Monday, July 30, 2007

For your reading pleasure

Working on a sermon about Abraham and Sodom and Gomorrah. In the meantime:

Rorschach and Awe at Vanity Fair.


I heard the author of the article interviewed on Democracy Now! this morning. The APA is meeting this week, and the issue of involvement in these interrogations is a hot one. The transcript is now up, allow me to quote a bit:

KATHERINE EBAN: Originally, a group of psychologists had come to me from within the APA. They were highly disturbed about the results of a task force, which had determined that psychologists could follow military guidelines and American law instead of international human rights treaties, if they were given directions by the military to participate in interrogations. Basically, they felt this was allowing psychologists to follow the lower standard of human rights and basically would keep them in the interrogation booth. Conversely, the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association prohibited their members from being involved in interrogations. So these group of psychologists were suspicious that there was some kind of quid pro quo, some sort of backroom deal with the Defense Department.
That "deal" may well be access to prescription writing power:

BRAD OLSON: -- that there’s this issue of psychopharmacology. Should psychologists -- I mean, that’s the main distinction between psychologists and psychiatrists, or one of them, and that’s that psychiatrists can prescribe. So, there is a big movement within psychology, so to make it so that psychologists have prescriptive authority. And Walter Reed, the Department of Defense, set up the pilot program that essentially put -- that gave psychologists the foot in the door to start prescribing. And, in fact, some of these psychologists are the very -- the “Biscuit” psychologists are the ones who are -- have been part of this prescriptive authority program. But there’s all sorts of different reasons, and some people argue that it has to do with appropriations and funding for research and just all sorts of possible connections.
The issue arises now because it's become a contentious one in the APA. I don't know how much of the article covers this, but in the interview it was clear the power structure of the APA is sucking up to power in ways that make "ethics" and "morals" completely empty terms:

GERALD KOOCHER (former APA President): We don't, as a professional association, tell our members that they can't work for a given employer. Obviously there are some people who don't think that psychologists should assist in the military at all. That's a political preference and a social statement, but there are many very beneficial things that psychologists have done in the military. One example is that the lead officer sent in to help clean up Guantanamo Bay was a psychologist, a US Army colonel, who was sent in to help to clean up the abuses as soon as they were reported. There's another APA member, a civilian employee of the Navy, who was sent to Guantanamo and was one of the first people to file complaints with his superiors about things that he observed down there, and he reportedly brought about some changes.
To which Katherine Eban responded:

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.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Oh, those crazy British...

MI6 believed it was close to finding the al-Qaida leader in Afghanistan in 1998, and again the next year. The plan was for MI6 to hand the CIA vital information about Bin Laden. Ministers including Robin Cook, the then foreign secretary, gave their approval on condition that the CIA gave assurances he would be treated humanely. The plot is revealed in a 75-page report by parliament's intelligence and security committee on rendition, the practice of flying detainees to places where they may be tortured.

The report criticises the Bush administration's approval of practices which would be illegal if carried out by British agents. It shows that in 1998, the year Bin Laden was indicted in the US, Britain insisted that the policy of treating prisoners humanely should include him. But the CIA never gave the assurances.

"In 1998, SIS [MI6] believed that it might be able to obtain actionable intelligence that might enable the CIA to capture Osama bin Laden," the committee says in its report. It adds: "Given that this might have resulted in him being rendered from Afghanistan to the US, SIS sought ministerial approval. This was given provided that the CIA gave assurances regarding humane treatment." British intelligence made a similar request in 1999, and obtained the same response from Whitehall, but in the event MI6 did not provide the information.
This can't be right, of course, because Bush and Cheney weren't in office in 1998 or 1999. And we all know 9/11 changed everything. And a change of Administration in 2008 will change everything back.


Thursday, July 26, 2007

Shooting Fish in a Barrel

This is almost too obvious a comparison. Four nurses and one doctor from Bulgaria are accused by Libya of intentionally spreading HIV/AIDS in a Libyan hospital, arrested, tortured, tried, and sentenced to death. However, after international pressure and diplomatic efforts, they are freed.

The stories of their torture, however, are horrific and rightly bring condemnation on Libya. And while NPR would lead you to believe their release was effected solely by the US, the picture is, of course, much more complicated than that. France, in the person of Madame Sarkozy, and the European Union, were deeply involved. Bulgaria worked for the release of its citizens, and it may be their release was purchased in part by forgiveness of Libya's debt to Bulgaria. But the truly interesting issue, from an American point of view, is the horror story of their arrest and treatment. Consider, first, what the Palestinian doctor, who was held with the nurses for 8 years, had to say:

"I'm really disappointed with the whole Arab world and how they have treated our case. Only foreigners were accused in this case because they are Christians, and this is against our morals."
Substitute "Muslim" for "Christian," and you have a statement which applies to every "detainee" and "enemy combatant" currently in US custody anywhere in the world. And this could be an account from Gitmo:

In an official handwritten 2003 declaration to the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry, Snezhana Dimitrova, who was not at the news conference, detailed her two months of physical torture in a Tripoli police station after her arrest in Benghazi in February 1999.

Dimitrova recounted having her arms tied together behind her back, and being hung from a door by her arms.

"Even when I wasn't on the door anymore but on the floor, I thought I had no arms," her statement said. "Tens of men's legs kicked me, then they made me stand up and started to slap me. Everything hurt. I had no strength. I was beaten like a dog, my hair had fallen over my eyes, my blindfold had fallen off and my nose was bleeding."
These are not new allegations, by the way; they were known in 2005. Whether their revelation swayed the efforts of American diplomats is not known. That we hear such accounts and despise the governments that would engage in them, is obvious. People falsely accused of monstrous crimes with no evidence, in order to protect a government unable to protect their citizens from injury and threat, and then the accused tortured to force their confessions, tried and sentenced to death, and only finally released under extreme diplomatic and international pressure.

Well, the only difference between Libya and the US now, is that Libya has acknowledged that pressure and released the prisoners it never should have held.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

If our national conversation is carried out in the media

then I'd say Michael Moore has definitely changed the conversation. From the home page of

Adults with no health insurance face waits up to a year or longer for gallbladder or hernia surgery in Los Angeles County, a backlog that community clinic doctors say has worsened since the county downsized Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital last year.

The elimination of most specialty care at King-Harbor, formerly known as King/Drew, has hit Harbor-UCLA Medical Center near Torrance the hardest, the doctors say. As the county-owned hospital closest to King-Harbor, it absorbed the bulk of that facility's displaced patients.

Community clinics rely on five county-owned hospitals to provide virtually all specialty care, including hernia and gallbladder surgery, for their uninsured patients.

With a quarter of the county's adult population lacking insurance, patients have always had to wait a long time. But delays are growing longer as the population ages and suffers complications from such chronic conditions as diabetes and obesity.

Still, clinic doctors were stunned earlier this month when Harbor-UCLA told them not to send any more nonemergency gallstone, hernia, orthopedic or neurosurgery patients until hospital physicians worked through the yearlong backlog for these surgeries.

After a Times reporter asked about the ban on referrals, the medical center sent another notice lifting it. But the backlog remains.
Imagine: a major news story about medical care with absolutely no mention of delays in countries with universal coverage. Will wonders never cease? And in an ironic (perhaps even unintentional) response to President Bush:

"Emergency rooms should be saved for emergencies," she said. "But no one has a better answer."
But wait, it gets better (or worse, actually):

With funding help from the county, 43 nonprofit groups operate 117 community clinics throughout Los Angeles County. The clinics collectively see about 600,000 low-income patients a month for asthma and flu, diabetes and prenatal care, gynecological exams and immunizations.

But people without insurance also get hernias and gallstones, suffer failing hearts and ailing livers that, though not, technically emergencies, are beyond the skills of the clinics' primary care doctors, physician assistants and nurse practitioners.

Gallstones and hernias, for example, can be painful. But unless complications develop, their removal is considered elective surgery — never mind that it's better for the patient and more cost-effective to remove or repair them before they become emergencies.
Better for the patient AND more cost effective! But, of course, such an improvement would steer people away from private insurance....which they don't have anyway. Oh, well; that's what emergency rooms are for, right? Maybe not:

Clinics faced with yearlong delays for specialists will sometimes send patients with inflamed gallbladders or painful hernias to an emergency room, only to have them examined and released because their conditions not a threat to life or limb.
Oops again!

