30 December 2007

Tim Russert Meets Two Candidates

Imagine if Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama actually encountered each other in the NBC studio this morning and shared the idea of a joint appearance on Meet the Press instead of each doing his own half-hour shift. Both men might have raised their game by rising briefly above their intraparty squabbles. They might have achieved a bipartisan dissident consensus on Pakistan, neither man being a Musharraf fan. Best of all, they might have thrown Tim Russert off his game, which remains nothing more than "Gotcha!"

Unfortunately, neither candidate could think outside of their Bipolarchy boxes, so they took their scheduled turns on the hot seat. For Huckabee Russert was loaded for bear, but overall I think the Arkansas held up well. He defended his "bunker mentality" remarks about the Bush Administration and restored his credibility a bit on the Pakistan question. On the latter, he had exactly the right answer on whether that accursed country should hold its election on schedule. While Obama later opined that a short delay might be a good idea, Huckabee said that it wasn't his business to advise the Pakistanis.

On immigration Huckabee led Russert on quite a chase. The interviewer was determined to discover contradictions in Huckabee's comments against penalizing American-born children of illegal immigrants and his recommendations for deportation to the back of the line. The former governor said that the native-born little Americans are children first, citizens second, and should go back across the border as their families wait for their legal turn to immigrate. But doesn't a deporation scheme contradict an earlier statement in which Huckabee said the U.S. economy could not go on without immigrants? Here the Arkansan had his best answer. They're not all going to be deported in one day, he explained to Russert. While his answers raise fresh questions about whether crackdowns on the undocumented should be timed to the convenience of the business cycle, Russert was ready to move on.

On religion and related questions Huckabee said mostly the right things. He reminded Russert that he didn't hold tent revivals in Little Rock or replace the state capitol dome with a steeple. Asked if he'd have any problem putting atheists in his government, he replied that he probably had some in his Arkansas regime. On abortion, he said that his objections didn't depend on religious conviction. On the same topic, however, he took the usual gutless position of refusing to punish aborting mothers, and he was more concerned that aborting doctors were violating the Hippocratic oath -- a pagan vow, mind you. He tried to soft-pedal his condemnations of homosexuality by citing the Christian position that everyone is a sinner, as if to say that he hadn't singled out homosexuals for any special stigma. The problem with that position is that no sexual relations among consenting adults should be considered sinful at all, but I didn't expect Russert to realize this.

Finally, it was Huckabee's opinion that Mitt Romney is sort of a mean guy.

Russert's questioning of Obama was more limited in scope. The first round was Pakistan, where the Senator distinguished his position from pro-surge Huckabee's by blaming Bush's Iraq obsession for instability in Pakistan and environs. At the same time, he repudiated the insinuation that his campaign had blamed the Bush policy directly for Benazir Bhutto's death.

Overall, Russert was in his B-mode with Obama. His A-mode, which he employed on Huckabee and on Ron Paul last week, is to confront the guest with past statements. With Obama, his approach was to ask what the Senator thought of what others said about him, most notably Bill Clinton. There followed a lot of dead air as the experience question was restated. Finally, Russert took a substantial turn and challenged Obama's health plan on the basis of some writer's judgment that it would irk the insurance companies because people could opt out of buying coverage until they were sick.

I didn't use a stopwatch, but my impression was that Russert spent less time with Obama than with Huckabee. Given Russert's tactics, for that the Senator might be grateful, but it may also show that Obama's "inexperience" means less paper trail for interviewers to pounce on, and may prove an asset down the line. I still think a joint appearance might have been more enlightening about both men. It would be like New England and Dallas (or maybe I should say Indianapolis and Green Bay) meeting in the regular NFL season before a possible Super Bowl encounter. Russert would be in the position of the sportscaster who predicts how they'd do in the big game based on how they deal with one another now. There's nothing in the nature of the American Bipolarchy that necessarily forbids a political version of interleague play. It's simply a failure of imagination on the part of both parties and the media. Maybe the sports metaphor will spark ideas in some minds, but maybe that's just my imagination working.

28 December 2007

A Holiday Thought

Being festive is busy work. For the last four days I've been visiting and exchanging gifts, as well as working every day but Tuesday. I reach the weekend quite exhausted, but I regret nothing. The holidays leave me feeling depressed sometimes, but fortunately this year an old friend of mine came from California to visit his family. He and I go back to middle school together in Troy, New York. What little I've seen of a wider world I owe to him. He invited me along on a summer vacation to Virginia and North Carolina years ago. More recently I crossed the continent to be best man at his wedding. His wife is a schoolteacher and now the mother of three charming little girls. They are as well-matched a couple as I can claim to know personally, and I feel like I have a sort of stake in their family. Their occasional visits leave me feeling more optimistic about people in general, and more concerned about the future.

Left to my own devices I'm susceptible to a certain despairing cynicism about the world. At my worst, I feel a kind of compensatory satisfaction at the prospect of the fall of modern civilization. If the worst happens as soon as some people say, I tell myself, then at least I can die knowing that I won't really miss anything. Once I see my friends' children, I see my error. They will all almost certainly outlive me, and the idea that they might inherit a world worse off than ours horrifies me. Their existence puts projects of mine like this one in a better perspective. They remind me that the purpose of any political activity I might undertake isn't just or even mainly to make a world safe or suitable for myself, but a world safe for those girls to grow in.

Coming back here after a few days, and after yesterday especially, I could readily cast curses on Pakistan or sneer at how the Bhutto assassination is supposed to impact the American presidential primaries, and I probably will come back and do that later. For now, however, it seemed more important for me to write this item. The holiday season is short, after all, and it'll be a new year soon.

Ron Paul: A Postscript

I'd like to thank the people who posted responses to my Ron Paul articles. I apologize for not responding promptly, but we had these holidays around here so I was slightly preoccupied. For now, a couple of comments from outside.

I had to work on Monday, and so did Mr. Peepers, the knee-jerk Democratic janitor who's been at our office for over 40 years. He asked me if I had watched Meet the Press the day before. When I said that I had, he became enthusiastic.

"I wish that Ron Paul would become a Democrat or an independent, because then I'd vote for him," he said.
"But he's a libertarian," I reminded him, "He's against almost everything you're for."
"He wants to close all the bases," Mr. Peepers persisted, "That's the answer. Why do we have bases in all those countries for? Nobody's threatening us. It's just a waste of money."
"But what about the fact that he's a libertarian and wants to get rid of income tax and cut a lot of social programs?"
"Well, I don't know about that, but he's got the right idea to close down the bases."

Most Ron Paul supporters are probably more intelligent people than Mr. Peepers, but I wonder whether many of them support the candidate on similarly narrow grounds, neither caring nor necessarily knowing what he wants to do or not do domestically. I suspect not, because were that the case, he'd probably place higher in the polls.

As for the other opinion, after work I consulted with Crhymethinc at his home. He's on vacation this week and didn't have access to a computer, or else he could give his opinion himself. He may well clarify his position next Monday or later, but I believe I do him justice by recounting that he described Ron Paul as a snake-oil salesman. The rest I leave to him.

23 December 2007

Ron Paul Meets ... Some Guy

Once upon a time, Meet the Press was a panel program. That format seems to be dying out in favor of star interviewers whose greatest ambition is to bring down a politician by asking the embarrassing question that forces the disqualifying answer. I hadn't watched the show in a while before last week, when I was appalled at Tim Russert's treatment of Mitt Romney, a candidate I dislike. Instead of asking what Romney wanted to do as President, Russert continuously brought up old quotes and comments from Romney's competitors, forcing the candidate into a purely reactionary mode. No doubt Russert feels he scored a victory by eliciting the now-refuted remarks about Mitt's father marching with Martin Luther King. Russert is even happy to see himself sent up, proudly displaying this weekend a cartoon portraying him as a small child badgering Santa Claus over a gift promise from 1957. As long as people know his name and know his game, as long as he has his fame, Russert has done his job. Today was Ron Paul's turn.

It's probably a mark of accomplishment that Paul was on the program. It means that he's risen from the nether realm of Duncan Hunter and the departed Tom Tancredo into the zone of credible candidates, even if he's really only been successful in monetary terms. It also means that Russert's research team was ready with his battery of embarrassing comments and accusatory newspaper clippings. A lot of this was unsurprising. Russert's line of inquiry on Iraq made me check the logo in the bottom corner of the screen to make sure I wasn't watching Fox News. Perhaps for this occasion only, Russert could not fathom that al-Qaeda could have a motive for attacking America apart from their own self-sufficient evil. He even used the term "moral equivalence" on Paul, who parried it passably by acknowledging that "some" might see it that way.

When the topic turned to domestic politics, however, Russert scored some solid points. He hit Paul hard consecutively on the issues of earmarks and term limits. How is it, he asked, that Dr. Paul voted against spending bills that included earmarks he had personally inserted to benefit his district? It seemed as if Paul was trying to eat his cake and have it too, retaining his "Dr. No" reputation of voting against spending bills, but with full knowledge that the bills with his earmarks would pass and his district would benefit. I understood Paul's explanation, but I don't think it will help him in the long run. He argued that he inserted the earmarks at the behest of his constituents, and that he and they regarded them as a way of getting their tax money back. In practical terms, it means exploiting the existing system while hoping to replace it with a more "constitutional" one in which he wouldn't have to play such tricks. But it can't help but look tricky to the passing glance, and as he struggles up the rankings in New Hampshire, he won't always have the time allowed him today to refute the simple argument that Ron Paul is a hypocrite.

