’m the attorney general, and if we have stuff out there that’s not the best expression, we ought to amend it. We ought to get the best information we can." You know we’re in a war, you give it to the president, you give information to the other individuals, but you say, you know, they deserve the best judgment. They reworked the memo, and they came a second time, these professionals did, and according to the definition of torture, they came to the conclusion that the procedure as provided along with the advice to our personnel did not amount to legal torture.

Did they get it wrong?

JA: I don’t think they got it wrong. It’s different now.

It’s different in what sense?

JA: Because the law has been changed. [John Ashcroft called me after the event to correct a mistake he made. He wanted to let me know that, in retrospect and after conducting more research on the matter, he realized that no such change in the law was ever enacted.]

The definition of torture?

JA: Yes! The definition of torture.

So the answer then, it sounds like, is the only reason you still believe the legal assessment was correct was because there’s been a change in the law?

JA: I believe that the work of the department by these professionals came to the right conclusion.

That waterboarding is not torture.

JA: That, as described, and as commented on in their memorandum, that it was not torture.
This whole topic, frankly, left poor Alberto Gonzales struggling:

Alberto Agonistes

"The only person in the administration who knew as much about presidential wartime powers as Addington was a young legal scholar from Berkeley named John Yoo, who was the deputy assistant attorney general in the OLC. A product of Harvard and Yale Law, Yoo was a whiz kid whose conservative bona fides—he’d clerked for Justice Clarence Thomas—were indisputable. Within weeks of the attacks, Gonzales was asking Yoo for memos outlining the limits of the Geneva Conventions. Yoo was generous: Since Al Qaeda and the Taliban militia did not constitute a nation or a state, he concluded, they had no protections."

All the opposition to Yoo's legal opinions? Alberto has an answer for that, too:

" 'Would it have been nice to invite everyone to these meetings? Sure, but it just doesn’t work that way. Were there times others should have been invited? I have to concede it may have been helpful, but we did the best we could under the circumstances.' "

See, it's not his fault. He couldn't help it. You can't blame him. He didn't try, but trying is hard! Besides, does this sound like torture to you?

"In March 2003 Yoo sent out another crucial memo, this time exploring the limits of prisoner interrogation. He concluded that military interrogators were not subject to federal laws prohibiting assault, maiming, or other uses of force during questioning because the end goal was 'to prevent further attacks on the United States.; The memo suggested that acts like dousing prisoners with scalding water, corrosive acid, or caustic substances; slitting an ear, nose, or lip; or disabling a tongue or limb were not criminal.
And we can make that pesky problem of definitions go away,too!

From the early 1930's until the modern story broke in 2004, the newspapers that covered waterboarding almost uniformly called the practice torture or implied it was torture: The New York Times characterized it thus in 81.5% (44 of 54) of articles on the subject and The Los Angeles Times did so in 96.3% of articles (26 of 27). By contrast, from 2002-2008, the studied newspapers almost never referred to waterboarding as torture. The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 2 of 143 articles (1.4%). The Los Angeles Times did so in 4.8% of articles (3 of 63). The Wall Street Journal characterized the practice as torture in just 1 of 63 articles (1.6%). USA Today never called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture.
Which is okay, because if they had, there would have been lawyers and policy intellectuals to explain that you can ignore the bell, since it doesn't toll for me. However, it is still possible that:

It Tolls For Thee:

In 2004 a group of lawyers and policy intellectuals gathered at Harvard, brought there by its Kennedy School, Law School, and the Department of Homeland Security, to draw up rules for coercive interrogation-"torture lite," as The New York Times Magazine would later call it in a respectful consideration of the subject. All but one of the discussants concluded that a little torture was sometimes necessary, provided it was accompanied by appropriate warrants, rules, and strict oversight. The Bush Administration rejected the Harvard team's regulatory proposals; niceties for the application of torture are superfluous once everyone agrees it needs to be done. But euphemisms-"coercive interrogation," "stress"-are appreciated. They allow George W. Bush to declare, "We don't torture."
But if the bell tolls for thee, then you have to put yourself in the position of being the torturer. And then what happens? Then you hit the trifecta of:

Reason, Emotion, and Torture

Cox presented this proposal to his Harvard classes on Moral Reasoning (his experiences in teaching the class are the basis for this book). The class split almost 50/50 on whether or not torture could be justified, even under the Dershowitz proposal. Many agreed with Martha Nussbaum's sentiment: "I don't think any sensible moral person would deny that there might be some imaginable situation in which torture [of a particular individual] is justified." (Cox, p. 240). Cox raised objections to the "ticking bomb" scenario: victims of torture will tell you anything, torture makes their statements less reliable, not more; it is a "slippery slope" toward allowing torture in less critical cases (much as the Supreme Court has allowed unwarranted searches by police in certain cirumstances); etc. Still, the class sticks, 50/50. So he introduces a few new questions.

How many in the class, he asks, would be willing to insert the sterilized needles under the fingernails?

