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Consider:

"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"







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Thursday, 2 November 2006
Other Matters - Not Directly Pertaining to the Midterm Elections
Topic: Perspective
Other Matters - Not Directly Pertaining to the Midterm Elections
The Thursday before the elections in the United States one would be hard pressed to find a whole lot of news that wasn't about the upcoming elections. Tuesday, November 7, might be a landmark day, changing a whole lot about how the country is run, or it might turn out to be a confirmation of more of the same. No one knows and everyone was talking - cheap buzz to fill the empty hours on cable news.

But there were some other things that a few had on their minds. Of course much of it looped back to the elections one way or another. Still, a shift in the national dialog was nice - or maybe it was a pause.

Out here in the Los Angeles Times, Timothy Garton Ash once again made the argument the words matter - calling what we're up to the War on Terror was a mistake - "Apart from anything else, to use this language dignified the terrorists with the status of belligerents when they should have been treated as criminals. In a backhanded way, the coinage was itself a kind of glorification of terrorism."

So we carelessly glorified them when we just should have called them thugs, done some clever international police work with our allies, found the remaining nasty guys, tried them and locked them up forever or executed them. They weren't worth a war, and everyone would know that. But then the ongoing situation is a bit too momentous to say this is just a criminal matter - that we're going after mass murderers and this isn't war. But then the word "war" is a problem -
Political words have consequences - especially big ones like this, when used by the most powerful state on earth - and one could plausibly suggest that much blood has flowed as a result of that choice of words. You might retort that the blood would have flowed anyway, even if the Bush administration had chosen a different guiding metaphor, and that claim can never be disproved. But it's clearly the case that when, after September 11 2001, the Bush administration said "war," they meant war in the familiar sense of trained, armed persons being commanded to go and kill other persons, overtly or covertly. In 2002 I asked a very senior administration official how this war on terror might end. He replied: "With the elimination of the terrorists." Yes, from the outset they did acknowledge that this was no longer war in the classic sense of two uniformed armies of rival states meeting on a field of battle. Yet the decision to make Iraq a central theatre of the war on terror was, among other things, a kind of desperate reaching back to a more conventional kind of warfare that the mightiest army in the history of the world could clearly and swiftly win. Or so they thought.
Well, it didn't work out. Call Interpol? Find another word? Ash asks for suggestions. He can't think of the right word.

The Ash item had originally appeared the The Guardian (UK), and why the Times picked it up - other than they're cutting full-time staff left and right and buying a single gracefully written column is cheaper than hiring a first-rate staff writer - may have something to do with an effort to help readers step back look at larger issues. It's not all careless and tin-eared John Kerry all the time, or shouldn't be.

The question is of interest too. Everyone wants to rethink what we're up to - save for the president and Dick Cheney, and Barney the Scottish terrier (see Woodward on that). Maybe the central metaphor for the whole business was wrong.

Robert Farley thinks so -
Referring to anti-terror operations as "war" fulfilled some emotional needs (and laid the framework for the Bush administration's accumulation of executive power) but it hamstrung the actual fight against terrorism. The elimination of terrorism is simply not a plausible foreign policy goal. It's not logically impossible (thinking of terrorism as a social institution somewhat akin to dueling or slavery is helpful in this regard) but it's practically impossible, meaning that any war fought to defeat terrorism will invariably fail to achieve its end. There will be no final moment in which terrorism surrenders upon the deck of a Zumwalt class destroyer, for example.

The legal framing doesn't suffer from such problems. Although the "war" metaphor may occasionally be deployed in reference to street and organized crime, there is no expectation that crime will ever be defeated, just that it will be controlled and limited to tolerable levels. Perhaps most importantly, mafia bosses rarely make "peace" with the government in the sense that most wars end in some form of treaty. Still, Ash observes that the legal framework doesn't really get at everything we're trying to do, since some operations against terror will lie outside a conventional legal formulation. Ash proposes "struggle" which is a word that I've been trying to avoid while writing this post, mostly because it seems imprecise. But I think Ash is right that both progressives in general and the successors of the Bush regime need to think about an alternative rhetorical framework to the "War on Terror."
And if the elections sweep the opposition into real power, they'd better think fast -
America is now seen as a threat to world peace by its closest neighbours and allies, according to an international survey of public opinion published today that reveals just how far the country's reputation has fallen among former supporters since the invasion of Iraq.

