Browsing the blog archives for November, 2006.


Iraq’d

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Bush Administration, Democratic Party, Iraq War

I didn’t get a chance to write what I was going to write about Iraq today, but then Dan Froomkin wrote it for me.

I bet you’ll also like this article by Sidney Blumenthal.

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Black Holes

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Bush Administration, Congress, corruption, FEMA, Hurricanes, National Security, Republican Party

Spencer S. Hsu writes for The New York Times,

The Bush administration unconstitutionally denied aid to tens of thousands of Gulf Coast residents displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita and must resume payments immediately, a federal judge ordered yesterday.

U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon said the Federal Emergency Management Agency created a “Kafkaesque” process that began cutting off rental aid in February to victims of the 2005 storms, did not provide clear reasons for the denials, and hindered applicants’ due-process rights to fix errors or appeal government mistakes.

“It is unfortunate, if not incredible, that FEMA and its counsel could not devise a sufficient notice system to spare these beleaguered evacuees the added burden of federal litigation to vindicate their constitutional rights,” Leon, a D.C. federal judge, wrote in a 19-page opinion.

“Free these evacuees from the ‘Kafkaesque’ application process they have had to endure,” he wrote.

With FEMA, it’s hard to know how much of this nonsense is incompetence and how much of it is a deliberate strategy to avoid paying money. Possibly both.

As of June, Congress had allocated more than $107 billion “to provide emergency support and assist in longer-term recovery in the Gulf Coast,” according to the Brookings Institution. If you google for information on what has happened to that money, the words waste, fraud, and Byzantine pop up abundantly. In June, Eric Lipton wrote in the New York Times that

Among the many superlatives associated with Hurricane Katrina can now be added this one: it produced one of the most extraordinary displays of scams, schemes and stupefying bureaucratic bungles in modern history, costing taxpayers up to $2 billion. …

… The estimate of up to $2 billion in fraud and waste represents nearly 11 percent of the $19 billion spent by FEMA on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita as of mid-June, or about 6 percent of total money that has been obligated.

Awhile back the Justice Department established a Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force. Browsing through their news releases gives the impression that the task force is focused exclusively on fraudulent claims for assistance, and certainly there’s plenty of that to keep them busy. Fraud on the part of government contractors, however massive, seems not to be a concern. And the Republican-controlled Congress seems to have done little more than go through the motions of providing oversight.

Let’s hope that’s about to change.

Meanwhile, via The Talking Dog, we find that Homeland Security misdirector Michael Chertoff has admitted that maybe Homeland Security funds are not being allocated sensibly.

Remember how this summer, the Department of Homeland Security reduced the amount of anti-terror funding NYC would get? Sure, NYC was still getting most of the funding, but funds were being increased in less risky areas with, well, influential politicians. And then the press had a field day with how Homeland Security didn’t think there were any national monuments or major buildings at risk? And then Homeland Security claimed that NY State and NYC didn’t file their request properly?

That’s pretty much what FEMA said about the people who’d had their rent aid cut off.

Well, now Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has come out and tacitly stated – though not outright admitting – that the DHS was wrong. The Post reports that at a grand-writing [grant-writing?] conference, Chertoff offered a mea culpa:

    “We’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps there was a little too much bean counting and a little less standing back and applying common sense to look at the total picture,” Chertoff told a grant-writing conference.

    “And I’ve heard the complaints about it, looking like we’re playing kind of a pop-quiz type of game with local communities,” he said.

    “They have to try to guess what we’re looking for – and if they guess wrong, they don’t get the money that they think they’re entitled to, and that they may be entitled to.”

The DHS was quick to say that Chertoff isn’t admitting the funding allocation was a mistake, but that “He’s pretty much just saying that this year we will apply some common sense [and] look at the risk in the city.” … Remember, he’s the same man who said that a terrorist attack on a subway is less catastrophic than a terrorist attack on an airplane, because it’s not like subways are connected to large stations or terminals or anything.

From here, it’s hard to know how much tax money given to the DHS (including FEMA) is actually being applied to homeland security, and how much is being sucked into a black hole. It’s also hard to know how much of the bureaucratic “bungling” is really a cover for payoffs, kickbacks, and other less-than-savory uses of taxpayers’ monies.