"Only a small number put up their hands. Then I asked those who favored the policy but would not do it themselves to formulate some moral justification for their action, other than mere squeamishness. A sullen silence followed." (Cox. p. 242)

Cox has already pointed out the utilitarianism behind Dershowitz' argument, a "greatest good for the greatest number" the class as a whole is quite willing to accept, secure in the knowledge that they will be among the greatest number, and that, after all, their hands are clean.

"Then I posed another question. Suppose, I asked, the suspect is not talking to you but you have his two children-- aged four and seven--in the room. Would you threaten to torture them to get the information? After all, if it is mere mathematics, what is the temporary pain of two children compared to the possible deaths of five thousand people? Not a single person in the class was willing to hurt the children." (Cox, p. 242)
Our Army, however, was willing to make the threats Harvard students decided was going too far:

The U.S. Army in Iraq has at least twice seized and jailed the wives of suspected insurgents in hopes of "leveraging" their husbands into surrender, U.S. military documents show.

In one case, a secretive task force locked up the young mother of a nursing baby, a U.S. intelligence officer reported. In the case of a second detainee, one American colonel suggested to another that they catch her husband by tacking a note to the family's door telling him "to come get his wife."
So Dick Cheney insists to this day that our hands are clean, and that torture was effective. Even today Steve Inskeep managed to get through an entire interview with Ali Soufani without mentioning Dick Cheney's redemption tour or his baseless claims, claims undermined by the very book Inskeep was interviewing Soufani about. And in case we really, really, finally still don't get it

Everything old is new again....and again....

When CIA officials subjected their first high-value captive, Abu Zubaida, to waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods, they were convinced that they had in their custody an al-Qaeda leader who knew details of operations yet to be unleashed, and they were facing increasing pressure from the White House to get those secrets out of him.

The methods succeeded in breaking him, and the stories he told of al-Qaeda terrorism plots sent CIA officers around the globe chasing leads.

In the end, though, not a single significant plot was foiled as a result of Abu Zubaida's tortured confessions, according to former senior government officials who closely followed the interrogations. Nearly all of the leads attained through the harsh measures quickly evaporated, while most of the useful information from Abu Zubaida -- chiefly names of al-Qaeda members and associates -- was obtained before waterboarding was introduced, they said.

Moreover, within weeks of his capture, U.S. officials had gained evidence that made clear they had misjudged Abu Zubaida. President George W. Bush had publicly described him as "al-Qaeda's chief of operations," and other top officials called him a "trusted associate" of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and a major figure in the planning of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. None of that was accurate, the new evidence showed.

Abu Zubaida was not even an official member of al-Qaeda, according to a portrait of the man that emerges from court documents and interviews with current and former intelligence, law enforcement and military sources. Rather, he was a "fixer" for radical Muslim ideologues, and he ended up working directly with al-Qaeda only after Sept. 11 -- and that was because the United States stood ready to invade Afghanistan.
And although nobody was noticing, we went to war on this crap:

According to CIA sources, Ibn al Shaykh al Libbi, after two weeks of enhanced interrogation, made statements that were designed to tell the interrogators what they wanted to hear. Sources say Al Libbi had been subjected to each of the progressively harsher techniques in turn and finally broke after being water boarded and then left to stand naked in his cold cell overnight where he was doused with cold water at regular intervals.

His statements became part of the basis for the Bush administration claims that Iraq trained al Qaeda members to use biochemical weapons. Sources tell ABC that it was later established that al Libbi had no knowledge of such training or weapons and fabricated the statements because he was terrified of further harsh treatment.
What has changed in 10 years? We still worship power. We think more than ever that security comes out of the end of a gun. We still think our prosperity depends on treading on the poor, only now the poor are among us, not just overseas or at our borders. And we are still better, more decent, more humane, more caring and compassionate and understanding, than our political leaders.

Now if we could just find a way to transfer those better qualities to them.....

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Commemorating, not Remembering

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A guest on NPR's "Science Friday" said the words I realized I'd been waiting to hear for weeks now.

The topic was the "Psychology of 9/11," and when asked about the upcoming 10 year anniversary of the event, she responded that we should respectfully commemorate the event and the lives lost that day. "Respectfully commemorate." That was an idea I had yet to associate with this coming Sunday.

To respectfully commemorate the events of that day would not be to wonder what had happened to us in the past 10 years; or to reflect that America was "forever changed" after that day. "Forever changed"? For who? My father, who remembers the Great Depression and Pearl Harbor? For me, who remembers coming home from elementary school to learn that Kennedy had been shot in Dallas? Who remembers 1968, with the Chicago police riot, the death of RFK and MLK? Who remembers Kent State and Vietnam? I heard college age students on BBC World service describing the shock of learning, 10 years ago, that the world was a dangerous place. It was the same shock I felt that day I walked into the house and my mother told me the President was dead. But do we reflect every 10 years on what has changed since that assassination? Since Pearl Harbor? Since the last helicopter lifted off from Saigon? Since innocent college students were gunned down by reckless National Guardsmen?

