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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, 16 March 2006
A Day Off

A Day Off

No blogging today. Thursday is photography day and that meant a trip back down to San Pedro, to Angels Gate Park, for follow-up shots. The high-powered Wall Street attorney in Manhattan, who often contributes photography to the weekly Just Above Sunset, wanted shots of the most picturesque basketball court in the world, the basketball court in the sky at Angels Gate Park. Three of them are here. And Phillip Raines, the musician and mason who has written extensively for the weekly, wanted shots of the stonework at the pagoda - professional interest. And there was a lot to see there. Two hundred shots of all sorts of things in the area. Culling the good shots and getting them web-ready takes time. Commentary will resume tomorrow.

Posted by Alan at 19:44 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 16 March 2006 19:45 PST home

Wednesday, 15 March 2006
Manliness and Competence
Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist

Manliness and Competence

The state of play as of Wednesday, March 15th - as even more polling shows approval for the president and his policies now at record lows - worse than any second-term president ever - and as even members of his own party are calling for the White House do something - anything, bring in some grownups - it's coming down to a real basic showdown on core values. Do you want the leader we have elected, for whatever previous reasons and under whatever questionable circumstances in Ohio, to be manly, or do you want him to be competent? It seems you can't have both.

A manly man doesn't attend to what others are saying. He's steadfast. He believes what he believes. He does what he does from instinct. Mistakes? Others can comment on those if they wish, but that's of little importance. He shrugs them off as if they didn't happen. In fact, the whole concept of "mistakes" is not exactly relevant. He does what you does, and if others say what he has done is a mistake, and has screwed things up royally (choosing that word carefully), well, that's their business. At least he did something. What have they done?

With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan not going that well, various advisors indicted and a few charged with crimes, with people angry at the response to crises like the destruction of a major city and most of the Gulf Coast, upset they cannot figure out how to get their medications under the new Medicare benefit that is making the pharmaceutical companies rich and doing little else, and with the disapproval ratings high, this seems to be the response - claiming that being steadfast, resolute, determined and never changing your mind is the mark of a real leader. That trumps competence. Some things are more important.

At least that seems to be the case the administration has put before us. Which is more important - manly, simple, instinctive action without all that sissy analysis and planning, or prissy timidity, worrying about getting things right? Time to choose.

Context

Iraq - authorities there find the bodies of eighty-seven men, murdered, execution-style (the Associated Press item here). These are Sunnis. This is retaliation for a bomb and mortar attack two days earlier on the Shiite low-rent part of east Baghdad, Sadr City. Fifty-eight died there, including women and children. Wednesday morning we raid a house in Baghdad and do capture a "suspected insurgent" - but we kill a few civilians, including children (we say four, the locals say eleven). The basic story is and Associated Press run a photo of one of the dead children here. The press didn't used to do that sort of thing.

All day long the news shows are burbling softly in the next room - various generals saying this is a "rough patch" and not a civil war at all. One wonders what giving it a label means. It's trouble. Where is this all leading and what can we do? The questions come up. The administration doesn't waver. We're doing the right thing. They will have a unified, secular, Jeffersonian democracy over there. It's coming. Be patient. We were right to do this. How hard could it be?

Tuesday we hear we may have to increase troop strength (here) and Wednesday we announce just that (here) - bring in the reserves from Kuwait. Seven hundred more may help. It's temporary. The Secretary of Defense said the senior commander in Iraq wants to "bulk up" on troops in advance of upcoming holidays there - but we're is still planning on drawing down troops. The president keeps taking about the "real progress" we're making in turning things over to Iraqi security forces.

But then there's this in the Washington Post - military experts and some administration officials (off the record) saying that turning over control to Iraqi forces might not make much of a difference in anything. Yes, the "Iraqi-owned battle space" is growing, but the Post tells us administration officials are warning "against assuming that American troops could come home" just because more Iraqi forces are standing up.

It doesn't work that way - Iraqi forces will still need a whole lot of support from us - "Moreover, because much of the insurgency has been concentrated in four provinces, Iraqi forces could theoretically control the bulk of the country without eliminating the bloody resistance to the U.S.-supported government."

Great - and Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, points out the obvious. This "let them do it themselves" build-up of Shiite-dominated security forces that we're working on is just going to make things more difficult - "When we make these forces stronger, we make the underlying problem worse, not better. We're throwing gas on the political fire."

But that's what we're doing - manly, simple, instinctive action without all that sissy analysis and planning, or prissy timidity, or worrying about getting things right.

The problem might be that while this may not be a civil war, there are two sides, each with subsets, doing the revenge executions and bombings. We have this idea that that there's a national fervor there - a majority who long for a unified Iraq that includes everyone and tolerates everyone. That was the gut-instinct concept we started with. That's our story and we're sticking to it. Ahmed Chalabi said it was so. So we train "them" to defend that noble idea. It's the right thing to do - good for them, good for us, good for the world. Multiple "thems" with conflicting aims? Details, details, details. That's for sissies, for defeatists, for women.

And anyway all this is Iran's fault. They're behind the roadside improvised explosive devices (IED's) that kill our troops.

The president on Monday explains -
Some of the most powerful IEDs we are seeing in Iraq today includes components that came from Iran.

Our director of national intelligence, John Negroponte, told the Congress, Tehran has been responsible for at least some of the increasing lethality of anti-coalition attacks by providing Shia militia with the capability to build improvised explosive devices in Iraq.

Coalition forces have seized IEDs and components that were clearly produced in Iran. Such actions, along with Iran's support for terrorism and its pursuit of nuclear weapons, are increasingly isolating Iran.
Yep, got to do something Iran too, obviously.

Of course there was this the next day at the Pentagon press conference -
President George W. Bush said on Monday components from Iran were being used in powerful roadside bombs used in Iraq, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said last week that Iranian Revolutionary Guard personnel had been inside Iraq.

Asked whether the United States has proof that Iran's government was behind these developments, Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Pentagon briefing, "I do not, sir."
No evidence. Details, details, details. Facts are for sissies (and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs will no doubt got a dressing-down for dealing with them).

Andrew Sullivan here - "I cannot imagine it's a good idea for the president to offer what is billed as an honest assessment of what's going on in Iraq, while his chief military commander sees no proof for the accusation. We've just learned not to trust what this president says about Iran. It keeps getting better, doesn't it?"

Define better.

Well, there was this, Wednesday, March 15th, late in the day - "The United States is being reduced to a minority of one in its unyielding opposition to a proposal to create a new Human Rights Council (HRC) to replace the UN's existing much-maligned Human Rights Commission in Geneva."

We sent a man's man, John Bolton, there to tell them they were all fools and crooks and had better shape up. The Senate wouldn't confirm him and the president had to use a recess appointment to make him our UN ambassador, bypassing the girly-men in the senate. Real men don't care what the rest of the world thinks. He's there to kick ass. The rest of the world is wrong.

Mistakes? We don't make them, even if we do, as here we see that prosecutors have told the judge in the death penalty trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the "twentieth hijacker," that there is no point continuing the trial.

