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Claudius, the Spinmeister

Steve Bloomfield reports in The Independent today:

The history of Britain will have to be rewritten. The AD43 Roman invasion never happened - and was simply a piece of sophisticated political spin by a weak Emperor Claudius.

A series of astonishing archaeological findings of Roman military equipment, to be revealed this week, will prove that the Romans had already arrived decades earlier - and that they had been welcomed with open arms by ancient Britons.

Apparently --

According to Dr Russell, it was in Emperor Claudius's interest to "spin" the invasion of AD43 as a great triumph against strong opposition. Claudius had become emperor two years earlier but his position following the death of Caligula was tenuous. A bold military adventure to expand the empire would tighten Claudius's grip in Rome and prove his credentials as a strong leader.

"Every period of history has its own spin doctors, and Claudius spun the invasion to look strong," Dr Russell said. "But Britain was Roman before Claudius got here."

Every period of history has its own spin doctors? Can you imagine that?!


Thought for the Moment: Eisenhower on Social Security

"Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes that you can do these things. Among them are a few Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or businessman from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid."
-- President Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1952 [courtesy Amy]

... which is why, of course, the Bushites will never admit that's what they want to do. They aim to set the systems up to fail without their having to take any action. Clever bastards. Stupid, perhaps; but clever.

"Voluntary Personal Savings Account"

How do conservatives manage to support the Bushite Nanny State and still sleep at night? They should at least be a little restive over the fact that their children have such weak and gullible parents.

I think that as we permanently solve the system, that we ought ot make it a better deal for younger workers by allowing younger workers to take some of their own payroll taxes and set it aside in what is called a voluntary personal savings account.
[President G. W. Bush, speaking in Greece, NY, 2005-05-24; listen to mp3 stream / download mp3]

Huh. I thought they already could. Don't we have these things called "IRAs" and "401Ks"? Or, for that matter -- "savings accounts"? You'd think the President didn't know about those. Maybe he just forgets -- from moment to moment:

Don't you like the idea of -- I mean, some of you have got 401Ks, and you open up your statement every month. Don't you like the idea of a statement?
[President G. W. Bush, speaking in Greece, NY, 2005-05-24]

More to the current conservative mania: How does George Bush deal with the cognitive dissonance of his party stumping by proxy for the will of the majority while he so strenuously attempts to force his own will upon the people? After all, as David Greene at NPR reminds us [RealAudio], the President's "60 day campaign" just passed day 84 with yesterday's visit to Rochester....

Land of the Sterile Storm Troopers

When George Lucas first deigned to underwhelm us with his vision of the last days of the Galactic Empire in the summer of 1999, SF writer David Brin responded with a thoughtful essay on describing in some detail why the idea of life in the Star Wars universe left him depressed, and the idea of life in Roddenberry's "Next Generation"-era Trek universe didn't.

The short version is that George Lucas is a closet fascist.

That's putting a few words into Brin's mouth, but not many. I found his arguments very appealing, and still do. So I'm tittilated by Anthony Lane's review of Star Wars Episode III in The New Yorker:

... Mind you, how Padmé got pregnant is anybody's guess, although I'm prepared to wager that it involved Anakin nipping into a broom closet with a warm glass jar and a copy of Ewok Babes. After all, the Lucasian universe is drained of all reference to bodily functions. Nobody ingests or excretes. Language remains unblue. Smoking and cursing are out of bounds, as is drunkenness, although personally I wouldn't go near the place without a hip flask. Did Lucas learn nothing from "Alien" and "Blade Runner"—from the suggestion that other times and places might be no less rusted and septic than ours, and that the creation of a disinfected galaxy, where even the storm troopers wear bright-white outfits, looks not so much fantastical as dated? What Lucas has devised, over six movies, is a terrible puritan dream: a morality tale in which both sides are bent on moral cleansing, and where their differences can be assuaged only by a triumphant circus of violence. Judging from the whoops and crowings that greeted the opening credits, this is the only dream we are good for. We get the films we deserve.

Come to think of it, I don't recall seeing a toilet in any of those immaculate Death Star prison cells... Geez. Thanks a lot. Now (on the off chance I do go to see it in the theaters), I'll keep looking for the door to the bathroom the whole time.

Most Of The People, Some Of The Time, Redux, Etc.

"Judicial activism" is a funny term. It seems that now, when Judges behave conservatively (as in, conserving clearly delineated constitutional rights), that's "activism" -- especially if it requires that the judge point out the simple Lincolnesque truth, that it's possible to fool most of the people for long enough to get a really dangerously sweeping proposition passed into law.

Case in point: Nebraska's version of the boilerplate "Defense of Marriage" act has been struck down as federally unconstitutional in two distinct and sufficient ways: It "creates a significant barrier to the plaintiffs' right to petition or to participate in the political process" and "imposes significant burdens on both the expressive and intimate associational rights" of gays, lesbians, and potentially anyone who wants to form a legally binding association that's not a state-sanctioned "marriage" between a "man" and a "woman."

Like, say, shacking up. Or signing a palimony agreement. Between straights.

The Neo-Calvinists and their fellow-travellers keep talking about the fact that "over 70% of Nebraskans" decided to support the measure "defining marriage as between a man and a woman" after being barraged with highly charged advertisements and exhortations from the (real or virtual) pulpit for weeks to months. What really happened is that "over 70% of Nebraskans" decided to support a measure that they clearly did not understand. They didn't understand, for example, that it would radically restrict the rights of foster parents, unmarried opposite-sex domestic partners, persons in power-of-attorney relationships, non-custodial parents, and so on.

What really happened is that "over 70% of Nebraskans" got conned.

If it weren't for the fact that it would require abrogating the US Constitution, I'd be inclined to let Nebraska, Kansas and the rest of the virtual bible-belt just slide back into the dark ages. Politicized evangelism has far, far greater potential to destroy this nation than racial issues have had at any time in the last 40 years. Racial issues have at least been constrained: By notions of decency (no mainstream white could use the "N" word without censure), and by commonly-held economic desires (almost everybody wants the American Dream, and almost everybody is willing to see that, even about classes of people for whom they have contempt). Religious issues are not so constrained: When it's a religious issue, your opposition is evil, pure and simple -- believe that, or be damned. End of discussion. Please leave the church by the side door, so you don't soil the earth your neighbors have to walk on.

