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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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Friday, 3 February 2006
Cartoon Wars: The Sacred and the Profane
Topic: The Media

Cartoon Wars: The Sacred and the Profane

Obviously it is hard to write about "The Sacred and the Profane" (not the book) from Just Above Sunset in Hollywood, given local events like this - Lee Tamahori, the fellow from New Zealand who directed the James Bond movie "Die Another Day," was arrested on January 8th in a Hollywood prostitution sting while dressed in drag - but the news just hit the wires this week, as the charges came up in a criminal complaint filed in the Los Angeles Superior Court. (Reporters still scan those.) Tamahori approached an undercover policeman while wearing women's clothes and smiled broadly, as it were. The charges are agreeing to engage in an act of prostitution and unlawfully loitering on Hollywood's Santa Monica Boulevard.

What a world... and that's just down the hill, somewhere between the area the police used to call boy's town and the odd little theater district.

Of course, there are redeeming local stories of directors, as we see here - on January 26th, just up the hill, less that a mile from here, one of them did a good thing. That day, young Joaquin Phoenix, just after he got a best actor Oscar nomination for "Walk the Line" - in which he plays the late Johnny Cash, and even signs the songs himself - crashed his car on Lookout Mountain Road, just off Laurel Canyon. He says he lost his brakes, swerved to avoid another car, and well, his car went up the hillside and he ended up inside, a bit upside down. Oops.

Now Joaquin Phoenix is thirty-one, famous, rich and a big star - so you'd think he'd be able to afford a good car. Be that as it may, first on the scene, helping him from the car, was a local resident, Werner Herzog, the German director. The Los Angeles Times item quotes Joaquin Phoenix - "I remember this knocking on the passenger window. There was this German voice saying, 'Just relax.' I said to myself, 'That's Werner Herzog!' There's something so calming and beautiful about Werner Herzog's voice." Very odd. Herzog helped him out of the wreck and just faded away. The Times does not tell us if Herzog was in drag - but they do remind us Herzog just won Best Documentary down at the Directors Guild for his film "Grizzly Man." (The Directors Guild is a block away, and looks like this - and to the west is the Viper Room, Johnny Depp's club, where Joaquin's brother, River Phoenix, died of a drug overdose some years back - the chalk lines on the sidewalk are still there.)

This is a strange place, and far from the heartland, specifically far from Bennett, out in Colorado, where we get this - parents up in arms because of Gounod's "Faust."


It seems the new schoolmarm - actually an elementary school music teacher - showed the kids clips from a thirty-three-year-old PBS thing called "Who's Afraid of Opera" - specifically Dame Joan Sutherland and three puppet "friends" discussing Gounod's "Faust." Bad move - "Any adult with common sense would not think that video was appropriate for a young person to see. I'm not sure it's appropriate for a high school student." You see, Faust sells his soul to the devil, and as one parent says, "I think it glorifies Satan in some way."

So there. The new schoolmarm sent a letter of apology to all elementary school parents in Bennett. She tells the Denver Post - "I was definitely not sensitive to the conservative nature of the community, and I've learned that. However, from what has been said about me, that I'm a Satan worshipper, my character, I can't believe all of this. My intention was just to expose the kids to opera."

She's leaving town after the school year.

She might be comfortable out here - this community doesn't exactly have "a conservative nature," and has a pretty good opera company. But then again, out here we have this other German voice saying, "Just relax..." - and that'd be our governor, Arnold Shwarzenegger, not Werner Herzog.

So, just what should upset us, and what should we just let slide as not our business?

Well, what should upset us is cartoons. The Muslim world is up in arms at what the Danes published, and the Pentagon is outraged at what the Washington Post published. No one outside that tiny town in high plains of Colorado seems to be mad at the nineteenth-century French composer Charles Gounod, although much of his music is somewhere between pedestrian and silly. Everyone else is argry about cartoons.

Go figure.

Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, has been sending items on the Danish mess, as the French became involved. And it's a very odd story - provocative cartoons in the Danish and Norwegian papers depicting the Prophet Muhammad provoking rage in the Muslim world. What's up with that?

Well, Islamic law, based on clerics' interpretation of the Koran and the sayings of the prophet, forbids any depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, even positive ones, to prevent idolatry. We have this or that plaster Jesus, hyper-realistic with blood and all that (see Mel Gibson) or abstracted in some way, above the alter of every church. It's a reminder of Christ's suffering and all that, while these folks think such things are just plain wrong - it cheapens it all (see the plastic Jesus on the dashboard).

And too, Denmark, Holland and Netherlands are a hot spot, particularly after the murder of the Dutch documentary filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in 2004, and the subsequent trial and conviction with the defendant being quite blandly unrepentant - this particular Van Gogh insulted Islam and the Prophet, and he'd slit the guy's throat again gladly. There was much discussion of how we can get along with such people. (Full background here, and this Van Gogh, oddly enough, was a descendant of the brother of the famous painter.)

This controversy didn't just come out of the blue. Note here, the drawings were commissioned by the Jyllands-Posten (Jutland Post) to accompany an article on self-censorship and freedom - and a deliberate challenge to Muslim insistence that their religious feelings must be given special consideration. It seems Danish writer Kåre Bluitgen was unable failed to find any artists willing to illustrate his children's book about Mohammed - they all worried about violent attacks by extremist Muslims. Theo Van Gogh was on their minds. So the paper, on its own, commissioned some folks to do some drawings - forty artists were invited to give their interpretation on of how Mohammed may have looked. Twelve (brave, foolish, broke?) members of the Danish editorial cartoonists union responded. And the paper published the article and the commissioned drawings September 30th of last year. This may have been a bad move.

See this for a continually updated detailed account of the whole mess. The cartoons can been seen here - but they come down to this:
- The face of Muhammad as a part of the Islamic star and crescent symbol. His right eye the star, the crescent surrounds his beard and face.

- The most controversial drawing shows Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, with a lit fuse and the Islamic creed written on the bomb.

- Muhammad standing with a halo in the shape of a crescent moon.

- An abstract drawing of crescent moons and Stars of David, and a poem on oppression of women "Profet! Med kuk og knald i låget som holder kvinder under åget!". In English the poem could be read as: "Prophet! daft and dumb, keeping woman under thumb"

- Muhammad as a peaceful wanderer, in the desert, at sunset. There is a donkey in the background.

- One shows a nervous caricaturist, shakingly drawing Muhammad while looking over his shoulder.

- Two angry Muslims charge forward with sabres and bombs, while Muhammad addresses them with: "Rolig, venner, når alt kommer til alt er det jo bare en tegning lavet af en vantro sønderjyde" (loosely, "Relax guys, it's just a drawing made by some infidel South Jutlander". The reference is to a common Danish expression for a person from the middle of nowhere.)

- An Asian-looking boy in front of a blackboard, pointing to the Farsi chalkings, which translate into "the editorial team of Jyllands-Posten is a bunch of reactionary provocateurs". The boy is labelled "Mohammed, Valby school, 7.A", implying that this Muhammed is a second-generation immigrant to Denmark rather than the man Muslims believe was a prophet. On his shirt is written "Fremtiden" (the future). According to the editor of Jyllands Posten, he didn't know what was written on the blackboard before it was published.

- Another drawing shows an angry Muhammad with a short sabre and a black bar censoring his eyes. He is flanked by two women in niqaabs, having only their eyes visible.

