Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Obama Meets with the House Republicans

If you haven't seen this footage yet, you really should. The House Republicans had a retreat in Maryland this past Friday, and invited Obama. He accepted, and his staff suggested that his brief speech and longer Q&A be aired and taped. The Republicans agreed.

Basically, Obama has the usual false talking points thrown at him, and he bats them down, one by one. There are maybe two Republican ideas with merit, but as Obama points out, they're good only with caveats and as part of a larger framework that's been ignored by the GOP. It's unfortunate but unsurprising that the GOP now regrets that they allowed the session to air. America would be much better off with more sessions like this. If the Republicans (and to a lesser degree the Democrats) actually offered good, reality-based policies that would benefit the country as a whole, that would be absolutely fantastic. Sessions like this can only help that.

If you can only see some of it, Talking Points Memo has many clips up, including Obama objecting to health care being portrayed as a Bolshevik plot:

You can see most of Obama's exchange with Jeb Henserling here (it's one of the best bits, and it's the last question he takes). Steve Benen has a good post on the cash-and-trash strategy by Republicans Obama refers to (although not in those words) - Republicans are happy to take credit back home for the stimulus money they voted against in D.C.

The whole thing is definitely worth the time to watch or at least listen to, though. Here's the C-Span page for the event, and Steve Benen has the MSNBC footage of the Q&A posted. The Washington Post has a transcript. Here's the YouTube version posted by the White House:

Meanwhile, if you missed the State of the Union, you can view it here. It was better than I expected, but I'm very concerned about the spending freeze talk. Eliminating waste is great, but boxing one's self in isn't, and exempting military spending ignores the biggest problem. See Krugman here and here, as well as Spencer Ackerman. The public seemed to like it in at least one poll, though. Some of the other proposals, including a reduction in the costs of student loans (more generous for those going into public service), and a targeted tax cut for small businesses, could be great. We'll see how it all plays out.

Upcoming - Blogroll Amnesty Day 2010

Blogroll Amnesty Day is Wednesday, February 3rd this year. Blue Gal's updated her video, which you should feel free to use:

Some background is here, but basically - link good small blogs and spread the luv.

Health Care Reform and Football

Sports metaphors can be overused, but the Super Bowl is fast approaching and football works pretty well as a metaphor for some current political situations.

First up, Tom Toles from Friday, 1/22/10:

The little tag in the lower right, if you can't read it, says "We can kick ourselves after." (I'm assuming most people know basic football scoring rules.)

Moving on, Steve Benen wrote on 1/27/10, before the State of the Union:

Post Script: Paul Glastris, the Monthly's editor in chief, will be on NPR's "Talk of the Nation" in a few minutes, talking about this and other issues related to the State of the Union. (Paul served as President Clinton's chief speechwriter, and offers a great perspective on this.)

When I talked to Paul earlier, he told me the line he'd like to hear the president say tonight: "Health care reform is the Super Bowl of issues, we're on the one yard line, and the other team has walked off the field. Let's pick up the ball and walk across the goal line."

Maybe Glastris saw Toles cartoon, but that's pretty good.

This next one requires more set-up. Back to Steve Benen, in a piece on Evan Bayh (emphasis mine):

EVAN BAYH'S MORAL WRONGS.... The solution to the health care reform debate seems pretty obvious -- the House approves the Senate bill; the Senate agrees to improvements through reconciliation. One of the obstacles, of course, is the group of center-right Democrats who not only don't want to return to the issue, but are staunchly opposed to using reconciliation.

It's worth fully appreciating, though, why reconciliation is considered so distasteful. Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) explained that the procedure should be avoided because it may bother Republicans. And if Republicans are bothered, they may not work with Democrats on bipartisan solutions. Seriously, that's the argument.

"There would be some real consequences from that for the legislative agenda for the rest of the year," Bayh told me last night, "the other things the president called for: cooperation on education, financial reform, a whole host of other things."

Bayh says he sees a real prospect for bipartisanship on those issues, but that Republicans will walk away if Democrats play hardball on health care.

"The problem with reconciliation is that it runs a real risk...of poisoning the well on progress on some of these areas," Bayh said.

This is so hopelessly misguided, it's hard to know where to start. I'd remind Bayh, for example, that reconciliation has been used plenty of times in recent years, and the institution and its members survived just fine. I'd also ask why on earth Bayh think Democrats giving up on their signature domestic policy initiative would suddenly make Republicans -- who've run a scorched-earth campaign since Day One -- open to bipartisan compromise on a whole host of issues.

But let's put all of that aside and characterize this in a way that too often goes overlooked. Bayh isn't just wrong about the legislative process; he's wrong about morality.

Read Benen's post for the links, and his moral argument – helping out tens of millions of Americans obviously should be more important: "Helping those who are suffering isn't as high a priority as maybe getting some GOP help on a few issues?" Glenn Greenwald also provides some good background on Bayh in "The face of rotted Washington."

Bayh and the Blue Dog Democrats remind me of the Cincinnati Bengals of the 90s under owner Mike Brown. The Bengals actually won their division this season, and made the playoffs, although they lost in the first, Wild Card Round. Before that, though, they had one winning season out of 19 and were the worst team of the 90s. One sportscaster called them "an embarrassment to sport," as in, the entire human endeavor of sports, where a team supposedly should try to win, perhaps out of basic competitiveness or pride or shame. During the 90s, some critics felt that Mike Brown had no real interest in or commitment to fielding a competitive team. This was because he could field a lousy team and still make a tidy profit – and his profit margin would actually be higher. Sure, he wouldn't sell out the stadium, or sell as many seats, or sell as much merchandise, but there were enough Bengals fans out there, and enough NFL TV cash coming in, to make him good money.

Evan Bayh and most of the Blue Dog Democrats (we'll include Lieberman) aren't really interested in reforming health care, helping their constituents significantly, or making the country a better place. They're happy with the status quo, and as long as they think they can stay in business and make a profit, they want to field, or sell, an inferior product. In fact, they don’t like it when they're any pressure to win, to deliver to the loyal fans, and will actively seek to hobble their teammates. It's contemptible, but that's the way it is.

Let's take another look at Bayh's line: "The problem with reconciliation is that it runs a real risk...of poisoning the well on progress on some of these areas." At this point, only an idiot or a shill would pretend that the GOP is acting in good faith and will vote with Democrats. Republicans have practiced obstructionism at unprecedented levels, and they've expressed their intent to continue. Giving up on health care will only make them much, much bolder, and it's easy to write the midterm campaign ads now. It's deeply unfortunate that American politics is currently a zero-sum game between the two major political parties – but that's the way it is – and that's primarily the fault of the GOP.

So, in football terms, Evan Bayh (a senator from Indiana) is saying that, in the upcoming Super Bowl, the Indianapolis Colts shouldn't score on the New Orleans Saints, because that might make the Saints upset, and if only the Colts don't make the Saints upset, the Saints might allow the Colts to score later. Hey, maybe not in this game, but at some point in the future. (After the November midterm elections, maybe.) Maybe they'll let them score - but maybe only if the Colts don't play to win now, because winning (even with a big lead and good field position) would be terribly rude.

Did we mention this was the championship game?

Bayh's argument is that stupid. Bayh is openly rooting for his own team to lose, and working to make it happen. Sadly, he's not alone in the Democratic caucus. The Blue Dog crowd is almost as bad as the Republicans.

