Sunday, July 31, 2005

Paine's Rules for Writing Democratically

I'm currently reading Harvey J. Kaye's Thomas Paine and the Promise of America, a truly inspiring account of Paine's life and effect on American radicalism throughout the centuries. Coincidentally it is also reviewed by Joseph Ellis in today's NYTs Book Review. During my reading I came upon Paine's explanation of his writing style, which is Orwell before Orwell:
"I dwell not upon the vapors of the imagination...I bring reason to your ears, and, in language as plain as A,B,C, hold up truth to your eyes."
Kaye further elucidates:
Identifying with working people, he wrote so they in turn would identify with him. He kept his words and sentences "short and accessible," avoided scholarly quotations and foreign phrases, and said what he had to say in a plain yet passionate fashion. His style was bold, lucid, and lively, at times "vulgar," at others "lyrical."
Paine understood that if democracy was to dig deep into the American soil, the press had to write to working people and stir them to engage in politics. One of the things I hate about writing and writers presently, and which I try to guard against vigilantly, is pretension and condescension on the page (I don't always succeed as my writing on religion demonstrates.) Much of blogging and journalism is geared toward an educated elite, inaccessible and intimidating to working and poor Americans who feel like they need a Webster's dictionary by their side for comprehension. But if we take democracy seriously then, bloggers and the press need to have the best interests of readers, better yet, citizens, at heart. One of the things we've gotten away from is the idea that a free press is there not to obscure concepts such as liberty, equality, and democracy, but to safeguard them, to be always obstinate and challenge the power centers of society. This was Paine's litmus test for an independent press and a very good one. And if we believe an independent press is the foundation of liberty and democracy, then we can be sure most media outlets -- whether they be televised, printed, or electronic -- are failing miserably.

It's fitting that most historians have seen Paine as a rabble-rouser or in Theodore Roosevelt's surmise, " a filthy little atheist." Although he was definitely, and to his credit, the former, he was not the latter: Paine was a deist. Most importantly, he is the father of America's democratic press, which should be enough to place him in the upper tier of America's pantheon of citizen-patriots. Kaye's book, if it is widely read, should return him to his former glory. Now it's time for us fledgling and embattled writers of the left to take up Paine's work, engage the citizenry, and deepen our democracy, which is dying in the shoals of entrenched wealth and privilege.

-- Matthew Harwood
(Pic courtesy of Transitofvenus)

Continue Reading...

Thursday, July 28, 2005

IRA Goes Non-Violent

The IRA announced today that it has renounced violence. According to the IRA's statement:
All IRA units have been ordered to dump arms. All volunteers have been instructed to assist the development of purely political and democratic programmes through exclusively peaceful means.
I have always been a supporter of Sinn Fein (the IRA's political wing) and their goals, but I increasingly became an opponent of the IRA's tactics as they shifted increasingly away from targeted assassinations to mass-murder bombings. Nothing justifies targeting civilians. That said, Sinn Fein and the IRA's struggle was a national liberation movement for much of its history. Their goals were independence and a social democratic state.

But understanding times have changed, especially with the London bombings and the McCartney murder, Gerry Adams and company have made a strategic and moral decision to end the armed campaign. Hopefully through politics, Northern Ireland will finally find the peace and the prosperity that has graced the country's south.

This is a historic day. Yet we should still be skeptical since the IRA has had problems with internal discipline in its past. We'll see if the more radical elements within the struggle comply with their leaders.

Now, back to vacation...

Continue Reading...

The Rainbow Conspiracy

The Forces of Gay are steamrolling the rights of family values loving Christians again. This is hot off the press from my favorite Christian news source Agape Press:

The National Parents and Teachers Association (PTA) hosted a workshop in June that stressed the need to incorporate more "gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender" (GLBT) issues in public school policies and curricula. Meanwhile, a group that presents a message of hope for homosexuals and ex-homosexuals was refused space for their own display.

I know what you’re thinking. Who is this mysterious “group” that boldly bears the torch of “hope” into the dark recesses of homosexuality? It’s none other than PFOX, Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays. Yes, it seems that Jesus died for our sins and our sexuality, making redemption possible on both fronts. Don’t believe it? Well, the proof is in the formerly gay pudding. Just ask one of PFOX’s ex-gay friends.

Why would a wholesome organization like the PTA go so unabashedly gay? Agape’s own version of Deep Throat has a theory.

One delegate from Columbus -- a public school teacher who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from PTA leaders -- contended that the exclusion of PFOX was because the PTA favors the presence of homosexual activist groups in public schools.

"I just believe that it's a political agenda," she said, "and whoever made the decision to deny [exhibit space to PFOX] is connected to the gay community in some way. Therefore they made a decision to shut out this group."

This stinks of conspiracy at the highest levels. Luckily, we’ve got a crack team of reporters ready to blow the whole thing wide open.

--Matthew McCoy

Continue Reading...

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Fighting Words

In case you haven’t heard, Bush and his pals have a new strategy for fighting terrorism: Change the name of the game. It seems the administration has grown tired of its tough-luck Global War on Terrorism and is ready to try its hand at the Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism.

Words matter. And using the right words matters a lot. But changing the name of the campaign on terrorism has nothing to do with clarifying policy goals. It is a petty attempt to recast mistakes of the last four years. Let’s not forget what happened, or what was said.

Over at Slate, Fred Kaplan cuts through the fat surrounding the name change.

--Matthew McCoy

Continue Reading...

Federalist Paper Trail

The National Archives handed over the key to a vault containing approximately 14,000 pages of John Roberts’ legal files. Roberts’ supporters and detractors finally have some fresh material to sink their teeth into. In the spirit of debate, I welcome the ensuing feeding frenzy.

It’s no surprise that the recently released documents betray Roberts’ federalist tendencies. As a general principle, he favors judicial restraint and deference to states’ rights. A typically conservative position, Roberts’ stance on limiting the reach of the Supreme Court has serious implications for civil rights.

He defended, for instance, the constitutionality of proposed legislation to restrict the ability of federal courts to order busing to desegregate schools.

On other civil rights issues, he encouraged a cautious approach by courts and federal agencies in enforcing laws against discrimination.

Judge Roberts, now on the federal court of appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, also argued that Congress had the constitutional power "to divest the lower federal courts of jurisdiction over school prayer cases."

In another memorandum, he maintained that the Supreme Court, to which he is now nominated, overreached when it denied states the authority to impose residency requirements for welfare recipients.

This is troubling. By Supreme Court standards, Roberts is a young man. His appointment to the Court would influence decisions on decades worth of cases dealing with issues no one can foresee. The future is uncertain, but one need not look far into the past for examples of the Supreme Court defending rights denied by states. I wonder how Roberts and a court of likeminded judges would have interpreted Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Would they say that Kansas has a right to define "equality" in its own terms, while maintaining a segregated school system? Is that a state’s right?

Is it unfair to hold Roberts’ preference for judicial restraint under the politically-charged light of one of the most important civil rights victories in this country’s history? I don’t think so, but how about a less epic case? Just a few weeks ago, the Court ruled in McCreary County v. ACLU that a Kentucky county could not hang copies of the Ten Commandments on courtroom walls. Based on what we’ve seen, Roberts would likely maintain that the Court has no business stopping a state from filling its public institutions with all manner of religious (let’s be realistic, Christian) symbols. If you don’t know where I stand on the state/religion issue, see this related post.

Led by the likes of Bill Frist and the Justice Sunday mob, conservatives have adopted the term "judicial activism" to describe what they see as "liberal" judges using their rulings to usurp state and federal legislatures’ power to make law. But Constitutional rights don’t stop at state borders, and they shouldn’t buckle under the will of capricious masses. If conservatives’ idea of judicial restraint is to stand by while legislators and their minions bend the Constitution any way they please, I’ll take an activist, thank you very much.

--Matthew McCoy

Continue Reading...

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

What's in a Name?

While most journalists are busy scouring the Supreme Court nominee’s legal writings, attempting to determine what kind of Justice he’d make, Tim Noah over at Slate is trying a different tack. He focuses on the fact that John G. Roberts is a "Jr." And not just any old Jr., but a "John sandwich, positioned between a father and 4-year-old son with the same name." What are the implications of Juniorism? Well, since you asked.

Juniors tend to be smart and wound a little tight--President Bush is a notable exception--and apparently Judge Roberts is, in fact, a pretty tense guy. His college roommate (as quoted by Adam Guren in the Harvard Crimson) reports that as an undergraduate Roberts "was a great consumer of Pepto Bismol." He also says Roberts decided not to apply to Stanford Law School because his interviewer wore sandals.

It’s a funny article, well worth reading.

--Matthew McCoy

Continue Reading...

The Anti-Wal-Mart

The NYTs business section has a good profile on Costco Wholesale, which is particularly topical considering the current labor debate.

Unlike so many other retailers, Costco has declined Wal-Mart’s standing invitation to race to the bottom, opting instead to preserve a corporate structure that benefits workers, customers, and shareholders.

Besides paying considerably more than competitors, for example, Costco contributes generously to its workers' 401(k) plans, starting with 3 percent of salary the second year and rising to 9 percent after 25 years.