On term limits Paul's explanations were even less convincing. While he demurred that the issue wasn't really part of his platform this campaign, Russert reminded him of his past advocacy of limits, then asked him why he remained in Congress after many years. Paul's problematic answer was that term limits are okay as a general rule, but of no use as a mere personal preference, as if there was no good to him quitting his post while everyone else stayed on. In other words, the libertarian lion appeared to prefer the coercive power of law to individual expressions of principle. It reminded me of my own attitude on taxes vs. charity: if giving to the needy is the right thing to do, I say, why shouldn't it be a duty? On analogy, Paul seemed to be saying that term limits are okay only if everyone has to do it. Obviously I don't find my own position objectionable, but when a libertarian Republican reminds me of me, something is wrong with the picture. Again, Paul's rivals are going to run with this and hit him for hypocrisy all the rest of the way.

I don't doubt that many of Ron Paul's people, like the guys on the Colonie corner (see below), are already rationalising their responses to the interview or damning Russert. Everyone apparently gets their turn to curse him, and the friends of Huckabee and Obama will have their turns next week. But Paul was not supposed to squirm or equivocate or rationalize. His appeal, I presume, is based on his iron integrity and unswerving fidelity to American principles as he understands them. But Russert showed that there is room for light to shine between the ideals Paul espouses and his practical conduct as a full-time politician. For better or worse, I suspect that today's interview will be the high-water mark of the Ron Paul Revolution. The fundraising may go on, but despite the candidate's disclaimers today, I suspect that much of it will go to purposes other than winning the Republican presidential nomination.

It's still a shame that Russert goes about his business in the way he does. The interview ended without our getting any solid idea on how the Ron Paul economy might work, or how the poor and displaced will fare in it, apart from the usual libertarian expression of faith in fees as an alternative to taxes. I would have thought it would be enough for many fresh followers of the antiwar firebrand to jump from the bandwagon simply to hear how Paul expects the economy to work. That test didn't come today because Russert isn't that clever. His prosecutorial style is oriented toward the past, the public record and the paper trail. As a result, he can only contribute toward eliminating people from consideration, but offers nothing to help us actually vote for someone. The question for the long term is whether Russert's style of inquiry, which is really representative of the TV media as a whole, eliminates people ahead of time, before the public can begin to figure the future out for themselves.

22 December 2007

Ron Paul's People

I saw something today. I was taking a bus from mall to mall and turning right at the corner of Central Avenue and Wolf Road, just past the far southwest edge of the Colonie Center parking lot. On that corner there were three man standing and waving signs, with more signs embedded in snowbanks and mounted on a fence. They were Ron Paul supporters in Albany, New York, urging people to "Google Ron Paul," as the current mantra goes. I heard at least one car honk its horn, perhaps in approval, as the bus turned the corner. Two hours later, I was on a bus leaving the more, turning the corner in the other direction, and the three guys were still there.

Does it mean anything that people will do this for Ron Paul and not for Romney, Giuliani, McCain or even Huckabee, and not for Clinton or Obama or Edwards? At least I haven't seen any similar demonstrations for those people in my town yet. Maybe I'll see them soon as it sinks in that New York may actually be in play for both parties. Giuliani is sinking in the GOP polls as attention continues to focus on Romney and Huckabee, and this week's health scare can't help matters. There are signs that Huckabee is starting to organize here to dispute a state that Giuliani might have taken for granted. Clinton is unlikely to strike a knockout blow before the New York primary, and her home-field advantage may be outweighed by the growing madness of her campaign in the face of Obama's challenge. In weeks to come, we may see quite a bit, but we've seen Ron Paul's people first. What does this mean?

Should we assume that some people believe in Ron Paul and his message, or part of it, more than anyone believes in any other candidate? Maybe Ron Paul's people are truer believers than any other faction, but does their enthusiasm translate into successful electioneering? Their efforts still seem oriented toward getting people to look at web sites. There's an echo of Howard Dean there, and that's not a good sign. Dean's defeat in 2004 showed that you couldn't win a party primary with an Internet affinity group. As of four years ago, you still needed retail politics, phone solicitations, people going door-to-door. Are Ron Paul's people doing this? Are they prepared to? We know that they know how to raise money, and that people are eager to give. Does anyone know how to spend it?

Rep. Paul is going to make his stand in New Hampshire. Things haven't looked good for him, as this poll shows, but the most recent reports have him moving up a little. Even now, however, people speculate that he could finish no better than third among the Republicans. I found it interesting that in New Hampshire, Paul had the highest negative name recognition of any GOP candidate. That might mean that the locals dislike his stand on Iraq, or that they're sick of all the posters and bumper stickers. But no state is more likely to support Paul, given libertarian efforts to colonize the place. Maybe because the media know that the great test of Paul's true strength is near, they're paying more attention. He'll get the Tim Russert treatment on Meet the Press tomorrow. His people are fending off gotcha attempts like this one about a white supremacist campaign donation. Take a look at the reader comments in response to the story, and here as well. Make of them what you will, but a lot of the boasting and bluster looks like the kind of wishful thinking we saw throughout 2003. Maybe it won't end quite the same way, but like the last one, this election won't be won with signs of website hits. I'll probably return to this subject tomorrow after I've watched Paul on the Russert show, and I may address some of my reservations about his message then.

21 December 2007

The War on Holidays

A mobile billboard rolled up Washington Avenue as I strolled down to catch my bus this morning. It was a bit wordy to be useful in motion, but it stopped conveniently at a red light as I passed. The sign invited people to call a phone number or visit a website to learn about Santa Claus's Christmas Prayer. It was adamant on the point that Santa would not wish anyone "Happy Holidays," but would insist on "Merry Christmas." The advertisers themselves insisted that "Jesus is the Reason for the Season," -- the silly season, that is, that's come to be called "The War on Christmas."

Certain Christians are insulted by the idea that businesses or municipalities would acknowledge that the shopping season after Thanksgiving covers a number of holidays observed by different demographic groups. Borrowing the title of an Irving Berlin song, sensible people have adopted the "Happy Holidays" greeting to avoid confusion and possible offense. In some minds, this humble salutation has become akin to the Mark of the Beast, and a slogan of persecution. These offended parties, prominent among them a certain Bill O'Reilly, feel that any encouragement of "Happy Holidays" effectively forbids them from acknowledging their Christian faith.

In short, the war on the War on Christmas is another reactionary backlash against alleged political correctness. There's a grain of truth here; "Happy Holidays" is indisputably politically correct, and making it a mandated greeting, as at some businesses, is probably based on an exaggerated assumption of offense felt by the non-Christian hearing "Merry Christmas." This acknowledgment wins the culture warriors no sympathy, however, since they are self-evidently guilty of the very offense they attribute to their antagonists. It's impossible to say how many people, if any, are actually offended when someone says "Merry Christmas" to them, but you can probably quantify very easily exactly how many people are offended, freaked out and driven stark screaming mad by the phrase "Happy Holidays." That group is the true party of political correctness in this phony war, since they're the ones who demand amended language to appease their outraged sensibilities. It's a founding premise of the Think 3 Institute that no one has a right not to be offended. Determine for yourself who is most offended in this little kulturkampf, and you will have determined who is wrong.

For my part, I look forward to the day when no one feels offended by "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays," and the time when the display of a Nativity manger in a public square would cause no more alarm than the erection of a statue of Hercules, because it would be just as harmless. Maybe not in time for you and me, as Stevie Wonder sings, but someday at Christmastime ...

20 December 2007

He Had Patience to Lose?

President Bush has sternly informed the world that he has long since lost patience with Bashar al-Assad over the Syrian dictator's intransigence on numerous regional issues. The American leader is offended that the Syrian wants some say and attempts to exert some influence in the affairs of neighboring country. Can anyone else see what's wrong with this picture?

Let's agree that in an ideal world no country will try to influence another's policies and will not presume to draw others within a sphere of influence. But let those who are without sin be the first to preach on this point, and let sinners mend their ways before joining the choir. As long as American leaders affirm the Monroe Doctrine, they have no business objecting to similar spheres of influence around the world. Patriots will protest that the Doctrine didn't create a sphere of influence, but only defined a zone of non-interference, within which the U.S. does nothing more than defend each country's sovereignty from foreign influences. Similarly, apologists for American hegemony will claim that we are interested only in Lebanese autonomy, only in ensuring that the country doesn't become a Syrian puppet. The fact that a large minority, at least, of Lebanese people feel an uncompelled affinity with Syria doesn't penetrate this consciousness. All the Americans want to know is whether anything will get in the way of their doing business in a given country. Since a sphere of influence usually means favorable trade relations with the local dominant power at the expense of outsiders, the U.S. abhors the idea outside the Western Hemisphere, where "freedom" reigns except in places where alleged dictators in Venezuela or Bolivia try to ruin everything by doing business with China, India, Russia or Iran.