(It might be more apt to say Bayh is telling the Colts to throw the Super Bowl and let the woeful Detroit Lions win. This will alllow the Colts to maybe have a shot at winning again in 20 years.)

As for the Democrats dealing with the GOP - strangely, when a group openly seeks your defeat and destruction, the best move is to kick their collective ass.

As for our vapid Beltway chatterers, they mostly consist of gossip columnists and bad sportscasters. To borrow from an earlier post:

Even if we view the press as sportscasters, or even home-team sportscasters, our press corps lacks good play-by-play announcers, but is positively overflowing with really bad color commentators.

To strain this metaphor even further (and apologies to all non-sports fans), say the Green Bay Packers were playing the Chicago Bears and scored the first two touchdowns. If our political reporters were sportscasters, David Broder would insist that the Packers should let the Bears score, Sean Hannity would loudly proclaim that the Bears did score, and Cokie Roberts would misreport the score and then proceed to ignore the game.

There's a saying that politics is the blood sport of Washington, but we've got awfully idiotic sportcasters for it.

There's one more metaphor plenty of people have used to describe how foolish it is to trust the Republicans on health care reform. We'll end with it, because it still may be the best:

(Previous posts using sports to discuss politics: "Hall of Fame Material", "The Sporting Life" and "Political Football Theater.")

(Updated with one link.)

Friday, January 29, 2010

Your Weekly Snark (1/29/10)

Roy Edroso on Jonah's latest:

Goldberg trying to do nuance is like a drunken bear trying to do origami, but I think he means that while independents don't care about gay people's civil rights, they do have a guilty conscience about it.

Ouch. Jonah mostly tries the "you people pointing out our bigotry are the real bigots" and "I know you are but what am I" schtick that made Liberal Fascism such a noteworthy piece of crap. But there are more choice Roy quips, so head over and enjoy.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

If This Is a Man

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. (There are other memorial days, including Yom HaShoah on April 12th this year.) This year, I wanted to focus on Primo Levi's extraordinary book If This Is a Man (Se questo è un uomo), known in the U.S. as Survival in Auschwitz. I only just read it, although I've previously read Levi's The Drowned and the Saved.

The Drowned and the Saved is powerful as well, and explores (among other things) the fallibilities of memory, the re-writing of history and (I'd say) the dangers of granting undeserved forgiveness to evil men who knew quite well what they were doing. ("The Drowned and the Saved" is also the title of a chapter in If This Is a Man.) The Drowned and the Saved is one of the best Holocaust books I've read, but as I've written before, I think it's better for readers who know the basics of the Holocaust already. If This Is a Man is similarly thoughtful and arresting, but also provides a strong portrait of the grueling daily existence in the camps and the constant struggle to survive. In that respect, it reminded me of Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, although Levi apparently took issue with taking such comparisons too far. This is because the death rate was so much higher in the Nazi camps, and in some Nazis camps murder was the express aim. In any case, If This Is a Man is probably the best account I've yet read of the black market in the camps, and all the intricate dealing required to survive (in addition to sheer luck). You're not liable to forget Primo Levi's description of emptying the hut's latrine bucket at night, or many other details. He explains how essential spoons are, how to make or barter for a more valuable knife-spoon, and how shoes (most of the prisoners have ill-fitting wooden ones) can become a matter of life and death. Levi is a chemist, which aids him later in the book, but he's a slight man, and there are times during harsh physical labor where he's terrified and exhausted, and really not sure he can make it.

Younger readers might be better off starting with Night, Maus or The Diary of Anne Frank. Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning holds a special place for me. However, If This Is a Man is a powerful introduction to the Holocaust as well, and easily one of the best memoirs on the subject. (It may help to know some French, though, as Levi often uses it to communicate with other prisoners in his accounts, and does not always translate.)

I had read that Levi committed suicide late in life, which seemed especially tragic, but apparently this is disputed and his death may have been accidental.

In one chapter, "The Canto of Ulysses," Levi relates trying to teach a friendly younger prisoner, Pikolo, some Italian as they run a camp errand getting the soup. Levi starts quoting and translating stanzas from... Dante's Inferno. Pikolo is very interested, and this energizes Levi, but his memory fails him, leaving him both excited and frustrated:

I would give today's soup to know how to connect 'the like on any day' to the last lines. I try to reconstruct it through the rhymes, I close my eyes, I bite my fingers – but it is no use, the rest is silence. Other verse dance in my head: '...The sodden ground belched wind...' no, it is something else. It is late, it is late, we have reached the kitchen, I must finish:

'And three times round she went in roaring smother
With all the waters; at the fourth the poop
Rose, and the prow went down, as pleased Another.'

I keep Pikolo back, it is vitally necessary and urgent that he listen, that he understands this, 'as pleased Another' before it is too late; tomorrow he or I might be dead, or we might never see each other again, I must tell him I must explain to him about the Middle Ages, about the so human and so necessary and yet unexpected anachronism, but still more, something gigantic that I myself have only just seen, in a flash of intuition, perhaps the reason for our fate, for our being here today...

We are now in the soup queue, among the sordid, ragged crowd of soup-carriers from other Kommandos. Those just arrived press against our backs. 'Kraut und Rüben? 'Kraut und Rüben.' The official announcement is made that the soup today is of cabbages and turnips: 'Choux and navets. Kaposzia és répak.'

'And over our heads the hollow seas closed up.'

[pp. 114-115]

It's more striking in full context, but it reminds me of Frankl's passages about how art, imagination and simple, genuine human connection kept him going. Primo Levi writes movingly of the handful of people who aid him. In the tense days near the end of the war after most of the Germans have left and the prisoners await possible liberation, Levi relates how he and two Frenchmen work together, basically to reclaim their humanity by providing for their small hut of survivors.

The best testament to Levi is of course his work itself. Here's a selection from chapter 13, "October 1944." "Lager" means "camp," "Ka-Be" is the infirmary, and I imagine most people know what a "selection" means in the context of Auschwitz:

We fought with all our strength to prevent the arrival of winter. We clung to all the warm hours, at every dusk we tried to keep the sun in the sky for a little longer, but it was all in vain. Yesterday evening the sun went down irrevocably behind a confusion of dirty cloud, chimney stacks and wires, and today it is winter.

We know what it means because we were here last winter; and the others will soon learn. It means that in the course of these months, from October till April, seven out of ten of us will die. Whoever does not die will suffer minute by minute, all day, every day: from the morning before dawn until the distribution of the evening soup we will have to keep our muscles continually tensed, dance from foot to foot, beat our arms under our shoulders against the cold. We will have to spend bread to acquire gloves, and lose hours of sleep to repair them when they become unstitched. As it will no longer be possible to eat in the open, we will have to eat our meals in the hut, on our feet, everybody will be assigned an area of floor as long as a hand, as it forbidden to rest against the bunks. Wounds will open on everyone's hands, and to be given a bandage will mean waiting every evening for hours on one's feet in the snow and wind.