ITS insurance plans absorb most dental expenses, and part-time workers are eligible for health insurance after just six months on the job, compared with two years at Wal-Mart. Eighty-five percent of Costco's workers have health insurance, compared with less than half at Wal-Mart and Target.

Costco also has not shut out unions, as some of its rivals have. The Teamsters union, for example, represents 14,000 of Costco's 113,000 employees. "They gave us the best agreement of any retailer in the country," said Rome Aloise, the union's chief negotiator with Costco. The contract guarantees employees at least 25 hours of work a week, he said, and requires that at least half of a store's workers be full time.

Some analysts say that Costco’s generosity to its employees hurts the company’s shareholders, but the figures say otherwise.

Costco's stock price has risen more than 10 percent in the last 12 months, while Wal-Mart's has slipped 5 percent. Costco shares sell for almost 23 times expected earnings; at Wal-Mart the multiple is about 19.

It’s refreshing to see a big company like Costco prove that corporate responsibility and profitability are not mutually exclusive. Hopefully, it is a business model others will emulate.

--Matthew McCoy

Continue Reading...

The Triumph of Science

Discovery just entered space about a minute or two ago, demonstrating the extraordinary accomplishments of the human race once again. One should ask themselves if this spectacular event could have occurred if a certain portion of humanity didn't banish the constrictive opinions of the past and embrace the scientific method.

Related to this, the NYTs shows just how far we've come (we could fall back) by revisiting the Scopes Trial today. If you've seen Inherit the Wind, you'll know Clarence Darrow defended John T. Scopes, a Tennessee biology teacher that contrary to state law taught his class the theory of evolution. William Jennings Byrant pursued Scopes for the prosecution. Darrow symbolized the advent of science and modernity while Bryant encapsulated the provincialism of religion and its inability to acknowledge scientific evidence. But nowhere during the trial would these different approaches to knowledge be crystallized than during this exchange between the two.
"I do not think about things I don't think about," Bryan said.

"Do you think about the things you do think about?" Darrow asked.

"Well," Bryan replied, "sometimes."
So who would you want to follow through the thickets of life?

That's something to think about.

Pic courtesy of

Continue Reading...

Monday, July 25, 2005

Labor Update

Since my last post on the topic, the SEIU and the Teamsters have officially announced that they are splitting with the AFL-CIO. And Joe Hansen, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (my former union) has announced that the UFCW is prepared to sever ties with the AFL-CIO as well.

"We must have more union members in order to change the political climate that is undermining workers rights in this country," the Teamsters president, James P. Hoffa, said today. "The A.F.L.-C.I.O. has chosen the opposite approach. Today's decision means that we have chosen a course of growth and strength for the American labor movement based on organizing new members."

The two unions said they were forming a competing labor coalition that they hope will address the decline in union membership. Mr. Hoffa said that the Teamsters have partnered with seven "strong and progressive" unions in the Change to Win coalition, a recently formed coalition of labor unions whose leaders have criticized the A.F.L.-C.I.O. for failing to "embrace fundamental reforms that would strengthen labor's ability to make real headway."

Mr. Hoffa said that leaders from the Change to Win coalition met with Teamster directors earlier today, adding, "This is just the beginning of a new era for America's workers."

Let’s hope Mr. Hoffa is right. John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, called the two unions’ decision to break ranks "a tragedy for working people." It is. The division of a unified movement is a troubling development, but not nearly so troubling as the unfettered rise of big business at the expense of workers’ rights. As an issue of principle, I fully support the SEIU and the Teamsters’ decision to form a more active and progressive body. But as an issue of strategy, it’s a big gamble by players holding few chips.

One argument I don’t buy though, is that the breakdown of the AFL-CIO will cause the Democrats to lose votes in the next election. Granted, losing one third of its body mass will hamper the AFL-CIO’s lobbying power on certain issues. But as far as votes go, the Democrats should win every worker’s vote, regardless of union affiliation, by pushing for stiffer regulations on business and a more progressive tax system. If the Democrats won’t stand up and defend workers, then they’ve dug their own hole, and they’ve done it without the help of labor.

--Matthew McCoy

Continue Reading...

Movie Review: The Devil's Rejects

I asked some friends if they were interested in seeing The Devil’s Rejects with me. Not surprisingly, they all said no. There are some roads the cinephile must travel alone. This was one of them.

The first five minutes of the movie serve as an overture, letting the audience know exactly what's in store. Open on a hulking deformity of a man dragging the nude corpse of a woman through the woods. Cut to a ramshackle country house surrounded by a cadre of law enforcement officers led by a shit-kicking, tough-talking sheriff. Cut to the interior of the house where the members of the murderous Brady Bunch at the center of the film’s plot arm themselves for combat with the "pigs," while collectively weaving a tapestry of expletives.

A moment of calm, and then, gunfire.

There you have it: the grotesque, nudity, profanity, and violence. The building blocks of a horror movie. Zombie experiments with different combinations of these four basic ingredients (seasoned with multiple references to bestiality, a morbidly obese woman, a pimp, a black toothed clown, a few lines of cocaine, a bottle of whiskey, and a backhanded tribute to Elvis Presley) for 85 more minutes and then the credits role. With the exception of the sheriff, whose sense of duty steadily unravels until he finds himself in morality’s gutter alongside the killers he’s hunting, the characters are static. But let’s be honest. Only a pathological optimist would go to a Rob Zombie movie expecting high drama.

For the most part, the acting is comically bad, especially in the case of Zombie’s eye-catching but talentless wife, who plays the bloodthirsty vixen, Baby. Baby is a sociopathic murderer, but delivering her lines more like a beautiful, bitchy cheerleader from a John Hughes movie, she’s fairly unbelievable in the role. To the director’s credit, every time I could sense the audience starting to roll their eyes at Baby’s bratty antics, Zombie pulled out the old razzle-dazzle and flashed a few seconds of her bare backside. Crowd pacified and crisis averted.

Though not a "good" director, Zombie is not incapable. He takes measures to temper the blood and guts with equal parts absurdity. The dialogue, which is about as subtle as a White Zombie song, is a welcome reminder that you shouldn’t take the movie any more seriously than it does itself. What saves The Devils Rejects is its sense of humor, best demonstrated in the southern rock soundtrack that provides ironic accompaniment to the onscreen action. The Allman Brothers "Midnight Rider," plays as Baby and her brother Otis murder a Good Samaritan and steal her car. The rising strains of "Free Bird" build as the Rejects bomb down the open road in a Cadillac convertible.

While I sat in the theater watching The Devils Rejects, I witnessed an interesting phenomenon. The crowd erupted into spontaneous applause when one of the killers got brained with a 2x4. Nothing out of the ordinary. But by the end of the movie, when a surprise attacker ambushes the sheriff, the crowd cheered even louder. They hated everyone. Generally speaking, an utter lack of likable characters is a mark of failure for a film. But for The Devil's Rejects, which has an uncanny ability to revel in its shortcomings, it came off as a grand achievement.

pic courtesy of

--Matthew McCoy

Continue Reading...

Sunday, July 24, 2005

A Labored Debate

Organized labor is an issue closer to Mr. Harwood’s area of expertise than my own, but as he is busy reaping the sweet fruits of the Jersey Shore this weekend, the burden falls to me. Via the NYTs, the AP is reporting that on the eve of the AFL-CIO convention in Chicago, four unions representing 13 million members have announced plans to boycott the meeting.

None of the four unions intended to cut ties immediately from the AFL-CIO, but the boycott makes that next step a high probability, officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to discuss failed weekend negotiations to avoid the boycott.

The union most likely to bolt the AFL-CIO is its largest, the 1.8 million-member Service Employees International Union. Led by Andy Stern, a former protege of AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, the SEIU is virtually certain to pull his organization out of the federation in coming days, with hopes of bringing Stern's allies along, officials said.

Joining him in the boycott will be the Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers and UNITE HERE, a group of textile and hotel workers, according to the labor officials.

Stern and the leadership of the unions joining the SEIU in boycotting the convention have been publicly critical of Sweeney and the AFL-CIO for failing to check the decline of organized labor. However, the unions’ boycott of the convention represents a major shake up. Best case scenario, the boycott will demonstrate the urgency of the crisis facing organized labor. Worst case scenario, it will divide and further weaken the already struggling movement.

Whatever you believe to be the appropriate strategy, this is a story everyone should follow. At this point, it is clear that the federal government is not bending over backwards to defend workers’ rights. Workers need to protect themselves from the ground up, and a strong labor movement is essential to their success.

If you’re interested in a good primer on the current debate, The Nation conducted a six-way interview with national labor leaders, including Stern and Sweeney.

--Matthew McCoy

Continue Reading...

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Terrorist Attack in Egypt

There’s been another terrorist bombing. This time the target was a Sinai Peninsula resort. I expect the numbers could climb, but so far it is being reported that 59 are dead and 116 are wounded. Egypt’s interior minister said the bombing could be linked to a similar attack last October, a string of three hotel bombings that killed 34 people, many of them Israelis. According to the AP, the victims of today’s bombing "included people from Britain, Russia, the Netherlands, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Egypt."


