Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

This I Believe, on Faith and Grief

I've been meaning to do a post on the NPR series This I Believe for some time now. If you're not familiar with it, here's their own description:

This I Believe is a national media project engaging people in writing, sharing, and discussing the core values and beliefs that guide their daily lives. NPR airs these three-minute essays on All Things Considered and Weekend Edition Sunday.

This I Believe is based on a 1950s radio program of the same name, hosted by acclaimed journalist Edward R. Murrow. In creating This I Believe, Murrow said the program sought "to point to the common meeting grounds of beliefs, which is the essence of brotherhood and the floor of our civilization"...

In reviving This I Believe, Allison and Gediman say their goal is not to persuade Americans to agree on the same beliefs. Rather, they hope to encourage people to begin the much more difficult task of developing respect for beliefs different from their own.

There's plenty of installments I haven't heard, but of those that I have, "My Husband Will Call Me Tomorrow," by Becky Herz, is easily the most powerful and moving. It speaks of the role faith can and does play for many people. For me, it's a secular faith, and one consciously chosen. (There's far more to write on the subject, but just listen to the piece.)

The second piece that's stuck with me is "A Way to Honor Life," by Cortney Davis, a nurse practitioner sometimes faced with upset or grieving people, and here I shall roam far a field. I'm including it because I'm grateful for the realization she shares in it. Honestly, when I first heard Davis describe how she used to act, I felt a bit annoyed, because frankly, I've had to deal with such people my entire life. As she writes/says:

Once, I would have rushed to comfort these people. Uncomfortable myself with their grief, I'd want to ease their sadness with my cheer and consolation. I'd hug a patient and tell her to "try to get pregnant next month." I would reassure the widower, telling him, "Your wife had a long life." I'd enter the burned child's room in intensive care with a smile, rather than encouraging the mother to weep in my arms.

That dynamic makes me think of a scene from Shakespeare's Hamlet:

How is it that the clouds still hang on you?

Not so, my lord; I am too much i' the sun.

Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off,
And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
Do not for ever with thy vailed lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust:
Thou know'st 'tis common; all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.

Ay, madam, it is common.

If it be,
Why seems it so particular with thee?

Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not 'seems.'
'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected 'havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

[1.2, 66-86]

I've always loved Hamlet's "I know not seems," and I've found it resonates with a fair number of teenagers, actually. Many are familiar with others' focus on appearances, and how a given emotional state of theirs can be seen by others primarily as an inconvenience. There's a difference between treating someone as a problem to be solved versus a human being who needs to be listened to, someone who might need a genuine moment of connection. The latter requires vulnerability, and risk. "Attention must be paid," as the line from Death of the Salesman goes.

I mention all this because Davis, in her former way of doing things, was interacting with others to make herself feel better, not them.

That's not to say she was a bad person, and clearly she meant well. She's also working in a job that requires a certain amount of emotional armor for most people, because otherwise burnout is inevitable. Some folks use gallows humor to cope, some go cheerful like Davis, and others take a still different route. I heard a doctor lecture on AIDS once, years ago. His delivery was surprisingly flat. However, I also knew that he was a very good man and doctor, who had dedicated his life to helping others. Because of his specialties, he had treated AIDS patients starting in the 80s, when little was known, little could be done, and the survival rate was poor. Perhaps some of his delivery was due to his own personality, but I suspect that dealing with as many terminal cases as he had just took a toll. I believe he had to create a persona or emotional space to deal with that much death and still do his job effectively.

All that said, I feel grateful when Davis says, "I no longer comfort others with false cheer," and feel sympathy when she describes dealing with the death of her parents. I also agree with her when she says:

When I grieve, when I stand by others as they grieve, even in the midst of seemingly unbearable sorrow, grief becomes a way to honor life — a way to cling to every fleeting, precious moment of joy.

That, too, like Herz, expresses a type of faith. Both pieces are lovely, thoughtful and thought-provoking.

Everyone grieves in his or her own way, and in his or her own time. I've never thought that America, which possesses a heavy amount of "if you don't feel good, take a pill!" in its culture, deals with grief that well, or depression, or perhaps simply emotional non-conformity. I find, dealing with the death of my father a year ago now, that there are times I want to keep busy, that it's fine to laugh, and there are times the grief sneaks in — or strides in quite directly! — and I need to honor that. Attention must be paid. When I hear a family member's been told s/he really should move on despite it being less than a year, I want to slug the advice-givers, or at least curse them out. It's not quite as bad as the trite platitude a friend and colleague of mine diagnosed with cancer was told by someone "trying to be helpful." But no one chooses their feelings, only how they react to them, and grief doesn't plot neatly out according to a locomotive's timetable.

For example, I had a high school classmate who was killed by a drunk driver the day after we graduated. It was a freak occurrence, completely random, as he and a friend were driving to pick up a pizza. We're weren't close friends, but we knew each other quite well, as did everyone at that school and in our class. He had been a guy I just knew I'd run into later in life. His death was brutal on his family, of course. Personally, I was stunned, I was devastated, I thought and wrote about it quite a bit, and talked about it with classmates. I was trying to deal with it consciously and pretty directly. Still, almost two years later, it struck me how much I was still carrying it, and how much it had colored my thinking on an unconscious level. That realization was significant for me. But that process couldn't have been rushed, not even by me. Likewise, my current feelings do and will take their own course, and I wouldn't have it otherwise.