Just as our hunger is not that feeling of missing a meal, so our way of being cold has need of a new word. We say 'hunger', we say 'tiredness', 'fear', 'pain', we say 'winter' and they are different things. They are free words, created and used by free men who lived in comfort and suffering in their homes. If the Lagers had lasted longer a new, harsh language would have been born; and only this language could express what it means to toil the whole day in the wind, with the temperature below freezing, wearing only a shirt, underpants, cloth jacket and trousers, and in one's body nothing but weakness, hunger and knowledge of the end drawing nearer.

In the same way in which one sees a hope end, winter arrived this morning. We realized it when we left the hut to go and wash: there were no stars, the dark cold air had the smell of snow. In roll-call square, in the grey of dawn, when we assembled for work, no one spoke. When we saw the first flakes of snow, we thought that if at the same time last year they had told us that we would have seen another winter in Lager, we would have gone and touched the electric wire-fence; and that even now we would go if we were logical, were it not for this last senseless crazy residue of unavoidable hope.

Because 'winter' means yet another thing.

Last spring the Germans had constructed huge tents in an open space in the Lager. For the whole the good season, each of them had catered for over a thousand men: now the tents had been taken down, and an excess two thousand guests crowded our huts. We old prisoners knew that the Germans did not like these irregularities and that something would soon happen to reduce our number.

One feels the selections arriving. 'Selekcja': the hybrid Latin and Polish word is heard once, twice, many times, interpolated in foreign conversations, at first we cannot distinguish it, then it forces itself on our attention, and in the end it persecutes us.

This morning the Poles had said 'Selekcja'. The Poles are the first to find out the news, and they generally try not to let it spread around, because to know something which the others still do not know can always be useful. By the time that everyone realizes that a selection is imminent, the few possibilities of evading it (corrupting some doctor or some prominent with bread or tobacco; leaving the hut for Ka-Be or vice-versa at the right moment so as to cross with the commission) are already their monopoly.

In the days which follow, the atmosphere of the Lager and the yard is filled with 'Selekcja': nobody knows anything definite, but all speak about it, even the Polish, Italian, French civilian workers whom we secretly see in the yard. Yet the result is hardly a wave of despondency: our collective morale is too inarticulate and flat to be unstable. The fight against hunger, cold and work leaves little margin for thought, even for this thought. Everybody reacts in his own way, but hardly anyone with those attitudes which would seem the most plausible as the most realistic, that is with resignation or despair.

All those able to find a way out, try to take it, but they are the minority because it is very difficult to escape from a selection. The Germans apply themselves to these things with great skill and diligence.

Whoever is unable to prepare for it materially, seeks defense elsewhere. In the latrines, in the washroom, we show each other our chests, our buttocks, our thighs, and our comrades reassure us: 'You are all right, it will certainly not be your turn this time,... du bist kein Muselmann... more probably mine...' and they undo their braces in turn and pull up their shirts.

Nobody refuses this charity to another: nobody is so sure of his own lot to be able to condemn others. I brazenly lied to old Werthheimer; I told him that if they questioned him, he should reply that his was forty-five, and he should not forget to have a shave the evening before, even if it cost him a quarter-ration of bread; apart from that he need have no fears, and in any case it was by no means certain that it was a selection for the gas chamber; had he not heard the Blockältester say that those chosen would go to Jaworszno to a convalescent camp?

It is absurd of Werthheimer to hope: he looks sixty, he has enormous varicose veins, he hardly even notices the hunger any more. But he lies down on his bed, serene and quiet, and replies to someone who asks him with my own words; they are the command-words in the camps these days: I myself repeated them just as – apart from details – Chajim told them to me, Chajim, who has been in Lager for three years, and being strong and robust is wonderfully sure of himself; and I believed him.

On this slender basis I also lived through the great selection of October 1944 with inconceivable tranquility. I was tranquil because I managed to lie to myself sufficiently. The fact that I was not selected depended above all on chance and does not prove my faith was well-founded.

[pp. 123-125]

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Éric Rohmer (1920-2010)

French filmmaker Éric Rohmer (Jean-Marie Maurice Schérer) died earlier this month. Here's the Wiki and imdb entries, and the Washington Post piece. The New York Times obituary is good, and also links an excellent profile from 2001 by A.O. Scott and a slideshow. He was one of the last remaining old masters who came to prominence in the 50s and 60s.

Rohmer's films are not for all tastes. Several obituaries have quoted a line from Gene Hackman's character in the film Night Moves: "I saw a Rohmer movie once. It was kind of like watching paint dry." However, as with Ozu, if you like one of Rohmer's films, you're liable to like them all, and enjoy them very much. Most of his films had only the slightest of plots, so much so that they could be hard to describe – they're more about human interactions, personal realizations and self-deception, all told with wry humor and affection by Rohmer. He was very wise about human relationships. In a review of Ingmar Bergman's film Saraband, I wrote about how both filmmakers captured intimacy so well:

Eric Rohmer, another great master, comes closest to Bergman in terms of capturing the complexities and subtleties of real life on film, but Rohmer is French and far happier than the brooding Bergman. Rohmer is the cinematic equivalent of Chekhov without the extreme tragedy, while Bergman is pure Dostoevsky.

Like Bergman and several other directors, Rohmer drew from something of a company of actors. In Rohmer's case, most were non-professional, and he elicited very naturalistic performances from them. He used many of the same people over the course of decades, so that a young woman's teenaged friend in one film might later pop up later in middle age as the center of another film. It's a neat dynamic. Natural light master Néstor Almendros was the cinematographer for several of his films, and they were a good fit.

(Claire's Knee, shot by Almendros.)

Many of Rohmer's films belonged to one of three loose series: the Six Moral Tales, the Comedies and Proverbs (another six films), and the Tales of the Four Seasons. One summer, the National Gallery in DC ran all of them (apart from one yet to be filmed), and I was lucky enough to catch most of them. The audiences really enjoyed the films. Rohmer's works often have funny moments, but I think the real delight comes from how he views human foibles and frailties with such forgiveness and affection. The diplomat's quest to touch Claire's knee in Claire's Knee could easily be creepy in another film, but instead he comes off as mostly harmless and deluding himself above all, and his first ploy is suspenseful and hilarious. The female lead in The Winter's Tale is on the one hand blithely careless about her own life and those of the lovers she juggles, but there's also little artifice or malice there. We're waiting to see how her life will turn out as much as she is, and as surprised and delighted by the twists that occur. The Green Ray (normally known as Summer over here) climaxes with a sunset and a natural phenomenon that drew appreciative gasps from the crowd. I need to see it again, but it may be one of the most Zen endings in cinema. Rohmer films don't always end neatly, but in most, we're left with the sense that we peeked in on these characters' lives briefly and that life goes on. At least for fans, the feeling leaving the theater is one of warmth and thoughtfulness, not dissatisfaction.

(The Winter's Tale, although the film itself is in color.)

If anything, Rohmer's artistry is more impressive because it's generally so unobtrusive. In Chloe in the Afternoon, he moves the pieces into place early to set up a key moment late in the film. Better than virtually anyone, he manages to make a simple object and everyday action suddenly takes on great significance. We experience an epiphany simultaneous with the main character. (This moment also drew audible gasps from the crowd when I saw it.) I was going to explain this further - and consider this an art house flick poetic moment spoiler alert - but then I discovered A.O. Scott's 2001 portrait of Rohmer (linked earlier), which does it beautifully near the end:

From ''La Collectioneuse'' (1967), in which he was able to move from black-and-white to color, to ''Autumn Tale'' in 1998, Mr. Rohmer's films have refused to date. Yes, the haircuts and fashions alter somewhat, and the technological environment changes perceptibly, but the basic shape of civilization -- in particular its sexual mores and idioms of feeling -- seems remarkably constant, and seems, moreover, to be observed with almost documentary naturalism. Mr. Rohmer's casting of nonprofessional actors and his disdain for showy camera techniques and background music disguise the crystalline artifice of his plots, which becomes apparent only in retrospect.