I'd guess by now that the world, if not most of the U.S., has run out of patience with the pompous posturing of George W. Bush. If they haven't, that's only because they feel assured that they can wait until January 2009 and be certain then that they'll never have to deal with him again. Unfortunately, any American leader is likely to take the same attitude, party differences mattering less than cultural prejudices. Syria is resented, partly and rightly because it's a dictatorship, but also because its power is perceived as a threat to Israel. Syria is elected to an adjunct membership in the Axis of Evil not only for mucking in Lebanese affairs, but also for supporting anti-Israeli terrorism. On this point, if the Israelis want to do something about it, they might be within their rights to chastise Syria, just as Syrians may feel entitled to contribute to the long war against Zionism. That's a matter for the Israelis and the Syrians and the Palestinians and the Lebanese to work out eventually, and I won't presume to advise any of the parties involved. In fact, it isn't my country's business to set any rules for resolving the Middle East conflict, and if my President complains because one of the parties won't play by his rules, my first priority is to tell my fellow Americans that he is wrong. Mission accomplished.

19 December 2007

No Time For Fools

Ever since 1927, Time magazine has chosen someone as a Man or Person of each year. By the founders' definition, the title goes to the individual who influenced the news the most in a given year. By that criterion, I'm not sure if Vladimir Putin actually earned Man of the Year for 2007. He was talked about frequently, and unfavorably, but this looks to me like an excuse to do a long-planned story on Russia. Time has done this before; there was one year in the 1980s when they named Deng Xiaoping for no particular reason (he had already been the Man of 1978, if I recall) except to do a big survey of China. If Time had to have a controversial foreign leader this year, they could have gone with Hugo Chavez or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. My own preference would have been to share the title out between Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid for the way they've discredited the Democratic party in record time. But Putin is a better choice than the readers' choice, which was J. K. Rowling.

The readers' preference for someone like Rowling made the reaction to the Putin announcement inevitable. Time had to see it coming. They've gotten grief every time they've named an unpopular foreigner, whether Hitler in 1938, Khrushchev in 1957, or Khomeini in 1979. For some reason people hear the term "Man of the Year" and assume it's meant to be, or ought to be, an honorific, an award that should go to some exemplary person like Rowling or Al Gore. So right on schedule, Time is being denounced on news sites all over the English-speaking world as if the editors were giving aid and comfort to the "dictator" Putin. No matter how many times Time explains its criteria, people choose to ignore them in favor of throwing a moral tantrum.

Actually, the magazine should get a little credit for growing a pair. Too often in recent years Time used its year-end cover to honor abstract concepts or generic categories, reaching a reductio ad absurdam last year when "You" were Person of the Year. I always suspected that these were also excuses to run long-simmering surveys, but they probably also reflected a risk-averse mentality among the editors, who may have feared mass subscription cancellations if they made an unpopular choice. This time, Putin is indisputably a controversial choice. His interview inside the issue will make it more so, since he comes off as a thin-skinned creep with an inferiority complex vis-a-vis the U.S. and a chip on his shoulder to match. We'll all have to deal with it, since he plans to hang around power even after his term ends, and he'll have to deal with the fact that Americans are just bound not to like the kind of politician, maybe even the kind of person Putin is. But let's give him a break for the holiday season and direct our disapproval at all the simpletons who refuse to distinguish between news analysis and knee-jerk moral judgments and would replace the one with the other everywhere if they had the chance. They'd probably find themselves more at home in Russia than they'd suspect.

18 December 2007

Book Report: John Gray's Black Mass

Here is a genuinely conservative book by an English political philosopher. John Grey is profoundly conservative, not in the sense of rabid defense of property rights or traditional custom, but because he's hostile to the whole idea of progress. For him, history went wrong about 3,000 years ago, when Zoroaster the Persian prophet first posited the inevitability of a final battle between good and evil. Just about every obnoxious trend in today's world, he contends, derives from the mentality Zoroaster introduced. Gray sums this up as teleology, the belief that history is a progressive process with a predetermined end, combined with the notion that bad habits of mind can be purged from humanity, resulting in the perfection of society. In the most basic terms, its the final defeat of evil at the time of the last judgment. But it can also be the communists' attempt to purge greed or selfishness, or the atheists' hope of eliminating the need for religion. The conservative core of Gray's philosophy is that human nature is unalterable. His theme is that any utopian, messianic or apocalyptic project that depends on altering human nature must fail.

In an epigraph, Gray explains that a Black Mass is nothing more than a backward recitation of the Catholic Mass. His argument for the first part of his book is that many of the forces that portray themselves as opposites today are really basically the same. For instance, even though Islamic terrorists and their enemies see a conflict between Islam and "the West," Gray argues that al-Qaeda and other Islamist movements are based on Western ideological models. He differs from neocons in equating al-Qaeda with "Islamo-Leninism" rather than "Islamofascism." Meanwhile, militant atheists' aspiration to rid the world of dogmatic faith is a by-product of the very tradition they despise, since only those raised on myths of a final triumph over evil could imagine that something like man's need for religion could be permanently purged from people's minds. At the same time, a strong tendency in modern Anglo-American conservatism has inherited the revolutionary fervor of their defeated Marxist foes, who themselves were indisputably products of that same Christian culture on the evidence of their belief of a revolutionary perfection of man and society.

In Gray's view, mankind is stuck with irreconcilably contradictory desires that make utopian ideas of social harmony impossible. The world will never be rid of conflict, he contends, and no prudent statesman would ever try to rid the world of "evil," as George W. Bush and the neocons proposed, and the Bolsheviks before them, and the Jacobins in France even earlier. History is not a sequence of progressive improvements culminating in perfection; to assume that leads to imposing your will by violent force on other people. Thus Gray explains the Iraq debacle, which he attributes as much to utopian fanaticism as to greed or lust for power. He also takes time to explicate the neocon worldview and its rationalization of deception in the buildup to war. Here's a sample:

Above all, neo-conservatives are unwilling to rely on social evolution. Commonly more intelligent than neo-liberals [i.e., the people who trust the market to take care of everything], they understand that while capitalism is a revolutionary force that overturns established social structures and topples regimes this does not happen by itself -- state power and sometimes military force are needed to expedite the process. In its enthusiasm for revolutionary change, neo-conservatism has more in common with Jacobinism and Leninism than with neo-liberalism or traditional conservatism

One of the oddities of the book, reflecting its British origin, is that Gray presents Tony Blair, rather than any American, as the archetypical neocon. While he has some interesting insights on the neocon mentality, he has an uncertain grip on American history. He tends to overstate the Puritan influence on our national character, as if he doesn't know that mere money-grubbing was a major colonial objective from Jamestown forward. A larger flaw, in my reading, is Gray's characterization of all today's dangerous movements as basically aggressive, missionary or revolutionary in nature. He underrates the extent to which nearly every force he describes perceives itself to be on the defensive. Muslim and Christian fundamentalists see themselves under attack by secular culture,not to mention Western imperialism in the Muslim case. So-called militant atheists see a hard-fought secular consensus under attack by a resurgence of barbaric faith. American leaders see the country under attack by an ambitious, aggressive Islam bent on conquest. None of this contradicts Gray's main point about the prevalent apocalyptic mentality, but failing to emphasize the importance of "existential threats," to use a neocon term, leaves Black Mass slightly off-key.

Obviously something should be done about current conditions, but does Gray think anything can be done? He does believe that society can be and has been changed for the better, and cites the global campaign against slavery as an example. Abolition was not a utopian idea, he claims, because you could point to societies that had no slavery to prove that any society could do without. Overall, however, he's pessimistic about setting a single standard for all the world's societies. Rather than impose a single standard on all countries, Gray thinks we should endorse whatever system best secures peace in any given country. If that means dictatorship in some places, theocracy in others, we'll have to hold our noses and learn to live with it. Gray seems to think that each of us would be better off seeking philosophical detachment, contemplating infinity, or reveling in the moment than trying to remake the world to our specifications.

Oddly for a book mostly devoted to dissecting and demolishing the neocon worldview, Black Mass wraps up with a defense of religion. Naturally, Gray wants a religion liberated from teleology and apocalyptic thinking, and in his opinion secularists need to liberate themselves from the same flaws. He wants us to concede that religion fills a need for "meaning" that people will never be rid of. It addresses "the need to accept what cannot be remedied and find meaning in the chances of life," and since it has a different purpose from science, religion should not be held to scientific standards of knowledge. He admits that religion will always be vulnerable to fanaticism and hucksterism, but here as everywhere else, all he can recommend is vigilance and a determination to prevent the worst outcomes by whatever means work best at the time.

I've gone on for a while, but I've only skimmed the surface of a densely packed but clearly written book of only 210 pages. You'll learn a lot about the neocons here, even if Grey, like everyone else, has a hard time getting a grip on the slippery influence of Leo Strauss and his colleagues at the University of Chicago. I learned stuff I didn't know about a proto-neocon "Team B" created as a rival to the CIA back in 1976, just as G.H.W. Bush took over the agency, that rejected the former agency's fact-based approach to intelligence in favor of intuitions based on assumptions of Soviet evil. You get everything from apocalyptic Protestant cults in the 1500s to a learned demolition of free-market ideology to Joseph Stalin's patronage of experiments mating men and apes. In some ways Black Mass is a demoralizing book because it's constant refrain is, "don't get your hopes up," but in the end it's more of an invigorating challenge, because Gray seems to believe that we can do better than worst as long as we use our heads. It may prove to be the most entertaining non-fiction book I've read all year.

17 December 2007

Clinton: Speaking of Bigotry?