It wouldn't be a bad thing to respectfully commemorate those events. Veteran's Day was once Armistice Day, and it was meant to respectfully commemorate the war dead; as was Memorial Day meant to be our Dios de los Muertos, our Samhain. Unfortunately we don't do that very well, so Samhain becomes Hallowe'en, and Memorial Day becomes a three-day weekend for shopping specials. We've never been good at public memorials and commemorations, and we aren't getting any better at it. Today, if we can't wrap it in videos narrated by misty-eyed announcers and news readers and strung together with stirring music, we can't seem to remember at all. Today, if it isn't about us, then what's the point?

I want to remember 9/11, but I can't divorce it from our involvement in Afghanistan before 2001, and our wars there and in Iraq afterward, wars that were directly tied to the horrors of the attacks. Innocent people were killed in America, people who never knew why they were slated to be killed; but innocent people died in Iraq and Afghanistan. At one point Baghdad was so choked with bodies we feared a cholera epidemic. We did that, as a response to the events we want to remember on Sunday. Are we going to think about how we changed Iraq and Afghanistan? Or are we only going to think about how events changed us?

There is an important difference between remembering and commemorating. It is the difference between thinking of yourself as an individual, and thinking of yourself as a part of the whole, as not an island at all. To remember is to think of yourself; to commemorate, is to think of the memories of others, to hold in memory the others and who they were. To remember is to think of who we were; to commemorate, is to think of who they were. To respectfully commemorate, is to honor them.

And that's what we should do; we shouldn't honor us, and our pain, and our loss, and our "change." We should respectfully commemorate them. We should honor the dead, because there are so many of them; because they are so deserving. Because the decent thing to do, the honorable thing to do, is to "co-memorate," to reflect on the corporate memory which honors the dead. Anything less is selfish.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Burn, baby, burn!


Huffington Post:

In Texas, firefighters aren't just battling the wild fires raging around Austin and Houston. The state's first responders have also had to deal with budget cuts affecting everything from fuel purchases to hoses and oxygen tanks.

In some cases, fire officials say, firefighters have had to pay out of pocket for basic necessities like proper protective gear and fuel to get them to the scene. One fire department that battled the blazes in Bastrop County had to pay for a hose, recalled Bastrop City Fire Chief Henry Perry, speaking to The Huffington Post during a break from working the wild fires.

"That fire department has been on this fire every day," he said. "Before this fire, they were having to buy stuff out of their own pocket." Perry said he knows of at least one other department whose firemen had to pay for equipment maintenance and engine fuel.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch....

Residents affected by a devastating Central Texas wildfire are growing impatient with state officials and questioning why Gov. Rick Perry hasn't spent more time there.

Some residents yelled at Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst when he visited the command center in Bastrop County Friday, asking where Perry is and why they haven't had any housing help.

Wildfires have destroyed nearly 1,400 homes about 25 miles from Austin.

Perry, running for the Republican nomination for president, interrupted his campaign and returned to Texas for two days before heading to California for a debate Wednesday. He is now fundraising in California.

Perry's office said "everything that needs to be done to respond to these fires is being done."

Dewhurst said the White House hasn't yet replied to a request for federal aid.
Dewhurst is an elected official, not Perry's right-hand man; but he's a Republican. And what he actually said was:

“Because so many fires are burning across the state, our resources are spread pretty thin. That's why we need the federal government to step up to the plate immediately.”
Except, of course, state resources aren't spread thin because of an act of God.

Earlier this week, HuffPost reported that Gov. Rick Perry, the GOP front-runner for president, had signed off on millions in firefighting cuts as part of the state's most recent budget legislation. The Texas Forest Service's funding has gone from $117.7 million in the 2010-2011 budget years to $83 million in the 2012-2013 budget years.

Severe cuts have also hit assistance grants to volunteer fire departments throughout Texas. The grants decreased from $30 million per year in 2010 and 2011 to $13.5 million per year in 2012 and 2013. These are cuts that firemen are now dealing with.
Penny wise and pound foolish, here we stand:

Gov. Rick Perry, currently the frontrunner among GOP presidential candidates, has been forced to press President Obama for more than $50 million in federal aid. At the same time, he defends the state's decision to slash by 74 percent the funding for the volunteer fire departments who do most of the work, and to cut the Texas Forest Service's budget by 34 percent, down to its 2008 level.

...

But what some have called Texas' “slash and burn” approach to balancing its state budget has left volunteer firefighters, who do about 80 percent of the work, in a lurch. Just last week, the most recent budget cuts meant 90 Texas Forest Service employees were laid off. Some volunteers pay for expenses out of pocket. And the repeated emergency calls are stressing equipment like tankers and pumpers not built for continuous use.

On Thursday, one of the Tomball tankers blew a transmission, leaving [volunteer firefighter David] Hill on the sidelines as the Magnolia fire flared up, cutting across fire lines and highways, and forcing hundreds to rapidly flee their homes. Nearly 100 homes have been lost as a thick haze floated into Houston.
This is why you don't elect Aggies.

Photo is from the NASA Aqua satellite.

The Law Is A Ass


Thers directs me to this.