Just as the world they depict is, for all its hectic quotidian rhythms, governed by invisible norms and patterns of behavior, so are the films, for all the breezy haphazardness with which they unfold, governed by a fierce formal intelligence and a classical sense of symmetry. In the late 60's and early 70's, directors like Jean-Luc Godard, Pier Paolo Pasolini and François Truffaut (in ''Day for Night'') argued that cinema should self-consciously reflect on its own techniques and procedures. Mr. Rohmer preferred to transfer this self-reflexiveness to his characters, and to maintain an illusion of transparency and detachment.

But this illusion is sustained by a remarkable sense of spatial composition and narrative symmetry -- the invisible source of the perfection that is Mr. Rohmer's critical legacy. ''Chloe in the Afternoon'' (1971), for example, unfolds out of the daydreams and random encounters of Frédéric, a prosperous young businessman who is devoted to his wife, Hélène, and their children, but nonetheless tempted by the wild vulnerability of Chloe, the ex-lover of an old friend, who turns up unexpectedly in Frédéric's office. The middle sections of the film follow their friendship as it develops, in the course of lunches and shopping excursions, into something riskier.

What appear at first to be the trivial occurrences of ordinary life turn out to be subtle motifs. In both the film's opening and its climax, a woman -- first Hélène, then Chloe -- emerges naked from her shower into Frédéric's embrace. The offhand words the characters exchange -- Hélène warns Frédéric against getting wet; Chloe assures him that water won't stain his clothes -- turn out to be loaded with psychological subtext, and the movie's moment of moral crisis is the result of Frédéric's fondness for turtleneck sweaters. Midway through the movie, he pulls his turtleneck up around his ears to make funny faces at his infant son. Later, in the midst of undressing, about to make love with Chloe, he catches sight of himself in the mirror with his shirt in the same position, and flees without a word.

There is a comical absurdity to this scene, as there is to the perfect, color-coordinated pairing off that concludes ''Boyfriends and Girlfriends'' (''L'Ami de mon Amie,'' 1987), in which the woman in the green dress ends up with the man in the blue shirt and the woman in the blue blouse goes off with the man in green -- but also a surprising emotional charge. Frédéric and Hélène shed real tears at the end of ''Chloe in the Afternoon'' -- tears of relief, compassion and estrangement. For all his light-hearted sense of comedy and complication, such estrangement, the sense that modern relationships are at bottom the persistence of failed connections, is at the heart of Mr. Rohmer's perfect vision of an imperfect world.

Stills from Chloe in the Afternoon:

Monday, January 25, 2010

Gary Farber

Blogger Gary Farber, who's done some valuable work, is in a serious bind right now. He explains his situation in "Health Care Reform Won't Save Me." Times are tough for many folks, but any assistance would be appreciated, and a little goes a long way. Thanks.

Podcasts 1/25/10

Tired of vapid, counter-factual Beltway conventional wisdom? You're in luck.

Blue Gal and Driftglass are doing regular podcasts now. Here's the second one (43 min) in the series. Among other things, they discuss Blogroll Amnesty Day, which is coming up on February 10th 3rd. Plan ahead!

Digby and McJoan insightfully discuss recent events here (90 min).

Glenn Greenwald speaks with ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero here (~20 min), and a transcript is also available.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The State of Health Care Reform

Josh Marshall has posted an e-mail by a Democratic Hill staffer that's well worth a read. The standout paragraph is probably this one about the Democrats:

The worst is that I can't help but feel like the main emotion people in the caucus are feeling is relief at this turn of events. Now they have a ready excuse for not getting anything done. While I always thought we had the better ideas but the weaker messaging, it feels like somewhere along the line Members internalized a belief that we actually have weaker ideas. They're afraid to actually implement them and face the judgement of the voters. That's the scariest dynamic and what makes me think this will all come crashing down around us in November.

This doesn't surprise me - many politicians are establishmentarian, and really don't want to do anything - but it is pretty discouraging.

The Balloon Juice crew have been pressing hard on for everyone to call their House representative immediately to urge them to agree on the Senate bill. If the whole thing passes, then the reconciliation process could be used to pass amendments to make it better. There are still pitfalls, but that looks like the best route at the moment.

There are plenty of lousy aspects to the current bills. Watching all the political ineptitude of the Democrats, the corruption of the Blue Dogs, and the screw-you-all-and-my-constituents-too attitude of almost the entire GOP, has been maddening. Most of the Beltway commentary has been inane as usual, made more frustrating by the high stakes of health care reform.

I keep coming back to a Krugman column from 12/18/09, "Pass the Bill":

Bear in mind also the lessons of history: social insurance programs tend to start out highly imperfect and incomplete, but get better and more comprehensive as the years go by. Thus Social Security originally had huge gaps in coverage — and a majority of African-Americans, in particular, fell through those gaps. But it was improved over time, and it’s now the bedrock of retirement stability for the vast majority of Americans.

Look, I understand the anger here: supporting this weakened bill feels like giving in to blackmail — because it is. Or to use an even more accurate metaphor suggested by Ezra Klein of The Washington Post, we’re paying a ransom to hostage-takers. Some of us, including a majority of senators, really, really want to cover the uninsured; but to make that happen we need the votes of a handful of senators who see failure of reform as an acceptable outcome, and demand a steep price for their support.

The question, then, is whether to pay the ransom by giving in to the demands of those senators, accepting a flawed bill, or hang tough and let the hostage — that is, health reform — die.

Again, history suggests the answer. Whereas flawed social insurance programs have tended to get better over time, the story of health reform suggests that rejecting an imperfect deal in the hope of eventually getting something better is a recipe for getting nothing at all. Not to put too fine a point on it, America would be in much better shape today if Democrats had cut a deal on health care with Richard Nixon, or if Bill Clinton had cut a deal with moderate Republicans back when they still existed.

Even passing the Lieberman/Blue Dog/GOP savaged bill will be tougher now. But "tough" always seems to come with giving a damn, doesn't it?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

FBI's Illegal Searches

From The Washington Post:

FBI broke law for years in phone record searches
By John Solomon and Carrie Johnson
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The FBI illegally collected more than 2,000 U.S. telephone call records between 2002 and 2006 by invoking terrorism emergencies that did not exist or simply persuading phone companies to provide records, according to internal bureau memos and interviews. FBI officials issued approvals after the fact to justify their actions.

E-mails obtained by The Washington Post detail how counterterrorism officials inside FBI headquarters did not follow their own procedures that were put in place to protect civil liberties. The stream of urgent requests for phone records also overwhelmed the FBI communications analysis unit with work that ultimately was not connected to imminent threats.

A Justice Department inspector general's report due out this month is expected to conclude that the FBI frequently violated the law with its emergency requests, bureau officials confirmed.

