Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Rightwing Cartoon Watch #19 (4/16/07—4/29/07)

The latest installment is here!

This installment covers two weeks, 4/16/07-4/29/07. The biggest topics were the Virginia Tech shootings and a Supreme Court decision on abortion — but there's always time for conservative cartoonists to attack prominent Democrats and — Rosie O'Donnell?!?

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Lock Up the Womenfolk, the Muslims are Comin'!

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

(Stare into the eyes of a hardened killer.)

Oh, the things you can read on the internets! Would you believe that we found WMD in Iraq, and Muslims in America seek to make the United States subject to an Islamic Caliphate? (I suppose they should hurry, before those dangerous Mexican immigrants reclaim the American Southwest and dub it Aztlan!)

One Dave Gaubitz has won himself fans among many rightwing bloggers, a few neocons plus Peter Hoekstra, Curt Weldon and Rick Santorum. Glenn Greenwald quotes an article by British neocon Melanie Phillips, who writes:

It’s a fair bet that you have never heard of a guy called Dave Gaubatz. It’s also a fair bet that you think the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has found absolutely nothing, nada, zilch; and that therefore there never were any WMD programmes in Saddam’s Iraq to justify the war ostensibly waged to protect the world from Saddam’s use of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.

Dave Gaubatz, however, says that you could not be more wrong. Saddam’s WMD did exist. He should know, because he found the sites where he is certain they were stored. And the reason you don’t know about this is that the American administration failed to act on his information, ‘lost’ his classified reports and is now doing everything it can to prevent disclosure of the terrible fact that, through its own incompetence, it allowed Saddam’s WMD to end up in the hands of the very terrorist states against whom it is so controversially at war.

Even though the Great Leader himself, George W. Bush, has admitted that there were no WMD in Iraq (however reluctantly), four years later true believers refuse to buy it. Scott Johnson from Powerline, Glenn Reynolds, Michelle Malkin and David Horowitz' publications have all been promoting Gaubatz. Greenwald also cites John Bolton promoting similar dribble (no surprise). Needless to say, this is crazy. Of course, denial is a way of life for many rightwingers. There's a saying that comes to mind: The more you pay for a fake picture, the more insistent you'll be that it's not a fake.

The Gaubatz insanity doesn't stop there, however. Gaubatz is a leading member of an organization ironically called SANE, or Society of Americans for National Existence. Here's their mission statement (hat tip to A Tiny Revolution):

National Existence is political order experienced by men of the nation as a Rise to Being. Its opposite is a replacement of political order experienced by men, women, children and slaves as a Fall from Being. This Redirection in the experience of the Terms of Being (Self, Society, G-d and World) results in the collapse of Self into Society and all into World. The goal, wittingly or otherwise: a World State.

SANE opposes this Redirection and its manifestations: chants of Racism, Democracy, Equal Rights, Human Rights, Women's Rights, Animal Rights, and the always growing list of what is the Single Concept: Certainty/Uncertainty = Science/Open Society = World. To understand this reciprocal and how it affects a convergence of factors bent on the destruction of National Existence is to be SANE.

SANE is the first step back into the Present. And it is this step "back" to National Existence that will secure the present and protect the future.

The fall-from-grace tone is pretty clear, but I also have to wonder about any group which opposes itself to "democracy," "human rights" and the rest. I'm finding it hard to decide — is this more Book of Genesis, more Scientology, more bad college experimental theater or just painfully incoherent conservative reactionary claptrap?

If you scan through the SANE site, it really reads as if it's satire. Sadly, it's not. Perhaps most alarming is one of their key projects "to map every mosque and Islamic day school in America and to index the Shari'a threat level." This project has its own site, Mapping Sharia, while the actual project name is Mapping Shari'a in America: Knowing the Enemy. Yes, American citizens who happen to be Muslim are now "the enemy."

(Click for a larger image.)

It puts Michelle Malkin's little rant in perspective that she will:

...resist the imposition of sharia principles and sharia law in my taxi cab, my restaurant, my community pool, the halls of Congress, our national monuments, the radio and television airwaves, and all public spaces.

SANE recently explained the program on a Christian news network:

"We're going to go into the mosques ... we're going to go into the day schools, [and] we're going to get the literature, we're going to listen to the courses, and we're going to rate them," says [SANE founder] Yerushalmi. A rating of zero will indicate no sharia being taught; a rating of 10, says the group, will imply it is being taught at "al-Qaeda level."

Well, that's a comfort. It's also a great way to make friends with one's fellow Americans. A salaam aleikum, Monsieur Gaubitz!

Meanwhile, Dave Gaubitz penned a piece titled "Suicide & Islam: The connection to the slayings at Virginia Tech." While Gaubitz acknowledges that Seung-Hui Cho was not a Muslim terrorist:

I want to emphasize that the unfortunate murders in Blacksburg may have erupted initially from a domestic dispute, but the media and the authorities must not rush to judgment to rule out terrorism in any murder, especially a multiple murder. Doing so puts our nation at risk.

The jeopardy of ruling out the motive of Islamic terror or even of what we might term generic terror or terror for terror’s sake is ever present and real. When the media and law enforcement focus on a publicly-announced motive, whether that assumed motive is drug- or alcohol-related, marital issues, financial stresses, or emotional disturbances such as depression, the investigators almost immediately lose their objectivity and begin to focus exclusively on the reported causation. The tendency to do so is understandable but it is also dangerous in this day and age of Islamic terror.

Yes, Gaubitz seriously wants cops and the FBI to consider whether every murderer might in fact be an Islamic terrorist. Hmm. Even without a statistical analysis of the miniscule number of terrorism-related deaths in America compared to, say, domestic disputes or armed robbery, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that's crazy. I'll further say that if an investigator is looking at every murder, regardless of the evidence, as a terrorist act, that's the very definition of losing "objectivity."

My first reaction to the SANE site was that it probably was the most bigoted, xenophobic rhetoric I'd seen outside of outright hate speech. Jim Henley (link via Greenwald) did some valuable digging in this vein on their paranoia and religious roots. Here's an expansion of one of the key passages he uncovered, from SANE founder David Yerushalmi:

White Christians were at the founding of this nation a distinct people and privileged as such. Men of means among this people were given the opportunity for representative government. This is, for those of you flinching, not a thesis or “viewpoint”; this is historical fact.

After the Civil War, this changed; with the move into the 20th century this change became a wholesale reformation. Today, you cannot speak of Christianity in the public sphere and if you mention “white” and “Christians” in the same sentence you will be set upon as a despicable racist by every “fair-minded” public person. And, this phenomenon extends far beyond race. It is now the case that you cannot speak of the evil of Islam and remain a serious participant in public discourse. In order to speak of the unfathomable murder and mayhem brought to the Western world by Mohammed and his god Allah and the threat it poses to our very existence, we must label it in such ways as to disfigure our very meaning. Thus, Islamists are the bad guys not Muslims; Islamo-fascism is their political ideology not Islam simply and not even Islamic law; and we must, almost per force of law, begin by noting that our critique is not of the noble religion of peace but of radical Islam hijacked by the few extremists among the faithful.

Really, why can't we just hate them openly? Yerushalmi is clearly ignorant of how American was founded or is just lying as he parrots historical revisionism common among American Christian theocrats. He also adds (or highlights) a charming strain of bigotry to the mess. Curse those "fair-minded" people!

Funny, when I did a search for "American" and "Muslim" I found several interesting organizations, all of which seem less fearful and militant than SANE.

The American Muslim has on its front page:

In the name of God, The Compassionate, The Merciful

Oh mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (Not that you may despise each other). 49;13

They also feature an article by Aaron Greenblatt called "Jewish-Muslim dialogue deeper than it seems."

