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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, 17 January 2006
Ben's Day: Things Have Changed
Topic: For policy wonks...

Ben's Day: Things Have Changed

Tuesday, January 17, 2006, was Benjamin Franklin's birthday. He's would be three hundred years old, but he isn't. He's dead. (Still living, and sharing the same birthday? Betty White is 84, Eartha Kitt is 79, James Earl Jones is 75, and Muhammad Ali is 64.) And on January 17, 1961, in his farewell address, President Eisenhower warned us about the rise of "the military-industrial complex." That's all very curious.

The Ben Franklin quote seen most often these days is this one - "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." (Historical Review of Pennsylvania, 1759) - often cited in relation to the issue still dominating the national discussion, the president ordering the National Security Agency (NSA) to ignore the law and scan our email and telephone conversations, seeking out clues as to who may be plotting terrorist harm, without probable cause or any warrant or oversight, as required.

The issues are clear. The president claims that, as commander-in-chief in a defacto war (no actual declaration of war, just a congressional resolution to do something about a problem), the constitution implicitly gives him the "plenary power" to disregard any law that interferes with his duties as commander-in-chief. Thus, when he signed the McCain Amendment prohibiting torture and degradation of prisoners we hold, he appended a "signing statement" that said he would comply with this law, but reserved the right, under Article II of the Constitution, to exercise his "plenary power" and order torture and degradation and whatever, if he decided he should. Any treaties we've signed and the congress ratified, making them law, can be broken and he would be immune from any punishment. On the same basis, he claims the right to declare any citizen an "enemy combatant" and hold them without charges, without informing anyone about the detention, with allowing them to know why they are being held, to deny them access to legal council or, in fact, any contact with anyone - they have no right to know why they are being held and they may be held for as long as the president wishes, and they have no way to challenge the decision that landed them in this limbo.

That the constitution implicitly gives him the "plenary power" to disregard any law that interferes with his duties as commander-in-chief does trouble some people. Since this power is not explicit, some argue the president is not above the law. The president's legal team argues that's what the constitution really means. Others say no, it doesn't mean that and it doesn't say that. The president's team says it does. So it goes back and forth. By the way, "plenary" comes from Middle English, by way of Late Latin plenarius, from Latin plenus (full) - it means complete in every respect, absolute, unqualified. It's a useful word.

It should be noted that the secondary argument, that the president was authorized to disregard any law that got in his way by the congressional "go invade Afghanistan and get the bad guys" resolution, is fading. Too many who voted are saying they just never said that at all. It should be noted, also, as Christopher Lee in the Washington Post pointed out - "As a young Justice Department lawyer, Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr. tried to help tip the balance of power between Congress and the White House a little more in favor of the executive branch." He thought "signing statements" would restore the balance of power and let the president have his rightful power - the congress says it's law, and the president says that's nice, but does what he does.

And too there was this from Ron Hutcheson and James Kuhnhenn of Knight-Ridder -
President Bush agreed with great fanfare last month to accept a ban on torture, but he later quietly reserved the right to ignore it, even as he signed it into law.

Acting from the seclusion of his Texas ranch at the start of New Year's weekend, Bush said he would interpret the new law in keeping with his expansive view of presidential power. He did it by issuing a bill-signing statement - a little-noticed device that has become a favorite tool of presidential power in the Bush White House.

In fact, Bush has used signing statements to reject, revise or put his spin on more than 500 legislative provisions. Experts say he has been far more aggressive than any previous president in using the statements to claim sweeping executive power - and not just on national security issues.
There's much more there, like the 2003 Justice Department spending bill that required the department to inform Congress whenever the administration decided to ignore a legislative provision on constitutional grounds - Bush signed the bill, but issued a statement asserting his right to ignore the notification requirement. Cool. But that's all detail. Alito will be confirmed. If any of this "signing statement" stuff ever goes up to the Supreme Court, we know what will happen. (You thought the confirmation hearings were about Rove v. Wade?)

All that aside, civil libertarians and conservative no-preface libertarians, have a problem with this NSA program, outside the law, that the president says he will continue and no one can stop him from continuing, as he's just doing his job.

Others don't have a problem. Ben Franklin may be dead, but these days we have Republican Senator Trent Lott from Mississippi, saying this - "I don't agree with the libertarians. I want my security first. I'll deal with all the details after that."

Take THAT, Gentle Ben! And Lott is also sorry about what he said at Strom Thurmond's birthday party. And Tuesday, January 17th he announced he'll run for another term.

Be that as it may, the big stories Tuesday were from the New York Times, here - a number of folks at the FBI saying the NSA program generated thousand and thousands of leads for them to track down (the NSA being the "big ear" that listens to all, and the FBI the "boots on the ground" agency that actually has to investigate). The leads were pretty much all useless - the phone number of someone who talked to someone who talked to someone, who knew someone whose third cousin had been to Paris once -
FBI officials repeatedly complained to the spy agency that the unfiltered information was swamping investigators. The spy agency was collecting much of the data by eavesdropping on some Americans' international communications and conducting computer searches of phone and Internet traffic. Some FBI officials and prosecutors also thought the checks, which sometimes involved interviews by agents, were pointless intrusions on Americans' privacy.

As the bureau was running down those leads, its director, Robert S. Mueller III, raised concerns about the legal rationale for a program of eavesdropping without warrants, one government official said. Mr. Mueller asked senior administration officials about "whether the program had a proper legal foundation," but deferred to Justice Department legal opinions, the official said.

President Bush has characterized the eavesdropping program as a "vital tool" against terrorism; Vice President Dick Cheney has said it has saved "thousands of lives."
The president said this was limited and focused - listening in on folks who talked to or emailed with the bad guys overseas, and only them. No need to worry.

Perhaps he was misinformed. His people really ought to keep him in the loop. And no doubt he will call for an investigation into just which disgruntled and overworked FBI people talked to the Times and let the cat out of the bag.