Since I've shifted into a more personal post, I should mention that I personally haven't felt much of the annoyance I've felt on others' behalf regarding grief over my dad's death. Some people fumble for what to say, but that's fine. The gesture is what's important, not the words themselves, and it's all appreciated. After witnessing some true vileness in the political sphere these past several years, I'm concerned at times about becoming too hardened in reaction, since it's not something I'd like to let spill over to allies and friends. ("Battle not with monsters" and all that.) As Davis used to in her professional field, it can be tempting to offer the easy answer versus the honest one in the personal realm, to give the pat response versus the riskier, genuine one. It's important for me to remember sometimes what all those people who showed up for the viewing and funeral and before and since have demonstrated. Death touches us all. And people are kind. They can be very, very kind. This I believe.

In Memoriam

It's now been a year since my dad's untimely death. Needless to say, my family and I still miss him terribly, most of all my mom.

I had been debating writing a longer, personal post, and/or posting the eulogy I wrote. However, at least one family member felt a bit uncomfortable with that, so on top of my mixed feelings, it didn't feel completely right for this year. I will say that among the many legacies my dad left, I'm most grateful for his sense of humor, love of cinema, music and other arts, commitment to fairness, insatiable curiosity, puckish sense of play and generosity of spirit. I hope to honor those best qualities in my own life, and to improve on my own faults.

The specifics differ from my own life, but I think the following poem is one of those quintessential Father's Day picks for a reason. I've met many people who, like me, couldn't read it without thinking of their father:

Those Winter Sundays
By Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early
And put his clothes on in the blueback cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

Meanwhile, this was one of my dad's favorite classical pieces. The video skips a bit and the fidelity ain't the greatest at points, but there's a depth of feeling, and for this, that's really what's most important.

Rest in peace.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

New Atheists and Other Straw Men

It's one of the chief reasons I love the internets, but the liberal blogosphere in particular. I can read a piece such as "The atheist delusion" in Salon, get annoyed by John Haught's straw man arguments, and feel the urge to rebut them — but then I'll find someone else, in this case Brian at Incertus, has already done so. It's a really sharp (and quick) dissection. Check it out. As he concludes:

My point here is that while I appreciate Haught's efforts in bringing religious belief more in tune with scientific understanding--he was the only theologian to testify in the 2005 Dover, PA case about ID in the schools--he really needs to lay off of us atheists, especially if he's not going to actually address our stances and opinions.

I'd add that when Haught complains that the "new" atheists Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris are "pale imitations of great atheists like Nietzsche, Camus and Sartre," it strikes me as pretty unfair, like comparing every contemporary playwright to Shakespeare. Those three fellows are giants, but the "new" atheists also have a different focus. They discuss history and philosophy, but they're also examining contemporary figures and politics. It reminded me of the 'dance for me, atheist monkey' sentiment (my characterization) of a piece by Jacques Berlinerblau, and it seems to be a distraction and dodge. I also thought, "Well, Haught, you're no St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas!" Amy (of Incertus) in the comment thread had an intriguing reaction, that Haught was trying to reframe the debate with "new" atheists: "Why can't they be nihilists?! That's so much easier to argue against!!" That's probably the best take.

I'd also say that Haught mischaracterizes Camus' Myth of Sisyphus and existentialism in general, but since it's just an interview, perhaps he's more nuanced and accurate in his book. Very roughly speaking (and I should re-read Myth…), Camus' contention would be that a situation may be objectively hopeless, but we still possess the ability to chose our outlook toward it. That power of choice is extremely powerful, and can be essential. Meanwhile, one of Sartre's key essays remains "Existentialism is a Humanism." Both the "natural law" of Plato and Aristotle and existentialism stress the essential role that choice plays. The difference would be whether one believes there's an inherent morality, order, a god, and so on, or whether we construct such things for ourselves. Personally, I've always been less concerned about the source of a moral system than the system itself, whether it works, where it fails, and how it can be improved. After all, the major Greek philosophers viewed "Ethics" the subject as a practical science, not merely something meant for theoretical fancies. I'd further throw in some thoughts on anthropology and cultural norms, and how the extreme trauma of WWI, physical, cultural, philosophical and psychic, seemed to spur such striking innovations in art and philosophy, from Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway to aspects of Sartre's existentialism. Hell, from roughly the same era, throw in Formalism as it relates to Eisenstein's theories of cinematic montage, and we could have ourselves a hardcore, super-cool geekfest. But my apologies; I'm leaving town very shortly, and I'm giving some very heavy stuff a cursory, breezy treatment.

The comment thread for the Incertus post has some great stuff, too. On the "tolerance" issue, I'll simply link this older post.

Update: I've since cross-posted this at Blue Herald.