The American Muslim Alliance provides links to many interesting studies and polls, including a U.S. Government demographic study of Muslims in America. SANE actually quotes the same statistics to raise a spectre of fear, but I'm rather encouraged by the following statistics:

• American Muslims who "strongly agree" that they should participate in American institutions and the political process: 70 percent
• U.S. mosques that feel the Koran should be interpreted with consideration of its purposes and modern circumstances: 71 percent
• U.S. mosques that provide some assistance to the needy: nearly 70 percent

Rather than a plot to overtake the government or the country, this says to me that American Muslims believe in a civic life as well as religious one, that they care about the poor, and that they're at least somewhat receptive to a non-literal reading of the Koran and how it applies to contemporary times. Sounds good to me!

The Muslim American Society describes its objectives as:

• To present the message of Islam to Muslims and non-Muslims, and promote understanding between them,
• To encourage the participation of Muslims in building a virtuous and moral society,
• To offer a viable Islamic alternative to many of our society’s prevailing problems,
• To promote family values in accordance with Islamic teaching,
• To promote the human values that Islam emphasizes: brotherhood, equality, justice, mercy, compassion, and peace, and
• To foster unity among Muslims and Muslim organizations and encourage cooperation and coordination amongst them.

The American Islamic Congress has several pieces on their site about ending war crimes and the killing in Darfur. As to the purpose, they explain:

The American Islamic Congress (AIC) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to building interfaith and interethnic understanding. Our organization grew out of the ashes of September 11. We believe American Muslims must take the lead in building tolerance and fostering a respect for human rights and social justice at home and throughout the Muslim world. Within the Muslim community, we are building a coalition around the agenda of unequivocal denunciation of terrorism, extremism, and hate speech. Reaching out to all people of conscience, we promote genuine interfaith dialogue and educate about the diversity within Islam.

The Islamic Society of North America claims to be the largest Muslim organization in the United States. Their mission statement reads:

ISNA is an association of Muslim organizations and individuals that provides a common platform for presenting Islam, supporting Muslim communities, developing educational, social and outreach programs and fostering good relations with other religious communities, and civic and service organizations.

ISNA has been criticized as too conservative by Muslim Wakeup!, a progressive group, who in turn get criticized for being... too progressive. Their mission statement reads:

Muslim WakeUp! seeks to bring together Muslims and non-Muslims in America and around the globe in efforts that celebrate cultural and spiritual diversity, tolerance, and understanding. Through online and offline media, events, and community activities, Muslim WakeUp! champions an interpretation of Islam that celebrates the Oneness of God and the Unity of God’s creation through the encouragement of the human creative spirit and the free exchange of ideas, in an atmosphere that is filled with compassion and free of intimidation, authoritarianism, and dogmatism. In all its activities, Muslim WakeUp! attempts to reflect a deep belief in justice and against all forms of oppression, bigotry, sexism, and racism.

Finally, the Council on American-Islamic Relations or CAIR is apparently also controversial, with some critics charging it has ties with more extreme groups. I'm open to reading legitimate criticism of CAIR or any of these organizations from reputable sources, but I can't fault CAIR's advocacy of civil rights.

Perhaps all these groups are lying to lull all non-Muslims into a false sense of security while they pursue their secret radical agenda, but that seems more like rightwing projection. There's a great deal of language about outreach and peace on these Muslim sites. All in all, I'm much more alarmed by SANE than any of these Muslim groups!

SANE and folks such as Michelle Malkin seem terrified that Muslim extremists will take over America. That's ridiculous. It's not going to happen. America is not going to become a Muslim theocracy, not any time in our lifetimes, if ever. Even assuming all Muslims in American had such an inclination, they don't have the numbers, and we have a little thing called the Constitution. Of course, most American Muslims don't have such an inclination. Still, the best bulwark against America becoming a Muslim theocracy on the legal and political front is Freedom of Religion and the separation of church and state.

This raises the issue of Christian theocrats in America, who fall roughly into two camps. The rank and file may be sincere in their religious beliefs and sincere in their fear of Islamic extremists. The leadership among religious authoritarians, people such as James Dobson, may be sincere in their fear as well, but as I've argued elsewhere, their main objective seems to be greater power. It takes only passing familiarity with the religious right to know they're afraid of or hostile to other religious groups, atheists, and generally, people who aren't them. Fear of a Muslim planet is certainly a rallying cry for many prominent Christian religious authoritarians in America. Dobson and Gaubatz might feel more comfortable living in a Christian theocracy, but America is not a theocracy, and theocracy is unjust on a systemic level. Destroying the American system of government to create a Christian theocracy would be a step helpful for creating a Muslim theocracy, not a defense against it. I suspect Dobson knows this, but fear is always a useful political tool.

There have always been political figures happy to exploit fear. For conservatives, it used to be those damn Commies, now it's Islamist terrorists or any Islamists, or for Dave Gaubatz, all Muslims (until given a stamp of approval, perhaps). However, as many writers have pointed out, under the Cold War we faced a far greater existential threat than we face now from Islamic extremists, despite all the fear-mongering going on.

America does face threats, the greatest of which would be the detonation of a nuclear "dirty bomb" in a major city. Terrorists as fanatical as Al Qaeda cannot be stopped by rational discussion, and they're certainly dangerous. However, taking national security threats seriously doesn't necessitate paranoia, hysteria and bigotry. There's no reason terrorists can't be caught through the use of warrants and while observing the Geneva Conventions. As a rule, liberals don't crap their pants any time a Muslim or someone with brown skin walks by.

In the meantime, one of the best defenses against hatred is an improvement of social, diplomatic and cultural ties. It's sad but hardly shocking that America's popularity throughout the world, but especially throughout the Muslim world, plummeted since Bush chose to invade Iraq. We talked with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War, but the Bush administration sees diplomacy itself as failure and apparently considers the silent treatment the height of foreign policy sophistication. The Cheney-Bush-neocon approach holds that humiliating one's opponents is the most successful policy. They're of course wrong, and it's no surprise such people can't win "hearts and minds." In the modern world, an imperialist mindset of domination and degradation isn't nearly as effective as one of cooperation and a restrained flexing of power, and that's just basic statecraft. When it comes to the domestic side of things, mapping mosques and Muslim day schools, labeling ordinary Muslims the enemy until proven innocent, with the judges a paranoid, bigoted rightwing organization, really doesn't spread the good will. It's quite shameful. The actions aren't nearly as bad, but the attitude reminds me those who created the Japanese-American internment camps back in the 1940s (defended with shoddy scholarship by Michelle Malkin). In contrast, organizations such as The Interfaith Alliance strengthen the community bonds that Gaubatz and his ilk intentionally or unintentionally shred. What a radical thought — rather than labeling one's fellow Americans as part of some dangerous "Other," one can have a conservation with them as human beings.

I believe there's a profound immaturity or arrested development in people such as Gaubitz, the rightwing bloggers mentioned, and most of the neocons (all subject for a later post). I suspect that Dave Gaubatz as a kid was the sort who was terrified of monsters in his closet, under his bed, and lurking in the toilet ready to pounce. All grown up, not that much has changed — Gaubatz and his ilk still see monsters everywhere, head deep in the swirling muck of their paranoia, bigotry, pent-up fear and constipated rage.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Blog Against Theocracy Update

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

I must confess I still haven't made my way through all the Blog Against Theocracy posts, but since Blue Gal reports several hundred bloggers participated, and we wrote several hundred posts, that's less surprising. Whew!

Blogger VirusHead has a series summarizing and quoting an impressive 135 (or more) posts from the blogswarm that starts here. It's a good overview, or you can check the home site linked above. We'll be doing this again next year!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Rightwing Cartoon Watch #18 (4/1/07—4/15/07)

The latest installment is here!

See chickenhawks squawk! See a(nother) manfactured scandal! See creative ways to attack liberals and African-Americans over Don Imus!

Monday, April 16, 2007

Holocaust Remembrance Day 2007

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Holocaust Remembrance Day has been observed by different countries on different days over the years. In November 2005, the United Nations General Assembly voted to follow the German and later British examples and set January 27th as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The date marks the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest and probably most well-known of the Nazi concentration camps. Meanwhile, April 16th this year marks Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day as observed in Israel and many Jewish communities (some history of the Yom HaShoah date and observance debate is here). I consider the specific date of observance much less important than the observance itself. While remembering the Holocaust can be an affirmation of cultural identity and solidarity for some, it can also be a simple recognition of shared humanity.

