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"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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Tuesday, 13 December 2005

Topic: The Law

Jurisprudence and Prudence: Justice in the State Governed by Former Movie Stars

Capital punishment has been discussed before in these pages.

There was the extended discussion of Scott Turow's book Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer's Reflections on Dealing With the Death Penalty (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) way back in mid-October of 2003, and, in late December of that year, The Culture of Death: Who We Should Kill and Why, a discussion of whether Saddam Hussein deserves the death penalty.

Posted on March 7, 2004 was the item Getting Even, a discussion of and commentary on Jeffrie G. Murphy's book, Getting Even: Forgiveness and Its Limits (Oxford University Press).

That item pointed back to an item the previous year by Antonin Scalia, one of the nine on the Supreme Court, an essay titled God's Justice and Ours. Antonin Scalia was sort of saying this - since the death penalty was "clearly permitted when the Eighth Amendment [which prohibits 'cruel and unusual punishments'] was adopted," and at that time the death penalty was applied for all felonies -including, for example, the felony of horse-thieving, "so it is clearly permitted today." Justice Scalia it seems has no doubt that if the crime of horse stealing carried a death penalty today in the United States - he would find that law constitutional. Well, that really is his logic. So if we study history, we could extend the death penalty to those people who practice witchcraft, adultery, homosexuality and, say, heresy? All we need to do is find those particular death penalty laws existing as of November 3, 1791, and re-instate them. Scalia derives his ideas also, it seems, from Romans 13 - government authority is derived from God and not from the people; he asserts his view was the consensus of Western thought until recent times - "a democratic government, being nothing more than the composite will of its individual citizens, has no more moral power or authority than they do as individuals." Democracy, according to Scalia, creates problems, "It fosters civil disobedience." So screw it. Well, he's an odd duck.

Other discussions?

There was The Company We Keep (July 25, 2004), a discussion of which countries, like us, employ the death penalty. And A Minor Matter (March 6, 2005), opinion on the then recent Supreme Court decision that we really ought not execute minors.

Then there was An Idea Whose Time Has Come (March 20, 2005), a discussion of the idea proposed by a professor of constitutional law at UCLA that not only should we have a death penalty, we should have extended public executions involving torture and pain, and the family of the victim should be the ones inflicting that pain and death - but he doesn't think we will go for amending the constitution to allow that. And then he changes his mind. Maybe the whole idea wasn't that good an idea. In fact, in An Oklahoman Turns European (April 24, 2005) we see the father of one of the victims of the famous Oklahoma City bombing of the Federal Building there is a vocal opponent of the death penalty - Timmy didn't have to die, as he reasons it out.

So it's not as if this issue hasn't come up before.

Anyway, the nub of the matter, as Turow puts it in his book, is that, on the one hand, some crimes, like murder, are so extreme that they require the most extreme retribution. On the other hand, state-sanctioned killing reduces our society to its lowest common denominator, making all of us complicit in the taking of a life.

The basic question? "Should a democratic state ever be permitted to kill its citizens? If the people are the ultimate source of authority in a democracy, should the government be allowed to eliminate its citizens"

Who knows?

Those enthusiastic about the death penalty see it as "a statement of moral value" to be applied widely and often, to say who we are - to clearly show what we just won't tolerate. And there may be some merit in that. But some of us won't tolerate the concept that the state can decide to take anyone's life - as the decision is so often flawed, and even when it isn't flawed, shows something else about us all. We don't like what it shows.

And round and around it goes. But the position here has been consistent.

"It is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners." - Albert Camus (1913-1960)

But we just did it again, out here in California.

Tookie Williams Is Executed
The killer of four and Crips co-founder is given a lethal injection after Schwarzenegger denies clemency. He never admitted his guilt.
Jenifer Warren and Maura Dolan, Los Angeles Times, Tuesday, December 13, 2005, 2:18 AM PST

The bare bones -
Stanley Tookie Williams, whose self-described evolution from gang thug to antiviolence crusader won him an international following and nominations for a Nobel Peace Prize, was executed by lethal injection early today, hours after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger refused to spare his life.

His death was announced at 12:35 a.m.

During the execution, the inmate's friend Barbara Becnel and other supporters mouthed "God bless you" and "We love you" and blew kisses to Williams. Williams also seemed to mouth statements to Becnel.

The entire procedure took longer than usual. The execution team took about 12 minutes to find a vein in Williams' muscular left arm. While the personnel were probing, Williams repeatedly lifted his head off the gurney, winced visibly, and at one point appeared to say: "Still can't find it?"
So read Warren and Dolan if you want more detail of who said what.

And too, there's background like this -
Despite persistent pleas for mercy from around the globe, the governor earlier in the day had said Williams was unworthy of clemency because he had not admitted his brutal shotgun murders of four people during two robberies 26 years ago.

After the U.S. Supreme Court denied a request for a last-minute stay Monday evening, the co-founder of the infamous Crips street gang - who insisted he was innocent of the murders - became the 12th man executed by the state of California since voters reinstated capital punishment in 1978.
This was high drama out here. The racial implications were hanging heavy in the air - the dreaded black gangs had to be stopped, and for some whites, the lawless, hyper-masculine and testosterone-pumped virile (if not feral) sexually-threatening savage black man had to be put down, as you put down an animal. But that bubbled under the surface.

And would there be riots all over Los Angeles as we had when the police who beat the crap out of Rodney King were found guilty of nothing at all? No, this fellow was hardly a goofy innocent. Some screamed he was innocent. Not many were buying that line. He had not been a nice man. He was tried for murder, convicted and sentenced, in 1981, down in Torrance, a bedroom community of aerospace folks (Hughes, TRW, Northrop and all that) just south of the airport and, at the time, a white-bread place if there ever was one. But he would have been convicted in Compton or Watts. The angry in black community did not seem to want to burn down the city over the officially authorized execution of this particular guy. The Times quotes "African American activist" Eric Wattree - "We have to understand, this is our failure taking place here." The day was quiet.

As the Times points out, and as many can see, the theme here was really something else - what they call "society's dueling goals of redemption and retribution."

