Friday, December 30, 2005

Stuck in the Middle With You

One thing I always respect about certain philosophies and religions are those dark, uncomfortable beliefs they hold, however much I disagree with them. One of those uncomfortable beliefs was the Catholic Church's belief that those not baptized were relegated to limbo, a sort of stasis between heaven and hell for those still soiled by original sin.

But hold on, what's this? A group of 30 theologians have collected at the Vatican and are revising this teaching, stating its mistaken and that limbo doesn't exist. Limbo has never been official Church teaching but it is rolling back a traditional belief associated with Saint Thomas Acquinas. This is just another example that the Catholic Church's teachings are not heaven sent but politically crafted beliefs to provoke fear or hope, which translates into membership. Think about it. You're a medieval peasant whose life is nasty, brutish, and short in the Hobbesian sense. You're illiterate and your existence is centered around subsistence for you and your family. The political authority temporal and ethereal is the Catholic Church which tells you that this life of pain is just a short interlude before paradise. One caveat: You must follow the dictates of the Church, which means you must be officially inducted into the faith by cleansing your original sin. If you do not, you, and most horrifically, your children, will be cosigned to a perpetual destination between heaven and hell. Not a bad recruiting pitch for induction into the Church through baptism huh?

Fast forward some hundreds of years and the Church is facing another problem politically: abortion and massive infant-mortality in those regions where Catholicism is on the march. As Ian Fisher of the NYTs explains:
[Limbo]remains an interesting relic, strangely relevant to what the Roman Catholic Church has been and what it wants to be. The theory of limbo bumps up against one of the most contentious issues for the church: abortion. If fetuses are human beings, what happens to their souls if they are aborted? It raises questions of how broadly the church - and its new leader - view the idea of salvation.

And it has some real-life consequences. The church is growing most in poor places like Africa and Asia where infant mortality remains high. While the concerns of the experts reconsidering limbo are more theological, it does not hurt the church's future if an African mother who has lost a baby can receive more hopeful news from her priest in 2005 than, say, an Italian mother did 100 years ago.
More evidence that religion -- faith in God organized around a particular, exclusivist set of beliefs -- is just another human construction to make us feel better in the silence of night and on the verge of death. Its darker side is constructing others not as worthy or as deserving of life and salvation as those of the believers. Being a human construction it is also motivated by the most salient characteristic of humanity: greed for life and fear of death. The Catholic Church, a human organization, is no different. It adapts itself in the interest of existence over principle when convenient.

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Philadelphia, Iraq

I was just watching my local news, WPVI-6, and the police are warning Philadelphia residents not to shoot up in the air when the hands hit twelve come New Year's Day. Apparently this kind of stupidity isn't concentrated to the Middle East.

Happy New Years you all. Keep your heads about you and don't get hit by any stray bullets you might fire into the air.

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Friday, December 23, 2005

Render unto Caesar What is Caesar's

And in today's post-9/11 climate, the Bush Administration wants us to render the hallmarks of democratic government: accountability, transparency, and the rule of law. As the NYTs editorial states today, this putsch for an imperial presidency is much the work of VP Dick Cheney.
Virtually from the time he chose himself to be Mr. Bush's running mate in 2000, Dick Cheney has spearheaded an extraordinary expansion of the powers of the presidency - from writing energy policy behind closed doors with oil executives to abrogating longstanding treaties and using the 9/11 attacks as a pretext to invade Iraq, scrap the Geneva Conventions and spy on American citizens.
Fortunately, as the editorial argues, some conservatives are waking up to Bush Administration perfidy and standing up for the Constitution instead of party discipline. Hopefully old-time conservatism -- always suspicioius of government power -- wins out over the new conservatism of evangelicalism where the truth is governed by faith not by skepticism.

The liberal-left needs to seek these old-time conservatives out -- someone like McCain -- and align with them to crush this virulent strain within the conservative movement poised to spread throughout the body politic.

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Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Historical Jesus

Over at Slate, three historians debate the historical authenticity of the Gospel stories. According to Alan F. Segal, the best way to come to the conclusion that Jesus even existed is through the criterion of dissimilarity.
The criterion sets a high standard: For scholars to arrive at an undoubted fact about the life of Jesus, they must eliminate as possibly biased everything that is in the interest of the early church to tell us. Conversely, for a fact about Jesus to be deemed historical, it must not be in the interest of the church to report it. It must be, in effect, an embarrassment for the early church. Thus, the criterion of dissimilarity is sometimes called the criterion of embarrassment.
If we apply this criterion, not much remains of the Gospel narratives but Segal believes it does prove Jesus' existence.
For all the rigor of the standard it sets, the criterion demonstrates that Jesus existed. Here are some facts in the Gospels that embarrassed the early church: Jesus was baptized by John (a great theological problem). He preached the end of the world (which did not come). He opposed the Temple in some way (and this opposition led directly to his death). He was crucified (a disreputable way to die). The inscription on the cross was "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" (the church never preached this title for Jesus and shortly lost interest in converting Jews). No one actually saw him arise (though evidently his disciples almost immediately felt that he had). Ironically, it's the embarrassing nature of these facts that assures us of their authenticity.
The last two historians converse about the historicity of the virgin birth and how religious claims are not of the same order as empirical factual claims -- essentially separating the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith. (All biblical scholars for PC reasons love to do this.)As John S. Kloppenborg concludes:
To adapt a sentence from Norman McLean's A River Runs Through It, they are not true stories, but they are stories that are true.
I know what Kloppenborg's trying to say, but, damn, that's wishy-washy.