But I do get a strong impression that a whole lot of that $107 billion meant for Katrina relief and recovery got lost somewhere between Washington DC and the Gulf Coast.

The way the Bush Administration and the Republican Congress budgets and allocates money makes it damn hard to follow that money. The over-use of “emergency” supplemental appropriations has made the official budget something of a joke. Veronique de Rugy writes for Reason Online:

Supplemental spending, “emergency” spending in particular, has become Washington’s tool of choice for evading annual budget limits and increasing spending across the board. Funding predictable, nonemergency needs through supplementals hides skyrocketing military costs and allows Congress to boost regular appropriations for both defense and nondefense programs, thereby enabling the spending explosion of the last five years. …

… The Bush administration has used supplementals to hide the true cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Three years in, the Iraq war can hardly be called an emergency or an unpredictable event. This is especially true since one of the largest expenditures goes to the salaries and benefits of Army National Guard personnel and reservists called to active duty. Yet each year President Bush leaves out all war costs when he presents his budget to Congress, knowing that he will be able to secure the funding later through the supplemental process. This year Congress will appropriate nearly 20 percent of total military spending via supplementals.

“Emergency” supplemental spending bills have included monies for hurricane relief and recovery. Congress critters hate to vote against hurricane relief and recovery. But we have no way to know how much of that money, if any, is actually being spent on hurricane relief and recovery.

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Blogology

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blogging

Some researchers at the University of Kansas are compiling data on blogs and blog readers. You can help the cause by taking a brief survey. Click here and choose Mahablog from the drop-down menu. (I notice that Mahablog comes right after Little Green Footballs on the drop-down menu, but I’m trying to be big about it.) You will be anonymous, the researchers tell me.

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10 Comments

Whoopsie

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Bush Administration, Iraq War

I’m just finding out on MSNBC that Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki didn’t show up for the big whoop-dee-doo meeting he was supposed to have with President Bush in Jordan today. This could be huge.

Update: Apparently there is still a meeting on for tomorrow. I think we’ll be hearing more about this.

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Civil Discourse

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American History, Bush Administration, News Media

Speaking of etiquette and civility — there’s an odious little toad named Ed Rogers who is a Republican tool and a frequent guest on MSNBC Hardball. Last night’s program began with an interview of Jimmy Carter by David Shuster, and ended with this exchange (emphasis added):

SHUSTER: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

We‘re back with Ed Rogers and Joe Trippi.

And Joe, I‘ve got to ask you, earlier in this—Jimmy Carter said that he would prefer if Al Gore ran for president again. I know that you would like Al Gore to run again, so what‘s your reaction?

TRIPPI: I think Al Gore should run. I mean, this is going to be a very important election, and when you look at the real issues that are out there, like global warming and this war in Iraq and this economy and the deficits we‘re running, Al Gore has been putting out a lot of bold ideas on a lot of those subjects and doing very well as a non-candidate.

The real question is, if he does become a candidate, does he start, you know, being the safe, cautious guy that he was when he was a public official. …

… SHUSTER: Given that Iraq is the dominant subject, why not Al Gore? I mean, do you really think he would be such an easy target for Republicans?

ROGERS: I love the idea of Jimmy Carter picking the next Democrat nominee. From one loser to another, from Jimmy Carter to Al Gore. That suits me.

I’m sorry I don’t have audio, because there was something about the way Rogers sneered out the word loser that just plain made me sick. I know we’ve all seen rightie operatives play this smear game thousands of times, but something about this exchange grabbed me more than usual.

If Rogers or any other Republican wants to say he disagreed with Jimmy Carter’s policies as president, or that Carter made mistakes, or that Carter’s administration was substandard, that’s one thing. That’s legitimate political opinion, whether I agree with it or not. But to insult the man as a loser — I mean, who the hell is pipsqueak Ed Rogers to call Jimmy Carter a loser? Carter is our oldest living former President. [update: Second oldest; I forgot Mr. Ford.] He’s a Nobel laureate, for pity’s sake. Ed Rogers doesn’t have to like him, but when speaking of the man in public, civil discourse requires showing the man some respect.