Monday, July 23, 2007


George W. Bush speaks:

The immediate goal is to make sure there are more people on private insurance plans. I mean, people have access to health care in America. After all, you just go to an emergency room. The question is, will we be wise about how we pay for health care. I believe the best way to do so is to enable more people to have private insurance. And the reason I emphasize private insurance, the best health care plan -- the best health care policy is one that emphasizes private health. In other words, the opposite of that would be government control of health care.
What's interesting is how many editorials have picked up on the sentence about emergency room access, without putting it in the context of private health insurance, proving there is no issue so simple and one sided someone somewhere cannot find a way to slice it thin enough to create yet another side. It is, as those editorials point out, an appallingly ignorant statement,

As any executive of a Houston hospital can attest, that is precisely the problem created by the high number of uninsured people in the United States. Texas has the highest rate of uninsured children in the nation, and Harris County the highest in the state. Those who lack insurance coverage frequently delay seeking medical care until they are seriously ill. Then they swamp hospital emergency rooms that are required by law to treat them even if the patient has no ability to pay.
And no small part of the problem is the problem of abstraction: Bush is arguing on the "meta-" level of a system, while the reality ("Those who lack insurance coverage frequently delay seeking medical care until they are seriously ill. Then they swamp hospital emergency rooms that are required by law to treat them...") is ignored. After all, if government health care is extended:

It's a way to encourage people to transfer from the private sector to government health care plans.
In other words, Micheal Moore wins! And we can't have that....

Apparently this would be bad, too, because we can't risk stepping up from 37th place in the world, like all those countries in Europe and the rest of the industrialized world, where health care is provided by the government. But I'll bet they don't have innovations like lipo-suction and portable MRI's! And breast implants are an American original! Thank goodness we didn't have government health care squashing innovation like that!

So Michael Moore is affecting the national conversation. But, if the editorials are any indication, it's going to be a long time before we put this conversation in the context it deserves. As I was saying:

...we have a hand in who is poor, and who is rich, and who is in jail, and who gets clothed and who gets fed. And so long as there are people who have more than they need to survive on, and people who have less than they need to survive on, we will always have this responsibility.

Come Together

From nowhere in particular:*
The writer concludes that the "antigovernment activists of the right and the antiwar activists of the left" may have "irreconcilable" differences. But "their numbers -- and anger -- are of considerable magnitude. Ron Paul will not be the next president of the United States. But his candidacy gives us a good hint about the country the next president is going to have to knit back together."
I've been following this meme for sometime now, and it's a curious one: the idea that we should all "come together" (wasn't that John Lennon's idea first?) over some particular Presidential candidate who will "heal our wounds" and end our "bipartianship" and otherwise "knit" our country "back together."

Did we start a civil war recently, and nobody came?

Whence comes this nonsense? Even former Sen. Danforth has told written a book advising us that the "moral values" debate was "dividing America" and how we could "move forward together," as if history were a progression towards a goal and our failure to agree on that goal or how to get there was how civilizations fell or something. It is all, of course, balderdash.

First, as Lennon sang, come together, but over who? Over me? Over you? Over Sen. John Danforth, whose most memorable public achievement was seeing Clarence Thomas placed on the Supreme Court? Over Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney? Please.

But whence comes this vision of America as a "united country"? Pre-Civil War? Post Civil War? We only lasted 100 years before we had a war to determine the state and cohesion of the republic. It took that to make us decide we were "united," and even then the "unification" didn't really take hold (I grew up hearing "The South will rise again!," and it wasn't always a parochial joke). We didn't really see ourselves as a country, rather than a confederation of states, until the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Even then, the attitude displayed by the fictional Corleone brothers toward Micheal's decision to join the military is not an aberration peculiar to Italian Americans, but a statement a lot of people would have agreed with. Even in my youth people saw themselves more as citizens of a state or a region (the "South") than a nation. Notice now that the common justification for a state of permanent war is that "they" are fighting for "our" freedom. This is reasoning and an argument for unification that only makes sense coming out of the Cold War, when we were told relentlessly that not only could the USSR attack us on 30 minutes notice, but that they would. It's been, of course, a very small shift from "Commies" to "terrorists," as NPR found out last night.

But does anyone outside the Beltway truly look for the President to "unite us?" Are we anxiously awaiting the resurrection of Abe Lincoln (who didn't unite us at all)? Did Democratic primary voters choose John Kerry because "most electable"="most likely to unite us?" As infantile as the "they are fighting for our freedom" slogan is (my freedom depends on someone else? It isn't my inalienable right?), does the majority of the country really think that way?

I don't think so; but this is the story we keep telling ourselves. And the end result, primarily, is a military-industrial complex that has to justify its existence and the massive government expenditures maintaining it; a complete inability to concede that, as a "united people," we might owe a duty to the healthcare of everyone in the country, and a determination (per Jack Cafferty's commentary yesterday) that only citizens are allowed to partake of public services like education (Cafferty noted that Utah, IIRC, had calculated the "cost" of providing education to "illegal immigrants," per the Plyler v. Doe decision of the US Supreme Court of nearly 3 decades ago. This argument, of course, presumes that "illegal immigrants" are ethereal beings who somehow manage to live in a state without renting an apartment, buy goods without ever paying sales tax, earn money not subject to taxation, and otherwise manage the neat trick of existing without paying a dime to any government entity. Presumably this is because they are "illegal." If it were possible to live anywhere in the US without paying taxes on any economic transaction, including wages, we'd have all figured out how to do that by now. So I have no idea what "costs" the state of Utah is talking about, but Cafferty seemed to; which is why he's on TeeVee, and I'm not.). Such is the state of our public discourse today: "illegal immigrants" manage to live better than the rest of us, and at our expense; "Muslims" want to take away our freedoms; and only the right President can heal our national "soul."

More and more, Harry Potter seems wiser and more sane than the national discourse.


I had set this aside, having decided not to publish it, and then I came across this:

Floyd left the State Department on April 1, after 17 years. He said he was fed up with the relentless partisanship and the unwillingness to consider other points of view. His supervisor, a political appointee, kept "telling me to shut up," he said. Nothing like that had occurred under Presidents Bill Clinton or George H.W. Bush. "They just wanted us to be Bush automatons."

Does that sound familiar? Earlier this month, former Surgeon General Richard Carmona told Congress that Bush administration officials had repeatedly tried to weaken or suppress important public health reports because they clashed with administration dogma. He said he was ordered to mention Bush three times on every page of his speeches. Floyd's experience shows that the same close-minded zealotry afflicting many departments of government under Bush has descended on the State Department, too. In effect, as Rice's power and influence has waned along with Bush's, intolerance and monomania have taken its place.
And yet the complaints about "partisnship!" grow ever more shrill. Gee, I wonder if there's a correlation there?

*i.e., no where particularly relevant to my line of thought here.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Back from the Harry Potter party

Something I will never (have) to do again in my life.

And I have to say: anyone who can engage so many people so completely in the products of her imagination, deserves at the very least our respect. It is no small feat to do what J.K. Rowling has done, and it wasn't dumb luck or "lightning striking," at least not alone, that made it happen.

Now I'm going to hibernate with the book for a few days. The only way to avoid the spoilers is to not be able to have the book spoiled.

SUNDAY UPDATE: Well, no spoilage possible now. The ideal ending to the series, with some interestingly apt observations on the power of powerlessness.

No, seriously....


I should add this (repeating myself from the comments):

Rowling, for all her faults (they are many but minor, IMHO), plots like a wizard. I was re-watching HP1 on DVD this afternoon, and noticing plot points that were mere details in the first novel, but significant points in the conclusion. She leaves no dangling threads; nothing is extraneous (even the parts some complain pad out the later novels). It is not only a satisfying conclusion to the series, it is the capstone of what turns into a wonderful story.

I loved it.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

We were talking....

I am shamelessly plucking this from Mad Priest (via geor3ge) just because it is so funny. And because it allows me to ride one of my favorite hobby-horses, again.