- Muhammad standing on a cloud, greeting dead suicide bombers with "Stop Stop vi er løbet tør for Jomfruer!" ("Stop, stop, we have run out of virgins!"), an allusion to the promised reward to martyrs.

- Another shows Kåre Bluitgen, wearing a turban with the proverbial orange dropping into it, with the inscription "Publicity stunt". In his hand is a stick drawing of Muhammad. An "orange in the turban" is a Danish proverb meaning "a stroke of luck."
That's it.

See? That wasn't so bad. But it was bad enough.

The paper said this -
The modern, secular society is rejected by some Muslims. They demand a special position, insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings.

It is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech, where you must be ready to put up with insults, mockery and ridicule.

It is certainly not always equally attractive and nice to look at, and it does not mean that religious feelings should be made fun of at any price, but that is less important in this context. [...] we are on our way to a slippery slope where no one can tell how the self-censorship will end.
And it seems some folks across Europe agreed. As Ric reported from Paris, France Soir, published them, in a sort of free press solidarity move. The publisher fired the editor over that, but then the publisher is half-Egyptian, even if a good Catholic Frenchman. The always left Libération, founded by Jean-Paul Sartre, posted them as background information for a series of articles. It was the controversy of the week. Le Monde is here (in French), saying this is really about threatening those who want to discuss and debate the intersection of fundamentalism and politics, the clash between freedom and faith. (Has anyone ever mentioned the French love to debate big topics?)

In any event, Le Monde posted this cartoon, full of that trademark French ironic wit - the words say "I must not draw Muhammad."

But then by the end of the week, this had good global, as Associated Press reports here - "a swell of protests across the Muslim world" Friday - Britain, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Palestinian areas - demonstrators demanding revenge against Denmark and death for those they accuse of "defaming Islam's holiest figure." In Sudan, some demonstrators urged al Qaeda to target Denmark. Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller called Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and said the Danish government "cannot accept an assault against Islam" - but that's according to Abbas' office. The Danes may not cave. And Abbas just lost that election to the Hamas folks and has to look good.

But in Palestinian you had your prayers for a boycott of Danish and European goods and for severing of diplomatic ties, with lots of burning the Danish flag and calling for vengeance - chants of "Bin Laden our beloved, Denmark must be blown up." So the foreign diplomats, aid workers and journalists began pulling out of Palestinian areas Thursday - kidnapping threats.

In Iraq demonstrators burned Danish journalists in effigy and set fire to boxes of Danish cheese. Mmmmm, toasted cheese... But get this - Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said the publication of the drawings was a "horrific action" - but then his website referred to "misguided and oppressive" segments of the Muslim community whose actions "projected a distorted and dark image of the faith of justice, love and brotherhood." (We're not so bad?)

That might depend on your point of view. Go here for pictures of the demonstrations in London - the signs read "Butcher Those Who Mock Islam" and "Exterminate Those Who Mock Islam" and "Be Prepared for the Real Holocaust." So much for the faith of justice, love and brotherhood.

And Andrew Sullivan here points out the irony - "... these people have a right to say these things - the very right they are trying to deny others with the threat of violence." Yeah, well... they're angry.

Sullivan also says this -
European countries would be in a stronger position to defend press freedom if they practiced it more often. There's a bill in the British parliament right now to make offending people's religion a legal offense. Germany bans depictions of the swastika and makes Holocaust-denial a crime. One reason I love America is its First Amendment. I suspect it has something to do with the more moderate Muslim population in the United States, compared with Europe's. Once you start censoring people, you have to deal with the problem of double-standards. If you defend free speech in every case, you're on firmer ground.
But that's not the way it's going.

See this from Reuters - "Mona Omar Attia, Egypt's ambassador to Denmark, said after a meeting with Rasmussen that she was satisfied with the position of the Danish government but noted the prime minister had said he could not interfere with the press. 'This means the whole story will continue and that we are back to square one again. The government of Denmark has to do something to appease the Muslim world,' Attia said."

Egypt's ambassador to Denmark is saying the Danes just have to get their press under control. They should only write the right things, as defined by... the prophet?

Seems odd. The Danes are saying that's not how they see role of the press. The government doesn't tell the press what is proper to report. That's not how it's done.

Well, our government disagrees, as we see here -
The United States backed Muslims on Friday against European newspapers that printed caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad in a move that could help America's battered image in the Islamic world.

Inserting itself into a dispute that has become a lightning rod for anti-European sentiment across the Muslim world, the United States sided with Muslims outraged that the publications put press freedom over respect for religion.

"These cartoons are indeed offensive to the belief of Muslims," State Department spokesman Kurtis Cooper said in answer to a question.

"We all fully recognize and respect freedom of the press and expression but it must be coupled with press responsibility. Inciting religious or ethnic hatreds in this manner is not acceptable."
Okay then, you think you're reporting on an issue, and those you report on say that's not reporting on an issue at all - that's inciting hatred!

There's a problem here. Anyone who is subject to a press piece can use that dodge. You see it all the time played out on Fox News with O'Reilly and Hannity - the left suggests the president's war may have been a tactical and strategic blunder of the first order, for reasons X, Y and Z (with footnotes), and there may be some other alternatives, but then the left is told they are just seething with irrational hatred for George Bush and the probably hate America too, and they probably think al Qaeda should take over the world. Huh? The international issue right now is a page of cartoons, of all things. But like "the war on Christians and Christmas" asking that the giant Ten Commandments granite thing and the "Jesus Rules" stuff be removed from public courthouse, or saying Happy Holidays in December, what seems neutral or, in the case of the cartoons, analytical, becomes an attack on this religion or that. It's most curious.

One man's "incitement to hatred" in another man's discussion of pros and cons. Who gets to define which it is?

So US publications have not republished the cartoons. The European press has.

And the governments? "The US response contrasted with European governments, which have tended to acknowledge the tension between free speech and respect for religion but have generally accepted the newspapers' rights to print the cartoons."

There's load of irony here that hardly needs explaining. The rest of the world doesn't understand what a "free press" is all about, and we do, because we self-censor out of fear and government pressure? It seems odd to be shown up by the Europeans on this First Amendment stuff. That used to be our pride and joy. Oh well. Times change.

The State Department says its reaction "was a strong statement in support of Muslims around the world. It's a reflection of the concern felt by millions of Muslims and I think it will be appreciated." So they hope. "It is support for an understanding that with freedom comes responsibility." (We'll keep our press in line because we're really scared of you guys.)

Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, is saying the United States was responsible for creating far more anger in the Muslim world because of its invasion of Iraq - "The United States is the last nation that should caution against unnecessarily inflaming sentiments in the Muslim world."

It's a mess.

More detail?

There's this -
It's possible to regard the cartoon crisis as either a strategic disaster or boon for the War on Terror. The argument for it being a disaster is the assertion that in the war against extremists it is necessary to win over the moderates. And even if winning them over is impossible one may still be capable of keeping them neutral or indifferent; but at all events to avoid raising the Muslim masses in an emotional war against the West. The Danish cartoon crisis has managed to ignite what the Bush administration hoped to avoid from the beginning: turning the War on Terror into a War with Islam. Now an incident arising from a relatively obscure newspaper in Denmark has forced a choice between the most deeply held of all Western values, freedom of speech, with the cherished strategic goal of keeping the Muslim "street" aboard in the War on Terror.
And from Budapest, from Zsofia Szilagyi, political analyst and director of the Human Rights Film Foundation, Publishing Those Cartoons Was A Mistake -
In our networked world, existing societal and political tensions can be inflamed instantly through the transfer of messages from one cultural context to another. Media messages, films and art works cannot be addressed to a specific cultural group - traditional borders of culture and nation no longer exist.