Why? There was that ruling the day before, banning some evidence and some witnesses. She was already dubious about asking for the death penalty for someone who failed to stop a crime. That's a stretch. And she told the feds they could not coach certain witnesses. That was a court order. They did anyway, so the witnesses wouldn't say anything that might cause liability for any airline. It was just a court order, and then the woman said the witnesses can't testify. Geez. Details, details, details. The guy said he was part of the plot then ended up in the World Trade Towers falling and the Pentagon in flames. He says he hates America and is part of al Qaeda. What's the problem? He's supposed to die. What's all this with rules and tainted witnesses and such. Just like a woman...

Yep, another loss for the Justice Department in its war on terror or whatever it is, but Moussaoui will still do life in prison. But that's not very satisfying. Real men think that's just crap. The guy should die.

Eric Alterman, the NYU journalism professor and author adds this -
Did they think that nobody was paying attention? They've lost Bin Laden, screwed up Afghanistan, completely wrecked Iraq, destroyed our fiscal future, left us completely vulnerable on homeland security, ignored the threats to New Orleans, messed up its recovery, thrown science out the window, attacked our civil liberties, undermined freedom of the press, you know the drill. Why is anyone surprised that they are both incompetent and dishonest when it comes to seeking justice for the terrorist murder of thousands of Americans?
No, no one is surprised. Competence is overrated. They want results. (By the way, Alterman links to the Los Angeles Times' detailed rundown of all the mistakes that preceded this one, here - these guys don't do detail and many have walked, and many were nobodies, and doing nothing much.)

Ah well. We don't sweat the details. Like what happen long ago at that Abu Ghraib prison.

Tuesday the 14th brought us something odd - a web publication, SALON.COM, probably breaking federal law. What did they do? Well, here they published the entire collection of Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse photos. The feds have been in court trying to block their release.

On January 10, 2004, these photos were handed over to the military by Joseph Darby. The Army started its investigation the next day. Selected photos were made public. Now, for the first time, all of the photos in the Army's dossier were put on the net. Go look before they have to take them down - "Today, Salon presents an archive of 279 photos and 19 videos of Abu Ghraib abuse first gathered by the CID, along with information drawn from the CID's own timeline of the events depicted."

Or don't go look. Women worry about such things

The guy with the dog in the photos, Sergeant Michael J. Smith? He's on trail at the moment, laughing -
An Army dog handler charged with using his animal to terrify Abu Ghraib prisoners laughingly claimed he was competing with a comrade to frighten detainees into soiling themselves, according to testimony Tuesday at his court-martial.

The testimony on the second day of the trial was the most damaging evidence yet against Sgt. Michael J. Smith. The witness, Sgt. John H. Ketzer, was an interrogator at the prison in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. He testified that one night, he followed the sounds of screaming to a cell where Smith's black Belgian shepherd was straining against its leash and barking at two cowering, teenage boys.
It's a guy thing, and Ketzer said Smith laughingly told him afterward: "My buddy and I are having a contest to see if we can get them to (defecate on) themselves because we've already had some (urinate on) themselves."

Jeralyn Merritt, the noted defense attorney from Denver says this -
This abuse was carried out in the name of the United States of America, a country that occupies a position of trust in the world - and in which it has caused war to be launched on foreign soil. The abuse may have been carried out by "a few bad apples" but it wasn't their idea. The Untied States owes it to every citizen on the planet to find out who, at the highest levels, authorized this torture. Those are the persons who must be held primarily responsible and sanctioned for their acts.

When Bush's presidency is over, the historical review of his tenure will be shamed by this above all. As it should be.
And spoken like a woman. She doesn't get it.

How is this all playing with the nation?

Well, Wednesday brought the new Pew poll -
Currently, 48% use a negative word to describe Bush compared with just 28% who use a positive term, and 10% who use neutral language.

The changing impressions of the president can best be viewed by tracking over time how often words come up in these top-of-the-mind associations. Until now, the most frequently offered word to describe the president was "honest," but this comes up far less often today than in the past. Other positive traits such as "integrity" are also cited less, and virtually no respondent used superlatives such as "excellent" or "great" terms that came up fairly often in previous surveys.

The single word most frequently associated with George W. Bush today is "incompetent," and close behind are two other increasingly mentioned descriptors: "idiot" and "liar." All three are mentioned far more often today than a year ago.
But he's manly. Being called a liar and an idiot with the NASCAR crowd means the guy is just fine, a good ol' boy. You could be called worse - careful, thoughtful, cautious, open-minded.

The day also brought the news whole bunches of people in the president's party were urging that things be changed. Bring in some new folks. Stop this slide in the polls. Get some competent advisors and lawyers and planners. You can read all about it here - White House Dismisses Speculation Of Staff Shake-Up (Reuters).

What problems?

The Grand Unifying Theory of Manliness

Wednesday brought this, something noted by Dana Milbank in the regular list of weekly political events -
Wed - Will they serve beer? The Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, hosts Harvey C. Mansfield, who, "Drawing from science, literature, and philosophy ... examines the layers of manliness, from vulgar aggression, to assertive manliness, to manliness as virtue, and to philosophical manliness. He shows that manliness seeks and welcomes drama, prefers times of war, conflict, and risk, and brings change or restores order at crucial moments. Manly men in their assertiveness raise issues, bring them to the fore, and make them public and political - as for example, the manliness of the women's movement." 4 p.m., 1015 15th Street NW, Sixth Floor.
Yep, the neoconservatives have their theorists telling us about what we should do in the world - remove pesky governments and remake the benighted so they're more like us - and the manly have this guy.

Harvey C. Mansfield is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Government at Harvard. He studies and teaches political philosophy. He's written on Edmund Burke and the nature of political parties, on Machiavelli and the invention of indirect government, in defense of a "defensible liberalism" and in favor of a "Constitutional American" political science, whatever that is. He has also written on the discovery and development of the theory of executive power, and as a translator of Machiavelli and of Tocqueville's Democracy in America. He has been at Harvard since 1949, and on the faculty since 1962. And of course he completed a book on manliness.

That would be Manliness, Yale University Press (February 6, 2006) ISBN: 0300106645

Amazon at the link about quotes Publishers Weekly, not thinking much of it -
Harvard government professor Mansfield delves into philosophy, literature and science to define manliness and to argue that it should have a place in an increasingly non-gender-specific society. Throughout, Mansfield clearly states his intentions, and though he may have convinced himself he accomplished his goals, readers will be skeptical; when, for example, he sets out to "elevate manliness from aggression to assertion and thereby discover its connection to politics," he jumps from Hemingway to Achilles before posing a question that has little more than a thin patina of importance: "In our time there are many who say that heroes lack humanity and few who will admit that humanity needs heroes. But at all times heroes have to assert themselves. The question is, what is in it for us?" Similar murky questions and non-sequitur lines of logic continue throughout: "Man has fearsome powers of wisdom and fire over beasts. All beasts fear fire, which perhaps represents the Promethean gift of technology." This clunky chain of supposition is followed by a brief foray into The Jungle Book. But Mansfield's theories on gender equality are likely to create the most conversation: "women are the weaker sex," "women's bodies are made to attract and to please men" and "now that women are equal, they should be able to accept being told that they aren't, quite" all appear on the same page. Mansfield set out to write a provocative book, but ended up penning a juvenile screed.
But this juvenile screed got Mansfield a trip to DC to talk to the big-time conservative foundation.