But [un?]fortunately, we do all have to live together in this country. We don't get to let them live in the mediaeval hell they seem determined to create. Not the least reason being that the virtual belt isn't limited to big square red states -- it harms people in places like Michigan and Connecticut who've never done any harm to anyone by being so immoral (or so unfortunate in their sexual orientation) as to dare to co-habitate without the benefit of state-sanctioned marriage.

So we don't get to let them sleep in the bed they've made. But we don't have to let them make us sleep in it, either.

The Right Democracy

Ron Hutcheson (Knight Ridder Newspapers) writes in his article, â??Bush celebrates struggle for democracy in Georgiaâ? (May 10, 2005):

President Bush issued a call to freedom Tuesday from the rubble of the former Soviet empire, telling tens of thousands of cheering Georgians that their struggle for liberty set an example for the entire world.


The spread of democracy in the former Soviet Union has been unsettling for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who's been struggling to maintain Russian influence in the region.

Years ago I traveled with my college choir to the USSR on a seven-week tour. One of our stops was Tbilisi, Georgia. I fondly remember the kind, gracious people. I also remember the lukewarm response to a few selections we sang during one concert. We had included in our program Russian folk songs, which we had diligently learned and which had received resounding applause in other cities. But not in Tbilisi. Needless to say, our faux pas became apparent. Georgians did not like the Russians. There remained a strong sense of Georgian national identity in spite of the Soviet suppression.

It does not surprise me that President Putin struggles to maintain Russian influence in that region, nor does it surprise me that these independent people of Tbilisi welcome George Bush as they think of democracy while he speaks of freedom.


â??Spy Letters of the American Revolutionâ?

If Paul Revere is one of the first American heroes, then British General Thomas Gage is one of Americaâ??s first villains. Gage was the general who led the British attack on American colonies that Revere warned about on his famous midnight ride. Gage also intercepted a letter meant for Revere that was written by his wife, Rachel Revere. That letter and others documenting the first person accounts of the Revolution are housed at the U-M Clements Library. But you donâ??t have to ride to Ann Arbor to see these fascinating documents from historyâ??the "Spy Letters of the American Revolution" are available online.

This notice of a wonderful website was delivered via e-mail from my alumni association. No personal delivery by courier on horseback; no secret code or invisible ink. Faster, but surely not as intriguing.

I think Iâ??ll let myself get lost for a few minutes, surfing around this site. Now, what about "Georgeâ??s Teeth"...


Transitional Pontificating

Iâ??ve been trying to avoid adding more commentary to the profusion of Pope Benedict XVI coverage. After all, whatâ??s left to be said at this point? Nonetheless, I appeal to your patience as I feel the need to regurgitate a bit of â??popeâ? overload.

Basically, if some women and gay people and Christian rock lovers want to buy into Roman Catholicism and deal with its current purveyor of repressive, bitter, orthodox doctrine, well, I guess weâ??ll continue to hear the pissing and moaning from Catholic liberals about how the church powers-that-be are so medieval. They have every right to complain. Itâ??s their religion, after all, even though a democratic institution it is not.

Of course, this whole conservative bent at the Vatican obviously isnâ??t just the proprietary interest of Roman Catholics. International social and political ramifications affect everyone. So, as liberal Catholics advance their interests, which can have altruistic components, they support others sensitive to global fallout.

In the meantime, the new popeâ??s supporters are softening the â??Godâ??s rottweilerâ? image, emphasizing his soft-spoken and meek demeanor. This â??meekâ? pope is still a hardliner who wants to reach out to other religions as he delineates boundaries of acceptability, opposing various theological views, in his words ~

from one extreme to the other: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism, and so forth.

Iâ??m led to wonder how extensive his â??so forthâ? list would be.

The 78-year-old pope also has been described as a transitional pope. We know what he is transitioning from. And while Pope Benedict XVI promotes his goal of reaching out to other suitable religions, American progressives wince as they are reminded of Cardinal Ratzinger joining forces with Bush to tip the Catholic vote in the last presidential election.

In todayâ??s Salon article, â??Holy warriors,â? Sidney Blumenthal observes that codifying religious doctrine, not just conservative ideology, is a current presidential goal. Blumenthal also notes that at the same time Bush and the sympathizing new pope call upon divine authority to impose their views of tradition, they are heading out on a collision course with the democratic American political tradition.

Will effectual sentries at transitional barriers block extreme right wing â??heavenly authorityâ?? One can hope.


Ms. Right Wing

Time Magazineâ??s cover story this week, â??Ms. Right,â? starts with a teaser:

She is quite possibly the most divisive figure in the public eye. But love her or hate her, you don't know the real Ann Coulter.

Well, Iâ??m not sure I know the real Ann Coulter even after reading all twelve pages of the online article. Then again, maybe there isnâ??t anything else to know.

At first I wondered when in the near future a liberal political pundit was going to grace the cover of Time. Then I remembered that Michael Moore had been showcased a while back.

Actually, Time probably more correctly has identified these two under the category â??artists & entertainersâ? in their list of most influential people in 2005.

I wonder how entertaining these two view each other. Michael might want to consider starring Ann in his next movie. She does love attention.


Who Needs A Majority When You've Got Righteousness?

Forget about resisting the tyranny of the majority. We're past that. Right-wing Republicans are looking to lock in the tyranny of a minority.

People in both parties, but most notably currently prominent Republicans, are saying there's still hay to be made on the Schiavo case. Democrats say that it can be used to galvanize opposition to the planned Republican takeover of the judiciary branch. Republicans say that it 'energizes the base' -- where the definition of "base" seems to be "hard-core right-to-life Evangelical Christian Republicans." The most wildly exaggerated numbers I know of put that at about 25% of the American population.

Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio, on Morning Edition this morning [RealAudio], says they're both wrong: That if there had really been an opportunity there, smart Democratic legislators would have jumped on it; and that, furthermore, Republicans had gone too far. "You know, there is a difference between energizing your base, and having your base push you off the edge.... Was it that we needed to prove to the middle, the middle of American politics, that we were willing to go someplace place that they didn't want us to go? How many times can you do that and still be successful politically?"

Republican lion and Episcopelian minister John Danforth agrees. He notes that "traditional Republicans" have complained about the courts going too far. "Most republicans would have said, 'We think that the courts go too far.' Now, it turns out that it's Republicans who are saying that we want the courts to go very far, but in our direction, and I just think that's wrong."

I'd like to think that both Danforth and Fabrizio are right, in their own ways. Danforth's view implies a basic belief that people ought to be morally consistent: That means ought to be consistent with the end, not merely contributory to it. Further, he's clearly a real believer in a pluralistic society. Fabrizio states his view in pragmatic terms, with the clear underlying assumption that it's normal for a nation to be comprised of people with differing views. (If you can dictate people's views, you don't need to worry about being "successful politically.")

But they're both wrong, at least in pragmatic terms. The Republican train is being driven by people who don't see a problem with means that are contrary to the end, or with the idea that the nation ought to bend to their will. Voices of moderation, even when conservative, are no longer welcome. They get in the way of the program, which is to let the Republican Party (by which they mean the intensely activist religious right component) install hegemonic control over American discourse.

Their will is a holy will, after all. Whether it's all the same religion is another question; all that really matters is that one (the religion of power and capital) can be translated into the ends of the other (semitic absolutism, as manifest in right-wing American Christianity).

Bake Sales Gone Political

When I think of bake sales, I conjure up all kinds of great memories centered on homemade treats and worthwhile fundraisers. Lately, I hear about some school bake sales being banned due to the possibility of baked goods being contaminated if cooked in the same kitchens parents are using as meth labs. Or I read about students trying to change existing state election law that forbids bake sales near school polling stations.

And then there are bake sales used as tools for political statements. Well, they are ostensibly bake sales to promote discussion of affirmative action, but they have tended to generate much antagonism and controversy at many colleges, also bringing the subject of free speech to the table. The Detroit Free Press reported a recent effort by a College Republicans' group at Grand Valley State University:

It sponsored a tasteless affirmative action bake sale last week that offered cupcakes to white males for $2 but dropped the price to 75 cents for white females or African Americans, 50 cents for Asians or Hispanics, and a nickel for American Indians.


Citing free speech, Republican organizers said they meant to stimulate discussion. If that's what they wanted, they should not have started off by insulting people. The bake sale generated anger, controversy and media attention, but no real exchange of ideas.

To be sure, the event was a form of speech. The group charged different prices to make a point, not to take discriminatory action. That said, the issue is not simply one of free speech. Public money is involved. The group receives university funding -- $1,625 this school year -- and uses university facilities. As such, it is subject to disciplinary action by the school.

The student board is considering a range of actions, including probation, suspension and loss of university funding.

A severe sanction seems inappropriate for a university that promotes intellectual freedom. But neither should Grand Valley, which does not consider race in admissions but has tried hard to promote diversity and tolerance, do nothing.

Actually, I like the argument â??Corked Batsâ? at DemSpeak puts forth:

Anytime one of these bake sales gets halted by school administrations or anytime the Democrats erupt in outrage about them, liberals may win small battles and lose the war. The war, from the conservative point of view, is to make academia cower just like the media has. Shutting them down will only feed the conservative faux-victimization machine. Getting angry does us no good when they are making what appears to be a common sense argument.

We have to do better on campus. Luckily, we don't have to take their bait.

Young Democrats should be staging their own bake sales illustrating the unfairness of conservative economic policies using that same delicious symbol--the cookie.

And Corked Bats's plan for a â??Republican â??Ownership Societyâ?? (Crony Capitalism) Bake Saleâ? is quite clever,... particularly if youâ??re watching your weight. It seems designed to take your appetite away. Well, at least mine. A few tweaks in the plan might help to handle any hungry college kids.


The Imaginary Terri Schiavo

Imaginary people make much better martyrs.

Case in point: Terri Schiavo. The appeals are finally exhausted; Terri Schiavo is dead, unequivocally, unappealably. And we've just begun to see the consequences. Quite aside from the impending wrongful-death suit (which will be brought regardless of the results from the forthcoming autopsy, to be performed by a Jeb Bush appointee), the fight has catalyzed a constituency. It's given bullshit artists like Tom Delay (that old exterminator) a soapbox to stand on. Note, as we go forward, the endless repetition of their Big Lies: That the "American People" are behind the reckless Conservative-Republican adventurism; that the case shows improper involvement by the courts, instead of the courts doing their jobs by (perish the thought!) making judgements.

What was this case about? It certainly wasn't about whether one person would have preferred to have her body die; it passed beyond that threshold years ago. It passed beyond that when Bob and Mary Schindler concocted a "person" they called "Terri Schiavo", and identified her with their daughter, and pasted her face over their daughter's face whenever they saw her limbic-brained body in that bed. The "Terri Schiavo" that Bob and Mary struggled so hard to defend was not their daughter, but their dream of their daughter, or at least the best dream they could muster under the circumstances.

And she was a perfect daughter, in many ways: She didn't talk back, never contradicted their version of her life's narrative, never corrected their inventions about what she might be thinking at that moment. Or have thought when she was eight, for that matter.

It certainly wasn't about what the real Terri Schiavo's wishes might have been. What they are, I can't know, and I daresay Michael Schiavo can't know for sure. But judges have been evaluating the matter for seven years and not found a reason to suspect that she wanted her body to remain alive long after she'd lost the capacity to engage in detectable interactions with other people.

True, Michael can't have known for sure; but her parents -- surely they must have known?

Why? Why would we suppose that? My own parents wouldn't have the faintest idea what I'd want in such a situation. For practical purposes, they know nothing of real substance about me that they didn't know before I was eight. I could name four or five close friends, a handful of ex-lovers and seven or eight not-so-close friends who'd have a better idea.

So, no, it's got nothing to do with Terri's wishes. But it's got a great deal to do with how her parents imagine her wishes -- with the wishes of their fictional Terri, as it were.