Whether we like it or not, now we all effectively live next door to one another. This raises the stakes in the century-old debate on how to strike a balance between individual and collective press freedom rights.

The central question in this debate is as simple as it is difficult. What is more important for the democratic advancement of a society - to ensure the freedom of expression of all its citizens (within the limits marked by law) or to protect the collective interests of society?
We're so interconnected now we have to watch what we say very, very, very carefully now?

Also see this, a collection of what Arab journalists are saying - "If Denmark has tried to teach Arabs and Muslims a lesson in respect for the country's constitution and its laws, I believe it did not succeed in choosing the right issue. The justification that one must respect the constitution that guarantees freedom of opinion and expression, including the freedom to denigrate others, was not appropriate - this is the trap that Denmark fell into."

There's no understanding of the editorial cartoon here - the freedom to denigrate others is what that's all about. It may be the genre.

Then there's this -

That, from Tom Toles, ran in the Washington Post on 29 January and then this -
Military leaders angrily denounced as "beyond tasteless" a Washington Post editorial cartoon featuring a likeness of a severely wounded soldier and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld as an attending doctor who says, "I'm listing your condition as 'battle hardened.'"

... It reflected the view of some that Bush administration officials do not recognize that U.S. forces are being worn out by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last month, in response to a Pentagon-commissioned report that said the Army was stretched so thin that it had become a "thin green line," Rumsfeld said the war-fighting experience had made U.S. troops "battle hardened" - stronger rather than weaker.

In a letter to the Post signed by Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Adm. Edmund P. Giambastiani Jr., the vice chairman, as well as the chiefs of the four military services, they blasted the cartoon as "a callous depiction of those who have volunteered to defend this nation and as a result have suffered traumatic and life-altering wounds."

"We believe you owe the men and women and their families who so selflessly serve our country the decency to not make light of their tremendous physical sacrifices," they wrote, while adding that the newspaper is "free to address any topic, including the state of readiness of today's armed forces."
Tome wasn't playing nice. But guys, that's not his job.

Even Rumsfeld got it right -
He recalled that editorial cartoonists had made "vicious" attacks on President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II and had published "perfectly terrible" cartoons about President Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War.

"That's the way it is here," Rumsfeld said. "It comes with the territory, I guess is all I can say."
So lighten up. Rumsfeld himself famously said democracy can be messy.

Toles - "I certainly never intended it to be in any way a personal attack on, or a derogatory comment on, the service or sacrifice of American soldiers."

Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt - "While I certainly can understand the strong feelings, I took it to be a cartoon about the state of the Army and not one intended to demean wounded soldiers."

One man's "incitement to hatred" in another man's vivid discussion of pros and cons. Who gets to define which it is?

Tom Toles' editorial cartoons are here, with an archive. You decide if he should be reined in.

So we had the Cindy Sheehan t-shirt wars, and the war of the cartoons. Each may seem silly in some way, but somehow, people are touchy, and the issues are larger than the initial event.

And in the meantime, there was another memo - a two-hour pre-Iraq war meeting between President Bush and British Prime Minister Blair - two months before the war the two agree they'll invade no matter what the inspectors find or what the UN decides. You have to love the part where Bush considers painting some of our planes with UN markings and that nice robin's egg blue, and making sure Saddam's guys shoot them down, so the UN will want revenge and let us bomb the crap out of Baghdad.

And in the meantime, there was another poll - 53 percent of respondents to a new Gallup thing saying the Bush administration "deliberately misled the American public about whether Iraq has weapons of mass destruction." Times change.

The editorial cartoonists are sharpening their pencils on these last two, unless they shouldn't.

Posted by Alan at 20:52 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Sunday, 5 February 2006 07:07 PST home

Thursday, 2 February 2006
Eye on Hollywood - No Politics Today
Topic: Photos

Eye on Hollywood - No Politics Today

Thursday is photo shoot day, so no discussion of current events for the day.

Instead, two new photo albums -

Gritty Hollywood - a walk through the streets a block north and a bit west of the famous intersection of Sunset and Vine. The streets are Ivar and Cosmo, and Selma and Wilcox. Visually interesting. The glamour is elsewhere. But this is how Hollywood actually feels. Twenty-nine photos.

Groundhog Day Blooms - back east in northwestern Pennsylvania, in Punxsutawney, the groundhog saw his shadow. Six more weeks of winter. Here in Hollywood, these were in bloom, in the quiet residential streets just south of Sunset Boulevard, a few blocks west of Vine . This is the middle of winter here. A dozen blooms.

To be posted soon -

Crossroads of the World (6671 Sunset Boulevard) - historic landmark built as "the world's first modern shopping center" in 1936 - Streamline Moderne, Spanish Colonial, Tudor, Moorish and French Provincial styles, all mixed together. It's listed on National Register of Historic Places. In the 1993 film "Indecent Proposal" Demi Moore worked in a real estate office here. It plays its part in the 1997 film noir "L.A. Confidential" - Danny DeVito worked for a tabloid in one of the offices. It's in many other films. It's very odd.

De Longpre Park - a "pocket park" in Hollywood a block south of Crossroads of the World (De Longpre Avenue at June Street) where young Rick Nelson, on a break from nearby Hollywood High, wrote "Travelin' Man" on a tree-shaded bench, or so he said. The Nelson family lived nearby - for forty years at 1822 Camino Palermo. The odd thing in this park is the two sculptures honoring Rudolph Valentino. Go figure.

The Good Ship Coca-Cola - in the warehouse district of Los Angeles, east of the city, the old Coca-Cola bottling plant was designed to look just like an ocean liner. Major kitsch.

Politics resume here tomorrow.

From the albums -

Hollywood News on Wilcox (1930) - the building is for sale, and will probably become condominium for the trendy. The place is empty at the moment - no linotype machines or anything in there.

A bee gathering pollen on Groundhog Day in De Longpre Park, just to the left of the bust of Rudolph Valentino -

Posted by Alan at 22:42 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 2 February 2006 22:47 PST home

Wednesday, 1 February 2006
Getting Serious: The War of the Shirts (and other matters)
Topic: Dissent

Getting Serious: The War of the Shirts (and other matters)

One of the more interesting events at the Tuesday evening State of the Union address was, before the president spoke, this -
Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a fallen soldier in Iraq who reinvigorated the anti-war movement, was arrested and removed from the House gallery Tuesday night just before President Bush's State of the Union address, a police spokeswoman said.

Sheehan, who had been invited to attend the speech by Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., was charged with demonstrating in the Capitol building, a misdemeanor, said Capitol Police Sgt. Kimberly Schneider. Sheehan was taken in handcuffs to police headquarters a few blocks away and her case was processed as Bush spoke.

Schneider said Sheehan had worn a T-shirt with an anti-war slogan to the speech and covered it up until she took her seat. Police warned her that such displays were not allowed, but she did not respond, the spokeswoman said.
Her own account of what happened is here, and of course this caused some alarm among the civil libertarian crowd. She wasn't unfurling a banner. It was a t-shirt, basic black, with the words "2245 dead. How many more?"