I'll save you the trouble. The shorter version is: "Suffer, you bastards, suffer!" "Bastards," of course, being whoever your group isn't. This is not even Rawls' "original position" and First and Second Principles of Justice. This is just sort of a weird "everyone who has more than I do should have less!"

What, I would first ask, is "prosperity" anyway? Isn't it "when I have a little more than I do today?" Isn't the prosperous man the one who anticipates having more tomorrow than he does right now? Is he really prosperous because he has enough? Is enough ever enough, or is it enough because it will be as much, or more, tomorrow? A man who lives off his investments, after all, is constantly anticipating tomorrow at least replacing what he used today, if not providing a little more. Isn't that "prosperity"?

Which is another way of saying "scarcity," only for thee and not for me. These aren't the golden laws of prosperity. They are just variations on the iron law of "Blow you, Jack! I got mine!" Maybe a little more egalitarian than that, but no more conventional and no less radical (i.e., going to the root), for all that. No, you want radical, you gotta go down deep, right down to the base of the problem.

He said to them, "When you pray, you should say:

Father, your name be revered.
Impose your imperial rule.
Provide us with the bread we need day by day.
Forgive our sins, since we too forgive everyone in debt to us.
And please don't subject us to test after test."(Luke 11:2-4, SV)
As for that "imperial rule," it would look something like this:

"Come for water, all who are thirsty;
though you have no money, come, buy grain and eat;
come, buy wine and milk, not for money, not for a price.
Why spend your money for what is not food
your earnings on what fails to satisfy?
Listen to me and you will fare well,
you will enjoy the fat of the land. (Isaiah 55:1-2)
As the Mad Priest said, "It is not our own bodies that raise us from the dead."

Because I am lazy and don't feel like repeating myself, I will simply direct you to more of the same, for your reading pleasure: here; here; here; here....

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Blood makes the grass grow!


"It should be noted at the outset that the dissent does not discuss a single case -- not one -- in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent's name would be shouted from the rooftops by the abolition lobby.
Antonin Scalia, Kansas v. Marsh

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has said that the “execution of a legally and factually innocent person would be a constitutionally intolerable event.”
The New Yorker

Multiple former Hutchison advisers recalled asking a focus group about the charge that Perry may have presided over the execution of an innocent man – Cameron Todd Willingham – and got this response from a primary voter: "It takes balls to execute an innocent man."
Salon

I'm guessing they'd applaud indentured servitude and restricting the franchise to white male property owners, too.

The big Politico/MSNBC debate Wednesday was not a good night for death penalty opponents. Texas Gov. Rick Perry — who has overseen more executions than any other governor during his three terms in office — stood firmly behind his state’s vision of justice.

And the crowd was with him.

Here’s how it looked in the transcript:

[Moderator BRIAN] WILLIAMS: Governor Perry, a question about Texas. Your state has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times. Have you…


(APPLAUSE)

It was probably the largest applause of the night, swelling in the Regan Library’s now-familiar pavilion featuring the Gipper’s Air Force One.
That quote conveniently allows me to bring up another subject: what the hell? The Reagan Library houses the plane Reagan used in office? Why? Because without it, the building would be completely empty? Seriously: what is it doing there in a building supposedly dedicated to Presidential records? Is it a monument to the emptiness of the Reagan era? He traveled? That's the most important thing about him? And a huge hanger of an interior space had to be built to memorialize that?

As for the applause, I can only say to the rest of the world: yes, we are savages. Was there ever any doubt?*

And somehow, some way, the huge bulk of a modern jet hanging over everyone like some sword, or some relic of technology, seemed very appropriate. There's a sign there, somewhere. I'm just not sure yet what it signifies.

*As for Perry's claims about Texas justice, or justice in general, one can only reply: Cameron Todd Willingham. Over and over again.

Totally Irrelevant Minor Media Point


Just wondering if this will enter the media mainstream, or be lost as the narrative closes over it as skin would a wound, leaving not even a scar.

Last night Rick Perry called President Obama an "abject liar." Rachel Maddow's panel on MSNBC made much of it last night, but I haven't heard that clip repeated this morning on NPR, and I'm not seeing it prominently mentioned in any stories on the debate. Google doesn't turn up any news story containing the words "Perry Obama liar," either. MSNBC noted, in the second hour (0r was it third? Post-debate coverage ran longer than the debate by several hours) that Perry was flat out wrong in claiming El Paso was a dangerous border city, citing FBI and other statistics to back up Obama's statements (the ones Perry said were lies).

I'm being vague because I'm going on memory, not news reports, because there don't seem to be any (and I'm too lazy to search the transcript). MSNBC doesn't have anything about it in their AP report "fact checking" the debate, and even Politifact only has an article from 5 days ago which touches only on the "he said, she said" when Perry first made this claim.

So, first, what are the repercussions of a sitting governor declaring a major city in his state too dangerous for people to live in? Think El Paso wants that kind of publicity, especially when it's not true? Second, and more interestingly, a GOP candidate for President called the sitting President "an abject liar." What, that isn't news?