If religions can't be subjects of bigotry, what about presidential administrations? Bill Clinton would have you believe that Barack Obama and his friends are guilty of bigotry toward veterans of the Clinton regime. So he told Charlie Rose, complaining that Obama's attitude was akin to some sort of age-ist prejudice against his elders. This summary from MSNBC should suffice, or else you can track down a more complete transcript if you're a glutton for punishment or more babbling about superficiality. It's hard to say who's making a more pathetic spectacle on the campaign trail: the Clintons or ... well, see below.

Huckabee: No Apologies Necessary

Honestly, I don't really think Mitt Romney is necessarily the worst candidate out there, but he keeps saying stuff that irritates me. So here he is in a typical Bushie ploy, demanding that Mike Huckabee apologize to the poor President for attributing to him and his foreign policy an "arrogant bunker mentality." I hear this kind of talk a lot from Sean Hannity and other conservative talkers: shouldn't you apologize? Aren't you ashamed of yourselves? Now Romney applies it to a fellow Republican, accusing Huckabee of adopting a Democratic foreign policy. It sounds like a degenerate, impotent version of the old challenge to a duel, except now if you don't give satisfaction the likes of Romney or Hannity are most likely to just sulk and pout.

In this particular case, Romney looks particularly bad because it's obvious he hasn't read much more than the summary of Huckabee's Foreign Affairs article, which is where he finds the offending quote. You can do better than that, so here's the article in full. You'll see that Romney's claims are occasionally, conicidentally true. Huckabee does happen to share Barrack Obama's interest in attacking al-Qaeda camps in Pakistan whether President Musharraf approves or not. Also, any Democrat candidate would agree with the bit about the bunker mentality. On the other hand, Huckabee (or his speechwriter) specifically chides Democrats over their opposition to the Lieberman-Kyl bill -- Senator Clinton excepted, of course. He opposes setting any timetable for withdrawal from Iraq other than whatever General Petreus might recommend. He insists that we understand that al-Qaeda wants to destroy civilization as we know it.

Overall, however, Huckabee appears to endorse a more realistic foreign policy than our current one -- and how hard could that be? He looks forward to greater engagement with Iran, offering diplomatic recognition as an incentive for good behavior and Iranian concessions while writing that the Islamic Republic need only be contained, while al-Qaeda must be destroyed. He has a clear-eyed view of Russia, acknowledging that the Russians always look out for number one, and that our relations with them will inevitably have ups and downs for this reason. He doesn't seem to think that we should treat Putin as a permanent or irreconcilable enemy, but he also wants to put those missile-defense systems in Eastern Europe despite Putin's objections. Most importantly, he concedes that we can't export U.S. style government as if it were Coca-Cola or Kentucky Fried Chicken, and he appreciates that authoritarian or tribalistic regimes may be the best option in some places. It's not good news, but he sees no use crying over it.

If anyone has to apologize in this matter, it would be Romney for making an ass of himself in blatantly ignorant fashion. But all this hollering for apologies is contemptible, and Huckabee would do well to refer reporters to the record and let the public draw their own conclusions about Romney's desperate tactics. At this point, I tremble at the prospect of a Romney vs Clinton election campaign, because it might go down as the worst in American history by several criteria.

16 December 2007

Romney: Gutless on Abortion.

During his Meet The Press interview, Mitt Romney basically repudiated his own mother. She was a longtime champion of reproductive freedom whose views he once endorsed. Romney now claims he had a changing experience on the issue of stem-cell research that leads him to assign rights to human life from the moment of conception. Tim Russert did not, if I recall right, ask Romney flat out if his mother was wrong all along, and it would have been interesting to hear the former governor answer that one. In any event, I found Romney's story unconvincing and his current stand gutless.

He recently promised to stand by the Republican platform of 2004, which endorses a Human Life Amendment, i.e. a national ban on abortion. He told Russert today that he will not advocate such an amendment, but will concentrate on getting Roe v. Wade overturned by the Supreme Court. Worse, he takes the typically gutless position of nearly all "pro-lifers" on what to do after Roe goes down. When Russert asked if he would approve of criminal penalties against mothers seeking abortions, Romney instantly rejected the idea.

I frankly fail to understand Republican reticence on this point. They all want to punish doctors as if there were wicked gynecologists on street corners soliciting for work from pregnant mothers. They act as if women were conned or coerced into getting abortions, when in most cases it's the mother's idea, in some cases against the will of every other interested party. If you're going to treat abortion as a crime, it seems like the sort of offense that must be combated on the demand side. After all, take away the doctors and there are still wire hangers. If you want to prevent abortions, you should want to deter women from seeking or attempting them. What would make a good deterrent? Prison? Forced sterilization, or on the other hand, forced impregnation? And if you really believe that abortion is murder, then shouldn't the mother be put to death, or sentenced to life without parole? Refusing to consider such necessary measures shows a lack of seriousness on the part of our would-be leaders. Romney's refusal to do so should reinforce Republican skepticism about his conversion, but all Republicans should have to explain themselves on this important matter. If you're not willing to kill women, how committed to life are you???

Lieberman: One Shoe Drops.

Senator Joe Lieberman, the Independent from Connecticut, has endorsed Senator John McCain, the Republican from Arizona, for the Presidency. Does anyone doubt now that, should McCain win the GOP nomination against the current odds, he will make Lieberman his running mate in an allegedly bipartisan campaign? Will anyone doubt that such a team can only stand on a platform of, shall we say, compassionate warmongering? I don't doubt that Lieberman agrees with McCain's position, that we must kill untold numbers of "Islamofascists" until they acquiesce in permanent international interference in their affairs, only we mustn't torture them!

Objectively speaking, I can't condemn Liberman's action the way many others will. After his ordeal of 2006, he doesn't really owe the Democratic party anything. He is probably a more genuine independent than Bernie Sanders is. If a McCain-Lieberman ticket sowed confusion among conventional partisans, it would be a good thing even though they shouldn't be let anywhere near the White House. But this is all unlikely. McCain is at best the fourth ranking Republican candidate, and more likely fifth is people still believe that Fred Thompson is alive.

It amuses me that people think McCain be helped by newspaper endorsements. Aren't newspapers a dying medium? That's what we're told, but the same people who say such things still find significance in newspaper editors' endorsements. For political reporters it's like the latest piece of celebrity gossip. Elections are being covered more and more like celebrity scandals. I watched Mitt Romney on Meet The Press this morning (see above) and hardly heard a question about his policy proposals. Instead, Tim Russert kept asking what he thought about things others said about him, or things Romney himself had said years ago. For anyone wanting to know what Romney might do as President, it was a waste of time. Now someone's bound to ask him what he thinks about Lieberman -- does the endorsement hurt him in New Hampshire? Will Romney also look outside his party for support? And so on. This campaign can't end soon enough.

14 December 2007

Is Anti-Mormonism Bigotry?

On the History News Network, Gil Troy excoriates Mike Huckabee for raising a question about Mormonism. By now this story is well-known. Huckabee told an interviewer that he wasn't going to pass judgment on Mitt Romney's faith, then as an afterthought asked whether Mormons believe that Jesus and "the Devil" are brothers. In Troy's judgment, this is bigotry.

I'm not about to defend Huckabee on anything. He's disqualified himself from consideration for the presidency for billing himself as a "Christian Leader" in his Iowa TV ads. I don't think he asked that question in the spirit of honest inquiry. Nevertheless, it's a question he and every other American has a right to ask. We have as much right to know as much as we can about Mormon doctrine as we have to learn the elite teachings or Scientology or the mythology of the Nation of Islam. I have no reason to doubt the Mormon scholars who've decisively said that the LDS believe no such thing as Huckabee suggested. It's of no moral concern to me whether Mormons place Jesus and Satan on the same family tree or not. If they did, I wouldn't be scandalized, but only further convinced of Mormonism's fundamental stupidity.

Every American has a right to make a learned judgment that Mormonism is stupid and its adherents fools. To simplify matters, we have a right to pass judgments on Mormonism without being called bigots. We have the same right to pass judgment on any religion, whether they belong to some imagined mainstream or to some fringe separated from the mainstream by barbed wire and armed guards. As long as we go to the trouble of educating ourselves first, we can simply dismiss or severely detest any religion, and we will not be bigots. That's because every religion is a value system, a set of metaphysical theses and rules for human conduct. To say that a value system, a metaphysical thesis, or a rule for conduct can't be judged and condemned is absurd. Indeed, religion can only be judged for what it does, not for what it is. Bigotry is hating something or someone for what it is. It is a matter of finding something repugnant without caring to know why. It is hating something for no good reason, or no reason at all. A proselytizing religion by its nature cannot be subject to bigotry, because its adherents are telling you what they believe, and that's what you're responding to. That doesn't mean you can't have an irresponsible attitude toward Mormonism or similar movements. There's never been any good reason to kill Mormons, and they shouldn't be reduced to second-class citizenship. But with that said, I think I have some right to question whether someone can accept Joseph Smith's stories from less than 200 years ago on faith and still be competent to lead the country.

Gil Troy looks forward to a time when Mormon politicians will be as unalarming to the general public as the several Catholics currently running for President. I was at first going to reply that I was satisfied that most Catholics, aside from the rabid types like William Donohue, simply soak up sacraments without really giving intellectual assent to the whoppers of dogma. On the other hand, how do I know that any of these Catholic politicians don't support Donohue and his repressive agenda? Why can't we ask a debate question about the Golden Compass controversy, for instance, given the frivolous queries that do get asked? Likewise, oughtn't we to know whether Mike Huckabee believes in the Rapture or not? I say they're all fair game. After all, if atheists are going to be judged and condemned for what they don't believe, everyone else should have to account for what they do believe. Let's have it all out in the open, and then no one can say that people are making bigoted judgments -- except, inevitably, for those who lose.