Carried out as US voters prepare to go to the polls next week in an election dominated by the war, the research also shows that British voters see George Bush as a greater danger to world peace than either the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, or the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Both countries were once cited by the US president as part of an "axis of evil" but it is Mr Bush who now alarms voters in countries with traditionally strong links to the US.

The survey has been carried out by the Guardian in Britain and leading newspapers in Israel (Haaretz), Canada (La Presse and Toronto Star) and Mexico (Reforma), using professional local opinion polling in each country.

It exposes high levels of distrust. In Britain, 69% of those questioned say they believe US policy has made the world less safe since 2001, with only 7% thinking action in Iraq and Afghanistan has increased global security.

The finding is mirrored in America's immediate northern and southern neighbours, Canada and Mexico, with 62% of Canadians and 57% of Mexicans saying the world has become more dangerous because of US policy.
It may be far too late for an alternative rhetorical framework. We've had more than three years of an actual war, an calling it something else so we can do something else - maybe something that actually works to make us and the world safer - and if we called it the Petunia of Peace or Colombo, Kojak and Sam Spade Save the Day, no one trusts us to make things better.

And as Time Magazine notes, we sometimes do things to prove them right -
As if the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal weren't bad enough for America's image in the Middle East, now it may appear to much of the world that one of the men implicated in the scandal is returning to the scene of the crime.

The U.S. military tells TIME that one of the soldiers convicted for his role in Abu Ghraib, having served his sentence, has just been sent back to serve in Iraq.

Sgt. Santos Cardona, 32, a military policeman from Fullerton, Calif., served in 2003 and 2004 at Abu Ghraib as a military dog handler. After pictures of Cardona using the animal to threaten Iraqis were made public, he was convicted in May of dereliction of duty and aggravated assault, the equivalent of a felony in the U.S. civilian justice system. The prosecution demanded prison time, but a military judge instead imposed a fine and reduction in rank. Though Cardona was not put behind bars, he was also required to serve 90 days of hard labor at Ft. Bragg, N.C.

… According to a close friend with whom Cardona spoke just before his departure, the soldier is fearful that he remains a marked man, forever linked to the horrors of Abu Ghraib - he appears in at least one al-Qaeda propaganda video depicting the abuse - and that he and comrades serving with him in Iraq could become targets for terrorists. To make matters worse, his 23rd MP Company has been selected to train Iraqi police, which have been the target of frequent assassination attempts and, according to US intelligence are heavily infiltrated by insurgents.

But Cardona's physical well-being is not the only issue of concern connected to his transfer. According to former senior U.S. military officers and others interviewed by TIME, sending a convicted abuser back to Iraq to train local police sends the wrong signal at a time when the U.S. is trying to bolster the beleaguered government in Baghdad, where the horrors of Abu Ghraib are far from forgotten. "If news of this deployment is accurate, it represents appallingly bad judgment," says retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who commanded a division in the first Gulf War. "The symbolic message perceived in Iraq will likely be that the U.S. is simply insensitive to the abuse of their prisoners."

Retired Major General John Batiste was likewise surprised at the decision to send a soldier convicted of abuse at Abu Ghraib back to Iraq. His only comment: "You just have to wonder how far up the chain of command this decision was made."
Well, we could be sending a message. It doesn't seem to be a nice one. We know this guy, and the message tells the Iraqis what to expect in their future. Or maybe, with resources thin, someone just wasn't thinking. Either alternative is depressing.

Along with telling the world that they should shut up and George Bush alone will decide just what torture is and isn't, not the international rules, this too show our steely resolve and manly refusal to care what anyone thinks, or something like that. Luckily with the election and all - at the president railing at John Kerry and pounding this podium or that denouncing gay marriage - this small item got buried. But then someone outside the United States, who doesn't much care if Lars and Spanky down on Elm Street tie the knot, may come this in Time. Time Magazine will be accused of making us look bad. And what about second chances for felons and all that? Ah, maybe no one will notice.

There are lots of things folks don't notice with all the shouting and sneering before the election. They might not notice this - the Bureau of Labor Statistics is saying that productivity growth in the last quarter was zero. Nothing, nada, a goose egg - whatever you like.