Cry, the Beleaguered Klansman

Since we were just discussing Holocaust denial, and I (predictably) mentioned Pastor Martin Niemöller's famous poem "First they came…" in the comments thread, this post by Bernard Chazelle at A Tiny Revolution is perfectly timed:

No Heckling Please, We're White Supremacists

In the news:

A white separatist group planning a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in Jena is suing the town, claiming officials are violating the Constitution by asking participants not to bring firearms...

It's hard out here for white racists these days. First they took away their slaves, and we didn't speak up; then they confiscated their lynch ropes, and we didn't utter a word; then they came for their water fountains, and we kept silent.

What's next?

In an Oct. 15 letter to McMillin, Richard Barrett, an attorney for the Nationalists, asks the town for ... "adequate security," restroom facilities, access to drinking water, "adequate and secure parking" and no noise from hecklers.

I know the line in the Declaration of Independence about "life, liberty, and the pursuit of adequate, secure parking" but I looked in vain for a statement about heckling. All I know is, when you're trying to rule the world with an iron fist and enslave half of its population, heckling can be really annoying.

Oh, this also gives me the opportunity to link one of my favorite stories of the year (via Digby, via Perlstein).

The struggle continues, my brothers and sisters. (Thankfully, the right people are laughing.)

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Holocaust Denial

I'm a bit surprised and sad this post is even necessary, but a visitor pushed Holocaust denial in a thread at BH, and though we addressed it there, it seemed wise to address it in its own post as well. What exactly does one say to a Holocaust denier, assuming he or she is even remotely sincere and not merely a provocateur? I was thinking it might be akin to talking to someone who holds a geocentric view of our solar system, but even that falls woefully short, because it doesn't encompass the bigotry, the rejection of overwhelming documentary evidence, and the potential real world impact. Holocaust denial may be the ultimate combination of intellectual dishonesty, willful ignorance and irrational rage.

As Columbia University President Lee Bollinger put it to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (emphasis added):

In a December 2005 state television broadcast, you described the Holocaust as a “fabricated” “legend.” One year later, you held a two-day conference of Holocaust deniers.

For the illiterate and ignorant, this is dangerous propaganda. When you come to a place like this, this makes you, quite simply, ridiculous. You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated.

For people who care about accurate history, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. presents a mountain of material and is one of the best ways to learn about the subject. If you can't go to the museum itself, there's plenty of resources they have online. In our case, that includes "Combating Holocaust Denial: Evidence of The Holocaust Presented at Nuremberg." Some of the related films are online as well.

There's more graphic documentary footage elsewhere, and YouTube users HolocaustShoah and Lokulotes have compiled a fair amount of relevant films.

What exactly is the pitch here, by deniers? Guess the United States and other Allied governments, and their militaries, who filmed the ovens and skeletal survivors at liberated concentration camps, were all in on the conspiracy, huh? Those emaciated men fasted up to the point of starvation and organ failure just to make the Nazis look bad. They also thought pretending to be dead and being flung into a mass graves on camera would be the perfect payback.

What exactly is the political upside of Holocaust denial? It's not as if it has any credibility. Based on what I've read to date, it seems these people believe that Israel claims greater moral authority due to the Holocaust, and thus denying key elements of one of the worst atrocities in human history will undercut that supposed authority. But why do they even view this as necessary? No nation is completely virtuous, most aren't even close, and all deserve healthy criticism. Criticizing policies of Israel hardly makes one anti-Semitic by itself, of course. It is sad that charges of anti-Semitism can be tossed around quite recklessly, mainly but not exclusively by right-wingers. However, as Glenn Greenwald recently pointed out, a "New poll reveals how unrepresentative neocon Jewish groups are," and there are definitely venues where adult discussion can be had. Personally, I dislike reflexive, false charges of anti-Semitism because I feel it cheapens the term and diminishes a very real problem to a rhetorical bullying move. All of that said, I really don't see how one can be a Holocaust denier and not be anti-Semitic. Perhaps it's theoretically possible, but in practice, it sure doesn't seem to be the case. The Holocaust did target homosexuals, Slavs, the Roma (or gypsies), and all totalitarian regimes persecute political activists and intellectuals. But of course Jews were the main target, by far the largest group affected, and as plenty of the Nazis' own films and documents attest, their persecution of Jews was not exactly a big secret. I suspect for many a Holocaust denier, if he or she articulated their true feelings, it would be, "How dare you try to make me feel guilty for hating Jews!"

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum also hosts a series or related articles and links on the subject of Holocaust denial. As "Combating Holocaust Denial: Holocaust Deniers and Public Misinformation" notes:

Holocaust deniers naively assert that if they can discredit one fact about the Holocaust, the whole history of the event can be discredited as well. They ignore most of the evidence of the historical event and focus on three specific arguments that they say negate the reality of the Holocaust in its entirety.

Of course, the truth will continue to be lost on the "brazenly provocative," "astonishingly uneducated" and ferociously bigoted.