The argument came down to whether he should pay with his life for what he had done - or had all the writing, the series of books warning ghetto kids away from violence, the brokering of gang truces in Los Angeles and New Jersey, and all the rest, "redeemed him," and earned him life in prison without the possibility of parole, until he died of something other than the state's injections. Last year, after all, this guy's life had been made into a television movie - "Redemption," starring Jamie Foxx. Heck, Desmond Tutu and Snoop Dogg said the man's life should be spared. Joan Baez sang "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" outside the prison walls hours before the execution, for - excuse the pun - goodness sake. This was high drama out here.

Arnold Schwarzenegger knows drama, or at least melodrama, and, as reported, said he saw no need to rehash or second-guess the many court decisions already rendered in the case. His thumb shot down, just like in the movies. Of course he was on solid ground. Sunday before the execution the state Supreme Court heard the argument that the 1981 trial was "fundamentally unfair" because the prosecutors had failed to disclose that a key witness, Alfred Coward, was a violent ex-felon. They said it didn't matter. The Ninth Circuit agreed the next day, as did the US Supreme Court. Alfred Coward may have been a violent ex-felon, and that should have been revealed, but it would not have made a difference.

So Stanley Tookie Williams is gone.

And the lead editorial in the Los Angeles Times, on newsstands an hour or two after the execution, said, well, It's not about Tookie.

It isn't?

The argument here is that Schwarzenegger should have granted clemency to the guy before, one Donald Beardslee, a convicted murderer executed in January with no big fanfare of any kind. The Times thinks Schwarzenegger should have made it clear that "no one would be put to death on his watch" - as they contend "a civilized society doesn't kill for retribution and should certainly not continue doing so when it's become clear that the judicial system's margin of error is unacceptably high."

Short form: Exacting retribution is uncivilized, and doing it incompetently is even worse.

What they don't mention is every film Schwarzenegger ever made is about retribution - the bad guys get what's coming to them, and no matter how they plead and whimper, they die, spectacularly, and noisily, with music. And there may be collateral damage (the title of one of his recent films, oddly enough), but stuff happens. This is what he knows. This is what made him who he is. He never said he was a policy expert or knew much about governance - he sold himself to the voters as the outsider who wouldn't be encumbered by all that, and what we really needed. What did the Times expect?

The Times says Schwarzenegger turned Williams down "because he does not consider capital punishment to be about our values as a society, but about the merits of the convicted supplicant." The man didn't seem sincere enough? He didn't grovel enough for the Terminator to spare him? Like this is a movie?

The Times position, that that capital punishment is always wrong because it is incompatible with our values, isn't in the script. They say that those who opposed Williams' plea argue that he deserved his fate, "but the people of California don't deserve to play the role of executioner." But that is role we have the script, and Arnold is our man.

We see also there are now 647 folks on Death Row out here, and next up is Clarence Ray Allen, scheduled for 17 January. He's seventy-five, blind and confined to a wheelchair. Can the state keep him alive until the 17th? This should be interesting. Didn't see that one in any of the Schwarzenegger movies.

James Wolcott here voices what may of us in the tiny minority who oppose the death penalty feel at the moment -
I held out the fugitive hope that the moderate side of Schwarzenegger might prevail as his wife tugged him in the direction of leniency and mercy. What a fool I am. Whatever Maria Shriver said or didn't say was of no consequence, nor were the pleas for clemency from citizens, famous and obscure alike, who felt Williams had done enough good over the last twenty years to deserve having his life spared.

The death penalty must be abolished. No former movie action hero - or Yale cheerleader with enough psychological baggage to sink the African Queen - should be entrusted with the power of life and death over his fellow citizens. These are essentially frivolous, uninformed men playacting blue-suited roles of grave responsibility. And, no, I don't think Bill Clinton should have executed Ricky Ray Rector either. Capital punishment must be de-politicized, and as long as politicians make the final decision, depoliticization is impossible. So abolish it.
Well, that is the bottom line, isn't it? No politician should be entrusted with the power of life and death over his fellow citizens. Yeah, think about those who aspire to politics, with their mixture of idealism and raw hunger for power over others, with their soaring egos and odd insecurities, and with their almost pathological narcissism.

But Wolcott is angry with these fools who are politicians. These are the people who get to say who lives and dies?

But how about this? No government should be entrusted with the power of life and death over its fellow citizens. We, as citizens, are entitled to life - a basic premise. If we do horrible things we can be punished. Grant the government that. But set aside what is called the "ultimate punishment." The government has no right to kill its citizens, as governments are notoriously mistaken again and again, and change their calculation of legal and illegal, right and wrong, as they correct themselves over the long years - and they're artificial constructs of convenience. Don't give them the power to kill their citizens.

Funny, you'd think most conservatives on the right - the less government is better folks - would see this. Ah well.

An aside - France abolished the death penalty in 1981 and you see here, Julien Dray, spokesman for the Socialist Party in France, saying, "Schwarzenegger has a lot of muscles, but apparently not much heart." That's not the point, but it's amusing.

Jeralyn Merritt, defense attorney of note, adds the basic facts here about governments being notoriously mistaken. Since 1973, 122 people in 25 states have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence. She says it's time for a moratorium. And she quotes Supreme Court Justice Brennan from 1994 - "Perhaps the bleakest fact of all is that the death penalty is imposed not only in a freakish and discriminatory manner, but also in some cases upon defendants who are actually innocent."

Also noted there, Sean Paul - "What requires more courage: revenge or forgiveness?"

What plays better politically?

And Susan Hu -
What matters for me is that murdering Tookie solves nothing, makes the United States look barbaric to the rest of the world, and destroys Tookie's future chances to influence more young people against entering the gang life. ...
And from Jeralyn Merritt's own memorandum to Schwarzenegger -
Clemency is about mercy. It is an act of grace. You have the opportunity to stop a needless killing. Tookie's execution will not bring the victims back. It will not heal. The welfare of the people of California is best served by the message clemency would send - one of hope to the tens of thousands of disadvantaged young people your administration has professed to care so deeply about. A denial of clemency will send a message of despair.
Note these last two items presume one of the jobs of government is to provide hope that things will be better. That's a "progressive" view, not a conservative one. It is well beyond obvious the conservative national government of Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld operates on a far different premise - we're in deep danger and could all die and you should be very afraid and keep us in power to protect you. Mercy? Healing? We may have to torture people to keep you safe, and you really don't want to know about that. It's a cruel world and there is pure evil and there is no way you can think what is pure evil can ever change, or think those who perpetrate evil deserve anything less than horrible pain or death, as it's us or them.