It bothers me when historians, scientists, and the like, all kneel before the fairy tales adults wrap themselves in to keep out the cold of a harsh world devoid of meaning. The essence and courage of humanity is the ability to see the world for what it is and to defy it with all our means. Our means lie within that miracle of biological evolution: the mind. It is the most sacred thing we have. We should use it to its fullest and not decry it when it leads us to conclusions we rather not hold. This, essentially, was the decision of the federal judge when he barred the teaching of "Creative ID" in Dover, Pennsylvania.

It's time we "worshipped" Jesus for what he was: an extraordinary human being that through the force of his moral teaching inspired a revolt against the oppression and the repression of the Roman Empire. In effect, he taught us how to live and he taught us how to die. Why do we need more?

P.S. If anyone is interested in more books on the historical Jesus, some of the most challenging and uncomfortable work has been done by John Dominic Crossan. If you're a Christian, his conclusion about what happened to Jesus' dead body might be a bit too much for you. Fair warning.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Show of Solidarity

Today, New York City's transit workers struck, crippling the city's transit system. We maybe watching a historic battle between America's declining union movement and municipalities, the last bastion for strong union representation. Overall union membership stands at about 12.5% nationally, with most members being public employees of some type.

Many New York City workers are cursing the unions today because they have been inconvenienced. I'm sorry, and I don't mean to minimize this, but walking 20 or 30 blocks is not the Bataan Death March. Most New Yorkers could stand to move more and trim up a little before they pack on the pounds over Christmas. Consider this your impromptu urban gym membership. Roger Toussaint, Local 100's Transit Workers Union president, asked for understanding and solidarity, saying:
"To our riders, we ask for your understanding and forbearance. We stood with you to keep token booths open, to keep conductors on the trains, to oppose fare hikes," he said. "We now ask that you stand with us. We did not want a strike, but evidently the M.T.A., the governor and the mayor did."
Americans need to realize that unions are a basic necessity for some semblance of representation and democracy within the overall economy. Democracy cannot remain solely a political concept but must be broadened into a economic concept as well. If that means inefficiency and inconvenience at times, we should be willing to pay it.

Capitalism run by CEOs, corporate managers, and the overall business establishment (which permeates through the government) is a heartless ordeal of reduced or eliminated pension plans and cut wages (both are issues in the MTA strike). Basically we can have a capitalism reminiscent of Mussolini's mythic claim that he "made the trains run on time" or we can have a system that is tempered by the dissent of working people through unions and their attempts to secure a voice in a more just economy.

The liberal-left blogosphere needs to stand in solidarity with NYC's transit workers. Their defeat could spell a swift backlash against unionism in the public sector, which in turn, could demolish what's left of unions in the United States.

For more on how unions benefit the economy for working people, check out this paper from the Economic Policy Institute.

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Monday, December 19, 2005

Little Bit Freudian

Matt Yglesias seems to think we should change the description of "pulling out" of Iraq to something less, ummm, sexual. I love alot of what Matt's got to say on a variety of subjects, but this is a bit of a stretch. Actually, it's a lot of PC bullshit. Best part: Check out the comments where a bunch of loonies go on and on about the Right and sexual metaphors and whatnot. There's so much to castigate and deplore the Right for, why should we waste our time on dumb stuff like this?

P.S. One reader did have a funny aside concerning the language of "pull out," he said, "Well, we have been fucking Iraq, so it seems appropriate."

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Thursday, December 15, 2005

Happiness About Iraq

Hopefully I'm not too soon to judge this, but it seems like the Iraqi parliamentary elections were a resounding success for, at minimum, the concept of democracy.
Iraqi officials said initial indications were that as many as 11 million people cast ballots, which, if the estimate holds true, would put the overall turnout at more than 70 percent. With Iraqis still lining up to vote in front of ballot centers as the sun went down, Iraqi officials ordered the polls to stay open an extra hour.
I think for once, both right and left of this country need to stand in unison and applaud the courage of ordinary Iraqis to bravely defy intimidation and make themselves a target for insurgent and jihadist terrorism. A purple stain on your finger means you're throwing in your lot with a democratic Iraq and against terrorism and insurgency. This country, mired in apathy, has a lot to learn from ordinary Iraqis. Let's look at them with awe and admiration for just a day before we resume our bickering -- however legitimate. The day is theirs, we should be gracious enough to recognize it without politicization.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Holocaust Denial

Apparently Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was not content to argue that Israel should be “wiped off the map.” Now he’s calling the Holocaust a myth. Here’s an example of his reasoning on the subject:
"If someone were to deny the existence of God... or prophets and religion, they would not bother him. However, if someone were to deny the myth of the Jews' massacre, all the Zionist mouthpieces and the governments subservient to the Zionists tear their larynxes and scream against the person as much as they can," he said.