Is "liar" such a perjorative term that, like "the 'n' word," we have to disappear it from political discourse, and pretend it was never spoken? Can we not even mention "the 'l' word"? Or is it because that's taken?

Interesting what disappears down the memory hole, no?

Those Who Have Ears....



I like E.J. Dionne, and I don't disagree with his recent column at all. But the advice William Goldman put in Deep Throat's mouth is still the best general admonition in American culture: "Follow the money."

Dionne hearkens back to Abraham Lincoln to find a Republican praising labor: “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” I have to point out Lincoln was the last pre-Industrial Revolution President this country ever had.

The Industrial Revolution actually took hold in America during the Civil War, and it was one reason the North defeated the South. When Grant retired from the Presidency, he moved to a farm in St. Louis, MO. He built a fence for his farm from rifle barrels left over after the war. It's quite a long fence, with 2563 rifle barrels. It's the result of factory production. Capital soon swamped labor, because while factories needed workers, machines could outproduce persons, whether they were John Henry, or not. So when Lincoln praises Labor over capital, it's almost an historical anomaly. We all moved away from labor after the war (the South, of course, was built on staying away from labor, and making someone else do it. Small wonder the South is still almost completely anti-union.)

So it would take a brave man to point out that unions “grew up from the struggle of the workers — workers in general but especially the industrial workers — to protect their just rights vis-a-vis the entrepreneurs and the owners of the means of production,” or to insist that “the experience of history teaches that organizations of this type are an indispensable element of social life.”
Yes, Pope John Paul II was right; but then, how many shareholders does the Pope have? And yes, "That the language of Lincoln and John Paul is so distant from our experience today is a sign of an enormous cultural shift." But that cultural shift started in my childhood, if not earlier. The South has risen again; and as a soi-Southerner, all I can say is: I'm deeply, deeply sorry.

I was thinking last night about the '70s, and how the economy started to crack and jobs became a widespread problem for the middle class. There was a huge amount of economic displacement in the '70's, and not just because of inflation. One might even say that economic disturbance, which was tied (probably falsely) to government spending such as Vietnam and the Great Society, paved the way for Reagan and the Tea Party today. Labor was still powerful then, but its power was already ebbing, and labor was already widely seen as "advocates of arcane work rules, protectors of inefficient public employees and obstacles to the economic growth our bold entrepreneurs would let loose if only they were free from labor regulations." Anyone remember Reagan "breaking" PATCO? It was the next decade over, but he was practically sainted for that feeble and unnecessarily cruel action.

But in the '70's labor was already unable to protect workers from foreign competition. As gas prices rose (laughably small increases by today's standards, but stunning near 100% jumps at the time), small Japanese cars began to dominate the market as people looked for alternatives to "gas guzzlers." More jobs lost, and even less job security. In the '80's, you may or may not recall, the economy wasn't really so good, except for the yuppies. Reagan oversaw the collapse of the savings and loans, an event that devastated the economy of Texas and other southern states, and was simply prelude for current economic troubles. Clinton eventually steered the economy into better seas, but the 80's were reflected, not in "Morning in America," but in "Executive Blues", G.J. Meyer's record of being laid off as the economy of the 80's soured the early '90's. That experience was repeated again with the bursting of the Internet bubble, and again just a few years ago. So at least four times in my adult life I can count major economic reversals; and all have been blamed, more or less, on labor (well, they never led to a rise in the minimum wage, and even today no one seems interested in reviving the labor intensive portions of FDR's "New Deal.").

Not a one of them, at least, led to the appreciation of labor that the Great Depression finally fostered (briefly, and then it was extinguished).

I do remember regular news reports, on TV network news, about labor. That has vanished so completely I might as well recall when unicorns were prevalent, and fairies lived at the bottom of everyone's garden; or the time before everything came from factories. Now the only news is about finance and "business," the DJIA is reported as if it were the oracle of Delphi, and every news outlet a priest explaining the message of the daily numbers. And one thing Mr. Dionne didn't note: how many workers had to go to work on Labor Day.

The banks were closed. Wall Street was closed. Probably state and municipal contracts for road construction had a day off.

But the stores were open. And somebody had to labor there. What was the holiday of Labor Day supposed to honor, again?

To put this in as much context as I can muster, what I remember of Reagan's era was inflation, which was broken by Paul Volcker's Keynesian application of high interest rates (remember when credit card interest was limited by usury laws, and passbook savings accounts paid 5%? If you do, you remember the era before Volcker broke the back of inflation with high interest rates. States eventually had to scrap their usury laws in order to allow credit cards and banks to keep up with the Fed. Of course, the Fed's interest rate is now down to zero, and credit card interest is in double digits. But at least we don't have inflation, right?), inflation and the Savings and Loan collapse, which took the economy of Texas with it and took bankruptcy from an obscure practice almost no one bothered with, to the centerpiece of law firm incomes across the state and across the South. Unemployment went down under Reagan, but only four years later his Vice-President lost the Presidency because "It's the economy, stupid." Clinton actually left the country with a surplus, but he also left us (coincidentally or not) with the "dot.com bubble," which burst and took a lot of jobs with it. Then another bubble grew under George W. Bush, only to burst with the consequences we are suffering today, where "experts" are finally realizing (as in, just now!) that housing was overpriced and the overheated market had to correct itself (and still is). Is it coincidence that we were told, from the '70's on as manufacturing started to fade here and grow overseas (mostly, it seemed, in Asia), that this was now a "service economy," and yet it now seems the backbone of the economy was still manufacturing? But this time, of housing?

