31 March 2008

Rev. Wright's Wrongs Revisited

Senator Obama was quoted over the weekend as saying: "Had [Rev. Wright] not retired, and had he not acknowledged that what he had said had deeply offended people and were [sic?] inappropriate and mischaracterized what I believe is the greatness of this country, for all its flaws, then I wouldn't have felt comfortable staying at the church."

I thought the Senator didn't need to say more on the subject after his Philadelphia speech, but I was unrealistic. He's probably being realistic by putting extra distance between himself and the minister, but it would have been more interesting to hear him defend Wright, though not his specific words, on freedom-of-religion grounds. At a time when Americans routinely criticize China for imposing patriotic tests on all clergy from Catholic priests to Tibetan lamas, should the United States really be leaning in the same direction? Shall American ministers be obliged to bless America, and forbidden from damning it? Must they be Americans first and Christians (or fill in the blank) second? If so, so much for freedom of conscience in this country.

Some readers may object that Wright's offense was not his attitude, but the lies he allegedly told about his country. If so, then let me play the devil's advocate by asking what you think of the lies he told in every other sermon, including all those that had nothing to do with politics and everything to do with divine revelation. Are the standards of evidence suddenly different, now? I wonder why ...

The Vytorin debacle

Did you know that there are two major sources of disinformation about new drugs? The pharmaceutical company, and the ad agency. The pharmaceutical company can be represented by a pill, the ad agency by a man dressed like a pill. You've seen the Vytorin commercials. You may have questioned their taste in equating people with food according to skin color, hair style, mode of dress, etc., but you probably didn't think you had to question whether the product actually did anything for you. But those ads have been running for years now, and now we learn that experts are still testing the product, and some are convinced that it doesn't do what it claims: reduce the risk of heart disease. How were they able to advertise this stuff if they were still testing it? I know you have to pay attention to the disclaimers, but you might have thought that those were based on completed tests. That is apparently not the case. The story I've linked to quotes one expert to the effect that the country would have saved a lot of money if people hadn't been in such a hurry to adopt Vytorin. This sounds like somebody wanted to make their money fast before they were caught. There may still be disagreement over the drug's effectiveness, as you'll read, but common sense would suggest that, so long as disagreement exists, they shouldn't advertise the stuff! While this doesn't look like as bad a case as others in which genuine bad effects were discovered, it should still make us think twice about the ads we see and how we end up seeing them.

29 March 2008

How Generous of You

Senator Obama appeared to gently chide some of his supporters today by saying for himself that Senator Clinton should continue her presidential campaign for as long as she likes, or at least until the end of the primary season. Despite his chivalrous sentiment, Democrats continue to talk about pressuring Clinton to quit in order to unify the party, which suffers, they suppose, from a divisive campaign.

I would like Clinton to quit because I think she'd make a bad President and set a worse precedent for dynastic politics in this country in the bargain. But I would never tell her to quit, nor suggest, nor hint that she do so, because I disagree with the chief premise of her Democratic hecklers: that party unity is the highest good. My position remains the same whether we're talking about Clinton or Obama or Nader or Ron Paul. If any politician is convinced that he or she is the best or only person for the job, it doesn't make sense to step aside because one faction of Americans prefers someone else. Rivals within a party presumably contest an election due to differences in policy and principle. Why should the loser acquiesce in policies and principles that they presume to be detrimental to the country? Wouldn't that mean that all the sharp differences the loser drew in campaign speeches were only rhetoric that gilded mere ambition, and at that an ambition so mere that it capitulates immediately at the word of a fragment of the American people? That may have been true in some cases, and may prove true this time, but haven't there been times when someone who lost in the primaries might have made a better President than the winner? It would be one thing if the entire electorate had a chance to winnow out the field, but because of the vagaries of state election laws, we can't claim that a primary loser has been rejected by the people as a whole, so why should the losers act as if they have? To do so means that party comes before the people for partisan politicians. On the other hand, we could assume that when candidates withdraw for the good of the party, they prove that they were unworthy of our support all along.

As far as I know, Ron Paul was the only major-party primary candidate to be asked regularly if he would run as a third-party candidate, since he had done that in the past. Wouldn't it be refreshing if some of the others, the front-runners included, were asked the same question, and some of them answered, "yes?"

27 March 2008

Iraq: This is Civil War

What else are you going to call it when government forces trade heavy fire with a renegade militia and insurgents rain mortars down upon the Green Zone? No one should be afraid of using the right words for the occasion. If al-Maliki wants to have any kind of legitimacy, he has to do what he's doing now, and he ought to have done it long ago. Muqtada al-Sadr is little more than the George W. Bush of Iraq -- the son of a respected leader who thinks himself entitled to leadership -- the more being his willingness to wage war in his own streets for what he wants. He needs to be taken down, or if he wants to be a player in post-occupation Iraq, he has to disarm the "Mahdi Army." In any nation, the definition of sovereignty is the possession of a monopoly on force. Whatever you feel about the U.S. role in the country, you can't want an Iraq where militias run amok. But if you feel about that U.S. role the way I do, you might agree that all that talk about stability and pacification we've been hearing from Bush and McCain lately needs to go down the toilet now.

Richard Widmark (1914-2008)

I respected Widmark as an actor, his favorite performances for me being his starring role in Samuel Fuller's Pickup on South Street and his Jim Bowie in John Wayne's eccentric, underrated epic The Alamo, but I wasn't going to post anything to mark his passing until I read his obituary in the New York Times this morning. This bit jumped out at me:

Mr. Widmark told The Guardian in 1995 that he had not become a producer to make money but to have greater artistic control. “I could choose the director and my fellow actors,” he said. “I could carry out projects which I liked but the studios didn’t want.”
He added: “The businessmen who run Hollywood today have no self-respect. What interests them is not movies but the bottom line. Look at ‘Dumb and Dumber,’ which turns idiocy into something positive, or ‘Forrest Gump,’ a hymn to stupidity. ‘Intellectual’ has become a
dirty word.”
He also vowed he would never appear on a talk show on television, saying, “When I see people destroying their privacy — what they think, what they feel — by beaming it out to millions of viewers, I think it cheapens them as individuals.”

I just have to give a shout-out to the grave for sentiments like that. By the way, I've only seen one of the three films Widmark produced, but that one, The Bedford Incident, I can definitely recommend.

26 March 2008

John McCain: Transcendentalist

Senator McCain gave the second of his major speeches today. After discussing the economy yesterday, he turned to foreign policy. Most of the reports I've seen so far (here's one)stress that McCain has distanced himself from Bush and promised to listen to "democratic allies." I'd find the reports more convincing if McCain had cited any decision Bush made that he would have made differently after consulting with the allies. The fact that McCain went on to declare Islamic extremism a "transcendent" threat that must be defeated makes me doubt whether he would have done anything differently.

What is a transcendent threat, anyway? I've heard people talk about "existential" threats, one of which is allegedly "radical Islamic extremism" or "Islamofascism." Perhaps McCain means something similar. Maybe he believes that al-Qaeda is a credible threat to the existence of the United States, or to western civilization itself. He may think they can physically destroy our government through terrorist attacks, or that they could overthrow the Constitution and impose a caliphate on America. Any nation with nuclear weapons is an existential threat in the former sense, and any number of isolated lunatics may be considered existential threats in the latter sense. Does McCain consider any madman or men who declare bad intentions for this country to be an existential threat? Is his the same mentality that leads to our arresting any band of idiots like the "Seas of David" who stumble into contact with an FBI agent? Or is he still fishing for the right scare word to get people to think of Islamic terrorists the same way they used to think about the "international communist conspiracy" or the Nazis.

