Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Christianist crack-up?

Is a Christianist crack-up in the works? We can only hope (or, if so inclined, pray).

There have been reports of tension inside the so-called religious right. It seems the leadership does not tolerate members taking the initiative on issues that have not been pre-approved as following the party-line. It is leadership style that may sound familiar to those who recall the Soviet Union.

This article is by Stephen Bates in today’s Guardian. He writes,

In his consulting room in a suburb of Montgomery, Alabama, gastrologist
Randy Brinson is a worried man. A staunch Republican and devout Baptist, Dr
Brinson can claim substantial credit for getting George Bush re-elected in 2004.
It was his Redeem the Vote initiative that may have persuaded up to 25 million
people to turn out for President Bush. Yet his wife is receiving threats from
anonymous conservative activists warning her husband to stay away from politics.

The reason he has fallen foul of men whose candidate he helped
re-elect is that he has dared to question the partisan tactics of the religious
right. "Conservatives speak in tones that they have got power and they can do
what they want. Only 23% of the population embraces those positions but if
someone questions their mandate or wants to articulate a different case, for the
moderate right, they are totally ridiculed."

You can read the entire article here.

Amy Sullivan had a piece covering the same subject in the April issue of the Washington Monthly. You can read it here.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Soccer, Germany and Nazis past & present

It is only nine days before the World Cup 2006 begins in Germany. The first series of the world-wide soccer (football to the rest of the world) play-offs begin in Munich and Gelsenkirchen on June 9th. Thirty-one national teams play at twelve different stadiums throughout Germany until all are eliminated but two. The final two teams meet at the World Cup Final on July 9th in Berlin. For more information about the World Cup check out the BBC here and the World Cup 2006 site here.

In the shadows behind the international sports competition are not only reminders of Germany’s past but chilling examples of present day events indicating that past has not entirely been laid to rest.

The final game in Berlin is the site of the 1936 Olympics. The stadium is surrounded Nazi-era statues depicting the Aryan superman archetype including those sculpted by Arno Breker, one of the more famous artists of the Third Reich and a member of Hitler’s inner circle although never a member of the Nazi Party. The controversy has raged about what to do with the statues with solutions proposed to destroy them, cover them up or provide text explaining the history of the statues.

According to Expatica,

Writer Ralph Giordano said merely covering up the Nazi statues was not
enough. "They should be removed and destroyed," said Giordano. "Just to cover
them up would be very symbolic of the way in which Germany has dealt with its
Nazi past."

In the same piece, Christoph Stoelzl, a city historian and vice chair of the Berlin City Council said,

There is no danger posed by these sculptures. The connection between a cult
of the body and racism is very complicated because there was both a rightist and
a leftist variation of the cult of the body.

Dealing with symbols of the past should be easy compared to addressing problems racism in present day Germany. There were earlier warnings that Neo-Nazis may try to disrupt the World Cup. And there have been warnings of certain no-go areas for soccer fans with dark skin. According to Der Speigel,

A former government spokesman on Wednesday suggested that dark-skinned
visitors to Germany should consider avoiding the eastern part of the country
where racism runs high. "There are small and medium-sized towns in Brandenburg, as well as elsewhere, which I would advise a visitor of another skin colour to avoid going to," said Uwe-Karsten Heye, who now leads an anti-racism
organization called "Show Your Color." "It is possible he wouldn't get out

Eastern Germany has seen an increase of right-wing and neo-nazi movements. These range from thugs attacking individuals such as an Ethiopian-German beaten into a coma in Potsdam in April and a German –Kurdish politician attached by skinheads in Berlin this month to the development of the National Democratic Party of Germany (NDP) whose top candidate in regional elections this fall is Udo Pastors, also referred to as the Gentleman Nazi.

For the next six weeks we can only hope these creeps don’t slither out from under their rocks and leave the international guests alone. Beyond that, Germany needs to start to address the conditions which make these nuts appealing and to not tolerate violence against minority citizens.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Reflections on growing up and Memorial Day

I grew up in the small community of Liberty, Indiana. It was (and remains today) a small town but the center of a much larger surrounding rural community in Union County. Memorial Day was a communal event. Small red paper poppies with green wire, handmade by veterans in veterans’ hospitals, were a common sight on the lapels of people a day or two leading up to Memorial Day.

My father was a WWII veteran and a member of the local American Legion and VFW posts. One or both organizations had lists of all the veterans buried in all the cemeteries in the county. Members were assigned a cemetery and given bundles of small American flags to decorate graves. For a few years my father was assigned a small cemetery on the east side of town. It was small and not particularly attractive. There was no indications of recent burials. It was largely a forgotten cemetary of forgotten people. My father’s assignment was a family affair for us. We would hunt for the graves of the men who had served. I would find the unkempt site of a buried veteran who died decades ago and who was then honored those few seconds by a small boy with a small flag.

Memorial Day in Liberty those days was a time when the entire community came together. On Memorial Day morning people would gather downtown in preparation for a march to the large town cemetery on the west side of town. Veterans, whose old uniforms obliviously had shrunk around the waists, led the parade. I marched with the Boy Scouts and my sister with the Girl Scouts. Those with no formal grouping would bring up the rear. There was no music – only the drums – as we marched. People would watch us from their front porches or the sidewalks.

The ceremony at the cemetery was always solemn. A speaker would make a short presentation about the men who had served in the armed services followed by a three-volley salute with rifles by the veterans at exactly noon and ending with taps by a bugle hidden from our view. We marched back downtown in silence. At the end of the march everyone would rush to their cars and turn on the radios to hear the latest about the Indy 500 that had already started.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

What could Jesus press?

Virginia’s Pat Robertson of 700 Club notoriety and the same man who told us feminism causes women to kill their children and then called for the assassination of President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, is now claiming to be able to leg press 2000 pounds. Read his claim here and see his video here.