Hell, Arnold Schwarzenegger is just a minor George Bush, with a different accent, but just about the same language skills, the same analytical skills, and the same distain for complexity. The political strategy is the same - keep up the level of fear and show you are eliminating, in one way or another, the evildoers you have made into cartoon bogeymen.

But that really does work.

By the way, Amnesty International here takes a completely different approach to the issue, pointing out the logic problem -
By refusing to stay Williams' execution, Gov. Schwarzenegger has failed to demonstrate genuine leadership on this issue. In his prepared statement, he said that he was placing his trust in California's criminal justice system, which the Senate Commission is currently investigating. Last year, the legislative body recognized the pervasive flaws plaguing the system and tasked the Commission with discovering and exposing the potentially lethal errors and bias that have metastasized throughout the state's administration of the death penalty.

As California's highest-ranking public official, Gov. Schwarzenegger has an obligation to guarantee that all of the state's laws are applied equally to everyone - even people on death row. But today, he abandoned that responsibility and left the more than 640 death row inmates to fend for themselves in the state's broken system. According to the Santa Clara Law Review, California's death penalty system is incapable of providing equal protection because it lacks "... the basic safeguards to avoid capricious, erroneous, and discriminatory application of the death penalty."
Hey, Arnold, you say you trust the courts got it right and your own commission says they often just don't get it right. What up with that?

Finally a good read is Jeanne over at Body and Soul telling us here how she tried to explain this all to her young daughter. The kid is confused about how it makes sense that when someone kills someone else we show that is really bad by killing them. Yeah, kids are a pain sometimes. She suggests there are leaned behaviors at play here -
We think there's some instinctive desire for vengeance that law and civilization help us overcome, but I wonder if there is not also an instinctive recoiling from vengeance, like the one I saw on my daughter's face last night. A deep-seated understanding that if killing is wrong, killing a killer is also wrong. I don't know, but I wonder if we have it all turned around. People don't have to learn not to be vengeful; they have to bury their natural compassion.
Maybe so. But we seem to have done that.

As Steve Lopez of the Los Angeles Times, who actually witnessed the execution, suggests here, this was a "macabre spectacle in a nation that preaches godly virtue to the world while resisting a global march away from the Medieval practice of capital punishment." But he was okay with it - as were most people.


It should be noted the next controversial death penalty case where there is a question of whether clemency should be granted is not the one out here with the seventy-five-year-old blind man in the wheelchair. This one concerns one Cory Maye of Jefferson Davis County, Mississippi.

Here's a quick summary -
In the process of executing a warranted no-knock search on Maye's neighbor in the middle of the night, cops burst into Maye's home, unannounced. Maye woke up and, fearing for his life (that of his 18-month-old child), fired on one of the police, who later died from the wound. The cop's death is a horrible tragedy, but the cause was the cops' mistake - breaking down the door of the wrong home - not Cory Maye's. If Maye reasonably believed his life was in danger, the shooting was self-defense.
Well, he was convicted of first-degree murder, given the death penalty, and scheduled for execution.

Read all about it here - all the details and lots of links. The local police mistakenly break down the door of a sleeping man, late at night, as part of drug raid. But the man wasn't named in the warrant, and wasn't a suspect. The man, frightened for himself and his infant daughter, fires at an intruder who had just rushed into his bedroom after the door had been kicked in.

The problem?

The man, who is black, has just killed the white son of the town's police chief. Oops. The police apparently beat Maye pretty comprehensively after he was arrested. And he's summarily convicted and sentenced to death by a mostly white jury. The man has no criminal record, and police changed their story about finding traces of drugs in his possession at the time of the raid. They turn up the next day, oddly enough.

Yeah, right.

This should be interesting.

Posted by Alan at 21:30 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 14 December 2005 07:08 PST home

Monday, 12 December 2005

Topic: God and US

The Culture Wars: The Jewish Problem

As mentioned in these pages in late November, in Mondays With Murrow, we are divided. Bill O'Reilly and the whole Fox News network have mounted a campaign to end the oppression of beleaguered and minority Christians in this country and save Christmas itself from the secular bullies who now run this country.

See Media Matters here for a review of what Bill O'Reilly, the most popular cable news commentator in America, had been saying up to that point, or check out the new book by another Fox News anchor - John Gibson's The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought (Sentinel, October 2005).

Bill says we need to get back to what the Founding Fathers intended (but ignores that they worked on Christmas Day 1779 and Christmas wasn't a national holiday before 1870 - the Puritans banned the holiday and 25 December is mentioned nowhere in the New Testament).

So what is the war about? John Gibson argues this war must be fought every time someone uses the greeting Happy Holidays rather than Merry Christmas. And who does that? Costco, Target, Wal-Mart, K-Mart and Sears have "Happy Holidays" in their promotional material - not "Merry Christmas." So we need to fight them. If we don't fight them? That would be a victory for the secular left and a defeat for all Christians.

It's hard to avoid this issue. It's all over the press, and some on the Christian right have even turned on the president, when a few of the more easy-going and sardonic of those who follow such things pointed out to them that the more than a million cards sent out by the White House this December wished recipients "Happy Holidays." The First Lady's press secretary, Susan Whitson, had to scramble - "Certainly President and Mrs. Bush celebrate Christmas." It's just that their "friends" include "people of all faiths."

This may not mollify some. Bush has, for the last four years, tried to make up for initially calling our current effort in Iraq a "crusade." Some trembling staffer had to explain to him that might be a word that would upset more than a few of our allies in the Middle East. The president's life-long contempt for history and detail had him at a temporary disadvantage here. To many in the Middle East, the historic Crusades, by Christians to win back the Holy Land from the Muslims, are just something everyone knows happened, and they'd rather not they happen again. So the president would, now and then, here and there, assure those in that part of the world that this wasn't a Christian holy war on Islam. He had used the "crusade" word in a general sense, of course, and then stopped using at all. And how many times did he say, "Islam is a religion of peace?" Quite a few times - attempting to diffuse all this. Of course, worse yet, if you're a proud Christian, last week you might have seen the president lighting a Menorah at the White House.