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Right-Wing Cartoon Watch #27 (11/12/07 — 12/16/07)

The 27th installment of RWCW has arrived, covering four weeks. Everything’s coming up roses in Iraq, they say! Every time we torture someone, another 9/11 is averted! You can’t trust intelligence that doesn’t urge us to bomb the enemy du jour! And Gore Edwards Obama Hillary Clinton is the anti-Christ... or at least, a woman.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Romney's "Anti-JFK" Speech

I'm going out of town for a few days, but wanted to dash off a quick post based on my comment to Buck's post today on Romney's speech. Buck rightly noted that Christian fundamentalists aren't liable to be won over by it. However, the AP story and video excerpts give the misleading impression that Romney is a champion of the separation of church and state, when he's anything but.

You can read the text of Romney's speech here, or if you prefer, read and listen to it at NPR here. Crooks and Liars has the video, and John Amato's post also features several superb links well worth checking out.

One of them, to People for the American Way, links the video and transcript of JFK's speech on his Catholicism. I'd also recommend Digby's post yesterday on JFK's speech.

TS at Instaputz notes Jonah Goldberg and Kathryn Jean Lopez' reaction to the speech, and certainly "It's a sad day indeed when Ramesh Ponnuru is the voice of reason." However, contrary to Goldberg and Ponnuru's take, the failure to mention agnostics and atheists was not an "oversight." This speech was extremely calculated, and agnostics and atheists were referred to, albeit obliquely. It's just that Romney was attacking them.

Romney had two aims here, allaying fears of the general public by invoking the separation of church and state (as the AP account runs with) and pandering to the religious right. But he overtly and implicitly attacks non-believers throughout the speech, as someone who was actually defending the separation of church and state would not do. As Steve Benen notes, it's "the anti-JFK speech." Check out Romney's speech and compare it to Kennedy's. Kennedy speaks about the separation of church and state as well as bigotry. In sharp contrast, Romney says (after his initial blather about the evils of Communism and how "Radical violent Islam seeks to destroy us") that:

Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone.

This is utter bullshit, and I highly doubt he doesn't know that. There's nothing wrong with being religious, but morality and freedom are anything but dependent on religion (which as practiced, has often assaulted both morality and freedom). Romney's assertion falls into a category of statements I hold that no sane, intelligent honest person could actually believe. A casual glance over history, philosophy and human nature shows it's just not so. There's nothing wrong with holding that religion makes you personally a better person, but how cloistered or zealous would you have to be to actually believe Romney's claim?

It's a pander. Joe Lieberman, Bush and other politicians have done the same, but it's telling religious people that they're better than people who aren't. National political leaders never pander to non-believers in the same way, but many feel safe and encouraged to spew this crap, because they think it plays, and the media rarely objects. This second but more important aim of Romney's speech is about pandering to the evangelical religious right, and pandering to religious folks in general. He "will need the prayers of the people of all faiths." Read the whole speech; if you're a non-believer, you're shit out of luck. The problem with Europe, he suggests, is that they're not religious enough. His speech also calls into question his words about "serving the law and answering to the Constitution" in Massachusetts. Perhaps Mass' state constitution is worded differently, but the United States Constitution, and certainly the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom devised by Jefferson and Madison that was later widely adopted elsewhere (JFK references it), are in opposition to what Romney's shilling. Romney also says:

It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America – the religion of secularism. They are wrong. The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square.

This is a tired false equivalency combined with a straw man argument. Secularism is not a religion, nor is atheism (nor are they the same). I've got much more on these issues in this older post, and Talk to Action remains one of the best sites on such subjects (they have one post up on Romney already, and I'm sure more will follow). Romney is directly invoking the same arguments and rhetoric as Christian Dominionists and other religious authoritarians, and that's no accident. He's invoking righty stereotypes about godless, European-loving liberals, and saying he'll fight them, dagummit. He's trying to stake out the right-wing position on what they view as a "culture war." A few lines about the "common cause of the people" don't erase that – even if you believe he's telling the truth about that.

Of course, this is also a man so dishonest, gutless and craven he won't say waterboarding is torture, won't say if he's a Biblical literalist, and literally tells different audiences diametrically opposed positions in subsequent weeks. He invokes the compassion of Jesus in this speech, but he's elsewhere bragged about not granting pardons (even to highly deserving war vets), and says we should "double Guantanamo." Giuliani is more of an authoritarian, but Romney is a snake oil salesman and may be the bigger scoundrel.

Romney's got a few lines suggesting he believes in the separation of church and state in this speech, and at least some of the press, eager to hail this as a new Kennedy speech, will likely run with that. One objective perhaps achieved, never mind that defending the separation of church and state is incompatible with bashing non-believers for their non-belief, no matter how slickly or obliquely. His other objective is to woo religious conservatives. As Buck notes, Romney isn't likely to win over the hardcore fundamentalists, but he must know that. He's trying to sell the larger righty crowd on the idea that, as a man of faith, regardless of the faith, he's their guy for the White House. We'll see how he does with that.

I wrote more about Romney earlier in "Hogwash." Harper's Scott Horton wrote a great post on him, "Mitt's Muslim Problem," and also recommended a good piece on the Romney campaign by his colleague Ken Silverstein, "Making Mitt Romney: Fabricating a Conservative."

I was happy to hear Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State raise the troubling nature of Romney's rhetoric on NPR show To the Point today. All Things Considered featured a good discussion with Notre Dame professor David Campbell, who picked up on the same issues and how markedly Romney differed from Kennedy. We'll see if other media outlets are as sharp as NPR, because as Questiongirl and others have noted, Romney is certainly no Jack Kennedy.