I wouldn’t think of suggesting Mr. Robertson is exaggerating or telling an untruth so I’ll let others do it.

Clay Travis of CBS Sports says, “That would mean a 76-year-old man broke the all-time Florida State University leg press record by 665 pounds over Dan Kendra. 665 pounds.” Mike DeBonis at Slate points out, “he helps his legs by pushing on his knees with his arms. That's a no-no. He also achieves nowhere near the recommended full range of motion, which is to bring the knees to at least a 90-degree angle.” He also argues the leg press machine is inefficient anyway compared to the squat.

His claim is part of a promotion for protein shakes he is peddling. He also peddles booklets with titles such as Pat’s Weight Loss Challenge, Age-Defying Antioxidants, Age-Defying Protein Pancakes, Age-Defying Protein Shake, A Younger You, and A Healthier Heart. All that is missing is the booklet about the snake oil ointment.

Of course, this is the man who said, “you can say anything you want as long as it doesn’t have any effect.” Amen.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

The issue that has not gone away

As we contemplate the men and women in uniform who have fallen in combat on the behalf of our nation this Memorial Day weekend it is worth remembering not only those who have honored their uniform but those who have dishonored it. I am, of course, talking about the torture and mistreatment of detainees (a.k.a. unlawful combatants) under our control taken from Afghanistan and Iraq in the ongoing conflicts there.

The torture and mistreatment of prisoners in the custody of the United States armed forces and civilian intelligence services brings us nothing but shame. It is simply wrong. Period.

This isn’t just a complaint of dreamy idealists with their heads in the clouds and not well grounded in the messiness of the real world. The real world is messy and we must be prepared to dirty our hands in situations determined by shades of gray rather than black and white. But it is precisely because the world is a messy place that we have set legal and moral guidelines as to how to act. Americans must speak out against what is wrong.

Torture and mistreatment of detainees is not only wrong but is counterproductive. Of course the strong hold out and the weak confess to anything but it goes beyond that. As President Bush has said we are engaged in a war of ideas. Those who engage in theses activities and their apologists do little to advance our cause. Rather they undermine our cause and harm our country. They betray the soldiers who put their lives on the line on the battlefield and they betray us.

Today’s Washington Post has a short piece by Alberto J. Mora. He is a retired Navy general counsel and had written a memo to Pentagon officials two years before the Abu Ghraib scandal that warned against circumventing international agreements on torture and detainee treatment. He states:

It is astonishing to me, still, that I should be here today addressing the issue of American cruelty -- or that anyone would ever have to. Our forefathers,
who permanently defined our civic values, drafted our Constitution inspired by
the belief that law could not create but only recognize certain inalienable
rights granted by God -- to every person, not just citizens, and not just here
but everywhere. Those rights form a shield that protects core human dignity.
Because this is so, the Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel punishment. The
constitutional jurisprudence of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments outlaws
cruel treatment that shocks the conscience. The Geneva Conventions forbid the
application of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment to all captives, as do all
of the major human rights treaties adopted and ratified by our country during
the last century.

Despite this, there was abuse. Not all were mistreated, but some were.
For those mistreated, history will ultimately judge what the precise quantum of
abuse inflicted was -- whether it was torture or some lesser cruelty -- and
whether it resulted from official commission or omission, or occurred despite
every reasonable effort to prevent the abuse. Whatever the ultimate historical
judgment, it is established fact that documents justifying and authorizing the
abusive treatment of detainees during interrogation were approved and
distributed. These authorizations rested on three beliefs: that no law
prohibited the application of cruelty; that no law should be adopted that would
do so; and that our government could choose to apply the cruelty -- or not -- as
a matter of policy depending on the dictates of perceived military necessity.

He asks, “Will we continue to regard the protection and promotion of
human dignity as the essence of our national character and purpose, or will we
bargain away human and national dignity in return for an additional possible
measure of physical security?”

He goes on:

Why should we still care about these issues? The Abu Ghraib abuses have been
exposed; Justice Department memoranda justifying cruelty and even torture have
been ridiculed and rescinded; the authorizations for the application of extreme
interrogation techniques have been withdrawn; and, perhaps most critically, the
Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, which prohibits cruel, inhuman and degrading
treatment, has been enacted, thanks to the courage and leadership of Sen. John

We should care because the issues raised by a policy of cruelty
are too fundamental to be left unaddressed, unanswered or ambiguous. We should
care because a tolerance of cruelty will corrode our values and our rights and
degrade the world in which we live. It will corrupt our heritage, cheapen the
valor of the soldiers upon whose past and present sacrifices our freedoms
depend, and debase the legacy we will leave to our sons and daughters. We should
care because it is intolerable to us that anyone should believe for a second
that our nation is tolerant of cruelty. And we should care because each of us
knows that this issue has not gone away.

You can read the whole piece here.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Iran and the Letter

Describe President Bush as you will -- uninspired, weak, lame, inarticulate, incompetent, a one gallon head under a ten gallon hat, etc. -- but the word strange is one adjective that usually doesn’t come to mind. The picture above is….simply….strange. What is strange about it is that it comes from the website purportedly of the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It is a depiction, of course, of him writing his now famous or infamous letter to President George Bush and of President Bush reading his letter.

The White House website is a little over the top with pictures of a smiling President Bush but there is nothing really strange about those photographs -- sappy maybe but not strange. The picture above is a sign of someone who takes himself a little too seriously. And that said, we do need to keep in mind the two men in that picture may decide whether or not the region goes up in flames (again). That is a scary thought.

The letter was the buzz around Washington for several days and there is still debate about how to respond or respond at all. Hendrik Hertzberg, in this week’s New Yorker, wrote:

The epistle that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the more or less duly elected President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, sent George W. Bush, the more or less duly elected President of the United States of America, a couple of weeks ago has achieved a certain fame. Like “Remembrance of Things Past” or the tax code, it’s long, and, partly for that reason, more talked about than read.