Does this matter? Ezra Klein notes, the central economic mystery of the last decade or so is how the economy's robust productivity growth has not translated into commensurately large wage increases, and now "the inexplicably bad good times" may be ending. As he delicately puts it - "This country is so screwed."

The he links to the Princeton economist Paul Krugman carefully explaining all the quite logical reasons why we're about to topple into a massive recession.

And Klein adds this - "I was at that conference and, later on, there was a panel asking how we can prevent the next recession. The four economists on the stage displayed a comforting unanimity in their responses: We can't."

Kevin Drum here -
Now, this is not the first time productivity has leveled out for a quarter. … But two things make this slowdown noteworthy. First, it follows weak Q2 productivity growth, which means we've had six straight months of poor performance. Second, remember my wonky post yesterday about possible mismeasurement of the increase in auto production? If that turns out to be a genuine error, it means this quarter's productivity growth is overstated. We might have actually seen a drop in productivity.

I dunno. It looks to me like the housing market is collapsing, and that's the bubble that's been keeping the economy alive ever since the tech bubble burst. Is there another bubble to take over from housing? I sure don't see one on the horizon. At the same time, middle-class incomes - the engine of economic growth - have fallen over the past few years, and there's a limit to how much families can make up for that by piling on ever more debt. I suspect we've just about hit that limit - and since the one constant of the financial industry is that it overreacts to both good news and bad, it's likely that they'll add to the economic misery by reining in credit even more than the fundamentals justify.

But at least they have a shiny new bankruptcy bill to help them through the hard times. I hope everyone who voted for that legislation is proud of themselves this time next year.
This is wonky stuff, of course. And it sure looks like hard times are coming. So it's out of the news cycle.

First, it's not about nasty election ploys and clever gotcha moments, and second, it's hard to follow because you have to think about it all and not just react viscerally, and third, of course, is that the economic collapse hasn't happen yet, no matter how certain it is. All news programmers know the American audience has the attention span of a gnat, and if you're going to hold onto you demographic, and sell those advertising spots at a good rate, a story about losing your job and you house next March will have folks clicking over to reruns of "Bonanza." The item isn't immediate. Just as all of us don't do "deferred gratification," we certainly don't do deferred crises. Maybe after the election it will get a little play - if there are heart-wrenching stories of folks losing everything that make for good video. CNN will send in the emotionally sensitive and quite dashing Anderson Cooper to do a few of his "I'm outraged" stories. As for now, forget this item.

And after all it's not about sex.

The big story, other than election coverage, of Thursday, November 2, was.

Denver Post: Haggard Steps Down Amid Gay Affair Inquiry - "Ted Haggard, one of the most prominent evangelical pastors in the nation, resigned today as president of the National Association of Evangelicals amid allegations that he carried on a three-year sexual relationship with a male prostitute."

KUSA-TV (Denver): Man Claims 3-Year Sexual Relationship With Pastor - "A gay man and admitted male escort claims he has had an ongoing sexual relationship with a well-known Evangelical pastor from Colorado Springs." (Additional video here.)

It goes national with the AP here -
The leader of the influential National Association of Evangelicals, a vocal opponent of the drive for same-sex marriage, resigned Thursday after being accused of paying for sex with a man.

The Rev. Ted Haggard also stepped aside as head of his 14,000-member New Life Church while a church panel investigates, saying he could "not continue to minister under the cloud created by the accusations."
He we go again. He's now seeking "spiritual guidance."

So this basics - Reverend Ted Haggard, pastor of the 14,000-member New Life Church in Colorado Springs and president of the National Association of Evangelicals, is the target of accusations by Mike Jones, a male "escort," that the pastor has been a sexual client of Jones's for the last three years. And this - "Haggard belongs to the elite group of right-wing religious leaders party to regular Monday-morning conference calls with President Bush, according to reporter Jeff Sharlet, writing last year in Harper's. As a supporter of the ballot measure for a gay marriage ban, which Colorado voters will decide next week, Haggard's travails have a political taint."