Whether or not this was "in support of our troops" - it does seem she doesn't want more of them to die - can be debated. But as this seemed to be some sort of unauthorized "demonstration" they took her away. And to be fair, Beverly Young, wife of congressman Bill Young of Florida (he's chairman of the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee, by the way) was asked to leave the gallery because she was wearing a shirt with the words "Support the Troops - Defending Our Freedom" on the front. She was treated a bit more nicely, but still, Congressman Young, who had no problem with the Capitol Police hauling Sheehan out, was all over the airwaves Wednesday being outraged about his wife. Curious, Sheehan was handcuffed and hustled out, and the congressman's wife was treated nicely, even if she was loudly calling the Capitol Police "idiots" the whole time.

This was odd. It set a strange tone for the evening.

Even odder, it wasn't only those lefties - who actually seem to mind massive secret warrantless government surveillance of all citizens (they must have something to hide, right?) - who had a problem with this.

From the libertarian right, John Cole at Balloon Juice (that would be hot air), offers this -
I am second to no one in my public disgust for Cindy Sheehan. She has, in my opinion, brokered her legitimate grief over the loss of her son for more than her fair share of limelight, which she has used to gallivant across the globe spreading her idiotic political beliefs while trashing this country at every opportunity, all the while shmoozing with every odious scumbag and dictator who will embrace her. Suffice it to say, I am not a fan.

Regardless of my opinion of Sheehan, this really honks me off...

It was one thing when I thought she was arrested for unfurling a banner in the Capitol or some sort of civil disobedience. But arrested for wearing a t-shirt? WTF? What the hell is going on? Someone fill me in on why an anti-war t-shirt is a criminal offense.
So his readers did fill him in, noting 40 USC 5104 (e) (2) (C) might apply -
(e) Capitol Grounds and Buildings Security. - ...

(2) Violent entry and disorderly conduct. - An individual or group of individuals may not willfully and knowingly - ...

(C) with the intent to disrupt the orderly conduct of official business, enter or remain in a room in any of the Capitol Buildings set aside or designated for the use of either House of Congress or a Member, committee, officer, or employee of Congress or either House of Congress...
But then one has to decide there was an "intent to disrupt" and there things get muddled - in the broadest sense, how do you differentiate between disagreement and disruption?

Imagine a hypothetical - in a discussion of some problem one party is explaining the problem and what he or she sees as the best solution, and a second person suggests the premises offered are incorrect (the problem is being wrongly defined) and the potential solution is thus no solution at all. The first person then says the other is being disruptive and should be asked to leave. The second party says, no, this is not disruption - it is disagreement. But is it? Or is it pointless disruption? It depends on which side you're standing - one side can say "my intent was to disagree" and the other side can say that was not the intent at all, as it just looks to them like an attempt to disrupt everything and be a royal pain in the ass. Judging "intent" can be tricky.

But what if we're dealing with a t-shirt? Note this circuit court ruling -
Believing that the Capitol Police needed guidance in determining what behavior constitutes a demonstration, the United States Capitol Police Board issued a regulation that interprets "demonstration activity" to include: parading, picketing, speechmaking, holding vigils, sit-ins, or other expressive conduct that convey[s] a message supporting or opposing a point of view or has the intent, effect or propensity to attract a crowd of onlookers, but does not include merely wearing Tee shirts, buttons or other similar articles of apparel that convey a message.
Well, that's a kick, and someone must have looked that up after the speech. As we see here, the Capitol Police will ask the US attorney's office to drop the charges, and a top Capitol Police official, speaking off the record (no name, for obvious reasons), added, "We screwed up." She didn't violate any rules or laws, and neither did the congressman's wife.


Well, we live in odd times, as noted here -
It isn't okay just because two women had their constitutional rights thrown over the balcony last night at the State of the Union. That just makes it worse. It suggests that what happened to Cindy Sheehan wasn't an accident. We have a government in power that tolerates NO dissent. And making these arrests in the moments before the president's State of the Union address is simply sickening in its symbolism.

Beacon of hope to the world? It's embarrassing what the Bush administration has turned our country into in only five years. And the only thing more embarrassing is that Republicans, who used to believe in freedom, who pre-Bush would have yelled and screamed about this kind of un-American behavior, continue to sit back silently in order to protect a president who betrays ever principle conservatives claim to endorse.
Over the top? Maybe, but in terms of "atmospherics" the whole thing becomes emblematic of something or other. It feels like late-thirties in Germany must have felt. And there's a lot of support for the original Sheehan arrest out there (see this). Anger and fear. They're wonderful things. And as tools of power, as effective as you could want.

And the whole thing seems emblematic of the administration in a general way - do something bold and dramatic to prove how uncompromising and tough you are, then be faced with reality and be shown to be more incompetent than principled.

See First Amendment attorney Glenn Greenwald here (emphasis added) -
This is nothing more than a naked attempt to stifle dissent and to create a criticism-free bubble around George Bush. Presidents routinely use all sorts of propagandistic imagery at the State of the Union to decorate their speeches with an aura of regal patriotism. We always see weeping widows and military heroes and symbolic guests of all sorts who are used as props and visuals to bolster the President's message both emotionally and psychologically. The State of the Union speech is hardly free of visual messages and propaganda of that sort; quite the contrary.

But we apparently now have a country where the only ideas allowed to be expressed in our Nation's Capitol while the President is speaking are ones which glorify the Government and its Leader and where dissenting views are prohibited and will subject someone to arrest. Message cleansing of that sort belongs at a political rally in North Korea, not in Washington, DC.

There have been stories here and there of the Secret Service and other federal government agencies exercising the police power of the state for no purpose other than to stifle dissent. Virtually every appearance of George Bush is meticulously and vigilantly staged to ensure that he is surrounded only by agreement and adoration and almost never dissent of any kind.

This is plainly unhealthy and disgustingly contrary to every defining core American value. Our leaders aren't entitled to reverence and worship and aren't supposed to want it. Criticism, dissent and divergence of opinion are things which the founders did everything possible to foster, and the idea that someone is dragged out of a speech by the President for silently and peacefully wearing an anti-war t-shirt is disgraceful and embarrassing.

And these attacks on dissent are particularly ironic given that they occurred in the midst of a speech by a President who loves to lecture the world on the virtues of liberty and who holds himself out as the Chief Crusader for freedom and democracy.

In fact, as Cindy Sheehan was being dragged out of the Royal Speech, His Majesty was regaling us with the importance of respecting civil debate, the virtues of diversity and freedom, and the need to protect minority views. It's as if there was some universal force that wanted to provide the most compelling demonstration possible of how disingenuous his speech was, and came up with the idea of having Cindy Sheehan dragged out of the hall for doing nothing other than wearing a t-shirt politely expressing criticism of Bush's war.
Well, it showed something. And the late apology and dropping the charges may be simply a wink-wink nudge-nudge to the "cult of personality" in support of the president - they did get her out of there, didn't they?

From a few miles west, in Santa Monica, Digby at Hullabaloo, has some thoughts.

Like many of us, he was "sort of disappointed that she'd decided to do any kind of stunt" - and he wasn't surprised she was hustled out. But then he says he realizes he's beginning to lose his awareness "of being a frog slowly being brought to a boil." We all know the metaphor.

Digby notes the president saying you had to support the troops (and implicitly not wear naughty t-shirts) -
Yet there is a difference between responsible criticism that aims for success, and defeatism that refuses to acknowledge anything but failure. Hindsight alone is not wisdom. And second-guessing is not a strategy.