Most likely, he wrote this letter by himself, or by himself with the help of underlings too terrified to tell him how weird and scary he was sounding. It was certainly not drafted by the Iranian foreign ministry, which still has professionals on its staff.

The Bush administration is refusing to respond to the letter because it failed to discuss the issue of the Iranian nuclear program which has a good deal of the world concerned. Hertzberg continues:

Thanks in part (but only in part) to the Iraq fiasco, going to war, in the air or on the ground, is a very, very bad idea. That leaves diplomacy, backed by the threat of sanctions. The Administration’s dismissal of Ahmadinejad’s letter is of a piece with its broader approach, which is a refusal to negotiate, or in any way to engage, directly with Iran and its opaque government.

It’s true that the letter offered no specific openings on the nuclear issue. But there is such a thing as public diplomacy. Ahmadinejad’s letter was an example—and, both despite and because of its lunacy, a pretty effective one. The struggle against Islamist extremism, the Administration often reminds us, is, among other things, a battle of ideas.

You may read Hertzberg’s whole piece here.

You may read the English version (compliments of the Iranian government) of the letter here.

(By the way, check out the Caption Competition at Harry’s Place.)

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Vote NO, Virginia

Virginia voters will be faced with an amendment to their state constitution this coming November 7th that will restrict legal rights and social benefits, now available to a wide range of people living together, to only heterosexual couples formally married. In essence, this is a ban on any and all legal recognition of unmarried relationships – gay and straight, including a ban on civil unions and domestic partnerships

Of course, the amendment is targeted to outlaw same sex marriage in Virginia. It is already against the law by statute. The purpose of the amendment is the concern by Christianists and their allies that judicial action may overturn those statutes. They believe writing discriminatory language into the constitution will maintain the status quo.

That, of course, is bad enough but the expansive language of the amendment makes it worse because it impacts all unmarried relationships. Attorney General Robert McDonnell has succeeded to offering reassurances in official state literature about the amendment that states it doesn’t mean what it says. However, the Attorney General’s opinions have no legal bearing on interpretation by the courts. There is absolutely no reason to assume judges will not interpret the amendment to mean anything other than what it says.

This amendment needs to be defeated.

The Commonwealth Coalition was created this spring to campaign against and defeat this amendment. They have listed ten reasons why citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia should vote NO. They are:

1. You believe that the language of the proposed amendment goes too far in denying legal recognition to all unmarried relationships and not just same-sex relationships.
2. You are concerned that the amendment will be read by the courts to bar enforcement of domestic violence laws against unmarried partners.
3. You are concerned that the amendment will be used by opposing factions in families seeking to deny unmarried partners of loved ones the right to hospital visitation, to decide about organ donation or burial or to determine guardianship of children or property rights.
4. You are a business person or business owner who is concerned that your business will be sued for offering domestic partner benefits or health insurance to other than immediate family members or that you will not be able to attract and retain the best employees because you will not be able to match benefits available elsewhere.
5. You believe that civil marriage, as a governmental benefit, should be available to all without discrimination.
6. You are a religious leader or member of a faith community concerned that the amendment will prohibit you from celebrating marriages or unions consistent with your faith.
7. You are in an unmarried relationship, and you are concerned that the amendment may deny you access to the courts to enforce legal agreements regarding child custody, property and other arrangements essential to provide stability for your relationship and your family.
8. You believe that it is unnecessary to amend the constitution because Virginia statutes have prohibited same-sex marriages for 30 years and civil unions and other legal agreements between same-sex couples for the last three years without any legal challenge.
9. You believe that marriage should be limited to one man and one woman, and civil unions, domestic partnerships and other legal agreements between unmarried gay or straight couples should be legal.
10, You support full marriage equality.

If you agree with any one of the above reasons you should go to the Commonwealth Coalition website and add your name to those opposing the amendment. You can even volunteer and/or make a donation.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Euston Manifesto

The project started out, as all good projects do, over beer. A group of British liberal/leftist thinkers and activists gathered at a pub near the Euston Station (a subway stop in London). While they disagreed about many things, in general they were dissatisfied with the direction of thought and action by many of their fellow politicos. As Norman Geras and Nick Cohen explained in the New Statesman a few weeks ago:

Part of the problem with much contemporary left-liberal opinion is that too many things that should be obvious in the light of the history of the past hundred years seem not to be so.

They drafted a manifesto, the Euston Manifesto, to outline their basic principles they held in common. Geras and Cohen explain,

We value the traditions and institutions of the liberal, pluralist democracies, and we decline to make excuses for, to indulgently “understand”, reactionary regimes and movements for which democracy is a hated enemy. We hold the fundamental human rights codified in the Universal Declaration to be precisely universal. Equally, violations of these rights are to be condemned whoever is responsible for them and regardless of cultural context. The manifesto speaks of our attachment to egalitarianism in all domains.

We argue that the time is long overdue to break with the tradition of left apologetics for anti-democratic forces and regimes; that there is a duty of respect for the historical truth; and that it is more than ever necessary to affirm that, within the usual constraints against incitement, people must be at liberty to criticise beliefs - including religious beliefs - that others cherish.

The left now has to fight two battles simultaneously. We defend democracies against all who make light of the differences between them and tyrannical regimes. But these democracies have shortcomings. Their social and economic foundations are marked by deep inequalities and unmerited privilege. In turn, global inequalities are a scandal to the moral conscience of humankind. Millions live in terrible poverty, an standing indictment against the international community. In keeping with our traditions, we on the left fight for justice and a decent life for all. In keeping with the same traditions, we have also to fight against powerful forces of tyranny, which are on the march again.