Yes, the 1978 FISA law - the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act - amended in 1995, was enacted to prevent "big brother" fishing expeditions like this. Yes, he ignored that law, bypassing any stuff about warrants and oversight and probably cause. But he was just doing his job, and you can't be too careful. And too this does smack of a turf war - the FBI ragging on the NSA for those clowns sending them on a thousand wild goose chases a week, pulling them away from more important matters. The Times notes that in FBI bureau field offices the agents would joke that a new bunch of NSA tips meant more "calls to Pizza Hut." Well, what if someone is building a dirty bomb in the back room at the local Pizza Hut? What if someone knew someone who knew someone who wrote an email to a friend in Europe containing the words "dirty" and "bomb" - and the first person ordered a large with pepperoni? You never know.

Someone at the FBI thought this NSA program was possibly illegal (depends on your view of the president's "plenary powers"), but clearly useless, a ridiculous waste of time and money. These FBI folks were just fed up - the high school history teacher whose cousin knew someone who didn't like Bush just ordered a pizza, and after the field interview, turned out to be just hungry and near his phone. Actually, legal and constitutional issues aside, it's kind of funny. Your tax dollars at work.

The other big story was the lawsuits - "Federal lawsuits were filed Tuesday seeking to halt President Bush's domestic eavesdropping program, calling it an 'illegal and unconstitutional program' of electronic eavesdropping on American citizens."

One of these was filed in New York by the Center for Constitutional Rights and the other in Detroit by the American Civil Liberties Union. They both claim you just cannot bypass the FISA law, and do all that electronic monitoring without court approval. The plaintiffs want to know if they were spied on, illegally. If so, they want all records erased and expunged and removed and all that. It's been done before.

The Center for Constitutional Rights is suing Bush, the head of the National Security Agency and the heads of the other major security agencies. Cool, but they represent hundreds of those held as enemy combatants down in Cuba - they say they now have to audit old communications to determine whether ''anything was disclosed that might undermine our representation of our clients.''

Fair enough. And the Detroit ACLU suit names the National Security Agency and its director - the claim there being that this program "impaired plaintiffs' ability to gather information from sources abroad as they try to locate witnesses, represent clients, do research or engage in advocacy."

You're still allowed to engage in advocacy? Maybe these folks just don't know the limits on that. In this suit we're talking the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Greenpeace and a bunch of journalists, scholars, attorneys - and national nonprofit organizations. These folks communicate with people in the Middle East, in Asia and all over.

Should attorneys be monitored? Depends. One of them, Josh Dratel, says a bit about how attorneys have traditionally relied on privacy to gather facts to ensure fair trials - ''That comfort level no longer exists, and it has sent a chill through the legal community." Maybe he shouldn't defend people the president knows are, a priori, guilty and out to kill us all? That might be the defense.

On the side of social scientists, journalists and researchers - people who report on political developments or human rights abuses - one of the plaintiffs is Larry Diamond at Stanford. He says this will isolate them all - ''One reason why the United States is held in such low esteem ... today is because we are seen as hypocritical. We vow to promote individual freedom as the central purpose of foreign policy, and then we violate individual freedom with this secret warrantless surveillance.'' Well, perhaps one defense is these things shouldn't be reported? Anything is possible.

And one of the ACLU plaintiffs, is, of all people, the always acerbic and perpetually grumpy Christopher Hitchens, hyper-intellectual and pro-Bush and pro-war. What's up with that?

Hitchens explains himself here - he sees this as a test case -
Although I am named in this suit in my own behalf, I am motivated to join it by concerns well beyond my own. I have been frankly appalled by the discrepant and contradictory positions taken by the Administration in this matter. First, the entire existence of the NSA's monitoring was a secret, and its very disclosure denounced as a threat to national security.

Then it was argued that Congress had already implicitly granted the power to conduct warrantless surveillance on the territory of the United States, which seemed to make the reason for the original secrecy more rather than less mysterious. (I think we may take it for granted that our deadly enemies understand that their communications may be intercepted.)

It now appears that Congress may have granted this authority, but without quite knowing that it had, and certainly without knowing the extent of it.

This makes it critically important that we establish an understood line, and test the cases in which it may or may not be crossed.
What follows is a discussion of the NSA using law enforcement agencies to track members of a pacifist organization in Baltimore, previously covered in these pages here - he calls this "an appalling abuse of state power and an unjustified invasion of privacy" and says such stuff is not covered by any "definition of 'national security' however expansive." And he says that was "a stupid diversion of scarce resources from the real target." And he thinks there's entirely too much of such stuff.

But here's the core -
We are, in essence, being asked to trust the state to know best. What reason do we have for such confidence? The agencies entrusted with our protection have repeatedly been shown, before and after the fall of 2001, to be conspicuous for their incompetence and venality. No serious reform of these institutions has been undertaken or even proposed: Mr George Tenet (whose underlings have generated leaks designed to sabotage the Administration's own policy of regime-change in Iraq, and whose immense and unconstitutionally secret budget could not finance the infiltration of a group which John Walker Lindh could join with ease) was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

I believe the President when he says that this will be a very long war, and insofar as a mere civilian may say so, I consider myself enlisted in it. But this consideration in itself makes it imperative that we not take panic or emergency measures in the short term, and then permit them to become institutionalized. I need hardly add that wire-tapping is only one of the many areas in which this holds true.
Ah, don't panic. And there's this warning -
The better the ostensible justification for an infringement upon domestic liberty, the more suspicious one ought to be of it. We are hardly likely to be told that the government would feel less encumbered if it could dispense with the Bill of Rights. But a power or a right, once relinquished to one administration for one reason, will unfailingly be exploited by successor administrations, for quite other reasons. It is therefore of the first importance that we demarcate, clearly and immediately, the areas in which our government may or may not treat us as potential enemies.
Not a bad idea, that. But remember what Ben Franklin also said - "A countryman between two lawyers is like a fish between two cats." This will be a catfight.