With so much in the balance, those of us in public office have a duty to speak with candor. A sudden withdrawal of our forces from Iraq would abandon our Iraqi allies to death and prison, put men like bin Laden and Zarqawi in charge of a strategic country, and show that a pledge from America means little. Members of Congress: however we feel about the decisions and debates of the past, our Nation has only one option: We must keep our word, defeat our enemies, and stand behind the American military in its vital mission.
Digby -
Nice trick. Speak with candor as long as you support me. It's the same trick that rhetorically conflates dissent with treason, using the phrase "aid and comfort." In this case, his speechwriters very deftly forced the entire congress to leap to its feet to applaud their own irrelevance - they ended up cheering the assertion that "second-guessing" in "hindsight" is unpatriotic and that their only option is to do as he orders. Nice democracy we've got here.
Well, it's what we've got.

The Other T-Shirt

From the State of the Union -
Tonight I ask you to pass legislation to prohibit the most egregious abuses of medical research, human cloning in all its forms, creating or implanting embryos for experiments, creating human-animal hybrids, and buying, selling or patenting human embryos.
Human-animal hybrids? What the heck was THAT about?

Over at the Washington Monthly, Kevin Drum suggests this was "just a garden variety shout out to the religious right."

Yeah, there are lots of scary stories out there about evil scientists and the evils of science. And all over the web, the day after this, there were snide photos - the cheesy bad guys in green fur from the old Star Trek series (with Shatner in the sixties). Human-animal hybrids! Beware! Everyone had lots of fun with this.

But there are evil scientists and the evils of science. Drum digs up this -
Down syndrome is a very common genetic disorder caused by the presence of an extra chromosome 21... We would love to have an animal model of Down syndrome... So what scientists have been doing is inserting human genes into mice, to produce similar genetic overdoses in their development.

... These mice are a tool to help us understand a debilitating human problem.
Have to stop such things, right? Drum say Bush is trusting that everyone will think he is banning monstrous crimes against nature, "but what he's really doing is targeting the weak and the ill, blocking useful avenues of research that are specifically designed to help us understand human afflictions."

Is Bush's overt message "We aren't going to let the mad scientists make monsters!" while his hidden message "We aren't going to let the doctors help those retards?"

Probably not. Some staffer stuck it in the speech at the suggestion of some evangelical leader with deep pockets. It's unlikely Bush follows such things.

But that leads to this. If you click on the link you will find you can purchase a "Human-Animal Hybrid" t-shirt, with the quote from the State of the Union speech on the front. It's black, and the words are in white - just like Cindy Sheehan's t-shirt. And note the image of the chimp in the necktie, on all fours, with a profile somewhat like the president's.

Ah well, last year there was a section of the State of the Union about how we needed to pass legislation to rid professional sports of large guys on steroids, and the business about sending a manned mission to Mars. There's always something.

But then, it's not just these wags who don't take the president seriously. There's a larger problem.

There was a bit in the speech about the out-of-control cost of healthcare in America. It seemed the president was saying we're all over-insured and he was saying things about Heathcare Savings Accounts. The idea there is you can divert some funds, tax-free, to a special account and that'd be your insurance. Some companies offer this option, along with health insurance, to shed the full cost of insuring their employees. Now this is supposed to be the new model. You get a tax break - a deduction or credit.

Of course, if you're like almost half the people in need of insurance you're in a very low tax bracket, or in the zero bracket - so reducing your taxes further is kind of a joke. But it sounds good. If it's your own money you'll spend it wisely and the whole healthcare system will become "market based" - the invisible hand of competition will fix everything.

It's nifty theory. But even Business Week has trouble taking it seriously, as here -
President George W. Bush is right when he says the US should add a dose of market competition to its health-care system. But giving the wealthy a big new tax break for tummy tucks may not be the best way to do it.
Business Week? He's lost them? That's cold.

But then, it's not only Business Week not taking the president seriously. There's an even larger problem.

Try this - Battleground of Ideas - Christopher Dickey in Newsweek, Wednesday, February 01, 2006. The subhead is "Bush's State of the Union Message confirmed the Arab world's view of the US president as a caricature who talks about strength and determination while projecting an image of stubbornness and confusion."

He's no cub reporter. He's been over there a long time. He gets out and about -
Prime time in the United States falls in the darkest hours before dawn in the Middle East - prayer time, in fact, for the Muslim faithful, the moment when the muezzin calls out (most often on a cassette tape over loudspeakers) that prayers are better than sleep. So only a few people in the region listened to President George W. Bush deliver his State of the Union address last night. But they know the message, now, almost as well as they know the call of the muezzin; it has been repeated so often, so relentlessly, and so mechanically. The difference is that many believe the muezzin, and few believe Bush.
Now why would that be?

This -
We shouldn't be surprised. The State of the Union, perhaps more than any other speech the president makes, defines the way the administration wants to see its world. But its narrative is so foreign to the thinking of most people in the Arab world that they've come to hear Bush's language as a kind of code: "liberation" means occupation, "freedom" means war, "victory" means victims, "reconstruction" means chaos, "democracy" means following directives from Washington. Bush, whatever his intentions - and I think he should be credited with some good ones - has come to be seen as a caricature, talking about strength and determination, projecting an image of stubbornness and confusion.

Journalists from the region are trapped in a sort of twilight zone between these two relentlessly opposite versions of the past and proclamations about the future. "You are caught between two extremes and neither is right," says Ayman Safadi, editor in chief of Jordan's Al Ghad newspaper. The United States comes with its agenda, but with no real understanding, while the old guard in the Middle East is unwilling to admit it has failed, decade after decade, to deliver on its hollow promises of dignity and progress. In the midst of contradictions, people cling to traditions "in their bubble of anachronism," says Safadi. Those who are attacked or denigrated by the Bush administration, like the Baathist regime in Syria, find themselves lionized by the Arab public. Those applauded by Washington are dismissed as pawns. The result on the ground is often the opposite of the Bush administration's stated desires. "Democracy has a new enemy in the region, which is the support [for democracy] by the United States of America," says Safadi.
Dickey provides far more detail, but this is the core. We talk about strength and determination, and project an image of "stubbornness and confusion."

Hey, you don't have to be in Jordon to see that. Hurricane Katrina. Remember?

We talk about strength and determination, and project an image of "stubbornness and confusion." That about sums up the State of the Union speech, and the t-shirt theatrics around it - an agenda, but with no real understanding.

Posted by Alan at 21:29 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 2 February 2006 06:59 PST home

Tuesday, 31 January 2006
Light Fog: Making Much of Nothing
Topic: Breaking News

Light Fog: Making Much of Nothing

Tuesday, January 31st - the president delivers the State of the Union address. Does anyone watch this? Our here in Los Angeles it started at six in the evening, as a light fog started to slide in off the Pacific. Those of us who once taught "creative writing" know the dangers of employing the sympathetic fallacy - we warn our students. In real life it seldom rains when the noble hero tragically dies.

This was just fog. The Pacific is damned cold this time of year, and the off-shore Santa Ana winds of the previous week are long gone. It's not a symbol. It's just fog. And this was just a political speech.

This is a telling admission, from Josh Marshall, a major political analyst -
I have a confession: I'm not sure when the last time was when I watched the State of the Union address. I think I may have watched it in 2003. But I'm not even certain of that. Perhaps a glance through the archives would show that I watched a bit of it last year, I don't know.