MadPriest is, of course, right; he and "Anonymous" are speaking two different languages (it's a Wittgensteinian thing, ya know!). The primary distinction is actually theological, though, not linguistic. There is a basic diversion in theology, and it's on the subject of soteriology. Christianity is an evangelical faith, but the linchpin question is "Why evangelize?" The answer, as I've mentioned before, depends by and large on where you stand on Matthew 25 and Matthew 28. That's not the literal fulcrum, of course, but a convenient symbol for the fulcrum. And besides, like MadPriest, I like to rely on the words of Jesus whenever I can, especially whether I find them comfortable, or not.

So, in brief, Matthew 25 makes it incumbent on me to take care of the hungry, the naked, those in jail (not the ill, you will note; three classes of people made that way by a social system, by the actions/inactions/structure of social groupings), and Matthew 28 lays down the rule that we (Christians, I mean) should "make disciples of all nations" ("nations," of course, meaning what we could now call "ethnic groups," as "nation" is a 19th century European concept. But I digress....). The distinction rises here: the former is read as a social obligation, consonant with the directive given to the rich man in Luke to "Go, sell all you have, and give to the poor, and come, follow me." Interesting that while there's a lot of commentary about the "power" of Jesus to persuade Peter away from his nets or Matthew away from his tax collecting, or even Zacccheus down out of his tree (and away from his tax-collecting, too), little notice is paid to the four times in Luke that Jesus calls a new disciple, who decides it's just not worth it. It seems fairly clear that salvation, whatever it might be, is not something taken up without a serious change of state.

At least, it seems clear to me; but here's the difference (again): I don't understand my salvation as being dependent upon your salvation. That's the importance of the emphasis on Matthew 25, or Matthew 28. If my salvation is not dependent upon your salvation, but only upon my actions, then indeed I work out my own salvation in fear and trembling, in the apousia of my Lord. But if I understand my salvation as being dependent upon securing your salvation, if I start with Matthew 28 as the paramount directive of Jesus upon my life, then the size of my church and the number of people attending it and their adherence to strict laws (even the Deuteronomists weren't that legalistic!) is the central issue. And then the responsibility is not mine, but yours; and the burden is not mine, but the system's. And if you are not faithful as I am faithful, well, I've done all I can do for you by bringing you to salvation; it's up to you to live up to the claim, and up to me to judge your success or failure.

I was thinking, recently, about the story of Pandora's box. I remember the story from a set of children's encylopedias we used to have. The entry included a rather tame drawing of a young woman opening a small chest from which ethereal spirits were escaping, all with various grimaces to indicate they were evil. For much of my young childhood I was attracted and repelled by that picture; it clung like a cockleburr to my imagination. Thinking again about that primal story of the unleashing of pain and sickness in the world, I compared it to the Genesis 2 story, and I realized something: both stories are about human responsibility for pain in the world. It's become common to "blame" God, to ask the simple questions of theodicy like "Why does God allow cancer?" without thinking about the human responsibility for preventing cancer (most of it has an environmental cause; the seeds of our destruction are sown in our modern technological successes). Not that we "caused" sickness because Pandora lifted the lid, any more than Eve "caused" sin by listening to the snake; but the clear import of these tales is that we have a hand in what happens in the world. Which means, of course, we have a hand in who is poor, and who is rich, and who is in jail, and who gets clothed and who gets fed. And so long as there are people who have more than they need to survive on, and people who have less than they need to survive on, we will always have this responsibility.

Which responsibility, of course, we will shy away from. Who, after all, wants to be resposnible for poverty and prison and hunger and homelessness? Much easier to imagine we have some slight responsibility for something as abstract as a "soul," and that by living a "godly life" our "purity" will be a corrective for others. Much easier than being responsible for other human beings and their material needs. Much easier, to keep a space between ourselves.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Harry Potter, RIP

I am clearly in my own universe now, having missed any opportunity to add to any discussion about Harry Potter (yeah, like there'll be no more chance of that ever again!). First, full disclosure: as was true two years ago, I will once again be up late Friday night to distribute some 300 copies of the last book. Why haven't you all killed me yet? Do you like watching me suffer?

That aside, I'm as bemused as Atrios by the comments Yglesias prompted with his original post on the subject of J.K. Rowling's work. Having made it into the Dr. Who Pantheon, I think her position in the world of English literature is secured. I'm especially bemused by the first comment Yglesias drew: "I believe pretty much no adult who reads the Harry Potter books reads other novels. Otherwise, why would they be reading Harry Potter books?"

Let's see: I've read all 6 Harry Potter books. And I just finished Trollope's Framley Parsonage, am still working through Proust's Geuermantes Way (the new Penguin translation is still fantastic!), and have wandered off for a moment to read Camus' The Plague, which is amazingly good, as opposed to terribly depressing, which is what I'd expected after reading The Stranger a few years ago.

I really don't understand snobbery at all, especially book snobbery. I love Lewis Carroll's work, as well as The Wind in the Willows, and one of my favorite novels of all time is still A Wrinkle In Time. Gulliver's Travels is really not a children's book, but at the same time, it is. And yet I find Camus' distinctly Gallic temperament (it's clear Proust and Camus come from the same culture) bracing, as well as enlightening about Flaubert's work, and a sharp contrast to both Trollope and Dickens. One funny thing is that the British publisher releases two editions of the Potter books: one with a dust jacket for the children, one with a dust jacket for adults. A guilty pleasure in Britain, I guess.

But I still enjoy Harry Potter; though I have to say, I'm not planning to plunge into Book 7 quite as rapidly as I did Book 6. I'll get around to it; and I know before I do I'll already know the ending. Which is too bad, really, but it can't be helped. I'm not going to rush through it just to obviate the inevitable spoilers.

The wee small voice in the corner

says, "No duh!"

I think quite a few people who are deeply against the war realize that getting out may not be easy or quick. The issue is starting -- not considering starting in six months, or a month, or after the Iraqis stop killing each other or after the Sunnis and Shia work out their differences about Ali and the family of the Prophet or anything else. All of those equal never because a clear-eyed look at the situation tells you that leaving is never going to be easy or free of bloodshed or, perhaps most importantly, free of the need to recognize that the whole thing was a terrible idea, a war built on deception and deceit at every level.
I know I said a long time back, when discussion of withdrawal was just getting publicly started (but who listens to a D-list blogger? Even Kathy Griffin doesn't know my name) that we had broken Iraq, and we had bought it. That withdrawal was the only option (we cannot keep asking other people's children to die for this foreign policy, which is a debacle), and that abandoning Iraq was also not an option (we are responsible for our actions as a country, whether we like the leadership or not). So now we're down to paralysis, or, as I keep putting it, running 'round and 'round the perimeter of the circular room looking for the corner we've been told we'll be safe in.

It's ultimately a question of responsibility. Which is, in full measure, the current "irony of American history:"

John Adams in his warnings to Thomas Jefferson would seem to have had a premonition of this kind of politics. "Power," he wrote, "always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God's service when it is violating all His laws. Our passions, ambitions, avarice, love and resentment, etc., possess so much metaphysical subtlety and so much overpowering eloquence that they insinuate themselves into the understanding and the conscience and convert both to their party." Adams's understanding of the power of the self's passions and ambitions to corrupt the self's reason is a simple recognition of the facts of life which refute all theories, whether liberal or Marxist, about the possibility of a completely disinterested self. Adams, as every Christian understanding of man has done, nicely anticipated the Marxist theory of an "ideological taint" in reason when men reason about each other's affairs and arrive at conclusions about each other's virtues, interests and motives. The crowning irony of the Marxist theory of ideology is that it foolishly and self-righteously confined the source of this taint to economic interest and to a particular class. It was, therefore, incapable of recognizing all the corruptions of ambition and power which would creep inevitably into its paradise of innocency.