I think not. But we certainly disparaged, and were taught to disparage, labor in all that long process. And we've been through boom and bust cycles so rapidly it would seem that even the most obtuse and ahistorical of Americans would start to see a pattern here.

And yet we don't. And to prove I can, like the poet, connect nothing with nothing, consider the attitude toward the poor today. I've mentioned before the pictures of Bobby Kennedy walking through Appalachia, or talking to obviously poor (certainly not white, middle-class) people in Harlem, and how we'd never see any politician today staging such photo-ops (partly because of RFK's assassination, partly because no one wants that visual today). This, too, is connected with labor. Why else get a college degree, except to avoid jobs involving labor or, worst of all, "Do you want fries with that?" Now we don't feel compassion for the poor, we feel disdain:

To address the jobs crisis, the Obama administration championed more generous food stamps, unemployment benefits, tax cuts, and health insurance subsidies for layoff victims, among other things. The broader safety net prevented a record poverty rate in 2009, yet it gets no respect in Congress, where Republican and even Democratic lawmakers spent 2010 describing the unemployed as a bunch of lazy drug addicts unworthy of the federal deficit spending lavished on them.

The myth that unemployed workers would rather watch TV than look for jobs helped lawmakers take away much of the expanded safety net, and most of the rest will be rolled up soon as federal spending continues to lose popularity in Washington. In particular, it's likely that extended unemployment benefits will be dropped at the beginning of 2012 in an unprecedented abandonment of the long-term jobless during a weak economy.
A disdain not limited to David French and Walter Russell Meade; a disdain that is being incorporated into our laws:

John Stossel (Fox News): “Let’s stop saying everyone should vote.”
Rush Limbaugh: “If people cannot even feed and clothe themselves, should they be allowed to vote?”
Steve Doocy (Fox News): “With 47% of Americans not paying taxes – 47% – should those who don’t pay be allowed to vote?”
These are sentiments from the founding of the nation, when only white male property owners were allowed to vote because, after all, the purpose of government was only to protect property. Need I add that, at that time, people could still be property, that only 40 years after the Constitution was written Charles Dickens would experience the concept of the poor as chattel, as persons to be incarcerated until their debts were discharged? Are there no prisons? Are there no work-houses?

How very far we have not come. Or how very far we have already gone backwards. Rep. John Lewis has called this new spate of voting laws “a deliberate and systematic attempt to prevent millions of elderly voters, young voters, students, minority and low-income voters from exercising their constitutional right to engage in a democratic process.” Can there be any real doubt he is right? Can there be any real doubt there is a concerted effort to punish and marginalize the poor more than our system of indifference and exploitation already does? And if a brave person, in Mr. Dionne's words, were to speak up: who would listen? Surely someone would.

Is someone enough?

UPDATE: And when you think it can't get worse, sure enough, it gets worse:

Congress should follow in the footsteps of state legislatures and pass a federal voter ID law that requires voters to present photo identification at the polls, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said Thursday.

...

Graham even raised the Sept. 11 attacks to justify restrictions on voter access.

"All the highjackers had -- five or six -- had fake drivers licenses, so I think sanctifying the voting process in a way that makes sense, in a way that makes sure we're electing people based on registered voters, is a goal that we should all be concerned about," Graham said.
I'm not sure how fake ID's prove we can rely on voters not to use fake ID's, but I'm sure there's an explanation in there somewhere....

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Texas, Our Burning Texas


These maps at The Atlantic about the Texas wildfires are helpful; I guess. Yes, for example, if the fires were confined to one place, they'd encompass most of the Houston metropolitan area (it may look like Houston and everywhere else on the Atlantic map, but trust me: that's all just "Houston," whether it's technically the city of, or not. You don't feel like you are "out of Houston" until you get past Sealy to the west, or Galveston to the south, or The Woodlands to the north.)

My only point being: Texas IS that big. This map puts that into some perspective. But to put the whole thing in perspective, you can leave Houston (on almost the Gulf coast) on I-10 heading west, and not reach El Paso for another 12 hours or more (depending on how often you stop). And you'll still be in Texas, and only about half-way to the California coast.

3.5 million acres ain't tiny, don't get me wrong. But it really is basically the Houston SMSA. Or at least, the Houston footprint. Which is why we can have the state of Connecticut burning in Texas, and still function.

Not that I don't keep imagining the trees around me being on fire. And not being comforted that they aren't.