McCain argues that those who deny the "transcendent threat" represented by Islamic extremism are unfit for the presidency. Regrettably, I don't think he has anything to worry about. Senators Clinton and Obama give every indication of believing in the "Islamofascist" bogeyman. Even I don't doubt that there's an international terrorist network, motivated by Islamic fervor, that would like to conduct more mass-casualty attacks on American soil. But the notion that this band that hasn't managed to do squat here in the last six years (and probably not because Homeland Security is so good) is a transcendent or existential threat to me and my country would be laughable if it didn't carry the perpetual risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

24 March 2008


The scene: outside a downtown Troy bus shelter, in the shadow of the shell of a KFC that had recently become a Chinese buffet and had more recently "closed for renovation." The players: a young black man with what looked like a wool cap on his head and a young woman with an accent whose origin I couldn't place. Both appeared to be college students. The man was asking the woman whom she supported for the presidency. She said she was leaning toward Senator McCain. Asked why, she said she thought the economy was the most important issue and that McCain was the best candidate on the economy. The man reminded her that McCain was more likely than either Democrat to start a war, and while some people believed that war would stimulate the economy, he argued to the contrary. But the prospect of war was irrelevant to the woman's analysis. She based her support for McCain on the alleged fact that neither Democrat was willing to vote for a certain bill. She struggled to explain it, and the man understood her to mean some legislation against lobbyists, but to me it sounded like she meant a bill to ban earmarks. She worried that too much government spending would make the economy worse, but then a bus came and it was the man's bus and mine and we left her there. One woman's opinion does not a sample make, but the more I hear, the more I'll report, and then we can try to draw conclusions.

A Glorious Political Tradition

Ambitious politicians from "Tail Gunner" Joe McCarthy to Richard Nixon to Lyndon Johnson to John Kerry have been accused of exaggerating their war records in order to make themselves more popular or appear more heroic. Add Senator Clinton to this glorious gallery, now that her story of courage under fire at the Tuzla airport has been crushingly, embarrassingly refuted. She's apologized for misspeaking and notes that she didn't characterize her arrival in Tuzla the same way in her autobiography, while excusing herself by estimating that she speaks millions of words a day.

But wait a minute -- millions of words? Is that physically possible? This sounds like another job for the sentinels of the Internet. Let's get to the bottom of this matter as well, but let's maintain some perspective on the controversy. What's worse, after all? Exaggerating a past adventure, as the Senator has done, or repeatedly asserting a delusional association between a Shiite state and a Sunni terrorist group, as another Senator has done recently?

A Democratic Hierarchy of Offense

As strange as it may strike some readers, it's actually worse, among Democrats, to compare a fellow Democrat to Joe McCarthy than to compare one to Judas Iscariot. That's because, as far as I can tell, Judas has become a figure of mythology akin to characters from Homer rather than an embodiment of evil capable of chilling the spine. By comparison, "McCarthyism," whether perceived accurately or not (see below) is still widely feared as a malignant force in American politics. Joe McCarthy is taken seriously, felt palpably as an evil presence in a way that Judas (whom some would rehabilitate, after all) is not, even by the most devout Christians. So it seems to be reaching on the part of Obama supporters for them to compare James Carville's tacky remarks about Gov. Richardson as a Judas with the general's implicit comparison of Bill Clinton with Joe McCarthy. Within the Democratic sphere, the Obama team has committed the worse offense, though it is one that the Clintonites should refute with reason rather than whine about it. Now, as for the Obama man who said Clinton's remarks were a bigger stain on his legacy than the one he left on Monica Lewinsky's blue dress ...yuck!

Tibet vs. the Olympics

One of the first things I learned about the ancient Olympic games was that a truce was declared throughout the Greek world when the games occurred. Later, I learned that this wasn't necessarily accurate. Nevertheless, since the games were a sacred festival dedicated to Zeus, they weren't interrupted in wartime. Athletes had safe conduct to reach Olympia for the games; to deny them meant offending the god.

Whatever the truth of the ancient world, the modern Olympics have been regarded as festivals of peace. As such, they've been closed down during wartime, in 1916, 1940 and 1944. Safe conducts for athletes and spectators were more difficult to arrange in the 20th century, apparently. What's certain is that the International Olympic Committee doesn't have the power of Zeus with which to threaten recalcitrant nations.

Since World War II, the greater danger has been the corruption of the modern Olympic ideal by international politics rather than war. We've seen African nations boycott the games as long as the apartheid regime of South Africa was allowed to attend. The United States boycotted the Moscow games of 1980 to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The USSR and Warsaw Pact boycotted the Los Angeles games of 1984 in a petty tit-for-tat gesture.

Now the partisans of Tibetan independence would have nations boycott the Beijing games of 2008 to protest Chinese rule over the land of the lamas. Others want a boycott to protest Chinese tyranny in general. Tibetan sympathizers disrupted the torch-lighting ceremony at Olympia today, no doubt to the applause of "freedom-loving" people worldwide. I'd applaud a successful Tibetan uprising against China, but I can't condone any effort to disrupt the games for their sake.

Ever since the Berlin games of 1936, freedom-loving people have had the idea that hosting the Olympics "confers legitimacy" on the host nation. When they decide that the host is illegitimate, as was Nazi Germany, the USSR, the People's Republic (and the USA?), they demand that the Olympic ideal take a backseat to ideological partisanship, lest the games "confer legitimacy" on tyrants. This is the same mentality that requires an American president not to meet with "anti-American" leaders lest they "confer legitimacy" on rogue states and evil men. In both cases, the subtext is that freedom-loving people, represented by athletes or presidents, have the right to confer or refuse legitimacy to obnoxious nations. They even project their fantasy onto the hated leaders, asserting that China bid to host the games in order to win legitimacy for themselves.

Let's get over this notion that another government's legitimacy is a matter of our opinion. While we're at it, let's stop using the Olympics as a political tool. Even if we concede the corruption of the modern amateur ideal due to drug enhancement, government subsidies, etc., we should still uphold the Olympics as a cosmopolitan occasion that brings people of all nations together in non-violent competition dedicated to furthering human ability. That ideal ought to transcend all geopolitical and ideological prejudices. For a couple of weeks every four years, at least, the world ought to rise above all that garbage. Let's not assume that everyone who attends the Olympics or watches on television endorses the occupation of Tibet or the Communist party's monopoly on power or the repression of the Falun Gong cult. Let the games go on, and then the struggle can go on.

23 March 2008


This weekend's teapot tempest was started by a retired general's overreaction to a nasty little comment Bill Clinton made on the campaign trail. You can read the former president's statement when you follow the link; once you do, I think you'll agree that it was a slap at Senator Obama following the Rev. Wright controversy. The general, an Obama supporter, equated Clinton with Joe McCarthy, and that comment enraged the Clintonites while embarrassing the Obama campaign.

A history lesson is in order. "McCarthyism" is one of the most-abused political pejoratives after "fascism." In correct form, both words represent very bad things, but people tend to inflate their meaning to encompass anything bad that they disagree with ideologically. In the present case, the general thinks Clinton was practising McCarthyism by implicitly questioning Obama's patriotism. But Clinton's utterance falls far short of practical McCarthyism. Joe McCarthy didn't merely accuse people of hating America. He called them traitors -- agents of a foreign power out to bring down the government and the entire political order.

Some people probably assume that, in the mind of whoever makes the charge, to hate America is to be a traitor. Some "conservatives" probably agree with that premise, but their perceptions were shaped by the Cold War and the notion of an all-encompassing "international Communist conspiracy." That attitude is harder to sustain today. Mr. Right, for instance, makes a point, when challenged, of denying that Americans who oppose the Iraq War are traitors. He says he questions their judgment, not their loyalty. "Conservatives" who've kept up with the times allow for a great deal of space between "hating America" (e.g., Rev. Wright) and "treason." They become McCarthyists only when they move from one charge to the other.

