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Photos and text, unless otherwise noted, Copyright 2003,2004,2005,2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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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, 22 September 2005

Topic: Couldn't be so...

Momentum: A Meme Snowballs

In last Sunday's "Meme Watch" - Chasing the Zeitgeist - it seemed the current meme that had started making its way through the nation's discourse was that we were seeing "The End of the Bush Era," most openly stated by E. J. Dionne in the Washington Post on September 13th here. Other folks have picked it up since - it's all over the place - and the latest mainstream iteration can be found in Bob Herbert's column in the New York Times on September 22nd - Voters' Remorse On Bush. Herbert is always clear and earnest, and late.

[Note: Monday, September 19, the New York Times and its European sister publication, the International Herald Tribune, put all of the columnists who write for them behind a "wall." If you want to read them or quote them it will cost you around fifty dollars a year. You can see this as an attempt to recoup the cost of publishing a major newspaper. Editor and Publisher on September 20th carried this: "The New York Times Co. announced a staggering staff reduction plan Tuesday that will likely mean some 500 job loses at the company's many properties, including an expected 45 newsroom positions at The New York Times newspaper and 35 at The Boston Globe." Many subsequent stories add detail. The Herbert column noted is from a secondary source here. Herbert is quoted here as allowed by the fair use doctrine.]

Herbert's take on the new meme? The public is "beginning to see through the toxic fog of fantasy, propaganda and deliberate misrepresentation that has been such a hallmark of the George W. Bush administration, which is in danger of being judged by history as one of the worst of all time."

He reviews how things have been going for the Bush team and concludes, "Reality is caving in on a president who was held aloft for so long by a combination of ideological mumbo-jumbo, the public relations legerdemain of Karl Rove and the buoyant patriotism that followed the Sept. 11 attacks. The Bush people were never big on reality, so sooner or later they were bound to be blindsided by it." The idea is Americans are finally catching onto is "the utter incompetence of this crowd" and that there is a general sense now that things are falling apart.

He says this is what happens "when voters choose a president because he seems like a nice guy, like someone who'd be fun at a barbecue or a ballgame." And agreed, you'd never use that criterion "when choosing a surgeon, or a pilot to fly your family across the country."

No kidding.

So how widespread is this?

Robert Novak, the rightist of the right, who seems to have helped out that CIA agent to punish her husband for embarrassing Bush, on Thursday, September 22nd in the compendium of pro-Bush conservative opinion, Townhall, notes this:
For two full days, George W. Bush was bashed. He was taken to task on his handling of stem cell research, population control, the Iraq war and, especially, Hurricane Katrina. The critics were no left-wing bloggers. They were rich, mainly Republican and presumably Bush voters in the last two presidential elections.

The Bush-bashing occurred last weekend at the annual Aspen conference sponsored by the New York investment firm Forstmann Little & Co.

... Longtime participants in Forstmann Little conferences ... told me they had not experienced such hostility against a Republican president at previous events. Yet, they were sure a majority of the guests had voted for Bush.

... U.S. News & World Report disclosed this week, with apparent disdain, that presidential adviser Karl Rove took time off from the Katrina relief effort to be at Aspen. He was needed as a counterweight. I settled in for serious fireworks, expecting Bush-bashers to assault his alter ego at the conference's final session. However, direct confrontation with a senior aide must have been more difficult than a remote attack on the president. It would be a shame if Rove returned to Washington without informing George W. Bush how erstwhile friends have turned against him.
The idea that "it's over" has spread wider than anyone guess.

Kevin Drum in the Washington Monthly:
Have they really turned against him? Or are they just letting off steam? I'd like to believe it's the former, but my gut tells me it's probably the latter.

I wonder how Republican fundraising is going right now?
Not well.

Thursday, September 22nd in Bloomberg News there's this from Jonathan Salant - Abramoff Probe May Threaten Leading Republicans as It Expands -
The widening investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff is moving beyond the confines of tawdry influence-peddling to threaten leading figures in the Republican hierarchy that dominates Washington.

This week's arrest of David Safavian, the former head of procurement at the Office of Management and Budget, in connection with a land deal involving Abramoff brings the probe to the White House for the first time. [Mentioned Monday in these pages here.]

Safavian once worked with Abramoff at one lobbying firm and was a partner of Grover Norquist, a national Republican strategist with close ties to the White House, at another. Safavian traveled to Scotland in 2002 with Abramoff, Representative Robert Ney of Ohio and another top Republican organizer, Ralph Reed, southeast regional head of President George W. Bush's 2004 re-election campaign.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who once called Abramoff "one of my closest and dearest friends,'' already figures prominently in the investigation of the lobbyist's links to Republicans. The probe may singe other lawmakers with ties to Abramoff, such as Republican Senator Conrad Burns of Montana, as well as Ney.
This is serious stuff, and if you're interested in detail, click on the link for paragraph after paragraph after paragraph of detail. And by the way, Safavian was one of three former Abramoff associates who joined the Bush administration. Another was Patrick Pizzella, assistant secretary of labor for administration and management. The third was Susan Ralston, special assistant to White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove. If you know the right people at the White House and ask about her, she's been reassigned - she now works for Rove "in a different capacity."

Note this from the Washington Post, Friday, September 23rd: "Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff bragged two years ago that he was in contact with White House political aide Karl Rove on behalf of a large, Bermuda-based corporation that wanted to avoid incurring some taxes and continue receiving federal contracts, according to a written statement by President Bush's nominee to be deputy attorney general."

And note this form a UCLA professor of public policy:
The linchpin seems to be Grover Norquist, whose Islamist sympathies - whether genuine or mercenary - have been an ill-kept secret.

... Rove was the acknowledged Grand Vizier of the Bushite Caliphate, Norquist, thorough the agency of Rove's assistant Susan Ralston, was able to determine which lobbyists could, and which could not, get through to the Boy Genius.
The lobbyist for this Islamic madmen had his girl in place as the gatekeeper to make sure Bush heard what he was supposed the hear? Read it if you wish. It's a bit wild.

But it's not any wilder than the idea John Bolton, our new UN ambassador - there by a recess appointment because the senate wouldn't confirm him - will be indicted as the one who actually orchestrated outing the CIA agent because her husband embarrassed Bush with the truth. The logic is there. The act fits what people say about his personality. We'll see.

As everyone has heard, Republican Senate leader Bill Frist seems to have secretly dumped somewhere between seven and thirty-five million dollars of his stock in HCA, the hospital chain his father founded, just before the stock dropped like a rock. Sold all his shares, all his wife's shares, all his children's shares. So did most of the senior management, a few weeks before a surprise earnings report that they we're making a whole lot less money than they had been saying previously. It was in a blind trust. Doesn't that mean he doesn't get to decide? What about insider trading rules? What about Martha Stewart? She landed in jail for such things. He explains himself here - he was just getting rid of a conflict of interest millstone he had carried around. He wanted to be able to vote on healthcare issues with anyone asking questions.