The mainstream, or near mainstream like Fox News, gives him a pass on all this. But the Christian right is wary. How they see that secular bullies are running the country is difficult to understand, given that the party they support, and depends on them to stay in power, controls the White House, both houses of congress and most of the courts. But the wariness is there. Someone is out to get them.

Note this, a bit of an editorial by Chris Satullo in the Philadelphia Inquirer -
"Happy holidays" and "Seasons greetings" are neither new nor hostile to Christmas. They are fine, old inventions that exemplify civility and recognize that one of the nation's glories is its diversity. In much of America, you never know whether the stranger with whom you exchange pleasantries in the line at Starbucks might be Jewish, Buddhist, agnostic, Muslim or Hindu. The "War on Christmas" riff smacks of a panicky grievance against an America of many hues.

Retailers such as Wal-Mart appeal to the broadest, most diverse market. That's why "Happy holidays" or "Season's greetings" makes perfect sense for them. It's not an insult to Christians. It's marketing to those who are not. (Don't conservatives believe in capitalism?)

Now, if a store wants to shout "Merry Christmas" to the world, the First Amendment is certainly OK with that. Retailers may do it, churches may, individuals, as well. A newspaper may, without apology, publish an annual Christmas story. (Hint: See this space next Sunday.)

The First Amendment limits only what government, with its myriad powers, may do. Government must not grant adherents of one faith greater (or lesser) rights and benefits.

That's why creches at City Hall and pious carols on the school stage are always problematic (though not always wrong). People who don't get the First Amendment, who yearn for their faith to be top dog, can't see that. Instead, they seek to poison a national holiday of good will with trumped-up grievances.
Well, you can be sure these folks are not out to "poison a national holiday of good will." But there is some panic here.

And everyone agrees civility is fine. It's a good thing. But here one assumes civility is something that, while nice, is something that one cannot afford when one is "at war." In fact, the argument might be roughly parallel to the idea that we cannot afford to forego state-sponsored torture - we wouldn't normally codify and do that, but September 11 changed everything and we're in a new kind of war. Civility is something we can no longer afford? Well, when the very core of your being, your faith, is under attack, you might argue that.

So the Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, proclaims the "Holiday Tree" on the lawn there is now a "Christmas Tree" - and the same happens in Boston and all over, in a show of solidarity, even if the relation of such trees to the birth of Jesus is well beyond tenuous. The dead tree made pretty in December is a winter solstice thing, isn't it? Is it pagan? There's no such thing in the New Testament, but then there was no parade a balloons in the shape of cartoon characters in Jerusalem that night more than two thousand years ago.

Whatever. It's a show of defiance - standing up to the bullies. And there are a few votes there too, of course.

Now as a goy, and a life-long atheist, the dark side of this should not bother me. But there is a dark side. Bill O'Reilly is all over George Soros, as here he warns America about the vast conspiracy to get rid of Christmas -
There's a very secret plan. And it's a plan that nobody's going to tell you, "Well, we want to diminish Christian philosophy in the U.S.A. because we want X, Y, and Z." They'll never ever say that. But I'm kind of surprised they went after Christmas because it's such an emotional issue.
It's the ACLU and the secular Jews like George Soros, of course. Damn those Jews! They hate Christmas.

And lately O'Reilly has been all over the satirist Jon Stewart for kidding around about this on The Daily Show on Comedy Central. Stewart's mocking relies in part on Stewart noting he himself is Jewish.

It's all silliness. But there is this dark side, as many have seen but M. J. Rosenberg points out here in Israel Policy Forum -
The fact that the Christmas warriors are talking in code should not fool anybody. When a political candidate denounces his opponent for receiving campaign contributions from New York and Beverly Hills, we all know who he is talking about. Similarly, denunciations of secular liberals, especially when coupled with references to, say, George Soros and John Stewart, are pretty unambiguous.
Yeah, it seems anti-Semitic, doesn't it?

Yes, and both CNN and MSNBC have reported on the "controversy." And Fox News, which invented the whole thing, from November 28th to December 2nd devoted fifty-eight segments to the subject, and, last Wednesday, the conservative Heritage Foundation held a symposium on "the liberal plot" to ban Christmas.

Rosenberg is not pleased -
Of course, the "war on Christmas" it is totally manufactured. There is no Jewish, or other non-Christian group, that campaigns to ban the term "Merry Christmas."

I suppose there are individual Jews (or Muslims, or others) who prefer to be wished "happy holidays," but that is simply neither here nor there. As for the secular liberal groups making war on the term, they don't exist either. The whole issue was invented by the far right to divide Americans from one another, at Christmastime no less. As the Christmas warriors probably know, the reason businesses have adopted the term "the holidays" in place of Christmas is that Christmas is one day, December 25th. "The holidays" suggests a period that runs from Thanksgiving through New Year's, more time for shopping and exchanging. Anti-Christmas animus is a myth.

But that does not mean that the "war on Christmas" brouhaha is not threatening to Jews.
Why would that be? Because Bill O'Reilly in response to a Jewish caller last December who said that he found O'Reilly's views on Christmas objectionable told the fellow to "move to Israel?"

Would it be because O'Reilly said this?
Now the reason this is happening is because of the ACLU and George Soros, Peter Lewis. Just a reminder: George Soros and Peter Lewis are the far-left, secular progressive billionaires who have funded - they pour money into the ACLU, they pour money into the smear websites, you know, they buy up a lot of the media time. And they basically want to change the country from a Christian-based philosophical country to a secular progressive country like they have in Western Europe.
Rosenberg notes Soros is a Holocaust survivor and a billionaire who backs liberal causes, and Lewis is also a billionaire and a major donor to progressive and Jewish causes.