The only people who are accusing Obama of treason aren't even doing it directly, or even sincerely. They're the people who always use his middle name and spread stories about Muslim influence over him. I question whether any of these people really believe the story they're spreading. More likely they're just provocateurs who sympathize with the Clintons or the Republicans. The Clintons themselves don't speak in the "Hussein" code, and Bill Clinton didn't seem to be implying anything along those lines in his speech. That doesn't mean the general had no right to compare Clinton to McCarthy, but it does oblige me to call the man out on it in the name of intellectual honesty. Likewise, the "conservatives" who are condemning Obama for his association with Wright aren't McCarthyites -- they're just jerks.

21 March 2008

A Good Friday Thought

If today's conservatives lived in yesteryear's Judea, some of them would have criticized Jesus for failing to acknowledge that the Roman Empire was the greatest nation in the world. It wouldn't be enough that he told people to render unto Caesar what was Caesar's (after all, that meant paying taxes). He would need to show that he appreciated the civilization and security that Rome had brought to the Middle East, and that Romans had done more to spread both civilization and security than any other nation or empire. Furthermore, who was in any position to pass moral judgment on the Roman Empire? Persians? Barbarians? And if Jesus didn't comply with all this, proved himself unpatriotic, either to Rome or Judea? "Crucify him!"

* * *
Of course, today's conservatives will try to convince you that, were they transported back in time, they'd be among the first converts. They'll also tell you that, if they lived in the U.S. 150 or 200 years ago, they'd oppose slavery. Maybe they're right, but then they wouldn't be conservatives, at least by the standards of the past. This is just another proof of the uselessness of "conservative" as an ideological label. What defines an ideological conservative is not his instinct to conserve, but that which he wants to conserve. If we started to call things by their true names, we might be less easily bamboozled by brand names and labels. It would help if we knew their true names, but we're working on that.

20 March 2008


This is the first of a prospective series inspired by the controversy over Rev. Jeremiah Wright's remarks. These selections serve in no way as endorsements of the Jewish or Christian religions, but are offered to make a historical point.

THEREFORE THUS SAITH the LORD, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them. Then shall the cities of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem go, and cry unto the gods unto whom they offer incense; but they shall not save them at all in the time of their trouble. For according to the number of thy cities were thy gods, O Judah; and according to the number of the streets of Jerusalem have ye set up altars to that shameful thing, even altars to burn incense unto Baal. Therefore pray not thou for this people, neither lift up a cry or prayer for them; for I will not hear them in the time that they cry unto me for their trouble.
He must have hated his country, too.

Watch This Story

This has broken only recently on MSNBC, and they seem to be making more of it than the other news networks, but it's definitely going to make people ask questions. I don't know enough yet to comment on it, but I suspect I'll have something to say before long.

More Virtual Jihad

The holy war, if you will, continues at TroyPolloi, the Troy political blog. Check out the comments for a fair range of local opinion on the Wafaa Bilal controversy. Some of it will seem pretty obscure to readers outside Troy, but you'll get the general idea.

19 March 2008

Iraq: Year Six

I've said this before and I'll probably have to say it again, but this day is as good as any to get it out there: there are at least tens of thousands of Iraqis who were better off under the rule of Saddam Hussein than they are today. Many of the people I'm thinking of are dead, either from the war or the insurgency. Were they better off dying "free?" I doubt it -- both that they were better off free and that they were free. They were free only on the word of the United States, for what that was worth. But there were already free men in Iraq before we came. They didn't need us or any of our paper guarantees to be free. They were free as soon as they decided to stand up to Saddam, and they were no less free because they died or went to prison. That kind of freedom can't be conferred upon you by an invading power. You might be "liberated," but that doesn't make you free. When most people talk about "freedom," they mean a "rule of law." In other words, they're looking for guarantees, advantages, protection. They want you to believe that without these, you're not free -- that you're not free if you're not safe -- that you're not free without them to protect you. They don't know real freedom when they see it; you can tell that when free people speak out in this country.

Maybe fewer free men are dying these days in Iraq than might have six years ago, but back in Saddam's day, the people who died were those who stuck their necks out. The people who didn't or wouldn't stick their necks out, the people who weren't free before we came, and arguably aren't free now, are dying in greater numbers now. Should we shrug that off because they're "unfree?" That depends on your perspective. But none of us should shrug off one obvious difference between then and now. Before March 2003, Saddam Hussein was killing the free men and women and Iraq. Now the militias are killing them, and the others. Al-Qaeda is killing them, and the others. The United States is killing them, and the others. That's the difference. Happy anniversary.

What More Can Obama Say?

After listening to some TV talkers and reading comments off the radio, I have to conclude that Senator Obama's Philadelphia speech left something to be desired for some people. Maybe they wanted him to explicitly refute specific claims Rev. Wright made about the origin of AIDS or the distribution of crack. Maybe they wanted him to say that Wright is evil. Maybe they wanted him to quit the church, even though Wright has retired from the pulpit.

Some people seem to think that Obama said too much. For certain people, ideologues in particular, to explain is always to excuse. For Obama to have said anything other than "Rev. Wright is wrong and wicked" was effectively to incriminate himself in their eyes. As ideologues, they want nothing less than the annihilation of "black nationalist" thought, however you define it. They would also like him to say the words they love to hear: "America is the greatest nation in the world." That makes them idolators.

It amuses me to see superpatriotic Americans squirm when confronted with the prophetic aspect of the Judeo-Christian tradition they revere. Liberals had their turn to squirm in September 2001 when Revs. Falwell and Robertson blamed the terrorist attacks on sexual immorality. Now the right wing rages, but their anger is of a different kind. I wonder if I detect a little guilty conscience at work when they condemn a Christian for condemning America. I wonder whether they dare ask themselves whether Rev. Wright is more of a Christian than they are. As far as I know, he worships the Christian God and Jesus Christ. By comparison, conservatives, neocons, Republicans and other superpatriots seem to worship the United States instead. Think about it a while and I think you'll agree. As a non-believer myself, I'm not telling anyone to worship God instead of their country, but when I look at self-proclaimed Christian believers engaged in idolatry, I see the irony in the current scandal.

Virtual Jihadi Update

The Sanctuary for Indpendent Media remains closed, but organizers will stage a future exhibit at a downtown venue. Wafaa Bilal has left town for Chicago, but the controversy lingers after him. The Troy Record's intrepid videographers provide this footage of a protest demonstration held in front of City Hall yesterday. Mayor Tutunjian published a denial of any censorious intent on the city's part in today's paper, and insists that Virtual Jihadi could be exhibited in any compliant venue. In his defense, the controversy broke out while he was on vacation, but his decision to take a "buck stops here" stance in defense of his DPW makes his position indefensible. Look around the Record website for more information, including an interview with the designer of the original "Quest for Saddam" video game.

18 March 2008

Obama's Speech

Before I say anything, you ought to read the Philadelphia speech in full. That way you can draw conclusions without depending on me.
* * *
I didn't buy the idea that this speech would be "make or break" for Senator Obama. If he makes it into the general election, Rev. Hagee on the Republican side nicely balances Rev. Wright, and may overbalance things. After all, Obama was just Wright's passive parishioner, while Senator McCain went hankering after Hagee's endorsement. In addition, while Wright is an extremist, Hagee is an outright hater. In any event, I speculated a few weeks ago that McCain and Obama could come to a gentlemen's agreement to leave religion out of the fall campaign, and McCain, for one, might believe that a better idea than ever today.
It's a mystery to me who really started pushing the Wright videos on You Tube and in the "MSM," but whoever it was, the plan wasn't thought through thoroughly. Look how it's played out: Obama was forced into a corner and told his only way out was to make a speech. He didn't even ask to be thrown into this briar patch, but his enemy obliged him just the same.
Anyway, I'm not prepared to call the Philadelphia talk a great speech, but it's the closest thing on first hearing to a great speech that I've heard in quite a while. It gets a little narcissistic at points, and I could do without the now-standard uplifting anecdote at the end, but unlike many big speeches of our time, Obama's oration has real rhetorical structure designed for a cumulative effect. The parallel references to black grievances and white grievances, and to each group's "path to a more perfect union" were very effectively done.
Cynically speaking, he even offered a sound bite to conservatives, even to neocons:
[Rev. Wright's remarks] expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country -- a view that sees white racism as endemic, and elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologues of radical Islam.
But that's really as bad as it gets in the Philadelphia speech. Most of it is sterner stuff. Here's a stronger sample:
Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze -- a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns -- this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.
This comes two paragraphs after Obama warned that black "anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races." That's an example of the parallelism or balance I've mentioned. Perhaps the most admirable thing about the speech is that, while he was supposed to account for black anger as expressed by Wright, he made a point of reminding everyone that black people aren't the only angry ones, and that everyone has something to be angry about in this country. The object of his campaign, he hopes to persuade us, is to channel that anger in the proper direction.
This time we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life. This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn't look like you might take your job; it's that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit.
I hope that all the factions will be fair-minded enough to acknowledge the quality of the Philadelphia speech, and recognize it as a challenge. One speech, not even one more speech can win Obama my endorsement this early. I'm perfectly willing to hear Clinton, McCain, Nader and any other contender make a comparable speech. In fact, after today, I think we ought to expect it from them.