The records seen by The Post do not reveal the identities of the people whose phone call records were gathered, but FBI officials said they thought that nearly all of the requests involved terrorism investigations.

FBI general counsel Valerie Caproni said in an interview Monday that the FBI technically violated the Electronic Communications Privacy Act when agents invoked nonexistent emergencies to collect records.

"We should have stopped those requests from being made that way," she said. The after-the-fact approvals were a "good-hearted but not well-thought-out" solution to put phone carriers at ease, she said. In true emergencies, Caproni said, agents always had the legal right to get phone records, and lawyers have now concluded there was no need for the after-the-fact approval process. "What this turned out to be was a self-inflicted wound," she said.

Yeah, right. Feel free to read the rest. This doesn't seem like some small 'technical' transgression. It's more fundamental. It sure seems like the FBI abused their position, just as they did shortly after 9/11 with the massive overuse of national security letters. Surveillance should require warrants, and they should be issued for legitimate reasons versus as fishing expeditions. Let's suppose that most FBI agents love their country and want to keep it safe. However, there have always been cops, feds and politicians who just aren't that keen on the whole civil rights thing, or even the democracy thing. Surveillance powers are always abused - at least without rigorous oversight. Moreover, casting an extremely wide net can run personnel ragged chasing down false leads. I'm hoping more comes out on this, because the details are important, and to date this has been both a dangerous and entirely predictable trend.

Monday, January 18, 2010

MLK Day 2010: Letter From a Freedman

This year for Martin Luther King Day, I wanted to feature a letter written in 1865 by a former slave to his former master. I've linked it before elsewhere in honor of Juneteenth, but it's pretty extraordinary. This comes via Facing South (in turn via Ta-Nehisi Coates). Facing South describes it as a:

...letter by freedman Jourdon Anderson of Dayton, Ohio. He was writing in response to an invitation from Colonel P.H. Anderson of Big Springs, Tenn., his former enslaver, to return to as a laborer to the plantation where he was once held captive...

[The] document... is part of the online Digital History Archives at the University of Houston. The letter, dated Aug. 7, 1865, was published in the Cincinnati Commercial and later reprinted in the New York Tribune.

Here's the full text:

To My Old Master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee

Sir: I got your letter and was glad to find you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Col. Martin's to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again and see Miss mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville hospital, but one of the neighbors told me Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here; I get $25 a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy (the folks here call her Mrs. Anderson), and the children, Milly, Jane and Grundy, go to school and are learning well; the teacher says grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday- School, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated; sometimes we overhear others saying, "The colored people were slaves" down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks, but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Col. Anderson. Many darkies would have been proud, as I used to was, to call you master. Now, if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.

As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free- papers in 1864 from the Provost- Marshal- General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you are sincerely disposed to treat us justly and kindly -- and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty- two years and Mandy twenty years. At $25 a month for me, and $2 a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to $11,680. Add to this the interest for the time our wages has been kept back and deduct what you paid for our clothing and three doctor's visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams Express, in care of V. Winters, esq, Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night, but in Tennessee there was never any pay day for the Negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

In answering this letter please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up and both good- looking girls. You know how it was with Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve and die if it comes to that than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood, the great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits. <>P.S. -- Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

From your old servant,

Jourdon Anderson

Many of the lines - "As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score," "what we are in justice entitled to," and "We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers," - are wry, thoughtful and moving. The post scriptum is in a class by itself, though.

MLK Day to me has always meant stopping to consider the dignity of all human beings, and to honor those who have fought for rights for all. It was a special day for history and reflection at the school where I taught. I continued to be dismayed by public figures casually endorsing torture. It's monstrous. However, there are so many smaller indignities in our culture and around the world, too. Fighting for basic civil or human rights isn't always in fashion, but it's one of the best fights there is.

Tavis Smiley has a special on Martin Luther King's speech against the Vietnam War that will be airing on March 31, 2010 on some PBS stations. In the meantime:

It Is By Will Alone I Set My Cat in Motion

Rather than playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, playing Six Degrees of Dune, the 1984 cult film, works surprisingly well due to its large and eclectic cast. The above pic was sent by someone familiar with the film and the game...

Friday, January 15, 2010

LOLcat Poetry

This is Just to Say

I don't know about anybody else, but I could use some lighter stuff. Via.

The original (beautiful) poem can be read here.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Haiti Aid

Digby has compiled an excellent set of links for anyone wanting to give aid to Haiti. The donations have been generous, and it's been good to see all the networks run coverage on this diaster, but the scope of devastation is staggering, and hard to take in. While I was driving home, I heard NPR reporter Jason Beaubien break up talking about it all.

The Red Cross' International Response Fund currently says that donations to date have allowed them to:

• Pledge $10 million to support humanitarian relief activities of the Haitian Red Cross;
• Deploy disaster response experts to Haiti to provide relief and recovery expertise;
• Send 5,000 family kits that include blankets, kitchen sets and water containers;
• Continue our global programs to prevent disease, reconnect families separated by crisis and promote respect for global humanitarian principles.

Best wishes to all.

Update: Good lord. Digby posted a link to some photos compiled by The Boston Globe. For the most graphic, you need to click a warning to see them.

I'm reminded of a NPR story years ago, after another natural disaster, on rescue dogs and their handlers. In some cases, they knew someone was trapped in a collapsed building, but it was too dangerous to go in, so although it was wrenching, they couldn't try to help. Also, as the hours and days progressed, it became rarer to find anyone alive. Some dogs are very sociable. Apparently, finding only dead bodies mades made the dogs depressed, or hurt their morale, or however one puts it for dogs. Because of this, their handlers would occasionally have a healthy person hide in a building so the dog could find him or her, to keep the dogs' spirits up.

Haiti could use all the aid and hope and spirit-raising they can get right now.

Fanfarlo - "Comets"

Here's another version.

Eclectic Jukebox

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

I'll See Your Jesus and Raise You 10,000 Buddhas

City of 10,000 Buddhas.

This follows up on an earlier post. Maha is misrepresented by Bill O'Reilly (unfortunate, but no surprise), and some Christian bloggers and commentators seems extremely confused by her citing the whole 'let he who is without sin cast the first stone' thing. Additionally, she finds one of the stupidest arguments I've seen in a long time:

As for the comment on Atheists – keep in mind – by claiming to be an Atheist – a person is acknowledging the absolute and certain existence of God! Otherwise there would be no God to Not Believe In!

This is not proof of God's existence, but is proof that a decent education and basic logic skills are valuable.

Meanwhile, TBogg provides the shorter version of conservative NYT columnist Ross Douthat's latest piece:

Brit Hume’s comments about that whore Tiger Woods provides us with a wonderful opportunity to discuss just exactly whose god has the biggest dick.

Here's Ross Douthat's actual piece, so you can read it yourself. Like Hume, he is a social conservative and Christian, but converted to Catholicism. Let's take a look at a few sections (emphasis mine throughout):

Somewhat more plausibly, a few of Hume’s critics suggested that had he been a Buddhist commentator urging a Christian celebrity to convert — or more provocatively, a Muslim touting the advantages of Islam — Christians would be calling for his head.