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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Who Says Conservative Bloggers Aren’t Critical of Republicans?

Well, I did. So when I stumbled across the following piece posted today on the Club for Growth Web site, I felt compelled to link to it. Be forewarned that this list of grievances has a narrow scope, focusing on those instances when "the GOP abandoned the ideals of economic freedom and pro-growth policies." Nevertheless, it contradicts what I said yesterday.

In the spirit of fairness, here’s their explanation of how Bush screwed up on Social Security reform.
I think it’s only fair to give President Bush some credit for pushing a debate on this ticking time bomb of an issue. But he got out of the kitchen when the heat got too intense. He never forced a vote on the squishy moderates in Congress who begged him to go easy. For all the trouble that we went through on this issue, we’re now $660 billion poorer and we’re still without personal pro-growth accounts. This issue could have defined Bush’s legacy along with his leadership on the War on Terror, but he failed to follow through. Big letdown.
I can think of a few other issues that will define Bush’s legacy, but let’s put our differences aside for now and simply share our mutual frustration with the Commander in Chief. There, doesn’t that feel nice?


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Benchmarks for Withdrawal

Responding to an article by Henry Kissinger, Kevin Drum makes the case for setting benchmarks for withdrawing from Iraq.
Henry Kissinger . . . suggests that the key issue is "whether, in the end, withdrawal will be perceived as a forced retreat or as an aspect of a prudent and carefully planned move on behalf of international security."

Oddly enough, that's one of the very reasons I'm in favor of setting benchmarks: it provides a perception that we're leaving on our own terms, not getting chased out. Given the current stalemate in Iraq, and the slim prospects for breaking this stalemate in the future, it seems like it's only a matter of time before something happens that forces an American withdrawal à la Beirut or Somalia, and that would be far more dangerous to American credibility than a planned withdrawal following successful elections.
I’m with Drum on this one. I don’t support plans for immediate withdrawal. I don’t think public opinion should trump political/military strategy. But what I’ve been saying from the beginning is that the “when they’re ready” strategy with no timetables, no benchmarks, and no set measures for success doesn’t look like much of a strategy at all. If we accept that one of the most important outcomes of the Iraq War will be U.S. public image, then “leaving on our own terms,” i.e. as dictated by the benchmarks we set, is paramount to our success. If, as Drum grimly predicts, something “forces” American withdrawal, we risk losing a large share of international credibility along with stability in Iraq. Hopefully we’ll never have to face this dire contingency, but we should guard against it nevertheless.

To be fair, Kissinger and the Bush Administration would take umbrage with Drum’s point that there are “slim prospects for breaking this stalemate” in Iraq. Indeed, this is the question on which the entire withdrawal debate rests. It seems that on the topic of Iraq, the distinction between Democrats and Republicans has become less important than the distinction between optimists and pessimists.


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To Live and Die in LA

Stanley Tookie Williams has been executed by California. He is the 12th inmate since California reinstated its capital punishment laws in 1978 to be killed. For our philosophical position on capital punishment, click here.

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Monday, December 12, 2005

Love it or Leave it

Recently, everybody’s favorite gay, conservative Catholic, Andrew Sullivan, wrote an article for criticizing the new Pope’s position on gays in the clergy. Sullivan says that the Vatican’s pre-Ratzinger position on the issue was that homosexual acts were immoral, but homosexuals themselves were fine so long as they kept their pants on. As Sullivan writes, “in this confined and often suffocating place, it was still possible, though never easy, to breathe the love of God as a gay Catholic.” This reality seems troubling in itself, but Sullivan argues that things have gotten even worse for gay Catholics.
Even if a gay priest remains completely celibate, his sexual orientation is now regarded, according to a Vatican expert, as a threat to "priestly life." A gay celibate priest, according to the new rules, is incapable of "sexual maturity coherent with his masculine sexual identity." He has "a problem in the psychic organization" of his sexuality, barring him from priestly responsibility. Gay seminarians can be spotted and rooted out because they allegedly have "trouble relating to their fathers; are uncomfortable with their own identity; tend to isolate themselves; have difficulty in discussing sexual questions; view pornography on the Internet; demonstrate a deep sense of guilt; or often see themselves as victims." No serious psychological data are provided to verify those assertions (and many would surely apply to countless heterosexuals as well). What the new Pope has done is conflate a sin with an identity. He has created a class of human beings who, regardless of what they do, are too psychologically and thereby morally "disordered" to become priests.
I fully agree with Sullivan’s argument that under this new policy it’s rougher than ever to be gay and Catholic. But what I don’t see in Sullivan’s article is an explanation of why, after this latest round of indignity, gay Catholics continue to identify with a church whose teaching are fundamentally antagonistic to their way of life.