Last year's entry listed a number of Holocaust-related books, films and music. As with last year, I'd welcome any good pieces I haven't mentioned yet, since there are many out there.

This year, there have been a few recent related stories. The Vatican and Israel had a brief conflict over Remembrance Day which has been resolved. German youths continue to study the Holocaust and work to heal old wounds. Meanwhile, Fresh Air recently featured an interesting interview with Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the "chief rabbi of Poland — and a New York native. He moved to Warsaw in 1990 to help rebuild Jewish communities there. It was a homecoming of sorts: Schudrich's grandparents emigrated from Poland before World War II."

However, since this is also National Poetry Month, I wanted to highlight some of the work of Charlotte Delbo (1913-1985), whose work I mentioned last year. A French political activist and resistance fighter, Delbo was sent to Auschwitz in 1943, luckily surviving and winning her freedom in 1945. Delbo was not Jewish, and the Holocaust obviously took the most deadly toll on Jewish communities, but the Nazis also imprisoned and killed homosexuals, the Roma (more commonly known as gypsies), Slavic peoples, the mentally and physically disabled, and of course political activists and intellectuals.

As mentioned last year, Hilda Schiff has compiled an entire anthology of Holocaust Poetry, while Charlotte Delbo’s Auschwitz and After compiles three of her earlier works, and combines autobiography with poetry. Some excerpts:

O you who know
did you know that hunger makes the eyes sparkle that thirst dims them
O you who know
did you know that you can see your mother dead
and not shed a tear
O you who know
did you know that a day is longer than a year
a minute longer than a lifetime
O you who know
did you know that legs are more vulnerable than eyes
nerves harder than bones
the heart firmer than steel
Did you know that the stones of the road do not weep
that there is only one word for dread
one for anguish
Did you know that suffering is limitless
that horror cannot be circumscribed
Did you know this
You who know.


"You're French?"
"So am I."
She has no F on her chest. A star.
"From where?"
"You've been here a long time?"
"Five weeks."
"I've been here sixteen days."
"That's already a long time, I know."
"Five weeks... How can it be?"
"Just like this."
"And you think we can survive this?"
She is begging.
"We've got to try."
"For you perhaps there's hope, but for us..."
She points to my striped jacket and then to her coat, a coat much too big, much too dirty, much too tattered.
"Oh, come on, it's the same odds for both of us."
"For us, there's no hope."
She gestures with her hand, mimics rising smoke.
"We've got to keep up our courage."
"Why bother... Why keep on struggling when all of us are to..."
The gesture of her hand completes the sentence. Rising smoke.
"No, we've got to keep on struggling."
"How can we hope to get out of her." How will anyone ever get out of here. It would be better to throw ourselves on the barbed wire immediately."
What can one say to her? She's small, frail. And I can't even convince myself.
All argument is senseless. I'm struggling against my reason. One struggles against all reason.
The chimney smokes. The sky is low. Smoke sweeps across the camp weighing upon us and enveloping us with the odor of burning flesh.

My mother
she was hands, a face
They made our mothers strip in front of us

Here mothers are no longer mothers to their children.

It's this denial of someone else's humanity, the petty humiliations and systemic stripping of identity to make murder more palatable that's always struck me the most. Given Rwanda, Sudan and other atrocities, I've heard it said that "never again" really seems to mean, "Never again will German Nazis kill Jews in the 1940s." That may be, but it's hard to see no value in The Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research and these United Nations statements of commitment:

1. We recognise that the Holocaust shook the foundations of modern civilisation. Its unprecedented character and horror will always hold universal meaning.

2. We believe the Holocaust must have a permanent place in our nation's collective memory. We honour the survivors still with us, and reaffirm our shared goals of mutual understanding and justice.

3. We must make sure that future generations understand the causes of the Holocaust and reflect upon its consequences. We vow to remember the victims of Nazi persecution and of all genocide.

4. We value the sacrifices of those who have risked their lives to protect or rescue victims, as a touchstone of the human capacity for good in the face of evil.

5. We recognise that humanity is still scarred by the belief that race, religion, disability or sexuality make some people's lives worth less than others'. Genocide, antisemitism, racism, xenophobia and discrimination still continue. We have a shared responsibility to fight these evils.

6. We pledge to strengthen our efforts to promote education and research about the Holocaust and other genocide. We will do our utmost to make sure that the lessons of such events are fully learnt.

7. We will continue to encourage Holocaust remembrance by holding an annual Holocaust Memorial Day. We condemn the evils of prejudice, discrimination and racism. We value a free, tolerant, and democratic society.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Hilzoy on Violence, and God

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

It's hard to keep up with all the great blogs out there, but I wanted to highlight two great posts by Hilzoy over at Obsidian Wings. She's a philosophy professor, and often writes thoughtful dissections of important stories (and debunks of major disinformation campaigns), but two of her posts in the past couple months really struck me. When pundits go on a knee-jerk anti-blog tear, I have to think — where the hell are the pundits that are producing pieces this thoughtful and thought-provoking? There aren't many.

"Liberating Iraq" (2/27/07) considers the belated and incomplete realizations of Iraq war hawks such as The New Republic's Peter Beinart:

Violence is not a way of getting where you want to go, only more quickly. Its existence changes your destination. If you use it, you had better be prepared to find yourself in the kind of place it takes you to.

...liberation is not just a matter of removing an oppressive government. It can seem that way when you live under tyranny. Nothing is more comprehensible than people living in apartheid South Africa, or under Saddam, thinking: if only that government were removed from power, things would be better. They would have to be. After all, how could they possibly be worse?

Non-violent resistance and conflict resolution really do demand an entirely different moral, emotional and social vocabulary, utterly foreign to the insecure, unreflective neocons and their many chickenhawk allies. Imperialists and other bullies can never truly win over hearts and minds or foster peaceful coexistence — they only understand the language of domination. Even violence with "the best intentions" — if such a thing is possible! — will change the path.

Trusting In God's Judgment (3/14/07) considers the dynamics of George W. Bush's professed beliefs in God, and the actions of the religiously certain in general:

What is a problem is to have someone in office who claims to care only about what God thinks and how God will judge him, but who doesn't actually take this idea seriously. Someone like that will use the thought that only God's opinion matters simply to dismiss human criticism, without actually worrying about God. He will regard God as a convenient excuse, someone he can assume agrees with him. But to believe in a God who is, in fact, you, or who is so unreal to you that you don't need to bother taking His views seriously, is not faith; it is the opposite of faith.

Suppose you actually believe in God. You believe, that is, in a being who is omniscient, who knows not just what you do, but what is in your heart. Moreover, He cares deeply about goodness; in fact, his opinion of you will be based entirely on whether you are actually a good person. He is generous and loving, and so you don't need to worry that He will judge you in a mean-spirited way, taking what you think in the least charitable light. When you are genuinely trying to do the right thing, He can be counted on to know that.

On the other hand, since God does know your heart, He can also be counted on to see through your excuses. He is not interested in whether you can convince yourself, or even other people, that you are a good person. He is interested in whether or not you really are a good person. And, as I said before, He knows everything there is to know on this subject. You can fool yourself, but you cannot fool Him. Not only can you count on Him to give their proper importance to those things you do that you know are wrong but that other people are prepared to laugh off; you can count on Him to see through all the excuses for bad behavior that convince even you.

If you believed this, the idea of being judged by God would be genuinely terrifying. Even if you think you are basically a good person, you might be adopting too easily the lax standards of people around you, or convincing yourself that you are doing what's right when in fact you are not. And the flip side of the fact that God can be counted on not to be unduly harsh on you is that he can be counted on not to let you off the hook too easily either. He will make all the allowances that really ought to be made, but no more.