No doubt many would. The tendency to take offense at freewheeling religious debate is widespread. There are European Christians who side with Muslims in support of blasphemy laws, lest Jesus or the Prophet Muhammad have his reputation sullied. There are American Catholics who cry “bigotry” every time a newspaper columnist criticizes the church’s teaching on sexuality. Many Christians have decided that the best way to compete in an era of political correctness is to play the victim card.

Had Hume actually engaged in "freewheeling religious debate," and done so in a proper venue – not a purported news program - there would be no problem. He was proselytizing, trying to convert a celebrity to his religion, and denigrating another religion. Hume was making a pitch, not "debating." As Tom Shales (who Douthat quotes earlier) wrote:

Hume has a message for Woods; lots of people will have a message for Hume. First off, apologize. You gotta. Just say you are a man who is comfortable with his faith, so comfortable that sometimes he gets a wee bit carried away with it. If Hume wants to do the satellite-age equivalent of going door-to-door and spreading what he considers the gospel, he should do it on his own time, not try to cross-pollinate religion and journalism and use Fox facilities to do it.

This isn’t too difficult a concept. If Hume had apologized this way, I think most people would have accepted it. Back to Douthat:

But these believers are colluding in their own marginalization. If you treat your faith like a hothouse flower, too vulnerable to survive in the crass world of public disputation, then you ensure that nobody will take it seriously. The idea that religion is too mysterious, too complicated or too personal to be debated on cable television just ensures that it never gets debated at all.

"Debating" isn't quite the same as "discussing," and neither is the same as "preaching" or "proselytizing." Plus, has Douthat never watched cable, including cable access? Is he unaware of the 700 Club and the network on which it appears? In most areas, there are plenty of TV programs with preaching (mostly Christian), and there are others shows where people discuss religion (Bill Moyers has done several thoughtful specials on it). There's also places of worship, journals, blogs, and many other venues. A political roundtable – even one talking about celebrity gossip on a lousy network - is not the right venue. Douthat seems like he's implying censorship. Is he seriously claiming that religion isn't discussed?

This doesn’t mean that we need to welcome real bigotry into our public discourse. But what Hume said wasn’t bigoted: Indeed, his claim about the difference between Buddhism and Christianity was perfectly defensible. Christians believe in a personal God who forgives sins. Buddhists, as a rule, do not. And it’s at least plausible that Tiger Woods might welcome the possibility that there’s Someone out there capable of forgiving him, even if Elin Nordegren and his corporate sponsors never do.

Of course what Hume said was bigoted. He effectively claimed his religion was better, while demonstrating his ignorance of another major world religion. As he basically admitted in a later interview, he did so despite his knowledge that others probably would be offended. But notice that Douthat is now echoing Hume: 'Hey Tiger, maybe there's something in Christianity for you.' Douthat's understanding of Buddhism isn't that impressive, either.

Or maybe not. For many people — Woods perhaps included — the fact that Buddhism promotes an ethical life without recourse to Christian concepts like the Fall of Man, divine judgment and damnation is precisely what makes it so appealing. The knee-jerk outrage that greeted Hume’s remarks buried intelligent responses from Buddhists, who made arguments along these lines — explaining their faith, contrasting it with Christianity, and describing how a lost soul like Woods might use Buddhist concepts to climb from darkness into light.

Douthat tries to walk back his own proselytizing. It's not surprising he'd complain about "knee-jerk outrage" if he basically agrees with Hume. But what "knee-jerk outrage," anyway? Can we have some examples? Douthat doesn't cite any, and makes a pretty muddled argument here. Most of the criticism of Hume has been over him being a clueless dolt - which he was. Buddhists and others have corrected Hume's ignorance – which doesn't somehow mean that Hume wasn't ignorant with his "knee-jerk" proselytizing. It doesn't exonerate him. A mature, intelligent response to Hume doesn't somehow make Hume mature and informed.

Here's Douthat's big finish:

When liberal democracy was forged, in the wake of Western Europe’s religious wars, this sort of peaceful theological debate is exactly what it promised to deliver. And the differences between religions are worth debating. Theology has consequences: It shapes lives, families, nations, cultures, wars; it can change people, save them from themselves, and sometimes warp or even destroy them.

If we tiptoe politely around this reality, then we betray every teacher, guru and philosopher — including Jesus of Nazareth and the Buddha both — who ever sought to resolve the most human of all problems: How then should we live?

It’s reasonable to doubt that a cable news analyst has the right answer to this question. But the debate that Brit Hume kicked off a week ago is still worth having. Indeed, it’s the most important one there is.

"Peaceful" is relative. No one is calling for violence against Hume. But Hume has hardly provided some laudable model for "peaceful theological debate." If Douthat really believes that, it's just sad. Meanwhile, "How we should live" is hardly a question limited to theology, and the Harvard-educated Douthat should know that, as well. I think he's just hacking away in defense of a fellow socially conservative Christian, and there's a whiff of the same victimization he supposedly decries.

I don't think what Hume did was horrible and unforgivable – it was just rude and clueless. As Fran pointed out in comments to the last post, Hume became more religious after his son's suicide. That's pretty brutal, and if religion gave Hume comfort, I certainly don't begrudge him that. I know others for whom religion has done much the same. There's nothing wrong with having compassion for Hume as a human being. As I wrote in the comments last time, I'm guessing Hume was thinking, in part: 'my religion has given me a great deal, and who wouldn't what want I have, so I'll spread the word.' It can be well-intentioned, but the problem is that other people have rich personal lives, and/or good communities, and/or spiritual or reflective lives, all of which differ from Hume's in trappings and often in substance as well. He's apparently never figured that out, or doesn't care. He's acting like an old, rich, socially conservative white guy who thinks his world is the best and the norm.

Clearly there's nothing wrong with discussing religion, but there's the question of venue, and there's no virtue in discussing religion stupidly. Hume played the victim a bit with O'Reilly, and Douthat presses the same angle slightly. Douthat also pretends that Hume added something valuable, and started an important "debate." No - he didn't. I'm guessing most college freshmen in an intro religion class could be thoughtful, and probably less ignorant of Buddhism. If Hume stops proselytizing, it will not be some big loss, as Douthat whiningly implies. Religion, and religious discussion, will not somehow disappear from American life. Respectful, intelligent discussion of religion, philosophy and ethics will continue – but apparently Hume and Douthat will continue not to be part of it.

Fixed some typos.

Friday, January 08, 2010

NFL Wild Card Playoff Weekend 2010

(A.J. Hawk tackles Larry Fitzgerald.)

The coolest scenario for the Super Bowl would've been the New Orleans Saints and the Indianapolis Colts meeting after both going undefeated in the regular season – but both lost games in the final weeks. A franchise like the Saints, who have never won a league championship, winning the whole thing would still be neat. Still, I'm rooting for my team, the Packers, who aren't the favorites and shouldn't be, but have a decent chance if they play well. The playoff schedule can be seen here.

The most unusual aspect of this upcoming weekend is that three - three - games are rematches from last week (week 17, the last of the regular season). An immediate rematch isn't uncommon in the Wild Card Round, and rematches in the playoffs overall from the regular season are quite common. Still, I can't remember ever seeing three in the Wild Card Round, and two of those matches are even on the same fields. It's the Philadelphia Eagles at the Dallas Cowboys again and the Green Bay Packers at the Arizona Cardinals again. Meanwhile, the New York Jets play the Cincinnati Bengals again, but in Cincinnati this time.