17 March 2008

Happy Shamrock Day

Mr. Right didn't take my bait. He didn't start a campaign against the secularization of St. Patrick's Day. I probably told him about it too late in his creative process. Instead, he got some opinions about the Spitzer scandal off his chest. It was a bizarre column dedicated to a large extend to damning any attempt to psychoanalyze Spitzer. Not acknowledging that this puts him at odds with such conservatives as Bill O'Reilly and David Brooks, he insisted that Spitzer's downfall be blamed exclusively on bad character. Mr. Right doesn't care how many scholars and academics assert the existence of sex addiction; he says there is no such thing. While the whole exhibition left me scratching my head a bit, wondering who actually made such a claim about the former governor, I can't entirely disagree with the column. Someone in Spitzer's former position has a greater obligation than private citizens to exercise self-control, whether over his libido or his avarice or his prejudice. Whatever doctors say, we have every right to regard the man as a moral failure. Having said that, I remain disappointed that we didn't get to escalate the War on St. Patrick. Maybe next year ...

Who Speaks for Me?

I got a letter from the Unitarian Universalist Church this morning. After assuring me that their church "celebrates the inherent worth and dignity of every person and seeks to build a peaceful, just and compassionate society," and that "We believe no one should have their beliefs defined for them," church president William G. Sinkford passed the hat.

"Our greatest challenge today," he wrote, is "to give public voice to progressive values and take a stand for social justice. Not to shy away from the debate about moral values, but to embrace the discussion and reframe it while there's still time to have a positive impact on the current political season."

It's an admirable sentiment. But do you find something wrong with the picture when, after this inspiring exhortation, I'm asked to give money to them so they can embrace and reframe the discussion. Here's the closing pitch:

Here's what I can promise you. For the next several months one side will be swinging their 'moral values' like a blunt weapon. Either we respond peacefully but insistently with moral values of our own, respecting the broad diversity of faith in this country, or we yield the debate to them.
We believe that, in a democracy, voting is an act of faith and an act of hope. And so is speaking up for what you believe!
I think the greatest calling for people of conscience in the year ahead is to advance our progressive morality and protect religious freedom...With the political campaign season in full swing, we urgently need your help to raise our voice and put liberal moral values into action to create a more moral society.

I got a similar letter last week from Barack Obama. The Senator goes on for a page with inspiring stories of people who stood up and said, "Yes, we can." Then he warns that "Now, we know change isn't going to be easy. It's not going to happen overnight. We're going to have to work for it and fight for it. But if you're willing to do that, then I urge you to consider a contribution of $50, $100, $250 or even more if you can to Obama for America."

Teddy Kennedy sent a letter along with Obama's. He says "we know dreams alone do not change a nation. Action does." As for Obama, action takes the form of a donation in one of the suggested denominations.

I know that the Supreme Court once ruled that campaign donations were a form of political speech, but this is ridiculous. I thought I was a citizen in a democratic republic, and that I had a personal responsibility to make my voice heard, or my words seen, for what I believe in. I learn instead that I can best exercise my rights, best take "action," by donating money so politicians can buy commercial time and religious lobbies can -- well, I'm not sure exactly what the Unitarian Universalists intend to do, but it probably involves buying advertising space or time. Economics of scale dictate all. Freedom of speech for millions of people is best concentrated into an Obama campaign ad. Believe it or not.

Call me stubborn or even antisocial, but as long as no candidate, no party, or no lobby represents fully my own interests and beliefs, I would only be alienating my own integrity by becoming a donor for any of these fundraising machines. I speak for myself, and I write for myself on this blog. I flatter myself that I'm doing my part to advance the debate by adding an idiosyncratic viewpoint that can't be reduced or labeled in the usual way. If more people did likewise, we might sooner realize how few of us are actually represented by the Democratic or Republican parties. The more we learn to speak for ourselves rather than give others money to speak for us, the sooner we might cure ourselves of the Bipolarchy that has plagued the nation for nearly 200 years.

Who speaks for me? I do, and to a more limited extent I speak for the Think 3 Institute, but I don't claim to speak for anyone else. To everyone else I say: speak for yourselves, or obey without question.

16 March 2008

Rev. Wright's Wrongs

Is Rev. Jeremiah Wright the "afronazi" I dared people to produce to counterbalance the existence of "feminazis" in the Clinton campaign? The evidence is incomplete. He preaches and dresses like a black nationalist, but I haven't seen anything attributed to him that suggests that Sen. Obama's race is a qualification to rule the country.

The Senator's own disclaimers are disingenuous. I can't believe that he'd never heard Wright utter such things unless he's not as good a parishioner as he wants his local constituency to believe. That fact, actually, I could believe, because Obama is a politician. I can't help but suspect that he associated himself with Wright in the first place only to give himself street cred among Chicago blacks.

To hold that against Obama is probably equivalent to disqualifying any black politician who comes out of Chicago, since that area appears to be a hotbed of black nationalist sentiment. Since the real problem here is with hypersensitive conservatives who can't stand hearing any American say a cross word about his country, the better solution is to tell those right-wingers to get over it or get used to it.

How can it surprise, much less shock some people (Mr. Right will have something to say about this soon) that black people might not share their rosy vision of American history, and might not regard the United States with the sort of unconditional love they seem to require? Does it really blindside these rightists to learn that descendants of slaves may not agree that the U.S. is the greatest country that ever was, or that the nation's vaunted good deeds abroad outweigh its sometimes unfortunate internal record? The funny thing about the current exchange of outrage is that, if anyone, blacks are the people best positioned to accuse all the self-righteously indignant conservatives of moral relativism. After all, conservatives make a quantitative argument for American superiority: we've supposedly done more for the rest of the world than any other country. This attitude doesn't take into consideration the possibility that some people might judge based on a moral standard according to which all countries are found wanting, and none has any special freedom of action in the world. Other people could postulate such standards -- Marxists, for instance, -- but blacks have an obvious basis for skepticism toward America.

I might be accused of holding a double standard if I stall over condemning Rev. Wright for saying "God damn America" but was quick to denounce Revs. Falwell and Robertson for their post-9/11 comments. I plead innocent, since I'd be guilty only if I ever said that religious people had no right to comment on the event. I condemned the conservative preachers because I deny that anyone's sexual conduct provoked an angry God to let the planes hit the towers. Rev. Wright has preached that 9/11 was "chickens come home to roost," to borrow Malcom X's language. In another context, he might have called it "blowback." If he has ever claimed that 9/11 was God's punishment for anything, then he's wrong, but if he sticks to foreign policy, his views are debatable but unobjectionable to anyone but hysterical nationalists.