She adds in the comments:

Moreover, it is not inconceivable that someone might believe that God asks us to respect others even when we disagree with them, and/or to preserve the separation of church and state, and/or to protect democracy. On most accounts, He certainly prohibits accepting jobs one cannot in good conscience fulfill conscientiously, and if being a conscientious President requires protecting and preserving the Constitution, then one is obliged to do so, having given one's word.

As I commented over at Obsidian Wings, personally, I've always been struck by the lack of humility among the religious right. Also, despite their more literalist bent toward the Bible, they seem to ignore much of its content to a striking degree. I don't think "fearing" God per se is necessary, but I've always felt that a close reading of the Bible and reverence toward its God would engender a greater drive to try to be open, to think matters through and act wisely, rather than deciding that everything one does or thinks is divinely blessed or inspired...

I've always been fond of a saying that "I don't trust the person who says he or she has found the light, but rather the person who's still searching."

(I'll add here that that principle is precisely why I value bloggers who are thoughtful over mainstream pundits who are asinine.)

Monday, April 09, 2007

J.S. Mill and James Madison Vs. George W.

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Len Hart, "The Existentialist Cowboy," has a great post titled "Why the Bush regime is illegitimate" (hat-tip to Mike's Blog Roundup). He provides a great overview of some key philosophical and legal foundations of America's founding, and how the Bush administration has systematically attacked them. My favorite passage that he quotes is (emphasis mine):

The struggle between Liberty and Authority is the most conspicuous feature in the portions of history with which we are earliest familiar, particularly in that of Greece, Rome, and England. But in old times this contest was between subjects, or some classes of subjects, and the government.


That (it might seem) was a resource against rulers whose interests were habitually opposed to those of the people. What was now wanted was, that the rulers should be identified with the people; that their interest and will should be the interest and will of the nation.

— John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

The authoritarians of the Bush administration and their allies are not solely seeking power within the existing American system of government. They have been trying to undo the system itself. The Bushies and King George really aren't far from the monarchists of years past.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Religion and Poetry

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

(The Greek muse Erato, painted by Simon Vouet.)

To combine the Blog Against Theocracy weekend with National Poetry Month, here's several poems.

Dogma and great art don't mix very well. Totalitarians generally respect and fear the power of art, and thus often seek to restrict and control it. Art can say more than one thing at once, and often deals with nuance and subtleties. Authoritarians typically cannot tolerate ambiguity. Biblical literalists cannot handle allegory, metaphor, symbolism and competing points of view in other literature, either. For them, truth is derived from, and dispensed by, authority. Authoritarian leaders like power, but for authoritarian followers the chief appeal of their movement is certainty. Certainty is a great solace, as is a sense of belonging with a group, and both diminish fear. A regulated path in life, however unpleasant, can be more appealing than a more naked, honest, unpredictable one. However, the comfort of an artificial, hierarchical order sacrifices some of the wonderful, occasionally chaotic beauty of life in the world.

Some religious organizations promote what could be called a Hobbesian view of human nature — humans are inherently bad, or prone to evil, and need some sort of external order. Control must be maintained or imposed. The Catholic Church at one point wanted to ban polyphonic music, because they feared its beauty would seduce congregations, and distract them from God (happily, they relented). It's one thing to condemn materialism, another to condemn a selfish hedonism, yet none of that requires condemning life, joy, beauty and art. Not all art is good, or effective, or resonates with everybody. Plenty of great art has an overtly religious theme. However, great art encourages an individual and often complex reaction. And even though the words that make up a poem are seemingly much more concrete and less ambiguous than, say, an abstract painting, there's no question that a favorite poem carries intensely personal meaning.

Dogma and the need for certainty can overwhelm the beauty of life and art:

Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

— Billy Collins

Poetry can tell a story some might find heretical:

Sometime During Eternity

Sometime during eternity
some guys show up
and one of them
who shows up real late
is a kind of carpenter
from some square-type place
like Galilee
and he starts wailing
and claiming he is hip
to who made heaven
and earth
and that the cat
who really laid it on us
is his Dad

And moreover
he adds it's all writ down
on some scroll-type parchments
which some henchmen
leave lying around the Dead
Sea somewheres
a long time ago
and which you won't even find
for a coupla thousand years or so
or at least for
nineteen hundred and forty-seven
of them
to be exact
and even then
nobody really believes them
or me
for that matter

You're hot
they tell him

And they cool him

They stretch him on the Tree to cool

And everybody after that
is always making
of this Tree
with Him hung up
and always crooning His name
and calling Him to come
and sit in
in their combo
as if he is the king cat
who's got to blow
or they can't quite make it

Only he don't come down from His Tree
Him just hang there
on His Tree
looking real Petered out
and real cool
and also
according to a roundup
of late world new
from the usual unreliable source
real dead

— Lawrence Ferlinghetti

To read this poem with its original formatting, click here. (This poem has a special significance to me because I was assigned it to perform by a teacher years ago. As a friend of mine said, it really sort of asks for a string bass jamming away behind it.)

Many folks are familiar with this poem by William Blake, and its musings on a creature and its creator:

The Tyger

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

— William Blake

Less well known is its companion poem, deceptively simple:

The Lamb

Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed,
By the stream and o'er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?

Little Lamb, I'll tell thee,
Little Lamb, I'll tell thee.
He is called by thy name,
For He calls Himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and He is mild;
He became a little child.
I a child, and thou a lamb,
We are called by His name.
Little Lamb, God bless thee!
Little Lamb, God bless thee!

— William Blake

Read as a pair, the poems take on new significance.

Some lovely poetry and wisdom can be found in religious texts:

Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?

Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?

Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?

And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:

And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

— Matthew 6:25-29, King James Bible

Meanwhile, a 15th Century Zen monk with a keen sense of humor takes a very human approach to his own religion's guidelines:

A Meal of Fresh Octopus

Lots of arms, just like Kannon the Goddess;
Sacrificed for me, garnished with citron, I
revere it so!
The taste of the sea, just divine!
Sorry, Buddha, this is another precept I just
cannot keep.

— Ikkyu (Translated by John Stevens)

Speaking of Solomon and his raiment, there's a lovely phrase from Song of Solomon 8:6: "Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death." Compare that sentiment to words of 13th Century Persian poet Rumi:

Spring Giddiness

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don't open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don't go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don't go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don't go back to sleep.

I would love to kiss you.
The price of kissing is your life.
Now my loving is running toward my life shouting,
What a bargain, let's buy it.

Daylight, full of small dancing particles
and the one great turning, our souls
are dancing with you, without feet, they dance.
Can you see them when I whisper in your ear?

All day and night, music,
a quiet, bright
reedsong. If it
fades, we fade.

— Rumi (Translated by Coleman Barks)

Still, divinity is at least partially in the eye of the beholder. When I was a teenager entering college, when asked about my religious beliefs, I used to say (only half-jokingly) that King Lear was my Bible. It was due to the depth and wisdom I found in passages such as this, when a gentleman describes Cordelia receiving news of her father Lear's torments:

Did your letters pierce the queen to any
demonstration of grief?

Ay, sir; she took them, read them in my presence;
And now and then an ample tear trill'd down
Her delicate cheek: it seem'd she was a queen
Over her passion; who, most rebel-like,
Sought to be king o'er her.

O, then it moved her.

Not to a rage: patience and sorrow strove
Who should express her goodliest. You have seen
Sunshine and rain at once: her smiles and tears
Were like a better way: those happy smilets,
That play'd on her ripe lip, seem'd not to know
What guests were in her eyes; which parted thence,
As pearls from diamonds dropp'd. In brief,
Sorrow would be a rarity most beloved,
If all could so become it.

— William Shakespeare, King Lear [Quarto, 4.3, 9-24]

(As to its meaning for me, that's a whole other piece.)

While galleries and individuals own paintings, no one owns their impact or meaning. There's a line in the film Il Postino that "poetry belongs to those who need it." The beauty of the First Amendment is that it allows for a wide range of religious beliefs, and a wide range of expression, creative or otherwise. We don't need a formalized Freedom of Creativity or Freedom of Interpretation, but I prefer to see divinity, such as it is, in kindness, connection, and inspiration.