Oops. Maybe it's not about sex entirely, or religion, but about how the two meet in the political world. It's a Colorado thing - there are two gay-rights measures on the state's November ballot, one that would grant same-sex couples the right to a civil union, and another that would write a ban on gay marriage into the state constitution. And there are the Monday phone calls with the White House. Amazing.

But who is this fellow? Tim Grieve at SALON asks about that -
We asked for an explanation from Salon's Lauren Sandler, the author of "Righteous: Dispatches From the Evangelical Youth Movement." Here's what she tells us: "Ted Haggard may not just be the most important evangelical you've never heard of, but the most important evangelical, period.

"Joel Osteen may have the largest church in the nation. His Lakewood congregation packs the 60,000-seat Astrodome to bask in his blinding smile and equally blinding promise of the great financial wealth that only faith in Jesus can deliver. But his minions are a paltry bunch compared with the 30 million members of Haggard's National Association of Evangelicals.

"Rick Warren may be the bestselling evangelical scribe since the Bible's original autographs. His 'Purpose-Driven Life' has sold more copies than any other nonfiction book in history, that is, if you don't consider the Bible nonfiction. But he's hardly got the ear of the president, with whom he doesn't always see eye to eye (or tooth for tooth).

"And even James Dobson, long heralded as the most influential evangelical in the world, lacks the pull with the evangelical movement he once did. Dobson never takes off his suit jacket, even at his desk, while Haggard can't stand the feel of anything but denim against his skin. Dobson has been seen by many evangelicals as stepping too far into the 'corrupt' dark side of Washington since he launched his PAC, while Haggard manages his influence carefully without the tarnish of politics ever marring his flawless gleam. It's Haggard who is the bionic hero of the young cadets and airmen he ministers to in his own megachurch, just down the road from Dobson's Focus on the Family. In Colorado Springs - known alternately as the Vatican and the Washington of the evangelical world - it is Haggard who is king, the crony and the conscience of his youthful parishioners as well as his president.

"Which is why it matters so that Haggard seems to have fallen. The Mark Foley scandal inspired plenty of people to question their devotion to the Republican Party. But Foley is a politician; most evangelicals would already suspect him of thinly cloaking his identity in a three-piece, pinstriped superego. Haggard, on the other hand, has always represented the real deal. He's the one John Wayne would have tapped for his posse. He's the one who represents most how deeply political this evangelical population can be, while always disdaining the notion of politics, always cleaving toward the ranch rather than the Hill.

"If that makes it sound like Haggard and Bush are peas in a pod, well, they are. Haggard participates - or at least he did - in weekly White House conference calls, and he and the president like to joke that the only thing they disagree on is what truck to drive.

"Haggard has been preaching against homosexuality with his typical charismatic fire-and-brimstone fervor ever since he founded New Life Church in Colorado Springs. Probably even before then. And if he's right that there is a special place in hell for gay fornicators and drug abusers - not to mention for liars and charlatans - I guess he knows where he's headed."
Okay, the man who preaches the Gospel of Wealth - get with Jesus and you get really rich - and who meets with the president weekly, and the two of them joke about how they think alike - has resigned as president of the National Association of Evangelicals and from his church, until all this is straightened out. It's most curious.

This was a break from the election news - offering sex and the fallen preacher. It's classic. But we're additionally talking gay sex - which drives Republicans crazy. And then it tied back to the political directly - the Colorado proposals, the connection to the president, and this rising star no one knew was out there. The story has everything. And before the elections the accuser goes on the radio sow where this all started and will take a lie-detector test - to prove the paying him for nasty sex for three years, and doing meth now and then.

Ah, maybe none of it is true. One must wait to see how this pans out. Maybe we'll find out that the accuser was paid by the Democrats to drop this bomb after the Kerry story wouldn't go away. But it's too indirect an attack for that, and no one believes the Democrats are that organized anyway.

But it did bury this story - "A Republican congressman accused of abusing his ex-mistress agreed to pay her about $500,000 in a settlement last year that contained a powerful incentive for her to keep quiet until after Election Day, a person familiar with the terms of the deal told The Associated Press." That's only half as interesting. There the congressman is running on a curious platform - "Yes, I cheated in my wife, but I didn't choke and beat my young mistress." The president had flown to Pennsylvania to campaign for the guy - something about values and character and admitting one's mistakes and learning from them. The irony was thick and deep that day, or something was. But the Colorado story was juicier. You got the president of the National Association of Evangelicals resigning and all that.