As for Al Gore — A lot of us were put out with Al Gore’s 2000 campaign, but his speeches and work since then have made him a champion of the values many of us hold dear. Still, assuming he’s still a potential candidate a little knocking around is expected. But why is it necessary to insult Jimmy Carter?

I think a little respect is in order when speaking about any elderly, living retired elected official on a television news show seen nationwide by a general audience, but especially a retired POTUS. If Rogers wants to badmouth Carter when conversing with other Republicans that’s his business. But I do not believe that, 40 years ago, someone speaking on a nationally broadcast television program would have insulted a living former President that way. The fact that Rogers does it and no one seems to mind is symptomatic of the deterioration of political discourse.

Rogers continues,

… But Al Gore is pretty tired. That‘s no new energy for the party. He‘s a lousy performer. I mean he—you know, Al Gore, plus 60 pounds, is he going to do better than he did in ‘04?

Nothing substantive about Gore’s stands on issues, notice. Instead, Rogers — who isn’t exactly Mr. Twiggy — makes fun of his weight. If my Mama had been watching this, she would have said somebody ought to teach Rogers some manners.

TRIPPI: And Ed, will all due respect, I mean, there were a lot of Republican losers in this past election. I mean, a couple of Republicans…

ROGERS: They weren‘t running for president.

(CROSSTALK)

ROGERS: We had a bad election. We lost a lot. That‘s over. Let‘s look at 2008. It is the Democrats‘ time to win. Historically, the Democrats—after eight years ago in power, the Democrats are supposed to win. But they can blow it. And they can blow it by Kerry. They can blow it by Clinton. They can blow it by Gore. We know what a winning Democratic nominee looks like. It looks like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. They don‘t have a Clinton stylistically in this race.

SHUSTER: Joe?

TRIPPI: Well, there‘s a lot. Look, there‘s very strong field. John Edwards in this field. Look, I think when you look at what‘s going on, the Democrats are in good stead for 2008. Any one of the people that you mentioned or Ed‘s mentioned or that we talked about tonight can win against the Republicans.

And I agree with Ed on one thing. Usually what‘s supposed to happen in politics happens, and you don‘t usually have a two-term president being followed by a member of his own party…

ROGERS: That‘s true.

TRIPPI: … and particularly—unless it‘s somebody very popular, like a Reagan presidency, which got us George Bush I.

ROGERS: A third term.

TRIPPI: A third term.

It‘s not likely that the Republicans are going to pull this off, given George Bush‘s unpopular status right now, the failure in Iraq, particularly if he keeps doing what he‘s doing and staying the course, and you have people like John McCain the only way out is to put more troops in there, which is…

ROGERS: The Democrats are so arrogant. They…

TRIPPI: … this is why I think it‘s going to be a problem for them.

ROGERS: The Democrats never respect the legitimacy of their defeat. So when they lose an election, they always think it‘s because the other side cheated or some happened, never about their agenda. This time, they are overestimating the significance of their victory. They won in ‘06 because they did nothing, not because they did something. Their agenda is a loser, and that‘ll come through in ‘08 if they‘re not careful.

The Democrats are so arrogant? Holy bleep …

This is pretty standard stuff for Rogers. You’ve got Trippi, who is someone I don’t always agree with either, injecting somewhat substantive statements, and Rogers doing nothing but smearing Democrats. Notice there was no discussion (except for a passing mention of McCain) of potential Republican candidates in 2008. Just Rogers calling the Dems arrogant and loser. That’s pretty much all he ever does, yet he seems to be on cable news talk programs at least once or twice a week.

I just needed to rant.

While I’m on the subject of Jimmy Carter — I caught this snip in one of Joe Scarborough’s programs last week. Scarborough was talking about President Bush’s plummeting popularity and comparing the Bush White House to the Carter White House.

SCARBOROUGH: … It‘s enough to remind many voters of another president who, in the words of Elvis Costello, just couldn‘t stand up for falling down. In fact, things got so bad for Jimmy Carter that he was attacked on a fishing trip by a dreaded killer rabbit, a metaphor for an administration going nowhere fast, other than out of power. Welcome to the United States of malaise, 1979-style.