Continue Reading...

Friday, July 22, 2005

Cooter Speaks Out

I make weekly visits to the Christian Coalition's Web site. And no, it's not just to collect fodder for my ongoing assault on Christian Conservatism. I really do like to see what issues they're pushing and what stances they're taking on the news of the day.

During my most recent fact-finding mission on the CC Web site, I stumbled across a link to a delightful little piece of ridiculousness. It seems that Ben Jones, who played Cooter in the original Dukes of Hazzard TV show before becoming a Georgia congressman, is performing in a new role: beacon of morality for a wayward nation.

Cooter's hitting the streets and warning families to avoid Warner Brothers' raunchy spin on an old favorite.

Ben Jones . . . says profanity and sexual content in the PG-13 film are a "sleazy insult," akin to taking I Love Lucy and "making her a crack head."

"Other than Daisy's shorts, our show did not have any of that [suggestive content]," Jones says. "[O]n our show, nobody got hurt, nobody cussed, nobody bled, the good guys won, and the Duke boys were heroes because they always made the right moral choice."

That's funny Cooter. I always thought the Dukes of Hazzard was about two good ol' boys with a proclivity for archery who spend their days driving around in an orange car named after a Confederate general and adorned with a Confederate flag. But I must admit, I am not a Dukes aficionado, so perhaps the moral nuances of the show are lost on me. And I might be off-base here, but taking Lucy and making her into a crack head sounds promising. If anybody's got script ideas, I'd be willing to produce.

Anyway, if you were planning on checking out the new movie, Cooter suggests that you should think again. Unless of course, you've got a thing for moral depravity. In that case, it's probably right up your alley. If, like me, you were planning on skipping the Dukes since, well, it looks like a crappy movie, now you've got another reason to stay home.

Thanks Cooter.

Pic courtesy of

--Matthew McCoy

Continue Reading...

More Scientology Quackery

Lindsay Bernstein, who's subbing for Kevin Drum at Political Animal, has more on the paranoid foolishness of The Church of Scientology. She links to an article by NY Press's Paul Krasner, "Tom Cruise, Scientology and Me," which is bizarrely hysterical considering the Church is all about promoting a healthy mindset. I prescribe putting anti-psychotics in their water.

"Blame it on the Thetons now, I need a scapegoat yeah..."

I love you Katie. Give me a kiss, your lip's alright.

Pics from the

Continue Reading...

Civilian Casualties in Iraq

I forgot to link to this a few days earlier, but it's necessary that I do. Here's Iraq Body Count's Dossier of Civilian Casualties. You'll need Adobe to read it. IBC's key findings include:
Who was killed?

* 24,865 civilians were reported killed in the first two years.
* Women and children accounted for almost 20% of all civilian deaths.
* Baghdad alone recorded almost half of all deaths.

When did they die?

* 30% of civilian deaths occurred during the invasion phase before 1 May 2003.
* Post-invasion, the number of civilians killed was almost twice as high in year two (11,351) as in year one (6,215).

Who did the killing?

* US-led forces killed 37% of civilian victims.
* Anti-occupation forces/insurgents killed 9% of civilian victims.

* Post-invasion criminal violence accounted for 36% of all deaths.
* Killings by anti-occupation forces, crime and unknown agents have shown a steady rise over the entire period.

What was the most lethal weaponry?

* Over half (53%) of all civilian deaths involved explosive devices.
* Air strikes caused most (64%) of the explosives deaths.
* Children were disproportionately affected by all explosive devices but most severely by air strikes and unexploded ordnance (including cluster bomblets).

How many were injured?

* At least 42,500 civilians were reported wounded.
* The invasion phase caused 41% of all reported injuries.
* Explosive weaponry caused a higher ratio of injuries to deaths than small arms.
* The highest wounded-to-death ratio incidents occurred during the invasion phase.

Who provided the information?

* Mortuary officials and medics were the most frequently cited witnesses.
* Three press agencies provided over one third of the reports used.
* Iraqi journalists are increasingly central to the reporting work.
This war has led to much suffering and destruction and turned Iraq into one of the central training grounds for the forces of jihad, which does make me think an immediate withdrawal is not wise. Yet, this war was also one of choice, not one of necessity. Because of this, it's up to us to remember the dead, allow that knowledge to soak into our conscience and ensure that we leave Iraq better than we found it. Considering that the U.S., along with the IMF, are intent on privatizing the economy and cutting the basic needs subsidies that keep most Iraqi families afloat, I strongly doubt we'll leave it a mended country. What's most likely to happen is that Iraq will be a conservative's ideal state -- open to foreign investment, 100% foreign ownership, little or no social welfare programs, low taxes, among other neoliberal economic "reforms" -- as it teeters on the brink of civil war while inequality and unemployment remain entrenched.

Will Iraq rank along side Vietnam as one of the U.S.'s most disasterous foreign policy decisions? It doesn't look good right now.

Continue Reading...

Jeffersonian Democracy

Christopher Hitchens has a very worthwhile take on Jefferson's legacy around a week ago in the WSJ. I'm sorry it took so long to link to it, but the WSJ is quite stingy with their content, being the uber capitalists they are. If I could be so longwinded I'd like to reproduce his op-ed in full. Enjoy. (A short commentary ensues afterward.)
All through the years 2003 and 2004 one used to hear it: "So, you think your Iraqi friends are about to adopt Jeffersonian democracy . . ." (pause for hilarious nudge, sneer, snigger or wink). After a bit too much of this at one debate in downtown New York, I managed to buy some time, and even get a laugh, by riposting that Iraqi democracy probably wouldn't be all that "Jeffersonian," since none of my Iraqi comrades owned any slaves. But I was conscious, here, of trading partly in the stupid currency of my opponents. (I would now phrase matters a little more assertively: The United States has yet to elect a black or Jewish president, while the Iraqi Parliament chose a Kurd as its first democratically selected head of state, and did so even while the heaped corpses of his once-despised minority were still being exhumed from mass graves.)

If hypocrisy is the compliment that vice pays to virtue, then the frequent linkage of the name "Jefferson" with the word "democracy" is impressive testimony, even from cynics, that his example has outlived his time and his place. To what extent does he deserve this rather flattering association of ideas?

To begin with, we must take the measure of time. The association would not have been considered in the least bit flattering by many of Jefferson's contemporaries. The word "democratic" or "democratical" was a favorite term of abuse in the mouth of John Adams, who equated it with populism of the viler sort and with the horrors of mob rule and insurrection. In this, he gave familiar voice to a common prejudice, shared by many Tories and French aristocrats--and even by Edmund Burke, often unfairly characterized as an English reactionary but actually a rather daring Irish Whig. "Take but degree away, untune that string," as it is said in "Troilus and Cressida," "and hark what discord follows." The masses, if given free rein, would vote themselves free beer and pull down the churches and country houses that had been established to show the blessings of order. I cannot find any non-pejorative use in English of the Greek word "democracy" until Thomas Paine took it up in the first volume of "The Rights of Man" and employed it as an affirmative term of pride.

Jefferson was a great admirer of this book, but since it was not published until 1791 it cannot have helped animate his writing of the Declaration. For that document, he was obliged to be slightly more feline. In the celebrated opening sentences, he replaced John Locke's emphasis on "life, liberty and property" with a more lapidary phrasing that I do not need to restate. His choice of words was a pregnant one. The property qualification for voting was to endure for a considerable time in many European countries, and property itself was to be reasserted at Philadelphia in the debates on the Constitution, but the link between property ownership and ownership of natural rights had been undermined for all time. A second phrase--"the consent of the governed"--alerted any reader of the Declaration to the idea that the people were ultimately sovereign, and that their "happiness" trumped any divine or oligarchic presumption.

In the long run, therefore, it did not matter as much as it might have done that so many of "the people" were at first left unprotected by the great, formal, classical roof of the Constitution. Jefferson was absent in Paris when the secret voting on this grand instrument took place (he was often very fortunate in his temporary absences) but the principles of his Declaration were to be potent enough to subject the Constitution itself to repeated revisions. When Abraham Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg, his opening reference to "four score and seven years ago" was to Jefferson, and not to the Federalist Papers. Within a few years after Gettysburg, the women of America had met at Seneca Falls and set out their demands in a form of words modeled on the Declaration. Almost every extension of rights and franchise has followed the same pattern of emulation. Jefferson himself was convinced that emancipation of slaves should be followed by their deportation, and his view of the capacity of women was decidedly low. But the essence of the "democratical" is that it is unpredictable, so that once the enterprise is launched it is difficult to keep it within bounds.

In other respects, Jefferson certainly hoped that democracy would not be bounded at all. Some argue to this day that there can be Christian or Muslim or Jewish democracies, but Jefferson was insistent that democracy meant religious pluralism, and consequently the separation of church and state. His Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom, which banned the imposition of any religious test or the raising of any religious tithe, is the basis of the all-important First Amendment to our Constitution. There might perhaps have been a Protestant democracy in the Americas, stretching like Chile down the East Coast, and hemmed in by the ocean and the mountains, but in order to have a multiethnic and multiconfessional electorate on a larger scale, it was essential that secularism be inscribed at the beginning.