(You can scroll through this site's series of posts for the Blog Against Theocracy weekend here, and visit the main site listing all participating bloggers and their sites here. I'm trying to make my way through all the great posts!)

Theocracy Round-Up

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

America is not a theocracy — thank god.

And Happy Easter, if you celebrate it!

Those statements aren't in the least bit contradictory, and that's part of the point of the Blog Against Theocracy weekend, which will be (officially) concluding today. Most of all, Blog Against Theocracy celebrates our wonderful First Amendment. The website lists a bevy of participating bloggers.

As it turns out, I wrote several pieces about the authoritarian religious right and theocracy activists in the month prior to Blog Against Theocracy.

"The Social Tolerance Charts" examines the claims of intolerant people that opposing their intolerant political agenda is somehow umm, intolerant:

As the Declaration of Independence states, all men (and women) are created equal. Religious theocrats and other authoritarian conservatives wish to upend the core principles of our country’s founding to impose the rule of Animal Farm: Some are more equal than others. Let’s be honest — intolerant people can be extremely obnoxious. But tolerant people uphold the principle that ‘I may hate what you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it.’ (In contrast, intolerant people will fight for you to burn in hell.) Ironically, intolerant groups use their freedom to try to strip it from others, and seek to destroy the foundations of the very system that grants them freedom. Part of the price of a free society is that intolerant people must get their say — if they did not, their cause would win even if their individual group did not. However, the best way to oppose dangerous speech is to speak out one’s self.

"The Religion-in-Society Charts" is a long piece examining the rhetoric of religious authoritarians in greater detail:

The essential point to remember is that the religious right and other theocrats are not seeking justice, fairness, or equality. They are seeking privilege and power. Furthermore, religious right leaders already possess privilege and power over their followers. They are seeking to expand that power over those not in their group, and over the government and society itself.


On this note, the authoritarians of the Christian religious right are not merely trying to share their faith. Their approach seeks to strip others of choice, even though this contradicts their own faith’s tenets about the primacy of human choice (choosing the good, choosing God, choosing to do good works, repentance, etc.). As noted in our social tolerance discussion, they feel people cannot be trusted to choose anything for themselves, because then they might choose something the authoritarians don’t want. Part of the social contract in America is that other people are allowed to do things you may not like, just as the reverse is true. Many of the religious right believe in American exceptionalism and would consider themselves patriots. The central lie of the religious right is that anyone who opposes them is anti-religious. In truth, on a systemic level, the religious right are anti-American.

"The Case for Writing More Accurately About Religion" dissects David van Biema's cover story for Time, "The Case for Teaching the Bible." While van Biema's heart seems to be in the right place, he fails to acknowledge that America is not a theocracy and also propagates false stereotypes of liberals being ignorant of the Bible while conservatives are devout.

"The Conservative Brain Trust Takes On: Freedom of Religion!" examines how three members of The Corner at the National Review Online demonstrate staggering ignorance of (or possibly disdain for) the First Amendment and the rule of law.

Highlighting positive discussions about faith and religion are "On Faith and PostGlobal," "Bill Moyers on Faith & Reason" and "A Way to Talk About Religion."

Finally, here's the VS categories for Blog Against Theocracy, the religious right, authoritarians, religion, and faith.

Meanwhile, here's the Blue Herald categories for the
separation of church and state, the religious right and religion.

(For the next post in this series, "Religion and Poetry," click here.)

Friday, April 06, 2007

How Many Deities Does It Take to Change a Light Bulb?

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

(Graphic designed by Liz Ditz at I Speak of Dreams. This is the second in a series of posts for the Blog Against Theocracy weekend. Thanks again to Blue Gal and the others who spearheaded this, and are posting the links. Check out the Blog Against Theocracy site for a variety of posts!)

Trading Dialogue for Lodging

Provided he makes and wins an argument about Buddhism with those who live there, any wandering monk can remain in a Zen temple. If he is defeated, he has to move on.

In a temple in the northern part of Japan two brother monks were dwelling together. The older one was learned, but the younger one was stupid and had but one eye.

A wandering monk came and asked for lodging, properly challenging them to a debate about the sublime teaching. The elder brother, tired that day from much studying, told the younger one to take his place. "Go and request the dialogue in silence," he cautioned.

So the young monk and the stranger went to the shrine and sat down.

Shortly afterwards the traveler rose and went in to the elder brother and said: "Your young brother is a wonderful fellow. He defeated me."

"Relate the dialogue to me," said the elder one.

"Well," explained the traveler, "first I held up one finger, representing Buddha, the enlightened one. So he held up two fingers, signifying Buddha and his teaching. I held up three fingers, representing Buddha, his teaching, and his followers, living the harmonious life. Then he shook his clenched fist in my face, indicating that all three come from one realization. Thus he won and so I have no right to remain here." With this, the traveler left.

"Where is that fellow?" asked the younger one, running in to his elder brother.

"I understand you won the debate."

"Won nothing. I'm going to beat him up."

"Tell me the subject of the debate," asked the elder one.

"Why, the minute he saw me he held up one finger, insulting me by insinuating that I have only one eye. Since he was a stranger I thought I would be polite to him, so I held up two fingers, congratulating him that he has two eyes. Then the impolite wretch held up three fingers, suggesting that between us we only have three eyes. So I got mad and started to punch him, but he ran out and that ended it!"

— A Zen story, as told by Paul Reps in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones

When I first read this story as a teenager, I laughed. It may be a Zen story, but it follows a classic joke structure. There are forms of humor that rely on laughing at someone else's suffering, but I've always felt the truth is funny. Our own foibles are funny. Recognizing our own flaws in another can be a epiphany, and funny. Few things connect people stronger than a shared sense of humor, that sideways knowing glance and smile. Religious authoritarians typically have little to no sense of humor, and it's one of many reasons I question their spiritual wisdom, for all their ostentatious, competitive displays of piety. If someone can't laugh, I can't believe he or she speaks for God.

In this Zen story, two monks view the same events in radically different ways. Similarly, I find the story funny, but others may not. What I find wonderful about Freedom of Religion, the First Amendment and the separation of church and state is the multiplicity of viewpoints it allows. Socially, America has its cultural pressures, but legally, it can be viewed as both pro-religion and pro-atheist (or at least, neutral). One person might see providence in the fall of a sparrow, but another may see a dead bird (and a cat may see lunch). I know devoutly religious people who are among the most original, independent thinkers I've ever met, and I know atheists who are among the most moral. As a religion teacher I heard once put it, "There are many paths up the mountain." Many of those paths involve some sort of spirituality, some involve religion, and some involve atheism or agnosticism.

I believe in a path that appreciates comedy. I believe in reverent irreverence. In a free society, anyone is free to laugh at someone else. However, a sign of maturity and security is the ability to laugh at one's self, one's own beliefs — and one's religion. Christianity is the dominant religion in America. It's not necessary to believe in the divinity of Jesus to think he was wise — Thomas Jefferson actually rewrote the Gospels to remove all supernatural elements but preserve Jesus' teachings. Revering Jesus also doesn't preclude valuing the wisdom of Buddha, or Mohammed... or Socrates and Hannah Arendt, for that matter. There's a world of difference between laughing at a god, or religion, and laughing at religious people. (Personally, I'm down with Jesus, it's the tartuffes I can't stand.)

As much as I appreciate America's Freedom of Religion, I also love another part of the First Amendment: Freedom of Speech. Here's some of the best comedy clips I could find dealing with religion. To kick it off, here's Lewis Black:

Here's George Carlin:

Here's Eddie Izzard, on the founding of the Church of England:

Here's the great stoning scene for The Life of Brian:

And here's that unforgettable final song:

In my book, false prophets, authoritarians and idiots deserve mockery, however gentle, just as kindness and wisdom deserve celebration. When met with intolerance, one can get angry, and there are times that may be necessary. However, in other cases, it's best just to laugh. Consider this poll given last March by Gene Weingarten during one of his weekly chats. After the furor over the Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed, an Iranian newspaper announced it would run a Holocaust-denial cartoon contest. An Israeli cartoonists' society responded — but running an "anti-Semitic cartoon contest." I find that brilliant, wise and sublime. Then there's the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, young Arab (and Persian!) comics. Laughter knows no denomination or ethnicity, and can be crude, or mean, but it can also embody self-knowledge, connection, redemption and forgiveness. After all, to err is human — but to laugh, divine.