Now they're asking questions about timing here. He could have sold the stock long ago. Guess he was lucky to get around to doing it that particular week. Just a coincidence.

Those of us who have worked in hospital finance do remember that five years ago HCA pleaded guilty to fourteen criminal counts - they'd been filing fraudulent Medicare reports and paying doctors kickbacks for referrals. That finally cost them nearly two billion in fines and penalties. I myself have worked with large hospital accounting systems - I led teams of systems people programming and maintaining them. Such things do not happen by accident. And this does sound like the man licked a lucky day to dump all his stock in HCA.

People are noticing such things now, more widely than before.

And this. Wednesday 21 September the Federal Trade Commission announced they were opening a probe investigating whether gasoline price profiteering has occurred and if oil companies have constrained refinery capacity to manipulate fuel prices, an agency official said Wednesday. Who in charge of that? The head of the FTC he appointed last year - former top ChevronTexaco lawyer, Deborah Majoras.

Folks are beginning to notice such things. Teapot Dome crap.

Then there's just you run-of-the-mill bungling. Thursday, September 22nd this only gets page A23 in the Washington Post -
The Pentagon has no accurate knowledge of the cost of military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan or the fight against terrorism, limiting Congress's ability to oversee spending, the Government Accountability Office concluded in a report released yesterday.

The Defense Department has reported spending $191 billion to fight terrorism from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks through May 2005, with the annual sum ballooning from $11 billion in fiscal 2002 to a projected $71 billion in fiscal 2005. But the GAO investigation found many inaccuracies totaling billions of dollars.

"Neither DOD nor Congress can reliably know how much the war is costing and details of how appropriated funds are being spent," the report to Congress stated. The GAO said the problem is rooted in long-standing weaknesses in the Pentagon's outmoded financial management system, which is designed to handle small-scale contingencies.

The report said the Pentagon overstated the cost of mobilized Army reservists in fiscal 2004 by as much as $2.1 billion. Because the Army lacked a reliable process to identify the military personnel costs, it plugged in numbers to match the available budget, the report stated. "Effectively, the Army was reporting back to Congress exactly what it had appropriated," the report said.

The probe also found "inadvertent double accounting" by the Navy and Marine Corps from November 2004 to April 2005 amounting to almost $1.8 billion.
That gives you a lot of confidence. Those two years with the systems shop at the locomotive plant in Canada? This stuff would get you fired. GM would have tossed us out the door. All those forty-two hospitals in three states running Infinium and SMS Med-Series IV and HBOC Star? The software there was in the realm of "outmoded financial management systems." But we had to balance the books. The basic stuff matters.

This is the MBA president? These guys will responsibly fund the reconstruction of New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities? And now maybe southeast Texas? Great.

And why even follow this story?
The Pentagon said today that it had blocked a group of military officers and intelligence analysts from testifying at an open Congressional hearing about a highly classified military intelligence program that, the officers have said, identified a ringleader of the Sept. 11 attacks as a potential terrorist more than a year before the attacks?

The announcement came a day before the officers and intelligence analysts had been scheduled to testify about the program, known as Able Danger, at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
This ticked off the Republican senator -
The Republican chairman of the Senate judiciary committee accused the Pentagon on Wednesday of stonewalling an inquiry into claims that the U.S. military identified four September 11 hijackers more than a year before the 2001 attacks?

The Defense Department barred several witnesses from testifying at a judiciary committee hearing and instead sent a top-level official who could provide little information on al Qaeda-related intelligence uncovered by a secret military team code-named Able Danger.

"That looks to me like it may be obstruction of the committee's activities, something we will have to determine," said the panel's chairman, Sen. Arlen Specter.
Who cares about 9/11 any longer? So we knew who the bad guys were two years before the event. Like it matters now?

What matters now? Well, how about the new FBI squad to go after pornography by adults and for adults? In addition, this is now "one of the top priorities" of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Along with the FBI's anti-porn squad, he's created an Obscenity Prosecution Task Force, a brand new part of the Justice Department. It takes prosecutors currently working on organized crime and racketeering, money laundering and computer crime cases and shifts them to this War on Porn. The Post link quotes an experienced national security analyst who calls the culture war initiative "a running joke for us." The Daily Business Review here says high-level Justice Department report prosecutors are being assigned porn cases "over their objections." The Family Research Council said it gave them "a growing sense of confidence in our new attorney general." Arianna Huffington is all over the story here, but she's Greek, isn't she?

Aren't there more important things? Isn't there a free speech issue involved here that has come up before? James Joyce's novel in Boston long ago - that sort of thing? But maybe it does matter to almost all Americans, more than the war or the dead floating in the streets of New Orleans or the economy tanking or anything else. They have the president's ear, and they're courted by Karl Rove. I'm not.

Now I try to like Dan Abrams at MSNBC, the lawyer with the degree from Duke Law School. I did my graduate work at Duke, and the law school is pretty good - heck, it turned out both Richard Nixon and Angela Davis. But the Abrams show is really irritating. It's him. He's a smart-ass. (But perhaps all of us Duke graduate folk turned out that way.) On the other hand, he's clear about these now efforts against porn here:
It sure seems like Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is campaigning for a job on the U.S. Supreme Court. You see many on the far right have already announced they won't support him for fear he is not conservative enough on abortion and affirmative action.

Well surprise, surprise. In Tuesday's Washington Post we learn that Gonzales has decided the FBI will make pornography one of its top federal priorities - not child pornography, not violent pornography, just regular smut.

The justification? Pornography, even when viewed by mature, consenting adults, threatens families and children. Okay, maybe.

But that means the precious resources of the FBI are going to this instead of recruiting for, let's say, the terror task force.

No one is saying that terrorism isn't going to remain the FBI's top priority or that Gonzales considers combating pornography on par with combating al Qaeda. But what about other national crime concerns like cyber-crime, identity theft and corruption? I would rather expand other units rather than add 10 agents to make sure Ron Jeremy can't do anything else arguably inhuman.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the war in Iraq, you would think Congress would have other priorities for our already-strained budget.

The Supreme Court recognizes it's often tough to distinguish legal pornography from obscenity. So making that distinction will now be a national priority? Come on. This is not the best use of resources in an effort to save American families.
Yeah, and if more in the mainstream start asking "What's up with THAT?" - then maybe something sensible will happen.