For the past decade or so, seeding has generally been more predicative of progression in the NFC playoffs than in the AFC (although this has not been the case for the past two years). This season, the seeding going in is:


1- Indianapolis Colts (14-2)
2 – San Diego Chargers (13-3)
3- New England Patriots (10-6)
4 – Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)
5- New York Jets (9-7)
6 – Baltimore Ravens (9-7)


1- New Orleans Saints (13-3)
2 – Minnesota Vikings (12-4)
3- Dallas Cowboys (11-5)
4 – Arizona Cardinals (10-6)
5- Green Bay Packers (11-5)
6 – Philadelphia Eagles (11-5)

With the New Orleans Saints slumping late in the season, and almost all the other playoff teams in the NFC playing inconsistently in the final stretch, the conference championship seems more up for grabs than usual. It depends on "which team" shows up. Normally I'd say the Philadelphia Eagles were a very dangerous #6 seed, but they were shut out by their division rivals the Cowboys last week, losing them the division, and they play the Cowboys again in Dallas this week. In the AFC, I'd be surprised if one of the top three seeds didn't win the conference. The Colts have looked very good, but the Patriots have a knack for beating them when the two meet in the playoffs (the Colts won in a squeaker in their regular season matchup). We'll see.

A wild card making it to the Super Bowl, yet alone winning, used to be rare – prior to 1997, only one team had won the championship that route. However, currently five wild card teams have won a Super Bowl, with the 2007-2008 New York Giants and 2005-2006 Pittsburgh Steelers being the most recent. Both had to win all their games on the road, but they did it. Home field is traditionally an advantage, but as always, minimizing injuries, specific matchups and peaking at the right time matter even more. Anyway, I'm planning to catch all the games this weekend. Who are you backing?

You Damned Kids Get Into My Church

(Or, Not Everyone Worships My Jesus?!?)

This is a few days old, but even for a social conservative, this is god-awful:

The key section from Brit Hume is:

The extent to which he can recover seems to me depends on his faith. He is said to be a Buddhist. I don't think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith. So my message to Tiger would be, 'Tiger, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world."

Hume has been in the media since the 70s, and spent a decade prominently featured on Fox News – and he really thought that proselytizing and trying to convert a celebrity to his preferred religious faith on TV would be a good idea?!?

Personally, I don't think this has much to do with Tiger's faith or lack thereof. I think that Hume, and his fellow Fox social conservatives (with their progressive views on race), would feel more comfortable themselves "forgiving" the multicultural, country-club storming Tiger Woods were he Christian (and perhaps a little paler). You don't need to agree on all that – but Hume is still pitching to his audience that Tiger Woods is Not Like Us – and He Would Be More Acceptable if He Were More Like Me. Hume's tone sounds like that of a parent scolding a teenager for acting out - by practicing a non-Hume-approved religion.

Still, let's assume that Hume (apparently an Episcopalian) is sincere. Based on his statement, he seems to believe that Buddhists will not be forgiven by God (who Hume believes exists) because they're Buddhists. Hume's God is petty, and cares a great deal about religious denomination. Being forgiven depends on belonging to the right "club," so to speak.

I'm not surprised that a religious person would think this way. I'm surprised he or she would say it, and be so clueless and self-absorbed, on national television. My assumption is that religious people think their religion is the best. If they grew up with the religion, they've probably heard that it's the best, or just naturally assumed it. Those that reflect on their religion as they grow older and stay with it come to some conclusion that their specific denomination is the best – or else they'd change it. Those that convert to a religion obviously think their new religion or denomination is the best, or else they wouldn't have chosen it. Some may choose to be part of a place of worship more for the community, or convert for a spouse, and may not subscribe to all of a religion's tenets nor that communities' practices. Still, generally speaking, it's not surprising if a religious person thinks his or her religion is the best, and/or the truest path.

That said, it's amazing that in 2010, an adult who's seen something of the world could be ignorant of the fact that others look at things differently and would take offense. The true zealot, crusader, imperialist or proselytizer might know this, but just doesn't care. Hume is probably just a 66 year old social conservative who views his particular social world as the natural order from which all variations are deviant and lesser in respectability. In his view, who wouldn't want to be Brit Hume, or one of his pals? Hey, he's actually being magnanimous in offering a hand (even if the converted might never truly be seen as an equal).

Since I started this post, Pat Buchanan has predictably defended Hume, and Hume has defended himself as well:

As Steve Benen points out:

I suspect for Fox News, dictionaries suffer from liberal biases, but "proselytize" isn't a word burdened by nuance. It means "to induce someone to convert to one's faith." For Hume to deny that he was proselytizing on the air is absurd. That Fox News considers this incident consistent with its professional standards tells us all we need to know about the so-called "news" network.

Benen also points out what should be obvious – if the roles were reversed, and a Buddhist had said something similar about Christians such as Mark Sanford, Hume and the gang would be livid and calling for the Buddhist's resignation.

What I find most striking about this second clip is that Hume even acknowledges that people tend to get upset when one does what he just did. So he had a good idea this would happen – yet he did it anyway. O'Reilly and Hume even play the victim angle, suggesting that Christianity is somehow being attacked by people criticizing Hume. If Hume likes his Jesus, that's fine - but effectively telling someone else their religion is inferior and he should convert to yours is another matter entirely.

Evil Slutopia has a piece on this, too, and Maha, a Buddhist, has a piece titled "Let's Forgive Brit Hume." (Then there's a funny NSFW Red State Update, via Blue Gal, who has her own post on Hume.)

Hume's behavior fits into a larger pattern of religious narcissism, or narcissistic religiosity. Let's move to exhibit two, Antonin Scalia, via Steve Benen (from 10/8/09):

Thee U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday in a case called Buono v. Salazar, the year's big church-state case. The controversy surrounds a large white, wooden cross, built to honor the war dead of World War I, given special congressional status on federal land. Lower courts found the display unconstitutional -- official endorsement of religion conflicts with the First Amendment -- but given the high court's makeup, civil libertarians are concerned about the possible ruling and implications.

So, how did yesterday's session go? At one point, the ACLU's Peter Eliasberg suggested a preferable memorial would honor all veterans of the war, "and not just the Christians." Justice Antonin Scalia found this outrageous.

"The cross doesn't honor non-Christians who fought in the war?" Scalia asks, stunned.

"A cross is the predominant symbol of Christianity, and it signifies that Jesus is the son of God and died to redeem mankind for our sins," replies Eliasberg, whose father and grandfather are both Jewish war veterans.

"It's erected as a war memorial!" replies Scalia. "I assume it is erected in honor of all of the war dead. The cross is the most common symbol of ... of ... of the resting place of the dead."

Eliasberg dares to correct him: "The cross is the most common symbol of the resting place of Christians. I have been in Jewish cemeteries. There is never a cross on a tombstone of a Jew."

"I don't think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead the cross honors are the Christian war dead," thunders Scalia. "I think that's an outrageous conclusion!"

Far less outrageous is the conclusion that religious symbols are not religious.

And that's what it boils down to. Antonin Scalia, a devout Roman Catholic, wants to protest the notion that the symbol of Christianity is somehow inherently religious.