(To read the next entry in this series, "Theocracy Round-Up," click here.)

The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Blessed are the comedians. On 4/2/07, Fresh Air featured an interview by Terry Gross with members of The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour (here's them in 2006 on All Things Considered). The Fresh Air interview is well worth a listen. Here's their website and here's their DVD.

Here's a short CNN segment on them:

Here's a brief segment by one of the comics, Maz Jobrani:

Here's Ahmed Ahmed:

Here's one of the guest stars, Dean Obeidallah:

Here's my favorite segment, from Aron Kader:

Honestly, some of the jokes fall flat for me, but many are pretty damn funny, and I'm very glad to see young Arab comedians out there.

Finally, here's another group, The Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour. Enjoy!

Thursday, April 05, 2007

False Equivalencies

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Several recent posts have touched on false equivalency, perhaps the most persistent, pernicious mistake perpetrated by the press. Although the post Color Commentary was undertook partially in jest, on political issues, the typical media formula is to present a Republican and a Democrat, let them both have their say, and leave it at that. The problem is this is socially or politically equitable, but has absolutely nothing to do with veracity and accuracy. As The Bullshit Matrix explored, anyone who lies with some cleverness has an advantage in most political arenas, because the press typically won't call them on it. It would be impolite, the correction can be attacked as partisan, and it might cost the reporter a source or two. In such an environment, the truth can easily be muddied or obscured. The public may also labor under the assumption that "surely the Vice President wouldn't lie about such an important matter!" Alternatively, a cynical viewer might say, "all politicians are liars!" which is another pernicious form of false equivalency. Not all participants are equally honorable, honest or accurate. If the press does not fact-check, it does a grave service to their viewers/readers, and abets liars and bullshitters.

As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts." As I've seen others note, if speaker one comes on and says 2+2=4, and speaker two, a hack, says 2+2=8, the press' default approach is to suggest 2+2=6. Issues exist where there are simply legitimate differences of opinion or where judgment is ultimately subjective. However, on factual matters, that's not the case. On matters of science in particular, there's no reason not to say 2+2=4, or at the very least explain that the overwhelming number of scientist hold that 2+2=4 (and if necessary, why that's the case).

The national discourse on global warming and man-made climate change may have improved in the past couple years, but it remains badly skewed. The debate has not centered on Democrats and Republicans arguing about what to do about global warming, a legitimate policy issue. Instead, the conflict has been between reality and fantasy, with many Republicans simply denying empirical facts, much as tobacco executives used to say that no scientific proof existed to show that cigarettes were harmful to one's health.

In the New York Review of Books piece "The Threat to the Planet," (7/13/06) James Hansen reviewed three books on climate change as well as the film An Inconvenient Truth (one of the books was by Al Gore, written to accompany the film). Hansen is described as "Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Adjunct Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University's Earth Institute." Highly informative, Hansen's piece also offers this insight into media coverage (emphasis mine):

Why are the same scientists and political forces that succeeded in controlling the threat to the ozone layer now failing miserably to deal with the global warming crisis? Though we depend on fossil fuels far more than we ever did on CFCs, there is plenty of blame to go around. Scientists present the facts about climate change clinically, failing to stress that business-as-usual will transform the planet. The press and television, despite an overwhelming scientific consensus concerning global warming, give equal time to fringe "contrarians" supported by the fossil fuel industry. Special interest groups mount effective disinformation campaigns to sow doubt about the reality of global warming. The government appears to be strongly influenced by special interests, or otherwise confused and distracted, and it has failed to provide leadership. The public is understandably confused or uninterested.

I used to spread the blame uniformly until, when I was about to appear on public television, the producer informed me that the program "must" also include a "contrarian" who would take issue with claims of global warming. Presenting such a view, he told me, was a common practice in commercial television as well as radio and newspapers. Supporters of public TV or advertisers, with their own special interests, require "balance" as a price for their continued financial support. Gore's book reveals that while more than half of the recent newspaper articles on climate change have given equal weight to such contrarian views, virtually none of the scientific articles in peer-reviewed journals have questioned the consensus that emissions from human activities cause global warming. As a result, even when the scientific evidence is clear, technical nit-picking by contrarians leaves the public with the false impression that there is still great scientific uncertainty about the reality and causes of climate change.

The executive and legislative branches of the US government seek excuses to justify their inaction. The President, despite conclusive reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the National Academy of Sciences, welcomes contrary advice from Michael Crichton, a science fiction writer. Senator James Inhofe, chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, describes global warming as "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people" and has used aggressive tactics, including a lawsuit to suppress a federally funded report on climate change, to threaten and intimidate scientists.

Policies favoring the short-term profits of energy companies and other special interests are cast by many politicians as being in the best economic interests of the country. They take no account of the mounting costs of environmental damage and of the future costs of maintaining the supply of fossil fuels. Leaders with a long-term vision would place greater value on developing more efficient energy technology and sources of clean energy. Rather than subsidizing fossil fuels, the government should provide incentives for fossil-fuel companies to develop other kinds of energy.

Hansen describes a classic case of powerful interests opposing policies that would benefit the country as a whole. Part of the problem relates to Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber's enduring concern about news programs' strong preference for using think tank pundits with a political agenda as opposed to academicians and scientists, who are typically more honest and focused on facts. It's a classic hack-wonk divide. On important, complex issues such as global warming, it's especially crucial that media outlets present the public true experts versus hacks. However, Hansen further describes news programs essentially being bullied into misleading the public in the name of "balance." This is a failure of courage and integrity. News programs don't need to play the game this way. Even if they are forced by those on high to present a contrarian, they can choose the framing, for instance pointing out that James Dobson is not a scientist and has no training in environmental matters, or that Bjorn Lomberg is an outlier, a scientist who disagrees with 10,000 other scientists on this issue or what not. An essential part of reporting is not only reporting facts, or soliciting opinions, but giving viewers the necessary context to properly judge facts and opinions for themselves.

CNN has used an approach that deals with some of these problems. The Situation Room on 8/24/06 presented an extended segment on Emergency Plan B. First to speak was Dr. Sanjay Gupta, their Senior Medical Correspondent, who explained that the drug prevents 90% of pregnancies if taken within 72 hours, and also explained how this actually works:

Now, the drug works one of two ways. First, it can stop ovulation or, second, if the egg has been fertilized, it increases the chance it won't attach to the uterus. Now, if the egg is already attached to the uterus, the pregnancy will not be affected. Now, critics have claimed it's tantamount to abortion. Proponents reject that and blame the three years it took to get it approved on political, not medical concerns.

Wolf Blitzer then kicked things to Congressional Correspondent Andrea Koppel, followed by White House Correspondent Elaine Quijano, who between them broke down the political landscape surrounding the drug. The program then moved to many other issues, but later returned to Emergency Plan B and stem cell research with a discussion segment featuring two men Blitzer had previously referred to as "experts":

BLITZER: Joining us now in our "Strategy Session," radio talk show host Bill Press and CNN political analyst, former Republican Congressman J.C. Watts.

In this Plan B decision, the morning-after contraception pill, in effect, Hillary Clinton came out with a strong statement: "While we urge the FDA to revisit placing age restrictions on the sale of Plan B, it is real progress that millions of American women will now have increased access to emergency contraception."

Women 18 and older can just go in and buy the pill. Seventeen- year-olds and under have to get a doctor's note.



WATTS: ... Wolf, I don't know what is the difference in, you know, harming the child the night or the day after. I still don't think that changes the debate. Those...


BLITZER: You think this is abortion?

WATTS: I do. I think -- I still don't think it changes the debate one bit.