But don't count on it. Religion is what matters now, as in this:
The House voted Thursday to let Head Start centers consider religion when hiring workers, overshadowing its moves to strengthen the preschool program's academics and finances.

The Republican-led House approved a bill that lets churches and other faith-based preschool centers hire only people who share their religion, yet still receive federal tax dollars.

Democrats blasted that idea as discriminatory.
Ah, don't let the godless heathens near the preschoolers. Whatever.

All this stuff!

Normally these sorts of things are only noted by those who fume on the internet. But note, the meme that "it's over" depends on regular folks noticing this stuff and talking about it. And they are.

Posted by Alan at 22:56 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 22 September 2005 23:47 PDT home


Topic: World View

World Politics: Just More of the Realists versus the Idealists

Last Sunday in these pages - in Germany: The Upcoming Elections - Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, and Just Above Sunset discussed the situation over there, and the election that day. After you worked through matters regarding the Pamela Anderson photos in the museum in Munich, in the Haus der Kunst, and some comments on the sweet young German girls sunbathing completely in the nude in the middle of the city, matters came down to the implications of the contest between Gerhard Schröder and the American-style conservative Angela Merkel. Who would be the next German chancellor? Would it be Gerhard, or "this Merkel dame," as Ric called her.

There was some interest in that on this side of the Atlantic. As mentioned then, American conservatives need a Teutonic Margaret Thatcher person to prove that what they claim about how the world should be run is right - a sort of anti-Chirac, someone who will get Germany revving up economically to prove their point about cutting taxes for the rich and services to the poor and going to war without any direct threat for abstract reasons. A hero would be nice - or a heroine in this case. They miss Reagan's ballsy British sister in unfettered low-tax screw-the-needy capitalism and elective war (remember Grenada and the Falkland Islands wars?) - so "this Merkel dame" is the darling of the guys who run the United States now. What with the hurricane embarrassment and the nearly three hundred dead in the streets of Baghdad that week, her winning this thing would have raised their spirits.

But it wasn't to be. Neither Schröder nor Merkel won enough votes to form a new government, and both are trying to form coalitions with the outliers, so to speak, to take control, while trading insults with each other. It's quite a mess. Here in Los Angeles BBC-America on its World News show has run man-in-the-street segments from Germany with various ordinary folks saying they fear this mess will mean months and months of trouble. And over at the preferred web site of the American right, "Red State," you get things like Reagan/Thatcher Revolution Once Again Fails to Penetrate Mainland Europe: "It's a shame that the good people of Europe can't seem to get their heads around the fact that high payroll taxes to pay for social programs mean less [sic] jobs. As labor markets become increasingly fluid, these types of policies pushed by the left only hurt. We know that here, but they can't seem to figure it out in Mainland Europe."

Oh well.

But trying to figure out what happened we have William Pfaff, on Friday, 23 September in the International Herald Tribune, with Europeans Thumb Their Noses at the Experts.

Pfaff recounts a mid-July trip when Angela Merkel visited Paris to make a courtesy call on President Jacques Chirac but really to attend a press event organized by Nicolas Sarkozy, who one can see at her French counterpart (the New Yorker has called him "the fake American").

Note this:
The allure of the shared press conference was that European, and especially British and American, press and politicians were fascinated by the notion that Merkel and Sarkozy would both win their elections and join Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain in a new European triumvirate of free-market economies and pro-American governments.

The two were "the new face of Europe," Berlin's Die Tageszeitung wrote at the time. "Since the fiasco of the referendums on the European constitution, there has been a total reversal ... of the old Chirac- Schröder European policy." The rising fortunes of Germany's Christian Democrat-Christian Social alliance announced the impending end of the "Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis," and the return of Berlin to the Atlanticist fold.
Pfaff suggests someone should have told them both not to stage this we're-taking-over kind of rally so many months before the election. Saying you represent the wave of the future before the election can be dangerous, even if that is the Bush-Rove way of doing such things. Yes, there was "a crush of conservative Washington think-tank celebrations of old Europe's imminent return to the path of righteousness." But it wasn't to be. Chirac got sick and Dominique de Villepin went to New York for the UN reform conference, while Nicolas Sarkozy had to stay home and pout. And Angela Merkel couldn't pull of a clear win - she has a three-seat parliamentary advantage that isn't enough to matter. She won't end the welfare state nor toss out taxes on wealth and income replacing them with a flat tax of twenty-five percent on everyone, including the poorest of the poor, nor deregulate the economy so corporations can do whatever they want and make things better for everyone.

She said in July this would happen. Like her neoconservative soul mates in Washington, she was making her own reality by saying it would be so, because she believed it would be so. The reality she now must face is the voters said no, maybe no so fast with all this stuff. And if she manages to form some so of coalition to become chancellor she has to deal with folks who don't agree with her. Stalemate. No major economic reforms.

Reality is like that. She should ask George Bush about such things. He's been bumping up against it lately.

Pfaff, in Europe, says most commentary on the right there, and here too actually, "has expressed exasperated annoyance that the electorate isn't doing what its betters expect of it." It's all in this vein: "Don't the German voters understand that they must undergo structural reform, job losses, benefit reductions and pension restrictions? They don't seem to. They vote against them. They are being slack and selfish. It is very annoying."

Yeah, but it's the reality. And he says what happened is similar to what happened when French and Dutch voters rejected the European constitutional treaty earlier this year. The voters said no, and the experts said they were uninformed and needed reeducated. They didn't see "the Truth."

But Pfaff suggests they did:
Consider the matter from the point of view of the voter. Ever since the new monetarist economic paradigm emerged from the alchemical laboratories of the University of Chicago, carrying all before it in the business schools of America, economists and chief executives worldwide have assured the public that the truth about economic success has at last been found.

This truth is that old notions of social justice in the workplace, and corporate responsibility to the community, are actually inefficiencies that present obstacles to the pursuit of corporate performance as measured by profits and stock market results.

According to this paradigm, maximum corporate profit produces maximized happiness for all (with certain unavoidable time discrepancies). Combined with deregulation and globalization, it can be relied on to make a better world.

The voter has said, "Yes, that must be so, if you say so." So workers have lost jobs, or had wages fall behind rising living costs, their employment benefits cut (and in the United States, health insurance coverage slashed and pension funds looted by management), all so that new and better jobs would eventually be created, new prosperity generated, and happier and more secure lives assured.

What has happened now, it seems, in Germany and in France, is that voters have concluded that for more than 30 years they have accepted the sacrifices, but where are the rewards? They want to know.
Geez, everyone these days wants answers! Where's FEMA? Where are those WMD and the ties to al Qaeda? If the economy is in great shape, why has poverty here risen steadily for four years, why are more and more folks are without any health insurance (up from forth-two million to forty-five million), and, by the way, where are the good jobs, or any jobs? And if we're winning this war in Iraq, why are so may people dying and why does it look like a civil war there now, and clearly leading to the creation of a client state of Iran there? Picky, picky, picky?