Finally, I note with interest his church's invocation of the "social gospel" tradition in defense of Rev. Wright's remarks. It's a timely reminder that American Christianity wasn't always a blanket endorsement of everything the U.S. stood for, and that the prophetic tradition can just as easily be aimed at the nation itself as at its enemies foreign and domestic. If more Americans realized this, maybe there'd be more tolerance for atheism in this country.

14 March 2008

The War on St. Patrick's Day, or: My Apologies in Advance

Did you ever have one of those moments where you can't resist causing mischief, not because you're feeling angry or mean-spirited, but simply because you feel mischievous? When a spirit of play possesses you without regard for consequences, simply in the hope of amusement? Well, the moment hit me this morning when I walked into Citizens' Bank to deposit my paycheck. The place was decorated for the festive weekend, with paperboard shamrocks hanging from the ceiling. I had to wait in line for a moment, so my eyes fell upon the novel decorations, and I did a double-take.

Inscribed upon the shamrocks was the motto: "Happy Shamrock Day."

Was that possible? Could someone really have done something so dumb? Did they really just open up another front in the "war on Christmas? Is someone really waging that war? They all had to be kidding, and I wanted to burst out laughing at the absurdity of what I'd seen. Mind you, I'm as secularly humanist as anybody, so on principle and personal preference I have no problem with "Happy Shamrock Day." But now I know how a shock-jock feels, because I knew that this would enrage some people, and I knew that their rage would be funny. In fact, I knew specific people whom I could guarantee to be enraged....

* * *
When I first saw Mr. Right this afternoon he was arguing with Mr. Peepers. The latter had been reading to him from a recent letters page of the Albany Times Union, from before Governor Spitzer resigned. As I remembered, many writers were upset at the prospect of Spitzer's departure; they thought there was a double standard at work. To summarize: why should Spitzer have to resign over having sex with a prostitute when George W. Bush hasn't been compelled to resign for lying to get us into war, murdering thousands of Iraqis, waterboarding, etc.
Mr. Peepers feels toward Mr. Right all the time the way I was feeling today. He seems less interested in somehow converting Mr. Right to liberalism than in making him angry, and in that he succeeded.
"So you think President Bush should resign but Spitzer shouldn't have?" Mr. Right sneered.
"Well, what did Spitzer do wrong?"
"He broke the law! He violated the Mann Act!"
"Aww, nobody's been prosecuted for that in decades."
"No, all that matters to you is the letter that comes after their names! As long as it's a D they can't do any wrong, but if it's an R then they're criminals!"
Here I commiserated with Mr. Right. My view, and that of the Institute, is that Spitzer should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Once it was us against Mr. Peepers, he slunk away. It was time to change the subject.
"Hey, have you heard anything on the radio or on conservative websites about St. Patrick's Day displays?"
"No, what do you mean?"
I then told him what I saw at Citizens' Bank.
"You've got to be kidding me," Mr. Right responded, "What are they trying to do, deny that the man even existed? Un-f***ing-believable!"
Mr. Peepers then passed through again.
"This is what you're people are doing!" Mr. Right yelled at him.
"Are you sure nobody's talked about this anywhere in the media?" I asked again. He couldn't recall and didn't think so.
I then gave him an escape hatch. "Could it possibly be because the people at Citizens' Bank are actually observant Catholics and they know that they're not actually supposed to celebrate St. Patrick's this year because it falls in Holy Week?" He didn't buy it because he figured that Church fathers, in this country at least, would give dispensations for the annual festivities. While we agreed that we couldn't necessarily infer a trend from one incident, he seemed inclined to believe that secular humanism was again on the march, and he was arguably more annoyed than when I found him.
* * *
I did a Google search before raising the subject with Mr. Right and there was barely any mention of a "war on St. Patrick's" Search for "Happy Shamrock Day" yourself and you'll mostly see sites that sell stuff so labeled. So if you start hearing about it over the next week, it may well be that all the fuss started here. That's why I offer an apology in advance, but it was just too good to resist. How often do you get the chance to start a hoax based entirely on fact?

12 March 2008

The Double Standard, Updated

Mr. Peepers: What do you think of Spitzer resigning?

Mr. Right: I told you back when he was running that he prosecuted certain people on Wall Street on very little evidence while totally ignoring Democrats who were doing similar things. I knew back then that he was an arrogant bully, so none of this surprises me.

Peepers: So why don't Craig and Vitter resign? The Republicans are just as bad as Spitzer.

Right: You see, I would never say that all Democrats are just like Spitzer, but you do this all the time. You're always saying all Republicans are just like Craig or just like Vitter. That's the difference between us. But do you want to know why they haven't quit? It's because they see Democrats stay in office in spite of scandals that are just as bad, and I'm sure they tell themselves, "If they don't have to resign, why should we?"

Peepers: But Spitzer resigned ...

Collar City Censorship

As Crhymethinc has informed us in his comment on the "I Don't Know Art" article below, the Republican regime in Troy has shut down the Sanctuary for Independent Media in an obvious reprisal for Wafaa Bilal's "Virtual Jihadi" exhibit. All you need to know is that the Public Works Commissioner here is Robert "Bobby" Mirch, the same county legislature majority leader who led a protest demonstration against the exhibit at Monday's opening and has called it "anti-American."

Mirch is brazen enough to tell the Record that "he did not know the building had been closed to the public until he was contacted by several local reporters." He's hiding behind the deputy mayor, Dan Crawley, and city spokesman Jeff Buell, both of whom note that complaints against the building came in on Monday afternoon -- just before the exhibit opened. They claim that the Sanctuary was notified of code violations 14 months ago, but is only now being punished for failure to comply.

Crawley is at pains to deny that the Sanctuary has not been "shut down," but he confirms that the city "asked that they do not hold public gatherings until all issues are resolved." If that's not a shutdown, what is?

Steve Pierce, the Sanctuary director, knows the real score. "They shut us down," he told the Times Union. To the Record, he said, "Apparently if you do something the Republican administration doesn't like, they shut you down." He notes that inspectors toured the Sanctuary on Monday afternoon and told him "they were fine with what we planned to do" to meet code standards, -- "Then I got a call as I was driving in [Tuesday] saying that they had shut down the building."

Bill Dunne, a Democratic City Council member, told the Record that the shutdown is consistent with an oppressive pattern. "It looks like the city is using code enforcement officers as some form of political retaliation," he said while suggesting that the council, which has a Democratic majority, might subpoena the code enforcement authorities to tell who ordered them to take this action. The council president, Clement Campana, agrees that the incident "should be investigated," according to the Times Union.

These are standard tactics in the authoritarian states that Americans love to complain about. They're not normally so blatant as to declare dissent itself illegal. Instead, they use petty regulations like these to crack down on dissidents, so they can later tell the world that even dissidents still have to obey the law. Study history a little and you'll find that these were standard tactics for much of American history as well. In modern times the preferred tactic is to force dissent into "free-speech zones" far away from the powerful people protesters want to reach. In Troy, the Republicans have stooped to old-school thuggery to suppress a form of dissent that doesn't even threaten their own power in any way. This is self-evidently an attempt to punish the "thoughtcrime" of opposing the Iraq War. Wafaa Bilal may be a dubious artist, but as a dissident he has to be defended to the utmost. If the United States wants to be regarded as "better" than other countries, one of the best arguments we can make is that, unlike in many places, here dissidents get the benefit of the doubt. If that means we must risk mischaracterizing the motives of authorities or hurting the feelings of patriots, so be it. If they object to the exhibit, and if they object to our objections to its suppression, let them go to Russia or some other more congenial country where patriotism crushes all protest. Today the "Home of Uncle Sam" is a national disgrace.

11 March 2008

Quotes for the Day

"In politics, the choice is not between good and evil, but between the preferable and the detestable."

-- Raymond Aron
as quoted by
Michael Brendan Dougherty,
who adds:
"Of course this gives incredible license to 'the preferable' to act detestably."
-- The American Conservative,
February 25, 2008.