I think those who are opposed to abortion are going to be opposed to this. Those who support abortion, they will like this decision, as -- as Senator Clinton said. It's abortion the day after.

So, it doesn't change the debate any. And I do. I agree that the FDA has made a huge mistake in this ruling.

BLITZER: The other side, Wendy Wright of Concerned Women of -- For America, says, "The FDA's irresponsible action today takes those rights out of a parent's hands and gives them to ill-intentioned perpetrators."

Clearly, they're very unhappy with this FDA decision.

BILL PRESS, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Well, you know, that's too bad, Wolf. I think this is a major breakthrough for American women.

And, J.C., it's hypocritical to be against abortion and to be against Plan B. We heard Sanjay Gupta, who knows more about this than you and I do, at the top of the show, say, if a woman is already pregnant, this does nothing. This is not an abortion pill. It's a contraceptive pill. It has been used safely by European women for years. It has been held up in this year only for -- in this country only for political reasons.

And what this pill is going to result in is fewer unwanted pregnancies and fewer abortions, which I thought -- is certainly my goal -- I thought was your goal, too.

WATTS: Well, it's ironic, Wolf, that we say it's a contraceptive, but you take it the morning after.

PRESS: So what?


PRESS: You take one pill the day before. You can take one the morning after.


PRESS: It's a medical breakthrough.

WATTS: The morning after.

PRESS: It's a contraceptive.

WATTS: It's...

PRESS: And it's not funny.

WATTS: It...

PRESS: Three-and-a-half -- no.

WATTS: Bill, the bottom line is...

PRESS: It's...

WATTS: ... your mind is not going to be changed by this decision. Nor -- and nor is mine.


WATTS: I believe it's abortion. I believe it takes the life of a -- you don't. So...

PRESS: No, but I...

WATTS: ... that's the issue.

PRESS: ... would hope...

WATTS: That's the issue.

PRESS: But I would hope people who have strong beliefs would listen to the experts and listen to the facts.

As Sanjay said, three -- and he's the medical expert here, not you, not me -- three-and-a-half million unwanted pregnancies in this country. One-half of them could be eliminated because of this pill. I would think you would say...

BLITZER: All right.

PRESS: ... it's about time.

WATTS: But you want to listen...

BLITZER: All right.

WATTS: ... to the experts on abortion, but you don't want to listen to the experts on the war that says that evil people are trying to kill us.

BLITZER: All right.

WATTS: But you don't want to do anything about that.

Can "I'm rubber, you're glue" be far behind? Digby made a post of this painful exchange. (Digby also highlighted a great comment in the post thread: "Yesterday, they said life begins with conception. Today, they say life begins with intercourse. Tomorrow, they will tell us life begins with dinner and a movie.")

CNN did a good job by letting their doctor speak first, and also by laying out the political context of the drug before going to the political debate. This allowed for a hack-free zone for a good stretch, and is a wise approach — establish the facts first, then let the political folks argue about their significance.

However, CNN could have done several things better. Perhaps they could have asked Dr. Gupta to speak at greater length about the difference between an abortifacient such as RU-486 and forms of contraception such as Emergency Plan B. The "debate" segment probably shouldn't have come so far after the science segment. Blitzer definitely should not have introduced Watts and Press as "experts." While Press seems to have some common sense, Watts comes off as an idiot, and is certainly no "expert" on this subject. Most importantly, CNN could have hired a smarter conservative pundit. Is Watts really the best they could do? Did conservative cheer him on when they saw him, or did only a small minority of them do so? Having a conservative on cushions CNN from complaints of bias, but is the general public well served by a discussion of this caliber?

Molly Ivins summed up this dynamic perfectly back in 1987 (emphasis mine):

The American press has always had a tendency to assume the truth must lie exactly halfway between any two opposing points of view. Thus, if the press present the man who says Hitler is an ogre and the man who says Hitler is a prince, it believes it has done the full measure of its duty.

This tendency has been aggravated in recent years by a noticeable trend to substitute people who speak from a right-wing ideological perspective for those who know something about a given subject. Thus we see, night after night, on MacNeil/Lehrer or Nightline, people who don't know jack-shit about Iran or Nicarauga or arms control, but who are ready to tear up the peapatrch in defense of the proposition that Ronald Reagan is a Great Leader beset by com-symps. They have nothing to off in the way of facts or insight; they are presented as a way of keeping the networks from being charged with bias by people who are themselves replete with bias and resistant to fact. The justification for putting them on the air is that "they represent a point of view."

The odd thing about these television discussions designed to "get all sides of the issue" is that they do not feature a spectrum of people with different views on reality:

Rather, they frequently give us a face-off between those who see reality and those who have missed it entirely. In the name of objectivity, we are getting fantasyland.

Ivins was always great at calling bullshit. Perhaps in The Situation Room incident, it was obvious to viewers from the framing provided on the issue that Watts was an idiot. A pundit inadvertently invalidating his own bogus position certainly has some value — but most hacks seek to muddy the waters, and they often succeed. Not all ideas are created equal, and while different points of view should be presented — on issues where that's applicable — there is really no value in presenting a false equivalency between an informed opinion and a completely uninformed one. J.C. Watts was not on The Situation Room because he was an "expert" on Emergency Plan B, he was on because he was a Republican. Ideally, the viewer should be allowed to decide issues for him or herself, but the news program does need to provide the context to aid the viewer in forming an informed opinion. When it comes to empirical fact, there shouldn't be equal time for stupid people.

The sad reality is that, for many people, "the truth" is socially rather than empirically determined. For instance, an ugly peer pressure on global warming pervades the Republican side of the congressional aisle, so deeply entrenched it resembles Omertà. A recent Yale poll finds that 83% of Americans say global warming is a serious problem. In contrast (via Digby's good post Faith Based Straight Jacket), Jonathan Chait reports:

Only 13% of [congressional] Republicans agreed that global warming has been proved. As the evidence for global warming gets stronger, Republicans are actually getting more skeptical. Al Gore's recent congressional testimony on the subject, and the chilly reception he received from GOP members, suggest the discouraging conclusion that skepticism on global warming is hardening into party dogma. Like the notion that tax cuts are always good or that President Bush is a brave war leader, it's something you almost have to believe if you're an elected Republican.

(Think Progress has a nice chart on the breakdown.)

Denying global warming has become a kind of shibboleth for Republicans. Perhaps most frightening is this article (via Howard Kurtz) from Gannett News Service that reports (emphasis mine):

WASHINGTON -- House Republican Leader John Boehner would have appointed Rep. Wayne Gilchrest to the bipartisan Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming -- but only if the Maryland Republican would say humans are not causing climate change, Gilchrest said.

"I said, 'John, I can't do that,' " Gilchrest, R-1st-Md., said in an interview. "He said, 'Come on. Do me a favor. I want to help you here.' "

Gilchrest didn't make the committee. Neither did other Republican moderates or science-minded members, whose guidance centrist GOP members usually seek on the issue. Republican moderates, called the Tuesday Group, invited Boehner to this week's meeting to push for different representation.


"Roy Blunt said he didn't think there was enough evidence to suggest that humans are causing global warming," Gilchrest said. "Right there, holy cow, there's like 9,000 scientists to three on that one."

What a bizarre, frightening situation, where membership in the club, or at least leadership, is contingent on the denial of objective reality. For some Republicans, it's doubtless an act. Take Philip Cooney, the energy industry lobbyist turned chief of staff for Bush's Council on Environmental Quality turned Exxon-Mobil employee. Speaking before Congress, Cooney admitted to changing climate reports to better fit Bush's corporate-pleasing policies. Furthermore, he did so with direction from Cheney's office. In sharp contrast to this calculated manipulation, consider the scene created by some other Republicans on Capitol Hill when Al Gore visited, as captured by Dana Milbank:

Al Gore, star of an Academy Award-winning film, was in town for a double feature on Capitol Hill yesterday. But instead of giving another screening of "An Inconvenient Truth," the former vice president found himself playing the Clarence Darrow character in "Inherit the Wind."