And Jeb and George Bush's and Randall Terry's and Tom Delay's fictional Terri. Which is the real obscenity, here, of course. If it were just Bob and Mary, it would be a tragedy. And anyway, their version of Terri is at least based on something real. But with Jeb & George & Randall & Tom in the game, any hope of the real Terry S. being remembered are completely gone. She's doomed to be immortalized as an abstracted martyr for the cause of eliminating secular justice.

Swinging From Red to Blue

Getting my hair cut the other day, my hairdresser, a gay man in his 40s who just went back to school to become a social worker, told me about his family's politics. "I can't even discuss politics with my siblings," he said. "My sister is a born-again Christian and my brother is the second-best Army recruiter in the nation." He paused for effect. "And they say my lifestyle recruits."

That accusation is one of the loopier bits of right-wing slander, but it's part of a larger narrative that claims the entire left is scheming non-stop to seduce and indoctrinate the unsuspecting. This is a comical bit of projection because it is the right that has so effectively created institutions to preach conservatism and win converts. [â??How to Turn Your Red State Blueâ? by Christopher Hayes, In These Times, March 22, 2005 (via AlterNet)]

They might preach conservatism, but theyâ??re generally sermonizing about reckless extremism, usurping the term â??conservatism,â? and insidiously assuming the role of conservative Republican.

Since this last presidential election, I canâ??t discuss politics or religion with some friends. And these people arenâ??t even born-again Christians or Army recruiters. One acquaintance tends to be socially conservative although fairly liberal spiritually. He affiliates with Bushites, who have apparently convinced him that even Bushâ??s God is a Republican. Better Bushâ??s god than allowing those radical, leftist heathens in our administration is his reasoning. A prime example of what Christopher Hayes is writing about.

In order to grow, progressives need to systematically expand the universe of access points to the progressive worldview and actively recruit people into the fold. There are three main ways this can be achieved: the development of a vibrant progressive mass media, a revived labor movement, and the organizing of large-scale grassroots social movements in regions and among constituencies that are currently estranged from progressivism. Many astute commentators have written extensively about the first two, so it seems wise to focus here on why the third part of this strategy is important, and what it might entail.

Christopher Hayes offers a thoughtful piece with specifics for consideration. Basically, he feels that progressives need to learn how to effectively organize and evangelize.

Yale political scientists Donald P. Green and Alan S. Gerber have found in numerous studies of voter contact that face-to-face canvassing is far and away the most effective means of persuasion: Roughly one out of every 15 voters approached at the door will add their vote to your tally.

In a speech accepting his new position as chair of the Democratic National Committee, Howard Dean stressed the importance of reaching out to unbelievers through retail politics. â??People will vote for Democratic candidates in Texas, and Utah, and West Virginia,â? he said, â??if we knock on their door, introduce ourselves and tell them what we believe.â?

Admittedly, itâ??s easy to overlook the one convert and commiserate about all the others who got away. Quite frankly, I can sympathize with Mark Morford of SF Gate when he writes:

The sad fact is, there are a great many among us who believe we have entered into a new Dark Age, that it will be a long and brutal slog indeed and BushCo is merely the precursor, the devil's handmaiden, and that we have a long way to go into the bleak and the bloody and the environmentally devastating before the pendulum begins its slow swing back toward the light.

He might be right, but must that pendulum have a slow swing?

The presidentâ??s approval rating is down at least partly due to his [mis]handling of the Terri Schiavo case. Whether or not the current approval rating is a temporary reaction, the right-wing machine is well oiled, controls our administration, and isnâ??t about to break down that easily. After all, it almost takes on a life of its own. Even after Terri Schiavoâ??s parents have told supporters to go home to their families, protestors still have continued their campaign ostensibly on behalf of Terri Schiavo.

Yet, as Christopher Hayes states:

What must be avoided at all costs is a tendency to hunker down and commiserate over how embattled we are. We must be outward looking, expansionist and evangelical in our every move.

I donâ??t think petitioning Bushâ??s god for a change of heart or praying my â??ass off to a forgiving and ambisexual and dogma-free pantheistic feminine godâ? [Morford] will make much difference. I do believe that we need to reach inside ourselves and then reach out to the same commonsensical spirit in others that did make so many people realize when Bush recently went too far.

Bush did not win either presidential election by a landslide. It's time for damage control. We need to organize and concentrate on the power of that additional one person out of 15 in an effort to sustain a more rapid swing of the pendulum toward the light.


â??The reckless right wing of the Republican Partyâ?

Parker Blackman pulls no punches:

We all know that the current leaders of the Republican party â?? be it President Bush, Tom Delay, or Bill Frist â?? represent the extreme right wing of their party. But most of America doesnâ??t see them that way because nobody has successfully framed them as such. So letâ??s start calling them what they are â?? irresponsible, reckless, extreme, and radical. These are four adjectives that I think most accurately describe their agenda. More important still, these adjectives imply un-American values and speak to a flaw in their collective character.

Say, Maureen Dowd and others might add â??fraudulentâ? to the list, too.

I first read an abbreviated version of Blackmanâ??s article at and later ran into it over at AlterNet. Are we seeing just more proliferation of Bush-bashing? Iâ??d say it reads more like image-reform, that of both Republicans and Democrats. There are moderate and conservative Republicans who donâ??t fit the â??neo-conservative,â? extreme, right wing image of our administration. And Parker Blackman says that Democrats need to take responsibility to provide â??a broad framework describing the Republican agenda, as well as a specific recommendation about what to call our opposition.â?

I also want to raise the issue of what language we should not use to describe the Republican leadership: conservative and neo-conservative. For many Americans the word "conservative" has positive connotations beyond politics and in their own lives. A majority of Americans are conservative or cautious with their money and with the decisions they make about their children's health and education. Being conservative implies saving something, thinking ahead, being safe, showing good judgment. "Neo-Conservative" doesn't mean a damn thing to anyone outside of the beltway or heavily involved in politics. By using these words, we are either reinforcing a positive framework for Republicans, or we are using language that is, at best, benign since nobody knows what it means.