13 December 2007

Do We Need An Election Commission?

George Will is one of the most infuriating columnists I see on a regular basis. He gets especially annoying when he goes off on the topic of campaign finance reform, which he sees as a conspiracy against freedom of speech. He touches on that issue only tangentially in the column that appeared in today's Albany Times Union. In this piece, his beef seems to be with the existence of the Federal Election Commission.

"Most of the rules [the FEC makes and enforces] are constitutionally dubious abridgements of freedom of speech and association," Will writes, "so sensible citizens should rejoice about the disarray of the FEC."

The disarray he refers to is a difficulty in filling one of the six seats on the commission. Those seats are shared equally by Republicans and Democrats. Regardless of what Will thinks, there's something wrong right there. It looks fair only if you assume that the Republican and Democratic parties are permanent features of the political landscape, or somehow embedded in the foundation of our republic. If you see them as interested parties in perfect position to abuse their power to perpetuate their privileged standing, then disarray (even General Disarray) might be welcome in such a setting.

Will would like to be rid of the FEC because once it was gone, he supposes, millionaires would have complete freedom to influence public opinion. He believes that the wealthy are the only feasible challengers to the political establishment, and views the campaign finance reform movement as an effort by incumbents of both parties to suppress "grass root" challenges. He sneers at the notion that money corrupts politics, without addressing the real complaint against money's influence.

As long as Will can point out cases where the candidate who spent the most money failed to win an election, he presumes that money has no real influence over politics except as a medium of free speech. He fails (or refuses) to appreciate that money's corrupting effect isn't as an unfair advantage, like steroids in baseball, but as a false standard of viability. When political campaigns are conducted chiefly via paid TV commercials, a class system evolves that separates those who can afford saturation campaigns from those who can't. Those with little or no TV exposure are unlikely to be seen (no pun intended) as serious candidates, regardless of the merit of their ideas. If you assume that any good idea will attract money, none of this will bother you, but then you're assuming that money is an objective unit of measuring political merit, as if it were part of the metric system. Money is no such thing, and once you concede that point, you should recognize a need to regulate money's influence in politics.

George Will, however, tells us, "Government regulation of politics, as of most things, is perverse." Translated from conservative-ese, that means "The people's regulation of politics is perverse." What's really perverse, of course, is thinking such a thing. We might agree with Will that the existing FEC, which dates back only to 1975, can be dispensed with, but to think we can now do without some sort of regulatory body is self-servingly naive. What we should want is a commission dedicated to vigilance against the influences of wealth and partisanship alike, and we should begin to think about how we can bring that about.

11 December 2007

Conservatives: Can You Spare $50?

I got a letter in the mail yesterday from Jeff Flake, a Republican Congressman. He was writing on behalf of the Goldwater Institute, "a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt educational foundation." The American Conservative must have given this group their mailing list, or else Reason magazine did. I get solicitations like this all the time, mostly from Democrats and liberal groups who get my name from The Nation or like-minded mags. I mention this particular mailing because it came with a quote from the Institute's namesake, the late Barry Goldwater, that sharply defines a certain type of conservatism.

The quote comes from Goldwater's mostly ghost-written book, The Conscience of a Conservative, but such a book usually represents accurately the official author's opinions. Goldwater presents the following as his political mandate:

"I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them ... I will not attempt to discover whether legislation is 'needed' before I have first determined that it is constitutionally permissible. And if I should later be attacked for neglecting my constituents' 'interests,' I shall reply that I was informed their main interest is liberty and that in that case I am doing the very best I can."

In daunting language, Goldwater's ghostwriter makes the case for limited government. Ignoring the preamble of the Constitution, which authorized Senator Goldwater to promote the general welfare, he denies that government has any business providing for anyone. Goldwater is made to say, in effect, that as long as you have liberty, all your other concerns will take care of themselves, and if they don't, that's none of the Senator's or the nation's business.

Writing in 2007, Rep. Flake holds this utterance up as a standard from which his fellow present-day Republicans have backslid. He complains that "self-described conservatives" have "used the government to increase their power" and to "govern like liberals." The Congressman believes that my giving money to a think tank will reverse this trend. The Goldwater Institute conducts ideologically motivated research to cultivate support for tuition tax credits and school vouchers, and litigates against alleged abuses of state eminent domain powers. Taking a longer view, the institute wants to "groom the next generation of principled conservative leaders" by having young people read Adam Smith, Barry Goldwater and other great thinkers. I am invited to help this along with a contribution of $50 or more, or "Other."

While I'm willing to agree with Rep. Flake's opinion that today's Republicans are unprincipled conservatives, I fail to see how the nation would benefit from the rule of principled conservatives in the Goldwater mode. An objective view of the situation should tell us that "the principles of limited government, free markets and individual liberty" are no longer adequate to our national needs, not to mention the needs of the planet or the human race. Our main interest is not liberty, but survival, and we should not be interested in liberty that's inconsistent with collective survival. We should not be interested in an idea of liberty that presumes a perpetual competition of all against all for mere individual survival. We shouldn't be interested in an idea of liberty that translates succinctly as "tough luck if you fail." We all have an interest in survival, and neglecting it in the name of "liberty," or making survival entirely a matter of "personal responsibility," means that you're not really interested in government. All you want is a police force to protect whatever you consider to be your rightly-gotten winnings from everyone else, and that should leave everyone else wondering exactly how they benefit from your stewardship.

Liberty is not something that exists in nature in some sort of instinctual opposition to government or politics itself. Liberty is a creation of people through politics to save themselves from the state of nature. Anyone who appeals to the state of nature in defense of purported liberty against a democratic republic is only looking out for himself. None of this means you don't limit government. None of it means individuals don't have rights against the state. What it means is that the real choice in the 21st century is between competition and civilization, competitive liberty and civilized liberty. It won't do to just shout Liberty anymore, and until Jeff Flake and his friends can figure this out, they'll have to do without my money.

10 December 2007

God Defends Those Who Defend Themselves

That's the moral we're invited to draw from the account of the security guard who brought down the Colorado killer yesterday. She credits her victory to divine protection, even as a father at the Colorado Springs megachurch mourns the deaths of two daughters, who were killed before God kicked the volunteer rent-a-cop's butt into gear. Apparently, God wanted to save everyone in the church except those two girls, and didn't care about the people at the missionary training center earlier in the day. None of this should surprise us though, since like many an absolute ruler, God's decisions are consistently arbitrary. God may indeed be a figment of the collective imagination, but people's perception of him reflects some basic wisdom about power, if not any wisdom about their own pathetic claims on God's favor. A world that has a Lord is inevitably ruled by caprice, never by law in any humane sense of the term. So we can imagine what the gun nuts will say after their predictable idolization of the security guard leads to the deaths of innocents in crossfires between killers and would-be heroes: "Those that died, it must have been their time. The Lord just called them home ..."

09 December 2007

The Golden Compass: An Update

For a few days at least, New Line Pictures will be able to advertise The Golden Compass as "The Number One Movie in America." As the only new big-studio picture out this weekend, it scored an easy box-office victory, but the estimated $26 million take probably falls short of blockbuster expectations. Still, it's a small victory over the Catholic League and other agents of the magisterium, and probably the only one to be had. The Will Smith showcase I Am Legend opens next weekend and will probably make The Golden Compass's gross look paltry. The real battle will be over whether New Line will press ahead with The Subtle Knife. That may be determined by international returns, or even by DVD sales (and since the disc is bound to be an Extended Edition with lots of deleted scenes, it'll probably sell well). Perhaps Phillip Pullman's fans will put on a letter-writing or email campaign to help things along, but I've never heard of that working in the movie business, where you can measure the market more immediately by money than TV networks can. If the sequels aren't made, of course, William Donohue will claim victory. That thought alone makes me think about starting a letter campaign myself.

As an added attraction, here's a recent interview with Pullman in which he discusses the movie and his literary agenda.

Book Report: The Israel Lobby

Mearsheimer & Walt's book was a frustrating read. In the end, there seemed to be little point to it all. Every step of the way, they insist that it's okay for people to lobby for Israel, but they insist just as often that something is wrong because the Israel lobby gets its way most of the time. I'm not saying that the authors should have argued against a right to lobby for Israel. They argued convincingly that pro-Israeli groups are only doing what other ethnic lobbies do. My problem with the book is that the authors want to blame the lobby for this country's Middle East policy when the fault clearly lies with decision-makers, not lobbyists, but they can't show that the lobby is doing anything unethical, or anything that would disqualify their right to keep on lobbying.

The problem, as the authors state it, is that this country supports Israel unconditionally to the detriment of its own interests. This presupposes an objective calculation of the country's "real" interest in the Middle East. The authors have every right to try to identify that interest. Unfortunately, the U.S. is a democratic republic, and as a result, our foreign policy can never be purely objective. It will reflect the preferences and prejudices of the majority of voters, or at least those of the majority party. Mearsheimer & Walt acknowledge this at the end when they argue that part of the solution is educating the public about the real situation in Palestine and countering pro-Israel propaganda. They believe that an expose of Israel's "crimes" could turn more Americans against a policy of unconditional support. I think they're too literal-minded, too objective to see the real situation. The facts are out there to be found in any Borders or Barnes & Noble bookstore. But how people fit facts into a narrative is determined by their original understanding of the plot, and as long as most influential Americans buy into Zionism, they'll remain unmoved by any facts they learn from Mearsheimer or Walt.