And Naomi Schaefer Riley in the Wall Street Journal back on March 4th said nice things about him in Calling All Hombres: A Harvard Sage Makes The Case For Manliness.

Riley opens with this -
"Defend yourself." That's the lesson Harvey Mansfield drew for Larry Summers the week before Harvard's president was forced to resign. Mr. Mansfield, a 73-year-old government professor and conservative elder statesman of the university, went on to suggest that Mr. Summers's capitulation to those he offended (when he said women might be biologically less inclined to succeed in the hard sciences) is not simply a craven kowtow to political correctness, but proof, also, of a character flaw. Indeed, Mr. Mansfield continued with a mischievous smile, "He has apologized so much that he looks unmanly."

Perhaps this seems like a quaint insult, but Mr. Mansfield means something very particular by it. He would like to return the notion of manliness to the modern lexicon. His new book, "Manliness" (manfully, no subtitle), argues that the gender-neutral society created by modern feminists has been bad both for women and men, and that it is time for men to rediscover, and women to appreciate, the virtue of manliness.
And on it goes -
Mr. Mansfield's contention that women and men are not the same is now widely supported by social scientists. The core of his definition of manliness - "confidence in a risky situation" - is not so far from that of biologists and sociologists, who find men to be more abstract in their thinking and aggressive in their behavior than women, who are more contextual in their thinking and conciliatory in their behavior.

Science is good for confirming what "common sense" already tells us, Mr. Mansfield allows, but beyond that, he has little use for it: "Science is a particular enemy of manliness. Manliness asserts something you can't scientifically prove, namely the importance of human beings." Science simply sees people as just another part of the natural world. But what manly men assert, according to Mr. Mansfield, is that "they are important and that their party, their country, their society, their group, whatever it may be, is important." As examples, Mr. Mansfield offers Arnold Schwarzenegger (predictably, since he's no girly-man), Humphrey Bogart, Donald Rumsfeld and Margaret Thatcher - yes, women can occasionally be manly. (Both Clintons are manly in their own ways - Hillary is "formidable," while Bill is the "envy of vulgar men.")
That's an odd list. And science is a particular enemy of manliness? Curious, that explains a lot about the administration's stance on global warming and teaching "intelligent design" (the first isn't happening and the second should be required). Science deals with facts, confirmed by observation. Other things are more important - asserting yourself.

This is the key to it all.

There's more from Christopher Shea in the Boston Globe, March 12th, here, opening with this -
Who is not just a man, but a manly man? And who today can even say the words ''manly man" without smirking?

These questions are at the heart of ''Manliness" (Yale), the new book by Harvard government professor Harvey C. Mansfield, who has long shouldered a reputation as the campus's most outspoken conservative.

In answer to the first question, Mansfield nominates, among others, the marshal played by Gary Cooper in ''High Noon." When the town's sniveling semi-men slink away from the task, Cooper boldly goes out to fight the thugs arriving in his town. As for the second question-well it just shows how wanly gender neutral our society has become: Manly men scare us.
Maybe. Maybe the president scares people. Of course it may not be the manliness, just the incompetence, as noted in the pew poll.

But there is the main argument -
For better and worse, men are more willing than women to stick out their necks for causes, ideas, and people. They possess a greater taste for the physical and intellectual combat that has led to mankind's (yes, mankind's) greatest achievements. ''I don't think we need to preserve manliness," he said in an interview. ''I think there is plenty of evidence that manliness is around us. But women need to come to terms with it - society as a whole does." The gender-neutral society is by definition a mediocre one, with male greatness viewed as threatening to the social order and men and women crammed into boxes they don't fit in.

... Mansfield allows that women can sometimes do manly deeds -Thatcher prosecuting the Falklands War, for example, or Grace Kelly picking up a rifle at the climax of ''High Noon." But Mansfield says it should be obvious they are doing something unusual for their sex. Forcing manly men to wash dishes, or to curb their aggressive ways in politics or business out of deference to ''sensitive" women, does violence to nature and gelds modern society.
Ah, bring the guy to Washington! He can explain Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld to us all. They're heroes.

You can read Mansfield himself here in the essay her turned into a book.

Samples -
Manliness can be heroic. But it can also be vainly boastful, prone to meaningless scuffling, and unfriendly. It jeers at those who do not seem to measure up, and asks men to continually prove themselves. It defines turf and fights for it - sometimes to defend precious rights, sometimes for no good reason. Manliness has always been under a cloud of doubt - raised by men who may not have the time or taste for it.

... Though the word is scarce in use, there is an abundance of manliness in action in America today. Young males still pick fights, often with deadly weapons. What we suffer from today, is a lack of intelligent criticism of manliness. Feminism has undermined, if not destroyed, the counterpart to manliness - femininity - and with it the basis on which half the population could be skeptical of the excesses of manliness.

... Manliness is a quality that causes individuals to stand up for something. It is a quality that calls private persons into public life. In the past such people have been predominantly male, and it is no accident that those who possess this quality have often ended up as political rulers and leaders.
The Bush presidency explained, the frat-boy king.

Of course, the acerbic James Wolcott of Vanity Fair says here that he has discovered the "sacred text" that inspired and animated Mansfield and his crowd, and "provides their vision of a future patriarchal society in which the warrior within every man is restored to his lounge-recliner throne" -
Indeed, it is not a text at all, but a cult film that illustrates what awaits civilization if it sinks into the abject sissyhood and surrenders to female sovereignty. And the radical hot beef injection that it will take to restore civilization to primitive glory.

I speak of John Boorman's 1974 sci-fi low-budget beefcake extravaganza Zardoz, starring Sean Connery, who, in Pauline Kael's classic review, "traipses around in a loincloth... playing the only potent man at the discotheque." He struts around the movie with prowess and assurance, but his face registers the doubts of an actor wondering how he got roped into this thing. Kael: "[H]e acts like a man to agreed to do something before he grasped what it was. He hangs in there stolidly, loyally, his face saying, 'I'm wrong, but I'll do it.'"

Uttering lines like "Stay behind my aura" probably made Connery question his very raison d'etre as an actor, not to mention his decision to quit making Bond films.

Set in the year 2293, which'll be here before you know it, Zardoz posits a "stately yet cranky vision of a future society dominated by immortal, hyperintelligent women - soulless, heartless, sexless." And this was before Hillary Clinton appeared on the scene to shrink all those chipmunk testicles out there! "The men are immortal, too, but, being impotent, they are passive and effete."
Ah, that's it! This movie just scared them! So that's why they formed the Project for the New American Century a few years later! Hollywood does have an influence on politics after all.

Of course there are other views of manliness. While Mansfield was speaking to the conservative think-tank in DC, in Cleveland they were inducting Miles Davis into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame, and explains here, there is another model.

After a long discussion of the music, and the classic My Funny Valentine recording, he notes this -
Davis became a matinee idol in the mid-1950s when dark-skinned men were beginning to break through the barriers that kept them from being seen in romantic roles or thought of as superb interpreters of love songs. Davis shared this moment with Sidney Poitier and Nat Cole, but his persona included something that neither of theirs did. Following Charlie Parker, in whose band he did some of his earliest work, Davis was moody. He gave the impression that he was not even interested in being known, especially by white folks. The trumpeter was not given to any aspect of the minstrel tradition that has dogged the Negro artist for over a hundred years and has most recently restated itself in the jigaboo antics of rap videos.