As aimai commented:

I always thought all that "Scalia's a really smart dude" talk was some kind of weird "the tribute white guys pay to each other" sort of thing. This pretty much nails it. That interchange is so crashingly, inexcusably, religiously bigoted and culturally uninformed that its hard to fathom. You would have to *not know* that the Jews don't consider themselves Christian to even make that statement in good faith. You'd also have to have some kind of weird, toddler level, understanding of the symbol of the cross in which it stands merely for the words "dead people are here and I noticed" that is, to say the least, odd in a practicing Catholic.

Scalia's remarks astounded me when I heard them reported on NPR (and I left a longer comment in aimai's thread). It's not surprising that Scalia has his religious faith, or even that he thinks it's the best, or even perhaps that he thinks his faith is the norm (although Catholics are far outnumbered by Protestants in the U.S.). But how could Scalia possibly not know that there are others who don't share his religious beliefs? What Eliasberg points should be obvious, yet Scalia is outraged.

Exhibit three is Bill Donohue of the Catholic League writing at the Washington Post site in late October. I should point out that Donohue certainly does not speak for all Catholics, if many at all. He's a far right social conservative, an angry bully and a raging asshole. This particular screed is fuming and incoherent even by his standards. Sadly, No has a good dissection of his crazy ranting, but here's some choice selections:

If societal destruction is the goal, then it makes no sense to waste time by attacking the political or economic structure: the key to any society is its culture, and the heart of any culture is religion. In this society, that means Christianity, the big prize being Catholicism. Which explains why secular saboteurs are waging war against it...

Sexual libertines, from the Marquis de Sade to radical gay activists, have sought to pervert society by acting out on their own perversions. What motivates them most of all is a pathological hatred of Christianity. They know, deep down, that what they are doing is wrong, and they shudder at the dreaded words, "Thou Shalt Not." But they continue with their death-style anyway...

The culture war is up for grabs. The good news is that religious conservatives continue to breed like rabbits, while secular saboteurs have shut down: they're too busy walking their dogs, going to bathhouses and aborting their kids. Time, it seems, is on the side of the angels.

Yes, walking one's dog is a slippery slope to damnation. Read the rest if you dare; there's more about the dangers of gay marriage and Marxism. Donohue is a spiteful man, furious that other people are not doing what he tells them to do. His sheer hatred is why it's important he shouldn't be granted legitimacy by a respectable media outlet. But his religious narcissism is also striking. Roughly 78% of Americans identify themselves as Christian, but only about 24% of Americans identify as Catholic. How is Catholicism possibly the "big prize" in America? At least some Protestant churches teach about the Reformation and the corruption of the Catholic Church in past eras in some detail; they are not fans of the papacy.

Nor do people who "sin" in Donohue's eyes have a "pathological hatred of Christianity"... the overwhelming majority simply don't think about it at all. They're not trying to spite Donohue, or the Pope, or some church. To the degree that they even know Donohue exists, they don't give a damn about him. He's simply not that important.

It's a safe bet that Donohue feels his is the true religion, the best, and the norm, even though he is much more socially conservative than even most of his fellow Catholics. Okay. But some time in high school, college, or later, didn't he... discover something about the world, life, maybe even himself? Seriously, has Donohue ever traveled out of the country? Taken a religion class that covered something besides Christianity? Studied anthropology? Had the opportunity to get a basic clue about the variety of humanity? The religious narcissism is astounding.

Some politicians and public figures pander to this narcissism. Mitt Romney provided a classic example late in 2007 during the Republican primaries, making such blatant horseshit claims as "freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom." Predictably, he also attacked atheists, one of the few groups national politicians of every stripe rarely pander to (if ever) and a group some politicians feel comfortable attacking. Using some religious rhetoric is one thing, but the panderer's pitch is that being religious makes one inherently superior – and I Am One of You.

Unfortunately, I've seen some similar dynamics in blog threads about atheism, where some religious people try to convert atheists and empiricists to a belief in their god(s), or claim their beliefs are equivalent (Check out Pharyngula, among other blogs). Common arguments are: I have faith that God exists, but you have faith in science; you say there's no proof God exists, but you can't prove that he doesn't exist, so why not believe in him; there can be no morality, or enjoyment of life without religion; and so on. Some of these arguments are sincere, but that doesn't make them any more accurate or less annoying. Normally, the fallacy is equivocation, using the same word to mean different things. Observable, verifiable "belief" in empirical facts is simply not equivalent to "belief" derived from religious teachings or faith. For example, saying "I know that Earth's gravity is approximately 9.81 m/s2" is completely different from saying "I know that my Redeemer lives." One belief is justified, supportable and verifiable; the other derives from faith. The processes for arriving at these "beliefs" are entirely different. Claiming they're the same is a bad argument, and not coincidentally, a sure-fire way to piss off an empiricist.

The thing is, I've seen atheists and empiricists explain this distinction in posts and threads countless times, often more succinctly and eloquently than I did above. It's really not that complex. And yet, some religious commentators will effectively (or literally) ignore these explanations and keep on making the same debunked arguments. Everyone has his or her blind spots, of course. But I think that for these particular religious people, the core principles of empiricism, or at least atheism, are almost utterly foreign. Formerly religious people who become atheists understand religious people in a way that some religious people simply never understand atheists. Not every atheist thinks the same, but generally speaking, atheism is not a religion any more than "not collecting stamps" is a hobby (still perhaps the best analogy I've heard for it). Most of the crowd claiming atheism is a religion, or who try to define the scientific method in religious terms, are religious narcissists, and cannot conceive of a system of belief or epistemology that does not resemble their own faith in structure.

Plenty of reflective, smart religious people (I know a fair number) have no problem making such distinctions, of course. For them, these types of "belief" are generally not in conflict. Studying comparative religions, anthropology, philosophy or theology (or just being thoughtful by nature) certainly helps. Stephen Jay Gould's line about science and religion being "non-overlapping magisteria" isn't entirely accurate, but there's some truth to it, and it's not a bad line for keeping the peace and fostering some general respect.

My general attitude on religion is, if this or that specific one works for you, more power to ya. As a religion professor I heard once said, there are many paths up the mountain. The problems arise when, for instance, some self-avowed Christians treat the Bible not as a tool of reflection and guide to ethics, but as a textbook of physics, biology, history and law – and insist that everyone else do the same. (I have much more on that elsewhere.) Literal interpretations of the Bible don't help, nor does viewing the Bible as inerrant despite all the translations, shifting language and metaphor usage over the passage of time, and general human fallibility. I've heard religious scholars claim such rigidity was far less common before the 20th Century – and while it's fashionable for Americans to claim they go to church and love the Bible, they often don't know it very well.

There are ways to talk about religion in public life that avoid the pitfalls or aggression of Brit Hume, Scalia, Donohue, Romney and others. They are many more in private life, or in religious communities. But put two Christians together, and they may not worship the same Jesus. Put a Christian and a Hindu together, and they may not worship the same god(s). Put a Christian and an atheist together –especially an authoritarian and an empiricist, respectively – and the gap may be extremely wide on fundamental levels. As I've written before, your mileage may vary depending on your communities, but in general, respect for atheists is the most important gauge for how healthy church-state separation and the First Amendment are ("The freedom to worship, or not."). Donohue and Romney don't give a damn about that (for different reasons), but Hume and especially Scalia should know better.

Update: I've got a follow-up here.