But we're all enemies, until the president approves of us, and gives us each a sarcastic nickname.

Of course, the Democrats and others unhappy with Bush's new theory of the presidency, will get no traction with any of this. The vast majority of Americans, with little patience for legal and constitutional minutia, just know what they've been told - there are millions of swarthy folks with an odd religion out there who want to kill us all.

So the president breaks the law? He's just trying to keep us safe, and the Democrats and lefties are not. Rights and privacy don't matter if you're dead. You hear it all the time, like Chris Matthews on MSNBC here, interviewing Russell Tice, a former NSA guy who said he is one of the sources for the December 16 New York Times that broke this whole thing open -
MATTHEWS: We're under attack on 9-11. A couple of days after that, if I were president of the United States and somebody said we had the ability to check on all the conversations going on between here and Hamburg, Germany, where all the Al Qaeda people are, or somewhere in Saudi [Arabia], where they came from and their parents are, and we could mine some of that information by just looking for some key words like "World Trade Center" or "Pentagon," I'd do it.

TICE: Well, you'd be breaking the law.

MATTHEWS: Yeah. Well, maybe that's part of the job.
He thinks he speaks for us all. Well, he speaks for himself, and MSNBC and its parents Microsoft and NBC, and NBC's parent corporation, General Electric. But one suspects most people feel this way. If you have nothing to hide, what's the big deal? (Note, Microsoft is pulling out of the news business and slowly ending its arrangement with NBC, so count them out.)

Well, someone thinks it's a big deal. That would be Al Gore, who Monday the 16th addressed what seem to be the core issue, on stage with Bob Barr, the man who led the impeachment of Gore's boss, Bill Clinton. Now they're together - the civil libertarian and conservative no-preface libertarian.

That speech is here -
I'd like to start by saying that Congressman Bob Barr and I have disagreed many times over the years. But we have joined together today with thousands of our fellow citizens, Democrats and Republicans alike, to express our shared concern that America's Constitution is in grave danger.

In spite of our differences over ideology and politics, we are in strong agreement that the American values we hold most dear have been placed at serious risk by the unprecedented claims of the administration to a truly breathtaking expansion of executive power.

As we begin this new year, the executive branch of our government has been caught eavesdropping on huge numbers of American citizens and has brazenly declared that it has the unilateral right to continue without regard to the established law enacted by Congress precisely to prevent such abuses. It is imperative that respect for the rule of law be restored in our country.
And he's off and running -
The president and I agree on one thing: The threat from terrorism is all too real.

There is simply no question that we continue to face new challenges in the wake of the attacks on September 11th and we must be ever vigilant in protecting our citizens from harm.

Where we disagree is on the proposition that we have to break the law or sacrifice our system of government in order to protect Americans from terrorism when, in fact, doing so would make us weaker and more vulnerable.

... The president claims that he can imprison that American citizen - any American citizen he chooses - indefinitely, for the rest of his life, without even an arrest warrant, without notifying them of what charges have been filed against them, without even informing their families that they have been imprisoned.

No such right exists in the America that you and I know and love. It is foreign to our Constitution.

... At the same time, the executive branch has also claimed a previously unrecognized authority to mistreat prisoners in its custody in ways that plainly constitute torture and have plainly constituted torture -- in a widespread pattern that has been extensively documented in U.S. facilities located in several countries around the world.

Over one hundred of these captives have reportedly died while being tortured by executive branch interrogators. Many more have been broken and humiliated. And, in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, investigators who documented the pattern of torture estimated that more than 90 percent of the victims were completely innocent of any criminal charges whatsoever.

This is a shameful exercise of power that overturns a set of principles that you're nation has observed since General George Washington first enunciated them during our Revolutionary War.

... The president has also claimed that he has the authority to kidnap individuals on the streets of foreign cities and deliver them for imprisonment and interrogation on our behalf by autocratic regimes and nations that are infamous for the cruelty of their techniques for torture.

Some of our traditional allies have been deeply shocked by these new and uncharacteristic patterns on the part of America.

The president has also claimed that he has the authority to kidnap individuals on the streets of foreign cities and deliver them for imprisonment and interrogation on our behalf by autocratic regimes and nations that are infamous for the cruelty of their techniques for torture.

Some of our traditional allies have been deeply shocked by these new and uncharacteristic patterns on the part of America.
And so on. He suggests its time to stop this nonsense. Time for an independent council to investigate all this, not one selected by the president.

The Republicans are delighted - the president's press secretary, Scott McClelland, saying if Gore is the new voice of the Democratic Party, then they all welcome that. He knows that people want a strong daddy who will protect them, and maybe do nasty things to the bad guys, and don't want a mommy scold - and folks just don't like details. Gore buried the opposition.

Of course there was a lot of back and forth. Gore was a hypocrite, the Clinton administration did the same thing. The facts show otherwise (see this for details).

Here's an interesting comment from Josh Marshall -
These really aren't normal political times we're living in. And I think Gore is right to say that we're in the midst of a constitutional crisis, even though too few people are taking notice of it. Our constitution becomes the proverbial falling tree.

The point Gore makes in his speech that I think is most key is the connection between authoritarianism, official secrecy and incompetence.

The president's critics are always accusing him of law-breaking or unconstitutional acts and then also berating the incompetence of his governance. And it's often treated as, well ... he's power-hungry and incompetent to boot! Imagine that! The point though is that they are directly connected. Authoritarianism and secrecy breed incompetence; the two feed on each other. It's a vicious cycle. Governments with authoritarian tendencies point to what is in fact their own incompetence as the rationale for giving them yet more power. Katrina was a good example of this.

The basic structure of our Republic really is in danger from a president who militantly insists that he is above the law.
That's not the mainstream view. Chris Matthews has that in hand. What's the problem?