It was not that Davis did not smile as much as the fact that Davis, like Parker, did not consider smiling part of his job. The glowering black trumpeter was there, in those little murky clubs from one end of the country to the other, leading a band and making beautiful music in circumstances that were about as opposed to artistic statement as one could imagine. Drinks were sold, people talked, drugs were pushed, prostitutes circulated, and the cash registers rang. At their worst, those circumstances could be as wild as any in the Old West, which is why some of the joints were referred to as "buckets of blood."

Miles Davis, however, tamed those savage surroundings and made it clear that if he didn't feel respected or comfortable he would leave and the paying customers could have it out with the club owners. But if he stayed and felt like playing, his music did not hold back on the lyric quality. That element gave a charismatic frailness to his ballad interpretations. It was a sound that rarely arrived full-blown in American popular art, though it was strongly alluded to by actors such as Leslie Howard, who was often cast as a dreamer just a bit too soft for the world. There was an atmosphere of inevitable doom surrounding such characters, most of whom might be called "gallant fools." Through such types a basic idea was sustained in popular art: Romance was itself a form of heroic engagement and falling in love with an idea, a cause, or a person was an act of bravery.

By bringing that to his music, Miles Davis remade the expectations of the audience. As we hear throughout My Funny Valentine, the trumpeter taught his listeners that a whisper could be as powerful as a shout. A gallant fool, yes, but free of the maudlin Jell-O that usually came with the white American idea of the poetic soul. Davis was just as free, it seemed, of the pool-hall and street-corner braggadocio of the Negro hustling world. Little, dark, touchy, even evil, Miles Davis walked onto his bandstand and made public visions of tenderness that were, finally, absolute rejections of everything silly about the version of masculinity that might hobble men in either the white or the black world.
That same rejection of "everything silly about the version of masculinity that might hobble men" could be useful now. It's messed up the country and the world no end. But Mansfield is the cultural hero now.

So listen to Miles Davis.

Miles Davis, 1957

Posted by Alan at 22:23 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 15 March 2006 22:38 PST home

Tuesday, 14 March 2006
Religion: Tales of the eBay Atheist
Topic: God and US

Religion: Tales of the eBay Atheist

Slavoj Zizek is the international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities and the author, most recently, of The Parallax View (MIT Press) - "The Parallax View not only expands Zizek's Lacanian-Hegelian approach to new domains (notably cognitive brain sciences) but also provides the systematic exposition of the conceptual framework that underlies his entire work."

Indeed. Something to read with a stiff scotch in the evenings.

Now the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, an offshoot of the University of London, located in Bloomsbury, was formed in response to a simple question - "What have intellectuals ever done for the world?" The question angered them. So they do research and write and hold seminars and all that sort of thing. And they explain things.

In the Tuesday, March 14 edition of the International Herald Tribune (Paris) Slavoj Zizek argues something quite unpopular - Atheism Is A Legacy Worth Fighting For.

Oh my. He jumps right into it.

The item had appeared in the parent publication of the International Herald Tribune, the New York Times, two days earlier here, but the Times requires registration so the Paris link is best if you want to see what he says in detail.

In short he argues that the there is a tradition of atheism in Europe (really) and those who work from that grand tradition are those who should be running things. The believers have messed things up. Step aside -
For centuries, we have been told that without religion we are no more than egotistic animals fighting for our share, our only morality that of a pack of wolves; only religion, it is said, can elevate us to a higher spiritual level. Today, when religion is emerging as the wellspring of murderous violence around the world, assurances that Christian or Muslim or Hindu fundamentalists are only abusing and perverting the noble spiritual messages of their creeds ring increasingly hollow. What about restoring the dignity of atheism, one of Europe's greatest legacies and perhaps our only chance for peace?
What about that? A good idea?

Zizek covers the basic Dostoyevsky thing - if God doesn't exist, then everything is permitted and we're in a world of hurt. We need God to keep us from being so awful. He even mentions André Glucksmann's "Dostoyevsky in Manhattan" where that French philosopher argues the same thing - nihilism is the problem and what happened in New York on that September morning in 2001 was the result of us living in this world where people pay lip service to God (for many "lip service" is what you attend on Sundays) but all values have been drained away. Everything is permissible - no one is serious about God and so on.

Zizek says that whole idea is just wrong, in fact, it couldn't be more wrong -
The lesson of today's terrorism is that if God exists, then everything, including blowing up thousands of innocent bystanders, is permitted - at least to those who claim to act directly on behalf of God, since, clearly, a direct link to God justifies the violation of any merely human constraints and considerations. In short, fundamentalists have become no different than the "godless" Stalinist Communists, to whom everything was permitted, since they perceived themselves as direct instruments of their divinity, the Historical Necessity of Progress Toward Communism.
Ah! The logic here is that fundamentalists do what they identify as "good deeds" in order to fulfill God's will and to earn salvation. In contrast atheists do good deeds "simply because it is the right thing to do."

Zizek argues this is "our most elementary experience of morality." Specifically - "When I do a good deed, I do so not with an eye toward gaining God's favor; I do it because if I did not, I could not look at myself in the mirror." You know. You don't need God. And he cites David Hume - the only way to show true respect for God is to act morally while ignoring God's existence.

It seems he talking about "taking personal responsibility" in an entirely different way than the Republican evangelical right does, and far differently than the American "economic conservatives" talk about it when they argue for eliminating most if not all social programs to force the disabled, unlucky, poor and uneducated to force them to "take personal responsibility."

Much of what he writes is, however, about matters in Europe - that business a few years ago about whether the preamble of the European Constitution should mention Christianity. It does, but it's only a reference to the "religious inheritance" of Europe, and what makes modern Europe unique, Zizek notes, is that it is "the first and only civilization in which atheism is a fully legitimate option, not an obstacle to any public post."

Yes, no one in America could get elected dogcatcher if he or she were an atheist. That's just the way it is. Only the godly need apply, or at least those who say they are.

Of course the irony Zizek plays with is that in Europe, where what you believe is your own business and not a matter of public record and thus not a qualifier or disqualifier for any office, this "creates a safe public space for believers." Build a cathedral, build a mosque. Your business. Just observe the rest of the laws and pay your taxes. The government has too much else to deal with. It's busy with the other stuff - monetary policy, roads and schools, pubic safety, national defense and all the rest. The leader may be a devout Mormon, or openly gay as are the mayors of Berlin and Paris. What does it matter? They have their public work, and they do it well or they don't. What they do off-hours is no one's business.

And this plays out, oddly, in the recent Cartoon Wars with the outraged Muslim crowd -
... The only political force that does not reduce them to second-class citizens and allows them the space to express their religious identity are the "godless" atheist liberals, while those closest to their religious social practice, their Christian mirror-image, are their greatest political enemies.

The paradox is that Muslims' only real allies are not those who first published the caricatures for shock value, but those who, in support of the ideal of freedom of expression, reprinted them.