The truth is, I find it unwatchable.

Now, I read the transcript later. I'll often go back and watch key sections so I can get the flavor of a particular passage in the speech or of a debate it has spawned.

But the thing itself (watching the actual production in real time) and then the imbecile chatter afterwards - I just can't deal. I just find it unbearable.

Are there others out there like me? I know that a great portion of the country never watches the thing and can't be bothered with politics in any case. But are there others out there who are genuine political junkies - downright incurables - and yet can't bear to watch this thing?
Yes, there are. Right here.

Of course the White House released the full text to the press a few hours early, so they could do their reporting. And if you found it you didn't have to watch.

The text came with this tag - "Embargoed Until Delivery of the State of the Union Address at 9:01 PM EST January 31, 2006." Right. It was posted, in full, hours before the speech, here, with this tag - "We'll start respecting White House embargoes when they start telling the truth."

Marshall says the speech is "unwatchable" - it's also unreadable. Nothing new. Same defense of the wiretapping - constitutional by the new theory the White House uses, and authorized by congress, even if they think they didn't authorized any such thing. Same platitudes about everything else. There was the "addicted to oil" line - we need to kick that habit. Yeah, like what does that mean? That's not policy. What's our methadone? Ethanol? Hardly. The economic stuff was just nonsense - make tax cuts for the rich permanent and cut a hundred and twenty social programs. And the deficit isn't getting as big quite as fast as it was before, so things are looking good. And we're really the good guys in this world, really, we are. We bring democracy. The bad guys die. Everyone will cheer, eventually - not the subtlest thinking. But then, what do you expect in this venue?


The arrest of Cindy Sheehan was amusing. No, you're not allowed to unfurl banners in there. Grandstanding. Give it a rest.

Many in the opposition think it's time for substance, not drama. Harry Reid, minority leader of the Senate, does a point-by-point refutation here - facts and reality to counter every platitude and claim. The message? Most all of us live in the real world and need a government that has a clue about what happens here on earth.

Note here, an alternative State of the Union address from Gore Vidal -
This is an unpatriotic government. This is a government that deals openly in illegalities, whether it is attacking a country which has done us no harm, two countries - Iraq and Afghanistan - because we now believe, not in declaring war through Congress as the Constitution requires, but through the President. "Well, I think there are some terrorists over there, and I think we got to bomb them, huh? We'll bomb them." Now, we've had idiots as presidents before. He's not unique. But he's certainly the most active idiot that we have ever had.
There's much more. It's snide. But then...

It's just a speech. It's just evening fog.

But the world progresses apace, as in this -
San Francisco - The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a class-action lawsuit against AT&T Tuesday, accusing the telecom giant of violating the law and the privacy of its customers by collaborating with the National Security Agency (NSA) in its massive and illegal program to wiretap and data-mine Americans' communications.

The NSA program came to light in December, when the New York Times reported that the president had authorized the agency to intercept telephone and Internet communications inside the United States without the authorization of any court. Over the ensuing weeks, it became clear that the NSA program has been intercepting and analyzing millions of Americans' communications, with the help of the country's largest phone and Internet companies.

Reporting has also indicated that those same companies - and AT&T specifically - have given the NSA direct access to their vast databases of communications records, including information about whom their customers have phoned or emailed with in the past. And yet little has been accomplished by this illegal spying: recent reports have shown that the data from this wholesale surveillance has done little more than waste FBI resources on dead leads.

"The NSA program is apparently the biggest fishing expedition ever devised, scanning millions of ordinary Americans' phone calls and emails for 'suspicious' patterns, and it's the collaboration of US telecom companies like AT&T that makes it possible," said EFF Staff Attorney Kevin Bankston. "When the government defends spying on Americans by saying, 'If you're talking to terrorists we want to know about it,' that's not even close to the whole story."

In the lawsuit, EFF alleges that AT&T, in addition to allowing the NSA direct access to the phone and Internet communications passing over its network, has given the government unfettered access to its over 300 terabyte "Daytona" database of caller information - one of the largest databases in the world...
Hey! Someone is actually doing something. Cindy can unfurl her funky banner, and get that shot of being dragged out of the House chambers, and Gore Vidal can be snarky, but these guys are doing useful work.

Someone has to.

Ah, for an alternative speech, on doing something, the right thing, even if you lose 58-42 in the Senate on the judge, Digby, over at Hullabaloo here reminds us of what Bobby Kennedy one said - this -
Some believe there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world's ills. Yet many of the world's great movements, of thought and action, have flowed from the work of a single man. A young monk began the Protestant reformation, a young general extended an empire from Macedonia to the borders of the earth, and a young woman reclaimed the territory of France. It was a young Italian explorer who discovered the New World, and the thirty-two-year-old Thomas Jefferson who proclaimed that all men are created equal.

These men moved the world, and so can we all. Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change. And I believe that in this generation those with the courage to enter the moral conflict will find themselves with companions in every corner of the globe.

For the fortunate among us, there is the temptation to follow the easy and familiar paths of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who enjoy the privilege of education. But that is not the road history has marked out for us. Like it or not, we live in times of danger and uncertainty. But they are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history. All of us will ultimately be judged and as the years pass we will surely judge ourselves, on the effort we have contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which our ideals and goals have shaped that effort.

The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of new ideas and bold projects. Rather it will belong to those who can blend vision, reason and courage in a personal commitment to the ideals and great enterprises of American Society.

Our future may lie beyond our vision, but it is not completely beyond our control. It is the shaping impulse of America that neither fate nor nature nor the irresistible tides of history, but the work of our own hands, matched to reason and principle, that will determine our destiny. There is pride in that, even arrogance, but there is also experience and truth. In any event, it is the only way we can live.
Fight the good fight. It really is the only way we can live.

And he's dead.

So let's turn to other matters. Here, as the president was delivering the big speech, with no sound to Harriet-the-Cat in the far room, KUSC was still broadcasting Mozart.

January 27th was Mozart's birthday - he's two hundred and fifty this year. There was no mention in these pages. Sorry.

The Wall Street Journal arts critic, Terry Teachout, here found some odd things.

First he quotes himself from long ago -
In 1945, Arturo Toscanini told the music critic B.H. Haggin that he preferred Haydn to Mozart. "I will tell you frankly: sometimes I find Mozart boring," he said to his astonished interviewer. "Not G-minor [the G Minor Symphony, K. 550]: that is great tragedy; and not concerti; but other music. Is always beautiful - but is always the same."
Maybe so.

But then he quotes others -

"We all drew on the comfort which is given out by the major works of Mozart, which is as real and material as the warmth given up by a glass of brandy." - Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

"The truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, and Balanchine ballets don't redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history." - Susan Sontag, Styles of Radical Will

"There is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper." - Camille Paglia, interview, International Herald Tribune (April 26, 1991)

And that covers Mozart and his birthday. Harriet-the-Cat sort of watched George Bush speak, but heard Mozart. The whole thing was better that way.

Posted by Alan at 20:46 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 31 January 2006 20:49 PST home

Monday, 30 January 2006
Sometimes truculent rigidity masquerading as intellectual seriousness just gets you in trouble...
Topic: Reality-Based Woes

Sometimes truculent rigidity masquerading as intellectual seriousness just gets you in trouble...