It was also necessary that democracy be "for export," and that it be able to defend itself. "May it be to the world," wrote Jefferson in his last letter, on June 24, 1826, "what I believe it will be (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all), the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government." It cannot be said that Jefferson himself was entirely consistent on this--the Haitian revolution filled him with dread, even if that slave revolt induced Napoleon to offer the sale of the Louisiana territory--but he did identify with democrats in other countries and did believe that America should be on their side. His long friendships with Lafayette, Paine and Kosciusko are testimony to the fact.

The most successful "export" was Jefferson's determined use of naval and military force to reduce the Barbary States of the Ottoman Empire, which had set up a slave-taking system of piracy and blackmail along the western coast of North Africa. Our third president was not in a position to enforce regime change in Algiers or Tripoli, but he was able to insist on regime behavior-modification (and thus to put an end to at least one slave system). Ever since then, every major system of tyranny in the world has had to run at least the risk of a confrontation with the United States, and one hopes that the Jeffersonians among us will continue to ensure that this remains true.
Jefferson wasn't without his hypocrisy, but he was intelligent enough to know his sins, even if he couldn't change his fate. And one of his most enduring triumphs was to argue democracies must stand tall with other democracies and other oppressed liberty loving peoples. So when Hitchens writes "every major system of tyranny in the world has had to run at least the risk of confrontation with the United States," he might sound a bit bloated and righteous, but he's right. Portions of the United States stood with the French democrats before it descended into the Terror, some stood against chattel slavery in the South (unlike Jefferson to his enduring shame), many stood against the horrors of European militarism, some even left New York harbor to fight against the facists during the Spanish Civil War. Hitler and Stalin and Hussein also raised the ire of freedom loving people our country over. We're no saints, but in enshrining the tenets of the Declaration for all of our history, we can be sure there will be enough of us Jeffersonians to stand defiant against the latest crop of despots that situate themselves into power, whether that be domestically or abroad. This is our enduring legacy that can be matched by no country.

We should be proud.

Continue Reading...

O'Connor's Swan Song

While I’m on the topic of the Supreme Court, I’d like to draw your attention to one of Sandra Day O’Connor’s final opinions. Concurring with the majority in McCreary County v. ACLU, the case involving a Kentucky county’s practice of hanging framed copies of the Ten Commandments on courtroom walls, O’Connor penned a persuasive argument for defending the separation between church and state.

At a time when we see around the world the violent consequences of the assumption of religious authority by government, Americans may count themselves fortunate: Our regard for constitutional boundaries has protected us from similar travails, while allowing private religious exercise to flourish.

O’Connor is a moderate conservative, but she’s got the sense to see that infusing secular institutions with religion undermines democracy. She anticipates and rebuts the argument that because The United States is a Christian country, its people have a right to demand that their government and its institutions reflect their religous beliefs.

It is true that many Americans find the Commandments in accord with their personal beliefs. But we do not count heads before enforcing the First Amendment.

I doubt that Christians who support practices like the one at issue in McCreary consider themselves at odds with the civil liberties protected by the First Amendment, but they believe that government should favor Christian morality over civil liberties when the two come into conflict.

I empathize with the goodwill of those who truly believe that Christianizing our country will benefit its citizens, though I disagree with their assessment of America’s moral needs. But the problem is that formally mixing our faith with our political bodies fundamentally alters the composition of our country, giving the government a moral authority the Framers never intended it to have. We are not living in a theocracy, so why should we move towards one? As O’Connor says, "Why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?"

Good question.

--Matthew McCoy

Continue Reading...

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Sagan on Science and Democracy

I'm sorry for quoting so much Carl Sagan lately, but this is just too good to stay confined within the spine of the The Demon Haunted World. What follows is Sagan's appreciation of science and democracy as kindred souls.
The values of science and the values of democracy are concordant, in many cases indistinguishable. Science and democracy began -- in their civilized incarnations -- in the same time and place, Greece in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. Science confers power on anyone who takes the trouble to learn it...Science thrives on, indeed requires, the free exchange of ideas; its values are antithetical to secrecy. Science holds to no special vantage points of privileged positions. Both science and democracy encourage unconventional opinions and vigorous debate. Both demand adequate reason, coherent argument, rigorous standards of evidence and honesty. Science is a way to call the bluff of those who only pretend to knowledge. It is a bulwark against mysticism, against superstition, against religion misapplied to where it has no business being. If we're true to its values, it can tell us when we're being lied to. It provides a mid-course correction to our mistakes. The more widespread its language, rules, and methods, the better chance we have of preserving what Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues had in mind.

As Sagan and Jefferson understood, there is one method that will protect liberty and human rights from the avarice of politicians, priests, and charltans; that method is reason. When it is no longer valued by society or the state, freedom and democracy become tenuous, threads we grasp at, yet are hard to rewrap into the cohesive whole they once were.

Continue Reading...

A New Partner in Criminal Reason

I want to take a few sentences to introduce you all to Matthew McCoy, a gifted writer that will be blogging with me from now on. He might just be the wittiest guy I've ever met. Matt's a lot like me, aggressively left and certainly no fan of organized religion, but we tend to disagree at times, so the blog will also function as a dialogue in the spirit of true democratic politics. Unlike others, we love to argue for argument's sake.

I hope you enjoy his perspective as much as I do. His first post, on Bush's nomination of Roberts for the Supreme Court, follows below.

Continue Reading...

Don't Gnash Your Teeth Just Yet

Despite a rash of editorials in the last 24 hours, it seems that no one is quite sure what kind of Supreme Court Justice John Roberts would make. His two-year stint on the Circuit Court of Appeals provides scant case history on which to build a profile of his judicial tendencies.

Roberts has a solidly Republican resume, no doubt about it, but he’s spent the majority of his legal career as an attorney, not a judge. It’s a mistake to assume that Roberts’ work as a lawyer gives a clear indication of how he would interpret the Constitution if appointed to the Supreme Court. Consider his comments on abortion as reported in the NYTs:

Abortion rights groups fault him for arguing, as deputy solicitor general for the first Bush administration in 1990, in favor of a government regulation banning abortion-related counseling in federally financed family planning programs.

He also helped write a brief then that restated the administration's opposition to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that established the constitutional right to abortion, contending, "We continue to believe that Roe was wrongly decided and should be overruled."

But when pressed in his 2003 confirmation hearings for his own views, he said: "Roe v. Wade is the settled law of the land," and added, "There's nothing in my personal views that would prevent me from fully and faithfully applying that precedent."

Roberts’ judicial stance on the balance of civil liberties and national security, however, has already been tested. He sided with the majority in a ruling allowing the Bush Administration to reconvene military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay. Hopefully Democrats will use Roberts’ confirmation hearing to press this issue before appointing a justice willing to roll over on civil liberties every time the administration says "in the interest of national security."

I’ll see what the next few days/weeks uncover before I make up my mind about this guy.

-- Matthew McCoy

Continue Reading...

More London Terror Attacks

Luckily no one was killed and some of the devices went unexploded. The attacks came exactly two weeks since the 7/7 atrocities and also hit three tube stations and one bus, precisely like the previous attack.

Copy cat bombings? Further attacks from native-born Islamists? Rather crap suicide bombers? No one knows yet.

For a quick NYTs article go here.

Continue Reading...

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Oprah's Shifting Identity

Look, I don't like Oprah. It's a simmering, black coal within my heart sort of thing, but I'm not ashamed of it. Actually, I kind of embrace it. To be honest, I think she's a huckster. She made her money not so much by helping people, but by exploiting their misery and their peccadilloes for ratings and the fame and fortune it brings. Sure, she has built some schools in Africa, which is laudable, but it always carries that "pat on the shoulder" righteousness that just drives me an inch away from the traffic median.

Last, but certainly not least, she unleashed the bigger than her waist-line hucksterism of Dr. Phil's slow Texas moronic drawl on us all with his commonsensical "tough love" that condescendingly equates to saying, "you're white trash if you don't understand what I'm saying." So when I came across this little essay, "Straight Outta Africa: Oprah's Feel-Good-About-Herself Zulu Identity" by Charles Leonard I just had to link to it.

Leonard's run-in with some American hip-hop stars embracing their ahistorical African "roots" is also quite hilarious in a shoulder-shrugging, head-shaking sort-of-way.

Enjoy all you self-help talk show haters.

Continue Reading...

Iraq: Less Testosterone, Less Rights

For those of us in the West that were hoping Iraq would retain its progressiveness toward women, the NYTs reports otherwise.
A working draft of Iraq's new constitution would cede a strong role to Islamic law and could sharply curb women's rights, particularly in personal matters like divorce and family inheritance.

The document's writers are also debating whether to drop or phase out a measure enshrined in the interim constitution, co-written last year by the Americans, requiring that women make up at least a quarter of the parliament.

The draft of a chapter of the new constitution obtained by The New York Times on Tuesday guarantees equal rights for women as long as those rights do not "violate Shariah," or Koranic law.
In reaction, a host of women's groups staged a protest in Fardous Square - the same square where Saddam Hussein's statute was ripped down in April 2003. Good for them.