"You're not just off a little -- you're totally wrong," Joe Barton (Tex.), the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told the former vice president at a hearing on global warming yesterday morning.

"One scientist is quoted as saying, 'This is shrill alarmism,' " said Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.). The reviews only grew more savage when Gore crossed over to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in the afternoon for a second hearing. "You've been so extreme in some of your expressions that you're losing some of your own people," announced Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), the committee's ranking Republican and the man who has called man-made global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people."

Inhofe informed Gore that scientists are "radically at odds with your claims." Displaying a photograph of icicles in Buffalo, Inhofe demanded: "How come you guys never seem to notice it when it gets cold? . . . Where is global warming when you really need it?"

Invoking the Scopes Monkey Trial (fictionalized as Inherit the Wind) actually fails to capture the full extremity of Inhofe's views, since at least Williams Jennings Bryan was relying on the Bible, whereas Inhofe merely plums the depths of his own lunacy. But how should the press handle such a situation? How should they handle idiots such as Inhofe, or people who believe that a jar of peanut butter disproves those uppity "evolutionists"? Milbank succeeds in crafting a good, informative piece by accurately describing Inhofe's own statements with a wry tone. However, outside The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, this sort of on-target critique tends to be the exception rather than the rule. Yet don't the people of Oklahoma deserve to know that their senator is a raving loon? Shouldn't every statement by Inhofe on global warming in the press be accompanied by something akin to a Surgeon's General's warning? "Warning: Ingesting Senator Inhofe's Beliefs is Hazardous to Your Intelligence"...? Inhofe's beliefs go beyond the eccentricities of Strom Thurmond referring to a microphone as "the machine," or the embarrassing cluelessness of Ted Stevens regulating the internet when he thinks it's a series of pneumatic tubes. Obviously, Inhofe's opinions matter not due to their merit or his knowledge, but because of his power. He's dangerous because of his position, and because in the political arena he's aggressively promoting his batshit crazy Weltanschauung.

It's a problem for the country that one of its senators is crazy (well, more than one), but it's a far bigger problem that many people don't know he's crazy, and the media bears a large part of the blame for this. As Bob Somerby reports at the Daily Howler, the public will be subjected to outlier scientists who claim that Mars is warming and that this disproves man-made climate change on Earth. The public will also have to deal with obfuscation from the likes of Fox News' conservative Brit Hume (emphasis in original):

KONDRACKE (3/21/07): Now, I have read the New York Times piece and I reread the New York Times piece, and basically what is says was that there disputes about certain facts in the Gore case. And one or them—one significant one—is this question of how high the sea level rise and it's not, it isn't insignificant. However, as to the question of a consensus, I mean the—Gore appeared before the American Geophysical Union and got a standing ovation.

HUME (exasperated, as always): Mort—

KONDRACKE: Just a second! The head of the National Academy of Science—today, I talked to him—pointed me in the direction of testimony that he's delivered before Congress, which says that there is an overwhelming consensus among his colleagues, and he is an earth scientist, that global warming is a fact, that man is responsible for it and that the sun is not responsible. There's been a lot of study—

HUME: But Mort, is—doesn't—isn't what, isn't scientific consensus what you turn to when you don't have scientific fact?


HUME: In other words, you haven't established it?

KONDRACKE: No. No, the—

HUME: Well, is this scientific fact?

KONDRACKE: Look, how are we supposed to determine what scientific fact is—

HUME: Mort, that's what the scientific method is for. Let me move on to Nina, just to get her—

KONDRACKE: You get thousands of scientists and if they all agree—if 90 percent—

HUME: That's not science, Mort, that's a vote. That's an election.

After invoking the scientific method, Hume tries to dismiss the overwhelming findings of scientists as a matter of a "vote" based solely on opinion. As Somerby observes, this sort of blather is "less important when [it] happens on Fox. It’s more important when the New York Times does it" (and as Somerby shows in this series of posts, The New York Times sadly does similar things as well, most of all in the error-laden article Kondracke cites).

Global warming is a complex issue, and even an intelligent journalist may have difficulty explaining it (or an intelligent viewer may struggle to understand it all). The same will be true for many medical and scientific issues. That's one thing. However, the key problem on journalists' part is not a failure of knowledge, but a failure of nerve. Why else would the National Journal's James Barnes duck several questions from C-Span callers, and respond to one who doubted global warming even existed by saying: "As we see, global warming—there’s two views of this subject. It’s a hotly debated issue." As Somerby remarks:

Yes, we found it depressing to watch such perfect nonsense ignored by a major mainstream “journalist”—by a “journalist” who kept insisting that these callers’ howling ignorance shows that there are two sides to this story. It was depressing to see these citizens make the good-faith effort of calling C-SPAN, only to be blown off in this manner. (How are they supposed to know that what they’re being told elsewhere is wrong?) It was depressing to think of all the other C-SPAN viewers, who weren’t being told that these callers’ statements were delusions, built on well-crafted lies.

But later, we found our spirits restored as we realized what a gem this session had been. This session showed us the shape of the age. We saw the soul of a millionaire “mainstream press corps”—a millionaire group in in-action.

What is the ongoing shape of the age? Here’s what happened in Monday’s session—in that small, perfect gem:

Three voters’ heads had been filled with nonsense by the work of the talk-show right. And when they called a major mainstream “journalist,” he refused to challenge or correct their misstatements. He refused to tell these voters that their heads had been filled full of mush. He refused to perform the basic function viewers thought he was there to perform.

But then, this has been the shape of the age at least since the early 90s. The right-wing bullsh*t machine churns out silly, wild tales—and mainstream scribes pretend not to notice. Or they recite the nonsense themselves, in the manner described by Paul Waldman in that brilliant statement last Wednesday (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/23/07). Yes, this has been the shape of our age—and now, the press corps’ refusal to function even extends to basic matters of science. This practice has rarely been put on more brilliant display than Barnes did on C-SPAN this week.

Somerby's frustration is all too understandable. Why the hell was Barnes responding the way he did? His was an overly polite social response, not an honest journalistic one. There may be two political reactions to the factual story, but the factual story itself does not have two sides, even if scientists are debating details or the best responses to the situation. This isn't polite cocktail hour, where it's only good manners not to offend someone needlessly. But the public has an important need here, and it is going unfulfilled. Why couldn't Barnes have demonstrated the matter-of-fact attitude of an archeologist quoted by The New York Times about the lack of scientific proof that Moses parted the Red Sea, who said:

"If they get upset, I don’t care," Dr. Hawass said. "This is my career as an archaeologist. I should tell them the truth. If the people are upset, that is not my problem."

Dr. Hawass would never make it on Fox News. But then, the honest, scholar-wonk approach doesn't seem that popular elsewhere, either.

False equivalencies spring up in a great deal of political coverage, and they're generally much more subtle than whether or not global warming exists. Ideally, scientific and medical issues would only be covered as scientific and medical issues, but for global warming, Emergency Plan B and many other subjects, there's a political component to the story that can demand attention. However, "he said-she said" should not be allowed to infect the reporting on the science itself. If most media outlets still aren't willing to stand up for objective reality on clear-cut issues such as whether humankind is causing significant climate change, what's the chance they'll fight for nuanced but important distinctions elsewhere?

The scientists are doing their part. Hansen suggests that they become more media-savvy, which is a point well-taken, but on their primary task, investigating and reporting on science, they seem to be performing admirably. Some politicians are global warming deniers, but other public figures such as Al Gore are certainly doing more than their fair share of work on this issue. The hacks will not be struck down by conscience as if by lightning on this or any other issue. This means the real issue is the media. Will they have the courage to be accurate? Will they report the facts? If they feature a global warming denier, will they at least put him or her in some context for the viewer, or will they yet again present a false equivalency? It's sad we even need to ask this of them, but as George Orwell said, "During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act."

Update: Welcome, C&L readers, and thanks again to Mike's Blog Roundup! I've also corrected "Somersby" to "Somerby." Thanks to jcasey!