It‘s getting ugly out there, and to talk about how badly things are going for this president and the country, here‘s Phil Bronstein. He‘s the editor of “The San Francisco Chronicle.” We also have A.B. Stoddard with “The Hill” and MSNBC political analyst Craig Crawford.

Craig, happy news out there—beatings, robberies, record low ratings, motorcade collisions. You‘ve got Iraq out of control. How much worse can things get for this president before they turn around?

CRAIG CRAWFORD, “CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY,” MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:

Well, he can sing that old song, If it weren‘t for bad luck, I‘d have no luck at all.

(LAUGHTER)

CRAWFORD: It has been pretty rough. I‘ve got to agree with you about Jimmy Carter, although it pains me to do so. I worked in his White House and loved the guy. But his White House did unravel. And what happens is, you know, each story just sort of compounds on the next one and it becomes a story line that doesn‘t go away. It is like Gerry Ford falling down, and you know, Al Gore the serial exaggerator, John Kerry the flip-flopper. I mean, once the story line gets started, any little thing that can be attached to just becomes a train that can‘t be stopped.

SCARBOROUGH: And Craig, with Jimmy Carter, you, of course, had the Iranian hostage crisis and a terrible economy at the time. But then you‘d have the killer rabbit episode, and then Jimmy Carter would run a 10K and he‘d collapse.

CRAWFORD: Yes. …

Here there’s an interesting discussion of what went wrong in the Carter Administration. While I mostly agree with this discussion I want to skip ahead to this part:

SCARBOROUGH: You‘re right. With George W. Bush, it‘s been the arrogance, the arrogance to say he couldn‘t remember making a single mistake over his first four years.

A.B. STODDARD, “THE HILL”: People don‘t want to hear that.

SCARBOROUGH: Yes, too arrogant to read the newspapers, too arrogant to listen to Colin Powell, too arrogant to listen to criticism, too arrogant to pick up the phone call and even talk to his father regularly about the war.

Craig, I want you to listen to this speech from Jimmy Carter. We‘re just going to play a clip.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JIMMY CARTER, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation. The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCARBOROUGH: Boy, Craig, that makes you want to get out there and wave the flag. Now…

(CROSSTALK)

CRAWFORD: … I‘ve got to say—first of all, you know, he never used word “malaise” in that speech, by the way.

SCARBOROUGH: No, he didn‘t. No, he didn‘t. Cold comfort, though, if you actually read the text of that speech.

CRAWFORD: And I thought that was one of the—I actually think that was a profound moment because a president telling—not telling the people what they want to hear. Now, we can debate that speech all we want, but that was one of the rare times you saw a president actually telling Americans what he thought—telling them something that he believed that wasn‘t something they wanted to hear, which I thought was kind of refreshing.

SCARBOROUGH: Well, but they threw him out for a…

STODDARD: I agree with Craig.

SCARBOROUGH: They threw him out for a guy who said America‘s best days really did lie ahead and…

CRAWFORD: I‘ll tell you—this man…

SCARBOROUGH: … Ronald Reagan won…

(CROSSTALK)

CRAWFORD: Over and over again, Jimmy Carter warned Americans about the oil crisis, about the dependence on foreign oil. He did everything he could think of, including putting solar panels on the White House, to try to get this country focused on that. And had the country listened to him at the time, I don‘t think we‘d be in a war in Iraq because we wouldn‘t be dependent on oil from that region.

SCARBOROUGH: Phil…

CRAWFORD: That‘s my speech. …

[Later]

… SCARBOROUGH: I‘ll see you tomorrow night on Thanksgiving. And Craig Crawford, sorry if I touched a nerve on Jimmy Carter.

(LAUGHTER)

SCARBOROUGH: I love the man.

CRAWFORD: I‘m a little sensitive about Jimmy. I admit that.

SCARBOROUGH: Yes, I can tell.

Actually, as I remember it, it was Craig Crawford who said “I love the man.” But it was so refreshing to see someone stand up for Jimmy Carter, and I thought you’d enjoy it.

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Etiquette and Jim Webb

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Bush Administration, Congress, Iraq War

Y’all will love this. Michael D. Shear writes in today’s Washington Post:

At a recent White House reception for freshman members of Congress, Virginia’s newest senator tried to avoid President Bush. Democrat James Webb declined to stand in a presidential receiving line or to have his picture taken with the man he had often criticized on the stump this fall. But it wasn’t long before Bush found him.