For those who have grown up Catholic, renouncing the Church can feel like amputating a piece of one’s identity. But I take issue with those who remain Catholics (in whatever capacity) out of a muddled sense of loyalty and tradition. Why pledge support, symbolic or otherwise, for an institution that promotes inequality based on sexual preference and gender? The decision to remain Catholic, albeit a deeply personnel one, has inescapable social implications when the Church’s hierarchy insists on passing edicts that demonize entire groups of people. For Catholics, the Church may serve as a conduit for the divine, but only the most naïve would deny that the Vatican operates like a political entity here on earth. What separates the Vatican from other political entities is that despite how unpopular its practices become, a significant amount of its membership will never leave. Not a bad deal for the Church.

If you’re comfortable with the positions of the Catholic Church then by all means, stick with it. I respect personal choice and would never suggest that people shouldn’t be allowed to practice the religion of their choice. If, on the other hand, you believe the Catholic Church has alienated you, why not turn to a more progressive church? After all, there are millions of people out there who mange to believe in Jesus without the help of the Catholic Church.

If you’re really convinced that God will speak to you only through an institution that promotes inequality on earth in exchange for bliss in heaven, you should renounce him too.


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Conservative Blogs

Here’s a little tidbit from the NYTs Year in Ideas, entitled Conservative Blogs are More Effective:
When the liberal activist Matt Stoller was running a blog for the Democrat Jon Corzine's 2005 campaign for governor, he saw the power of the conservative blogosphere firsthand. Shortly before the election, a conservative Web site claimed that politically damaging information about Corzine was about to surface in the media. It didn't. But New Jersey talk-radio shock jocks quoted the online speculation, inflicting public-relations damage on Corzine anyway. To Stoller, it was proof of how conservatives have mastered the art of using blogs as a deadly campaign weapon.

That might sound counterintuitive. After all, the Howard Dean campaign showed the power of the liberal blogosphere. And the liberal-activist Web site DailyKos counts hundreds of thousands of visitors each day. But Democrats say there's a key difference between liberals and conservatives online. Liberals use the Web to air ideas and vent grievances with one another, often ripping into Democratic leaders. (Hillary Clinton, for instance, is routinely vilified on liberal Web sites for supporting the Iraq war.) Conservatives, by contrast, skillfully use the Web to provide maximum benefit for their issues and candidates. They are generally less interested in examining every side of every issue and more focused on eliciting strong emotional responses from their supporters.

But what really makes conservatives effective is their pre-existing media infrastructure, composed of local and national talk-radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, the Fox News Channel and sensationalist say-anything outlets like the Drudge Report - all of which are quick to pass on the latest tidbit from the blogosphere. "One blogger on the Republican side can have a real impact on a race because he can just plug right into the right-wing infrastructure that the Republicans have built," Stoller says.

Earlier this year, John Thune, the newly elected South Dakota senator, briefed his Republican colleagues on the role of blogs in his victory over Tom Daschle, the former Democratic minority leader. The message seems to be catching on. In Arkansas, the campaign manager for the gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson sent a mass e-mail message to supporters in May promoting the establishment of blogs "to comment on Arkansas politics as a counter to liberal media." With the 2006 elections coming, Democrats have begun trying to use blogs more strategically. But given their head start, Stoller says, conservatives "will certainly have an upper hand." Again.
This should come as no surprise to anyone who spends time reading blogs. Don’t get me wrong, there are a fair amount of liberal hacks populating the blogosphere, who seem more concerned with bashing Republican policies than thoughtfully discussing issues. But generally speaking, conservative bloggers tend hold the party line while liberal bloggers delight in their own crankiness, targeting their critiques at Republicans and Democrats alike.

In many ways, this difference in blogging style reflects positively on bloggers of the left, suggesting that we are more even-handed in our criticism than our counterparts on the right. But as long as this distinction stands, conservative blogs will remain the more "effective" political tools. I agree with the NYTs piece that tie-ins with the media infrastructure give conservative bloggers mainstream prominence, but that prominence would be of little value to the Republican Party if right-wing bloggers were more critical of their own side.

This all begs the question: Is it better to fight the good fight or to win? I suppose it depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.

--Matthew McCoy

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Some Optimism for a Change

Amid all the talk of torture and this latest prison scandal today, a BBC/ABC commissioned poll "finds optimism in [the] new Iraq."

Three impressive statistics stand out:
  1. Iraqis predominately want one centralized Iraqi government.
  2. A solid majority wants democracy immediately, while a stronger majority wants democracy within 5 years.
  3. Two-thirds of Iraqis believe next year will be better than this year.
Also interesting is the public confidence in the local police forces as well as the Iraqi military.Confidence in Iraq's religious leaders falls in between the two security forces. Unsurprisingly, the occupational forces rank the lowest out of everyone.