Only us old folks see a problem. What did Ben Franklin say? "I am in the prime of senility."

That must be it. Happy Birthday, Ben. You wouldn't recognize the place these days.

Posted by Alan at 20:37 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 18 January 2006 05:42 PST home

Monday, 16 January 2006
King Day: 'His voice was like a furnace of optimism, trying to triumph over despair.'
Topic: Race

King Day: 'His voice was like a furnace of optimism, trying to triumph over despair.'

Some thoughts, as this odd holiday draws to a close... Martin Luther King Day, Monday, January 16, 2006, was, as usual, low-key. Government offices, schools and the markets were closed, but most everyone was at work, and as with all holidays, there were the sales at the malls. There aren't many American holidays where folks attend to just what is being noted. Actually there are none, save, perhaps, Christmas Day. Easter is a Sunday so that is a different thing. The Fourth of July brings fireworks, so that's special. Thanksgiving is overeating and watching the Detroit Lions lose another game. All the others are just a day off, for some.

Here in Los Angeles we did have the King Day Parade in the Crenshaw District, kicking off the month-long celebration, in February, of African-American heritage, Black History Month. And our conspicuously Hispanic new mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, said this, "I have said that if it were not for Tom Bradley, Martin Luther King and the civil-rights movement, I would not be standing here today. A good number of us sitting here - women and people of color - every one of us were blessed by the sacrifices and courage and the indomitable spirit of Rosa Parks and the courage of Martin Luther King."

Something did change in the sixties, and change again on April 4, 1968, when King was assassinated, and the riots followed. Something was getting fixed and then something was broken.

With this Martin Luther King Day we got, from Taylor Branch, his third and final volume of the King years, At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68. This was the lead review in the Los Angeles Times Sunday book review. Anne-Marie O'Connor not only comments on the book, but got Taylor Branch on the phone.

Taylor Branch writes in this new book that at the time the war in Vietnam "was foundering" and antiwar sentiment was spreading, and the civil-rights struggle "was taking aim at the last vestiges of American feudalism, challenging segregation and the kind of institutionalized racism that fueled an FBI smear campaign against King." Yep, the FBI was all over him. And Taylor Branch says by phone -
Race was, and is, still scary to a lot of people. King's enemies knew that he spoke to a lot of people, and a lot of people agreed with him. He was mesmerizing, because of the timbre of his voice and his words. His voice was like a furnace of optimism, trying to triumph over despair. He defined something that was strong enough to offer hope in the face of suffering.

He was living in a time when people got lynched for almost nothing, and there was no expectation there was going to be justice. Black people were largely invisible. To be a symbol of that hope over despair is an amazing thing.
Yes. Some of us remember that, even those of us who were white kids in junior high at the time. And O'Connor quotes Clarence Jones, King's onetime attorney - "Taylor wasn't there. He was an outsider, a white Southerner. He never spoke to Mr. King. Here's this white Southern man gathering this meticulous scholarship, and you know what? He got it right."

Well, you look at things long and hard enough, and think about them, and sometimes you see what's really going on.

Branch began of course with Parting the Waters (1988) - a bestseller that won him a Pulitzer Prize. Ten years later was Pillar of Fire, and this new book warps it up. (In his spare time Branch ghost-wrote John Dean's autobiography, and co-wrote that basketball memoir with Bill Russell, the legendary and outspoken basketball star.)

Branch sees what's going on, as O'Connor notes -
The America that emerges from Branch's pages is on the razor's edge of history, and it could be cutting and ugly. King's demands for racial equality were met in Southern newspapers with grotesque cartoons whose smiling minstrels were the face of virulent hatred.

FBI agents slink around "At Canaan's Edge" like goons in a noir novel, spreading lies in a relentlessly hostile campaign to discredit him on every conceivable level, a far cry from the frequent Hollywood portrayals of civil-rights-era agents as white knights doing battle against an anonymous black backdrop.

One of the more dubious FBI smears was an attempt to portray him as an associate of Muhammad Ali. An FBI agent timidly pointed out the obvious: The plan might backfire because many people regarded the boxer as a folk hero. But his supervisors went ahead with the plan.

FBI agents wiretapped King's hotel room and phone conversations for years to record information about his infidelities, which they unsuccessfully tried to disseminate in the press. Branch says the FBI even tried to dissuade King from traveling to Oslo, Norway, to accept the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize by blackmailing him for his personal life. In Branch's eyes, the FBI was "blackmailing him toward suicide."
Well. James Earl Ray took care of things so it didn't come to that.

But the damage was done. King had started something.

Branch credits the King-led civil rights movement with "deepening democratization, providing momentum for the budding antiwar and women's movements," and "making gay rights imaginable."
King was writ large. He's echoing Jefferson and Lincoln as well as Isaiah and Jeremiah. He speaks on the shoulders of the prophets and the patriots alike. We don't hear that kind of language now, and if we did I think it would make us all better citizens.
Maybe so. But as for the civil rights movement with "deepening democratization, providing momentum for the budding antiwar and women's movements," and "making gay rights imaginable," is that a stretch?

Well, Taylor Branch says no, and argues that in his long assessment of King and his legacy, Globalizing King's Legacy, published in the New York Times on the holiday, and the following day in the Times' Paris newspaper, the International Herald Tribune.

Everyone has honed in on what comes near the end of the piece -
We could also restore Dr. King's role in the continuing story of freedom to its rightful prominence, emphasizing that the best way to safeguard democracy is to practice it. And we must recognize that the accepted tradeoff between freedom and security is misguided, because our values are the essence of our strength. If dungeons, brute force and arbitrary rule were the keys to real power, Saudi Arabia would be a model for the future instead of the past.
But there's more, and he uses the twentieth of these "official celebrations" to explain.

He quotes King after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, claiming the movement had revived nothing less than the visionary heritage of the American Revolution. -"The stirring lesson of this age is that mass nonviolent direct action is not a peculiar device for Negro agitation. "Rather it is a historically validated method for defending freedom and democracy, and for enlarging these values for the benefit of the whole society."