“How’s your boy?” Bush asked, referring to Webb’s son, a Marine serving in Iraq.

“I’d like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President,” Webb responded, echoing a campaign theme.

“That’s not what I asked you,” Bush said. “How’s your boy?”

“That’s between me and my boy, Mr. President,” Webb said coldly, ending the conversation on the State Floor of the East Wing of the White House.

Be still, my heart.

At The Moderate Voice, Michael van der Galien sniffs that Webb should have been more civil. To which I say, bleep that. I can only imagine the grinding, prolonged anguish a parent feels when a child is off fighting in a war. When in fact that child is in danger only because of the corruption and incompetence of politicians, is that parent supposed to bow and scrape to the politician-in-chief like some bleeping courtier?

Bleep that, I say.

Webb didn’t seek the President out to start a fight, note. He spoke up only after Bush was rude to him. Emily Heil writes for The Hill:

At a private reception held at the White House with newly elected lawmakers shortly after the election, Bush asked Webb how his son, a Marine lance corporal serving in Iraq, was doing.

Webb responded that he really wanted to see his son brought back home, said a person who heard about the exchange from Webb.

“I didn’t ask you that, I asked how he’s doing,” Bush retorted, according to the source.

Webb confessed that he was so angered by this that he was tempted to slug the commander-in-chief, reported the source, but of course didn’t. It’s safe to say, however, that Bush and Webb won’t be taking any overseas trips together anytime soon.

Not getting slugged is more respect than The Creature deserves. As Glenn Greenwald says,

It is difficult to fathom the hubris and self-indulgence required for someone to ask a parent of a soldier in Iraq how their son is doing only to then snidely tell the parent that the answer isn’t what he wanted to hear.

Of course, the righties can’t see that Bush was out of line, and are already foaming at the mouth about the “Bush hater.” Like they’re so into civil discourse.

Update: Tristero:

I want to focus entirely on the unspeakable callousness Bush displayed here.

Folks, political enemy or friend, that is no way – ever– for anyone to talk to the father of a kid who’s in a combat zone.

This is the same man who reminisced about his hell-raisin’ during a speech at the worst natural disaster in American history. This is the same man who, when, asked to name his greatest achievement while president, “joked” that it was when he caught a large fish in his fake pond on his Crawford estate – sorry, ranch. This is the same man who, when informed that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center in less than 10 minutes, sat reading “My Pet Goat” in a children’s classroom. This is the same man who, in front of a supporter who he assumed wouldn’t report it, mockingly imitated a woman about to be executed in his state.

Sickening.

Tristero mentions “stunted social skills.” I still think we’re looking at some degree of sociopathy here.

Update update: I knew Taylor Marsh would enjoy this.

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Dichotomies

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abortion, conservatism, Iraq War, Religion, Social Issues
    The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.
    When love and hate are both absent everything becomes clear and undisguised.
    Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
    If you wish to see the truth then hold no opinions for or against anything.
    To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind.
    When the deep meaning of things is not understood, the mind’s essential peace is disturbed to no avail. — Sengtsan, 3rd Zen Patriarch

Humans have a proclivity for framing issues as dichotomies — this and that, right and wrong, black and white, us and them. Old Sengtsan would have called this “dualism.”

Dualism is actively at work distorting our ongoing political discussions. For example, few days ago Glenn Greenwald wrote about the Iraq Study Group:

But more notable than the supposed exclusion of neocons (something that should be believed only once it is seen) is this claim about Washington-style balance and “centrism”:

    The panel was deliberately skewed toward a centrist course for Iraq, participants said. Organizers avoided experts with extreme views on either side of the Iraq war debate.

I’d really like to know what the excluded anti-war “extreme view” is that is the equivalent of the neonconservative desire for endless warfare in Iraq and beyond. The only plausible possibility would be the view that the U.S. ought to withdraw from Iraq, and do so sooner rather than later. What else could it be? Nobody, to my knowledge, is proposing that we cede American territory to the Iraqi insurgents, so withdrawal essentially defines the far end of the anti-war spectrum.