All this is promising. The data demonstrates that Iraqis genuinely want a representational and federal government with certain centralized powers. Plus, the police and military are earning the trust of a good majority of Iraqis. What the U.S. now needs to do is ensure that public confidence stays with the nascent security forces by ramping up training and giving up more responsibility with U.S. forces retreating to the periphery. That thing called the Syrian border isn't going to secure itself. Border security would do marvels at starving the insurgency and the jihadists of their vital needs: bodies, bullets, and bank. We should really get to securing that while leaving everyday interactions to the Iraqi government. When needed, the Iraqis can call on air support and U.S. Special Forces to battle large concentrations of insurgents or jihadists with an aim of keeping strikes discriminate and surgical. No more offensives like that on Fallujah, which constitute war crimes considering the use of phosphorous bombs and the disregard for civilian lives and infrastructure.

So for those of us who eventually want a responsible withdrawal from Iraq, the strategy should be to gradually recede to the outskirts of Iraq as domestic security forces "stand up," giving critical help when genuinely needed to defeat insurgent or jihadist threats.

In the immediate future, the two most valuable things the U.S. could do is stop using torture as an interrogation tool and publicly pledge, on the Constitution no less, that the U.S. will not plant permanent military bases in Iraq. Both would do a lot in countering Sunni and Islamist propaganda while also aligning our political values with our foreign policy. In return, U.S. forces could hopefully and gradually withdrawal from Iraq within the next couple of years, give or take, as conditions on the ground permit.

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Sunday, December 11, 2005

More From Sullivan

A couple of days ago, I wrote about soft power or the ability to win allies and adversaries over to your side through persuasion and example. Sullivan hits on this precise point so eloquently in his TNR piece against the use of torture by the U.S.
What our practical endorsement of torture has done is to remove that clear boundary between the Islamists and the West and make the two equivalent in the Muslim mind. Saddam Hussein used Abu Ghraib to torture innocents; so did the Americans. Yes, what Saddam did was exponentially worse. But, in doing what we did, we blurred the critical, bright line between the Arab past and what we are proposing as the Arab future. We gave Al Qaeda an enormous propaganda coup, as we have done with Guantánamo and Bagram, the "Salt Pit" torture chambers in Afghanistan, and the secret torture sites in Eastern Europe. In World War II, American soldiers were often tortured by the Japanese when captured. But FDR refused to reciprocate. Why? Because he knew that the goal of the war was not just Japan's defeat but Japan's transformation into a democracy. He knew that, if the beacon of democracy--the United States of America--had succumbed to the hallmark of totalitarianism, then the chance for democratization would be deeply compromised in the wake of victory.

No one should ever underestimate the profound impact that the conduct of American troops in World War II had on the citizens of the eventually defeated Axis powers. Germans saw the difference between being liberated by the Anglo-Americans and being liberated by the Red Army. If you saw an American or British uniform, you were safe. If you didn't, the terror would continue in different ways. Ask any German or Japanese of the generation that built democracy in those countries, and they will remind you of American values--not trumpeted by presidents in front of handpicked audiences, but demonstrated by the conduct of the U.S. military during occupation. I grew up in Great Britain, a country with similar memories. In the dark days of the cold war, I was taught that America, for all its faults, was still America. And that America did not, and constitutively could not, torture anyone.

If American conduct was important in Japan and Germany, how much more important is it in Iraq and Afghanistan. The entire point of the war on terrorism, according to the president, is to advance freedom and democracy in the Arab world. In Iraq, we had a chance not just to tell but to show the Iraqi people how a democracy acts. And, tragically, in one critical respect, we failed. That failure undoubtedly contributed to the increased legitimacy of the insurgency and illegitimacy of the occupation, and it made collaboration between informed Sunnis and U.S. forces far less likely. What minuscule intelligence we might have plausibly gained from torturing and abusing detainees is vastly outweighed by the intelligence we have forfeited by alienating many otherwise sympathetic Iraqis and Afghans, by deepening the divide between the democracies, and by sullying the West's reputation in the Middle East. Ask yourself: Why does Al Qaeda tell its detainees to claim torture regardless of what happens to them in U.S. custody? Because Al Qaeda knows that one of America's greatest weapons in this war is its reputation as a repository of freedom and decency. Our policy of permissible torture has handed Al Qaeda this weapon--to use against us. It is not just a moral tragedy. It is a pragmatic disaster. Why compound these crimes and errors by subsequently legalizing them, as Krauthammer (explicitly) and the president (implicitly) are proposing?
What's ironic (and tragic) is how huge a leap backwards we are taking historically. According to Sullivan, via historian David Hackett Fischer, General George Washington understood the principled stand even an unborn democratic nation must take if it were to see the light of day.
"Always some dark spirits wished to visit the same cruelties on the British and Hessians that had been inflicted on American captives. But Washington's example carried growing weight, more so than his written orders and prohibitions. He often reminded his men that they were an army of liberty and freedom, and that the rights of humanity for which they were fighting should extend even to their enemies. ... Even in the most urgent moments of the war, these men were concerned about ethical questions in the Revolution."
On Christmas we will celebrate Washington's crossing of the Delaware River and the Colonial Army's victory at Trenton. But when Washington and his men shoved off from the Pennsylvania side of the icy river, no one knew what lay before them. The idea of the United States was an ember -- it could easily be vanquished with a single blow or it could become a conflagration with the right fuel. I think it's hard to argue that the United States is in a more perilous situation today than it was when Washington and his troops reached the New Jersey side of the river. The United States -- which was only an idea -- didn't torture then, and it shouldn't torture now.