While written largely within the context of British politics the themes are universal. Too many of the liberal/left persuasion seem all too willing to try and explain away terrorism rather than condemn it without qualification. Too many, while rightly denouncing the reactionary and pathetically incompetent policies of the Bush administration, seem all too willing to ignore the criminal and murderous regime of Sadam Hussein or acknowledge what a destabilizing influence the Iraqi Ba’athist regime was to the Middle East. In essence, the manifesto is a call for a liberal internationalism. The manifesto also espouses an egalitarian politics calling for progress in relations between the sexes, different ethnic communities, various religious affiliations as well as those with no affiliation, and people of diverse sexual orientations. They state that labor rights are human rights. They argue that the benefits of global trade should be distributed as widely as possible and not be allowed to serve the narrow interests of small corporate elites.

It reminds me somewhat of the efforts of an earlier generation’s creation of the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) which worked to push the Democratic party to the left on many issues while at the same time campaigning hard against Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party which they believed was dangerously naïve about the threat of Soviet dominated Communism. However, so far, the manifesto is strictly a statement of the signers and is not yet a movement or organization.

Most of the signers are Brits but there are some Americans such as Paul Berman, Mitchell Cohen and Michael Walzer, all associated with Dissent magazine as well as blogger and Nation magazine contributor Marc Cooper. There are others. While the ideas are not necessarly new, with any luck the manifesto will spark a greater debate than has already taken place on this side of the Atlantic also.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Light poetry

This is from Tuesday’s Writer’s Almanac:

It's the birthday of poet Thomas Hood, born in London (1799). His early poetry was serious and romantic, but then in 1825 he anonymously published a collection of comic poems called Odes and Addresses to Great People (1825), which poked fun at many famous writers and thinkers of his day. The book was enormously successful; Samuel Taylor Coleridge described the puns as "transcendent." Hood tried all his life to write serious poems, but he is best remembered today for his comic verse, collected in books such as Whims and Oddities (1827) and Whimsicalities (1844).

He wrote, "'Lives' of great men oft remind us as we o'er their pages turn, / That we too many leave behind us— / Letters that we ought to burn."

It makes you stop and think doesn’t it.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Hugo Chavez and hero worship

Hero worship is always a risky undertaking. More than one hero has been discovered to have very human shortcomings. The real shortcomings, though, are not with the hero but with the worshiper. This is especially true for people who should know better.

Hugo Chavez, the career military officer who attempted a coup in 1992 against the Venezuelan government and was elected president of Venezuela in 1998, has become something of a hero to some on the left. His constant harangues against the United States are one source of this admiration but so is appeal to the poor of Venezuela seeing him as possibly a latter-day Juan Peron.

However, Ian Buruma writing in the Sunday London Times, points out that the left’s tradition of promoting liberty is lost when singing praises to those like Chavez who has an authoritarian streak. He says,

That Chavez is applauded by many people, especially the poor, is not necessarily a sign of democracy; many revolutionary leaders are popular, at least in the beginning of their rule, before their promises have ended in misery and bloodshed.

The left has a proud tradition of defending political freedoms, at home and abroad. But this tradition is in danger of being lost when western intellectuals indulge in power worship. Applause for autocrats undermines the morale of people who insist on fighting for their freedoms Leftists were largely sympathetic, and rightly so, to critics of Berlusconi and Thaksin, even though neither was a dictator. Both did, of course, support American foreign policy. But when democracy is endangered, the left should be equally hard on rulers who oppose the US. Failure to do so encourages authoritarianism everywhere, including in the West itself, where the frivolous behaviour of a dogmatic left has already allowed neoconservatives to steal all the best lines.

You may read his entire essay here.

And the Slaves of Academe sees Chavez as just the flip side of George Bush as she pleads for no more heros:

Hugo Chavez is considered in the West a leftist (except, ironically, by the Venezuelan left, which considers Chavez as having displaced a true left in the country), and rhetorically he fits the bill, but in practice he and George W. Bush have quite a lot in common, in terms of methodology. Both have moved aggressively to control the state and harness it to their personal politics. Both have assumed mythic proportions (in their own minds, at the very least) as saviours of the nation, have politicised and compromised civil society, both preside over deeply split electorates, and are controversial and divisive leaders who relish conflict and the grand gesture.

You may read her entire piece here.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Déme su cansado, sus pobres....

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

There are many who would like to slam that golden door shut but there are a few sensible voices to be heard. There is an interesting editorial in the Sunday New York Times reprinted here by Marc Cooper. The Times lays it all out:

A good immigration bill must honor the nation's values and be sensible enough to work. It must not violate the hopes of deserving people who want to work toward citizenship. It must not create a servant class of "guest workers" shackled to their employers and forbidden to aspire to permanent legal status. It must give newcomers equal treatment under the law and respect their rights of due process. It must impose rigorous enforcement of labor laws, so unscrupulous employers cannot exploit illegal workers. And it must clear the existing backlogs of millions seeking to enter the country legally, so that illegal immigrants do not win an unfair place in line.

This is a common sense summary of what immigration reform needs to do.

Turning an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants – roughly the population of Ohio – into felons as legislation from the House of Representatives would do is simply crazy. This sort of spitefulness does not speak well of the American people. This is simply, as the Times points out, turning immigration into a pest control problem.

Then there is a common refrain heard that by those upset by the presence in this country of undocumented workers from Mexico is that don’t play by the rules. That’s a fair argument but overlooks the fact that the rules, as they pertain to immigration, have always been very arbitrary. As just one example, look at the treatment of immigrants stepping on our shores from Hati versus immigrants who arrive on these shores from Cuba. They are treated very differently. The rules already vary (and always have) so the special relationship between Mexico and the United States should be taken into consideration when reviewing and rewriting laws.

Part of the problem with attempts at closing the border is that it makes the problem worse. It forces immigrants from the south to attempt ever more dangerous entry into the United States over unfriendly terrain and it forces those who are here to never leave out of fear they will never be able to return. A common sense immigration policy requires regulation but needs to easy enough for people to come here to work and return home without fear not being able to return. If you make it hard to comply with the law you are only going to recreate the situation we have now.