Therefore, I propose that from this moment forward the progressive community immediately stop using either of these words to describe the Republican leadership and their agenda. So what specific phrase should we use instead? What phrase can we use to brand the Republican leadership and force them in the box we want them in?

The reckless right wing of the Republican Party

By labeling them as such we begin to marginalize them and drive a wedge deeper in the GOP between those who follow right-wing radicals, and those who are increasingly uncomfortable with the leadership of their party.

Sounds good to me. Then again, itâ??s a bit of a tongue twister with all the alliteration and doesnâ??t roll off the tongue as neatly as â??neocon.â? (Did anybody else say â??right-ringâ??) But hey, he still does have an excellent point. Iâ??ll just keep practicing.


Does Ignorance Have a Nationality?

United States policy in the Middle East is leading to a blooming of democracy. Right? While democracy does seem to be taking its first baby steps in the region, a new survey indicates that most in the Middle East are extremely distrustful of the US -- but the basis of that thinking isn't what you think it is.


Maybe, despite the well-documented difficulties the US had in justifying its invasion of Iraq, democracy can indeed be exported at the tip of a sword. Indeed, we're getting very early hints that the Cold War of cultures between the West and Islam could meet the fate of the first Cold War -- with a victory for Western values, culture and democracy.

In Eastern Europe, though, the end of the Cold War resulted in a dozen countries embracing democracy and the values of the West. But that, suggests a new study on Middle Eastern public opinion released by the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan in February, is not likely to happen this time. The countries and bodies surveyed -- Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian Authority -- suggest that the so-called "Arab Street" doesn't see the existence of an over-arching conflict of values between the West and the Middle East at all. Rather, the tensions are seen almost completely as a result of United States and British foreign policies in the region.


Terrorism, a concept many in Europe and the United States have come to associate almost exclusively with Islamic countries, is defined much differently in the countries surveyed. Over 85 percent of the population in four of the five countries surveyed felt that the war against Iraq was an act of terrorism (the exception being Lebanon where 64 percent felt that way). Furthermore, nine out of 10 of those surveyed believed that Israel's killing of Palestinian citizens constituted terror. Hamas and Hezbollah, on the other hand, are viewed as valid resistance organizations. Even al-Qaida is seen by Jordanians and Palestinians as legitimate. [The United States Is "Agressive, Morally Decadent and Racist" by Charles Hawley in Berlin, SPIEGEL, March 9, 2005]

Let me get this straight. The countries surveyed do not see a major conflict of values between the West and the Middle East, but they basically want the US and the UK to mind their own business,... like France, which â??came out smelling like roses.â?

And, lest there be any misunderstanding, while Westerners for the most part associate terrorism with Islamic countries, an overwhelming majority of people surveyed in the Middle Eastern public opinion study feel that the US war against Iraq was an act of terrorism and that resistance organizations (which use terrorist acts) are legitimate.

Also, â??Western societies are seen as bastions of liberalism, individual liberty and technical progress, yet they are plagued by social problems.â? Perhaps â??social problemsâ? as well as â??terrorismâ? are defined much differently in the countries surveyed.

Thatâ??s it. A communication gap. Lots of people everywhere think everybody else is the problem. Snafu.


Rebranding Dissent, 2005-03-05

After reading Daniel Schorr, writing at the CSMonitor, I'm left wondering whether he's getting sloppy. It's not that he thinks George W. Bush may have "gotten it right" when he said that "a liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region." (Though Schorr doesn't address whether Bush ever really cared about whether he was right -- i.e., whether or not the President is a bullshit artist.) It's not even that he thinks the so-called by some "cedar revolution" underway in Lebanon has some causal connection with our disastrous liberation of Iraq. It's that I can't figure out why he'd think that.

It's just not a view that makes sense. Why should Lebanese (or Egyptians, for that matter) be positively inspired to seek political freedom by the images of American military dominance in Iraq? Fear, perhaps, that the US would make them the next exmaple, even though the Egyptians have been our partners in crime for many years and Lebanon doesn't seem to capture the American political imagination anymore (if it ever did). Schorr nevertheless thinks that some mysterious "Iraq effect" is inspiring Lebanese to drive out the Syrian "security" force. He thinks that Iraqi "freedom" must be what's inspiring these people.

He thinks this, in spite of the fact that the "cedar revolution" bears a much closer resemblance to the Czechoslovakian "Velvet Revolution" of a generation earlier (not to mention contemporary actions in Poland, East Germany, Romania and Hungary). Of, for that matter, to any number of popular uprisins throughout the world, successful or not, in the decades since.

Or, more to the point, Schorr could consider the electric shock that seemed to go through the Arab world with the death of Yasser Arafat and the re-emerence of Abu Mazen as a popular political force, thanks in no small part to the weariness of ordinary Palestinians.

The only explanation I can think of for this failure to see other, far more likely causes, is the comon and highly ethnocentric (if not frankly racist) view that "the Middle East" is somehow different, its peoples and nations somehow less cultured and civilized, and certainly less aware of world events. They don't know about popular protests in the Ukraine; they never learned anything aout European or Asian or New World history, so they don't know about Tienanmen Square, the popularly-inspired rennaissance of South Korean democracy in the late '80s and early '90s, or the popular groundswell that saved nascent Russian democracy (for a while) from "counter-revolutionary" forces. Those ignorant Arabs must not understand any of that stuff. This is the Middle East, after all. It's different there.

Perhaps it's just a generational thing; we're past the time, maybe, when we should expect any foundation in history from reporters and "news analysts". Of courase, an "analyst" as seasoned as Schorr doesn't have that excuse: He's "analyzed" every significant popular uprising since the fall of the Iron Curtain, and was reporting the news way back when Lebanon was one of the most beautiful and culturally vital nations on the Mediterranean.

Abortion in the News

The George W. Bush administration tried to put its antagonistic, anti-abortion finger in an international pie and got it slapped with stiff opposition at a U.N. meeting for review of a 150-page platform for action adopted at the 1995 U.N. women's conference in Beijing.