The Feminazis Are Here?

Let me make myself clear: I despised the word "feminazi" when radio talkers like Rush Limbaugh popularized it. I understood that he equated "feminazism" with feminism itself and with its attendant "political correctness." Merely to promote a feminist agenda aggressively and passionately was to be a "feminazi" in reactionary eyes.

And yet, suddenly, after two days worth of Geraldine Ferraro, no other word popped into my mind. I can't immediately think of a better word to describe the hard core of Clinton boosters, those who seem to really believe, and with intensifying fanaticism, that "we need a woman" in the White House. How else to describe the stridency with which a letter writer to The Nation ascribes all criticism of the Destined One to "misogyny and sexism, overt and covert" while stating, presumably with a straight face, that Senator Clinton is "the most brilliant, prepared candidate since Adlai Stevenson." Stevenson's preparation must be judged conjecturally, of course, since he was a two-time loser in the 1950s, but take my word for it -- this is an extreme comparison. After all, how can Stevenson 's experience be compared with the Senator's -- he never slept with a President!

I invite anyone who happens to read this to show me any speech, any article, anything that asserts that the United States "needs" a black President. If it exists, I'll call it "Afronazism" until someone suggests a better term. On analogy, by "feminazi" I mean specifically anyone who affirms the ideological notion that women bring generically distinct and generally superior virtues to the political realm that require the election of one to the White House at the first opportunity. This is a theory of gender supremacy. There is no other way to characterize it. If that sounds harsh, then remember that these are harsh times. The feminazis are playing dirty, so here's some dirt back at them.

* * *

None of the above should be construed as giving Rush Limbaugh and his ilk license to use the term to further their own agenda. To them, it means the same thing it always has, and in their mouths it's meaningless. My object is to rebrand the term so that it's no use to them anymore. At the same time, let's agree that the majority of Clinton supporters are not feminazis. A person can sincerely, if questionably, believe that she's the best candidate. You only cross the line if you claim that her gender has anything to do with it.

10 March 2008

I Don't Know Art, But ...

Troy, New York, has its own little free-speech controversy that you may hear of soon. It seems that Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) was to host a "Virtual Jihadi" exhibit by one Wafaa Bilal, but canceled the show after locals protested that it was "wrong, un-American and destructive."

Wafaa Bilal appears to be a conceptual artist, someone whose college degree entitles him to label anything he produces as "art" so long as a critic can find something to talk about in it. His past work marks him as a sort of Arabic David Blaine, allowing himself, for instance, to be a live target for virtual paintball shooters. "Virtual Jihadi" was born when Bilal adapted an American video game, "Quest for Saddam," that had already been adapted by al-Qaida hackers into "The Night of Bush Capturing." Bilal's contribution is to turn the main character of the al-Qaida game into himself, garbed in a suicide vest and reportedly assigned to blow up President Bush.

The artist told the Troy Record that "he wants Americans to understand the plight of Iraqis and his intent was to spark dialogue" by getting people out of their "comfort zone." It remains unclear from the newspaper account exactly what sort of dialogue he meant to spark. It's even less clear whether he's willing to engage in dialogue with those who've condemned his installation.

Bilal has moved "Virtual Jihadi" to the Sanctuary for Independent Media, an admirable institution that inhabits a former church in the North Central section of town. The grand re-opening this evening was scheduled to be picketed by some patriotic citizens, including the majority leader of the Rensselaer County legislature. Photos I saw in the newsroom before I left work showed counterdemonstrators protesting in defense of free speech and against a "Republican Fatwa."

As you might suspect, I suspect that, as an artist, Wafaa Bilal is just another academic hustler with an effective line of bull that obscures his lack of real creativity. I have no use for his exhibit, but when I hear people in the office erupt with hatred for the very concept of challenging perceptions of the war, my Voltairean instinct kicks in. On they came: Duffy the Ancient Sportswriter ("They should blow up that sanctuary"); Mr. Peepers ("You see what happens when we let those foreigners into this country"); and, of course, Mr. Right, for whom this was a reprise of the controversy over the British "Death of a President" movie of two years ago. To him, it is a form of lese-majeste (he calls it "bad taste") to even imagine the assassination of George W. Bush. Of course, there are probably plenty of hack thriller novels that imagine the same possibility, but they get a pass, I suspect, because they probably portray people protecting the poor man. To actually imagine him getting killed, Mr. Right seems to think, suggests that you want him dead.

Inevitably, he had to turn this into another case of liberal hypocrisy. He's convinced that most people who defend Bilal's free speech when it insults Bush would want his head or the head of anyone who portrayed a fictional assassination of the sainted Clintons. He warned me that I don't dare deny this because he believed I wasn't so naive. I might have felt challenged to research the matter and unearth fictional Clinton assassinations and the liberal outrage against them if I thought I might find anything. Overall, I felt it was all too easy for Mr. Right to make that claim without any evidence to back him up.

I shouldn't have expected anything different from any of these characters. At the same time, my sympathy for Bilal can only go so far, since this is exactly the reaction he probably wanted. In fairness, however, I'll give him the last word. "I wonder why RPI is outraged over a video game instead of the 800,000 Iraqis and 4,000 Americans killed during the war," he said.

I'm feeling generous tonight, so here are more last words from Mr. Bilal, thanks to YouTube:


You'll find no sympathy for the disgraced governor here. He proved himself a hypocrite, a man who says one thing and does another. We can talk another time about whether prostitution should be illegal; for now it only matters that Spitzer broke the law. There's no room for a political defense of the man on the ground that he was the victim of a partisan entrapment scheme. The only thing I will regret about this scandal is the likelihood that conservatives will somehow see it as a vindication of all the white-collar criminals Spitzer rightly prosecuted as Attorney General, as if he had no right to prosecute anyone because of his own crimes. I'm not here to say that Spitzer should resign, but I see no reason why he shouldn't.

Of course, we don't know how long this has been going on, but I expect we'll learn soon enough. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that Spitzer succumbed to the privileges of power, the perks that come with giant campaign war-chests that candidates can spend at whim. Read enough and you'll see that elected officials enjoy an unprecedented degree of luxury that the Founders would have recognized immediately as a danger to the republic. Who's to say that many more people haven't indulged in the same way that Spitzer has? The real challenge will be getting ordinary Americans to recognize that, even among those politicos who haven't necessarily broken a law, things have gone too far. Because Spitzer has apparently committed a crime, this won't be the time to get people to see the other abuses. They'll have to do that work themselves, since most of the media are unlikely to help them.

09 March 2008

McCain vs. Obama: the Hundred Years' War?

Today's Albany Times Union has an op-ed from Jonathan V. Last, a Philadelphia columnist, that defends Senator McCain against Senator Obama's charge that the Republican is asking for 100 years of war in Iraq. Last accuses Obama of distorting McCain's statement, but the real issue isn't whether the Democrat correctly characterized McCain's words, but whether the Arizonan's words are correct.

Basically Last recycles McCain's standard argument: American troops remaining in Iraq for 50 or 100 years will be unobjectionable to the electorate as long as there aren't casualties. McCain wants to establish an analogy with our long-term presence in Korea, Germany, etc., to which few apart from "isolationists" object. Last himself admits that Iraq isn't the same as these places, but proceeds to ignore the most crucial differences.

Last has the gall to add to McCain's list of long-occupied countries the Philippine Islands, where we stayed from 1899 to 1991, not counting our temporary eviction by Japanese forces. He notes that, after suppressing an insurrection, "U.S. troops stayed there even as the country took baby steps toward self-governance." Only when he notes that the U.S. granted the islands independence in 1946 does he acknowledge that the Philippines were, for all intents and purposes, an American colony. Presumably McCain is smart enough not to cite this as a model for America's future in Iraq.