Of course every nation requires secure border for purposes of national security but why then the concern about only the border with Mexico when the Canadian border is much longer and just as porous. Is it because most Canadians are white and speak English? Let’s be honest with ourselves about that.

The worse thing Americans can do is panic. There are issues to be resolved but we need to keep in mind that while there are cultural and language differences with our brothers and sisters from Mexico we also have cultural similarities and a great many Americans speak Spanish as a second language. Certainly, issues of integration here pale in comparison to the issues of integration of Arab and Turkish immigrants in Europe.

Finally, the current debate is taking a unilateral approach to immigration from Mexico. There may be many who are convinced there is only one side to this issue but no one can deny there are two sides to the border. How many National Guard troops are we willing to place on the border and how high are we willing to build fences with razor wire and walls of steel and concrete before there is a dialogue with Mexico. Because we share a border with Mexico we have a special relationship that country. It is in the interests of both Mexico and the United States that Mexico prospers. This should involve not only the American government but American businesses and American labor unions.

Given the tenor of the debate, doing the right thing will take some political courage. However, doing the right thing will pay off in the long run for both our countries.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Something there is that doesn't love a wall

In the debate about creating a Berlin Wall type barrier across our southern border how many times have you heard the phrase, “good fences make good neighbors”? The line, of course, is from the Robert Frost poem, “Mending Wall.”

It is refreshing that someone has finally taken the time to read the poem. David Corn has and argues,

… it's time to send in the poetry police, for Frost's poem actually is not a celebration of walls but a questioning of them. His poem "Mending Wall" starts out rather clearly:

Something there is that doesn't love a wall

Corn goes through the poem and concludes,

I doubt he had the US-Mexico border in mind when he penned these lines. But he was clearly wondering about a fellow who clings so solidly to the idea of a wall. Frost's "good fences make good neighbors" line was no policy prescription. It was an illumination of the human tendency to embrace and then stick with a simple and comforting thought. Now, will a member of Congress please insert the entire poem into the Congressional Record?

Read his piece here.

Friday, May 19, 2006

VA Senate Democratic Primary coming up June 13

George Allen is running for reelection as United States Senator. He is also running for President. A senate term is six years. The presidential election is in two years. You can do the math. It is obvious, as Larry Sabato points out, that George Allen hopes not to serve out the second term he is running for.

Of course, Allen’s career so far in the Senate has been quite unremarkable. Given the enormous advantage he has being in the majority party he could be guiding legislation important to him through congress but one is hard put to come up with any legislation Allen has taken a leadership roll on. Of course, he was quoted in the New York Times as saying he was bored. Apparently he was expecting the United States Senate to be entertaining. Poor George.

Why he is running for reelection is anyone’s guess. Not only is he bored but he is running for President. The Senate campaign at this time must certainly be a distraction from the run for President and a loss or even a close race could derail his hopes for the Republican presidential nomination. His role in the Republican race is to be the George Bush stand-in running against Senator John McCain. I’m not a Republican but if I were that would be an easy call to make between the two of them.

Back to the Senate race here in Virginia, the Democratic Primary is scheduled for June 13th. There are two candidates, Jim Webb and Harris Miller. So far the race has been very low key. This is not to say the candidates and their organizations have not been working hard – I’m sure they have been very busy. But so far in the Richmond area there are no bumper stickers or yard signs indicating support for either candidate. My guess this is not because people are struggling to make up their minds between the two but more likely most people are probably not even aware and election is even coming up in three weeks.

As Margaret Edds points out in her column in the Virginia Pilot, Webb seems to be drawing support from Democrats nationally who see Allen as vulnerable and Webb the stronger of the two Democratic possibilities. Miller, on the other hand, has been a player in Virginia Democratic politics and may draw a disproportionate amount of support from Virginia Democratic activists. Webb may have better name recognition but in a low-turnout election, as this will almost certainly be, Miller may have an advantage of support from party activists.

For now, it’s too close to call.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Catch the vibe

A real treat in Southside Richmond is the Positive Vibe Restaurant. The restaurant is a training facility for people with various disabilities to aid them in preparation for employment. You can read about it here in the Wall Street Journal. However, it is more than just a good cause – it is a great restaurant. The food is excellent. The restaurant is located in the Stratford Hills Shopping Center at the intersection of Forest Hill Avenue and Hathaway Road.

This coming Sunday, May 21st, they will be having a celebration in the parking lot at the Stratford Hills Shopping Center. Live music will include Big City, the Marna Bales Band, Billy Ray Hatley & the Showdogs, Page Wilson & Reckless Abandon, the Gary Gerloff Band, Chicago Cy, the Taters, the Goodfellas, and Harry Gore. The celebration will run from noon until 6:00 p.m. and is open to the public.

Join in the fun on Sunday and if you can’t make the celebration be sure to check out the restaurant at another time. It’s a good cause and good food all wrapped into one.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Is the trade-off of civil liberties for security even a good deal?

The question of whether we should surrender a little in the way of civil liberties in order to protect ourselves from those who would harm us is a fair question to ask. After all, all the freedoms in the world mean little if you are dead.

However, there are more fundamental questions to ask before we even get to the question of what sacrifices we need to make. If we are to give up certain freedoms can we expect something of equal or greater value in terms of security in return? Does what we are being asked to give up our civil liberties for even work?

Typical for the Bush administration is the position that there is no effect on civil liberties in anything they do. Rather than engage in an honest debate about trade-offs, they just pretend there are none. That seems to be what the President is saying about the most recent revelations about NSA monitoring of telephone calls. Also typical for the administration that admits no mistakes is the position that this whole phone monitoring scheme is actually productive.

The FBI has already complained about being swamped with data from the NSA tying up agents searching out false leads. It seems the mantra of “connecting the dots” has become quite literally what the NSA is attempting to do. However, as mathematicians can point out, it is easy to make connections between people. The problem is almost all those connections are meaningless.