Folks really are hung up on reality. What a shame.

Well, it's just more of the realists versus the idealists. The realists have the upper hand at the moment.

Personal Note: In the late sixties I took an elective course in undergraduate school, in macroeconomics of all things, from one of these University of Chicago guys, a fellow who had studied under Milton Freidman. (He reminded us of that two or three times a week.) I don't recall his name, although I recall the grand unifying theories involved - ah, those "alchemical laboratories of the University of Chicago." None of us were impressed as I recall, but probably because the course was one of those early morning things and he'd always show up needing a shave, his dirty hair sticking out this way and that, his shirttails out, with a massive hangover - and with his mean little dachshund tucked under one arm. The dog growled at us all. This no doubt has colored my view of supply-side economics and money-supply theories of economic growth. Didn't like that dog.

__

Additional Notes on European Matters:

One of Ric Erickson's columns in last weekend's Just Above Sunset - French Confusion - untangled French national politics for our readers - Nicolas Sarkozy, de Villepin and all the others vying for power there, from the left to the right with some in the middle. It's a bit fluid and was updated on Tuesday with more detail from Ric, adding two more players.

Here it is Thursday and Ric adds this:
Readers may have thought the list of real and potential candidates for president of France in 2007 was Gallic satire. But not at all. It is exciting reality.

In fact this list may have been carefully studied by the Elysée, Matignon, the Place Beauvau, and PS headquarters. Today François Hollande, secretary general of the Socialist Party, said, "This is not the moment to announce being a candidate."

This was in response - not apparently to Just Above Sunset or Metropole - but to an article in Paris Match in which Ségolène Royal, president of the regional council of Poitou-Charentes, refused to deny having the idea of being a presidential candidate in 2007. Ms Royal was a minister in the last Jospin government, and is the long-time and current 'companion' of François Hollande.

He went on to say, repeating it tonight on the political question-and-answer period following the TV-news on France-2 TV, that candidates should wait until 'the end of 2006' before declaring. Another member of the PS, interviewed on TV, wondered how many PS candidates there are now. "I guess there must be 18," he said.

Recently on the outs, ex-prime minister Laurent Fabius, was on France-3 TV-news tonight, making a few kind remarks about the Socialist Party. Over the past week the PS leader of the 'non' vote for the European constitution has been moving closer to former comrades, or at least has been seen in the same room with Monsieur Hollande.

To come - possible confirmation of the sentence handed out to UMP leader Alain Juppé, amounting to a 10-year ban from politics. Also, José Bové was in court, facing a heavy fine and possible jail time for destroying some trans-genetic corn. A co-defendent is a leader of the Greens - motto: Allez Les Verts! - and the first mayor in France to marry a homosexual pair; also a potential presidential candidate.

If France is trying for a record number of presidential candidates, it may already be a world leader.
Even California politics isn't THIS complicated!

Posted by Alan at 18:48 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 22 September 2005 18:54 PDT home

Wednesday, 21 September 2005

Topic: The Law

The Law: What We Forbid

So John Roberts will be the next Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

If you got to the Google news aggregator - that thing that uses infobots to continually scan the news and provide links to thousands of stories in all the major categories of news you can imagine - and you put "Roberts vote count" in the search bar and hit the return key, as of late Wednesday, September 21, you'd get about fifteen hundred links. (Try it here.)

Here are some:

Dem leader of Senate says he'll vote no on Roberts (San Francisco Chronicle)
Democrats Announce Support for John Roberts for Supreme Court (LifeNews.com)
Democrats revive filibuster threat (MSNBC)
Democrat plans no filibuster on Roberts (Atlanta Journal Constitution)
Why Roberts Should Not Be Confirmed As Chief Justice (San Francisco Chronicle)
Should Democratic Senators Vote to Confirm Roberts? (TPMCafe)

That last one is good. It's by Robert W. Gordon, a professor of law and legal history at Yale - and a graduate of Harvard College and Law School, if that sort of thing impresses you. He thinks the answer is "no," the Democrats should block the Roberts nomination - but won't pretend it's an easy call.
There are two kinds of arguments for Yes, the political and the substantive.

The substantive argument is that Roberts really isn't that bad, and is about the best we're going to get out of George Bush. He has glittering credentials, is obviously very smart, and claims not to be an ideologue. He says he respects precedent, is deferential to legislatures except when they exceed the clear boundaries of their authority, has no doctrinaire method (such as "originalism") for interpreting the Constitution, and will decide cases one at a time. He says he has no particular personal or political views, at least none that will influence his decisions. He admires his old boss Judge Henry Friendly, of whom it was said that nobody could tell if he was a liberal or conservative.
On the other hand:
Roberts knew exactly what he had to say in his job interview and he said it. He was playing for the Democratic swing votes, not just the majority's. He made strategic, but mostly symbolic, concessions to their views. He knows people are worried about his views on presidential power, so he praises Justice Jackson's opinion in the Youngstown Case, which gives a judge who wants to limit presidential power some categories and guidelines for doing it. He knows people are worried about his views on civil rights, so he distances himself from his younger self, the Reaganaut firebrand of the 1980s, and affirms his commitment to antidiscrimination and even some affirmative action. Obviously he knows people on both sides worry about how he will decide abortion cases, so while he recognizes that the case law establishes a "right to privacy", he won't say anything specific about its scope and application.

None of this however tells us much about what kind of judge he will be, except that he will be a rhetorically cautious judge - not a flamethrower like Scalia or an iconoclastic reactionary like Thomas who is perfectly willing to throw hundreds of statutes and cases overboard to vindicate an abstract theory of the Constitution. He will work within the received materials of case law and conventional argument. Unhappily those materials are not all that constraining, especially for a clever judge like Roberts. There are a hundred ways to read a precedent or a statute creating a right so narrowly that you can claim to respect it while whittling it away, or making it practically impossible for anyone to get a remedy for its violation. And when you read his testimony carefully, you see that he has not really committed himself to much of anything at all.
There's much more, the political part, but you get the idea.