While a true atheist has no need to bolster his own stance by provoking believers with blasphemy, he also refuses to reduce the problem of the Muhammad caricatures to one of respect for other's beliefs. Respect for other's beliefs as the highest value can mean only one of two things: Either we treat the other in a patronizing way and avoid hurting him in order not to ruin his illusions, or we adopt the relativist stance of multiple "regimes of truth," disqualifying as violent imposition any clear insistence on truth.

What about submitting Islam - together with all other religions - to a respectful, but for that reason no less ruthless, critical analysis? This, and only this, is the way to show a true respect for Muslims: to treat them as adults responsible for their beliefs.
Now, there's something to think about. Or this week you could go to Naples -
Naples, March 13 - Despite its fair share of social problems, Naples is one city with no shortage of good spirit thanks to the distinctive brio and humour of the local people .

This makes it the ideal venue for a four-day festival devoted to the serious study of 'L'arte della felicita' - the art of happiness. Philosophers, psychologists, doctors, authors and health, lifestyle and religious gurus from all over the world are coming to Naples between March 23 and 26 to discuss human contentment .

Thousands of Neapolitans flocked to the debut edition of the festival last year .

Organizers are expecting to have an even bigger hit on their hands this time .

Debates, lectures, workshops, film screenings, open-air meditation sessions and theatre performances are among the events in a packed programme .

The 2006 festival focuses on the subject of dealing with grief .

It will be kicked off with a lecture on "cynical aesthetics" by renowned French philosopher Michel Onfray, whose writings celebrate hedonism, reason and atheism.
Hedonism, reason and atheism in Naples? Sounds like fun.

That's almost as much fun as what ran in the Wall Street Journal on March 9th - Atheist Gives Churches A Chance To Win Him Over.

Here Suzanne Sataline reviews the details of the DePaul University graduate student, Hemant Mehta, an atheist, who offered his soul for sale on eBay. It went for five hundred and four dollars, which seem to be the going rate. Well, he wasn't really selling his soul. He just promised the winner that for each ten dollars of the final bid he would attend one hour of church services. He said he suspected he had been missing out on something. His pitch? "Perhaps being around a group of people who will show me 'the way' could do what no one else has done before - this is possibly the best chance anyone has of changing me."

We're told lots of evangelists bid, to "save him." Atheists bid to keep him on their side. The winning bid came from Jim Henderson, a former evangelical minister from Seattle, who had a third motive -
The 58-year-old Mr. Henderson has written a book for a Random House imprint and is currently a house painter. He runs off-the-map.org, a Web site whose professed mission is "Helping Christians be normal." Mr. Henderson is part of a small but growing branch of the evangelical world that disagrees with the majority's conservative political agenda, and wants the religion to be more inclusive and help the disadvantaged.
Yep, he's one of those "out of the mainstream" types who doesn't understand Christianity has changed and become militant and vengeful, and he flew to Chicago, met the grad student in a bar, and told him what deal was going to be. Yeah, it was supposed to be fifty hours of church, and the church the winner named. Henderson said he'd rather this atheist went to services at an array of churches and write about what he saw and heard for Henderson's website. The five hundred dollars? This grad student heads something called the Secular Student Alliance, with fifty-five chapters around the world. The Secular Student Alliance could have the money if this atheist would do basic reporting for the website - "I'm not trying to convert you. You're going there almost like a critic. If you happen to get converted, that's off the clock."

Cool, and Hemant Mehta was told to score the priest or minister - from one, boring, to ten, "off the charts." The first Catholic priest got a three.

There's a ton of detail at the link, like this -
Mr. Mehta has also been reading and critiquing church bulletins. In one, Park Community asked the congregation to pray, in advance of a coming meeting on the construction of a church building "that God would ... open the doors to the right parking solution, allowing us to build a worship space for 1,200 people, rather than the 850 currently permitted."

"Really?" Mr. Mehta observed on the Web site. "That's what you're praying for? Do they think a god will change parking restrictions? Will a god change the price of nearby property? Will a god add another level to a parking structure?"
Well, He (or She) might - you never know. And if you want to read the commentary it's at the off-the-wall site in its own section, The eBay Atheist.

Well, that's mildly interesting, but this is not Zizek's Europe, where what you believe is your own business and not a matter of public record and thus not a qualifier or disqualifier for any office.

Belief here has a political and public dimension, and it being discussed in terms of the 2006 mid-term elections and the 2008 presidential election. The question for "the opposition" is much like what was asked in the last go-round. Should any Democrat running for office go all religious to strip votes away from the Republican who will, no doubt, claim to be a godly soul who was born again (something didn't take the first time?) and accepts the avenging Jesus who hates the poor in his heart. Maybe you can grab a few votes by being pious and angry.

But the left often makes fun of such God nonsense. They heap scorn on the "God is with me" evangelical Republicans. Some say that's not fair, or not right, or a bad strategy.

One of the most influential commentators on "the left" (whatever that is), says this -
I wonder who all the religious candidates we've unfairly scorned in the past would be? Jimmy Carter? Bill Clinton? (and no, having affairs does not mean you are not religious, just a sinner.) Al Gore? John Kerry? They all go to church and profess to be believers. Are they just not religious enough? ...

I recall scorning both Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon and neither one of them were particularly religious. Bobby Kennedy was a youthful hero and he was as Catholic as they come. In fact, I'm having a hard time coming up with any consistent views on either side toward religious politicians at all. It would seem to me that this entire argument is nothing but a political football used to shut down criticism and advance a particular agenda without having to debate the issues on their own merits.

... Every secular "knee jerk liberal" has voted for religious candidates their whole lives. Indeed, it is impossible not to. You cannot get elected in this country if you do not profess religious belief. We have enthusiastically backed candidates who are from every religious tradition and from every region. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were both born again, southern evangelicals. We do not scorn religious candidates, period.

Many of us knee-jerk leftists are hostile to those who want to use the state to dictate the proper social attitudes of its citizens and interfere in their most personal, private decisions, that's true. I would scorn Pat Robertson and Sam Brownback's ideas no less if they were secular. It's the lack of respect for the division of influence between the private and public sphere's that is causing the problem.

And as for hostility, let's not forget that it was back in 1988 that a future president of the United States said this -

President George H. W. Bush: I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.

Who scorns who again?

Perhaps some of these religious politicians could speak to the flock about giving some respect to the non-faithful. It's the Christian thing to do.
Give respect to the non-faithful? That's not going to happen. This is not Europe.

Duncan Black adds this (emphases added) -
I'm not hostile to religion. I don't much care about religion. I'm not much interested in it. This isn't strange. Most people aren't much interested in religion other than their own, if that.

I'm not sick of religious people. I think it's great that they're free to believe and practice their religion in any way they want. I'd like to keep it that way.

I am sick of people who keep claiming that the Democratic Party is hostile to religious people and controlled by secular liberals who are hostile to religion. If by "Democratic Party" you mean "some people who post anonymous comments on the internet" you may have a point. Otherwise, the idea is ludicrous.