Would it be because O'Reilly said this when The Daily Show made fun of him and his war on those who say Happy Holidays and use those words in store promotions?
There you go, Jon Stewart. We know what he's doing over there [on Comedy Central]. And it's not just Stewart. You know, ninety percent of quote unquote entertainers are secular progressives. And a Merry Christmas to you, John Stewart. As I said in my newspaper column this week, three wise men showed up to honor the baby Jesus way back when. And if corporate executives are not wise enough to emulate that, well, those of us who respect Christmas might look elsewhere.
Ah, that's how you handle uppity Jews - get in their face, poke them in the chest and sneer, "Merry Christmas." The message is there are more of us than are of you people, so shut up, if you know what's good for you.

Jews have seen this before. What more is there to say?

Eric Alterman here points out another detail, but a small victory -
Rosenberg reserves special scorn for O'Reilly's new ally, comedian Jackie Mason, who has gone on Fox to take O'Reilly's side against those liberal Jews who are out there assaulting Santa Claus. He calls Mason "the Stepin Fetchit of Jewish comedians." The O'Reilly-Mason alliance is no big surprise. Mason, who famously called Mayor Dinkins "a fancy schwartze with a moustache" has always trafficked in racial stereotypes. In his dotage, he has now turned on the Jews. Bye bye, Jackie. It says something when the crazy right has Jackie Mason and we have Jon Stewart. This is a cultural war we have won!
Maybe so, but why is it being fought at all?

And what's with O'Reilly? Some had him pegged as this generation's Joe McCarthy, with all this talk about secret plots, and with his blacklist of enemies of American (and of him) he is going to expose and drive into oblivion. It seemed a retro fifties thing. Now it seems like a late-thirties-in-Germany thing.

That O'Reilly has the largest number of viewers - of those who watch opinion shows on television - just as Rush Limbaugh has the same on radio - is interesting. These are odd times. Schoenberg and Thomas Mann and all the rest bailed out of Germany and Austria in the middle thirties and ended up here in Hollywood. Will things reverse? Steven Spielberg to Munich? You never know.

But there is an explanation for all this, from the mysterious Umberto Eco - God Isn't Big Enough For Some People.

Eco digs deeper -
We are now approaching the critical time of the year for shops and supermarkets: the month before Christmas is the four weeks when stores of all kinds sell their products fastest. Father Christmas means one thing to children: presents. He has no connection with the original St Nicholas, who performed a miracle in providing dowries for three poor sisters, thereby enabling them to marry and escape a life of prostitution.

Human beings are religious animals. It is psychologically very hard to go through life without the justification, and the hope, provided by religion. You can see this in the positivist scientists of the 19th century.

They insisted that they were describing the universe in rigorously materialistic terms - yet at night they attended seances and tried to summon up the spirits of the dead. Even today, I frequently meet scientists who, outside their own narrow discipline, are superstitious - to such an extent that it sometimes seems to me that to be a rigorous unbeliever today, you have to be a philosopher. Or perhaps a priest.

And we need to justify our lives to ourselves and to other people. Money is an instrument. It is not a value - but we need values as well as instruments, ends as well as means. The great problem faced by human beings is finding a way to accept the fact that each of us will die.
That's curious. What makes O'Reilly and John Gibson so defensive, what makes them go on attack, is their sense that someone, somehow, is taking away their justification for simply being, and their hope. The first depends on their Christianity, and the second depends on the belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Eco here simply points out that the role of religion to provide that justification - religions are systems of belief that enable human beings to justify their existence and which "reconcile us to death." Thus O'Reilly and Gibson and the rest see the abyss, know they will die, as we all do, and attack the Jews and other who question their justification for being. As Eco says, we're all still looking for something that will reconcile each of us to the inevitability of our own death. Of course, the attacks help in the ratings too.

Eco, of course is making a far different point. He's writing, in amazement, at the growth of belief in some mighty odd things - "from strange pagan cults and sects to the silly, sub-Christian superstitions of The Da Vinci Code." -
It is amazing how many people take that book literally, and think it is true. Admittedly, Dan Brown, its author, has created a legion of zealous followers who believe that Jesus wasn't crucified: he married Mary Magdalene, became the King of France, and started his own version of the order of Freemasons. Many of the people who now go to the Louvre are there only to look at the Mona Lisa, solely and simply because it is at the centre of Dan Brown's book.

The pianist Arthur Rubinstein was once asked if he believed in God. He said: "No. I don't believe in God. I believe in something greater." Our culture suffers from the same inflationary tendency.

The existing religions just aren't big enough: we demand something more from God than the existing depictions in the Christian faith can provide. So we revert to the occult. The so-called occult sciences do not ever reveal any genuine secret: they only promise that there is something secret that explains and justifies everything. The great advantage of this is that it allows each person to fill up the empty secret "container" with his or her own fears and hopes.

As a child of the Enlightenment, and a believer in the Enlightenment values of truth, open inquiry, and freedom, I am depressed by that tendency.
Well, there's a lot of that specific kind of depression going around these days. And he notes Himmler and many of Hitler's henchmen were "devotees of the most infantile occult fantasies." And in bookstores he sees all these books explaining "Templars, Rosicrucians, pseudo-Kabbalists, and of course The Da Vinci Code, but also anti-semitic tracts such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion."

Yes, there's something in the air. It smells like middle Europe in the late thirties, like dank metallic streets and fear, not like fresh-cut pine and cookies baking in the kitchen.

O'Reilly and Gibson and their legions, of course, aren't into the infantile occult - unless your count their defense of the Jesus Tree with blinking lights and tinsel.

And Christmas will be over soon. And these guys will forget the Jewish Problem until next year.



These are available for your Jesus Tree -

Posted by Alan at 20:31 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Monday, 12 December 2005 20:41 PST home

Sunday, 11 December 2005

Topic: Breaking News

Teeing Up the Week - Which of these news stories will you be talking about tomorrow?

Keith Olbermann has this daily news show on MSNBC, Countdown, that always opens with the question, "Which of these news stories will you be talking about tomorrow?" The show, the most popular of anything MSNBC runs and fast gaining a following, doesn't run on the weekend, but the producers really should think about a Sunday afternoon edition, because that's when the news organizations tee up the week with a scoop or two, or something sure to cause a buzz.

Sunday, December 11, was no different. Dana Priest over at the Washington Post seems to have had this Sunday off - no insider CIA stories confirming our chain of secret prisons, or how we get the wrong people, do nasty things with them, and when we realize they're nobodies, drop them in the Macedonian forest with no papers and no cash, and tell their home governments not to say anything. Dana had done enough.