Lastly, I did want to recommend Steve Benen's posts, "Mitt Romney: The anti-JFK," "Romney, religion, and ‘the public square,’" and John Amato at Crooks and Liars once again both for his post and the splendid pieces he links. From Melissa at Shakesville, there's Blitzer discussing Romney's speech with Glenn Beck with slightly less than the usual obtuseness those two can muster (I had not known Beck converted to Mormonism, which makes this a rare incident where he's kinda-sorta qualified to speak, but check out Melissa's comment on the key element they skip). Oh, and also from Melissa, Huckabee implies God wants him to win. Our cup runneth over.

More on these issues is sure to come!

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

That Pesky Violence in Iraq

(Blue skies, smilin' at me...)

When I hear someone say something like this, in this case from Howard Kurtz' 11/21/07 column "Belated Reaction?":

It's official: Things are getting better in Iraq.

The New York Times says so.

I feel something like this:

Of course, I'm exaggerating, whereas Kurtz writes, "I'm being only slightly facetious here." For goodness' sake, can we please have some accurate reporting about arguably the most pressing issue of the day? Can accounts please include some essential context?

Quite a few pundits and journalists (mostly right-leaning or hawkish) have echoed Kurtz' sentiment for the past month or so. Meanwhile, right-wing bloggers such as Glenn Reynolds have been declaring victory constantly since 2003. At least Kurtz didn't invoke "surrender" or say we're "winning."

Let's be very clear. Any decrease in violence is obviously welcome. I certainly hope that trend continues. However, if you read the actual stats, and independent accounts, this simply means the situation in Iraq has gone from astoundingly horrible back to… simply horrible. The violence is still obscenely high, and the many warring factions are no closer to the political reconciliation the escalation or "surge" was supposed to allow. As we wrote in RWCW #26 back on 11/16/07:

Bush keeps moving the goalposts, and now "less violence" means success, nevermind that his own November 2005 National Strategy for Victory in Iraq defined victory as a "peaceful, united, stable and secure" Iraq (hattip to a commenter here). For a quick debunk, check out the latest of Questiongirl's Meanwhile Back in Iraq series and this Glenn Greenwald piece. There's also the more involved responses of this Small Wars Journal discussion about what actual "success" would entail, and Dan Froomkin comparing Bush's rhetoric to reality. 'Cause ya know, it must not be a horrendous Charlie Foxtrot if it's a shade less than a total disaster.

In fact, the Greenwald piece linked above dissects a Kurtz column warning the Democrats could be in political trouble for urging withdraw from Iraq (!!!), along with some rosy assessments of Iraq in denial of reality by the usual hawks. (Ugh. I need to take another look at that animation!)

Furthermore, as we noted in the same RWCW post, no one is saying that there's no progress anywhere in the whole of Iraq, although it's a common right-wing tactic to make that straw man charge. The real question is whether Iraq is actually in good straits and is anywhere close to peace and stability.

To be fair, in the more recent piece, Kurtz does add a few caveats to his "things are getting better," such as when he writes, "And let's get this straight: Americans are still fighting and dying in Iraq, and modest progress at this late date doesn't magically erase 4 1/2 years of a mismanaged war or change the public's verdict on that war." However, he instantly follows this by writing, "But if attacks and casualties are dropping, that is news, just as it inevitably would be if attacks and casualties were increasing." Sure, but it would be nice to put those in context, wouldn't it? Perhaps to write a lede that wasn't highly misleading? It would also be nice if Kurtz abandoned framing everything from the point-of-view of right-wing blogs, but no such luck:

It's hard to overestimate the impact of the Times on the media agenda, especially on the network newscasts. And because the paper's editorial page has been harshly critical of President Bush and demanding a pullout from Iraq, when it reports something positive, critics are quick to intone: Even the New York Times. . .

So the lead story in yesterday's paper--a four-column spread with pictures of a couple getting married and a thriving restaurant, with the headline "Baghdad Starts to Exhale As Security Improves"--has the feel of a turning point. Not in the war, necessarily, because who knows how long this will last, or whether Iraq's fragile government will ever be able to achieve reconciliation. But it is a noteworthy event in terms of the war's coverage.

Yes, lord knows reality is less important than the coverage. Whether "Iraq's fragile government will ever be able to achieve reconciliation" is less consequential to Kurtz, never mind that it's the central question that should be the gauge of whether any discussion of Iraq is actually serious versus bullshit. Kurtz is basically confessing right here that this is a shallow column with all the weight of a marshmallow. Does he get any slack for being a media critic, writing about media coverage? I say no, because his primary job is to assess whether the press is accurate or not. Noting the coverage has changed must be put into a meaningful context. Instead, he's mostly echoing and quoting right-wingers, hawks and other Bush cheerleaders. Some reporters write this sort of drivel simply because they want a new headline — writing "Iraq still Godawful" every day for several years doesn't appeal to them or their editors, true though it may be. On one level, Kurtz is just filling a column. But his starting point is almost always right-wing blogs, and here he's highly misleading. Iraq is simply not a glass half-full situation, unless one notes that the glass is half-full of blood.