For many not in agreement with the positions of the Christian evangelical right, now in almost total control of Republican Party and thus the government itself, the issue that is key is the issue of abortion rights - what they call state-sanctioned murder of unborn children, and the other side calls "choice," a decision best left to the woman and her doctor, and not the business of the government at all. The whole thing, the basis of the Roe v Wade decision, hinges on the "right to privacy" established in case law first in the 1965 Griswold decision - the highest court ruling the State of Connecticut really shouldn't be busting into the bedrooms of married couples and arresting them for having in their possession any form of birth control. The idea is there's enough in other parts of the constitution that allows one to infer a general right to privacy - some things are just not the government's business. That opened a can of worms. We got Roe v Wade, and recently the Lawrence v Texas decision - holding that the agents of the State of Texas had no business busting into the bedrooms of consenting gay men and arresting them for doing what they were willingly doing with each other. That ruling offended a lot of the righteous, or the self-righteous, who thought people shouldn't do such things.

The underlying problem has always been there. Some things the government can and should forbid - rape, murder, theft and assault and all that. Oh heck, add speeding and littering. No one, left or right, argues otherwise. No one argues some speech should be sanctioned - libel, slander, and the famous yelling FIRE in a crowded theater (when there is no fire, of course, as otherwise that might be useful). The problem is always around the edges, with things like "victimless crimes." Do you forbid gay marriage? It hurts no one - or it destroys the whole fabric of civilized society. Do you forbid the medical use of marijuana to ease pain? It actually helps people - or it is the first slip on the slippery slope that will make us a nation of drug fiends.

So what about abortion?

Digby over at Hullabaloo has a long explanation of why he signed a petition opposing the Roberts nomination. It seems right - but futile. Roberts will be the next Supreme Court Chief Justice. Digby ends with this:
... I believe that a woman's right to choose gets to the very heart of what it means to be an autonomous, free human being. Control of one's own body is fundamental to individual liberty. If the church believes that abortion is morally wrong it should instruct its voluntary membership not to do it. Individuals must always be allowed to follow their own consciences. But there should be no legal coercion on such a personal matter.

The only issue the government could be called upon to arbitrate is if the fetus has an equal right to life as the woman in whose body it lives. But there is really no argument about that. There is almost nobody who believes that an abortion is wrong if the life of the woman is at stake. Indeed, the vast majority (80%+) of Americans believe that abortion should be available at least in cases of rape or incest, so it is clear that the "abortion is murder" argument is illegitimate. No one can believe that it is moral to murder a person because of the way he or she was conceived, or by whom.

Therefore, the right of the fetus is not the real issue - the reasons a woman wants an abortion are the issue. This leads us to ask which particular circumstances are so difficult for a woman that she may be allowed to have an abortion. 80% or so of Americans think that rape or incest are such circumstances. But how about a failing, abusive marriage? A terminal illness? Five other children and no job? Being 43 years old and carrying a child with serious birth defects? Being a foolish 15 year old girl in love? Should we make exceptions for some of those? Any of them? Who decides? You? Me? John Roberts?

This isn't about murder and it isn't about the right of the fetus. It's clearly about controlling women's personal moral behavior. I don't think the government has any business doing that.

Unlike some others, I think it's quite likely that the court will overturn with these two new Bush justices as soon as they get the right case. This is simply too vital to the conservative cause. The notion that they want to milk it is quite right, of course, but I think they will happily run on abortion in individual states for as long as they can. Milking the issue seems to me to be much more likely if it's turned back to the states than if it's not.

John Roberts is a professional movement conservative at the very top of the food chain. His wife is the president of "Feminists For Life." He will vote to overturn and make women fight in more than half the states of this country for a basic right they've taken for granted for over a generation. It is depressingly likely he will be confirmed, but I'm glad to go on record opposing him.
That's pretty clear, but when I forwarded it to Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, Rick took issue -
"It seems right - but futile. Roberts will be the next Supreme Court Chief Justice."

Yes, but futility, or the lack thereof, isn't everything. I think of it this way: Doing what you believe is the right thing is the cake; being successful at doing what you believe is the right thing is the frosting on the cake.

"Unlike some others, I think it's quite likely that the court will overturn with these two new Bush justices as soon as they get the right case. This is simply too vital to the conservative cause."

I disagree with Digby on this.

Roberts has already publicly affirmed his belief in the judicial concept of stare decisis (the idea that sitting justices should not blithely overturn past rulings that have established themselves as law, even if they personally disagree with them) and has also said he sees Roe v Wade as established law.

But I wouldn't be totally surprised to find him voting in favor of allowing some state to find exceptions to the constitutional right to abortion, eventually watering down its effectiveness.

"Indeed, the vast majority (80%+) of Americans believe that abortion should be available at least in cases of rape or incest, so it is clear that the 'abortion is murder' argument is illegitimate."

Okay, although I'm on Digby's side in his overall argument, I do have a philosophical disagreement with him on this.

First of all, as much as I do pay attention to Gallup polls, I don't base my core beliefs on them. (For example, didn't one such poll have over 70% of Americans believing in the existence of angels? And so does this mean that angels actually do exist?)

Second of all, if I WERE in favor of outlawing abortions, I would probably do so based on the belief that abortion is "murder," or should be seen as "murder" in the eyes of the law. And if I DID think abortion was "murder," I definitely would NOT make an exception for rape or incest. (And I guess not even if the mother's life were imperiled by giving birth - in which case, the mother's life being no more valuable than the child's, I suppose we should try our best to save them both, hoping for the best, but letting the chips fall where they may.)

By the way, another one of my positions on this subject is SURE to annoy those on the so-called "pro-choice" side, and I would guess this probably includes Digby: I never liked the label "pro-choice," since, if indeed abortion is wrong because it is "murder," then making a "choice" is irrelevant, since the law does not allow one the "choice" to commit murder.

But nor, on the other hand, should it necessarily be about the right of a woman to "choose" to do with her own body what she wants, since the law does not permit her to commit suicide, nor (in most places) to engage in prostitution. This is not to say a woman can't get away with doing either of those things, it's just to say that we already do allow our government to claim legal authority over such matters.

But wait! Don't get me wrong! I am NOT among those who think abortion should be outlawed!

My main reason for being "pro-abortion" (and you know what I mean by that) is something I rarely talk to others about, mostly because it's based on my own personal "religious" beliefs, such as they are, that hardly anyone else seems to share.

Although I don't believe in the traditional God that most everyone else seems to believe in, I do think that if there IS a God that helps us decide how we should act, both as individuals and as a community, then this God is everything in the universe and beyond, and that God's laws are how everything works.

So just as I know not to walk off a cliff, since that would not be good for me, I know also that my whole happy existence depends on the support of a healthy community, which in turn depends on healthy adults raising healthy children. If, on the other hand, a community gets weighted down with mothers who can't support their children, it ceases to be a healthy community. (But if, instead of aborting, the mother chooses to place the baby up for adoption - and this should be HER choice, never the community's - that's fine, although it's worth noting that there are already thousands of unfortunate kids waiting to be adopted in this world, and placing them in good families is already a task that overwhelms us.)