Most Americans who actually think about it consider Zionism a moral issue. Whether because of God's promise or past history of oppression, they believe that the Jewish people are entitled to a sovereign state. From their perspective, the Arabs have a moral obligation to make room for Jewish settlement, and any "crimes" that Palestinians have suffered at the hands of Zionists are only just desserts for their stubborn, hateful refusal to acknowledge Jewish rights. Further, there can be no peace in Palestine, or in the Middle East generally, unless the Arabs, or the Muslims generally, make some kind of unconditional surrender, some somehow convincing acknowledgement of Jewish sovereignty and Israeli rights. At this point I don't know what form such a capitulation could take to make it convincing to Israelis and their Christian Zionist friends -- would it have to be a mass exodus from Palestine? A renunciation of Islam? -- but until the Arabs show themselves to be as abjectly defeated as atom-bombed Japan in 1945, the friends of Israel will continue to insist, on subjectively moral grounds, that the burden of compromise weighs entirely on the other side. Since Mearsheimer & Walt themselves don't question the basic Zionist premises, and apparently don't want the U.S. to threaten to abandon Israel to its fate, I don't know what they want anyone to say to change people's minds about the Middle East.

As for their research, their most controversial conclusion is that the invasion of Iraq was driven mainly by the Israel lobby and its neocon sympathizers. The authors reject the claim that it was a war for oil, assuming that the oil companies are too interested in stability to want to rock the boat as the neocons proposed. I'm not sure if I can agree. There's at least a self-image of entrepreneurial risk-taking in the oil industry, so I don't know if the authors can so quickly rule out the possibility that at least some oil people might take a chance in hope of an epic payoff. At least chronologically, the authors can show that the neocons (as ever a nebulous category) were calling for war on Iraq earlier than anyone else, apparently before even Bush and Cheney were ready to talk about it. But from their own evidence, it can be argued that the choice for war was made within the government, thanks to key neocon appointments, rather than through lobbying as such. If so, then the solution is not to curtail anyone's lobbying privileges (which, again, the authors don't propose anyway), but to elect better people who'll make better appointments.

Finally, I found it odd that Mearsheimer & Walt failed to mention anti-Arab bigotry as a factor in American opinion. The Zionist narrative mirrors the American frontier myth, with the Arabs in the role of savages whose noble qualities must wait for discovery until they cease to threaten anyone. Until then, they're only dirty, primitive aborigines who ought to be grateful that someone is bringing them civilization. Our misadventures in Iraq may leave us more prudent about messing with the region, but it's doing nothing to change the standard image of the Arab, and is probably exacerbating the existing bigotry. Here it's important to stress a fact that the authors note several times: there isn't really an Arab lobby to counter the Israel lobby's influence. Given Arab wealth and a growing Arab-American population, this becomes increasingly difficult to explain. In another context, I've always wondered why the Saudis or other emirs don't do the sort of ad campaigns in this country that Mormons do, to make Islam look utterly bourgeois and ordinary. There may never be a real counter to the Israel lobby in this country until somebody does this to "sell" Arabs and their culture to Americans, and until someone tries it, all the objective arguments and fact-finding of Mearsheimer & Walt and hundreds of other writers are unlikely to change many minds.

Recommended Reading on Freedom of Speech

Without comment, here's a link to a BBC series of talks featuring diverse views on the usefulness and desirability of freedom of speech and press freedom. Please draw your own conclusions.

08 December 2007

The Golden Compass: A Public Service Announcement

New Line Cinema is attempting to repeat the success of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies with an adaptation of Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials, beginning with the release of The Golden Compass this weekend. Leading up to the release, the Catholic League and like-minded organizations have tried to warn the public away from the movie, on the ground that the source material is hostile to religion. Knowing the danger, New Line and writer/director Chris Weitz have bowdlerized the books (so I understand, not having read them) to make the story less obviously anticlerical. So far, the Catholic League is unappeased. It's leader William Donohue, one of the nation's biggest nuisances, considers it unsafe to view even a sanitized rendering of Pullman's work, because doing so might encourage people to buy and read the originally offensive books.

Having heard all this, I was determined to pay my matinee money and see the movie as a matter of principal. I headed out to the theater with some trepidation, however, because the first reviews I read had not been enthusiastic. I emerged mostly reassured.

In terms of production design the film is beautifully realized, setting us in a fantasy world quite different from the usual pseudo-medieval archetype. Here is an alternate universe that seems culturally stuck around 1900, with some enhancements like gyroscope carriages and motorized airships as a commonplace, and with talking, tool-making bears in place of the expected elves and dwarves. The actress Dakota Blue Richards, who plays the young heroine, is very good at holding the film together. This is a children's movie that adults can watch without embarrassment, and kids should enjoy the interaction of characters with their soul-animals. Thinking commercially, this movie seems like a natural for toy and fast-food tie-ins, but I don't see much evidence of any exploitation, perhaps because the people who promoted the daylights out of the Tolkien films fear the wrath of the Catholic League.

As it turns out, you would have to be a hard-core Catholic to even realize that your dogma is even implicitly insulted by this film. Donohue's complaint now boils down to the preservation of the name "Magisterium" for the authoritarian bad guys, since the word also has significance for the Catholic tradition. Nearly every other viewer, meanwhile, will see the Magisterium as a merely generic and secular tyranny, and few are likely to see any religious or irreligious significance in all the talk of "dust" and its metaphysical potential. Reduced to its basics, The Golden Compass is a typical story of young rebellion and search for identity in a repressive environment surrounded by wonder, with talking, tool-making, whiskey-swilling bears, and Sam Elliot as a cowboy. Technically, Elliot is an "aeronaut," but who are they kidding?

Because I haven't read Pullman's books, the movie didn't seem like mere illustration of a familiar story to me, as was the case with the otherwise excellent No Country For Old Men. Free from any concern for fidelity to the source, and knowing already that it was in some ways unfaithful, I could judge the screenplay on its own merits. While I liked most of what I saw, I was left thinking that the producers must have run out of time or money. Some subplots are resolved (or not) in a perfunctory manner, while the big battle scene at the end seems rushed as far as editing and effects are concerned. It's sometimes obvious that scenes set on the icy wastes are filmed indoors on a soundstage, but the characters usually take your mind off this knowledge. The story is incomplete, but that's too be expected from the first part of an expected trilogy. There is closure in the sense that our heroine accomplishes an important task, and her resolution to do another brings the curtain down perhaps too optimistically.

Since the Tolkien project, two attempts at fantasy series films, Lemony Snicket and Eragon, have died after one episode, and neither had the active enmity facing His Dark Materials. I went to an early show at the area's most popular shopping mall today, and the place was about a quarter full. Maybe it was too early for the best crowds (11:40 a.m.), but maybe it's too late for this film. That would be a shame, because it was worthwhile despite its flaws, and it would be doubly shameful if William Donohue gets to boast that he and his faithful killed the trilogy in its cradle. My recommendation is: don't give this idiot any satisfaction -- go to the movie instead.

07 December 2007

The Romney Problem: A Modern Phenomenon?

I've seen it pointed out in several places that George Romney, a former Governor of Michigan and Mitt's father, never really had to explain his Mormon faith while he ran for president in 1968. On that evidence, it's suggested that something has changed in America if Mitt Romney has to defend his faith entering the 2008 campaign. As I think about it, this is an unfortunate development. I don't know very much about George Romney, but the impression I have is that he was a moderate -- he was reportedly unhappy with Barry Goldwater getting the nomination in 1964, for instance. Ironically, in light of my remarks about Mitt from yesterday, George's campaign collapsed when his intelligence was called into question -- he claimed to have been "brainwashed" by the U.S military while touring Vietnam. No one but a rabid Mormonophobe, if that's even a word, much less a type, would have suspected George Romney of having a dubious "Mormon" agenda 40 years ago. Nor, it's been pointed out, does anyone today suspect Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate leader, of such an agenda, though Mormon he is.

We can go further and note that no one raises eyebrows at the fact that Orrin Hatch, a Senator from Utah, is also a Mormon. In his case, the fact shouldn't raise eyebrows, since a Mormon should be expected to represent a largely Mormon state. Like Mitt Romney, Hatch is a Republican, and if he were to run for President, or were he to be nominated for the Supreme Court, as is occasionally suggested, he would probably suffer the same scrutiny that Romney must endure. For this, Republicans have themselves to blame, because they made their bed with the Religious Right years ago and thus made personal faith a matter of public accountability. They created the expectation that politicians would (and as Romney says, should) be influenced by faith in public life. So if someone enters the political arena from outside the religious mainstream, people will want to know what they really think and how their doctrines will influence their government of everyone else.

Even as he tried to fend off suspicion yesterday, Romney invited it. He may think he has shaken the question by promising not to be governed by some Utah cabal that many not even exist in the first place, but the question has never been whether someone else will tell him what to do, but how his own heart (more likely than mind) will guide him. If Romney wants us not to worry about his religion, he should think about keeping it behind a wall of separation, as Jefferson would say, when he goes out into the world. He'd do well to tell his fellow partisans to do likewise.