Itâ??s not enough that locally a new law set to take effect March 30 in my own home state â??could be interpreted as a ban on all abortions and does not allow exceptions for all aspects of a mother's health, including her mental health.â? (Yes, groups have filed a lawsuit in federal court.) Or that there is a sponsored bill that would require the filing of a death certificate for every aborted fetus in Montana. And the list goes on through Statehouses across our nation, including disturbingly common objectives such as abstinence-only education and approving the refusal of reproductive health care.

No, the United States, against intense international resistance, wanted to make sure by way of an amendment that the U.N. delegates didnâ??t create any new international human rights and that they wouldnâ??t include the right to abortion. No matter that the Beijing document already does not include the specific right to an abortion. The U. S. still felt a need to push its own agenda. One might wonder if there was consideration of issues such as the difficult struggle for womenâ??s equality in the Arab and Muslim world or the large number of women in Africa and elsewhere who are living with serious problems like HIV and the effects of rape.

The United States backed down only when they felt assured that other nations agreed with the U.S. position that the declaration did not guarantee a global right to abortion but left such decisions to individual national governments. Now, maybe the international representatives can get back to focusing on obstacles to womenâ??s equality in other areas, instead of spotlighting the abortion issue.


USA Next and the Slime Campaign

Today Paul Krugman of The New York Times notes:

The right wants to dismantle Social Security, a successful program that is a pillar of stability for working Americans. AARP stands in the way. So without a moment's hesitation, the usual suspects declared that this organization of staid seniors is actually an anti-soldier, pro-gay-marriage leftist front.

Another NYT article by Glen Justice earlier this week identified one of the â??suspectsâ? as the lobbying group, USA Next. Charlie Jarvis, president of USA Next, had a bit more acerbic description of the AARP â??staid seniorsâ?:

'We are going to take them on in hand-to-hand combat,' said Mr. Jarvis, who is biting in his remarks about AARP, calling the group 'stodgy, overweight, bureaucratic and out of touch.'

Stodgy? Out of touch? It seems to me that this organization is a powerful force in our culture. Just ask all those vital people nearing their fiftieth birthday. Frequent mailings from AARP are almost a rite of passage at the tender age of fifty, before those living a mere half a century can even qualify for some of their local community â??senior citizenâ? discounts.

Mr. Jarvis wants hand-to-hand combat? He should take another look. AARP is preparing its membership mentally and physically.

AARP wants to strengthen, not destroy Social Security by offering its members combat weapons like researched information and even an AARP Social Security blog.

And to garner stamina for the fray, members can follow through on suggestions for such â??out of touchâ? exercise as cross-training, martial arts, and yoga.

Top that off with continuing media exposure of slime tactics by some advertising campaigns, and well, letâ??s just say that those fifty and over arenâ??t ready to lie down and play dead, or even stupid.


Quote for the Moment

"In my opinion the purpose of intelligence is to inform governments so they can form their policies, not to help governments justify policies they have already formed."
-- Dame Stella Rimington, the first woman to head the British spy agency MI5 and the real-life inspiration for the James Bond spymaster "M." (from â??Spyâ??s Eye Viewâ? by Sandip Roy, Pacific News Service [via AlterNet, February 19, 2005])


Quote for the Moment

The fundamental right in the case of the Guantánamo detainees is the right not to be deprived of liberty without due process of law. A government with the power to spirit people away and declare that's the end of the matter is exactly the kind of government the United States has always claimed to oppose, and has sometimes fought. For the United States itself to become that kind of government is spectacularly scary.

In seeking the stay of Judge Green's ruling, the administration showed yesterday that it is committed to being that kind of government. [â??Our Battered Constitutionâ? by Bob Herbert, The New York Times, February 4, 2005]


Ring-fencing of Ideas

Salman Rushdie (among others) is passionately speaking out against a proposed â??incitement to religious hatred lawâ? in Britain.

The idea that any kind of free society can be constructed in which people will never be offended or insulted, have the right to call on the law to defend them against being offended or insulted, is absurd. In the end a fundamental decision needs to be made: do we want to live in a free society or not? Democracy is not a tea party where people sit around making polite conversation. In democracies people get extremely upset with each other. They argue vehemently against each other's positions. (But they don't shoot.)

At Cambridge I was taught a laudable method of argument: you never personalise, but you have absolutely no respect for people's opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: people must be protected from discrimination by virtue of their race, but you cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it's a belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.

Sound familiar? Salman Rushdie is also seeing a disturbing trend across the pond with â??the increasing power of God-fearing America - of the Christian coalition, Mel Gibson variety â?? subsequentlyâ? determining â??the result of last November's presidential election.â?

During one visit to Washington, Mr. Rushdie observed, â??the most obvious distinction between the Democrats and the Republicans was that the Republicans used exclusively religious language.â?

That might be true, but religious language is creeping into the Democratic ranks, too. Political pundits have urged Democrats to appeal more to religious America, after all. And Senator Hillary Clinton, speaking at a recent fundraiser, might have been taking notice.

â??There is no contradiction between support for faith-based initiatives and upholding our constitutional principles." Invoking God more than half-a-dozen times during the speech, she declared she had "always been a praying person".

Right now if they wish, Americans can feel free to doubt her assessment that there is no contradiction in certain cases. They can express their ideas regardless of whether or not others would feel offended.

At this point in time, they still can.


Looking the Other Way

From CNN today:

"It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world," Bush said in his inaugural address after his swearing-in ceremony.

Ironically, before reading the aforementioned linked article, I had just read this one from Frank Rich ofThe New York Times:

Yet here we were in America, in the midst of a war that is going on right now, choosing to look the other way rather than confront the evil committed in our name in a prison we "liberated" from Saddam Hussein in Iraq. What happened in the Fort Hood courtroom this month was surely worthy of as much attention as Harry's re-enactment of "Springtime for Hitler": it was the latest installment in our government's cover up of war crimes.

But a not-so-funny thing happened to the Graner case on its way to trial. Since the early bombshells from Abu Ghraib last year, the torture story has all but vanished from television, even as there have been continued revelations in the major newspapers and magazines like The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and Vanity Fair. If a story isn't on TV in America, it doesn't exist in our culture.


The Inauguration Ritual

Inaugurations, Mrs. Bush said, are "an important part of our history."