Monday, January 30th, the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, in London, trying to get some consensus on Iran - no one knows what to do to stop them from developing "the bomb." It is unthinkable to use our air power, or that of the Israelis, to take out all their facilities. The new Shiite government we have brought into being in Iraq would be outraged and turn on us, as would much of the Arab world (those who haven't already), and Israel would be at risk for massive retaliation, and such an attack might well spark a regional war. The fallout, even if we don't use our nuclear bunker-buster bombs, would be enormous. And it is also unthinkable to have a nuclear-armed Iraq, as the government there says things about wiping Israel off the face of the earth - not the sort of thing that gives you those warm-fuzzy feelings about how that might turn out. We're working on some other alternatives. It is not going well.

Rice's other task was getting the UK and the EU to agree to cut off all aid to the newly-elected government in the proto-nation of Palestine, as the bad guys, Hamas, won in a landslide (see this and this in these pages). We will, the EU may not - the UN is saying its future funding depends on Hamas avowing "peace." And that, in turn, probably depends on how you define "avow" and how you define "peace."

No one expected this, as she said - "I don't know anyone who wasn't caught off guard by Hamas' strong showing." I guess our government, with all its spies and satellites up in the sky, really doesn't know much about the political currents and crosscurrents in the Middle East - or we prefer to believe what we wish will happen, because that's how things should work out. Have to look on the bright side, at how things should be, because we will them to be so. She's like that. As she said back in May, 2002 - "I don't think anybody could have predicted that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile."

It seems idealistic optimists get surprised a lot, particularly those who don't like detail and make fun of policy wonks. As the administration has said - "We make our own reality." But, unfortunately, others do just the same thing. It's just not fair.

As for the idealistic optimist-in-chief - the president out to change reality and disregard pesky facts - Monday everyone was waiting for his Tuesday evening State of the Union address. What would he say? Polling showed him at around thirty-nine percent in the approval ratings, with about two-thirds of the country thinking we're going in the wrong direction, generally. No one seemed to know how he'd deal with that. Conciliation? Belligerence? Coherence?

But what is this speech? John Dickerson here calls it the "Silliest Speech in the Union" - George Washington's first was 833 words and now a State of the Union address will be about five thousand words. In 1801 Thomas Jefferson mailed his speech in, arguing that "the ceremony smacked too much of the British monarchy." Smart man. It wasn't until 1913 when a president, the wooden Woodrow Wilson, again actually delivered the speech himself - making it more than a document and in 1966 Lyndon Johnson moved the address into "prime time." It's become "an event" and not an assessment of "the state of the union." Spin City.

But the bad guys have a wicked sense of timing and their own way countering the spin of the optimist-in-chief, as we got this the day before the State of the Union, a bit of taunting - "Osama bin Laden's right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, appeared in a new video Monday, saying he is alive and well just weeks after a U.S. missile strike targeted him in Pakistan."

And that's not all he said, as we get this referring to Osama bin Laden's audio message ten days earlier, offering a "truce" if we'd just leave -
Your leaders responded to the initiative of sheik Osama, may God protect him, by saying they don't negotiate with terrorists and that they are winning the war on terror. I tell them: You liars, greedy warmongers, who is pulling out from Iraq and Afghanistan? Us or you? Whose soldiers are committing suicide because of despair? Us or you?
Well, it is true we won't be there forever, and they may very well be.

But what's this about suicides? Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, dropped a line, with a question - "Do the Americans have suicide bombers in Iraq?"

No, and al-Zawahiri seems to think our soldiers are committing suicide in droves. They're not.

But al-Zawahiri he may be picking up on the story of the "Marlboro Man" in the famous photo from Fallujah. He's home, and he's not doing well. They asked him to leave Fallujah to ensure he didn't die - bad PR, particularly after the Pat Tillman business - and now, heroic or not, he has classic post-traumatic stress disorder. He's a bit unhinged. Ayman al-Zawahiri can spin the news too.

But the good news for the idealistic optimist-in-chief the day before the big speech to explain everything (it's not so bad and actually just what we really want to happen) and tell us where we're going (whether we like it or not), was that Kerry and Kennedy's fight to mount a filibuster in the Senate to block the nomination Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court failed, spectacularly - drama, impassioned speeches, but a 75-25 trouncing in the full Senate. Those who didn't think an anti-abortion, pro-business pleasant ideologue - who seems to want to reverse Marbury v. Madison so the president can ignore laws congress passes and rulings of the court that interpret them - isn't good for the country, well, they couldn't assemble the forty votes to stop the nomination. The president gets a victory going into the speech. The opposition gets a pyrrhic victory - they stood up for what they thought was right, even if they knew it was hopeless. You remember the line from The Man from La Mancha where Don Quixote says this - "Sometimes the only battles worth fighting are losing battles." Noble. Cold comfort.

But this was a long time coming. Our friend, the fellow who teaches would-be MBA's all about marketing at that graduate school in upstate New York, referred the email discussion group to this in the Monday New York Times. It's a detailed report on something that was started way back in 1982, in the early years of the Reagan administration - a careful plan by the ultra-conservative Federalist Society' to pack to lower levels of the judiciary with their super-conservative judges. No one would realize what was going on, and sooner or later one or more of them would finally reach the Supreme Court, then another, then another. This was a careful, long-term plan. And it worked.

What to make of that? There's this -
The congratulatory subtext is that Conservatives are steadfast rather than doctrinaire, patient rather than obsessed, that Liberals are vacillating rather than intellectually rigorish, inconsistent rather than rigidly unswerving. Because Conservatives created, funded, sponsored, and promoted judges over the course of 24 years who've been Stepforded in training and who owe their allegiance to their patrons, this somehow proves the Conservative ideology is superior to a Liberal ideology by sheer weight of relentless, myopic persistence. Because the Conservatives hatched a batch of cloned jurists, ensuring those jurists' fealty through technically legal but morally questionable patronage, they MUST be superior by simple dint of effort.

In essence this comes down to the fight motif that the Right uses to define the difference between them and us. If Liberals were as serious as us, the argument goes, they would have used the very same tactics we use. Why aren't Liberal think tanks creating an army of Liberal judges who all think alike? And the answer, in Conservative terms: Because Liberals don't take the law as seriously as Conservatives do. If they aren't competing just as ruthlessly, as seriously as Conservatives they must be weaker. If Liberals aren't as rigid - if they have these foolish notions of nuances and relativism and fairness - they can't be considered "serious," a code word of vast importance to the Right.

As long as the political debate pivots on the Conservative meme that in domestic and foreign policy, in interpretation of the law, in matters of morality, truculent rigidity is synonymous with intellectual seriousness, then the majority of us, who understand that the issues confronting the country and the world are far too complex to be solved by an adherence to an hortatorily propounded single and simple and childish truth, are going to be labeled as unrealistic, idealistic, unserious, and therefore our relevance to any debate dismissible...
In short, they win.

On the other hand, sometimes truculent rigidity masquerading as intellectual seriousness just gets you in trouble.

See Anatol Lieven, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, in the International Herald Tribune with this -
The victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections ought to lead to a fundamental rethinking of U.S. strategy in the Middle East, especially since it follows electoral successes for Islamist parties in Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

The most important lesson of the elections is that the United States cannot afford to use the rhetoric of spreading democracy as an excuse for avoiding dealing with pressing national grievances and wishes. If the United States pursues or supports policies that are detested by a majority of ordinary people, then these people will react accordingly if they are given a chance to vote.
That's the thesis. Well, duh!