In any event we have to deal with a vast religious-political movement which generates more extravagant forms of political injustice and cruelty out of the pretensions of innocency than we have ever known in human history.
Niebuhr was talking about Marxism, but the "innocency" he worried about is now peculiarly American. We are, after all, the "good guys," and we maintain that reputation by insisting on a level of abstraction and distance from harsh reality that assures us that: "The majority of people understand we treat people with dignity and respect, but there are cases where we have to detain them,: even as we kick their doors in, or murder their mothers, or terrorize their fathers. "So it is a delicate balance." And the balance is all due to "The crowning irony of the [American] theory of ideology ...that... foolishly and self-righteously confine[s] the source of this taint to [the other] and...[is] therefore incapable of recognizing all the corruptions of ambition and power which would creep inevitably into its paradise of innocency." My country, right or wrong. And we learn once again the lessons of power:

The liberal world which opposes this monstrous evil is filled ironically with milder forms of the same pretension. Fortunately they have not resulted in the same evils, partly because they are not as consistently held; and partly because we have not invested our ostensible "innocents" with inordinate power. Though a tremendous amount of illusion about human nature expresses itself in American culture, our political institutions contain many of the safeguards against the selfish abuse of power which our Calvinist fathers insisted upon. According to the accepted theory, our democracy owes everything to the believers in the innocency and perfectibility of man and little to the reservations about human nature which emanated from the Christianity of New England. But fortunately there are quite a few accents in our constitution which spell out the warning of John Cotton: "Let all the world give mortall man no greater power than they are content they shall use, for use it they will. . . . And they that have the liberty to speak great things you will find that they will speak: great blasphemies."
That "liberal world" Niebuhr described is now the "neo-con" world of Bush and Cheney, who reportedly don't trust any successor to "deal" with Iran, and so will take care of that problem, too (just as they have "taken care" of the Taliban, al Qaeda, Afghanistan, Iraq, New Orleans....). We have ignored the warning of John Cotton, and forgotten that "the system" (O machine! O machine!) will not save us from ourselves, will not limit the power any one person will aggregate unto themselves. We have to be the limitations on that power. Our representatives have to be the limitation on that power. Ironic that religion, which many blame for the abuses of power of the last decade, is the source of the lesson about the dangers of that abuse. Ironic that, as we must learn once again to shoulder responsibility ourselves, one lesson that could be learned is: "Religion is responsibility, or it is nothing at all."

Isn't that the kerygma of the parousia?

Monday, July 16, 2007

"I have to admit it's getting better..."

It's like they read my blog. Or The Nation. Or listen to Pacifica.

NPR, just this evening:

One of the lessons learned in the past four years is that sometimes-abusive behavior by U.S. troops — such as forced entry, wholesale detentions and pointing guns at everybody — embitters Iraqis and helps the insurgency's recruiting.
Gee, d'ya think? Wow, whadda concept! No mention here, of course, of the horror stories from real soldiers. Notice this all stays on the level of abstraction: of what soldiers have seen, what commanding officers say, but never anything personal, anything identifiable as face-to-face contact with, say, men screaming for fear of their family's safety. We're the "good guys," remember. That narrative can never be challenged.

With this latest phase of the war, the military says its soldiers will no longer act like occupiers. Commanders say they can already see local Iraqis responding to America's gentler approach with an increased willingness to cooperate, volunteering information on bombs and arms caches.
Again, the message is lost in the mendacity. First, we will "no longer act like occupiers." What the...? Huh? "No longer..."? But before you get to digest that comes the mea culpa couched, of course, in the passive voice:

"In the early stages, we would kick in doors and we would break things, and we would just say we're sorry and then pull off," says Lt. Col. John Kolasheski. "The majority of people understand we treat people with dignity and respect, but there are cases where we have to detain them. So it is a delicate balance."
Yes, the balance between terrorizing the populace by kicking in their doors and still showing them you treat them with dignity and respect is indeed quite a tightrope, if not an outright contradiction. Ask any police department. Still, even that "delicate balance" is not easily maintained, eh?

But during the Sledgehammer Brigade's summer offensive, actions by combat troops have also deepened animosity among Iraqis.

In Nahrawan, soldiers shot the wrong man when he ran from a house thought to belong to militants. A gathering crowd glowered at the troops as they bandaged the victim's bloody arm and leg.

In two separate convoy incidents, U.S. Humvees rammed civilian vehicles, the first when an Iraqi sedan drove past a traffic blockade. In the second incident, a Humvee commander instructed his driver to clear a crowded intersection. The Humvee then smashed into a minibus full of terrified passengers — causing considerable damage —while his gunner fired an M-16 in the air to frighten other drivers.

When informed of the incident at the intersection, Col. Wayne Grigsby, commander of the 3,000-man Sledgehammer brigade, said bullying is not authorized and that he would investigate.

"That kind of stuff is what will get us in trouble," Grigsby says. "Over here, we're trying to liberate and support and assist. Some of these people on the fence...we make enemies, and they feed the insurgency."
Good to know commanding officers don't put up with that kind of thing from the "bad apples." Not that we'll ever know who they are, nor will they ever be punished for what they did. Becuase, hey!, after 5 years, we've figured out violence doesn't win hearts and minds!

Now if we can investigate the death of the Iraqi mother shot for getting close enough to read the sign warning her to stay further back than she was.

I won't hold my breath.


So we're at the Israeli option:

But I just want to say also that we’ve been embroiled in this debate about withdrawal. You know what? Even if there is withdrawal, it’s going to be withdrawal Israeli style, from urban centers to the military bases. Most people, Democrats and Republicans, are saying we are staying there for ten or fifty or sixty years. So all this talk about withdrawal is just to fool the American people. It’s withdrawal from the urban centers to the military bases that have been built there with millions and millions of dollars, and to let the natives kill each other. This is old colonial style: when it’s too costly, you let the natives kill each other, let the natives police each other.

Still, Americans remain cautious about the prospect of a hasty withdrawal from Iraq, afraid it would leave the country in chaos. Out of four possible options in the poll, 19 percent of the respondents chose immediate total withdrawal. Slightly fewer (13 percent) don't want any cutbacks at all. Nearly a quarter of all Americans (24 percent) would implement a gradual withdrawal plan that would start in the fall and extend until the spring, when the last troops would come home. Forty percent favor keeping a substantial number of troops on the ground there, but only on the condition that they fall back to their bases and focus solely on training Iraqis and targeting Al Qaeda. And yet a majority (53 percent) want troops to remain for no more than a year. Only 19 percent could embrace the idea of maintaining a military presence in Iraq for up to two years, even at a reduced number.
And then there's the "Have our cake and eat it, too" contingent. We'll stay, but we won't overstay our welcome.

We are all in a round room, looking desperately for the corner. And what we don't know, is what's going on over there:

SGT. DUSTIN FLATT: Yes. The innocent deaths happened at different times, different places and different occasions. Convoys were commonplace. The only incident I have firsthand knowledge of was a convoy that was actually not our convoy. It was a convoy had just driven by us. And an Iraqi vehicle with a mother, three daughters and an older teenage son who was driving the car were following a convoy too close. It got too close, and they shot into the car. It was a warning shot, and it ended up killing the mother. And they actually pulled the car over, or the son pulled the car over right next to us, and we just happened to be near a hospital in Mosul at the time. And the mother was obviously dead, and the children were just crying and asking if they could actually get into the hospital.

AMY GOODMAN: So the mother was dead. The three little girls, what happened?

SGT. DUSTIN FLATT: Right. The three little girls, we just -- we took them and just -- the last time I saw them they were on the side of the road just crying. They had no idea what had just happened. And it was funny -- it was with another unit -- it was a unit actually that we were attached to in Mosul, and on the back of their last Humvee in the convoy, they had a sign that read, "Stay back 100 meters." And after that, we took our interpreter, our Iraqi interpreter, up to the sign to see how far away he could read it, and he had to be within about thirty or forty feet before he could read it.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You also mentioned, I think, a checkpoint situation, where an elderly couple was killed at a checkpoint, and then their bodies were just left for several days, that you would drive back and forth and you’d still see them there?

SGT. DUSTIN FLATT: Yes, depending on -- that happened in different cities, too. Again, up in Mosul, there was an instance where one of our platoons -- I think an elderly couple just stumbled upon one of our -- an area where some of our guys were, and they had gotten too close and were driving, you know, just a little too fast, and that’s it.

You know, our rules of engagement -- we’ve got, you know, set rules that you follow, you know, verbal commands, using signals, shooting warning shots, and all of that happens very quickly when somebody’s coming at you at fifty miles an hour, which I can see happening.

In any of these circumstances, I don’t necessarily fault the soldiers who did it. I don’t think it’s -- they’ve been put in a place where they have to make these split-second decisions on whether someone is a threat or not. And in a place where you don’t understand anything and can’t tell the difference between an enemy and just a regular civilian, I can see where soldiers are making these decisions.