And just so you get a taste of what Sharia law means to a Shiite woman, the NYTs Edward Wong explains Article 14 of the new draft constitution.
One of the critical passages is in Article 14 of the chapter, a sweeping measure that would require court cases dealing with matters like marriage, divorce and inheritance to be judged according to the law practiced by the family's sect or religion.

Under that measure, Shiite women in Iraq, no matter what their age, generally could not marry without their families' permission. Under some interpretations of Shariah, men could attain a divorce simply by stating their intention three times in their wives' presence.

Article 14 would replace a body of Iraqi law that has for decades been considered one of the most progressive in the Middle East in protecting the rights of women, giving them the freedom to choose a husband and requiring divorce cases to be decided by a judge.

If adopted, the shift away from the more secular and egalitarian provisions of the interim constitution would be a major victory for Shiite clerics and religious politicians, who chafed at the Americans' insistence that Islam be designated in the interim constitution as just "a source" of legislation. Several writers of the new constitution say they intend, at the very least, to designate Islam as "a main source" of legislation.
I wonder what will happen to these women groups if they persist in their protest for elementary human rights?

Dare I say, it will not be good?

Continue Reading...

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

British Muslim Fatwa

Via the BBC, what follows is the full text of the British Muslim Forum's fatwa condemning the 7/7 atrocities.
We wish to express our sincere condolences to the families of all the victims of the London attacks. We pray for the swift recovery of all those who are recovering from injuries.

There are many questions emerging from the London bombings. One of the most important questions is what does Islam say about it?

To answer this question Muslim scholars, clerics and Imams from all over the UK have been consulted to issue this formal legal opinion (fatwa) so that Muslims and non-Muslims can be clear about Islam's stance on such acts.

Severe condemnation

On behalf of over 500 clerics, scholars and Imams the British Muslim Forum issues the following religious decree:

Islam strictly, strongly and severely condemns the use of violence and the destruction of innocent lives.

There is neither place nor justification in Islam for extremism, fanaticism or terrorism. Suicide bombings, which killed and injured innocent people in London, are haram - vehemently prohibited in Islam, and those who committed these barbaric acts in London are criminals not martyrs.

Such acts, as perpetrated in London, are crimes against all of humanity and contrary to the teachings of Islam.

The Holy Koran declares:

"Whoever kills a human being, then it is as though he has killed all mankind; and whoever saves a human life, it is as though he had saved all mankind." (Koran, Surah al-Maidah (5), verse 32).

Islam teaches us to be caring towards all of Allah's (God's) creation, not just mankind. The Prophet of Islam who was described as "a mercy to the worlds" said: "All creation is the family of Allah and that person is most beloved to Allah who is kind and caring towards His family."

Islam's position is clear and unequivocal: murder of one soul is the murder of the whole of humanity; he who shows no respect for human life is an enemy of humanity.

We pray for the defeat of extremism and terrorism in the world.

We pray for peace, security and harmony to triumph in multicultural Great Britain.
This is undoubtedly a sincere communication from Britain's moderate Muslim community. And I don't doubt the Koranic verses they use to justify their position that Islam is not an inherently violent religion, but rather a peaceful religion that denies the nihilistic impulse of suicide bombers. The only problem is that the Koran has other passages that contradict the passages cited by the British Muslim Forum. So which is it? If Gabriel, the archangel, faithfully gave Allah's word to Mohammed, why the inherent contradictions? As an atheist, I can posit why these contradictions appear, because it's a flawed human document without divine inspiration, which evolved out of a weak religious group which then grew to predominate power throughout the Middle East. If it's not, then Allah is one confused omnipotent and omniscience supernatural being.

That being said, I'm very happy with the British Muslim Forum's statement and hope more fatwas are issued from Muslim scholars and clerics the world over against the forces of jihad. There is a struggle for Islam's soul, hopefully it will follow the historical examples of Christianity and Judaism which have come to a detente with modernity and pluralistic democracy.

Continue Reading...

Monday, July 18, 2005

Hubbard, That Nut

If you believe Scientology is a legitimate religion, Michael Crowley of the New Republic has a nice primer on its founder L. Ron Hubbard on Crowley concludes, "that Hubbard's ultimate success lay in convincing millions of people he was something other than a nut."

Continue Reading...

Unite Against Terrorism

Please head over to Unite Against Terrorism, a plea to join in solidarity against terrorism, and sign the adjoining statement. It has the heart and courage to put into ink what should be commonsense.
These terrorists do not hate what is worst in the societies they attack, but what is best. They despise individual liberty, critical thought, gender equality, religious tolerance, the rights of minorities and political pluralism. They do not criticize democracy because it sometimes fails to live up to its principles; they oppose those principles.

In areas of conflict, the terrorists have damaged attempts at peaceful and political solutions to problems. They choose killing and reject mutual recognition, accommodation, negotiation, understanding, and compromise.

In the face of such an enemy, we believe it is vital that democratic political forces in all countries unite. We need a global movement of solidarity linking together communities threatened by terror. United we stand against terror.
The whole statement is a great example of humanism opposed to fanaticism and should be signed by anyone who believes they are on the left.

Continue Reading...

Sunday Bloody Sunday

A man turned himself into a molotov cocktail on Sunday in the poor town of Musayyib when he detonated himself underneath a fuel tanker. This act of indiscriminate violence killed at least 72 (new tally is over 90) and injured more than 156 according to the NYTs.

The violence continued as a spate of suicide bombings struck Baghdad within four and a half hours yesterday. To add to the carnage the AP is reporting that terrorists killed eight policemen and government workers in seven separate shootings today. The article goes on to mention that over 170 people have been murdered over the last week by human molotov cocktails.

If you are astounded by the frequency of these suicide attacks and wonder what provides the stimulus and rationale for these inconceivable actions, the NYTs Week in Review has an article that might provide some answers, "Blowing Up in the West."

The most disturbing admission within the article is from terrorism expert, Jessica Stern:
[A] lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and the author of "Terror in the Name of God," [she] spent part of the spring in the Netherlands investigating the attitudes of young Muslims there. She said she feared that for some of them, violent Islamism had become a fad.

For some, she said, "To be angry and rebellious these days is to be angry, rebellious and Islamist, and, unfortunately, to be violent." In a previous era, she observed, they might have embraced Marxism. She said that while these young people experienced some prejudice and economic hardship, their grievances were reinforced by "a feeling of vicarious humiliation" of Muslims elsewhere. The radicalism of some appeared driven less by contact with a charismatic cleric than by what they found for themselves on the Internet.

"They self-recruit, self-radicalize, and they go and find their own imam," Ms. Stern said. "So the picture that we have, that all we have to do is watch those fiery imams, or go into the mosques - well, those days are over."
The internet as the citadel of Islamic extremism...scary.

Continue Reading...

Friday, July 15, 2005

Iraqi Labor Movement

The Iraqi Federation of Trade Union's London Representative Abdullah Muhsin has an important article in Political Affairs arguing how unions matter to a functioning democracy. Well worth the read as a pledge of solidarity to our Iraqi union comrades.

Continue Reading...

Some on the Right are Right

I'm not in the habit of agreeing with either The Wall Street Journal's editiorial page nor conservative columnist Cal Thomas regularly, but during this week both have written things the left should be arguing.

In an editorial on Wednesday, the WSJ criticized the predominately liberal view, echoed in the words of UN Secretary General Kofi Anan, that the root causes of terrorism that are leading young Muslim men to martyr themselves for Islam are "conflict, ignorance, poverty and disease." The Journal's riposte:
In fact, neither poverty nor ignorance nor disease drove Mohammed Atta into the North Tower of the World Trade Center; hatred did, as did belief. Those who are serious about fighting terrorism at "the source" should ask themselves where those beliefs come from. As the British government is finding out, the problem isn't about economics but about ideology. And the answer lies in fighting evil ideas, such as jihad, with good ones, such as democracy.
Cal Thomas takes it much further, arguing like I have, that the problem isn't a mutated strand of Islam, but Islam itself. Much like the WSJ editorial, Thomas knocks down the connection between poverty and terror:
In the U.K., The Sunday Times carried a front-page story exploding the myth of a causal relationship between terrorism and poverty among Muslims. The newspaper reported on leaked Whitehall documents that show "Al-Qaeda is secretly recruiting affluent, middle-class Muslims in British universities and colleges to carry out terrorist attacks" in Britain. The targets of the "extremist recruiters" are students with "technical and professional qualifications."

These are not Muslims without a future. These are bright and educated students who, if they wished, could be productive and prosperous members of British society. But many are embracing a false theology and a god who requires them to kill "infidels."

No amount of G8 aid to the "Palestinians," nor a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, will pacify these current and potential killers. Even if Israel were obliterated (the goal of much of the Muslim world), the terror would continue until the entire non-Islamic world is under their control.

This is not the belief of an "Islamophobic" bigot. This is what they say in their sermons and media, teach in their schools, and believe in their hearts. It matters little that "the overwhelming majority of Muslims are not terrorists," to quote a familiar Western mantra. It matters a great deal that most terrorists are Muslims. The sooner Western leaders and Western media begin stating what is obvious to most people; the quicker the real root cause can be dealt with.
It's hard to disagree with this. The Koran, the uber text of Islam, teaches jihad as one of its central tenets. The God of Muhammed, given voice in the Koran, is the root cause of modern Islamic terrorism.