To continue our torture practices is to lose our humanity and the very ideals that sustain this unique experiment of ours. Which makes me wonder: if we engage in atrocities that call into question not only our ideals, but our very humanity, do we have left anything worth fighting for?

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Mandatory Reading OR ELSE!

Conservative blogger extraordinaire Andrew Sullivan has a must read reply to Charles Krauthammer's Weekly Standard piece condoning torture within strict constraints. Torture is the stuff that rightly depletes the U.S. standing in the world, because as Sullivan so accurately writes:
Torture is the polar opposite of freedom. It is the banishment of all freedom from a human body and soul, insofar as that is possible. As human beings, we all inhabit bodies and have minds, souls, and reflexes that are designed in part to protect those bodies: to resist or flinch from pain, to protect the psyche from disintegration, and to maintain a sense of selfhood that is the basis for the concept of personal liberty. What torture does is use these involuntary, self-protective, self-defining resources of human beings against the integrity of the human being himself. It takes what is most involuntary in a person and uses it to break that person's will. It takes what is animal in us and deploys it against what makes us human.
With all his grand enuciations of this most hollowed virtue, you'd think President Bush would get why torture violates everything the U.S. is supposed to stand for in a world characterized by fanatical, genocidal terrorists and dictators.

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Hot for Teacher

When, say, a fifteen year old has sex with, say, an older woman, possibly his teacher, does it constitute sexual abuse. The NYTs Kate Zernike broaches that question today. She does a good job of cutting through the crap.
Certainly no one doubts that a teacher who has sex with her students should lose her job. Or that a 37-year-old mother should not find herself pregnant by her son's 15-year-old friend. Or that a 41-year-old mother who provides sex, drugs and alcohol to teenagers so she can be cool among her daughter's friends is troubled.

But when the women face prison, questions are raised about where to set the age of consent. And because many of those named as victims refused to testify against the women in what they said were consensual relationships, not everyone agrees that the cases involve child abuse.
There is no doubt teacher-student relationships are immoral and open to tons of abuses. Will it lead to favoritism? Did the teacher use her authority to coerce sex from her student? And on and on and on.

Yet, I can't help but agreeing with Judge Stephen Herrick of Albany County Court in New York, who agreed that former Catholic schoolteacher Sandra Beth Geisel had acted immorally and illegally but that the sixteen year old was only a "victim" in a strictly legal sense. I remember high-school fondly and, I'm sorry, but I had many dreams reminiscent of Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher." If I had the opportunity to make those daydreams reality, I know I would have.

Therefore, the issue needs to be separated by its consensual nature and empirical research. Sure, the female teacher deserves to lose her job, but does she really need to go to prison. To be honest, the social ostracism should be punishment enough. She'll effectively be Hester Prynne. Besides, it's literally impossible for a woman to "rape" a man or a teenage boy. Sure it's possible, but it's not probable. And I think that should be one of the more pressing reasons to establish a double standard on this issue. A man has the physical power to force himself on younger females. So there is always room to belief that the male could have forced himself on a female teenager and used either guilt or threats to coerce her silence or agreement that the sex was indeed consensual.

On the empirical side, there's evidence that teenage male sex with older professional women isn't psychologically harmful.
[S]everal studies have raised questions about whether the recent cases should be filed under child sex abuse.

The most controversial study was published in 1998 in Psychological Bulletin. The article, a statistical re-analysis of 59 studies of college students who said they were sexually abused in childhood, concluded that the effects of such abuse "were neither pervasive nor typically intense, and that men reacted much less negatively than women."

The researchers questioned the practice, common in many studies, of lumping all sexual abuse together. They contended that treating all types equally presented problems that, they wrote, "are perhaps most apparent when contrasting cases such as the repeated rape of a 5-year-old girl by her father and the willing sexual involvement of a mature 15-year-old adolescent boy with an unrelated adult."

In the first case, serious harm may result, the article said, but the second case "may represent only a violation of social norms with no implication for personal harm."

They suggested substituting the term "adult adolescent sex" for child abuse in some cases where the sex was consensual.

"Abuse implies harm in a scientific usage, and the term should not be in use if there is consent and no evidence of harm," said Bruce Rind, an author of the study and a psychology professor at Temple University.
So here we may have another debate that pits emerging scientific evidence against cultural norms that may not apply. Also, maybe there's a psychological difference between the way male and female teenagers process such sexual encounters with adults. I'm not sure, but it's a question worth pursuing.