South Korea is occupied, of course, to protect the country from an attack from the North. Japan is occupied to protect it from China. Germany was occupied to protect it from the Soviet Union (and why now???) None of these occupations involved the suppression of a native insurrection. Contrary to what some Bushies said in 2003, nothing of the kind emerged in Germany and Japan in 1945 because both countries considered themselves fairly and rightly beaten. However Iraqis feel about Saddam Hussein, most clearly don't consider themselves rightly beaten or legitimately occupied. That's a formula for perpetual insurrection and perpetual casualties. It's the same if you factor Iran into the equation. McCain might argue that we need to stay in Iraq to deter an Iranian invasion, but that's a ridiculous notion. Iran is most likely interested only in having a friendly regime next door, and they're likely to have that if we let history take it's course. So preventing Iranian (i.e. Shiite) hegemony most likely means suppressing the Iraqi majority, which sounds like another formula for perpetual insurrection and perpetual casualties.

Last closes his column by saying, "Obama's distortion of [McCain's] remark, however, is the first sign that he may not be a serious-minded candidate." It seems more likely to me that Obama was simply trying to expose the fact that McCain himself isn't taking things seriously.

08 March 2008

Terrorism: Whodunnit?

The gunman who killed the yeshiva students in Jerusalem had a name. It was Ala Abu Dahim. It remains unclear whether he acted alone, as Israeli police initially suspected, or as a terrorist foot-soldier. Reuters reported that Hamas claimed responsibility, but this source says the organization has repudiated the claim as a piece of disinformation.

My hunch remains that Dahim was a lone wolf, not because the cops say so, but because he was a shooter instead of a suicide bomber. There was reportedly a claim of responsibility from a newly-minted organization named after the leader who was recently killed by the Israelis. If Dahim belonged to this group, my guess would be that it's a small, relatively egalitarian outfit. Again, I base this on what I presume to be the psychology of the gunman as opposed to the suicide bomber. The latter is somebody else's weapon, whether he thinks he's Allah's or his handler's from Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Aqsa or whomever else. He is the ultimate passive-aggressive, acting out of a fanatic sense of duty to a larger cause. The shooter, I still suspect, is more autonomous. He acts for his reasons as well as if not more than for larger purposes. He requires the personal satisfaction of seeing his victims die, while the suicide bomber is apparently satisfied by the dying thought that he has done his duty to his people or his god.

The other possibility, of course, is that Dahim and/or his pals had neither the means or the knowledge to put together a suicide belt, but this possibility is too prosaic to pursue further.

More Power to Samantha

Hillary Clinton is a monster. She's a crude parody of feminist progress trying to turn the United States into a parody of democratic republicanism like Pakistan and India are. In Pakistan a 19 year old boy is the leader of the leading opposition party because of his lineage. In India an Italian woman is the leader of the governing party (but has the common sense not to serve as president or prime minister) because of the family she married into. Senator Clinton's claim on American votes is little better. She is a monster like George W. Bush is, like Teddy Kennedy was before voters repudiated him in the 1980 primaries.

Samantha Power wasn't talking about any of this when she called Clinton a monster. She was apparently complaining about the Senator's campaign tactics, and as an adviser to Senator Obama she came off as a whiner -- if only because her interviewer refused Power's explicit request to keep that particular comment off the record. The Obama campaign isn't supposed to whine; that's what the Senator himself says. So it was probably right for Power to go, not because of what she said about Clinton, but because it was bad form for her position. But with all that being said, Hillary Clinton is a monster. There may be worse monsters out there, and we may yet be forced to choose among monsters, but we shouldn't have to hold our tongues while we hold our noses.

06 March 2008

Terrorism: Quality, not Quantity

Don't let the small scale of the explosion and the damage it caused and the lack of casualties obscure the fact that all the king's horses and all the king's men, not to mention all the king's warrantless wiretaps, failed to prevent the bombing of an army recruiting station in the middle of Times Square. Therefore, don't let anyone tell you that there hasn't been a terrorist attack on American soil since 11 Sept. 2001. What do you call this, after all -- vandalism?

Word is that there's been a responsibility claim of some kind in the form of an e-mail to members of Congress showing someone standing in front of the targeted station. That looks like terrorism to me. So let's keep focused on the crucial issue of our time and how the Republicans, i.e. Senator McCain's people, failed to protect us. Don't forget that this happened in what's most likely target area number one for the whole country, the site where I've been anticipating an explosion every Dec. 31 for the last six years. While I've welcomed every new year with happy disappointment, this shows that people other than the usual suspects are motivated to do mischief in the Crossroads of the World, and Homeland Security couldn't do anything about it. The fact that no one was hurt doesn't mean that everyone was safe. Call this fearmongering if you wish, but it doesn't hurt to emphasize that the Republican regime dropped the ball in a big way today.

Terrorism: I Stand Corrected?

The news from Jerusalem of a mass school shooting, perpetrated by a Palestinian, throws into question the theory I developed a few weeks ago about cultural differences between Muslim terrorists and American mass killers. I had suggested that cultural factors somehow explained why Muslims preferred to blow themselves up, dying at the same moment as their victims, while Americans preferred to go down shooting, presumably getting some satisfaction from seeing their victims fall.

Now we have a Palestinian shooting his victims and going down shooting. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that the shooter had some kind of American roots, but I have to admit that it seems unlikely. Of course, until the authorities identified the shooter as a Palestinian, I was willing to assume that this was disgruntled Israeli-on-Israeli violence on the American model. Since this remains an exceptional act, to my knowledge, I'm not ready to concede that I'm wrong about cultural differences among killers in general. We need to know more about this guy and his affiliations. Did he belong to a fringe group that eschews the standard suicide tactics, or was he possibly a lone wolf, which would be more in line with the American model?

A detail that worries me is the fact that a gun-toting student is taking credit for taking out the shooter. This is the sort of propaganda that comes in the NRA's wildest dreams, and I'm sure they'll make the most of this whether the student's claims are authenticated or not. While I might acknowledge that conditions in Israel are such that a civilian might go about armed with more justification than any American, I'm pretty sure gun nuts won't appreciate the distinction. Apart from the deaths caused by today's shooters, the worst consequence of his rampage and its abrupt termination would be if the story made insane crossfires and augmented casualties on American campuses more likely.

05 March 2008

Thou Shalt Not: A Follow-Up

Wouldn't you know? Just after I watch the documentary and post my commentary, the next morning's paper has an op-ed from some Christian group griping over how the Academy Awards didn't honor popular, family-friendly, pro-Christian movies. Ted Baehr and Tom Snyder represent an outfit called Christian Film & Television, which publishes film reviews from a "family-values" standpoint online.

Their op-ed complained that many of the Oscar-nominated films were dark, violent, anti-American, anti-family, even anti-God. They propose alternate criteria of quality according to which Will Smith in I Am Legend was more deserving of the Best Actor prize than Daniel Day-Lewis, because "it takes a much better actor to play compelling heroic characters." Since I haven't seen I Am Legend, I must withhold judgment on how compelling Smith's performance was. But since the writers refer in passing to "effete secular critics," I need not withhold judgment on the quality of their thinking.

The writers, it must be admitted, were less concerned about the films than about the Academy Awards, which they believed were becoming irrelevant because of their elitist irreverence toward traditional values. Nevertheless, it's only a short step to demanding that Hollywood make more "positive" product, which brings us back to 1934.

Some people can't help but see all art as instruments of indoctrination. They can't help but demand that art send positive messages, as if they believe, as I suggested below, that by telling the right stories we can change people's perception of reality, or to some extent get them to renounce reality in favor of mandatory idealism. In this, America's professional moralists are very similar to the former seminarian Joseph Stalin, who supposedly described writers as engineers of human souls. These U.S. culture warriors are actually no different from the people they once considered their worst enemies in their obvious effort to use culture to mold audiences into an ideological image. It makes no difference if they call themselves traditionalists or if they try to distinguish religion from ideology. Tradition on the defensive, especially when faith-based, is indistinguishable from ideology. When it seeks power, we can expect similar results.