06 December 2007

Mitt Romney Disqualifies Himself

The former governor of Massachusetts gave his much-anticipated speech on faith today. This was to be his JFK moment, emulating the speech in which John Kennedy assured the voters of 1960 that he would not govern the country under orders from the Vatican. I have never been especially worried that a President Romney might heed advice from the elders of Salt Lake City, so I was unimpressed by the inevitable disclaimers. My only concern about the man's Mormonism goes to the issue of his intelligence, not his integrity.

Romney went on to completely discredit himself. It happened very quickly. All it took was for him to say, "Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom." If you really need to read more after that, the New York Times has the complete text of his talk. I'll leave you with just another tidbit of absurdity.

In one paragraph, Romney says: "The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion." Almost immediately afterward, he says: "We should acknowledge the Creator as did the Founders – in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places." To me, "should" sounds like the establishment of a state religion, even if it's just a generic American religion of religiosity for its own sake. I should do no such thing, and anyone who shares my scruple should give thanks to the American electorate the moment this fool admits defeat and ends his unworthy quest for the Presidency.

05 December 2007

Going Out In Style

The young man who killed eight people in Omaha reportedly left a note asserting that he intended to "go out in style." A friend says the man expressed a desire to "go out like a star." The killer seems to have felt that it was worth losing his life to kill people and thus become famous.

This is, in fact, a quite old sense of fame. The killer obviously did not expect to become a celebrity, as a celebrity is someone who revels in being famous and exploits fame to live a privileged existence. It was apparently enough for him to believe that he would be known by future generations, or more likely by future peers, perhaps as a peer to such famous persons as Klebold, Harris and Cho. But we don't yet know enough about the man to say whether he actually emulated such people, or if his own pathetic little drama was the only thing that mattered to him.

The news from Omaha left me wondering exactly how different people like this are from Muslim suicide bombers. Does the fame that the Omaha killer expected for himself match the terrorist's expectation of paradise. Whatever his rationalizations, does the Muslim terrorist have essentially the same mentality as an American secular shooter? Does he go to die not so much out of a sense of religious duty, as Osama bin Laden might hope, as out of a hard realization that sacrificing his life is the only way he's going to get a chance to kill the way he's always dreamed? When the aspiring martyr says he's not afraid of death, that he loves death more than life, isn't he saying the same thing as any of his American peers, which is that for him, it's become more important to kill than to live? The only real difference that I see is that the Muslim terrorist with his bomb belt seems to deny himself the pleasure of repeatedly pulling the trigger, which the secular shooter seems to crave, in favor of achieving a maximum body count in a minimum of time. Is that a significant or a superficial difference? For the moment, I leave that to the experts.

By coincidence, the President stopped in Omaha this morning for a fundraiser. That makes me wonder whether our shooter was aware of Bush's itinerary. Perhaps not, and perhaps he wasn't truly determined to kill people until he got fired from his McDonald's job earlier today. But what if the wretch had a Travis Bickle moment, had a plan but not the confidence or courage to carry it out, and took out his now even more augmented frustration out, not on another set of enemies as in Taxi Driver, but on entirely innocent people? I'm sure the FBI and Homeland Security are asking these questions, and if there's anything to confirm this notion, I'm sure we'll know soon enough, since it would only help make someone's case for even more surveillance of Americans' private lives. For now, I submit these speculations for amusement purposes only, but I'll be the first to admit that it isn't especially funny.

04 December 2007

The Voice of Experience

Here's Senator Clinton, as reported by MSNBC, citing her superior experience at the highest levels of government and diplomacy:

On the issue of China, Clinton sought to highlight her days as First Lady as experience. “You know, 12 years ago, I went to China, and the Chinese didn't want me to come,” she said. “And they didn't want me to make a speech. And when I made the speech, they blocked it out from being heard within China, where I stood up for human rights and, in particular, women's rights, because women had been so brutally abused in many settings in China.”

I hope you didn't have to read that twice in order to comprehend that Mrs. Clinton is boasting about having annoyed a foreign power and making a completely impotent gesture. For extra measure, here she boasts of enjoying unconstitutional, unelected, unconfirmed influence in executive counsels:

She added that she “certainly did” advise her husband, Bill Clinton, on China policy. “I not only advised,” she said, “I often met with he and his advisers, both in preparation for, during and after. I traveled with representatives from the Security Council, the State Department, occasionally the Defense Department and even the CIA. So I was deeply involved in being part of the Clinton team, in the first Clinton administration.”

This sounds more like an indictment of the Clinton Presidency than a recommendation for the Senator, and I hope it doesn't make me a sexist to believe that the President's spouse has no more right to advise the chief executive, much less advise his advisers, than any other American citizen. If that offends the sainted ghost of Eleanor Roosevelt, so be it. Furthermore, if this quote is correct, Sen. Clinton should be chided for her atrocious, Bushian grammar -- "he and his advisers," indeed.

Now, from the New York Times, another Hillarious utterance from today's debate:

"If we want to listen to the demagogues and the calls for us to being to round up people and turn every American into a suspicious vigilante, I think we will do graver harm to the fabric of our nation than any kind of person-by-person reporting of someone who might be here illegally.”

The subject was the presumptive futility of deporting millions of illegal immigrants, but if you thought the subject might have been the Patriot Act or something to do with the War on Terror, you might be excused. The difference, you see, is that Sen. Clinton voted for the Patriot Act, the main consequence of which tends to be to criminalize dissent from American Middle East policy, while she would not have us inform on actual criminals (like that fact or not) in our midst. Now I concede the logistical difficulty of a universal roundup of illegal immigrants. All I ask from Sen. Clinton and other Democrats is consistency. If Americans ought not to be suspicious vigilantes, then we ought not to be a police state, as the state of war on terror requires of us. Some of the candidates, like Rep. Kucinich, show such consistency, but err on the side of indiscriminate solicitude for immigrants, legal or not. But since this is a Hillary-bashing post, I'll leave the rest for another time.

03 December 2007

Chavez: Points for Sportsmanship

Hugo Chavez conceded defeat for his super-referendum overnight, admitting that the people of Venezuela weren't ready for his brand of executive socialism. The pure fact of the vote obliges people to view Chavez from a different perspective. Over the weekend, I credited him for doing nothing to repress opposition demonstrations, and castigated him for seeming to think himself an indispensable man. On the second point, since some people won't let go of their fears of George W. Bush until he's safely gone, we must note that Chavez has until 2012 to change his mind about accepting constitutional limits. Still, his conciliatory tone in defeat, as reported in the American press, is a positive sign. In the long run, the referendum could end up looking like an aberration comparable to Franklin Roosevelt's scheme to pack the Supreme Court with loyal judges. FDR's plan was recognized at the time as dangerous and was opposed by many people in his own party, and it played out at a time when it still seemed not entirely implausible that Roosevelt might become an American dictator. In the long run, it has not gravely tainted FDR's legacy. Chavez still has a long run to influence where his failure this time will fit in his own historic record. If he reflects that a referendum of social reforms might well have passed had it not been linked to his play for greater presidential power, he might well decide to get his priorities straight. In short, if he learns that he doesn't have to become another Castro to bring socialism to Venezuela, he might end up overshadowing Castro in the pages of history. Modesty hasn't been his strong point, of course, but defeat can do things for people who, while chastened, still have power to do the right thing.

A Matter of Timing

My hunch is that it's no accident that the new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran has been released at this time. We mere citizens don't know everything that's going on behind the curtain, but it makes sense to presume that this report, which concludes that Iran has actually slowed its drive for nuclear weapons, is meant to counter forces pushing for war or punitive action against the Islamic Republic. The BBC article mentions a fact already well known, that Vice President Cheney has advocated war, but we don't really know how much influence he has on the President at this point. The report, while it still warns about the Iranians' work with enhanced uranium, is clearly meant to downplay the immediacy of any purported Iranian threat. We'll get a better sense of the struggle that may be going on once the neocon pundits and their legislative fellow travellers begin to comment on the report.

02 December 2007

In Defense of Atheism

Speaking of people who may or may not aspire to cling to power for life, Joseph Ratzinger has life tenure written into his contract. Herr Ratzinger fancies himself an intellectual, and a perusal of his newest publication, Spe Salvi ("Saved By Faith") shows him to be a fairly erudite fellow. Because Ratzinger is Bishop of Rome and Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, under his alias of Benedict XVI, his pamphlet (is the Pope the only person on earth who gets to write something called an "encyclical?") is taken to be some sort of authoritative statement. The news media treat it as such, and the headline they draw on it is that Benedict has blamed atheism for the greatest atrocities in human history.

The reporters have dug their tidbit out from fairly deep in the encyclical. The key quote comes near the start of section 42:

In the modern era, the idea of the Last Judgement has faded into the background: Christian faith has been individualized and primarily oriented towards the salvation of the believer's own soul, while reflection on world history is largely dominated by the idea of progress. The fundamental content of awaiting a final Judgement, however, has not disappeared: it has simply taken on a totally different form. The atheism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is—in its origins and aims—a type of moralism: a protest against the injustices of the world and of world history. A world marked by so much injustice, innocent suffering, and cynicism of power cannot be the work of a good God. A God with responsibility for such a world would not be a just God, much less a good God. It is for the sake of morality that this God has to be contested. Since there is no God to create justice, it seems man himself is now called to establish justice. If in the face of this world's suffering, protest against God is understandable, the claim that humanity can and must do what no God actually does or is able to do is both presumptuous and intrinsically false. It is no accident that this idea has led to the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice; rather, it is grounded in the intrinsic falsity of the claim. A world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope. No one and nothing can answer for centuries of suffering. No one and nothing can guarantee that the cynicism of power—whatever beguiling ideological mask it adopts—will cease to dominate the world.