Every FBI agent tied up on a wild goose chase is an FBI agent not protecting the public from terrorists or criminals. There is a point this quickly becomes very counter-productive. What we need for our investigators to do is old fashioned and smart police work

These stories that keep coming out about what our intelligence agencies are doing are not only disturbing about their impact on civil liberties but raises questions if we are any safer than before 9-11 or not.

We deserve better.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

VA Marriage Amendment -- a bad idea made worse

What if judges interpret the proposed marriage amendment to the state constitution to mean what it says?

For a refresher, the full text of the amendment:

"That only a union between one man and one woman may be a marriage valid in or recognized by this Commonwealth and its political subdivisions.
This Commonwealth and its political subdivisions shall not create or recognize a legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals that intends to approximate the design, qualities, significance, or effects of marriage. Nor shall this Commonwealth or its political subdivisions create or recognize another union, partnership, or other legal status to which is assigned the rights, benefits, obligations, qualities, or effects of marriage"

A. Barton Hinkle wrote in today’s Richmond Times Dispatch,

The Commonwealth needs the amendment, its advocates contend, because activist judges could override the existing statutory language restricting marriage to one man and one woman.

Yet the amendment's language may go beyond the one-man-one-woman restriction in its first sentence. The second and third sentences also forbid creating or recognizing a "legal status" for "relationships" that "approximate the design, qualities, significance, or effects of marriage" or recognizing any "partnership . . . to which is assigned the rights, benefits, obligations, qualities, or effects of marriage."

Amendment foes contend such language is too sweeping and could have unintended consequences. They warn it could impede the enforcement of domestic-violence laws, for instance, or prevent someone from authorizing a friend to make end-of-life decisions through an advance medical directive. Such consequences already have come to pass elsewhere. In late March the Dayton Daily News reported: "County prosecutors cannot charge some unmarried people under Ohio's domestic violence law because it conflicts with the state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, this area's state appeals court ruled Friday." Other courts have ruled differently, and the question remains unsettled.

He goes on and discusses the language in that will appear in official explanation of the amendments promoted by Attorney General Bob McDonnell and approved by the Senate P&E Committee which downplays the language of the amendment beyond the first sentence.

…….But isn't the case for the marriage amendment also built on a hypothetical -- the possibility that a judge in Virginia might take a page out of Massachusetts' book and declare homosexual marriage a right by fiat?

IF ACTIVIST judges can disregard the existing law on marriage and interpret the Virginia Constitution to force homosexual unions down the state's throat, then could they not also disregard other existing laws and interpret the marriage amendment to produce regrettable unintended consequences?

The Virginia General Assembly seems to have a certain knack at taking a bad idea and making it worse.

Read Hinkle’s piece here.

Monday, May 15, 2006

"It's the recklessness at the top of our government, not the press's exposure of it, that has truly aided the enemy..."

In Sunday’s New York Times (reprinted here Monday in the International Herald Tribune), Frank Rich reminds us of the attempts by the Nixon administration to suppress the publication of the Pentagon Papers, the secret government history of the war in Vietnam, and the accusations of treason towards the press it used in 1971. The classified secrets revealed by the Pentagon Papers showed public officials had misled the public and tried to cover up their mistakes.

History, Rich points out, repeats itself. Now we have stories about secret prisons and warrantless spying on Americans followed by calls of treason by the administration and its defenders embarrassed by the revelations.

We can see this charade for what it is: The leaders who bungled a war want to change the subject to the journalists who caught them in the act. What really angers the White House and its defenders about both the Post and Times scoops are not the legal questions the stories raise about unregulated gulags and unconstitutional domestic snooping, but the unmasking of yet more administration failures in a war effort riddled with ineptitude. It's the recklessness at the top of the U.S. government, not the press' exposure of it, that has truly aided the enemy, put American lives at risk and potentially sabotaged national security. That's where the buck stops, and if there's to be a witch hunt for traitors, that's where it should begin.

Rich calls Porter Goss, the former CIA Director, so inept that he might be mistaken for a Qaeda double agent. His mission was not to protect the public from terrorists but to protect the Bush administration from the public.

Even before Goss went to the CIA, he was a drag on national security. In "Breakdown," a book about intelligence failures before the 9/11 attacks, the conservative journalist Bill Gertz delineates how Goss, then chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, played a major role in abdicating congressional oversight of the CIA, trying to cover up its poor performance while terrorists plotted with impunity. After 9/11, his committee's "investigation" of what went wrong was notoriously toothless.

Once he ascended to the CIA in 2004, Goss behaved like most other Bush appointees: He put politics ahead of the national interest, and stashed cronies and partisan hacks in crucial positions.

Besides driving out career employees, underperforming on Iran intelligence and scaling back a daily cross- agency meeting on terrorism, Goss's only other apparent accomplishment at the CIA was his war on those traitorous leakers. Intriguingly, this was a new cause for him. "There's a leak every day in the paper," he told The Sarasota Herald-Tribune when the identity of the officer Valerie Wilson was exposed in 2003. He argued then that there was no point in tracking leaks down because "that's all we'd do."

What prompted Goss' about-face was revealed in his early memo instructing CIA employees to "support the administration and its policies in our work." His mission was not to protect America but to prevent the airing of administration dirty laundry, including leaks detailing how the White House ignored accurate CIA intelligence on Iraq before the war.

On Goss's watch, CIA lawyers also tried to halt publication of "Jawbreaker," the former clandestine officer Gary Berntsen's account of how the U.S. command let Osama bin Laden escape when Berntsen's team had him trapped in Tora Bora in December 2001. The one officer fired for alleged leaking during the Goss purge had no access to classified intelligence about secret prisons but was presumably a witness to her boss's management disasters.

President Bush’s proposed replacement for Goss at the CIA is the former head of the NSA, General Michael Hayden. With all arguments from the Bush administration during the past few months about the need to intrude more and more into the privacy of Americans to prevent another 9/11 attack it is worth remembering that the NSA, under General Hayden, had a tip-off prior to 9/11 of the upcoming attack. They just didn’t get around to translating it until after the attacks.