Let's look at his column and the context Kurtz ignores first. From the NYT's "U.S. Says Attacks in Iraq Fell to Feb. 2006 Level," Kurtz quotes the lede:

The American military said Sunday that the weekly number of attacks in Iraq had fallen to the lowest level since just before the February 2006 bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samarra, an event commonly used as a benchmark for the country's worst spasm of bloodletting after the American invasion nearly five years ago.

There are other sections about the significant drop in reported violence (and you can read the article for yourself; it's short), but the NYT piece also says:

The data released Sunday cover attacks using car bombs, roadside bombs, mines, mortars, rockets, surface-to-air missiles and small arms. According to the statistics, roughly 575 attacks occurred last week.

That is substantially fewer than the more than 700 attacks that were recorded the week that Sunni militants set off a wave of sectarian violence in Iraq by blowing up a Shiite shrine in Samarra in February 2006. And it represents a huge drop since June when attacks soared to nearly 1,600 one week.

American officials said other measures indicated that civilian deaths had dropped. Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, a spokesman for the command, said civilian deaths had dropped by 60 percent since June…

To be sure, the level of violence in Iraq is still high. Even as military officials announced the figures, Iraq had one of its deadliest days in weeks, with at least 22 people killed. Among the killed were nine civilians in Karada, a mixed neighborhood in central Baghdad, when a car bomber rammed a convoy carrying Iraq’s deputy finance minister. The official was not hurt, but a guard was among the wounded.

Also on Sunday, three children were killed and seven were wounded in Baquba, to the north, in an explosion in a small garden where American soldiers were handing out candy, ballpoint pens and soccer balls. Three American soldiers were also killed. Their names were not released.

Some experts said the data indicated a downward trend in violent attacks, albeit from relatively high levels — 2006 was one of the most violent years in the war.

The most pressing issue, they said, was how to keep them down and reduce violence further given the failure of Iraqi leaders to achieve reconciliation…

Military officials stressed that attack levels might fluctuate in the future and that it was too soon to say that the United States had turned the corner in Iraq. Past periods of relative calm in Iraq have also been shattered by violence. And American officials have complained that the Iraqi government is not taking the opportunity in the current lull to attempt serious political progress.

“While violence is turning in the right direction, a tough fight remains ahead and progress will be uneven,” Admiral Smith said. “Violence is still too high in many areas of Baghdad and across Iraq.”

The article ends on a hopeful note, but again, you can read it for yourself and judge how accurately Kurtz conveys its content. As for the article itself, it presents much more nuance than Kurtz, but comparing the current level of violence to the absolute worst points hardly gives an honest picture.

From the second NYT article Kurtz features, "Baghdad’s Weary Start to Exhale as Security Improves," he quotes:

The security improvements in most neighborhoods are real. Days now pass without a car bomb, after a high of 44 in the city in February. The number of bodies appearing on Baghdad's streets has plummeted to about 5 a day, from as many as 35 eight months ago, and suicide bombings across Iraq fell to 16 in October, half the number of last summer and down sharply from a recent peak of 59 in March, the American military says.

As a result, for the first time in nearly two years, people are moving with freedom around much of this city. In more than 50 interviews across Baghdad, it became clear that while there were still no-go zones, more Iraqis now drive between Sunni and Shiite areas for work, shopping or school, a few even after dark. In the most stable neighborhoods of Baghdad, some secular women are also dressing as they wish. Wedding bands are playing in public again, and at a handful of once shuttered liquor stores customers now line up outside in a collective rebuke to religious vigilantes from the Shiite Mahdi Army.

It's a very different piece, with a more human, personal angle, and it's heartening to know that one of the families profiled "can joke because they no longer fear that the violence will engulf them." However, putting these two 'upbeat' articles together, the "drop" in violence still means roughly 575 attacks per week, 5 bodies appearing on the streets of Baghdad every day, 16 suicide bombings per month, car bombs every few days, sporadic horrific attacks where dozens of innocent people die (including children), continued troop deaths, many Iraqis afraid to leave their neighborhoods during the day and most afraid to go outside at night. How much press did the Virginia Tech shootings get in America? Can you imagine if even a fraction of the type of violence typical to Iraq was occurring in the United States?

Again, a decrease in violence is obviously a good thing. But it also seems pretty obvious that the violence remains extremely high. Additionally, when the second article says that "Mrs. Aasan said she was thrilled and relieved just a few days ago, when her college-aged son got stuck at work after dark and his father managed to pick him up and drive home without being killed," it's quoted as a sign of progress. We can all be grateful that the Aasans are all right, but that is not an anxiety one would have in a peaceful country. I really do hope the days are gone when merely going to the morgue to claim a dead loved one would result in one's own death, but it's hard to forget a Fresh Air interview earlier this year and the line, "Today, in Iraq, to die naturally is considered a blessing."