King makes that extraordinary claim, but Branch notes what followed -
Parallel tides opened doors for the first female students at some universities and most private colleges, then the military academies. In 1972, civil rights agitation over doctrines of equal souls produced the first public ordination of a female rabbi in the United States, and the Episcopal Church soon introduced female clergy members in spite of schismatic revolts to preserve religious authority for men. Pauli Murray, a lawyer who was one of the pioneer priests, had pursued a legal appeal that in 1966 overturned several state laws flatly prohibiting jury service by women. "The principle announced seems so obvious today," Dr. Murray would write in a memoir, "that it is difficult to remember the dramatic break the court was making."

Overseas, as an amalgam of forces suddenly dissolved the Soviet empire atop its mountain of nuclear weapons, Dr. King's message echoed in the strains of "We Shall Overcome" heard along the Berlin Wall and the streets of Prague. Likewise, South African apartheid melted without the long-dreaded racial Armageddon, on miraculous healing words from a former prisoner, Nelson Mandela. Students shocked the world from Tiananmen Square with nonviolent demonstrations modeled on American sit-ins, planting seeds of democracy within the authoritarian shell of Chinese Communism.

These and other sweeping trends from the civil rights era have transformed daily life in many countries, and now their benefit is scarcely contested.
Yes, all that followed, and what King did started something, or at least made something possible.

And now? Branch says "the political discourse behind them is atrophied."
Public service has fallen into sad disrepute. Spitballs pass for debate. Comedians write the best-selling books on civics. Dr. King's ideas are not so much rebutted as cordoned off or begrudged, and for two generations his voice of anguished hope has given way to a dominant slogan that government itself is bad.

Above all, no one speaks for nonviolence. Indeed, the most powerful discipline from the freedom movement was the first to be ridiculed across the political spectrum. "A hundred political commentators have interred nonviolence into a premature grave," Dr. King complained after Selma. The concept seemed alien and unmanly.
Yep, we live in an age where violence is not only praised, but all else is considered foolishness. Branch is, with King, saying that "every ballot - the most basic element of free government - is by definition a piece of nonviolence, symbolizing hard-won or hopeful consent to raise politics above anarchy and war."

Of course we have to have a war to set up those elections in Iraq. Very odd. What would King think of that? Branch says that a few hours before King stepped out on the Memphis balcony and was gunned down he said, "In our next campaign we have to institutionalize nonviolence and take it international." A preemptive war may not have been what he had in mind. Still, the president on the holiday visited the Library of Congress and did a photo-op where he peered that the Emancipation Proclamation under glass, and later said King was "one of the greatest Americans who ever lived." But he did not urge that we institutionalize nonviolence. That's not his style.

On the King holiday the president had to deal with the fallout from his style of making the world better - As Pakistanis Protest, Questions Remain - Four Days After The Deadly Airstrikes, Answers Prove Elusive.

That item, from Jim Maceda of NBC, is one of many summaries of the situation - we tried to take out Osama bin Laden's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, with a precision airstrike in the wilds of Pakistan, but didn't seem to get him. We got eighteen civilians, including women and children, and over the weekend, "tens of thousands of angry Pakistanis took to the streets." This is not good.

The president's father, now a UN special envoy, met with Pakistan President Pervez Musharra, and got an earful. The elder Bush wanted to talk about earthquake relief, but Pervez Musharra is catching crap from his own people over this. We're supposed to be allies. One supposes folks are asking Musharra just why being with the Americans in all this is such a good thing. Maceda says this mistake "squandered all goodwill toward America and damaged Musharraf's credibility." No kidding.

But is it their fault? What did Pakistanis really know about the attack? -
Very little. It seemed to take the country by surprise. Government officials claim they had no warning. Even former intelligence chief Gen. Hameed Gul, who worked closely with the CIA for years, said he was shocked.

"The CIA, they are responsible for the action and then Pakistan is not taken into confidence," he says.

But other counterterrorism sources tell NBC News that, with 50,000 security forces along the Afghan border, Pakistani agents must have been in the know.

Could the intelligence have been phony?

Pakistan's five intelligence agencies - with different agendas - compete with each other. Intelligence is often sold to the highest bidder and corruption runs deep.
This, lying and death from the sky, is not with King would have envisioned as bringing democracy to the world.

Jim Miklaszewski provides more detail here - we're talking not one Predator drone, but three, simultaneously firing hellfire missiles at three separate targets. The CIA drones monitored the movements of al Qaeda suspects at the village for two weeks before the attack - and this was CIA and not the military, who are saying nothing. "Live Predator video is fed real-time from Pakistan to the Global Response Center on the sixth floor of the CIA outside Washington. From there, CIA Director Porter Goss himself would give the order. But if he's not available, the deputy or assistant CIA directors five levels down can also order the strike." Fine. That's what we do.

But it may turn out all fine. It seems we're testing bits and pieces, and the DNA from some small chunk of flesh from the scene may match the DNA of Ayman al-Zawahiri, and everyone will calm down and we'll look real good after all, because now, unlike the days of Martin Luther King, the ends really do justify the means.

That may be what has really changed. King, in inspired by Gandhi, held that the means by which you achieve your goal were, well, part of the goal - don't sink to violence, keep your dignity, and your honor, and as Taylor Branch says, understand "the best way to safeguard democracy is to practice it." Now? We'll bomb and kill to force you accept democracy.

King saw the same problem with Vietnam -
And as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond to compassion my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think of them too because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries.
The president may say nice things about him on the holiday, but King would not be amused.

These days are like those days. The New York Times here quotes unnamed "American counterterrorism" officials about this business in Pakistan -
They offered a defense of the attack, saying they did not believe that innocent bystanders in Pakistan had been killed. One counterterrorism official said that even if Mr. Zawahiri was not killed in the attacks, "Some very senior Al Qaeda types might have been." The official declined to identify other Qaeda members thought to have been at the scene.
Well, you never know.