AMY GOODMAN: In both cases, Sergeant Dustin Flatt, in the case of the mother being killed with her three little daughters in the car and the case of this elderly couple, what was your response and the conversations you were having with the other soldiers? How did this affect you?

SGT. DUSTIN FLATT: I believe -- well, actually, we were part of a very -- TJ and I were part of a very disciplined unit, or at least we believe so. Our chain of command was fantastic. We very much admired them. We talked about different things all the time and about our rules of engagement and that sort of thing. And it got to a point -- at this instance, actually, up in Mosul when we were attached to a different unit that a different mentality, it was -- we didn’t come to blows, but there were many times when it came close, when we were actually screaming at each other, telling them to knock it off, that they were just shooting indiscriminately at people. You know, I think that --

AMY GOODMAN: Like when?

SGT. DUSTIN FLATT: There were times when you were just driving down the road, and another car -- just like we would in America -- would come at an intersection, and they wouldn’t see you coming. You’d be in a convoy of four Humvees. And, of course, everywhere you went you went at, you know, at a pretty good clip. All of the sudden, a car would come up on an intersection, and they would fire on a car just because they approached the intersection. They would literally directly fire into the vehicle.

There were times when we had to -- there was one specific time when the Humvee in front of me from the other unit fired into this car, continued to drive past it. We stopped right in front of it, jumped out to see if the people inside were OK, because they were obviously of no threat. We jumped out, looked. Windows were shattered by bullets. I grabbed the guys inside and I grabbed our interpreter, and I’m screaming at him, going, “Ask them if they’re OK!” Somehow they lived through it. But the fact that they just shot the car and continued to drive on was pretty much a daily occurrence.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And when these accidents occur, and civilians are shot or killed, what were the rules or the orders that you had, as to what the responsibilities were of the soldiers who were involved with these people who were shot or killed?

SGT. DUSTIN FLATT: I think with our specific company, we’d do whatever it took to help the people in the first place. If there was any way that we could evac them to a point to get medical attention, we would. It depended on the circumstances at the time, too. If we had been in the middle of battles or firefights at the time, I think it was a completely different situation. You know, mission first, and then take care of the, you know, collateral damage, I guess you could say, at that point. We did our best to take care of the innocents. I don’t know about other units. I had a completely different feeling about the unit we were attached to in Mosul. Our other times in Tikrit or Samara or any other place was usually with our unit, and our unit was very disciplined when it came to that sort of thing.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Staff Sergeant Timothy John Westphal, TJ Westphal, who served on the outskirts of Tikrit for a yearlong tour with the 18th Infantry Brigade, First Infantry Division, beginning in February of 2004. Talk about that summer night in 2004, the farmhouse you raided.

STAFF SGT. TIMOTHY JOHN WESTPHAL: That summer night will stand out in my mind for the rest of my life. That was really the turning point for me, when I realized that our involvement in Iraq was something that I wasn’t proud to be a part of. You know, you understand that as an American soldier, we’re all volunteers. We love our jobs, we love our country. We grew up watching John Wayne storm the beaches of Iwo Jima and idolizing World War II heroes, and so forth. So there’s a tremendous amount of pride that we all felt and that we all had in our jobs. And for me, that eroded that summer night in Iraq.

I was the patrol group leader in charge of a raid, which we conducted on an Iraqi farm. And it was the middle of the summer, very hot outside, definitely over 100 degrees, had about forty or so guys. My particular squad, our job was to jump the wall -- every Iraqi home has a wall -- my job was to take our guys over the wall, infiltrate the compound. And there were several houses within the farm compound. And we were told that there were insurgents, bomb makers, living at this residence.

So my men and I jumped over the wall. There were fifteen or so other guys outside pulling a cordon, or perimeter security. We went inside and found a big -- basically a big cluster of people laying outside. And in Iraq during the summer, many Iraqis sleep outside, because it’s just too hot to sleep inside. We weren’t sure what to expect. We just saw a big clump of bodies. It’s dark. There’s no exterior lighting in the compound. So I told my guys to get their flashlights ready. All of our flashlights are mounted on our weapons, so anywhere your flashlight is pointed your weapon is pointed also. I had my guys surround the clump of people who were sleeping outside and told them basically, “On the count of three, we’re going to light them up and see what we have under here. Be prepared for anything. These guys could be armed. So just be on the lookout.”

So I counted to three. I basically just kicked the clump of people there to wake them up, turned on my flashlight, and all my guys did the same thing. And my light happened to shine right on the face of an old man in his mid-sixties. I found out later he was the patriarch of that family. And as we scanned the cluster of people laying there, we saw two younger military age men, probably in their early twenties. Everybody else -- I’d say there were about eight to ten other individuals -- were women and children. We come to find out this was just a family. They were sleeping outside.

The terror that I saw on the patriarch's face, like I said, that really was the turning point for me. I imagined in my mind what he must have been thinking, understanding that he had lived under Saddam's brutal regime for many years, worried about -- you know, hearing stories about Iraqis being carried away in the middle of the night by the Iraqi secret service and so forth, to see all those lights, all those soldiers with guns, all the uniform things that we wear, as far as the helmet, the night vision goggles, very intimidating, very terrifying for the man. He screamed a very guttural cry that I can still hear it every day. You know, it was just the most awful, horrible sound I’ve ever heard in my life. He was so terrified and so afraid for his family. And I thought of my family at that time, and I thought to myself, boy, if I was the patriarch of a family, if soldiers came from another country, came in and did this to my family, I would be an insurgent, too.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And you say that that was a turning point for you. In what way?

STAFF SGT. TIMOTHY JOHN WESTPHAL: It was a turning point for me in the sense that -- you know, prior to going into Iraq, both Dustin and myself, we talked about this many times in the days leading up to the war. We came into Iraq after the initial invasion, so we had a chance to see a little bit of the buildup to the war, as well as the actual invasion piece. And several of us, including Dustin and myself, were very much opposed to the Iraq war. However, we chose to go, number one, out of a sense of loyalty to each other and our unit; second, because we were hoping as leaders, as combat leaders, leaders of soldiers, we would be able to influence those young men to make good decisions and not do things like kill indiscriminately or let their emotions get into their decision-making abilities. So that’s why we chose to go. And again, because this is our profession, we were very proud of what we were doing, even though we opposed the mission itself, are proud to serve with our brothers and to be a part of something like that.

However, that night -- and that was about halfway through my yearlong tour -- that night I really admitted to myself -- and it was a very hard thing to do, but I admitted to myself that America is not the good guy in this thing. And, you know, if you factor in that you have these young men who most of them are high-school-educated -- some have a bit of college, some do have college degrees -- but the education level, for the most part, is high school graduates only.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Sergeant Westphal, we only have about thirty seconds left. I’d like to ask you: you went in in February 2004. Did you ever expect that we’d be in this situation now, more than three years later?

STAFF SGT. TIMOTHY JOHN WESTPHAL: I never imagined that America would ever get to this point. I never imagined that the American public would be so apathetic as they have been, in my estimation. A lot of them don’t listen to the stories we tell. There’s a reason that all these guys got together for this article, because they have a commitment to the truth, and we definitely want the truth to be out there, that America has brought terror to the country of Iraq, and that’s something that we have to deal with.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think the US soldiers should be brought home now?

STAFF SGT. TIMOTHY JOHN WESTPHAL: Absolutely. You know, I support the United States military. I’m a soldier. I always will be. I’m tremendously proud of the men I served with. However, yes, I do believe that we need to bring our troops home right now, because all we’re doing is making more terrorists and more people who hate America.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Staff Sergeant Timothy John Westphal, TJ Westphal, and Sergeant Dustin Flatt, speaking to us from Rocky Mountain PBS in Denver Colorado. And that does it for our broadcast. Also special thanks to Laila Al-Arian, who’s the co-author with Chris Hedges of this magazine-long piece, “The Other War: Iraq Vets Bear Witness” in The Nation magazine. Thank you for joining us.
The stories they tell were reported in The Nation magazine, and on "Democracy Now!" But not by Charlie Gibson or Katie Couric or on Good Morning, America, nor even by Wolf Blitzer or Keith Olbermann (who seems to only scoop up what cracks the "news barrier" of "important news." Keith won't embarass his colleagues that way). Since we don't know about this, we worry about Iraq "falling into chaos."