I find Captain Ed's reaction to the NYT coverage as quoted by Kurtz interesting (perhaps it's where Kurtz picked up his framing, since Ed's post is named "Progress Must Be Real If The Gray Lady Reports It.") Ed feels that the NYT "uses the hoary device of individual anecdotes to temper the news, as if to assert that even success cannot be enjoyed if even one individual feels fear of entering a specific neighborhood." I'd argue that actually, with the second article, the NYT is asserting things are better by anecdote, although overall the situation remains horrible. As for his contention that "One wonders how many Times execs wander freely through the Bronx at night, or even in the daytime," it's not a bad quip, but it's a straw man argument, as is his claim that the NYT is using a "no fear by anyone anywhere" standard. Kurtz also quotes a post at Red State by Pejman Yousefzadeh, who muses, "Kinda makes you wonder why it is that the 'reality-based community' hasn't taken much notice of these improvements." I know, really. Down to only 575 attacks per week! Break out the champagne, you dirty hippies!

Then there's the passage Kurtz uses from Christopher Hitchens, who's more skeptical about progress:

I am not at all certain that any of this apparently good news is really genuine or will be really lasting. However, I am quite sure both that it could be true and that it would be wonderful if it were to be true. What worries me about the reaction of liberals and Democrats is not the skepticism, which is pardonable, but the dank and sinister impression they give that the worse the tidings, the better they would be pleased. The latter mentality isn't pardonable and ought not to be pardoned, either.

"Go to hell" is among the more polite responses this merits. Perhaps somewhere in America, a tiny minority of twisted people actually exist who long for Iraq to grow worse. I certainly don't know any anti-war people that fit that bill. No one on the national stage, no prominent liberal or anti-war blogger holds such monstrous views. We're the bleeding hearts, remember? Get your offensive stereotypes straight! We decry needless death and destruction. Many of us opposed this debacle to begin with, and others have since come to their senses. I'm rather sick of conservatives and hawks projecting their own callousness and slandering the folks who got it right and still have it right. They can't even take ownership of their own mayhem, and stoop to ye old straw man-ad hominem combo, excoriating their perceived foes for evil views they don't actually hold. If you want to talk about inhumanity and a lack of commitment to freedom and democracy, besides Bush repeatedly laughing and joking about Iraq, there's the imperialist views of Norman "Iraqis' views don't matter" Podhoretz and the respectful approach of Rush "phony soldiers" Limbaugh. It makes me think of a great Digby post (previously linked here) about similar scolding:

I love these lectures and feelings of "disgust" coming from people who apparently still maintain that it was perfectly fine to ignore international law and invade a country for no good reason and turn it into a chaotic hellhole. No moral culpability required for that, no admission of guilt, but lots and lots of sanctimonious posturing about how we will have blood on our hands if the US admits its mistake and withdraws. The obtuseness of that position takes my breath away. We already have so much blood on our hands that it's dripping into everything we touch.

Kurtz does later quote a decent DailyKos entry on how many lulls in violence there have been in the past, and quotes John Murtha briefly, but his column overall is severely lacking.

Let us turn to some other sources, shall we, for that context thing? A McClatchy account from 10/31/07 notes the decrease in troop fatalities and reported civilian deaths, but adds:

Even so, the capital remained a dangerous place. While car bombs declined to 15 from September's 19, the number of blasts caused by improvised explosive devices increased by more than 60 percent, from 30 to 48. The number of people injured in explosions in the capital rose 19 percent, from 378 in September to 450 in October, according to the McClatchy statistics, which are gathered daily from police and other official sources, but which probably undercount violence in the capital…

There's no consensus about why violence has declined so rapidly in the capital or why U.S. combat casualties have dropped so dramatically.

Bush's backers obviously attribute all decreased violence to the "surge," and likely it plays a significant role, along with a number of cease-fires. But the article also notes that "Some residents believe the drop in Iraqi deaths in the capital has happened because so much ethnic cleansing has left simply fewer people to kill."

Similarly, a fairly upbeat BBC account, "Is Iraq getting better?" (11/11/07), notes the downturn in violence as well and closes by saying "there can be no denying that many Iraqis, especially in Baghdad, are more optimistic now than they would have dared believe possible a year ago." Yet it also observes that:

Everybody agrees that military and security measures on their own can only go so far if not buttressed by economic, social and political progress…

The Americans and Iraqi government are well aware of the need to follow up with services - electricity and water supplies are still sporadic - and job-creation schemes if they are to hold the ground they are clearing.

But virtually none of the key pieces of required legislation has yet been passed by a fractious Iraqi parliament which has been wracked by factional disputes.

There is still no shared and agreed vision of Iraq's future. Kurds and some Shias want a loose, federal arrangement, while Sunnis and some others want a stronger, more centralised state.

It matters. To which Iraq are people signing up with the security forces swearing allegiance?...

Despite the progress in the security arena, the story is far from over. The casualty figures are down, but people are still being killed every day.

London's Financial Times notes the reports of decreased violence, but also observes:

While the military displays cautious optimism, however, some experts are less convinced. Anthony Cordesman, a defence expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the statistics did not capture the true picture of violence in Iraq.