Soon to come are the Senate's hearings on Goss's successor, General Michael Hayden, the former head of the NSA. Bush endorsed his new CIA choice with the same encomium he had bestowed on Goss: He's "the right man" to lead the CIA "at this critical moment in our nation's history." That's not exactly reassuring.

This being an election year, Karl Rove hopes the hearings can portray Bush opponents as soft on terrorism when they question any national security move. It was this bullying that led so many Democrats to rubber-stamp the Iraq war resolution in the 2002 election season and Goss's appointment in the autumn of 2004.

Will they fall into the same trap in 2006? Will they be so busy soliloquizing about civil liberties that they'll fail to investigate the nominee's record? It was under Hayden, a self-styled electronic surveillance whiz, that the NSA intercepted actual Qaeda messages on Sept. 10, 2001 - "Tomorrow is zero hour" for one - and failed to translate them until Sept. 12.

You can read the entire column here.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

DIVERSIONS: Green Valley Book Fair

If you are a bibliophile, the high price of gas pales in comparison to the high price of books. I enjoy books but have found their prices in the last several years have gone beyond what I can afford. My personal library is filled with books I have purchased used off the internet or new at the Green Valley Book Fair.

I discovered the Green Valley Book Fair approximately twenty-five years ago. At that time, it took place in a barn. It has since expanded to air-conditioned warehouses. It is located just off I-81 between Staunton and Harrisonburg in Virginia.

They have available a rather eclectic collection of thousands of books discounted at affordable prices While you won’t find recently published books, you may find some titles published within the past year. You will find many classics in fiction, children’s books, cookbooks, history, religion, sports and more.

Book fairs are scheduled six times a year. Currently there is a Book Fair scheduled from May 13 through the 29th and a new one scheduled from July 1 through the 16th. Visit their website and signup for an email notice.

Granted, it is not exactly the Hay Book Festival, but it’s what we’ve got. I recommend it. Check it out.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Bush administration works to gut CIA

The Central Intelligence Agency has a long history of controversy. Many on the left have called for its abolition. However, there is an old say that you should be careful for what you wish for. While the Bush administration is not proposing to abolish the CIA, it has certainly worked to undermine it.

Sidney Blumenthal wrote a piece for Salon, which now appears in the online edition of Der Speigel, about the demise of the CIA under the Bush administration. According to Blumenthal,

On April 21, 2005, his mission dictated by Bush's political imperatives, Goss became CIA director. Immediately, he sent a memo to all employees, ordering them to "support the administration and its policies in our work." He underscored the supremacy of the party line: "As agency employees we do not identify with, support, or champion opposition to the administration or its policies."

He installed four political aides to run the agency from his offices on the seventh floor at Langley. Within weeks, an exodus of professionals began and then turned into a flood. In the Directorate of Operations, he lost the director, two deputies, and more than a dozen department and division directors and station chiefs out in the field. In the Directorate of Intelligence, dozens took early retirement. Four former operations chiefs, horrified by the carnage, sought to meet with Goss, but he refused.

The vacuum created by the gutting of the CIA by Porter Goss has led to the take over of more and more intelligence work by the Pentagon. Whatever faults the CIA may have (and there are many), it is a civilian agency trained to make wide overviews of intelligence whether they are economic, political or military. Blumenthal makes the point the military is trained for one kind of analysis for which they have one type of solution:

The militarization of intelligence under Bush is likely to guarantee military solutions above other options. Uniformed officers trained to identity military threats and trends will take over economic and political intelligence for which they are untrained and often incapable, and their priorities will skew analysis. But the bias toward the military option will be one that the military in the end will dislike. It will find itself increasingly bearing the brunt of foreign policy and stretched beyond endurance. The vicious cycle leads to a downward spiral.

Read the article by Sidney Blumenthal here.

The magnificent Union County Courthouse in Liberty, Indiana

This is an old postcard showing the Union County Courthouse in Liberty, Indiana where I grew up. I am guessing that the photograph was taken in the very early part of the 20th century (the streets have yet to be paved). The courthouse is in the center of town. The architecture and size of the building (it is probably the tallest building in the county) represents a certain dignity and reminds the residents they are part of something much bigger than themselves -- the community at large.

Coming to Virginia and traveling throughout the state I have yet to see a courthouse that commands the respect this building does. In fact, the only memorable thing about most courthouses I can recall are the statues of Confederate soldiers on the courthouse lawns facing south with their backs to Washington -- symbols of bitterness rather than community.

Friday, May 12, 2006

“Barbarians” are always the other people

It is a well worn cliché that history is written by the winners. There’s probably more truth to that than not. However, what happens when the losers are quite literate and the winners leave little or no written record? You end up with the conventional understanding of the fall of the Roman Empire.

Terry Jones writes in his soon to be available book,

The Romans kept the Barbarians at bay for as long as they could, but finally they were engulfed and the savage hordes overran the empire, destroying the cultural achievements of centuries. The light of reason and civilisation was almost snuffed out by the Barbarians, who annihilated everything that the Romans had put in place, sacking Rome itself and consigning Europe to the Dark Ages. The Barbarians brought only chaos and ignorance, until the renaissance rekindled the fires of Roman learning and art.

It is a familiar story, and it’s codswallop. (More.)

Thursday, May 11, 2006

VA Attorney General Attempts to Mislead Virginia Voters about Anti-Marriage Amendment

The ballot in Virginia this fall will include an amendment to the Virginia Constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman. This is part of that national movement to deny the benefits of marriage or civil unions to an entire class of people – in other words, it is an attempt to write discrimination into the state constitution.

The full text of the amendment:

"That only a union between one man and one woman may be a marriage valid in or recognized by this Commonwealth and its political subdivisions.