Do the Democrats have a perception problem about religion? Sure. We have a political party which has been claiming to be God's Own Party for decades. We have a mainstream media which equates Christian with Religious Right most of the time, and news anchors who don't think liberals can be 'good Catholics.' We also have some left-leaning Christians who seem to think this perception problem is due to hostility to religion by secular liberals who have no public presence. I don't understand this. People who perpetuate right wing talking points about Democrats always piss me off especially when they have no basis.

Secularism has essentially no representation in our media or politics. I'm sure there are secular politicians and media types, but few discuss it. No one gets on TV or writes newspaper columns or in any way participates in our contemporary mainstream political discourse and praises secularism or atheism or anything similar, and certainly not in a way which denigrates religious beliefs generally. Advocates for the separation of church and state are not advocating secularism, aside from government secularism, they're simply trying to defend freedom of religion.

Can Democrats appeal to evangelical voters by doing X? Sure, and they can appeal to [insert voting bloc here] by doing Y. The question is can they do so without alienating lots of other people or compromising their principles. Maybe they can. I have no idea. But that's politics. I'm happy to hear about ways to reach out to religious voters, though not being a politician it isn't actually my job to do so. If people vote Republican because they perceive some guy on the internet with no actual official relation to the Democratic party in any way is insufficiently deferential to their religious beliefs then I'm really not sure what I can do about that. I don't really require people to be deferential to my beliefs.

Moderate/swing/independent voters respond to personal charisma and the perception that somebody "knows what they stand for." You know, spine, backbone, etc. I'm sure some genuinely religious politicians can use their faith to help send this message. There are lots of other politicians who can find other ways to do so.

From a policy perspective I'm personally not really interested in compromising on sex or reproductive rights in order to get votes. As with every other issue of course messaging can be improved, though I'd rather focus on getting the "pro-choice for me but not for thee" crowd to understand that they are, in fact, pro-choice whether they know it or not rather than talking about how icky abortion is. I don't know why the public face of religion in this country is concerned with almost nothing but sex, but I'm not really sure those people can be reached.

As with Democrats who constantly fret that they aren't seen as "tough" enough, people who fret that Democrats are not "religious" enough simply reinforce the perception without improving it.
Man, it is hard to deal with what some of us think is a private matter, but we do live in the last great western theocracy.

Atheism may or may not be a legacy worth fighting for, but the question is why anyone cares what this or that politician believes. Is the person in office getting things done that need done? Whether he or she believes in The Flying Spaghetti Monster, Jesus, The Great Pumpkin, or The Holy Manhole Cover - as interesting as that might be it matters little.

But then, here it matters. This is not Slavoj Zizek's Europe. This is America, the mirror of the caliphate the other side says is coming.

Those of us without deep faith, on either side, should pour a scotch and read all about this Lacanian-Hegelian approach to new domains (notably cognitive brain sciences). We don't matter.

Posted by Alan at 22:05 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 14 March 2006 22:08 PST home

Monday, 13 March 2006
Starting the week with alarms and chaos...
Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist

Starting the week with alarms and chaos...

Monday, March 13th, two days before "Brutus Day" (the Ides of March, the day when bad thing happen to political leaders), we got the alarm from the president. Well, actually, David Sanger in the New York Times surveyed what the president had been saying in defense of the now moribund (as in dead) Dubai ports deal, and also in reaction to all the polling showing, consistently, that the majority here wonder what we're doing there - wondering just why are we in a war that more and more looks like a civil war where we may have to take sides in what is not our business, in a country in ruins we just cannot reassemble (and the locals aren't helping, what with their more pressing issues over who finally gets to be on top), and where, best case, we'll end up with a fundamentalist theocracy, with ties to Iran, that might or might not be willing to side with us on this or that issue in the future. Somehow that's bit discouraging.

The Alarm? A Bush Alarm: Urging U.S. to Shun Isolationism

Ah, as Sanger opens - "The president who made pre-emption and going it alone the watchwords of his first term is quietly turning in a new direction, warning at every opportunity of the dangers of turning the nation inward and isolationist..."

Quietly? Define that. The idea is we really shouldn't shun deals with foreign governments, especially with the United Arab Emirates (we should reach out co-opt them into helping us even more with thing like the port deal), and we should believe that it really is our business to rip out a pesky government, especially one that had be run by the murderous and destabilizing Saddam Hussein, and get those folks way, way over there to start up the first Jeffersonian free-market flat-tax deregulated democracy in the neighborhood. We should be involved in the world, and engaged. We can't always act alone. That would be wrong. Not prudent. Thus the alarm.

Sanger probably uses the word "quietly" because he is compiling things - there was no one central presidential speech launching a "campaign on isolationism." In the last two weeks or more there seems to have been a major shift in the way the president is talking about the world, and in how the administration chooses now to deal with the world. Sanger is reporting that. Nothing was actually announced. But the shift is blatantly obvious and should be noted.

There's something odd going on here, and it doesn't take rocket scientist to wonder what's up. Matthew Yglesias does the basics for us here, saying that what the president sees as an unfortunate isolationist reaction in Americans these days looks more like unfortunate opposition to the administration's policies -
It's worth saying as clearly as possible that this is entirely bogus. Before George W. Bush took office, zero American presidents launched wars against countries that posed no threat to the United States for the purposes of transforming an entrenched dictatorship into a democracy. After Bush took office, he continued in the noble American tradition of not doing that. Several years into his term, he invaded Iraq because, or so he said, its government was close to building a nuclear bomb that it was likely to give to al-Qaeda. Several months after the invasion, it became clear to everyone that this was false and he started pretending to have done it in order to turn Iraq into a democracy. Today, with Iraq in shambles, people are correctly perceiving that the reason no president has ever tried to do something like that is that it's a fundamentally unsound, unworkable idea.

His effort to paint himself as a free trade martyr is, if anything, more pathetic. The White House has embraced protectionism whenever - as in the case of the steel tariffs, the softwood lumbers tariffs, and the explosion of farm subsidies - the balance of K Street money favors protectionism. The farm bill he signed into law doomed the Doha Round of WTO talks...
And Yglesias goes on about CAFTA and so on, but you get the idea.

And it does seem like name-calling. Suggest that something is a stunningly bad idea and should be reconsidered and you're an "isolationist." As name-calling goes that's pretty good. You get lumped in with the "buy American" folks who want to destroy Toyota and Sony, or with those way back with those who thought we shouldn't have fought in Europe against Hitler (and were glad when FDR said we never would, even as he was working us into the battle).

The problem is that, like all name-calling, it's beside the point. The opposition has, for the last five years, since that historic September, urged that we should engage the world and work out how everyone could join in dealing with "the problem." But no. We'd have none of that - join us in what we've planned and don't ask question, or you're one of "them." Here, suggest security concerns that should be worked out and poof - you're an "isolationist," case closed and you're wrong.

It's the usual. The pattern is clear. Let's talk, as something here seems to need more consideration. No, no point in talking as it's clear that you're just an [insert name here].

You might point out that you were the ones saying we needed to work with the world and the administration was saying that was dangerous and things had to be done unilaterally, without considering the views of wimps, fools, the corrupt and the French. You might, but why bother? You'd just get called another name. Of course, in the fifties you'd be called a communist. The label stops the conversation, as how can you consider the views of someone who's a [insert name here]?