“The [numbers] that the coalition counts tend to omit most of the violence in the south, which is Shiite-on-Shiite, and lower-level tensions between Arabs and Kurds. It also doesn’t seem to count Sunni-on-Sunni unless it is al-Qaeda versus anti-al-Qaeda.”

How reliable are the figures? Anecdotal evidence supports a downturn in violence, but Petraeus' testimony was at times misleading, and earlier Pentagon numbers did not count "1) Sunni on Sunni violence. 2) Shi’a on Shi’a violence 3) Car bombs 4) Getting shot in the front of the head." Of course, this is the same Pentagon that left 20,000 troops with brain injuries off the official wounded list and has been reluctant to report suicide rates among returning troops (which opens a whole host of other issues).

There's also a “wave of violence that’s gone largely unreported lately against women in Iraq.”

Meanwhile, McClatchy does a daily tally of violence in Iraq and Questiongirl's Meanwhile, Back In Iraq series chronicles a number of developments.

Just yesterday, NPR ran not one but two stories about Iraqi refugees returning from Syria (we've covered the severe refugee crisis before).

Also yesterday, Juan Cole wrote a splendid piece for Salon summing up the situation, "Why Bush's troop surge won't save Iraq." It's worth reading the whole thing, but as Cole writes:

[Senator Jim] Webb was correct to point out that the only truly good news to come from Iraq would be good news regarding the political landscape. In recent days, parts of northern Iraq have been invaded by Turkey, an ally of the United States. In Baghdad, Sunni members of parliament staged a walkout to defend their leader, whose bodyguards were implicated in fashioning car bombs. Proposed legislation reducing sanctions against Sunni Arabs who once belonged to the Baath Party nearly produced a riot in parliament. Meanwhile, Britain and Australia, among Bush's few remaining allies with combat troops in Iraq, are planning to depart in 2008, raising questions about security in the key southern port city of Basra, the major route for the country's lucrative oil exports.

What the recent publicity about the "success" of the troop surge has ignored is this: The Bush administration has downplayed the collapsing political situation in Iraq by directing the public's attention to fluctuating numbers of civilians killed. While there have been some relative gains in security recently, even there the picture remains dubious. The Iraqi ministry of health, long known for cooking the books, says that a few hundred Iraqis were killed in political violence in November. However, independent observers such as Iraq Body Count cite a much higher number -- some 1,100 civilians killed in Iraq in November. They reported that bombings and assassinations accounted for 63 persons on Saturday, the first day of December, alone.

Indeed, the "good news" of a lull in violence is relative at best. In fact, Iraq's overall death rate makes it among the worst civil conflicts in the world. Even if one accepted the official Iraqi government statistics, the average number of Iraqi deaths directly attributable to political violence in the past three full months has been around 700 per month. That pace, if maintained, would work out to about 8,400 deaths a year. (I am citing the kind of war statistics produced by passive information gathering such as in newspapers. Using a more comprehensive public health study such as the one that appeared in the Lancet last year, which takes into account deaths from criminal violence and insecurity generally, would result in much higher numbers.) In all of Northern Ireland's troubles over 30 years, only about 3,000 persons are thought to have been killed. In Kashmir since 1989, some 40,000 to 90,000 persons have been killed in communal and guerrilla violence; if we take the higher number, that's roughly 419 killed per month. Perhaps only Somalia and Sudan witness killings on that scale, and no one would say that "good news" is coming out of either of those places.

The current "good news" campaign from the Bush administration regarding the troop surge is only the latest in a long history of whitewashing the war since the 2003 invasion. First, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld denied that there was massive looting following the fall of Baghdad. Then he denied that there was a rising guerrilla war. Then, after the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani maneuvered an unwilling Bush administration into holding relatively free elections, the victory of Shiite fundamentalists close to Iran was obscured by the "purple thumb" good news campaign. That is, the administration focused on the democratic process and relative success of the voting, diverting attention from the bad news that the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq had taken over.

Later, it was good news when the Iraqi parliament produced a theocratic constitution with all the weaknesses of the U.S. Articles of Confederation, even though all three Sunni-majority provinces rejected it in the subsequent referendum. What was in the constitution was not important, only that it existed. The Bush administration has heralded any number of such "milestones" reached, but not whether they led to worthwhile results.

Obscured by these "milestones" is that the orgy of violence in Iraq has displaced 2 million persons abroad and another 2 million internally, and left tens of thousands dead. But now the "good news" is that the guerrillas appear not to have been able to keep up the pace of violence characteristic of 2006 and early 2007, even if the pace they maintain today is horrific.

Ah, context! There's no reason Howard Kurtz couldn't provide the same. There's nothing wrong with noting a decrease in violence, but accounts such as Kurtz' inflate a bit of good news to present a grossly distorted picture that adds to the bullshit rather than diminishing it.

The Bush administration and their backers already produce bullshit at an astonishing rate without help. They all but refuse to accurately describe the situation in Iraq, but reporters don't need to do the same. Given the Bush administration's deliberate obfuscations, it's all the more crucial that they don’t. Without honest assessments, it's extremely difficult to achieve any of the meaningful progress in Iraq the Bushies claim they want.

But good news, citizens! Another glorious victory means the war has moved appreciably closer to its end!

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)