Perhaps the Republicans made a bad bargain when they decided the evangelicals were necessary to them. They're nothing but trouble.

Even some arch-conservatives are making the break. Over at the National Review, one of them, John Derbyshire, and ex-pat Brit, comes out of the closet (in a different way), and says he's not going to play along. He's tired of the readers sending him messages - that he's not religious enough, that he needs to find Jesus again as he seems to have missed him the first time, and how can he support the president and the administration if he has no religious fervor of Jesus, and so on.

He simply simply confesses -
Kierkegaard said something like: "Life can only be understood backwards, but it has to be lived forwards." Well, I disagree on the first. I understand less about life now (I am 61) than I did, or thought I did, 30 years ago. I can remember being profoundly shocked, around age 25, reading James Boswell's London Diaries, the bit where Bozzy encounters a very old aristocrat and asks him whether, looking back on life, he can discern any pattern or purpose to it. No, says the old boy, it has all been "a chaos of nothing." I'm not quite ready to agree with that, but it doesn't shock me any more, not at all. Perhaps the old nobleman was right.

... It's counterintuitive, but often the case, that you get less religious as you get older. Well, perhaps it's not really counterintuitive: Other passions fade, why shouldn't religious feeling? Anyway, once the end of the show is in sight on the horizon, you get resigned to a lot of things you struggled against before, especially things to do with your own personality. You stop giving a damn about lots of things you used to care about. ("At 20," goes the old quip, "I was obsessed with what people were thinking about me. At 40, I'd stopped being obsessed with what people were thinking about me. At 60, I finally realized that nobody had ever been thinking about me at all!") You also just have more time to think; and religion, like sex, works best if not thought about too much.
And there's a bit of question and answer -
Q. Do you think religion is a good thing, or a bad thing, for a society?

A. ... My actual answer is that the question doesn't make much sense, as a question. Religious feeling just is, there in human nature, unremovably and inescapably. That's the point of Chesterton's famous, and true, remark, or quasi-remark. It's there, and decent societies have to incorporate it somehow, to the general advantage. That's all. You might as well ask: Is sex a good thing, socially speaking? Depends whether society is good at accommodating it. Pretty much all societies are — we've had lots of practice with that. Really formally organized religion is less than 3,000 years old, though. There wasn't any need for it until really big human settlements — civilizations — came up. We haven't all got it right yet.

Religion is first and foremost a social phenomenon. That religious module in our brains is a sub-module of the social one, or is very closely allied to it. To deny it expression is just as foolish, just as counter-productive, as to deny expression to any other fundamental social feature of human nature — sexuality, or aggression, or the power urge, or cheating.

The trick, if you want a reasonably happy and stable society, is to corral human nature into useful, non-socially-destructive styles of expression: sexuality into marriage, or at least some kind of formal and constrained bonding; aggression into sport or military training; the power urge into consensual politics; cheating into conjuring, drama, and games like poker. (I don't mean you should cheat at poker, only that you need some powers of deception to play poker well.) Any aspect of human nature can get out of hand, as we see with these Muslim fanatics that are making such nuisances of themselves nowadays. That doesn't mean the aspect is bad, just that some society has done a bad job of corralling it.

So I guess my answer is something like: If a society accommodates the people's religious impulses well, it's a good thing, and if not, not.

Q. Do you think an individual human life has any purpose?

A. From a cold biological point of view, every living creature has the purpose of bringing forth a new generation, and of living long enough to do so. However, this question is usually asked by religious people with some such subtext as: Do you believe you are here to please (or obey, or glorify) God? Or to make yourself worthy of Christ's sacrifice? Or the equivalent things in other religions - to help bring all of humanity into the House of Islam, to escape from the Wheel of Reincarnation, to live in harmony with the Tao, and so on? I guess it is obvious from my previous answers that, no, I don't believe any of those things.
That's just a sample. We'll see what he says about Colorado. The divorce over there on the right side of things has begun.

And what this all comes down to is that there's lots more going on than the elections. They'll be over soon enough, one way or the other. There is other news.

Posted by Alan at 22:47 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 2 November 2006 22:49 PST home

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