Purity of Heart is to Will What I Want



Anthony McCarthy stirred my thinking with this comment at another blog:

It's so funny how being realistic about things such as the Ivys and scientists gives people here the heebie jeebies. For Pete's sake, they put their pants on the same way all of us do. They're [no] less prone to evil than the Vatican or Wall Street.
Evil has become, for the most part, corporate. Well, that's not quite right; it is our conception of evil that has changed. We attach it almost wholly to institutions (the church; multi-national corporations; the government) or to individuals with great power (Senators; Presidents; Vice-Presidents; CEO's). Seldom do we attach it to individuals as individuals. Would anybody really consider Dick Cheney evil if he hadn't been Vice-President of the United States for 8 years? He'd have been no different as a private citizen running Halliburton (poorly, by all accounts; its stock tripled in value after Cheney returned to public office and Halliburton became the contractor of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan), but would we have considered him evil then, or even noticed him? Individuals we barely consider evil at all, and therein lies an interesting distinction.

Consider what Sherri said earlier, a familiar lament:

What will the church do? What has the 'church' done? The loudest part will continue to do what it's been doing: fight abortion, but ignore the living, and measure their success by numbers and money and power gained.

Can you tell I'm feeling discouraged these days?
And when you consider that the Church does, or doesn't do, it's terribly easy to feel discouraged. But part of the problem is that our default position is the hearts of the people may be pure (well, some of them; I'm pretty sure about me and thee, although maybe not always about thee), but the heart of the institution is selfish and corrupt and bent toward evil ends.

Who, then, is the institution? Is it me and thee? Or is it "them"?

I mean, how many of us don't live our lives by ignoring the living (especially those in our neighborhood, or standing destitute on street corners, or huddled under overpasses) and measure our success by numbers and money and power gained? I make no money from this blog, but I obsessively check the Site Meter statistics, and rejoice when anything I post merits a comment. It's not exactly evil to desire such things, but what about that makes me still innocent and pure, and the Church corrupt and debased? My purity of heart is to will one thing; but what purity of heart can the church ever have, apart from the hearts of its members?

That definition of purity of heart, of course, depends upon what is willed. The corporation may will one thing, to increase a return to the shareholders. But not only does the corporation not have a heart, there is nothing pure in that singular motivation. The church may will to be the body of Christ, but hang it all, Robert Browning, there can be but one Sordello? But Sordello, and my Sordello?

Problems abound.

And left there, we are left nowhere at all. Yes the individual heart seeks reconciliation, but does it do it free from the taint of evil? No, of course not. Scientists may pursue noble goals, but they still create nuclear weapons and radioactive waste (even X-ray machines and cat scans have unfortunate by-products we will visit upon generations unborn almost to the end of the earth itself). Nobody meant evil when they found a use for the oil spewing from Spindletop, but look at the results today. And how many of us are evil because we still drive cars or turn on lights powered by fossil fuels, power delivered on poles dipped in petroleum products to prevent rot, or buy foods delivered by diesel trucks, food raised by petroleum derived fertilizers, via roads topped with more petroleum products. There is truly nothing in our modern world that isn't a product of oil and gas development, yet we consider BP and Exxon evil. They are, but not us.

How pure we sometimes are. We didn't cause the oil spill in the Gulf; we just wanted the oil under the Gulf. Our intentions are pure, so we are blameless. BP's intentions were to make money, so it is evil. How convenient it all is.*

And there's the problem: we have conveniently dissociated ourselves from all we depend on (corporations especially; they make daily life in America possible) and keep ourselves apart and clean, unsullied by all those...well, other people. A corporation is not a person (except as a convenient legal fiction, for reasons which actually make sense, Citizens United notwithstanding), but it is run by and for persons. At one extreme, we all know of "apologists" who were only doing their job, despite the results. At the other extreme, we know there are few "mad scientists" bent on absolute knowledge and indifferent to consequences. Yet any mention that scientists can wield inordinate power yields cries of ignorance as to what scientists "really do", or perhaps simply ignore Edward Teller as an outlier.

We are all of us pure; it is "them" you have to look out for. So the trick is to never be "them;" to be in the world, but not of the world.

But how do we do that? We can never forget that the predicaments of modern life are almost all the result of science and the "scientific process." Does this make science evil? No, but simply because individuals insist their hearts are pure and their intentions beneficent, doesn't mean evil isn't still done. The Church faces the same predicament: good as it may intend to be, evil results can still occur. Miserable creatures that we are, who is there to deliver us from this paradox?

Maybe we can deliver ourselves.

Oh, not entirely; but it is our idea of the community and the individual that is at the root of the problem. I punted the issue a bit earlier when I pointed out my purity of heart may will one thing, but the purity of heart of the church can never be established by willing one thing because, no matter how monolithic the Church may seem, its members never will one thing together at one time. That is the problem with institutions: they cannot be single-minded. At least, they cannot be single-minded and pure of heart; when they are single-minded, we seem to assume they are evil and driven only by their relentless malevolence (the other assumption is that they are flailing aimlessly, because they are not single-minded). The institution is one thing, the individual another, and as Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out, they have unalterably different ends.