"They're a ceremony of our history; they're a ritual of our government," she said in a round-table interview with reporters in the White House map room. "And I think it's really important to have the inauguration every time. I think it's also good for Washington's economy, for people to come in from around the country, for the hotels to be full, and the restaurants to be full, and the caterers to be busy. I think that's important."

She added: "I think there's a symbolic aspect of the inauguration that - and because of that, the symbol of the inauguration, you never want to - for any reason - cancel it or not have it." [â??Laura Bush Defends Gala in Time of War and Disasterâ? by Anne E. Kornblut, The New York Times, January 15, 2005]

Yes, but $40 million for this coronation? Some have estimated up to $50 million, citing the impropriety of such a price tag, considering our war in Iraq and the recent tsunami disaster. And Steephâ??s Blog is really getting into the breakdown of costs for this event.

Inauguration or Coronation? was a question brought up by Richard Stengel of TIME four years ago:

When it comes to presidential inaugurations, the Constitution doesn't specify any ceremony at all, only an oath of 35 words. The president-elect swears to "faithfully execute the office of president of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." That's it. There's nothing about motorcades and inaugural gowns and Fortune 500 companies sponsoring gala events.

Mr. Stengel aptly captures my feelings about this ritual:

So, yes, let's celebrate the stately and peaceful transition of democratic power. As always, George Washington got it right. When his successor, John Adams, was inaugurated in a simple indoor ceremony, Washington bowed and insisted that Adams leave the room first. After all, Adams was the commander-in-chief. But Washington knew that he himself now had the higher title: citizen.


Long on Style, Short on Substance

President Bush has expressed misgivings about some of his phrases, his â??cowboyâ? talk.

"I don't know if you'd call it a regret, but it certainly is a lesson that a president must be mindful of, that the words that you sometimes say. â?¦ I speak plainly sometimes, but you've got to be mindful of the consequences of the words. So put that down. I don't know if you'd call that a confession, a regret, something."

Consequences of words. What a mouthful. Where do we begin...

Forget the â??cowboyâ? talk. How about the evangelical code words? There is no doubt that Michael Gerson, Bushâ??s chief speechwriter, is quite â??mindful of the consequences of the words.â?

Sidney Blumenthal comments in The Guardian about the administrationâ??s â??happy talkâ? (â??ideological fantasiesâ? that â??substitute for realityâ?):

"They're not code words; they're our culture," his chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson, explained recently.

This rhetoric summons purity of heart ("written in the human heart"), divine blessing ("God is not neutral"), and the power of faith ("there's power, wonder-working power, in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people").

As Bush draws the sword of righteousness against the forces of darkness, the enemy being evil itself ("evildoers ... axis of evil"), he ascends on messianic imagery. "Do you not think an angel rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm?" he said in his first inaugural, quoting a letter written by a Virginian friend to Thomas Jefferson during the American revolution. "This story goes on," said Bush. "And an angel still rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm."

That particular verse originates in the book of the prophet Nahum. It contains no "angel", but the Lord, "a jealous and avenging God ... full of wrath ... The Lord is long suffering, and great in power, and will by no means clear the guilty; The Lord, in the whirlwind and in the storm is His way, And the clouds are the dust of His feet ... Woe to the bloody city! It is all full of lies and rapine ... Thy crowned are as the locusts, And thy marshals as the swarms of grasshoppers ..."

These metrics continue for several more verses: "There is no assuaging of thy hurt; Thy wound is grievous ...

I should change the title of this post to â??Long on Style, Skewed on Substance.â?


Church and State United

Lest anyone doubt that churches can be politically swayed, witness The Falls Church in a northern Virginia suburb. Oh, Iâ??m not talking about the generic politics common to all churches and organizations. No, even though George W.â??s own poor church attendance has been a topic of past discussion,... on a Sunday morning, one might see the presidentâ??s chief speechwriter Michael Gerson, Tucker Carlson, Porter Goss, and various Republican congressmen attending a service there.

The unique feel of The Falls Church is due in part to Virginia's quirky Episcopal history: Early churches in colonial Virginia grew up unfettered by Anglican bureaucracy, and stayed true to their revivalist roots. They were consequently free to focus intently on an individual's conversion experience â?? a common denominator of evangelicalism. Two hundred years later, The Falls Church seamlessly incorporates its stodgy Episcopal heritage with a vibrant, contemporary evangelicalism. It's a heady fusion of power and praise.

The stress, however, is often on the power. While liberal churches preach about the dispossessed and evangelical churches focus on the unsaved, The Falls Church very consciously aims its ministry at the ruling class. Among other things, the church sponsors a fellowship program for recent college graduates that combines theological coursework with internships at lobbying firms and think tanks like the Heritage Foundation. On the Sunday after the election, the rector, Rev. John Yates, gave a sermon on the idea that Christians are called to live their faith not only in private, but in their professional roles as well. The theme is central to the church's theology, if not the entire Christian conservative movement. "[Congregants] have a broader view of calling and vocation," says Loconte. "The committed Christian person is not necessarily called to work as a missionary or as a pastor, but perhaps is putting in 70-hour weeks at the White House."

The Falls Church wasn't always a conservative redoubt. Indeed, in years past, there wasn't much politics there at all, and the church drew members from across the ideological spectrum. But as with so many institutions in Washington, the days of bipartisanship ended when conservatives came into the majority. The Falls Church officially opposes gay marriage and civil unions, and embraces the belief that homosexuality is a choice. (A bundle of pamphlets near the entrance trumpet the work of an outside organization named Regeneration, a group seeking to "cure" homosexual men and women.) The Episcopal Church USA's decision last year to elect its first openly gay bishop drew howls of protest from The Falls Church clergy and most of its congregants. Last summer, the vicar, Kim Swithenbank, gave four sermons in a row on the subject, prompting many of the parish's remaining liberals to leave the church. ["Evangelical Elitists" by Ayelish McGarvey, Washington Monthly, via AlterNet, January 5, 2005]

Those fellowship programs for recent college graduates caught my attention. Itâ??s not enough to service the present administration. The church also serves as a breeding ground for the future, inculcating a mindset that obliterates the separation of church and state.