This Commonwealth and its political subdivisions shall not create or recognize a legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals that intends to approximate the design, qualities, significance, or effects of marriage. Nor shall this Commonwealth or its political subdivisions create or recognize another union, partnership, or other legal status to which is assigned the rights, benefits, obligations, qualities, or effects of marriage"

There are plenty of reasons why this amendment is a bad idea. There will be more on that later. For now, the odds of this passing in Virginia are probably pretty good although the overly broad language outlawing legal status of relationship of unmarried individuals jeopardizes the benefits and obligations of individuals regardless of their sexual orientation. The language of the second paragraph may be a drag on the pro vote.

The code of Virginia requires the State Board of Election to provide information for the electorate explaining amendments that are “neutral” and "shall not include arguments submitted by either proponents or opponents of the proposal." These explanations are disseminated on brochures from the state. The language of this explanation need only be approved by the Privileges and Elections Committee (P & E) of both the House and Senate but not the entire General Assembly.

The supporters seem to want to take no chance of its possible defeat however unlikely that may be (at this time). In addition to the neutral language drafted by the Division of Legislative Services, Attorney General Robert McDonnell (and likely 2009 gubernatorial candidate) has proposed the following addition:

Marriage in the Commonwealth creates specific legal rights, benefits and obligations for a man and a woman. There are other legal rights, benefits and obligations which will continue to be available to unmarried persons, including the naming of an agent to make end-of-life decisions by an Advanced Medical Directive (Code of Virginia section 54.1-2981), protections afforded under Domestic Violence laws (Code of Virginia section 18.2-57.2), ownership of real property as joint tenants with or without right of survivorship (Code of Virginia section 55-20.1), or disposition of property by will (Code of Virginia section 64.1-46).

The problem with this language is that it is misleading as to what the amendment says -- it is written as if the whole second paragraph of the proposed Amendment does not exist. It is also opinion of the Attorney General which is not legally binding on the interpretation of the law by the courts. It is downright dishonest and says a lot about the integrity of those supposedly worried about the integrity of marriage.

As of this writing, the Attorney General’s addition has been approved by the House P & E Committee. Let’s see if the Senate P & E Committee has the guts to say no to Mr. McDonnell and yes to honesty with Virginia voters.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Christianism vs. Christianity

Andrew Sullivan wants to reclaim Christianity for Christians from rightwing politicians -- the so-called "Christian Right."

He argues “the term ‘people of faith’ has been co-opted almost entirely in our discourse by those who see Christianity as compatible with only one political party, the Republicans, and believe that their religious doctrines should determine public policy for everyone.”

According to Sullivan, “…. let me suggest that we take back the word Christian while giving the religious right a new adjective: Christianist. Christianity, in this view, is simply a faith. Christianism is an ideology, politics, an ism. The distinction between Christian and Christianist echoes the distinction we make between Muslim and Islamist. Muslims are those who follow Islam. Islamists are those who want to wield Islam as a political force and conflate state and mosque.”

Sullivan's concern is for the corrupting influence of politics on the church. My concern is the for the corrupting influence of the church on our democracy. The ability to compromise is a key element in democratic politics. The inability to compromise is an element of authoritarianism and the Christianists are a good example of those all too willing to impose their uncompromised beliefs on the rest of us.

One is reminded of the movement in Spain combining extreme conservatism and Catholicism as part of the larger movement to overthrow the secular Spanish Republic starting in 1936. Conservative Christians joined with the Falange to establish the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco that lasted until his death in 1975.

His essay in this week's Time Magazine can be read here.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Cell Phones, Playstations and the Rape of the Congo

Coltan is a metal contained in cell phones and Playstations. According to Johann Hari, eighty percent of the world’s known sources of coltan can be found in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Much of the mining is done by slave labor, including children, digging with nothing more than their hands.

Congo has a history of over a century of misery. From King Leopold and the Belgian rubber plantations to the current chaos in central Africa, the Congolese people have been victims of those with power who simply take what they want and do as they please. There are armies from a number of different countries and private militias roving the country raping, looting, enslaving and killing with no one to stop them. The central government is so corrupt and weak it cannot protect its citizens. A country wealthy with many natural resources is impoverished as coltan, diamonds, gold and cassiterite are exported to the world market and the revenue is used to fuel the ongoing war.

Johann Hari recently visited Congo and his article reporting on his observations was published earlier this week in The Independent. It is simply horrific reading but necessary to appreciate this holocaust that is taking place as our attentions are elsewhere. His article can be found here.

Monday, May 08, 2006


In the play, The Ruling Class, the protagonist is quite mad and believes he is God. One inquisitive relative asks, “How do you know you are God?” He replied, “When I pray I find I’m talking to myself.”

The risk of writing a blog is the risk of talking to yourself and, well, I think you get the picture. Blogging is something that did not even exist a few years ago but now represents a new form of communicating ideas.

I enjoy telling a story, sharing an opinion and advocating a position. I intend this blog to be something of a personal magazine. It will consist of material of interest to me and, hopefully, to you. I hope to touch on many topics but the one I will come back to over and over again is politics. Politics is a lot like dirty dishes – the task is never done. However, there can be fulfillment even in unending tasks.

Are you familiar with the Greek myth of Sisyphus? Sisyphus defied the gods, put Death in chains, and when he found himself in Hades, managed to talk his way back to this world because he preferred life in the here and now on earth over some other kind of existence.

He was captured and condemned by the gods to roll a boulder to the top of a mountain. Upon reaching the top of the mountain the boulder would roll back to the bottom. He would then begin the process of rolling the boulder to the top of the mountain again. The gods felt this eternal effort to be punishment. However, Albert Camus in his famous essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” states that this was actually a victory for Sisyphus because “the struggle towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.”

There is always frustration in life in general and in politics in particular. However, it is the struggle that keeps us motivated. If it were easy and simple it would not be interesting. There is much to do. Let us begin.