POSTSCRIPT: You'll notice if you read the whole Thomas op-ed that he resorts to his natural inclination as a rather fundamentalist Christian to write: "This is a religious war." It's not -- at least from the perspective of an atheist and a secularist. The virtues of Western society enshrined most dramatically in the U.S. Constituion, make this a war pitting reason versus irrationality, freedom versus fanaticism, and the pragmaticism of self-government versus the arrogance that you know the divine will. As long as the right holds on to this belief that this is a "religious war" the harder it will be to convince moderate Muslims that the war on terror is not a "crusade," and that modernity and democracy are the answer to Middle-Eastern stagnation.

Continue Reading...

Blown Cover

Juan Cole has an extremely disturbing post concerning the Bush Administration's politicization of the war on terror during the 2004 campaign. Apparently, the administration released the name of a highly valued al-Qaeda operative that the Pakistanis and the British had "turned" and who was in email contact with U.K. terrorist cells. As Cole explains:
Either from a Bush administration source or from a Pakistani one (each government blames the other), they [the press] came up with the name of Muhammad Naeem Khan, a recently arrested al-Qaeda operative in Pakistan, and published it. But it turns out that the Pakistanis and the UK had "turned" Khan and were having him be in active email contact with the al-Qaeda network in the UK so as to track them down.

On August 3, the Bush administration released the name of Abu Eisa Khan, a suspected al-Qaeda operative in the UK who had been arrested. The motive for this shocking lapse in security procedure appears to have been the desire to trumpet a specific arrest.

All of these public pronouncements by the Americans infuriated the Pakistani and British police.

For the sake of three year old intelligence, the Bush administration had helped blow the first inside double agent the Pakistanis and the British had ever developed. The British had been preparing a set of indictments and pursuing the investigation, in part by using Khan. They were forced to move before they were ready. Some suspects escaped on hearing Naeem Khan's in the media. Of those who were arrested, several had to be released for lack of evidence against them.

Muhammad Sadique Khan, one of the July 7 bombers, was apparently connected to one of the suspects under surveillance in early August, 2004.
Place this on top of the Rove-Wilson-Plame fiasco and we have an administration more concerned with internal discipline and political power than protecting this country and our allies from terrorist attack.

Continue Reading...

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Oh Those Neo-Darwinists

Thank you to Slate's Explainer for "What Catholics Think of Evolution" because it linked to this nonsense by Christoph Schonborn, the Roman Catholic cardinal archbishop of Vienna, printed on July 7th by the NYTs. According to Cardinal Schonborn:
Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense - an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection - is not. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.
So what's your evidence Cardinal?
Consider the real teaching of our beloved John Paul. While his rather vague and unimportant 1996 letter about evolution is always and everywhere cited, we see no one discussing these comments from a 1985 general audience that represents his robust teaching on nature:

"All the observations concerning the development of life lead to a similar conclusion. The evolution of living beings, of which science seeks to determine the stages and to discern the mechanism, presents an internal finality which arouses admiration. This finality which directs beings in a direction for which they are not responsible or in charge, obliges one to suppose a Mind which is its inventor, its creator."

He went on: "To all these indications of the existence of God the Creator, some oppose the power of chance or of the proper mechanisms of matter. To speak of chance for a universe which presents such a complex organization in its elements and such marvelous finality in its life would be equivalent to giving up the search for an explanation of the world as it appears to us. In fact, this would be equivalent to admitting effects without a cause. It would be to abdicate human intelligence, which would thus refuse to think and to seek a solution for its problems."

Note that in this quotation the word "finality" is a philosophical term synonymous with final cause, purpose or design. In comments at another general audience a year later, John Paul concludes, "It is clear that the truth of faith about creation is radically opposed to the theories of materialistic philosophy. These view the cosmos as the result of an evolution of matter reducible to pure chance and necessity."

Naturally, the authoritative Catechism of the Catholic Church agrees: "Human intelligence is surely already capable of finding a response to the question of origins. The existence of God the Creator can be known with certainty through his works, by the light of human reason." It adds: "We believe that God created the world according to his wisdom. It is not the product of any necessity whatever, nor of blind fate or chance."
So Cardinal Schonborn has, shockingly, the Pope and the Catechism of the Catholic Church on his side, but no empirical evidence of any kind to back him up. His best attempt to show evidence of design in nature again goes back to Church teaching and not empirical evidence such as DNA or the fossil record showing the succession of single cell life-forms all the way to us humans.
Throughout history the church has defended the truths of faith given by Jesus Christ. But in the modern era, the Catholic Church is in the odd position of standing in firm defense of reason as well. In the 19th century, the First Vatican Council taught a world newly enthralled by the "death of God" that by the use of reason alone mankind could come to know the reality of the Uncaused Cause, the First Mover, the God of the philosophers.
Although the Cardinal never provides one ounce of evidence for his belief in creative design besides appeals to authority that most people don't even recognize, he has the chutzpah to conclude:
Now at the beginning of the 21st century, faced with scientific claims like neo-Darwinism and the multiverse hypothesis in cosmology invented to avoid the overwhelming evidence for purpose and design found in modern science, the Catholic Church will again defend human reason by proclaiming that the immanent design evident in nature is real. Scientific theories that try to explain away the appearance of design as the result of "chance and necessity" are not scientific at all, but, as John Paul put it, an abdication of human intelligence.
The funny thing about the Cardinal's piece is that he does grant "[e]volution in the sense of common ancestry might be true," which naturally throws away the whole of Genesis as merely a myth, a story. This is why he has to appeal to the Pope, the Catechism, and "overwhelming evidence," which he never cites, besides the guy in the funny hat and his book of Q&As.

For those of you who still don't believe evolution is a fact, I'll leave you with these two links, both of the same name, "Evolution is a Fact and a Theory." One is by the late preeminent biologist, Stephen Jay Gould, and the other is by Laurence Moran from the Talk.Origins Archive. Compare these essays to the Cardinal's and ask yourself who's engaged in sophistry at the expense of evidence.

Continue Reading...

The Inevitable Comes West

The explosions that rocked London's Tube and a double-decker bus on 7/7, killing more than 50 people, was the work of suicide bombers according to the British government. Worst of all, the perpetrators of these atrocities were British citizens of Pakistani descent, not foreign militants taking advantage of Western freedoms. Via the Guardian:
Three of the four were identified as Mohammed Sadique Khan, 30, of Dewsbury, and Hasib Hussain, 18, and Shehzad Tanweer, 22, of Leeds. Friends and family said they had no idea they had become extremists. (Click on the names for profiles of the suspected murderers.)
Although this is fairly obvious, this adds a whole new dimension of fear into Western society, considering that you may not be able to trust the person sitting next to you on the subway or the bus or the movie theater. One of the most basic assumptions of civilized society is that you will be safe when you enter public space, especially in the ritzy, commercial districts of big cities. Essentially, 7/7 has brought the horrors of Iraq and Israel to our doorsteps.

Be ready, because it's only a matter of time before suicide bombers hit the States.

Continue Reading...

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Sagan on Science Vs. Pseudoscience

I'm rereading Carl Sagan's The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, because I remember it as the most cogent and readable defense of reason in the face of irrationality I've come across. Within the first chapter Sagan identifies the difference between science and pseudoscience, which includes dogmatic religious beliefs:
Pseudoscience differs from erroneous science. Science thrives on errors, cutting them away one by one. False conclusions are drawn all the time, but they are drawn tentatively. Hypotheses are framed so they are capable of being disproved. A succession of alternative hypotheses is confronted by experiment and observation. Science gropes and staggers toward improved understanding. Proprietary feelings are of course offended when a scientific hypothesis is disproved, but such disproofs are recognized as central to the scientific enterprise.

Pseudoscience is just the opposite. Hypothesis are often framed precisely so they are invulnerable to any experiment that offers a prospect of disproof, so even in principle they cannot be invalidated (i.e. the existence of God, the resurrection, that Muhammed met the angel Gabriel who gave him the Koran -- my interjection) Practitioners are defensive and wary. Skeptical scrunity is opposed. When the pseudoscientific hypothesis fails to catch fire with scientists, conspiracies to suppress it are deduced.
Science isn't a panacea; it's a tool that has made our world much richer than our ancestors could have ever imagined. Sure, its inventions can be harnessed for evil, nevertheless, only through its framework will we ever be able to find the solutions to problems as varied as disease, famine, and the host of other problems that plague our world. Sagan tirelessly argued this. Will we listen?

Continue Reading...