03 March 2008

The Code of Movie Sexuality: A Speculation

I just saw a new documentary called Thou Shalt Not on Turner Classic Movies. It's an account of the "pre-code" era in Hollywood, roughly from 1929-34, when movies expressed a frankness about sexual matters that wouldn't be heard again for another 30 years. That doesn't mean nudity (though there were bare-breasted maidens in the silent Ben-Hur) or profanity (though a Warner Bros. cartoon character appears to throw an F-bomb in a black-&-white short). It does mean frankness in acknowledging sex as a factor in everyday life, and admitting that sex could be used for social climbing and other unwholesome purposes. It means acknowledging the existence of homosexuals, even if they were mostly figures for ridicule.

This type of moviemaking flourished as the Great Depression set in, and the documentary suggests that it faded out once the New Deal got going and gave people a feeling of optimism. That got me thinking that you could see a similar pattern in the 1970s. The '70s were also a period of widespread pessimism and, in the latter part of the decade, economic decline. In both periods, you see a franker exploration of sexual issues, albeit more explicit in the '70s. I think this is because audiences were more interested in seeing how other people survived, with sex often becoming a survival strategy. In circumstances like those, people seemed more tolerant of truth than they would be later.

Thou Shalt Not notes the decisive role of American Catholics in suppressing the sex impulse in 1930s cinema. I don't think the Moral Majority played the same role in the 1980s, but you do see a decline in sexual frankness in Reagan-era cinema, so that a film that might have earned a PG rating in the '70s would probably get an R today. While there wasn't a moral crusade that I can recall (that arguably came later when Blockbuster Video refused to carry more explicit films), we should recall that the Reagan era was defined by its alleged optimism. If the documentary is right, it seems that audiences have a greater appetite for escapism under more optimistic conditions than under harder times. We shouldn't draw a sharp distinction here, since there was plenty of escapist content in pre-code or '70s cinema, but there are clear differences in the way the content is presented. Compare the stupendous woman-piles of the Busby Berkeley musicals, for instance, with The Wizard of Oz.

I note the Catholic influence in passing as another bad mark on the faith's record during the 1930s. Catholicism seems to have been a malevolent force in that decade, counting the influence of Father Coughlin, the anti-semitic radio priest, and widespread Catholic support for Franco's fascism in Spain. You could understand why Rev. Hagee might fear Catholics, if only he appealed to history instead of theology. Even today, you get the feeling that William Donohue of the Catholic League, currently directing his fury at Hagee, would like to exercise the same censorious power over movies that his co-religionist Joseph Breen did back in the '30s and '40s.

We shouldn't dismiss the movies made between 1934 and 1968 as somehow neutered. Genius and talent will achieve expression under almost any constraint, and these were the years that gave us Citizen Kane, Sunset Boulevard, the whole film noir canon, and much more besides. But something clearly went wrong, and something clearly was lost. What happened was the imposition of ideology on American movies, just like the enforcement of "socialist realism" on Russian cinema and Nazi strictures on German films. Breen and other hardcore Catholics, as well as their Protestant allies, wanted Hollywood to reject realism in favor of an idealized worldview in which evil was always punished, sexual deviancy was always condemned if it couldn't be ignored, and traditional authority was nearly always confirmed. This development is worth emphasizing. If we agree that part of the problem with the country today is that too many people have an ideological way of seeing things, and an almost reflexive denial of certain realities, we might also agree that many of them learned that way of thinking from the movies they saw -- on the big screen or on TV, a medium that succumbed to the same ideology in its early decades. Who knows if America might be a different nation today if our movies hadn't been subverted by moralistic ideologues over seventy years ago?

02 March 2008

al-Qaeda in Iraq: the True Story?

Back on Wednesday night they had the network news on in the office while Mr. Right was filing a report on his sports beat. We heard a sound bite from Senator McCain, who seemed to believe that Senator Obama didn't know that al-Qaeda was currently active in Iraq. The Republican inferred this from Obama's comment at the last Democratic debate about re-invading the country should the terrorist outfit form a base there. McCain felt he had scored a point by noting that, at the present time, there is an organization called "al-Qaeda in Iraq." To his mind, this demonstrated that Obama was foolish for wanting to withdraw from Iraq in the first place.

The network ran Obama's riposte, in which he argued that there was no such thing as "al-Qaeda in Iraq" before the invasion. His observation was meant to make their presence President Bush's fault. Obama presumably draws a distinction from the terrorists' mere presence in the country and their ability to form a base, but Mr. Right never got to that point in the argument. He disagreed strongly with the assertion that al-Qaeda was not in Iraq before 2003.

I reminded him that it was impossible for there to be an "al-Qaeda in Iraq" before Saddam fell, because any organization that declared its existence by that name would have been wiped out quickly by Saddam's secret police.

He remained convinced that there were terrorists in the country before the invasion, and that Saddam trained terrorists there. I conceded that point, but the question was about "al-Qaeda." I insisted that there was no way that a self-proclaimed "al-Qaeda" could exist in Iraq when Osama bin Laden was a known enemy of Saddam.

Since he couldn't answer that point, the conversation petered out. I found it useful because it reminded me that labels like "al-Qaeda" only obfuscate the real issue in the Middle East. It's been obvious all along that suppressing that group has not been the Bush Administration's highest priority. Bush's "war on terror" is more general in scope. It's really a campaign against anyone who might challenge the world order that was imposed in the region during the 20th century. There are many groups with such intentions, many of which have never struck a blow against the United States. But the Bushies are happy to blur distinctions in order to convince us that anyone with a beef in the Middle East really just wants to kill Americans because they hate our freedom. The Bushies think that arguments like Obama's are merely splitting hairs, because they think they've had enemies in Iraq all along regardless of whether you or I have.

For the record, this is what Obama said at the debate -- figure it out for yourself.

As commander in chief, I will always reserve the right to make sure that we are looking out for American interests. And if al Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq, then we will have to act in a way that secures the American homeland and our interests abroad.

01 March 2008

Campaign '08: Time for a Gentlemen's Agreement

Senator McCain said the right thing yesterday as controversy arose over the endorsement he received from the Rev. John Hagee, an evangelical crackpot. In response, the Republican said that Hagee's endorsement of him didn't mean that he endorsed Hagee. This is the only sensible response to the controversy. After all, McCain is soliciting votes from tens of millions of Americans. Should he have to answer for the character of everybody who supports him?

Ideally, McCain and the Republicans will learn a lesson from this. We'll know if they have if we never hear another word about Louis Farrakhan for the rest of the campaign season. If we do, then Democrats have every right to make Hagee Farrakhan's running mate, so to speak, and cite his name and his views every time someone questions Farrakhan's endorsement of Senator Obama.

My hunch is that the candidates can work out a gentlemen's agreement to keep quiet about their respective crazy backers. Whether they can enforce such an agreement on all the rogue 527s out there is another matter, but we should hope to hear nothing about Farrakhan or Hagee in any ad that has a candidate's voice saying, "I endorse this message."

By the way, I propose a "gentlemen's agreement" not because I hope to exclude Senator Clinton from any such deal, but because, to my knowledge, she has not been endorsed yet by any religious lunatic. If anyone knows differently, please correct me.

The Ricin Mystery

Now the Las Vegas investigators tell us that there were firearms and an "anarchist" handbook with a page on ricin marked, not to mention the main ingredient of ricin, in the room where they found a comatose man. Meanwhile, they continue to insist that they don't consider this a "terrorist" case. That begs the question: what do these people mean by terrorism? Is it not terrorism because they haven't found a Qur'an? Or because they haven't managed to identify the sick man as a card-carrying member of some organization? Or they haven't deduced some political purpose behind manufacturing ricin in a hotel room? Or do they simply not want to incite a tourist panic? All I can say at this point is: keep an eye on this story.