Nevertheless, I think there's agreement that teacher-student relationships should be barred, regardless if they can be proven to be unharmful to adolescent boys that sleep with their female teachers. But let's not get all PC and try to coax ourselves into believing that these young Casanovas perceive themselves as anything close to "victims."

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Dialing Under the Influence

It's 4am, do you know where your commonsense is? No you don't as that last vodka tonic has vanquished it like the Ice Age did to the dinosaurs. No! No! No! Are you going for your cellphone? I promise you it's not the best time to call your ex on the phone right now. No! Don't say that. I can't believe you just said that.

If this is familiar in anyway, it means either you've drunk and dialed before or have witnessed someone who has. Yet, there may be hope from our friends at Virgin. Via the NYT's Magazine:
Virgin Mobile Australia has a solution: a service called Dialing Under the Influence (D.U.I.). Before heading out for a night of debauchery, a Virgin Mobile customer simply dials 333, then the number of someone who shouldn't be called midbender - a boss, a recent breakup, the cute boy who works two cubicles over. The number is then rendered unreachable on that handset until 6 a.m. the next morning, by which time the tongue-loosening effects of the evening's alcohol will presumably have worn off.
The wonders of technology never cease to amaze me.

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Thursday, December 08, 2005

Pinter Assaults U.S. Foreign Policy Since 1945

And what more can I say than he's correct. Harold Pinter is this year's winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Rather than make a bland speech about his artform, he used it to beat the ever-loving-shit out of U.S. foreign policy. And that's a good thing. You can read it in full here. (P.S. Expect a vitriolic response from Christopher Hitchens. Which will be interesting since I believe Hitchens must agree with most of it or he'd have to disavow everthing he's written before the latest Iraq War).

What I liked most of about it --other than it was Chomskyite to a fault -- was Pinter's ability to bash Great Britain as well.

It [the U.S.] also has its own bleating little lamb tagging behind it on a lead, the pathetic and supine Great Britain.

What has happened to our moral sensibility? Did we ever have any? What do these words mean? Do they refer to a term very rarely employed these days - conscience? A conscience to do not only with our own acts but to do with our shared responsibility in the acts of others? Is all this dead?

The British, as well as the French and the Spanish, should never forget Pinter's moral self-searching. They all have brought the bayonet into the bellies of children before as well. It's not so much that they've lost the taste for such acts, but that their points were blunted by American power. In the context of Iraq, the French shouldn't forget that their government wasn't against the war on principle, but on self-seeking interest in renewing oil purchases from Iraq. International relations is a nasty, bloody affair. Good intentions are rarely ever that. Self-interest motivates every action. Never forget that.

All this should bring us to this necessary abstraction, states, all states, are inherently violent, dominating heirarchical institutions based on illusions of legitimacy. Democracies are the best at subduing this tendency internally, but that doesn't stop them from savagely deflecting it outwards. Think Athens had a non-violent foreign policy? Think again.

That said, we live in the real world and states are the organizational foundation for the international system. Currently, the U.S. is the most powerful state in the system. Naturally it will rig the game in its favor -- although not as overtly and as arrogantly as the Bush Administration has done. If Kerry was our president now, our bayonets would have been sugar-coated, but they would have killed just as well.

Yet, I can't help but feel that Pinter misses the large mujahideen in the room. Sure American power is hideous and violent when peeled back from its "Maybe It's Maybeline" face, but is it not better than the likes of Zarqawi in Iraq now? Like I've said hundreds of times before, the Iraq War was a crime, an act of state terrorism and aggression. And yes it became a self-fulfilling prophecy as we really do fight true-to-life jihadists there now. But glance at the predicate of the last sentence: "we really do fight true to life jihadists now." Let that roll around in your head. After a few minutes of pondering it, the answer is self-apparent. We cannot give Iraq to Zarqawi and Al-Qaeda. That simple. We can be gruesome, but an Iraq left to these elements will indeed make Abu Ghraib look like fraternity hazing gone a bit too far.

The hope for us and Iraq is that the people of the western democracies will awake out of their slumber, demand a sober policy for democracy in Iraq (if at all possible), and make our leaders live up to the rhetoric they sling like rufies in a sleazy bar. We, me and you, democratically together, are the only hope for a better world. For this, we must have what Pinter closed on in his speech. He says it better than I ever could:
I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.

If such a determination is not embodied in our political vision we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us - the dignity of man.
But we must also not loathe ourselves so much that we forget the other murderers in the room. Even amongst killers, there are those more compassionate than others. Sometimes to drop our knives is to slit our own throats.

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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Venezuelan Soft Power

In the international relations literature, you hear alot about soft power. Many people think, "Soft power? What is that?" Well according to Joseph S. Nye, Jr. who coined the term, soft power is "getting others to want the outcomes that you want...and rests on the ability to shape the preferences of others." This is what President Bush tries to do when he talks of liberty as a birthright. Yet, the Iraq War specifically and the Administration's unilateralism more broadly has decreased the attractivenss of American values. The Bush Administration reigns over a spectacular decline in America's soft power resources since coming to power because he has relied extensively on hard or military power or the coercive threat of it.