London's Red Ken

The NYTs has a good article profiling London's Mayor Ken Livingstone in the aftermath of 7/7. He's the one you saw on your television screen, addressing the terrorists with this message worth posting again:
"This was not a terrorist attack against the mighty and the powerful; it is not aimed at presidents or prime ministers; it was aimed at ordinary working class Londoners, black and white, Muslim and Christians, Hindu and Jew, young and old, indiscriminate attempt at slaughter irrespective of any considerations, of age, of class, of religion, whatever, that isn't an ideology, it isn't even a perverted faith, it's just indiscriminate attempt at mass murder, and we know what the objective is, they seek to divide London. They seek to turn Londoners against each other and Londoners will not be divided by this cowardly attack... I wish to speak through you directly, to those who came to London to claim lives, nothing you do, how many of us you kill will stop that flight to our cities where freedom is strong and where people can live in harmony with one another, whatever you do, how many you kill, you will fail."
Read the article and you'll be struck by how different politics is there than here, where risks are taken on principle, not due to some Luntz focus group.

Continue Reading...

Hitchens Discusses Socialism

Anyone that reads this blog or knows me personally knows I have a soft spot for socialism. Much is misunderstood about socialism and the socialist impulse, especially in this country of ours. The worst conflation is to believe socialism is the same as Sovietism -- or the state capitalist system of the old Soviet Union.

For anyone interested in this, Christopher Hitchens discusses socialism's attraction, its ties to the Enlightenment, Marx's love of Lincoln, the U.S.'s potential as a socialist republic, and one of Lenin's only achievements: the creation of a secular Russia.

For those that believe socialism equals slavery, this is as good as an antidote as any I've ever read. When you begin to know the history of socialism, you begin to feel an intense hatred that the likes of Stalin, Mao, and Castro got their grimy hands on the ideal and used it as a means to achieve power at the cost of the ideal.

Remember, much of what we take for granted these days, and which is in the process of being rolled back: the elimination of child-labor, compulsory education, the 8-hour workday, weekends off, collective bargaining, full employment, and international solidarity are products of the socialist impulse. It is an impulse in all of us, whether we recognize it or not, that allows most of us in the West not to be plowed over by the likes of unregulated capitalism.

Much like the sentiments of Jesus of Narazeth, it is an intense hatred of exploitation and a bid for a humanistic world. To deny it fully, is to deny our better natures.

Continue Reading...

London Updates

Here's an update on the investigation into the London terror blasts of 7/7 from the NYTs, the Guardian, and the Times of London.

Apparently, all the men being investigated are British-born Pakistanis.

Continue Reading...

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy -- Nevertheless, What To Do?

One of my more recent arguments concerning Iraq has been that Iraq is now a hotbed of Islamic terrorism due to President Bush's illegal and ill-conceived invasion and occupation. Yesterday, Bob Herbert of the NYTs made essentially the same point:
The C.I.A. warned the administration in a classified report in May that Iraq - since the American invasion in 2003 - had become a training ground in which novice terrorists were schooled in assassinations, kidnappings, car bombings and other terror techniques. The report said Iraq could prove to be more effective than Afghanistan in the early days of Al Qaeda as a place to train terrorists who could then disperse to other parts of the world, including the United States.

Larry Johnson, a former C.I.A. analyst who served as deputy director of the State Department's counterterrorism office, said on National Public Radio last week: "You now in Iraq have a recruiting ground in which jihadists, people who previously were not willing to go out and embrace the vision of bin Laden and Al Qaeda, are now aligning themselves with elements that have declared allegiance to him. And in the course of that, they're learning how to build bombs. They're learning how to conduct military operations."
Yet again, a liberal commentator, whom I agree with almost all the time, forgets to recommend a strategy to combat these Islamic terrorists that have found a haven in Iraq. Here's Herbert's less than stellar conclusion to an otherwise good op-ed:
The immediate challenge to President Bush is to dispense with the destructive fantasies of the true believers in his administration and to begin to see America's current predicament clearly. New voices with new approaches and new ideas need to be heard. The hole we're in is deep enough. We need to stop digging.
With London and Madrid now solidified into the European consciousness, it's time the West -- whether through the U.N. or NATO -- joins together in good faith to train and equip the Iraqi security forces to combat the leftover Baathist thugs and foreign militants now calling Iraq home, while the international community provides the development funds necessary to get a homegrown Iraqi economy off the ground so unemployment diminishes as hope increases. On top of this, President Bush needs to say publicly and without equivocation that the U.S. will not build permanent military bases in Iraq. It's as simple as this, permanent military bases signal to an occupied countries' population, "We're not leaving," and remains one of the key characteristics of imperialism -- as well as a key recruitment tool of al-Qaeda. (The U.S. has already started constructing "enduring bases," which will probably spill over into a permanent military presence. Will we ever learn a lesson?)

Like it or not though, Iraq is a swamp for terrorists and while the Bush Administration created this disaster in Iraq, his logic is self-fulfillingly correct,
"We will continue to take the fight to the enemy, and we will fight until this enemy is defeated."
Am I comfortable with this logic, no, nor should anyone else, but I certainly don't want to see another 9/11, another 3/11, another 7/7, nor more U.S. occupations of foreign lands. (While there inevitably will be more terrorist attacks, there doesn't need to be anymore imperial ventures abroad.) The task now is to take the fight to Islamic militants in Iraq and Afghanistan surgically and discriminately while domestic security forces take out the decentralized cells of franchise terrorists everywhere.

What other choice do we have?

Continue Reading...

Monday, July 11, 2005

Thank You Matthew

Matthew Rothschild of the Progressive stakes out a true left-wing position on al-Qaeda, which I will reproduce here in full. There is no moral equivalence here, just pragmatic and moral policy suggestions, although I do quibble with his immediate withdrawal from Iraq recommendation since there's no gameplan for what will fill the gap, whether it will be vacant or security will be provided by the U.N. or the Iraqis or a combination of both.

Anyway, with no further ado:
Al Qaeda is a stew of toxic ingredients: rightwing fundamentalism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, nostalgia for empire, and a glorification of violence. It i’s a cult, and most cults quickly collapse under the weight of their own foolish doctrines.

But some cults last longer when the leaders and recruiters of the cult can point to everyday events and say, "I told you so."

And that'’s what bin Laden and his followers have been able to do.

First, with the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia. Then with the sanctions on Iraq. Always with the U.S. support for Israel's brutal policies of occupation. And now with the invasion of Iraq, and the torture at Abu Ghraib, and the roundup of thousands of Iraqi men.

Bin Laden and his followers have an easy recruiting job.

I'’m sure they can go to almost any Muslim capital in the world and find 100 people on any given day who will volunteer for a suicide mission.

That's what we'’re up against.

Bush says, simply, "the war on terror continues," and doesn"'t give a moment'’s thought to U.S. policies that might be aiding the terrorist cause. "We will stay on the offense, fighting the terrorists abroad so we do not have to face them at home,"” he said in his July 9 radio address, oblivious to the fact that the London bombings put the lie to this rationale, at least as far as the people of Great Britain are concerned.

Now I don'’t believe in caving in to terrorists. I hate Al Qaeda, and Al Qaeda hates me.

But I also don'’t believe that the United States should continue pursuing immoral policies just because Al Qaeda opposes those policies.

The Iraq War is immoral.

The unconditional support that the U.S. gives Israel is immoral.

The United States should get out of Iraq and stop giving Israel a blank check not to appease Al Qaeda but because it'’s the right thing to do.

Al Qaeda will continue on its bloody path, and it will find other excuses for its inexcusable, despicable actions.

But its appeal will diminish, and we'll be the safer for pursuing decent policies.
Immorality is immorality, let us not forget this as we plunge further into the darkness of the war on terror as the Bush Administration conceives of it.

Continue Reading...

What Happens in Israel Reverberates Here

Juan Cole has an important post concerning Israel's announcement that it will build a huge wall partitioning Jerusalem from some 55,000 Arabs. This is a particularly smart move in the fight against terrorism for all of us in the West, particularly the U.S. considering we give so much "aid" to Israel. As Juan Cole smartly comments:
[F]olks, this sort of thing, which the Washington Post didn't even notice, may very well get you and me killed. I think what Sharon is doing is morally and politically wrong to begin with. But I sure as hell resent the possibility that I or my family is going to get blown up because of it.
Besides, this is the sort of thing OBL and Zarqawi relish, playing off the "Zionists'" occupation of "the holy land." As Cole notes:
Because al-Qaeda and its fellow travelers do not speak in the language of Palestinian nationalism, it has been possible for certain quarters to obscure to the US public that they are absolutely manically fixated on the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem. This is what Bin Laden meant way back in the 1990s when he denounced the foreign military occupation of "the three holy cities." Here is what Bin Laden wrote in 1998 when he declared war on the US:
' Third, if the Americans' aims behind these wars are religious and economic, the aim is also to serve the Jews' petty state and divert attention from its occupation of Jerusalem and murder of Muslims there. The best proof of this is their eagerness to destroy Iraq, the strongest neighboring Arab state, and their endeavor to fragment all the states of the region such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Sudan into paper statelets and through their disunion and weakness to guarantee Israel's survival and the continuation of the brutal crusade occupation of the Peninsula. '
If this is a big part of what is driving the radical Muslim fundamentalists' violence, then Sharon's announcement on Sunday is guaranteed to produce a terrorist strike. If what Sharon is doing were the right thing, morally and politically, then he should do it anyway and we'll just soldier on against the terrorists. But it is wrong in the first place, wrong morally, and wrong in international law and an insult to the United States in completely departing from the roadmap.