But Lieven has an interesting idea of how we got on this kick of "spreading democracy" in such a feckless way ("I don't know anyone who wasn't caught off guard by Hamas' strong showing"). Why are we so divorced from reality and oblivious to basic logic? We ran out of excuses -
... the present centrality of the "democratization" idea to administration rhetoric does not come from any study of the Middle East, or of reality in general. Rather, the Bush administration has fallen back on this rhetoric in part because all other paths and justifications have failed or been rejected. The administration desperately needed some big vision that would give the American people the impression of a plan for the war on terror, promising something beyond tighter domestic security and endless military operations.

Thus spreading democracy was always one of the arguments used for the Iraq war, but it only became the central one after the failure to find the promised weapons of mass destruction. As a result of the Iraqi quagmire, the language of preventive war and military intervention, so prevalent in the administration's National Security Strategy of 2002, has also become obviously empty, requiring a new central theme for the forthcoming security strategy of 2006.
So "democratization" isn't some grand first-principles theory of how we deal with the world. Rather, it's a default position to use when all else goes in the weeds.

The problem with that, even if it sounds noble and good -
... the Bush administration's combination of preaching human rights with torture, of preaching democracy to Muslims with contempt for the views of those same Muslims, has not helped either the spread of democracy or US interests but badly damaged both.

In fact, the distance between Bush administration rhetoric and observable reality in some areas is beginning to look almost reminiscent of Soviet Communism. And as in the Soviet Union, this gap is also becoming more and more apparent to the rest of the world.
Drat! They're not supposed to notice!

Next thing some will say we're not at war at all.

Oops, someone did - James Carroll in the Boston Globe here -
We have a war president, war hawks, war planes, war correspondents, war cries, even war crimes - but do we have war? We have war dead, but the question remains. With young U.S. soldiers being blown up almost daily, it can seem an absurd question, an offensive one. With thousands of Iraqis killed by American firepower, it can seem a heartless question, as if the dead care whether strict definitions of "war" are fulfilled. There can be no question that Iraq is in a state of war, and that, whatever its elements of post-Saddam sectarian conflict, the warfare is being driven from the Pentagon.

But, regarding the Iraq conflict as it involves the United States, something essential is lacking that would make it a war - and that is an enemy.
What? But, but...

Here's the reasoning -
The so-called "insurgents," who wreak such havoc, are not America's enemy. They are not our rivals for territory. They are not our ideological antagonists. Abstracting from the present confrontation, they have no reason to wish us ill.

Americans who bother to imagine the situation from the Iraqi point of view - a massive foreign invasion, launched on false pretenses; a brutal occupation, with control of local oil reserves surely part of the motivation; the heartbreaking deaths of brothers, cousins, children, parents - naturally understand that an "insurgency" is the appropriate response. Its goal is simply to force the invaders and occupiers to leave. Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds have intrinsic reasons to regard each other as enemies, from competition over land and oil, to ethnic hatreds, to unsettled scores. No equivalent sources of built-in contempt exist among these people toward America. Taken as a whole, or in its parts, Iraq is not an enemy.
But we'll always have "terrorism" in general and Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda specifically, won't we? Maybe war in Iraq was a huge mistake, but it's as good a place as any, isn't it?

No -
Bin Laden was a self-mythologized figure of no historic standing until George W. Bush designated him America's equal by defining 9/11 as an act of war to be met with war, instead of a crime to be met with criminal justice. But this over-reaction, so satisfying at the time to the wounded American psyche, turned into the war for which the other party simply did not show up. Which is, of course, why we are blasting a substitute Iraq to smithereens.

Iraq is not a war, because, though we have savage assault, we have no enemy. The war on terrorism is not a war because, though we have an enemy, the muscle-bound Pentagon offers no authentic means of assault.
Ah, truculent rigidity ("we will settle for nothing less than total victory") masquerading as intellectual seriousness (we need to wage war on this "unprecedented threat" no one else seems to get) - on parade!

But then, there seem to be odd waves of logic rolling in now. If people like Carroll and Lieven keep looking at facts and being so rational in major publications, and people catch on, the idealistic optimist-in-chief has a much harder job selling his vision - or "visions" in the religious sense. There's the danger he becomes a curiosity, not a leader, as most of us have to live in the real world.

These are the big issues, but one should note that sometimes truculent rigidity masquerading as intellectual seriousness just gets you on the local level.

There's still a lot of discussion about this story - the part-time Target Stores pharmacist who lost her job for refusing to dispense or refer for the morning-after birth control pill (Plan B - Barr Pharmaceuticals). She, one Heather Williams, said these pills were a form of abortion and she'd have nothing to do with them, and wouldn't fill the prescriptions, and wouldn't say who would, even though she knew others who would fill the prescriptions.

She's held this position for five years.

Is this truculent rigidity masquerading as intellectual seriousness?

"For me, life begins with two cells."

Tell the distraught women who would fill the prescriptions? "I just can't be a link in the chain at all."

Seriousness? It depends on you point of view. She filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission of Missouri. She says when Target forced pharmacists state-wide to sign a "conscience clause" last fall agreeing to dispense Plan B, or refer to another pharmacy that does, she just couldn't sign that, as that would make her "a participant." So they fired her. The irony is the Target store where she worked has never stocked Plan B at all. This is some kind of rigidity, or adherence to noble principle, as you wish.

And she's not alone - see this, the Washington Post reviews the whole debate, legislation proposed in a dozen states to back people like Heather Williams.

What's that about?

This -
About half of the proposals would shield pharmacists who refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control and "morning-after" pills because they believe the drugs cause abortions. But many are far broader measures that would shelter a doctor, nurse, aide, technician or other employee who objects to any therapy. That might include in-vitro fertilization, physician-assisted suicide, embryonic stem cells and perhaps even providing treatment to gays and lesbians.
There's something very odd going on here.

John Cole (the libertarian-type conservative, not Juan Cole, the University of Michigan Middle East guy often quoted here), suggests this -
There is little room for nuance in my opinion on this. If your religious beliefs interfere with your job providing any and all desired or required care for a patient, you have several options - change your job, change your religion, suck it up and hope yours is a forgiving God.

Denying people care because it upsets your sensibilities should not be allowed, and those who choose to do so should not be protected by legislation, they should have their licenses revoked. People who refuse to provide mainstream and accepted medical treatment to patients because of their own religious beliefs should no longer be considered doctors - they can hang a plaque outside their door that says the following: "Joe Schmoe - Unlicensed Faith Healer."
So is this truculent rigidity masquerading as intellectual seriousness?

Well, he calls denying care for the ill "upsetting their sensibilities." They call denying care for the ill simply refusing to be accomplice to murder, or, in the case of refusing any treatment to gays and lesbians, that's just refusing to keep the "evil ones" alive and healthy, as God commands of them. (I'm not sure where in the bible He commands that, but they seem to think He does.)

Maybe they should not be in medicine at all, of course. Or maybe we need a two-track health system - one licensed by the state medical boards with their own clinics and hospitals and pharmacies and all that, and a parallel system of the same licensed by the evangelical churches of the religious right. You choose.

Yep, the choice in all this - all topics here - is between idealist vision and dealing with pesky facts. It's too bad that those of us who prefer the latter are pretty much being asked to shut up or leave.

Posted by Alan at 21:58 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 31 January 2006 08:53 PST home

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