And on that question of so-called "murder," we often forget that God does not decide what kind of killing is considered "murder" under our laws - we do. In fact, to the extent that the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God has weighed in on anything like "murder" in general, he said in his famous Ten Commandments only that you shalt not "kill" - but paradoxically, one of the few times "He" addressed the idea of killing babies in particular, he seemed to be all in favor of it, instructing the Jews it was okay to go to Canaan and kill everybody they see, women and babies included.

The death of the extremely young, awful as this may sound, has always been a natural part of life on Earth. How many newly-born sea turtles survive long enough to create their own offspring? And it wasn't too long ago in human history that infants had maybe a fifty-fifty chance of becoming children, much less adults. Back then, we created as many babies as we could afford to raise, knowing not all of them would stay with us long enough to support us in our old age; it's only now, after our scientists have come up with miracle means of straight-arming infant mortality, that we are confronted with the vexing question of whether to purposely perform a task that nature used to handle on its own.

Obviously, I don't buy into the belief that abortion should never be used for "birth control" purposes, an argument that even many "pro-choicers" are too shy to deny; in fact, that's almost always how abortion will be used. In truth, as frightening and brutal as this may seem to some, when it comes to abortion as birth control, I think God probably approves of the concept. In fact, I think God, at least the one I believe in, might actually, in most cases, mandate it.

And so now you know why I rarely talk about this stuff.
Yep, telling the Christian evangelical right that, in regard to abortion, "God probably approves of the concept," would be a tough sell. And the secular left doesn't deal much with talk of God.

Rick may be right about all this. But the argument is too hot for these times, where everyone is saying he or she knows exactly what God approves of and what He does not, and everyone else just has it all wrong. I kind of like Rick's God - sounds like a reasonable fellow.

Posted by Alan at 20:30 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 21 September 2005 20:38 PDT home


Topic: God and US

God Stuff: An Odd New Lobby Group in Washington

The most unlikely news item of week comes from Jill Lawrence, reporting in USA TODAY on Monday, September 19, where she tells a new lobbying group in Washington, representing Americans who don't believe in God. Those would be the atheists. See Non-Believers Raising Voice In Capital.

This is about Lori Lipman Brown who started Monday as executive director of the Secular Coalition for America. She describes herself as a "soft, fuzzy atheist" and says her two goals are to keep religion out of government and win respect for "a stigmatized minority."

Good luck. Lawrence:
Christian conservatives wield enormous clout here through a network of advocacy groups and relationships with politicians from President Bush on down. Atheists, humanists and freethinkers, as Brown's constituents call themselves, are usually ignored .

Is she scared? "Nah," says Brown, 47, an atheist with a Jewish background. "It feels good to be the first."
Why would she be sacred? No Christian leader ever advocated violence against anyone, like an assassination or some such thing. We'll maybe some have, but not against a pleasant, middle-aged formerly Jewish woman, at least not yet.

So what's going on with the new lobbying group? Lori Lipman Brown says atheists these days are like gay folks in the seventies - people just coming out of the closet to fight for acceptance. Yeah, think of the Village People. Lawrence quotes her saying this: "There's been so much rhetoric in the past decade about how important religion is to being a good person that it's been scary for people to say they don't believe in God." Brown vows to "use the A-word and not cringe."

This is a not going to go down well, and Lawrence trots out the figures from a recent Pew Research Center poll:

• Eleven percent of Americans said they do not believe in God but do believe in a "universal spirit" or "higher power."
• Three percent said they do not believe in God or a spirit or power.
• One percent identified themselves as actual atheists (no God there, folks)
• Two percent identified themselves agnostics (could be a God, one never knows)

And then there is the eleven percent who says they "have no religious preference." Pew Director Andrew Kohut says this includes people "who may not be ready to declare themselves atheists or agnostics." But what are they waiting for? Proof of the existence of God? Proof of the absence of God?

In any event, these are small numbers. But Herb Silverman, president of the Secular Coalition for America, counts them all and says he has "a thirty-million-strong constituency that is informed about the issues and votes." Herb is an optimistic fellow.

Lori Lipman Brown, however, has her plans - building "broad coalitions" fighting policies rooted in religious beliefs, and that would be fighting limits on stem cell research and access to emergency contraception and that sort of thing. And then there is that matter of building alliances with groups opposed to policies that blur the "wall" between church and state, like tossing great wads of taxpayer money at "faith-based" service programs. Curiously she says she doesn't want to fight about eliminating references to God from the oath of citizenship. No point to that, as she says, "the courts are on our side." And so they are, or were last week in the Ninth Circuit out here in California.

Of course, Gary Bauer, the most Christian of Christian conservatives, who now lobbies against gay marriage and for conservative "values," says atheists' timing couldn't be worse, given Hurricane Katrina. He's quoted as saying this: "We're right in the middle of a horrible event when people are turning to God. They're going to find it very hard to get people to vote for the sort of things they're in favor of."

Of course he's not considering those who now are pretty puzzled by God's gulf storms this year, or wondering if there is a God we can blame (or praise) for this massive devastation - maybe this global warming stuff the Bush administration says isn't happening, and the Christian conservatives ignore, plays a part here, and God has nothing to do with it all.

And Brown says she's just raising issues and thinks she and her like-minded folks deserve to be heard: "We want to get people thinking about what they do that excludes us. The things that perpetuate the idea that we are outsiders - that we can't be patriotic or that we can't be moral or ethical - when in reality our community is tremendously active in making the world a better place to live." She just wants in on the discussion. And she took a pay cut to do this. She was a Nevada state senator from 1992 to 1994 and she fought for gun control, gay rights and abortion rights got all the threats and hate messages and calls. No big deal. She has taught college-level constitutional and high school English. Now? The first-year budget for the coalition office, including her salary and a six-month stipend for a legislative assistant, is a hundred grand. But whatever - she's having fun. "It's important to do the work, even if you're not a high-paid lobbyist. At least there'll be an atheist voice in the mix."

Yeah, but at best she'll be ignored, or patronized. At worst? Perhaps another fatwa from Pat Robertson.

On a more scholarly note, Ronald Aronson, "Distinguished Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies" at Wayne State University and the author of Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It (University of Chicago Press, 2004), in the October-November issue of Book Forum has a lengthy review of seven recent books on atheism, Faith No More? - so something is up.

The books?