How obsessed Bin Laden & company are with what goes on in Palestine is obvious, as I said last week, in the 9/11 commission report:
' According to KSM, Bin Ladin had been urging him to advance the date of the attacks. In 2000, for instance, KSM remembers Bin Ladin pushing him to launch the attacks amid the controversy after then-Israeli opposition party leader Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. KSM claims Bin Ladin told him it would be enough for the hijackers simply to down planes rather than crash them into specific targets. KSM says he resisted the pressure.

KSM claims to have faced similar pressure twice more in 2001.According to him, Bin Ladin wanted the operation carried out on May 12, 2001, seven months to the day after the Cole bombing. KSM adds that the 9/11 attacks had originally been envisioned for May 2001. The second time he was urged to launch the attacks early was in June or July 2001, supposedly after Bin Ladin learned from the media that Sharon would be visiting the White House. On both occasions KSM resisted, asserting that the hijacking teams were not ready. Bin Ladin pressed particularly strongly for the latter date in two letters stressing the need to attack early.The second letter reportedly was delivered by Bin Ladin's son-in-law,Aws al Madani. '

That is why our press and politicians do us an enormous disservice by not putting the Israeli announcement about the Jerusalem Barrier on the front page. This sort of action is a big part of what is driving the terrorists (and of course Sharon himself is a sort of state-backed terrorist anyway). The newspapers and television news departments should be telling us when we are about to be in the cross-fire between the aggressive, expansionist, proto-fascist Likud Coalition and the paranoid, murderous, violent al-Qaeda and its offshoots.

Eisenhower called up DeGaulle and told him to get the hell out of Algeria, on a short timetable, or else. I wish Bush had Eisenhower's spine when it came to dealing with Ariel Sharon.
If Bush only had the balls of Eisenhower, we'd be able to dilute the legitimate rage of Muslims and Arabs that leads to support of al-Qaeda and other offshoots of franchise terrorism.

Continue Reading...

Hitchens on Srebrenica and Baghdad

Christopher Hitchen's has an excellent essay on the anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, where 7,000 Muslims were executed by the depraved forces of Milosevic. Naturally, Hitch must connect the U.S. intervention in the Balkans to our invasion of Iraq, but I like this point of his:
The European Union utterly failed Bosnia, which was in its very own "back yard." So did the United Nations. So did the Clinton-Gore administration, for as long as it regarded Milosevic as "containable" by the use of sanctions. Bosnia did not cease to be a killing field, and Serbia did not cease to be an aggressive dictatorship until the United States armed forces took a hand. The neoconservatives, to their great honor, mostly supported an effort to prevent genocide being inflicted on Muslims: an enterprise in which Israeli interests were not involved. Many liberal and socialist humanitarians took the same view. The argument about intervention and force changed forever as a result, except that many people did not notice. Just go and look up what the leaders of today's "anti-war" movement were saying then … too many civilian casualties (of all things!); the threat of a Vietnam-style "quagmire"; the lasting enmity of the Christian Orthodox world; above all the risk of a "longer war."

Yes, well, we could have guaranteed a nice, short war if we had let the practitioners of genocide have their way. Except that, within a few years, the precedent of unpunished ethnic cleansing would have spread well beyond the borders of Yugoslavia. And we would never have been able to say "never again," because dictators everywhere would have had a free pass. Why did Saddam Hussein, that great lion of the Arab and Muslim world, denounce the American bombing of the Muslim-killing Milosevic? Why did Qaddafi do the same? For the very same reason that Christian fascists in Serbia now denounce the intervention in Iraq: They know that the main foe is the United States and that this fact transcends all the others. There has been a great deal of nonsense published in the last week to the effect that an alliance with the United States can put other countries like Britain in the position of being "targeted." Why deny this? I reflect on what was not done at Srebrenica, and on what ought to have been done in Rwanda, and on what was put off too long with the Taliban and the Baathists, and I think what an honor it is to have such enemies. Co-existence with them is not possible, which is good, because it is not desirable or tolerable, either. The Srebrenica memorial stands as enduring testimony to that inescapable conclusion.
My only problem with Hitchen's logic is that he believes the Bush Administration did Iraq because of the depravity of his regime. Hitchens as well as anyone else who cared to look into U.S. ties to Iraq knows the U.S.'s role in supporting Hussein throughout his worst crimes at a time when he most certainly had WMDs. Better yet, the present-day administration officials such as Donald Rumsfeld had high positions during the Reagan Administration's support of Hussein.(Read about U.S. support of Hussein during the 80's from the National Security Archives here). Hitchens also studiously ignores the deceit of the Bush Administration in taking this country to war (although war is not the right term for the invasion and occupation of Iraq). Nevertheless, Hitchens, always a friend to the Kurds, did actually support the invasion and, in his mind, liberation of Iraq because of its humanitarian aspects. Also, all his writings have total and utter contempt for tyranny, which is hard to find these days.

For that reason I will always respect Hitchens, although I do wish he would admit (he might have, but I haven't read it) that the Bush Administration lied and deceived the American public when arguing about the risk posed by the Hussein.

Hitchens is an impressive writer and expert debater (one of my personal favorites), it would be a tragedy if his talents obscure the facts.

Continue Reading...

Koranic Violence

After the London terror attacks, much has been said about Islamic militants hijacking a peaceful religion for their own ends. Tony Blair basically made this point when he said:
In addition, I welcome the statement put out by the Muslim Council who know that those people acted in the name of Islam but who also know that the vast and overwhelming majority of Muslims, here and abroad, are decent and law-abiding people who abhor this act of terrorism every bit as much as we do.
Agreed, but I don't think, and the Koran itself supports my argument, that the "overwhelming majority of Muslims" are aghast at the London atrocities because of their religious devotion but due to their communion with their humanity. We shouldn't lose sight of this.

Islam is a particularly violent religion that has made violent defense of the faith one of its central tenets.
Prophet, make war on the unbelievers and the hypocrites and deal rigorously with them. Hell shall be their home: an evil fate. (Koran 9:73)
Believers, make war on the infidels who dwell around you. Deal firmly with them. Know that God is with the righteous. (9:123)
[We] shall let them live awhile, and then shall drag them to the scourge of the Fire. Evil shall be their fate. (2:126)
Slay them wherever you find them. Drive them out of the places from which they drove you. Idolatry is worse than carnage...[I]f they attack you put them to the sword. Thus shall the unbelievers be rewarded: but if they desist, God is forgiving and merciful. Fight against them until idolatry is no more and God's religion reigns supreme. But if they desist, fight none except the evildoers. (2:190-93)
Believers, if you yield to the infidels they will drag you back to unbelief and you will return headlong to perdition...We will put terror into the hearts of the unbelievers...The Fire shall be their home. (3:149-51)
Seriously, how can you explain away these Koranic passages? (And these are just a selection, pick up the book for yourself.) Those Muslims that believe that "jihad" isn't a duty, aren't truly Muslims in the textual sense -- they have come to the conclusion that peaceful co-existence is better than the fires of "the struggle." And that's an unqualified good. Reasoned debate and economic development will see to it that this process gains speed in the future.

Continue Reading...

Friday, July 08, 2005

A Must Read

The NY Times really solidified today why they're the best paper, besides the Wall Street Journal, on the planet. This is an excerpt from an editorial from British novelist Ian McEwan concerning the heinous events that transpired yesterday and the British stiff upper lip of steel. (Read the whole thing here.)
The mood on the streets was of numb acceptance, or strange calm. People obediently shuffled this way and that, directed round road blocks by a whole new citizens' army of "support" officials - like air raid wardens from the last war. A man in a suit pulled a fluorescent jacket out of his briefcase and began directing traffic with snappy expertise. A woman, with blood covering her face and neck, who had come from the Russell Square tube station, briskly refused offers of help and said she had to get to work. Groups gathered impassively in the road, among the gridlocked traffic, listening through open windows to car radios.
But the greatest achievement of this tribute to the British people is McEwan's ability to connect these events and the stoicism of Britons to the great poet, W.H. Auden, and his poem, "Musée des Beaux Arts:"
[T]he tragedy of Icarus falling from the sky is accompanied by life simply refusing to be disrupted. A plowman goes about his work, a ship "sailed calmly on," dogs keep on with "their doggy life."

In London yesterday, where crowds fumbling with mobile phones tried to find unimpeded ways across the city, there was much evidence of the truth of Auden's insight. While rescue workers searched for survivors and the dead in the smoke-filled blackness below, at pavement level men were loading vans, a woman sold umbrellas in her usual patch, the lunchtime sandwich makers were hard at work.
Unfortunately, this is the first time I've read anything of McEwan, but if this is his caliber, then I'm a fan. After all, he's smart enough to close his piece with this question, one that has plagued America for the last three and three-fourths year:
And we will face again that deal we must constantly make and re-make with the state - how much power must we grant Leviathan, how much freedom will we be asked to trade for our security?
Hopefully, those modern-day Hobbes throughout the U.S. and the U.K. are no match for the people's strength to retain their liberty in the face of terror.

Continue Reading...