And then have your politicians -
"Now, it's a regrettable situation, but what else are we supposed to do?" Sen. Evan Bayh, asked rhetorically. "It's like the wild, wild west out there. The Pakistani border's a real problem."

Bayh, an Indiana Democrat, said the "real problem" lay with the Pakistani government's inability to control that part of the country, where sympathetic residents were believed to be harboring al Qaeda leaders.

"So, regrettably, this kind of thing is what we're left with," Bayh told CNN's "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer."

... And Sen. Trent Lott added, "I would have a problem if we didn't do it."

"There's no question that they're still causing the death of millions of - or thousands of - innocent people and directing operations in Iraq," said Lott, a Mississippi Republican. "Absolutely, we should do it."

Bayh expressed similar sentiments, and cited the al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington of September 11, 2001, as justification. "These people killed 3,000 Americans. They have to be brought to justice."

Senator John McCain, also concurred. "It's terrible when innocent people are killed; we regret that," he told CBS' "Face the Nation."

"But we have to do what we think is necessary to take out al Qaeda, particularly the top operatives. This guy has been more visible than Osama bin Laden lately.

"We regret it. We understand the anger that people feel, but the United States' priorities are to get rid of al Qaeda, and this was an effort to do so."

He added, "We apologize, but I can't tell you that we wouldn't do the same thing again."
The end justifies the means, and sorry about the dead kids.

All that is discussed by "Jeanne" here at Body and Soul -
We don't believe we killed innocent people. And even if we did, it doesn't matter because we might have killed some bad people at the same time and that would be good. And even if we didn't get any bad people, some of the "innocent" people may be sympathetic to the bad people. After all, these people killed three thousand Americans. Well, maybe not "these people" precisely, but some people who kind of looked like them, and came from roughly the same part of the world, give or take a thousand miles.

At least 18 people dead, and the senators are most anxious to assure us that it will happen again - just in case anyone was worried that we might display some signs of humanity.

So what else are we supposed to do? I know that's a rhetorical question, but let's treat it as an honest one nonetheless.

What else are we supposed to do?

... Awhile back, I said that I thought the Christian Peacemaker Teams were doing the most essential work in the world today - serving as models of what can be done with love, without violence. This is what I was talking about. Violence has not only produced nothing but more violence - blowback, if you will - but it's lead far too many of us to a soul-numbing state where we learn that we have murdered children and can convince ourselves there's no other way.

... Imagine what might happen if, today, in Pakistan, in Dr. King's honor, we took those words to heart, and heard the cries, and vowed to do everything we could to repair the damage, acknowledging that we could never entirely do so?
That'll be the day. We don't have leaders like that these days.

We don't, even on domestic issues.

Back in November, on the occasion of what would have been Bobby Kennedy's eightieth birthday, in these pages, here, you find what he had to say -
... there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions, indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor; this poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is the slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.

This is the breaking of a man's spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men. And this too afflicts us all. I have not come here to propose a set of specific remedies nor is there a single set. For a broad and adequate outline we know what must be done. When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies - to be met not with cooperation but with conquest, to be subjugated and mastered.

We learn, at the last, to look on our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community, men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear - only a common desire to retreat from each other - only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force. For all this there are no final answers. Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve true justice among our fellow citizens. The question is not what program to enact. The question is whether we can find in our midst and in our own hearts that leadership of human purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence.

We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of all. We must admit in ourselves that our own children's future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled nor enriched by hatred or revenge. Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land.
Well, he got shot too, just down the hill at the old Ambassador Hotel (now almost gone as they're tearing it down to build a new high school complex there).

Can the Democrats find another like him?

Consider this -
Let's review. Bush steals one, probably both elections through vote fraud, but the Democrats won't make an issue of it because that would undermine faith in the democratic process. Bush fails to react to copious pre-9/11 warnings, before the attack, but the Democrats won't make an issue of it because that would undermine national unity at a time when we need to pull together. Bush makes a decision to go to war, then lies repeatedly to fool the country into supporting it, but the Democrats won't make an issue of it because that would undermine our troops and war effort. Secret Bush policies condone and cover-up prisoner torture, but the Democrats won't make an issue of it because they suspect that people basically don't mind torture (really) as long as the victims "deserve it" and it is in the service of "protecting" us. The Bush gang hands them the biggest gift imaginable in the Plame scandal, but the Democrats won't make an issue of it because they don't want the investigation to appear "partisan." Bush breaks the law, illegally eavesdrops on innocent Americans, then says openly that he thinks its just fine and plans to keep doing it, but the Democrats won't make an issue of it because they are afraid of appearing "soft" on national security. Bush appoints a Supreme Court nominee who is openly supportive of the worst of these Executive policies, and who is explicitly committed to overturning abortion rights, but the Democrats won't make an issue of it because they are afraid of a fight over the filibuster. Congressional Republicans have created the biggest corruption scandal in decades, but the Democrats won't make an issue of it because a couple of them might be caught up in the net. Do these people WANT to win?
Maybe not.

Posted in these pages here on 28 May 2003, in the first year on line -
Do you remember the clear-headed, no-bullshit, let's-be-fair liberals of yesterday? Bobby Kennedy in that last run just laying it all out - hey, some stuff is wrong here and why don't we think it through, fix it and make things better? Well, Bobby got shot. Martin Luther King doing the same thing. Well, he got shot a few months earlier than Bobby. Of course, to be fair, George Wallace got shot too. Lots of people got shot.

But the point is that those optimistic "why don't we fix it and make things better" kinds of guys are nowhere to be found these days.