The Twilight Of Atheism: The Rise And Fall Of Disbelief In The Modern World - Alister Mcgrath. New York: Doubleday. 320 Pages. $24.
The Transformation Of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith - Alan Wolfe. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press. 320 Pages. $16.
The End Of Faith: Religion, Terror, And The Future Of Reason - Sam Harris. New York: Norton. 256 Pages. $14.
Atheism: A Very Short Introduction - Julian Baggini. New York: Oxford University Press. 144 Pages. $10.
Value And Virtue In A Godless Universe - Erik J. Wielenberg. New York: Cambridge. 202 Pages. $21.
Traité D'athéologie - Michel Onfray. Paris: Grasset. 281 Pages. $23.
An Intelligent Person's Guide To Atheism - Daniel Harbour. London: Duckworth. 160 Pages. $15.

If you go to the Book Forum article there are links so you can buy each of these over the net. Of course Homeland Security may track your purchases, particularly if you order the one in French.

What's in the review? Well, it has a cute opening:
At the sight of Stephen Colbert the studio audience begins cheering with anticipation: It's time for "This Week in God." Colbert calls up the "God machine" and gives it a tap, and a window begins spinning to the most unholy sound as a panoply of religious symbols and images - the pope, believers in the shroud of Turin, assorted rabbis, imams, ministers, priests, creationists, spiritualists, even those those professing secular humanism and atheism ("The religion devoted to the worship of one's own smug sense of superiority") - flash on the screen. Finally the machine comes to rest on a particular target. We see a Jerusalem rabbi, imam, and priest set aside their mutual hatred long enough to denounce that city's gay-pride parade. Or we watch Colbert conduct a blind taste test to see whether he can tell the difference between holy water and Pepsi. Through it all he pokes fun at faith itself, sparing no religion and no holy man (in Blasphe "Me!!!" he takes on deities themselves, challenging, say, Quetzalcóatl to strike him dead by the count of five). Watching "This Week in God" on Jon Stewart's Daily Show, we are, it might seem, witnessing the culmination of a historical progression, from Robert Ingersoll, the great nineteenth-century public unbeliever, to Clarence Darrow, who in the 1920s and '30s would debate a rabbi, priest, and minister during a single evening.

No wonder, then, that it is a bit jarring, after Colbert's polished irreverence and his audience's unforced delight, to return to the real world and be reminded that it is irreligion, and not religion, that is on the defensive today.
And then he explains the books

Alister McGrath:
• In his telling formulation, we are living in the "twilight" of the great modern era of disbelief. In 1960, he points out, "half the population of the world was nominally atheist," but by now the "sun has begun to set" on this "great empire of the mind."

• ... atheists, agnostics, and secularists are less and less relevant to the needs of Americans (and, McGrath adds, the rest of the world). Whether true or not, this is an amazing commentary on the self-confidence that once made atheism the modern creed, which McGrath summarizes as "the religion of the autonomous and rational human being, who believes that reason is able to uncover and express the deepest truths of the universe, from the mechanics of the rising of the sun to the nature and final destiny of humanity."

• ... new currents demonstrate that "Christianity is perfectly capable of reinventing itself" to satisfy the spirit, feed the imagination, and satisfy the longing for transcendence. On the other hand, atheism's "embarrassing intolerance" is demonstrated by the millions of people sacrificed to Russian Communism, which confirmed the fact that modernity was as much an oppressive as a liberating force. McGrath here links Marx's liberating vision to violent "social engineering" and Freud's to "manipulating mental processes." And so he endorses the verdict of postmodernism on this ultimately uninhabitable universe: "Far from providing eternal and universal truths of reason, by which humanity might live in peace and stability, modernity found itself implicated as the perhaps unwitting accomplice of Nazism and Stalinism." Thus occurred "the decline, then the death, of modernity" and with it its partner, atheism. Atheism is now adrift in a newly respiritualized world, "uncertain of its own values," its record of violence and bigotry exposed. Thus "the established religion of modernity suddenly found itself relegated to the sidelines, increasingly to be viewed more as a curiosity than as a serious cultural option."
Alan Wolfe:
• ... over the past generation religion has become closer to people's needs, more positive and personal, and more tolerant and less authoritarian. In 2004 Wolfe pointed out that atheists seemed not to understand how religion had changed. There is a paucity of "serious treatments of why Americans might be better off intellectually, and perhaps even emotionally, if they relied more on themselves and less on powers greater than themselves, and our cultural and political life is poorer as a result." What would it look like if this were to change?
Michel Onfray:
• ... presents atheism in old-fashioned terms, as part of a world-historical process of social emancipation. Onfray's philosophical goal is to renew the modern radical project by integrating the insights of atheism with utilitarianism, hedonism, psychoanalysis, and anarchism, for the first time allowing humanity to "look reality in the face." To prepare the ground for this he seeks to lay bare the many ways in which pathological and death-oriented religious attitudes permeate our world (thus the need for an "a-theology" - to demonstrate the structure, commitments, and suppressed past of religion in its full destructiveness). In the spirit of Feuerbach, Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche, Onfray is determined to reveal how the creation of a world beyond this world leads to "forgetting the real" with disastrous consequences.

• Onfray is arguing, contra McGrath, that religion has always been, and remains, at the core of our civilization. "We speak, think, live, act, we dream, we imagine, we eat, suffer, sleep, and conceive in Judeo-Christian terms, constructed during two thousand years of development from biblical monotheism. Later, secularism struggles to permit everyone to think what he or she wants, to believe in his or her own god, provided that they don't take note of this publicly. But publicly, the secularized religion of Christ leads the way." It is absurd, then, to suggest that there has ever been a genuinely irreligious moment.

• Worse, Onfray argues, planetary colonialism, slavery, twentieth-century fascisms and genocides have all been carried out only with the silent or tacit approval of religion. With a penchant for list making, he details the Bible's calls to slaughter and oppression as well as the Christian history of giving them its blessing. Even today, he argues, France's official secularism remains underpinned by the same Christian values and ethics that have made hell of the world. The alternative would be a truly democratic and post-Christian morality that would fully free people from religion by beginning from the fact that this is our only world. A secular ethics, pragmatic and utilitarian, would truly pursue what he calls the "hedonist contract" - the greatest good of the greatest number.
Sam Harris:
• ... motivated by an urgent effort to avoid the worst: in a post?September 11 world where "our neighbors are now armed with chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons" and are motivated by "mad," unverifiable, and exclusivist core beliefs, Harris writes to avert catastrophe.