So, "Which of these news stories will you be talking about tomorrow?"

Time Magazine Reporter Sacrifices Her Career to Save Karl Rove's Career

Time appears on the newsstands Monday mornings, but the content is available on the net a day ahead of the hard copy. And the headline here may or may not be unfair. What Vivica Novak (no relation to Bob Novak) has to say is here - in the matter of the CIA leak investigation she seems to have provided Karl Rove's attorney, a source who became a good friend, clear warning, early on, that Karl Rove actually did speak to Time's Matt Cooper about the CIA spy whose career the White House had to dismember in the process of trying to make the spy's husband appear opportunistic and wrong. That husband had said, nope, Saddam was not trying to buy uranium and build a nuclear bomb or three - he went and looked, and nothing of the sort was so.

The vice president's chief of staff, Libby, had been indicted for obstructing any look into the matter (five felony counts). You're really not supposed to blow the cover of CIA agents. There are laws. And you're really not supposed to lie and cheat to make sure no one can find out what actually happened. Scooter, in the latter case, had been a bad boy, or so the indictments charge.

Anyway, it seems this Novak woman unwittingly worked with Rove's attorney to make sure Rove didn't get caught the same way. She implies she was used, but basically, she let on that her colleague Cooper had talked with Rove about the woman spy, on some very specific dates, and that led the attorney - no dummy - to get Rove to go back and change his testimony to the grand jury investigating this. Otherwise, they'd have nailed him for perjury. This was a useful heads-up.

This Novak woman from Time seems real sorry about all this. She says she really didn't want to be part of the story. She just hates when that happens.

Of course she betrayed Cooper, her friend and colleague, who was trying to keep all this Rove business secret to "protect his source." Heck, he was willing to go to jail over the matter - and she was speaking "out of school" to Rove's attorney the whole time.

And of course she never told her employer, the magazine, what was going on, even after she hired her own attorney, and even after she gave testimony to the grand jury. Well, specifically, she didn't tell here editors what she had done until after she had hired her own lawyer and debriefed with the investigator, Patrick Fitzgerald. She didn't tell them until she got a formal subpoena.

And of course she kept reporting on "the CIA leak story" as if she knew nothing and wasn't involved with any of this at all. Time didn't know. Cooper didn't know. No one knew.

She's now on a "mutually agreed upon" leave of absence from the magazine. One assumes the editors are drinking heavily.

Jeralyn Merritt, the famous criminal defense attorney in Denver, has much more here. Basically, this woman saved Karl's bacon. The president keeps his key advisor.

What to make of all this?

"Insider Journalism" is tricky.

Judy Miller, late of the New York Times, gave us all those pre-war scoops about aluminum tubes for making bombs and mobile chemical weapons labs and anything else Chalabi and his team in the vice president's office could think of. She carried their water for them and overrode everyone else at the Times to plant the stories. She had the inside scoop. She knew people - important people. She got the "real" story. But none of it was so.

What does that tell you?

In a rather sarcastic manner Jack Shafer here argues outsiders know more than insiders. The Knight-Ridder reporters, he shows, were pretty much right on all matters, using what was available to everyone, tapping a few low-level confidential sources, and actually thinking about it all. They may be third-string and out of the loop, but they were even better than the CIA on most things. Looking in from the outside keeps you from being spun. In the run up to the war, they "were able to piece together a more accurate picture of Iraq's capabilities based on public information and interviews with midlevel and career sources than all the president's men, who drew on testimonials from administration stars, political appointees, and the intelligence establishment." In short, instead of swooning, they were reporting.

That sort of thing isn't very sexy. You don't get to appear on all the political shows on television. You don't socialize with the big boys - you don't chat with the key players. You just get the story right.

Perhaps Fox News will pick up this Novak woman.

First the Germans, Now the French - We TOLD You All This Was Bogus

Ah, the local paper out here, the Los Angeles Times, broke this one Sunday, December 11, with French Told CIA of Bogus Intelligence - and the subhead is "The foreign spy service warned the U.S. various times before the war that there was no proof Iraq sought uranium from Niger, ex-officials say."

The opening four paragraphs -
More than a year before President Bush declared in his 2003 State of the Union speech that Iraq had tried to buy nuclear weapons material in Africa, the French spy service began repeatedly warning the CIA in secret communications that there was no evidence to support the allegation.

The previously undisclosed exchanges between the U.S. and the French, described in interviews last week by the retired chief of the French counterintelligence service and a former CIA official, came on separate occasions in 2001 and 2002.

The French conclusions were reached after extensive on-the-ground investigations in Niger and other former French colonies, where the uranium mines are controlled by French companies, said Alain Chouet, the French former official. He said the French investigated at the CIA's request.

Chouet's account was "at odds with our understanding of the issue," a U.S. government official said. The U.S. official declined to elaborate and spoke only on condition that neither he nor his agency be named.
You get the idea. And the scoop here is last week big guns on both sides of the Atlantic said that just as the CIA asked Joe Wilson to look into the matter, the CIA pulsed the French, and came up empty there too.

Think about that. The line from the administration and all the supporters of the war is that we may have been mistaken, but everyone in the world thought Iraq had nasty weapons and was going nuclear. Except last week the Germans said the source on the existence of those mobile weapons labs was a drunk and totally unreliable, and they told us, and we knew it. Now the French say the whole Niger yellowcake business was bogus, and they told us, and we knew it. France's Direction Generale de la Securite Exterieure told us, again and again. The CIA officer notes that, well, they did. Alain Chouet, France's former chief of counterintelligence, backed up by a former CIA official, is clear on this.

The Italians tried to sell the famous forged documents proving Saddam's agents were buying up yellowcake. They didn't buy them. These were their operations in Niger. Duh.

And the CIA had rejected the documents.

So the documents got to the White House through the back door - Cheney and Rumsfeld had set up alternative intelligence operations to bypass the old bureaucracy and get the real story. In good faith, perhaps, they wanted to protect America - and thought the CIA and all the rest were pretty useless.

They could do better than the professionals? Something like that.

It didn't work out.