Orwell was right. Ignorance is bliss. Don't worry; be happy.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

I've said it before

and I'll say it again: what, exactly, does the Iraqi "government" govern?

"Communal violence and scant common ground between Shias, Sunnis and Kurds continues to polarize politics," Fingar said yesterday. Even the majority-Shiite bloc that Maliki heads, he said, "does not present a unified front" and has continued to deteriorate in recent months. Meanwhile, the provision of essential services seen as crucial in building support for the government, including electricity and oil production, remains below prewar levels, he said. Some have declined over the past six months.

"The analysis that the community made in January . . . appears to be borne out by events since then," he said. "That assessment focused on the imperative for reducing levels of violence in the country as a prerequisite for beginning to restore confidence among the competing, fractured body politic and the groups in the political system." While the increase in U.S. troops is "having an effect, it has not yet had a sufficient effect on the violence, in my judgment, to move the country to a place that the serious obstacles to reconciliation can be overcome," Fingar said.

"It will be difficult and time-consuming to bridge the political gulf when violence levels are reduced, and they have not yet been reduced significantly," he said, in what he called his "most optimistic projection."
And that's the assessment of the National Security Council, a report that finds about half of the "goals" for Iraq have been met. The contrast is with "an overwhelmingly negative view of military and political conditions in Iraq, saying that Iraqi forces will remain incapable of taking charge of security for years to come and that deepening sectarian political divides remain the largest impediment to progress" by US intelligence services, released yesterday.

Since the troops are the cause of the unrest (who wants to be occupied?), it's no surprise more troops haven't quelled the violence. (What was the worst civilian death count from an IED? After the surge "peaked.") And since we can't withdraw until the Iraqi government actually, you know, begins to govern...

Isn't this some demon's version of a nation's hell? Aren't our leaders in a round room running about trying to sit in the corner? Even using the language of the National Security Council, does anything about our Iraq policy make any sense any more?

Monday, July 09, 2007

Once more, with feeling

Watch the doughnut, not the hole:

White House officials fear that the last pillars of political support among Senate Republicans for President Bush’s Iraq strategy are collapsing around them, according to several administration officials and outsiders they are consulting. They say that inside the administration, debate is intensifying over whether Mr. Bush should try to prevent more defections by announcing his intention to begin a gradual withdrawal of American troops from the high-casualty neighborhoods of Baghdad and other cities.
Not even the semblance of a withdrawal, really; just a retreat from body counts that include Americans. Because this is what we have wrought:

The death toll from a suicide truck bombing in a remote village in northern Iraq rose to about 150 on Sunday, making it one of the deadliest single bombings, if not the deadliest, since the 2003 invasion.

The attack, in the impoverished Shiite Turkmen village of Amerli, 100 miles north of Baghdad in Salahuddin Province, has highlighted fears that Sunni insurgents facing military crackdowns in Baghdad and Diyala Province are simply directing their attacks to areas outside the concentration of American troops.
But as long as no Americans are counted among the dead, it doesn't really matter. Besides, withdrawal doesn't have to mean "withdrawal." I'm sure if they could find a French word for it, they'd be more than happy to use it about now.

And let's not forget:

Overall, soldiers in Iraq are facing a greater exposure to some key traumatic events than in the past, according to the report, the Army's third mental health survey conducted in Iraq since 2003. Seventy-six percent of soldiers surveyed, for example, said they knew someone who had been seriously injured or killed, and 55 percent experienced the explosion of a roadside bomb or booby trap nearby.

Combat stress is significantly higher among soldiers with at least one previous tour -- 18.4 percent, compared with 12.5 percent of those on their first deployment, the survey found.

"The most likely explanation . . . is that a number of soldiers returned" to Iraq "with acute stress/combat stress symptoms" that were unresolved from previous tours, it said.

Soldiers with multiple tours also reported greater concern over the length of the 12-month deployments than those on their first tours and were more likely to give lower ratings for their own morale and that of their units, which 55 percent described as low.

This contrasts with 45 percent for soldiers overall, who rated unit morale higher than in the two earlier surveys, in 2003 and 2004.
So, to satisfy our politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, let's keep 'em there just a little longer, eh?

Let's also not forget, we've heard all this before:

The Bush administration is developing what are described as concepts for reducing American combat forces in Iraq by as much as half next year, according to senior administration officials in the midst of the internal debate.

It is the first indication that growing political pressure is forcing the White House to turn its attention to what happens after the current troop increase runs its course.
New York Times, May 26, 2007. Plus ce change, plus ce la meme chose. Hmmmm....French. Wonder if that qualifies as both ambiguous and clarifying?

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Actually, I agree with David Broder

Via Atrios:

We don't need more convictions and pardons of government officials. We need scorn and shame for those who violate their oaths of office. And that is a penalty that the American people -- and only the American people -- can invoke.
Someone interviewed last week about the Scooter Libby commutation on NPR (I'm far too lazy to look it up now!) said the problem isn't the commutation, it's the way we use the justice system. We should, she argued, lock up the people we are afraid of, not the people we are mad at. I think that would be a start toward real prison reform.

But, on the other hand, scolding the American people is perfectly pointless. We love our scoundrels and scalawags. Any convicted politician not barred from seeking public office almost ALWAYS runs again at some point, and wins, at least a "local" election, such as a Representative (or Mayor, State Senator, etc.). Your guys a bum, our guy got a bum rap! It's as American as violence and apple pie. And frankly, more convictions and greater incarcerations simply won't solve the problem. Mr. Broder is right: many of the Watergate convicts had to change careers to be respectable, but Oliver North was canonized because he was convicted of a felony. Who did that? The government? The GOP? No, the American people!

Don't ya love it?

It's of a piece with an idea that's been nagging me, though. Today I saw another sign about the military, about those who "are fighting for our freedom!" I finally realized what a relic of the Cold War that attitude was, and how far we've fallen since World War II from our ideals of a democratic republic.

I first noticed it yesterday, reading yet another publisher's catalog entry about yet another hagiography of Abrahamh Lincoln. I think Jan Reid actually wrote a book trying to undo the sainthood of "Honest Abe," but it sank beneath our collective wisdom like a stone. Once again, the blurb promises to tell the story of how Abe Lincoln's "melancholy genius" single-handedly saved the Union, restored peace, made the cows give sweeter milk, and established peace and prosperity from sea to shining sea.

Not the soldiers who fought, the volunteers who flocked to battle to defend the Republic; not the Congress, the generals, the states, Walt Whitman, nor anybody else. Nope. Just good ol' Abe, all by hisself, by cracky! I exaggerate, of course, and I only have a precis of the book to go by, but this veneration of the "strong leader" borders on either Fascism or Stalinism, I can't decide which. How long did America go before it decided the President was the reason we had a country at all, that the military was the only reason we had "our freedom"? Is that why we fought the Revolutionary War? So we could have a standing army to guarantee we would be free? I'd always thought we had a our freedom as an "inalienable right," as the Declaration said; and that freedom was ours as human beings, not as taxpayers who never questioned a military budget, a foreign policy decision, or a call to arms. When did we decide our freedom came from our government, rather than government from our freedom? When did we go through the national looking glass, and how do we get back?

Abraham Lincoln did not single-handedly start the Civil War in order to "solve" the slavery issue, and he did not single-handedly save the Union. He wasn't even around for the Reconstruction period, which made the war so much worse that 100 years later, in my childhood, people still praised "Civil War heroes" and proclaimed "The South Will Rise Again!" We didn't need a "strong leader" then, and we don't need a military to keep us free now.

But because of the military-industrial complex, we have people who venerate Marines who are dishonorably discharged, like Oliver North. Because of what former General Eisenhower warned us against, we now are taught to believe a standing army is the only defense between us and a "fate worse than death"(more on that later). We hear Jack Nicholson tell Tom Cruise that he eats breakfast 100 yards away from people who want to kill him, and we don't think Nicholson is a raving paranoiac (Cubans want to kill us all? Really? Maybe they just resent the US presence in Gitmo, huh? D'ya think? Even then, I don't think they're a nation bent on the death of the soldiers there.), we think it's a sign of his rational appreciation of the situation. Douglas Adams was right: we are in the insane asylum. We would have to build a small room and enter that, to leave the asylum.