... No Democrat will win anything by whining about the smirking frat boy or by fretting about some British essayist hating cheeseburgers and everything American. To win the Democrats would have to field an opponent with a sense of humor, some brains, and a lot of optimism, someone who listens to what is being said, and is willing to say - "Hey, some stuff is wrong here and why don't we think it through, fix it and make things better?"

It does not seem like that is going to happen. And if it did, he or she would get shot.
So on and on we go.

The best we can do now is Al Gore?

In Martin Luther King Day Address, Gore Compares Wiretapping Of Americans To Surveillance Of King and this: "Al Gore has become the conscience of the Democratic Party."

It sort of makes you miss Martin and Bobby.

Posted by Alan at 20:57 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Monday, 16 January 2006 21:07 PST home

Sunday, 15 January 2006
Lots of Questions
Topic: Announcements

Lots of Questions

The new issue of Just Above Sunset - Volume 4, Number 3 for the week of Sunday, January 15, 2006 - is now available. This is weekly magazine-format site (an e-zine as they say) that is parent to this daily web log. What was first appeared here is there extended and corrected, and there are fresh columns and pages of high-resolution photographs.

This week, how is it we cannot agree on what we're disagreeing on? That's a matter of who gets to define terms. Just what is the subject? And just how does the media select which stories come first, and which get buried in the back pages, and which we shouldn't heard about - and what does the government do, or should it do, to keep a lid on things? And what is permissible discussion these days - what's playing fair and what isn't? And while we were all (or some of us) checking out what Judge Alito had to say, what about Iran, and Israel giving Pat Roberson the bum's rush, and a host of other matters elsewhere? And in the middle of all the week's events (don't use your cell phone) - just what is going on with the military, and what was that British fellow saying about our methods? It's all here, and so are some notes on a very odd science book, having nothing to do with currents events, but having everything to do with what happens every day.

The International Desk is dark this week. "Our Man in Paris," Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, is busy - deep in rebuilding his own website. But late Sunday afternoon he sent along a photo essay - about his annual visit to "The Old Iron Lady On The Champ De Mars." That will be added overnight.

Bob Patterson, as the World's Laziest Journalist, in this issue, wonders about fact checking, but there's no Book Wrangler this week. Bob is in Texas, sort of on assignment, and some of that Texas talk will appear in upcoming issues.

The photography pages this week explore the theater scene in Hollywood - where actual people appear in person on stage and you don't watch forty foot faces projected on a giant screen in large dark room smelling of popcorn. See where Marilyn Monroe performed, and more. And there's a page of some odd architectural details of Hollywood too - Art Deco meets Gothic, and more.

The quotes this week have to do with getting one's facts straight.

Direct links to specific pages -

Current Events ______________________

Defining Terms: He Who Defines the Terms Controls the Argument
Press Notes: Hazards Regarding Selecting What to Report
Playing Fair: Knowing the Rules and What's Permissible
Foreign Affairs: Idling at Home and Full Throttle Elsewhere
Editor's Choice: Hot News versus Military Matters

Book Notes ______________________

Books: The Velocity of Everydayness

Bob Patterson ______________________

WLJ Weekly: from the desk of the World's Laziest Journalist - Picking The "What?" Out Of The Salad?

Southern California Photography ______________________

Working Hollywood: Little Theaters with Real People

Quotes for the week of January 15, 2006 – "Just the facts, ma'am..."

More to follow...

Posted by Alan at 16:10 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Sunday, 15 January 2006 16:27 PST home

Saturday, 14 January 2006
Hollywood is Closed Today
Topic: Photos

Hollywood is Closed Today

No blog entries today - those will resume late Sunday. Today is a drive south, just ahead of the rain, to San Diego, for a party to welcome home our Major after his long tour of duty in Iraq. He missed Christmas so it's sort of a Christmas dinner too. So this is it for today.

The weekly parent site to this web log, the magazine-format Just Above Sunset, will also be posted around noon, Pacific Time, tomorrow. Along with a collection of photos of "working Hollywood" - the alternative small-stage theater scene here - there will be a page on Hollywood architectural details.

Here's a preview - the Hollywood First National Bank (6777 Hollywood Boulevard, at Highland), which shows up in the background of many photos in these pages, and in countless movies. It went up in 1927 - Meyer and Holler, the architects, also designed the famous Chinese Theater one block west. This thing, an odd combination of Gothic and Art Deco, was, at the time, the tallest building in Los Angeles (thirteen stories) - until the Los Angeles City Hall was built in 1932. It's a landmark, but as you see here, it's just so damned Hollywood. This was snapped at noon, Thursday, January 12th - before the rain.

Posted by Alan at 07:34 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

Friday, 13 January 2006
Books: The Velocity of Everydayness
Topic: Science

Books: The Velocity of Everydayness

There is no Book Wrangler column in this weekend's issue of Just Above Sunset as that particular wrangler, columnist Bob Patterson, has left his Los Angeles haunts for a long weekend in Texas. He has one of the organization's digital cameras with him, so who knows what we'll see in the January 22nd issue? He mentioned nothing about dropping by Crawford to capture the presidential brush-clearing. Perhaps we'll get long vistas with cows. Perhaps not.

Wait! There's "an organization" here? Not really. We pretend there is.

In any event, in his absence it just seems wrong not to have a book column. So here it is, and it concerns The Velocity of Honey and More Science of Everyday Life, first published by Viking Canada in 2003, but being published down here by Thunder's Mouth Press. The official publication date is February 9, but the early reviews are trickling in. The author, Jay Ingram, is host of the Canadian Discovery Channel's Daily Planet, and given the word "more" in the book title, you need to know this is a sequel to his earlier How to Dunk a Doughnut: The Science of Everyday Life.

Ingram, although he has a master's degree in microbiology from the University of Toronto, also has a sly sense of humor. So we've moved from the science how to dunk a doughnut - too many hours at Tim Horton's, no doubt - to calculating the velocity of honey. This is odd stuff.