The pope is indulging in a popular fallacy: he implies that all the crimes of Leninists over the last century were motivated by, and can be attributed to, their hostility toward religion. This is an argument we hear all the time, and all the major "militant atheist" writers have tried to refute it. Some of them try to fudge things by asserting that Leninism was itself a form of fanaticism akin to religion and therefore alien to genuine atheism. Ratzinger himself says something similar when he describes political atheism as a form of moralism.

I prefer a more forthright defense of atheism from the guilt-by-association charge. Let's concede that a literally militant atheism was part of the Leninist agenda. Let's also insist that it was only part of a multifaceted agenda. In any given country, most of the murders attributed to Leninist governments were not perpetrated specifically to suppress religion. Many religious people were killed or imprisoned, but far more suffered for conventional political reasons. That majority of crimes should be blamed on Leninism specifically, not on atheism generally. Some may object that Leninist atheism left them with no scuples against mass killing, but anyone who wants to try that argument should study history first and see how many devout, practicing Christians proved to be mass murderers and tyrants.

I don't know if it's possible to crunch numbers on this point, but I'd be willing to guess that more people throughout history have been murdered in the name of religion, perhaps even in the name of Christianity alone, than have been murdered to further an atheist agenda. As long as we limit the Leninist toll to those specifically persecuted for religious activity, as objectivity requires, I think the Christians will have killed more, even if only because they had a nearly two-millennia head start. If I'm right, then atheism can't be blamed for the "greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice," and Ratzinger's case is disproven.

Honesty requires me to note that the pope doesn't blindly condemn Marxism in his pamphlet. He acknowledges that Marx incisively exposed real social injustices, and faults him mainly for assuming that people would just get along once you made the correct economic arrangements. I don't know if that's a fair appraisal of Karl Marx's position, but at least Benedict isn't calling him a servant of Satan.

Another quote will get us to what I take to be Benedict's main point:

Yes indeed, reason is God's great gift to man, and the victory of reason over unreason is also a goal of the Christian life. But when does reason truly triumph? When it is detached from God? When it has become blind to God? Is the reason behind action and capacity for action the whole of reason? If progress, in order to be progress, needs moral growth on the part of humanity, then the reason behind action and capacity for action is likewise urgently in need of integration through reason's openness to the saving forces of faith, to the differentiation between good and evil. Only thus does reason become truly human. It becomes human only if it is capable of directing the will along the right path, and it is capable of this only if it looks beyond itself. Otherwise, man's situation, in view of the imbalance between his material capacity and the lack of judgement in his heart, becomes a threat for him and for creation. Thus where freedom is concerned, we must remember that human freedom always requires a convergence of various freedoms. Yet this convergence cannot succeed unless it is determined by a common intrinsic criterion of measurement, which is the foundation and goal of our freedom. Let us put it very simply: man needs God, otherwise he remains without hope.

As a non-believer, I can't agree with this. Like many philosophers, Ratzinger is unwilling to accept the implications of the fact that every great moral idea is a human invention requiring a perpetual exertion of human will for its sustenance. He can't get past the notion that, if people just "make up" morality, as he seems to see it, they can "unmake" it whenever they please. He needs to posit something "outside" that defines everything because he thinks it'll be safer if people feel that they have no choice but to be moral. He is prejudiced by the Christian notion that man is "fallen" and therefore cannot perfect society without help from higher powers. For my part, I don't think a completely perfect society is possible, but I think people can do better with the tools they have, and could come up with at least a pretty good society for everyone if they applied themselves more. I think Joseph Ratzinger believes that too, but I suspect that he also believes that, if not an indispensible man himself, his office and its authority are indispensable to any such project. Let me put this very simply: the pope is wrong.

01 December 2007

No Man Is Indispensible

"If God gives me life and help, I will be at the head of the government until 2050."

That's Hugo Chavez talking, in English translation as quoted by the BBC. Having given him the credit he was due for not attempting to suppress opposition rallies during the Venezuelan referendum campaign, I offer this as an important reason why he should lose this weekend. The headline explains my position. Call it a U.S. cultural prejudice, but I believe that no man, no matter how talented, should consider himself so indispensable that he would aspire to remain in power when Chavez would be 95 years old. The egoism of someone who presumes that he alone can save his country, the arrogance underlying the assumption that no one can be trusted to carry on his work, is simply staggering. This is the same sort of talk one hears from Robert Mugabe, a man generally believed to have gone mad in his desperation to keep power while impoverishing the masses of Zimbabwe. Let me concede that they think their rulership necessary for purposes larger than their own ambition; still, inevitably the imperative to stay in power takes priority over the original purposes, and inevitably, someone who thinks as Chavez apparently does will put opponents in prison.

Americans think differently. Our model is George Washington, who could have been and was encouraged to be an American king after the Revolution. Instead, he retired to his farm like his Roman role model Cincinnatus. He could have been President for life, but called it a day after two terms, setting a precedent that held up for almost 150 years. After Franklin Roosevelt broke the third-term taboo Washington had set up, Congress and the states made sure through a Constitutional amendment that no future President would serve more than two terms. Say what you will about George W. Bush, but after January 2009 he will be gone from power, and anyone who still suspects differently must at least acknowledge that it is far less likely now than it might have been earlier in his administration that he'll try to break the rule. He hasn't ever even signaled that he might want to do such a thing. Chavez, on the other hand, openly admits that he wants no limit on how long he can rule, and if that's how he feels, how likely is it -- how much less likely will it be later -- that he would let the people's will stop him?

I don't want to rule out absolutely the possibility of the necessity of revolutionary dictatorship for the sake of planetary well-being if circumstances require it, but revolutionary dictatorship need not be the same thing as one-man rule. Apologists for Chavez can talk about all the wonderful bottom-up organizing going on in the communes he's called into being, but they should ask themselves whether the package of enhanced presidential powers their man is pushing is consistent with grass-roots government. They may want to claim that his personal power is necessary to make the truly desirable long-term changes happen, but I insist that the necessary power doesn't have to be and shouldn't be personal in nature. If Chavez doesn't expect another competent person to emerge and pick up the slack over the next forty years, and has no other interest in his own life except to govern, that tells us that the "Bolivarian" agenda is less about what's best for the Venezuelan people and more about what Hugo Chavez thinks everyone should do.

Who knows? Maybe I distrust dictators and caudillos because I'm an atheist and reject the notion that there is a single absolute ruler, in this world or the next, who is absolutely entitled to the people's unconditional obedience. But this is only to segue into a preview of my next comment, in which I turn my scope on Joseph Ratzinger and his latest encyclical against atheism. Don't miss this one: it should be like shooting a dead horse in a barrel.

30 November 2007

Bill Clinton and the Iraq Invasion

The former President got into trouble this week when he claimed while stumping for his wife that he had opposed the invasion of Iraq "all along." Critics pounced from across the political spectrum, since this was obviously untrue. I felt it to be untrue, but I've found proving it a frustrating experience. The critics have dug up plenty of evidence, but not the piece I most distinctly remember. I have a strong recollection of reading an article in the Weekly Standard back in the fall of 2003 that described Clinton lecturing an Arab group and telling them that, had he been President at the time, he would have done the same thing as Bush. Unfortunately, to look up anything from the Standard online, you have to subscribe to the magazine, which I no longer do. Worse, I've tried to Google similar accounts of this encounter but have come up dry. It looks like I'll have to dig through some hard copies of the Standard in order to back up my memory.

Yes, I subscribed to the Weekly Standard, the head neocon weekly, for about two years. I signed up during a period when I wanted as much diversity of opinion or ideology as possible and was also getting The Nation and The New Republic on a weekly basis. I gave up on the Standard because their renewal rate was too high and because I no longer found the magazine's articles provocative in the good way of challenging my preconceptions. Instead, its stubborn fealty to Bush and his war merely provoked me in the ordinary way of making me want to toss the typical issue into the garbage. I eventually replaced it with The American Conservative, which is probably the most consistently challenging journal available. This leaves me without a neocon outlet unless you count The New Republic on Middle East affairs, but I don't regret the loss. Over time I also gave up on leftist journals like Z Magazine and The Progressive because their ideologies and prejudices didn't seem to reflect reality for me, while I still get In These Times, which is about as far left as I go in my magazine reading.

Anyway, people want to make something of Mr. Clinton's apparent lie as if it reflected on Senator Clinton and her campaign for the Presidency. Is that fair? I'm afraid it is. If you accept that the first Clinton regime was a "two-for-one" deal that gave the President's wife crucial experience and exempts her from "on-the-job training," then you must expect that a second regime will work the same way. In other words, Bill Clinton will inevitably be a powerful and influential advisor to his wife even though the role of First Gentleman would entitle him to no power whatsoever. Catching the likely court favorite in a desperate crowd-pleasing lie is evidence against the character of the man today and the advice he might offer tomorrow. If Senator Clinton didn't give you reasons enough to resist her nomination (if you're a Democrat, that is), her husband's record should put you over the top.