If you want to see soft power operating today, check out what Venezuela's doing in New York City's Bronx neighborhood. According to the BBC:
The firm, Citgo, is supplying fuel to thousands of people in deprived areas in co-operation with charities.

The initiative started last month with the delivery of heating oil to Boston.

It was announced in August by Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez - a vocal critic of President George Bush.

Under the deal, Citgo said it would provide heating oil at a 40% discount to fill in tanks at properties owned by three non-profit housing corporations in the Bronx.

About 8,000 tenants from 75 buildings will benefit from the project, according to the company and the corporations.

Deliveries will continue through the winter months until 1 April.
Is this a cynical ploy to revamp the U.S. image of Chavez, where he's described as another Latin American strongman? Probably,but no more than the U.S. Marshall Plan was to help rebuild Europe after WWII and ensure it was a market for surplus American goods. The more Chavez can increase the attractiveness of Venezuela, the more he can carve out enough influence throughout the hemisphere, the more Venezuela will become an attractive alternative to the militaristic neo-liberal policies of Washington. That was the point of the Marshall Plan. Increase the attractiveness of the United States and its policies over those of the Soviet Union. Chavez is a good student of history it seems.

And you're probably saying that the degree of difference between these two examples is well, north and south, and I'd say you were correct. Nevertheless, they operate on the same assumption, sometimes it's better to be loved than feared.

That's the essence of soft power and its a concept those walking in the White House and Pentagon corridors don't get or just don't care to understand.

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Monday, December 05, 2005

It’s not as bad as it looks

I admit that I’m sometimes guilty of flying into a panic when I read headlines about intelligent design. On this blog and in private conversation I have likened ID to a Christian cancer metastasizing in the good sense of Americans. But an article published Sunday in the NYTs suggests that ID may not be as rampant as I had feared.
Behind the headlines, however, intelligent design as a field of inquiry is failing to gain the traction its supporters had hoped for. It has gained little support among the academics who should have been its natural allies. And if the intelligent design proponents lose the case in Dover, there could be serious consequences for the movement's credibility.

On college campuses, the movement's theorists are academic pariahs, publicly denounced by their own colleagues. Design proponents have published few papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

The Templeton Foundation, a major supporter of projects seeking to reconcile science and religion, says that after providing a few grants for conferences and courses to debate intelligent design, they asked proponents to submit proposals for actual research.

"They never came in," said Charles L. Harper Jr., senior vice president at the Templeton Foundation, who said that while he was skeptical from the beginning, other foundation officials were initially intrigued and later grew disillusioned.

"From the point of view of rigor and intellectual seriousness, the intelligent design people don't come out very well in our world of scientific review," he said.
The article doesn’t provide a whole lot of new information, but it offers some reassuring sound bites--like this one from the director of the J. M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor.
Mr. Davis noted that the advocates of intelligent design claim they are not talking about God or religion. "But they are, and everybody knows they are," Mr. Davis said. "I just think we ought to quit playing games. It's a religious worldview that's being advanced."

--Matthew McCoy

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Anti-Narnia Rant

The Guardian's Polly Toynbee column today is called "Narnia represents everything that is most hateful about religion."

Com'on, you know you're intrigued, so just click it baby. A very entertaining read for all those atheists and agnostics out there ready to hang themselves from mistletoes.

Pleasant image, huh?

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Religous War

Over at, Juan Cole argues that the war has paved the way for theocracy in Iraq. Cole presents a timeline of events leading up to the present situation in Iraq, but for those of you who aren’t up to slogging through the longish article, here’s the punch line.
The hawks in the Bush administration had initially hoped that a conquered Iraq would form the launching pad for a further American war on Iran. The Shiites of Iraq foiled that plan. Sistani forced the Americans into direct, one-person,one-vote elections. Those elections in turn ensured that the religious Shiites would come to power, since they had the greatest street credibility, given their long struggle against Saddam and their nationalist credentials in the face of American occupation.

An Iraq dominated by religious Shiites who had often lived in exile in Iran for decades is inevitably an Iraq with warm relations with Tehran. The U.S., bogged down in a military quagmire in the Sunni Arab regions, cannot afford to provoke massive demonstrations and uprisings in the Shiite areas of Iraq by attacking Iran. Bush has inadvertently strengthened Iran, giving it a new, religious Shiite ally in the Gulf region. The traditional Sunni powers in the region, such as the kings of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, are alarmed and annoyed that Bush has created a new “Shiite crescent.” Far from weakening or overthrowing the ayatollahs, Bush has ensconced and strengthened them. Indeed, by chasing after imaginary weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, he may have lost any real opportunity to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear
weapon should it decide to do so.

The real winners of the Iraq war are the Shiites.
Will Iraq serve as an example of shortsighted U.S. policy in the Middle East? It wouldn’t be the first time.

--Matthew McCoy

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