So what is the science behind the theory of "six degrees of separation" and how do stones "skip" - and why does toast fall butter side down, and why does time seem to speed up as one grows older? And too, when visiting a new place, why does getting there always seem to take so much longer than returning home? There are twenty-four chapters, or "short meditations" if you will, on such things in this second book.

As Diana Lutz notes in her review in American Scientist, you might call the book "crossword puzzles for the scientifically minded - they offer a mental workout for its own sake but also soothe and amuse." In fact, Ingram calls this volume "a self-help book " -essays to "reduce stress" and offer "a brief interruption in the ridiculous rush of life."

Given the news of the week covered elsewhere in the pages, that's a good thing. If he's going to explain the physics of the way paper crumples and crackles when it is squeezed, then this makes sense. That's just what happens with the Los Angeles Times here some mornings.

But he's Canadian, so we do get a bit on the sport of curling. He wonders about those twenty-kilo "rocks" they use. As Lutz summarizes -
An upside-down drinking glass, rotating clockwise as it slides down a bar, begins to curve left. Why, then, does the curling rock curve right under similar circumstances? This question is harder to answer than you might think. The mechanism might have to do with the build-up of ice chips under the rock as it plows across the ice, which could conceivably also be what makes it growl (yes, rocks growl), but nobody knows for sure.
It's not the Molson's? Fascinating.

Other issues? Can you make yourself wake up at a predetermined time? (Seems so here.) Do you have a sixth sense that allows you to perceive objects in your path even in total darkness? (That's easy. No, you use one of the five, your sense of hearing, and he suggests hissing while you move your hand slowly closer to your face. You'll get the idea.)

But the scary part concerns why, as we get older, the years seem to go by faster and faster. There are real experiments that suggest an explanation for this - as we age, our biological clocks run slower and, since our clocks are running slower, the world seems to speed up. Lutz says Ingram describes a man with a brain tumor that affected his biological clock - and the fellow quit driving and watching television because traffic seemed to be rushing at him at an incomprehensible speed and television screeched on faster than he could follow. When I get a copy of the book I'll skip that chapter, as that may be happening here now. The bottom line is that when you're twenty, your life is half over, given how your "biological clock" works. Somehow that feels right.

Until you get you copy of the book, you might want to check out this radio interview (audio link and transcript) with Ingram from Living on Earth, November 18, 2005. The host is Steve Curwood.

Here's a bit -
CURWOOD: Okay, how fast is honey?

INGRAM: Well, it depends on the height you're dropping it onto your toes. The higher it is, the faster it's going to fall. It also coils up in a really interesting way on your toes, too. You know, honey dripping on toes is just one of the many everyday experiences that has really interesting science in it.
Yeah, but he doesn't explain it.

He does explain toast always hitting the floor butter-side down -
It's actually a very simple answer and that is - it really has to do with the height of the table above the floor.

Most kitchen tables where you're eating you're eating your toast are about the same height. And here's the thing: if the toast tips off the edge of the table, then it starts to rotate, so when it's rotating, if you gave it enough time, it could rotate a full 360 and land butter-side up and you'd be okay.

Or, if the kitchen table were just inches above the floor, the toast could tilt but not quite fall over. It will rotate less than 90 degrees and settle back so that it was still butter-side up. And it turns out that toast falling off the edge of a table and rotating, if it's a typical table, doesn't have enough time to do a full 360 and will land butter-side down.
Oh. The intelligent design people would say it was God determining this all - the toast always landing upside down is a mini-Job trial for us all. Science it seems, can explain lots of things. Even the most mundane.

And there's this -
CURWOOD: (LAUGHS) But wait a second, you're saying scientists sit around studying which side toast is going to land on when it goes off the table?

INGRAM: Yeah, so there's two ways of reacting to this. One, I detect in your voice, a kind of arching of the eyebrows. "What? Scientists do this?" But you know, scientists have senses of humor too, and I'm quite sure that those scientists who've investigated this are doing it partly to collect the data because it's kind of interesting; partly just to amuse themselves and, hopefully, others.
Science is fun? Well it can be. Except for the "Are You Staring At Me?" chapter. Check that out in the interview. If somebody's stares at you, do you generally interpret it as a threatening gesture? The experiment is strange, and disturbing.

And there's this on the time passing business -
Well, we all know, if we've been living long enough, as you get older time seems to move more quickly. And, you know, I think this is pretty common. You remember summer vacation when you were in grade 6 or grade 5? It seemed to take forever. Well, summer vacations now you barely catch your breath before you have start work again in the fall.

One of the questions is why does this happen? And it seems that one of our biological clocks in our brain slows down with age, just as many things slow down. And with a slower clock, more events seem to happen in a given time, so it feels like time is moving faster. The more interesting aspect, though, to me, is just how much faster is it?

And a guy named Robert Lemlich came up with an equation in the mid-70s or so, and he argued that... here's the really depressing part of this: Let's say that you're 40 right now, and you're going to live to 80. So you feel like, "hey, I've got half my life ahead of me." Lemlich says, well, you may have literally another 40 years, half your life, but it's not going to feel like that. And he did some calculations and showed that when you're 40 time is probably seeming to pass by, subjective time is going twice as fast as it did when you were ten. On that basis, you've really actually already lived more than 70 percent of your subjective life. So, you think you have half your life left; it's only going to feel like 30 percent of your life. And by the time you're 60, that 20 years is only going to feel like 13 percent of your life.
Yipes! And the he quotes the nineteenth century British poet Robert Southey - "Live as long as you may, the first twenty years are the longest half of your life. They appear so while they're passing, they seem to have been when we look back on them, and they take up more room in our memory than all the years that succeed them."

Damn, that's cold. Time doesn't really fly when you're having fun. It just flies, faster and faster and faster. Not fair!

Ah well. Time to hunt down this book.


Note: This is the age of the internet. Jay Ingram's blog is here.

Posted by Alan at 20:08 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

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