"When Bush gave his State of the Union address in January 2003, citing a report from the British that Iraq had attempted to purchase uranium in Africa, other French officials were flabbergasted." No kidding. Would they have been sidéré? Whatever.

Of course it is hard to see where this story goes from here.

No matter how many times the administration is "busted" on such matters we are where we are - the president is in office for three more years and the Democrats are in such disarray there is no chance anyone will see a majority of Democrats in either the house or senate, or any Democrat (or even anyone whose last name isn't Bush) in the White House, in the next fifty to sixty years. Voters are defensive. Rather than admit they elected some real dangerous goofballs, they'll not admit that and keep voting for such folks.

So it doesn't matter very much.

Israel to the Rescue

The real scoop of Sunday, December 11, concerns the middle member of the Axis of Evil, Iran. In the Times of London (UK, not Canada), Uzi Mahnaimi reporting from Tel Aviv, and Sarah Baxter from Washington, give us this: Israel Readies Forces For Strike On Nuclear Iran.

Oh yeah? The opening line - "Israel's armed forces have been ordered by Ariel Sharon, the prime minister, to be ready by the end of March for possible strikes on secret uranium enrichment sites in Iran, military sources have revealed."

Well, they did the job in Iraq way back when.

Find details here from Marc Schulman in American Future, but note this -
If a military operation is approved, Israel will use air and ground forces against several nuclear targets in the hope of stalling Tehran's nuclear programme for years, according to Israeli military sources. It is believed Israel would call on its top special forces brigade, Unit 262 - the equivalent of the SAS - and the F-15I strategic 69 Squadron, which can strike Iran and return to Israel without refuelling.

"If we opt for the military strike," said a source, "it must be not less than 100% successful. It will resemble the destruction of the Egyptian air force in three hours in June 1967."

Aharon Zeevi Farkash, the Israeli military intelligence chief, stepped up the pressure on Iran this month when he warned Israel's parliament, the Knesset, that "if by the end of March the international community is unable to refer the Iranian issue to the United Nations security council, then we can say the international effort has run its course".

The March deadline set for military readiness also stems from fears that Iran is improving its own intelligence-gathering capability. In October it launched its first satellite, the Sinah-1, which was carried by a Russian space launcher. "The Iranians' space programme is a matter of deep concern to us," said an Israeli defence source. "If and when we launch an attack on several Iranian targets, the last thing we need is Iranian early warning received by satellite."

Russia last week signed an estimated $1 billion contract - its largest since 2000 - to sell Iran advanced Tor-M1 systems capable of destroying guided missiles and laser-guided bombs from aircraft. "Once the Iranians get the Tor-M1, it will make our life much more difficult," said an Israeli air force source. "The installation of this system can be relatively quick and we can't waste time on this one."

The date set for possible Israeli strikes on Iran also coincides with Israel's general election on March 28, prompting speculation that Sharon may be sabre-rattling for votes. Benjamin Netanyahu, the frontrunner to lead Likud into the elections, said that if Sharon did not act against Iran, "then when I form the new Israeli government, we'll do what we did in the past against Saddam's reactor, which gave us 20 years of tranquillity".
Well, that's cheery. Who doesn't like tranquility? But this may not get us that.

Note This Will be Ugly -
I'll be the first to admit that Israel is stuck between a rock and a hard place on this. If she does not act, and no one else (read; The United States) does either, she faces nuclear annihilation. On the other hand, an attack on Iran by Israel would bring down the wrath of world on her head. That is, the wrath that she doesn't already constantly receive in such an undeserved and unfair manner. What to do, what to do?

That's a tough one. It would appear to me that Israel's best hope is that the ever-improving situation in Iraq will drive up George Bush's poll numbers giving him the political punch to carry out the attacks without Israeli participation. And even then this would be no easy call for Bush.

We would be attacking and destroying Russian built facilities, filled with Russian technology and staffed by no small number of Russian scientists and technicians, some of whom would no doubt perish in any attack. The fallout with Russia would be of earthquake proportions.

The fallout with the Iranian government? Well, who cares? However, the Iranian people, the majority of whom seem to support efforts by The United States to help them in their cause for freedom from the Mullahs, might well react negatively towards overt American military action against their country. Man, what a mess this is going to be. "Ugly" comes to mind.
Wait a second! Israel's best hope is that the "ever-improving situation in Iraq" will drive up George Bush's poll numbers giving him the political punch to carry out the attacks "without Israeli participation." That's thin hope.

Let's assume this is all idle speculation, or a contingency plan that gets put on the shelf. We probably have a contingency plan for invading Portugal under certain circumstances, like a sudden uptick in their production and export of "fado" albums.

For idle speculation on this Israeli planning see Steve Bainbridge of UCLA here - "Can Israel Stop Iran from Going Nuclear? Can Anyone?" Also see Hugh Hewitt here - "It is a terrible task that cannot be postponed much longer."

Here's the denial -
The senior Defense Ministry official for diplomatic policy refrained Sunday from ruling out a future Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear sites, saying that "at the moment" the emphasis was on international diplomatic pressure, and that the details in a British newspaper report saying plans were being prepared for such an operation appeared "more imaginary than real."
That's not very comforting, but it's something.

The Russians are in Iran, helping with this and that, selling them this and that. And this will be a news story when the United States or Israel suggests any Russians in Tehran and some other parts of Iran take a vacation - go home and see mom and the wife and kids for a week or two. Until then, this item is a semi-scoop - interesting but not news, yet.

Bubble Boy Returns

As with Time, the other big weekly, Newsweek, appears on the newsstands Monday mornings, but their content is available on the net a day ahead of the hard copy. The cover story is amusing, but won't have traction. It's been done before, and this is just filling in detail - Bush in the Bubble.

The idea here is this: "He has a tight circle of trust, and he likes it that way. But members of both parties are urging Bush to reach beyond the White House walls. How he governs - and how his M.O. stacks up historically."

So we're talking historical perspective here, not news per se. Bush may be the most isolated president in modern history? It's been said before, but actually, never in such detail and in such an organized manner. It's long, but fascinating.

What's immediately fascinating is who is quoted -
- A White House aide, who like virtually all White House officials (in this story and in general) refused to be identified for fear of antagonizing the president...