So much for political discourse. But then lots of people use this method to shut down discussions. It probably explains more than a few divorces.

But there was - on the day when folks were discussing "isolationism" (gee, I never knew I was an isolationist but I guess I'll have to rethink things and agree with the administration more now) - the first of the current flurry of presidential speeches on Iraq.

These seem to be semiannual affairs. About twice a year the frustration builds up. This week the war will be four years old, and this milestone is over twenty-three hundred our troops dead, the chaos in the streets of the major Iraqi cities, the low poll numbers. People wonder what we're doing and why, and what we'll get for it in the end.

It's time again. Run out the usual - it may look bad but it's not, we really do have a plan, there was nothing at all wrong with the idea, and if you'll be patient we'll "achieve total victory" (to be defined later), and the media is unfair in reporting all the bad news. Look! Schools repainted!

CNN reported on the first speech in the current series here, the president acknowledging things really aren't going well at the moment. This was the big news, the hook. But of course the president said it was going well, as it's all in how you look at things. Yeah, that Shiite mosque was blown up and there were two weeks of death and destruction and revenge and counter-revenge, worse than any chaos before, but then, Iraq is "turning away from abyss" - they saw the worst so now they know that's not the way to go. The new parliament will finally meet soon - late, but they will meet. It'll all work out.

How does he know? Is there a plan if it doesn't? None needed. It'll work out. CNN - "Hoping to shore up support for the war, President Bush said Iraq was moving toward a democratic future."

We'll see. But don't doubt it. You'll be called a name. And no one will listen to you because you're nothing but a [insert name here].

CBS here reported other aspects of the speech, "Bush Urges Patience on Iraq" and so forth. Of course he did. But CBS led with the message in the speech for Iraqis - "President Bush called on Iraqis Monday to embrace compromise as they negotiate a new unity government.." Yep, they're messing up the whole thing. All democracies work on compromise - you talk and work things our so everyone get something, or understand why what they want must be put off. What's wrong with these people?

As mentioned in these pages long ago (here), the irony is when you think about Henry Clay (1777-1852), the Great Compromiser, this is no longer our model for how governance works best. This president never compromises. That's weak, and it "sends the wrong message." The world needs to see our resolve and all that. The warring sides in Iraq this month know that. "Yeah, George - whatever."

In the two days before the first speech in the series somewhere around seventy died in Sadr City with the car bombs and mortar round and all. The rest of the country was no better. And Knight-Ridder reported here Iraqi officials confirming death squads have been operating from inside the Iraqi government. The soldiers and their commanders have been taking out selected Sunnis and their families. And the day of the first speech in the current series there was this - "Shiite vigilantes seized four men suspected of terrorist attacks, interrogated them, beat them, executed them and left their bodies hanging from lampposts in a Shiite slum today, according to witnesses and government officials."

There's no whiff of compromise in the air there.

And there's no whiff of compromise in the air in Washington.

That's not how things work anymore. Why are we asking the Iraqis to be different from us?

Interestingly a good take on the whole business comes from Bronwen Maddox in the Times of London (UK) here - speech last night was an attempt by the president to show that "he gets it." He really does understand why Americans blame him for the mess in Iraq. That can't hurt as he seems finally to be "acknowledging what the rest of the US is seeing nightly on the television."

As for the rest, the need to "not lose our nerve" and our "comprehensive strategy for victory" (don't ask) seems to Maddox to be piffle, although he doesn't use that word, even if he is writing from London.

And as for the good news -
The first was that the US would pour platoons of experts into combating the threat of roadside bombs, which have killed many US soldiers, and which he called "the No 1 threat to Iraq's future". Perhaps they are, but we are spoilt for choice.

Tackling these bombs may be a useful thing for US forces to do. But the impression is that they do not know where to start. Since the bombing of the Shia al-Askariya shrine in Samarra, militias have been springing out of the shadows and bombs exploding in areas that used to be quiet.

Nor is Bush's second claim credible: that the weeks since the Samarra bombing could have been worse. He argued that many had predicted that the bombing of the shrine would plunge Iraq into civil war. But "most Iraqis haven't turned to violence", he said, adding his voice to the futile wrangle about whether the killings now qualify as "civil war".

Even if you concede the hypothetical point that the bloodshed could have been worse, it is clear that these weeks have changed the war. Before, the US was fighting Sunni militants. Now, Sunnis and Shias are fighting each other, with the US watching impotently.

So his third main claim also looked vulnerable: that the Iraqi security forces, under US guidance, were becoming more representative of Iraqi people. The greater fear, as coalition officials acknowledge, is that the US has equipped the Shias in what may become a civil war.
Other than that things are fine.

An aside - the president didn't say much on the technical points of the advanced research into ways to deal with these bombs. He said he couldn't. That would be tactical knowledge the bad guys could use, immediately. They'd counter somehow, immediately. Some of us do know the details and the specific contractors involved. But as much as we are beyond irritated with this whole business, none of that will appear here. He's right. We've got some good stuff in the pipeline, and people should know we're working on the puzzle - but that's it. The comments here are on policy and geopolitics and political theory. That's all fair game - in a democracy you can question decisions and suggest alternatives. That's the whole point in having one. Involvement, participation, makes things better for everyone. The country is a joint effort, or has been, in concept, so far. But some things are not said, for good reason.

In any event, Maddox is curious that the Democrats seem adrift these days - the low polling numbers and chaos in Iraq should be a gift to them -
But they are afflicted with the same problem as the Tories: how to criticise [sic] the conduct of the War on Terror that they initially supported.

The attempt by Russ Feingold, a Democrat senator from Wisconsin, to win a congressional censure of Bush brings a nasty twist. He wants a resolution to censure Bush for what he thinks has been unlawful wiretapping after September 11, 2001. The White House, noting that Feingold may contest the presidency in 2008, has dismissed this as political. More awkward for Democrats, it has challenged them to say that it "shouldn't be listening to al-Qaeda communications", even though "we are a nation at war".
Yep, Feingold late in the day the "patience" speech was given did introduce the censure resolution. Earlier in the day at a speech in Wisconsin, Vice President Cheney wasn't pleased - without the permission of George Clooney, he channeled the ghost of Edward R. Murrow, who himself threw the words of a witness at the McCarthy hearings back at Joe McCarthy - "Have you no shame, sir?" The irony was delicious.

For those interested, over at the "Crooks and Liars" site you can see a streaming video of Feingold introducing the resolution here - the president authorized an illegal domestic wiretapping program and then misled Congress and the public about its existence and legality, and the resolution is a responsible step for Congress to take in response to the President's undermining of the separation of powers and ignoring the rule of law.

Senator Specter says the law in question was unconstitutional. You can't pass laws the interfere with the president or something. Senator Frist says whatever - warrantless spying on American citizens is constitutional and legal anyway, law or no law. Senator Durbin asks Specter if that's so. Specter says, "I don't know - I don't have any basis for knowing because I don't know what the program does."

This is a Tom Stoppard play. Or a Feydeau farce. Or maybe it's a Monty Python skit. No, it's the Senate.

Feingold tossed in something deadly serious. These guys couldn't handle it. Good theater, but a bad day for the country.