The entire world must be crazy, if I'm agreeing with David Broder. We, not the "system," not the President or the Vice-President, not the Congress or the Democrats or the Republicans or even the justice system, we the people, are responsible for our government, and for our collective and national fate. It is in our hands.

It's high time we started acting like it.

Making something clear/making something ambiguous

When do we listen to someone besides Tom Friedman, and figure this out?

Number two is the problem of this perspective of Sunni, Shiite and Kurd. It’s been repeated ad nauseum so that now it seems real. The fact is, these categories are not functioning categories, as well. And these are the product of the United States’ imperialist look upon Iraq. Sadly, since the invasion and because of the political system that Bremer put in place, he turned these ethno-religious identities into political identities, because they put the quota system in the governing council. But ten or fifteen years ago, people did not define themselves primarily as Sunni or Shiite and Kurds, you know. There were other kinds of identifications.

But the destruction of the social fabric of Iraq under the sanctions and the political void that was created by overthrowing a regime and then the political system that Bremer put in place -- and the media also were parroting this thing about Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites with, you know, no consideration for class differences, urban and rural differences -- let’s take, for example, the Shiites. It’s not that all Shiites want the same thing, you know. You know, middle class Shiites in Najaf want something different from the downtrodden in Sadr City.
As for the withdrawal now being championed by the New York Times, among others, let me just say, along with Mr. Antoon: the devil is in the details.

But I just want to say also that we’ve been embroiled in this debate about withdrawal. You know what? Even if there is withdrawal, it’s going to be withdrawal Israeli style, from urban centers to the military bases. Most people, Democrats and Republicans, are saying we are staying there for ten or fifty or sixty years. So all this talk about withdrawal is just to fool the American people. It’s withdrawal from the urban centers to the military bases that have been built there with millions and millions of dollars, and to let the natives kill each other. This is old colonial style: when it’s too costly, you let the natives kill each other, let the natives police each other.
Richard Lugar never said: Get out now. Harry Reid has yet to say: get out now. We are entitled to ask, if Mr. Reid does hold votes to "get out" of Iraq: How far is "out"? The answer is in the description of the word I’jaam:

It’s a word that has two double meanings, antithetical meanings, that have to do with the Arabic script, because initially the Arabic script was without dots, although many of the letters had one or two or three dots. Initially, the dots were not actually written and could be understood from the context and the structure. And later, to avoid ambiguity in interpretation in reading, some suggested that the dots should be written, and because the dots were borrowed from a foreign language, which was Aramaic at the time, so dotting came to have two double meanings. One of them is elucidating and making something clear, but also because it was borrowed from a foreign language, it came to mean making something ambiguous.
An interesting insight into language, and how we use it; and into human thought. Something imported from a foreign language brings part of it's "foreignness" with it. So that when we say we cannot say, we say "je ne sais quois." When we want to meet someone, we rendezvous. When we expect a reply to an invitation, it is an "RSVP." Do we speak more clearly when we do this, or do we admit we cannot clarify, and so introduce the ambiguities of a foreign tongue to our conversation? Just as when we do not know who the parties are we are fighting, or why they are fighting us, or even what, exactly or even imprecisely, is going on, we label them "Shi'ites" and "Sunnis," with no more understanding of what those terms mean than if we labeled them Cavaliers and Roundheads, and applying the terms as if they were ethnic designations, we suddenly understand what we think is the ancient history of Europe, a history we think America is inoculated against, and even as we introduce the terms to our language for clarity, we introduce into our discourse even greater ambiguity.

And so we may withdraw: but how far is far enough, and how far is too far? We cannot be hasty and we cannot be precipitous and we cannot act to create even greater danger than our soldiers face now, and we cannot declare their deaths in vain, and we cannot take responsibility, so....?

Just how much clarity can we take? Just how much ambiguity do we desire? Funny how close to "a jam" I'jaam is in pronunciation, huh? I wonder if that clarifies it, or makes it more ambiguous?

Friday, July 06, 2007

Learning from HIstory

Phila is right; I did miss this the first time around. It is a review of Dawkin's The God Delusion by Marilynne Robinson, whom I only know as a writer of fiction, not as a scholar, theologian, scientist, historian, or sociologist. Yet she acquits herself well in all four areas in deconstructing Dawkin's text. At one point, taking on the question of what Dawkins calls the "zeitgeist" (well, his version of the concept), she quotes extensively from the work of Aldous Huxley in the 19th century on the issues of slavery and emancipation. She uses this language to show Dawkins' ignorance of history (he is, in her review, remarkably free of knowledge in several crucial areas, which makes his assault on religion bolder, of course). When I read this passage, I didn't think of ancient history, but of a very recent Supreme Court ruling:

As for the lesser issues of justice that arose in the wake of slavery, Huxley had this to say: "whatever the position of stable equilibrium into which the laws of social gravitation may bring the negro, all responsibility for the result will henceforward Lie between Nature and him. The white man may wash his hands of it, and the Caucasian conscience be void of reproach for evermore. And this, if we look to the bottom of the matter, is the real justification for the abolition policy." No, he wasn't joking.
Chief Justice Roberts has a noble ancestor for his recent remarks. William Faulkner was right: the past isn't over. It isn't even past.

Seems to me Christianity has a great deal to say about that subject. We call it "original sin," and preach humility as a corrective to it. Mind you, as Ms. Robinson ably notes, there is "bad religion" as well as good, and the former today preaches neither "sin" (which did become an overworked and overly simplistic concept) nor "humility" ("We believe in you!"). Maybe we should start applying some of the insights of science and logic, such as the idea that time is an illusion (courtesy of Kurt Godel, who deduced it from Einstein's Theory of Relativity, which says space and time are connected. Interesting, no?). If there is no "time," then there certainly is no "progress" (Ms. Robinson points out this is a central conceit of Dawkins' view of evolution, which he does see as "progressive" from lesser to greater (simpler to more complex, but the same idea). Funny how Darwinism easily shades over into Social Darwinism. I think it may be a flaw in the original concept (one an ardent evolutionist, Stephen Jay Gould, wrote an entire book about).

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Where have all the flowers gone?

Ed. note: I assumed I had posted this, or cannibalized it for another post, but I can't find evidence of either. It's a bit out of synch now, but still worth more than moldering in the "edit" pile. On an unrelated note, finished the latest "Thursday Next" book (which, in true Jasper Fforde fashion, hasn't even been released yet. The Chronoguard will be looking for me soon. Or will have been, I should say.), and it is excellent. Still trying to think of a way to reduce it to a summary. "High concept" it isn't. Brilliantly funny, it is. Soon as I can, I'll try to drop in a bit of the funnier pieces, although out of context, they may be too bizarre. My head is still buzzing from it, anyway. Which has, by the way, nothing to do with this post. Just wanted to share.

Stitching a few things together here. First, forget Richard Lugar. There is absolutely less than nothing coming from that direction:

In January, when Mr. Bush announced his plan to send more than 30,000 additional combat troops to Iraq, Mr. Lugar had his reservations. He and Senator John W. Warner, Republican of Virginia, aired their concerns during a private Oval Office session with the president.

Since then, Mr. Lugar has sided with the administration on every Iraq vote and has only occasionally voiced criticism during Foreign Relations Committee meetings. He said Tuesday that he had no intention of suddenly voting with Democrats, particularly in their efforts to limit war financing or set a timetable for withdrawal....

“The administration and Congress must suspend what has become almost knee-jerk political combat over Iraq,” Mr. Lugar said. “Those who offer constructive criticism of the surge strategy are not defeatists, any more than those who warn against a precipitous withdrawal are militarists.”
He is resolutely for the status quo which he is now bravely speaking out against.

So we have to turn to the children for any sign of hope. And it turns out there is a great deal of hope there:

When these Presidential Scholars from all over the country met one another in Washington, they discovered how many of them felt so strongly about the issue, and about seizing the opportunity to be heard. As Leah Libresco, a Scholar from Mineola, Long Island, New York, said the next day on CNN, the view among many of them was that torture is a non-partisan issue: "I don't think this is a controversial issue. I don't think human dignity and human rights is a controversial issue, so once we started talking to people about the idea of speaking up, people kept coming forward and saying yes, this is important."