Don Rumsfeld: Fighting With The Army He Wishes He Had

"You go to war with the army you have, not with the army you would like to have." -- Donald Rumsfeld

Richard Perle thinks that Don Rumsfeld's gotten a raw deal [listen]. He says that Rummy was in the middle of his "transformation" campaign, and had to go to war with the 'army he had': "Shinseki's armor, Bill Clinton's military establishment...." And thus, criticisms for his lack of preparation are "not only wrong, but perversely wrong."

Perle's criticisms are not entirely wrong, but he nevertheless exhibits the core flavorings of Vulcan thought: Wishful thinking, salted liberally with arrogance. Which is to say, too much faith in what ought to be true, and too little attention to what is.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Don Rumsfeld has gotten a raw deal in some ways. Aspects of American military doctrine did need to be re-thought, and he was right to push for that re-thinking. American force structures did, and do, need to be altered to deal with a post cold war environment. But that doesn't change the fact that, with the army we have, there are certain obvious things that would have to be done if you chose to invade and pacify a fairly large country with a fractious population. And it doesn't change the fact that we spend a lot of money and time training these senior uniformed officers to understand the parameters of conflict.

"I think it's important to understand what planning means," says Perle. Based on the resources available, you do what you can to prepare for the situation. But isn't that what the civilian Pentagon failed to do? Or, more accurately: What they barred the uniformed Pentagon from doing.

So, Rummy went to war with the army he had, and not the one he wanted: But he also went to war as though he had the military he wanted. He went to war with a plan built for the military he ought to have had -- not the one he actually did have.

Which is to say, Rummy went to war with the army he wished he had. He treated his ideas about what's right and proper as reality; he executed to plan, instead of adapting to the situation. He forgot that the most important thing about a plan isn't the plan itself, but the discipline of planning it out.

There's a split in the Neo-Con/Vulcan ranks on this point. The hard-core of the "Vulcans" are sorting themselves out, so that even as William Kristol turns away, and Armitage floats between loyalty to Powell and duty as a soldier, the loyal core -- actors like Perle, Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz -- continue to support Rumsfeld, as though understanding that to acknowledge any weakness in their war-planning rationale is to challenge the very premise of the war. They should follow Kristol's lead: He's smarter than they are, or at least cleverer. He understands (learned from Bill Buckley, no doubt) that he can win debates before they start by speaking softly. He mouths categorical dismissals of entire schools of thought -- but he does it quietly and without apparent malice, as thought they're just accepted truths.

Interesting aside: Wikipedia seems to have removed all references to the "vulcans" as a reference to a group of Neoconservative thinkers and operatives who advised George W. Bush in the early days of his first presidential campaign. This illustrates a weakness in their version-control system: It's impossible to non-manually trace the changes to find when and where, or even whether, it happened.

Prejudicial Hues (being blue about red-hot sex)

I like the color blue. I also like red. By choosing one over the other, Iâ??m bound to alienate half of America. Now I find out that purple might be a compromising color, too.

The New York Times Frank Rich is still on the bandwagon about the reddening of the media. Good for him. And, he seems to share my thoughts about a â??cultural twilight zone.â? When red infiltrates blue, wouldnâ??t that mingling look a bit purple,... a dim, wine-tinged duskiness?

When they start pushing the panic button over "moral values" at the bluest of TV channels, public broadcasting's WNET, in the bluest of cities, New York, you know this country has entered a new cultural twilight zone.

Just three weeks after the election, Channel 13 killed a spot for the acclaimed movie "Kinsey," in which Liam Neeson stars as the pioneering Indiana University sex researcher who first let Americans know that nonmarital sex is a national pastime, that women have orgasms too and that masturbation and homosexuality do not lead to insanity. At first WNET said it had killed the spot because it was "too commercial and too provocative" - a tough case to make about a routine pseudo-ad interchangeable with all the other pseudo-ads that run on "commercial-free" PBS. That explanation quickly became inoperative anyway. The "Kinsey" distributor, Fox Searchlight, let the press see an e-mail from a National Public Broadcasting media manager stating that the real problem was "the content of this movie" and "controversial press re: groups speaking out against the movie/subject matter" that might bring "viewer complaints."

Green may be compromised next. It already has a liberal connotation and certainly includes blue.

So, whatâ??s a safe shade? The primary color, yellow? But then, I wouldnâ??t want to seem cowardly by being associated with--yellow. Black and white doesnâ??t work for me either. Too polarizing.

I propose we do away with all this color association and switch to something like--temperature. Frank Rich mentions â??Cole Porter immortalizing the Kinsey report's sizzling impact in a classic stanza in â??Too Darn Hot.â??â?

No matter what the censors may accomplish elsewhere, the pop culture revolution since Kinsey's era is in little jeopardy: in a nation of "Desperate Housewives," "Too Darn Hot" has become the national anthem. A movie like "Kinsey" will do just fine; the more protests, the more publicity and the larger the box office.

Hollywood wonâ??t suffer, but real-life people will. â??Heatâ? takes on an odious meaning when associated with disinterest in environmental issues like global warming. It could very well become way â??too darn hotâ? to be interested in sex at all. The issue of biblical vs. unbiblical sex may become an anachronism. Is this only an exaggerated prediction? Could be, yet there are real issues right now that bear consideration. Frank Rich writes:

But if Hollywood will always survive, off-screen Americans are being damaged by the cultural war over sex that is being played out in real life. You see that when struggling kids are denied the same information about sexuality that was kept from their antecedents in the pre-Kinsey era; you see that when pharmacists in more and more states enforce their own "moral values" by refusing to fill women's contraceptive prescriptions and do so with the tacit or official approval of local officials; you see it when basic information that might prevent the spread of lethal diseases is suppressed by the government because it favors political pandering over scientific fact.

Kiss Me Kate. Kiss me Cole. But playing safe sex is more than a stage role.

Look at real stats; plus read up on Kinsey. â??Abstinence-onlyâ? is merely a whimsy.

Follow the reds, get pregnant or sick. Like it or not, youâ??ll turn real blue mighty quick.



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