- According to senior Pentagon officials who did not want to be identified discussing private meetings...

- One House Republican, who asked not to be identified for fear of offending the White House...

- ... this official, who did not want to be identified discussing high-level meetings ...

- A foreign diplomat who declined to be identified...

- ... a senior aide who wouldn't be identified talking about his boss ...

- ...a GOP staffer who did not want to be identified criticizing the president ...
These folks are scared. Why?

Two nuggets. This -
Bush may be the most isolated president in modern history, at least since the late-stage Richard Nixon. It's not that he is a socially awkward loner or a paranoid. He can charm and joke like the frat president he was. Still, beneath a hail-fellow manner, Bush has a defensive edge, a don't-tread-on-me prickliness. It shows in Bush's humor. When Reagan told a joke, it almost never was about someone in the room. Reagan's jokes may have been scatological or politically incorrect, but they were inclusive, intended to make everyone join in the laughter. Often, Bush's joking is personal - it is aimed at you. The teasing can be flattering (the president gave me a nickname!), but it is intended, however so subtly, to put the listener on the defensive. It is a towel-snap that invites a retort. How many people dare to snap back at a president?
And this -
Bush generally prefers short conversations - long on conclusion, short on reasoning. He likes popular history and presidential biography (Theodore Roosevelt, George Washington), but by all accounts, he is not intellectually curious. Occasional outsiders brought into the Bush Bubble have observed that faith, not evidence, is the basis for decision making. Psychobabblers have long had a field day with the fact that Bush quit drinking cold turkey and turned around his life by accepting God. His close friends agree that Bush likes comfort and serenity; he does not like dissonance. He has long been mothered by strong women, including his mother and wife. A foreign diplomat who declined to be identified was startled when Secretary of State Rice warned him not to lay bad news on the president. "Don't upset him," she said.
But isn't that what we pay him for - to deal with what is upsetting and do what he, and the government, can about it? Surely we do not employ this man as our chief public servant to avoid unpleasantness, exercise four hours a day, get to bed by ten (both these apparently true), and watch ESPN for hours a day?

The authors, Evan Thomas and Richard Wolffe, lay out many, many details that suggest a level of indifference, if not denial, "that is dangerous for a president who seeks to transform the world." They do point out that all presidents face "a tension between sticking to their guns and dealing with changing reality." And yes, it can be a mistake "to listen too closely to the ever-present (and often self-aggrandizing) critics." They are just pointing out that the idea that any president can go it alone "is, to say the least, problematic."

Others are more alarmed, if not worried sick that we're in real trouble. Between this purposeful intolerance of anything upsetting, and the idea Karl Rove and Dick Cheney will take care of what the president proudly chooses to miss in details and concepts, when the state is not rudderless it's heading in some mighty strange directions.

Okay, this is not a news story you will be talking about tomorrow, as Keith Olbermann would say. It's a backgrounder.

But it's one hell of a backgrounder. And it already has generated a wide array of comment.

"Which of these news stories will you be talking about tomorrow?" That depends on what happens on any given tomorrow.

Posted by Alan at 20:38 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Monday, 12 December 2005 07:17 PST home

Topic: Announcements

Everything About Everything (with photos)

The new issue of Just Above Sunset - Volume 3, Number 50 for the week of Sunday, December 11, 2005 is now on line. The is the magazine-format weekly parent to this daily web log, containing extended (and corrected) versions of what first appeared here, along with a wealth of new material.

This week, in Current Events, or a kind of "that was the week that was" collection, we see everyone is breaking stories left and right. He did what? She said what? We've been doing what? It's all here, from the Rice foray into Europe to explain what we're up to, to what Cheney has been saying and where's he's saying it. And there was the president's big speech midweek, the second of four explaining everything. Did he explain everything? But what would John Kennedy have done, and what is Arnold Shwarzenegger up to? Mel Gibson comes up again? And why is everyone, including playwrights and quantum physicists, on our case? A Paris Hilton Christmas display? It's all here.

And there's an atypical business column - what's a utility and what isn't, and what do you do when your customers hate each other and you're asked to choose sides?

The International Desk has some fine material. "Our Man in London," Mike McCahill, has the word on big political news there, and what is it with Margaret Thatcher's children? "Our Man in Paris," Ric Erickson, has the word on what's up there, with the riots that weren't really riots and the short and surly politician who is taking the heat, and sends some amazing photographs.

Bob Patterson is back, in one guise discussing the dog-eared ace of spades in the political world, and in anther guise getting as up close and personal as one can with a famous curmudgeon.

There are four pages of special, high-resolution photography from the land of the rich and famous, Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive, so you know what these folks do for Christmas.

Quotes this week bring you Russell Mania (Bertrand, that is). And there's a link to a new Christmas photo album.

Direct links to specific pages -

Current Events ______________________

Looking Back: The Sunday Funnies in Six Panels - Now Don't Get All Excited
Main Concerns: The Passing Parade versus the Big Stuff
Diplomacy: What's the Message and Who Do You Trust?
Midweek News Explosion: More Grist for the Mill
Nailed: The Hits Keep Coming

Business Notes ______________________

Choosing Sides: The Business of Business

The International Desk ______________________

Our Man in London: Cameron and the Thatcher Legacy
Our Man in Paris: Howling Sirens

Bob Patterson ______________________

WLJ Weekly: from the desk of the World's Laziest Journalist - Is Bush Playing "Three Card Monte" with the Issues?
Book Wrangler: Curmudgeons Prepare for the Bill O'Reilly Holiday

Southern California Photography ______________________

Christmas Money Shots: Christmas in the Land of the Obscenely Wealthy, Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills
Christmas Displays: In the Windows of the Major Stores on Wilshire Boulevard
Christmas Whimsy: All Those Details of the Season
Botanicals: Beverly Hills Blooms

Quotes for the week of December 11, 2005 - Russell Mania
Links and Recommendations: New Christmas Photo Album

New Christmas Photo Album

Posted by Alan at 14:30 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

Saturday, 10 December 2005

Topic: Announcements

No Posting Today

Off to Poway, California - Nicholas turns two - party time -

Posted by Alan at 09:08 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

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