So Mari and Leah and others drafted a thoughtful statement to hand to the President when it came time for their big moment with him in front of their parents and the press.

"We brought up some very specific points in the letter about the treatment of detainees, even those designated as enemy combatants," Mari Oye told John Roberts, "and we strongly believe that all of these detainees should be treated, according to the principles of the Geneva Convention... I asked him to remove the signing statement attached to the anti-torture bill, which would have allowed presidential power to make exemptions to the ban on torture."

Mari's own background -- her grandparents were interned during World War II, simply for being Japanese-American -- played a part in her views. So did something her mother, also a Presidential Scholar, told her: Ever since her own White House ceremony in 1968, she has regretted not saying something to Lyndon Johnson about the Vietnam war. "That's something that weighed heavy on my mind," said Mari, "and I wanted to think about how we would feel 40 years from now if we had the opportunity to speak, and also the privilege to speak to the President of the United States, and to not use that privilege in order to make a difference."

So the Scholars lined up for their photo-op. Bush arrived. According to Colin McSwiggen, a senior from Cincinnati, the President "said that it's important to treat others as you wish to be treated, and he said that we really need to think about the choices that we make in our lives." What a cue! "As he lined up to take the photo with us," Colin continued, "Mari handed him the note, and said, 'Mr. President, some of us have made a choice, and we want you to have this.'"
"I don't think human dignity and human rights is a controversial issue...." The kids are alright. It's the adults we have to worry about; again.

Human dignity and human rights, of course, shouldn't be a controversial issue. Dwight Eisenhower understood this, and knew the problem was ignorance, not venality. Unless we know how other human beings live, unless we know them as human beings, it's too easy to demonize them as "other" and so "enemy." So the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces, after World War II, a truly world war, returned to America and established People to People International. Twenty-six years later Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. told a crowd at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine that he hoped television would make people realize we were all human beings on this planet, and the reality of war via TV would make us hate war, not look upon it as the source of national salvation. Today some people think the Internet is going to do that. Sadly, I see no real evidence of it. But maybe that's because governments and cultures are more intractable than generally assumed.

The joke is told, David Ansen says in his review of Michael Moore's new film, about the difference between the governments of France and the US: in France, the government fears the people; but in the US the people fear the government. Think about the history of the countries: the French government was born and forged in revolution. The one captured so by Dickens may have been the first, but you only need to read Hugo's Les Miserables to know it was not the last. The one revolution we have had in America, on the other hand, is widely despised and denigrated (and was hardly a "people's revolt" anyway). Mel Brooks reportedly said he put the French Revolution (the one Dickens wrote about) in his "History of the World, Part I" because it was a real people's revolution; the American Revolution, he said, was a merchant's revolt.

Perhaps this is the place to point out how much of American foreign policy can be explained as supporting American business, from the banana republics to "economic hit men." And to reflect again on the fact that George W. Bush has never been a world traveler nor shown any curiosity about the world beyond the privileged bubble he grew up in. To consider that you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him think. That Vonnegut's essay was written in 1982, before CNN and MSNBC and FoxNews, and America as a nation is, if anything, even more ignorant of the world now than we were then. At least, our leaders are; and our leaders have real power. We hand it to them, and shrug our shoulders, and walk away.

How else to explain the shadow Presidency of Dick Cheney, the Edgar Bergen Presidency of George W. Bush? The French government is afraid of the people (look at the recent student riots; the French spirit of revolt is alive and well). The people of the US are afraid of their government. We just want it to go away and leave us alone, and don't tell us how the sausage gets made, just give us sausage and let us eat in peace.

About all I have to say about the Scooter Libby matter is:

1) Democrats almost to a person have denounced the act without really doing more than muttering the cliches. Charles Schumer was "outraged." As Ken Rudin notes, "he probably was." Harry Reid said as much, in more words:

"The President's decision to commute Mr Libby's sentence is disgraceful," Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said in a first reaction to the move.

"Libby's conviction was the one faint glimmer of accountability for White House efforts to manipulate intelligence and silence critics of the Iraq war.

"Now, even that small bit of justice has been undone," he said in a statement.

"The Constitution gives President Bush the power to commute sentences, but history will judge him harshly for using that power to benefit his own Vice-President's chief of staff who was convicted of such a serious violation of law."
That, by the way, is "Democratic fury." Scary, huh? History will judge Mr. Bush harshly, because heaven knows, we wouldn't want to be accused of harshly judging him now!

I can't now find the article which collected all the reactions of leading Democrats, but it was largely on the lines of Outrage! and Anger!, and very little more; certainly nothing concrete, like further investigations into why the Chief of Staff of the Vice President is a convicted felon on an obstruction of justice and perjury charge, lies which stopped a criminal investigation into the conduct of the White House and which now is all but over. No real mention of how truly self-serving this commutation is. All of that is lost behind the Shock! and the Outrage! Mild-mannered Bill Clinton comes closest to hitting the matter where it counts:

"You've got to understand, this is consistent with their philosophy," Clinton said during an interview on Des Moines news-talk station WHO.

Bush administration officials, he said, "believe that they should be able to do what they want to do, and that the law is a minor obstacle."
But it's still vague and inexact: "Philosophy"? "Should be able to do what they want to do"? Isn't clemency an almost absolute power? Can you connect those dots, Bill? Mitt Romney, of all people, sure can:

"Wasn't it Bill Clinton that was handing out pardons like lollipops at the end of his administration?" former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, now seeking the Republican presidential nomination, told supporters in Iowa on Tuesday.

"And isn't there some recognition that perhaps you might look a little silly if you didn't have anything to say when he was handing out pardon after pardon after pardon for political purposes only?"
There's something solidly concrete about Romney's statement that really isn't there in Clinton's, and surely is completely missing in Reid's. The commutation was "outrageous." Yes, but why?!? Hell, the CNN article comes closer to making the point than any Democrat seems to dare:

President Bush on Monday commuted Libby's 30-month sentence for perjury, obstruction of justice and lying to federal agents investigating the 2003 exposure of former CIA operative Valerie Plame.
What's rapidly disappearing here is the "no underlying crime!" bleat that was so pointless and irrelevant. But what's replacing it is raw meat for the hardcore GOP base (whatever is left of it, with a sitting President below 30% in approval ratings, and who hasn't been above 50% since before control of Congress was a gleam in Harry Reid's eye), and yet the reddest meat the Democrats can toss their supporters is: "We're mad as hell, but we're still likely to take it some more, because to not take it would be unstatesmanlike, or perhaps even uncivil!" The harshest action is reserved, once again, for Rep. John Conyers, who will hold a hearing, be mocked by the punditocracy for the toothlessness of the hearing (what power do they have against the President's constitutional prerogative?), and even if it does expose the truly criminal nature of the omerta Bush has shamelessly purchased from Libby (Michael Corleone would be impressed), Democrats will only repeat that they are outraged, and that they wish, this time, President Bush would listen to them when they complain about the war in Iraq.

And 'round and 'round it goes.

Just a footnote to this, but to underline the uselessness of the Democrats, some of the statement of Harry Reid on Iraq:

"As evidence mounts that the 'surge' is failing to make Iraq more secure, we cannot wait until the Administration's September report before we change course. President Bush and the Iraqis must move now to finally accept a measure of accountability for this war, implement the Iraq Study Group recommendations, transition the mission for our combat troops and start bringing them home from an intractable civil war."
Because, Lord know, if Bush won't take responsibility for this war, Democrats in Congress certainly aren't going to, and that's the way we support our troops!

Or something. I give up.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Happy Birthday!

No, not to America; to my great good friend, Rick.*

A good day to read the Declaration of Independence, especially today. Sidney Blumenthals' response to the Libby commutation put me on to it, initially. But we really should read the whole thing at least once a year, because it is, quite simply, radical. It is a call for treason, and a justification for such a call. It places the absolute right of government in, not the government itself, but the governed. Which is, when you think about it, a dangerous place to put it, indeed. And a wise one.

Happy Fourth of July:

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

*I've lost your e-mail address; a letter is coming!