But Niebuhr's brother Richard thought Reinhold had come to the wrong conclusion; and perhaps Richard was right. We cannot assume the perfectability of the institution arising from the perfectability of human nature, and not merely because we cannot presume the perfectability of human nature. We cannot link the hearts of the individuals with the telos of the institution, even if we recognize that the institution is nothing more than the people who establish it. That doesn't mean we can't expect the institution to do good even if it isn't the good we would do. The real problem is: what good would we do?

It's a tougher question than it appears to be. As Brian Morton points out, "Be the change you want to see in the world" sounds good, but it's actually rather weak tea:
Gandhi’s words have been tweaked a little too in recent years. Perhaps you’ve noticed a bumper sticker that purports to quote him: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” When you first come across it, this does sound like something Gandhi would have said. But when you think about it a little, it starts to sound more like ... a bumper sticker. Displayed brightly on the back of a Prius, it suggests that your responsibilities begin and end with your own behavior. It’s apolitical, and a little smug.

Sure enough, it turns out there is no reliable documentary evidence for the quotation. The closest verifiable remark we have from Gandhi is this: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. ... We need not wait to see what others do.”

Here, Gandhi is telling us that personal and social transformation go hand in hand, but there is no suggestion in his words that personal transformation is enough. In fact, for Gandhi, the struggle to bring about a better world involved not only stringent self-denial and rigorous adherence to the philosophy of nonviolence; it also involved a steady awareness that one person, alone, can’t change anything, an awareness that unjust authority can be overturned only by great numbers of people working together with discipline and persistence.
Ah, but there's the problem! Discipline and persistence are hard, especially when I have to apply those efforts to working with others! My discipline and persistence break down in the face of their intransigence, of their impurity of heart, of their failure to will the one true thing which I want to will. Can you see why people feel discouraged?

Which isn't to say people aren't jerks, pinheads, and weasels. Some of them are even evil. "Them," of course; never me. My heart is pure. Your heart, on the other hand....well, as Jeremiah said: "The heart is devious, who can fathom it?" Oh, wait, that wasn't Jeremiah speaking; that was God. Even God doesn't know our heart is pure. But God is pretty sure the corporate heart is impure; because, well, just look at what corporations and institutions do! Except that's what God goes on to tell Jeremiah to tell Israel: God tests the heart to find out what is in it. God knows what is in the heart by what is done; and God alone is fit to sit in the seat of judgment. The rest of us? We don't even know what is in our hearts when we act. We consider our actions pure, our hearts to be willing the one thing worth willing. We judge ourselves from the point of view of ourselves, and this makes us sure our intentions are good, and the intentions of others are suspect. Those others are especially suspect if they aren't people but corporations, institutions, large groups. We trust individuals, but only if we know them. Groups earn our suspicion, our distrust, our fear and loathing. We don't trust them because we know we are moral, but societies can be, even have to be, immoral. And so we remain pure; in the world, but not of the world.

Which is another bumper sticker idea, one peculiar to Christianity. We were never told to be superior to the world. We were, are, told to be as innocent as doves, but also as wise as serpents. To be innocent in the world is to be vulnerable; to be wise in the world, is to be worldly. There is no reconciling this into a bumper sticker mentality that lets us be just what we want to be. And the ones sent out into this world are always "you," but the "you" is collective, not individual. Perhaps Southern English would serve us better, and the translation should read "Y'all," the one form of "you" in English I know of that is never singular. We go together, or we don't go at all. And none of us among us has a pure heart; our hearts together do not add up to a pure thing. We are not purer because we separate from the world; we are purer only when we embrace the world. Our purity comes from our selflessness, not our selfishness. After all, we are sent out as sheep among wolves; how much of our own wolvishness do we think we ever set aside?

Evil is not out there, accumulated against us, arising from a separate source or created by a group grown too large to do anything but act in its own self-interest. Evil is inherent in what we do, and how we do it. We may be as innocent as doves, but we are not innocent. We may be as wise as serpents, but we are not wise (and what is the wisdom of the serpent, after all?). We may be sheep among wolves, but are we so sure we are sheep, and they are wolves?

The picture of the maze at Chartres Cathedral is no accident here. The maze is for contemplation and meditation. It must be walked individually. However, it is exists in a wholly corporate setting, and apart from that setting it is nothing. Were the hearts of the builders of Chartres Cathedral pure? Probably not, but we can still appreciate the setting, we can still walk the maze in contemplation of the holy. But can we do that and avoid the community that built and sustained it, the clouds of witness who have conveniently removed themselves and all their prickly humanity from us, and left this legacy behind? The builders of this cathedral did at least this much good. They actually did even more good: they passed on to us the traditions we live with today, both religious and secular, for better and for worse. It is clear none of us can do very much good alone. So the question stands: what good can we do?



*yes, BP was responsible for its irresponsibility; but we are complicit. BP is not a group of aliens taking our natural resources for their own non-human purposes. The oil they pump from beneath the Gulf is impossible to distinguish at the gasoline pump where you fill your car. They were simply extracting what we need, what we have come to rely on. As the environmentalists used to say, there is no free lunch.