• Harris has raised eyebrows more than any atheist since Richard Dawkins's Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design - for his fervent belief in progress, hostility to Islam, approval of nuclear war and torture, dismissal of pacifism as "flagrantly immoral," and his slap at the "leftist unreason" of Noam Chomsky. Harris's key political sources and positions clearly lean to the Right. For our purposes, however, what matters most is what the book tells us about some of atheism's continuing problems today. If Onfray has remained true to atheism as an emancipatory project at war with religion, Harris has kept alive its image as dogmatic, fanatically rationalistic, and at war to religion.
Julian Baggini:
• ... intended not as an attack on religion but to give a positive explanation of a word, atheism, that conjures "dark images of something sinister, evil, and threatening." His point is that atheism need be neither "happy-clappy" nor "pessimistic or depressive." It is rather a kind of growing up, a turning away from "the innocence of supernatural world views" and an acceptance "that we have to make our way in the world."

• ... covers what have become familiar themes: the argument for an understanding of the world based on natural laws and according to evidence; the centrality in human life of moral choice about what is right and wrong; the "view that life's ultimate purpose must be something which is good in itself and not just something that serves as a link in a never-ending series of purposes"; and the cautionary lessons about zealotry to be learned from the history of both religion and atheism.
The others?
Like Baggini, Erik J. Wielenberg in Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe and Daniel Harbour in An Intelligent Person's Guide to Atheism respond to the current malaise in atheism by engaging in respectful and serious debate with their opponents. Wielenberg presents an analytical philosopher's argument, beautifully restrained and precise. He is responding to a major theme in contemporary thinking about religion, namely, that in a naturalistic universe - one in which there are "no supernatural beings of any sort" - life would have no meaning and there would be no reason to behave ethically. Indeed, the strong selling point of religion recently has been its utility - in providing individual and collective moral grounding, national purpose, and personal hope. In response, Wielenberg, uninterested in the question of God's actual existence, seeks to show that living without God can be both meaningful and moral. Like McGrath and Onfray, Wielenberg focuses on the idea articulated in Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov: If God does not exist, everything is permissible.

[...]

Harbour's recently reissued Guide to Atheism aspires to show the intellectual and practical superiority of a secular, scientific worldview to a religious one. At stake is not simply the question "Does God exist?" but rather "the whole worldview to which we subscribe." He chooses cumbersome terms for describing the opposing outlooks (the "Spartan meritocracy" and the "Baroque monarchy"), but his focus on worldviews has the potential for shifting the usual debate over God's existence in an important direction - to the varying ways people live their lives. In practice, however, Harbour limits himself to a rather narrow worldview. Above all, he is concerned with what and how we know questions of truth and understanding. He leaves out a vast array of attitudes, feelings, perceptions, and beliefs that fall outside of knowledge - what we live by concerning love, relationships, our connections with the wider universe, death, what is right and wrong. Much of life is not ruled by knowledge, of course, and insofar as our worldview includes all this, Harbour misses it.
See? Now you don't have to read the whole review, with all its detail, or even order any of the books and put yourself on any government watchlist.

Aronson concludes with this: "If the appeal of atheism relies on arguments or it casts itself as a messenger bearing cold hard truths, it will continue to fare poorly in today's world. For secularists, the most urgent need is for a coherent popular philosophy that answers vital questions about how to live one's life."

And this: "A new atheism must absorb the experience of the twentieth century and the issues of the twenty-first. It must answer questions about living without God, face issues concerning forces beyond our control as well as our own responsibility, find a satisfying way of thinking about what we may know and what we cannot know, affirm a secular basis for morality, point to ways of coming to terms with death, and explore what hope might mean today."

Someone ring up Lori Lipman Brown down in DC and tell her.

Posted by Alan at 13:12 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 21 September 2005 13:20 PDT home


Topic: Science

Follow Up: The Other Great Debate

At the end of July in these pages, in Counting the Seconds, or Not, there was a discussion of a controversy - the real problem with adding "leap seconds" in determining what was the actual, precise time at any place on the planet.

Say what?

Of course, it is a bit hard to explain. The July item discussed the heated argument between the Americans who wanted it one way, the British who wanted it another, and some folks at the Paris Observatory who had other thoughts. (By the way, "Our Man in Paris," Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, has a photo of the Paris Observatory, as of last weekend, here.)

This is arcane stuff.

We have offered a proposal at the UN, to an obscure committee on such matters that meets behind closed doors - a very pro-business proposal - but astronomers hate it. And Britain sees it as a threat to its revered standard, Greenwich Mean Time. Our plan would simplify the world's timekeeping by making each day last exactly twenty-four hours. But you see, since the moon's gravity has been slowing down the Earth, it takes slightly longer than those twenty-four hours for the big ball to rotate completely on its axis. So every few years a group that helps regulate global timekeeping, the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service, tells governments, telecom companies, satellite operators and others to add in an extra second to all clocks to keep them synchronized - an adjustment made on New Year's Eve or the last day of June. But this just screws up all kinds of hyper-accurate computer systems, and GPS systems, even if it helps astronomers to point their telescopes precisely.

So what to do? There seem to be three choices:

You have your International Atomic Time, or "absolute timekeeping," based on atomic clocks. You have your Universal Time, the "classic system" based on the rotation of the earth. Since International Atomic Time was introduced in 1958, "atomic time" has run, now, thirty-two seconds ahead of "ordinary time" - it's those damned fluctuations in the rate of the earth's rotation, of course. And you have the compromise system to manage the divergence - that would be what came out of the International Telecommunication Union in 1971 - a system called "Coordinated Universal Time," a system uses the leap-second idea to keep everyday time accurate within 0.9 seconds. Close enough? We say "no" at the UN meetings. (Note: Leap seconds normally are declared every few years, but because of a recent stabilization in the earth's rotation, which no one is explaining, there have been no leap seconds since 1998.)

So what? See this from the Associated Press, Wednesday, September 21 -British Group Wants Debate on Leap Seconds - they're not happy at all:
Hold on a second! Britain's Royal Astronomical Society on Wednesday called for a public debate on the proposed abolition of leap seconds, a tiny end-of-year adjustment to keep clocks in synch with the earth's rotation.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) will meet in Geneva in November to debate a proposal to abolish leap seconds after 2007. The next leap second comes at the end of this year.

Mike Hapgood, secretary of the Royal Astronomical Society, said the debate has practical implications for computers, global positioning systems and for those who study phenomena - such as tides - which are related to the earth's rotation.

"The debate has been rather closed, mainly among timing experts," Hapgood said in a telephone interview. ...
So, should the debate be opened up? That might be fun, and a break from all the talk of war and politics and natural disasters, and oil running out and economic woes and global warming and coming pandemics. On the one side you have the purists, the business folks and the United States government arguing for absolute precision, for good reason, but ignoring the natural world with its imperfections. On the other side you have the realists, the folks who study the tides and stars, and this imperfect earth, and these people need a timekeeping system that matches actual, observable phenomena.

The purists versus the realists? Wait a second (no pun intended). That's the same debate as on all the other matters.

Posted by Alan at 10:53 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
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