It doesn't matter. There will be no censure. The president's party controls the senate. Were they to let this come to a vote they have the votes to smash it, and the Associated Press here reviews all the Democratic senators who'd never vote for censure - you don't want to appear too radical or too angry or too unwilling to work things out.

What? That would be too much like the guys on the other side of the aisle?

Let's see here. You get criticized for having no plans, no principles, and for those wimpy ideas about being reasonable when the swarthy masses with the odd religion are out to kills us all, and here you decide the right thing is to take no position and to try to appear sweetly reasonable one more time. Because you think you get points for that? Yeah, right. Congress will not change hands.

But what a chance. Note that a few hours after the boilerplate "patience" speech the new USA Today, CNN, Gallup polling hit the wire, with this - the president's approval rating hits a new low, thirty-six percent of those polled say they "approve" of the way Bush is handling his job. A record low. Sixty percent disapprove - matching an all-time worst rating hit last November and again two weeks ago. Fifty-seven percent say sending our troops to Iraq was a mistake - up two points in two weeks, down two points from last October.

Other details - two years ago the number of those polled who said they were certain we'd "win" in Iraq was about eighty percent, and now it's twenty-two percent. Maybe a clear definition of how we'll know when we've won would help. Only one percent two years ago thought it was unlikely or certain we'd win. That's at forty-one percent now. Ambiguity.

Ambiguity is opportunity for those who'd like a change in direction. Or not.

Oh well, these guys are running things well enough, except for what the war we chose has turned into, and the business with FEMA and Hurricane Katrina, and breaking a few laws (or coming up with a whole new view of the constitution about the laws), except for the torture and secret prisons and "disappearing" people, and throwing away respect and influence around the world, and this and that, here and there.

Next up? Avian flu. Via John Aravosis here we learn that the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Michael Leavitt, at a meeting on such in Wyoming said, March 10th, if or when the big epidemic comes people should not expect the federal government to help. That's not the job of the federal government. You're on your own -
When you go to the store and buy three cans of tuna fish, buy a fourth and put it under the bed . When you go to the store to buy some milk, pick up a box of powdered milk, put it under the bed. When you do that for a period of four to six months, you are going to have a couple of weeks of food. And that's what we're talking about.
Make of that what you will. Who would want the government doing things? Personal responsibility, that's the ticket.

Here's an idea. We all hate big government. Let's get together on our own, work together, pool resources, everyone gets a say, and grow our own food, start our on schools, build roads, some sort of power grid, everyone chips in for the common stuff, and we have... a democratic government collecting taxes for some things a few don't agree with, getting bigger all the time. Oops.

Let's work with the one we have. And no name-calling.

Posted by Alan at 21:56 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 14 March 2006 06:17 PST home

Starting the week with alarms and chaos...
Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist

Starting the week with alarms and chaos...

Monday, March 13th, two days before "Brutus Day" (the Ides of March, the day when bad thing happen to political leaders), we got the alarm from the president. Well, actually, David Sanger in the New York Times surveyed what the president had been saying in defense of the now moribund (as in dead) Dubai ports deal, and also in reaction to all the polling showing, consistently, that the majority here wonder what we're doing there - wondering just why are we in a war that more and more looks like a civil war where we may have to take sides in what is not our business, in a country in ruins we just cannot reassemble (and the locals aren't helping, what with their more pressing issues over who finally gets to be on top), and where, best case, we'll end up with a fundamentalist theocracy, with ties to Iran, that might or might not be willing to side with us on this or that issue in the future. Somehow that's bit discouraging.

The Alarm? A Bush Alarm: Urging U.S. to Shun Isolationism

Ah, as Sanger opens - "The president who made pre-emption and going it alone the watchwords of his first term is quietly turning in a new direction, warning at every opportunity of the dangers of turning the nation inward and isolationist..."

Quietly? Define that. The idea is we really shouldn't shun deals with foreign governments, especially with the United Arab Emirates (we should reach out co-opt them into helping us even more with thing like the port deal), and we should believe that it really is our business to rip out a pesky government, especially one that had be run by the murderous and destabilizing Saddam Hussein, and get those folks way, way over there to start up the first Jeffersonian free-market flat-tax deregulated democracy in the neighborhood. We should be involved in the world, and engaged. We can't always act alone. That would be wrong. Not prudent. Thus the alarm.

Sanger probably uses the word "quietly" because he is compiling things - there was no one central presidential speech launching a "campaign on isolationism." In the last two weeks or more there seems to have been a major shift in the way the president is talking about the world, and in how the administration chooses now to deal with the world. Sanger is reporting that. Nothing was actually announced. But the shift is blatantly obvious and should be noted.

There's something odd going on here, and it doesn't take rocket scientist to wonder what's up. Matthew Yglesias does the basics for us here, saying that what the president sees as an unfortunate isolationist reaction in Americans these days looks more like unfortunate opposition to the administration's policies -
It's worth saying as clearly as possible that this is entirely bogus. Before George W. Bush took office, zero American presidents launched wars against countries that posed no threat to the United States for the purposes of transforming an entrenched dictatorship into a democracy. After Bush took office, he continued in the noble American tradition of not doing that. Several years into his term, he invaded Iraq because, or so he said, its government was close to building a nuclear bomb that it was likely to give to al-Qaeda. Several months after the invasion, it became clear to everyone that this was false and he started pretending to have done it in order to turn Iraq into a democracy. Today, with Iraq in shambles, people are correctly perceiving that the reason no president has ever tried to do something like that is that it's a fundamentally unsound, unworkable idea.

His effort to paint himself as a free trade martyr is, if anything, more pathetic. The White House has embraced protectionism whenever - as in the case of the steel tariffs, the softwood lumbers tariffs, and the explosion of farm subsidies - the balance of K Street money favors protectionism. The farm bill he signed into law doomed the Doha Round of WTO talks...
And Yglesias goes on about CAFTA and so on, but you get the idea.

And it does seem like name-calling. Suggest that something is a stunningly bad idea and should be reconsidered and you're an "isolationist." As name-calling goes that's pretty good. You get lumped in with the "buy American" folks who want to destroy Toyota and Sony, or with those way back with those who thought we shouldn't have fought in Europe against Hitler (and were glad when FDR said we never would, even as he was working us into the battle).

The problem is that, like all name-calling, it's beside the point. The opposition has, for the last five years, since that historic September, urged that we should engage the world and work out how everyone could join in dealing with "the problem." But no. We'd have none of that - join us in what we've planned and don't ask question, or you're one of "them." Here, suggest security concerns that should be worked out and poof - you're an "isolationist," case closed and you're wrong.

It's the usual. The pattern is clear. Let's talk, as something here seems to need more consideration. No, no point in talking as it's clear that you're just an [insert name here].

You might point out that you were the ones saying we needed to work with the world and the administration was saying that was dangerous and things had to be done unilaterally, without considering the views of wimps, fools, the corrupt and the French. You might, but why bother? You'd just get called another name. Of course, in the fifties you'd be called a communist. The label stops the conversation, as how can you consider the views of someone who's a [insert name here]?

So much for political discourse. But then lots of people use this method to shut down discussions. It probably explains more than a few divorces.

Posted by Alan at 21:56 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
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