Is withdrawal — whether incremental or total — considered to be an “extreme view” that the Washington “centrists” have not only rejected but have excluded in advance even from consideration?

Good question, and I fear the Baker panel does consider withdrawal to be an extreme view not under consideration. We’ll see.

But I’ve long believed news media screws up discussion of abortion the same way. We’re told there are two “extremist” views, pro- and anti. But what is the “pro” extreme view? I know of no reproductive rights organization that advocates elective third-trimester abortion, for example. Reproductive rights organizations have been fighting to maintain Roe v. Wade, which allows states to ban abortions after the 23rd week gestation (earliest possible viability; late second trimester) as long as exceptions are made for life and health of the mother. That’s extreme? Extremists on the other side not only want to eliminate the “health” exception. They’re not crazy about the “life,” “rape,” and “incest” exceptions, either. And don’t get them started on birth control.

I could be wrong, but I suspect the enormous majority of pro-choice people would accept some kind of legal gestational limit on elective abortion as long as it wasn’t set absurdly early and as long as physicians are allowed a decent amount of discretion for deciding what constitutes a legitimate medical reason for a non-elective abortion. In fact, I think a big whopping majority of the American electorate would accept that compromise. The Fetus People, on the other hand, will not rest until they achieve a total ban on abortions, no matter what voters want.

So who’s “extreme”? Seems to me the preponderance of the extremism is on one side.

I thought of dualities today when I read this column by Cathy Young:

Behind the political divide in America, there is also a religious divide.

The split is not just between people who believe and people who do not; it is between those who see religious faith as society’s foundation and those who see it as society’s bane.

I guess those of us who see it as neither society’s foundation nor society’s bane don’t count.

A look at recent best-selling books illustrates the divide. Ann Coulter’s “Godless: The Church of Liberalism” excoriates liberals for being, well, godless. Bill O’Reilly’s new tome, “Culture Warrior,” urges traditionalists to combat the evil influence of the “secular-progressives.” For the other side, there’s “Letter to a Christian Nation” by philosopher Sam Harris, who calls all religion “obscene” and “utterly repellent,” and “The God Delusion” by biologist Richard Dawkins, a tome whose title speaks for itself.

Both sides in the debate traffic in simplistic stereotypes.

Sort of like Cathy Young?

It doesn’t help that religion has become intertwined with politics. A recent column by film critic and pundit Michael Medved conflates attacks on religion with criticism of the political power of religious conservatives.

Such books as “”The Left Hand of God: Taking Our Country Back from the Religious Right” by Rabbi Michael Lerner, written from a religious point of view, are lumped together with Harris’ anti-religion screed. Meanwhile, conservative author Heather MacDonald, writing in USA Today, complains that “skeptical conservatives” feel marginalized in today’s discourse.

Over the past several weeks I’ve seen the “religious right” juxtaposed against the “unreligious left” dozens of times, and hardly anyone questions this. I don’t think it reflects reality, however. There are plenty of deeply religious lefties, and plenty of atheist and agnostic righties.

What’s more, if the “extremes” are pro-religion (as defined by Michael Medved) and anti-religion (ditto), then what the hell is the center? The “I don’t give a shit about religion (and/or Michael Medved)” faction?

What if we change the dichotomy? Let’s put everyone who thinks religion should be everyone’s bleeping personal business at one extreme, and people who want to coerce everyone else to think his way (a.k.a. God Nazis) at the other? This would put Richard Dawkins and Michael Medved together at the “God Nazi” end of the continuum, opposite from me.

I’m sure Dawkins and Medved would disagree with this model, but I care what they think about as much as they care what I think.

But I suppose I should try to take Sengtsan’s advice. Looking at religion dispassionately reveals a lot of people frantically grabbing for something to either soothe their existential fears or stoke their egos, or both. There are people looking for easy answers to difficult questions and finding difficult answers to easy questions. There are dogmatists and there are mystics; there are those who approach religion with fear, and those who approach it with love. There are those who find comfort in familiar liturgy and iconography and those who leave the familiar behind and wander off in search of something else. And there are those who don’t see any point to religion at all.

The problem is that people mistake whatever little bit of doctrinal or institutional jetsam they’re clinging to as the Complete and Total Absolute Truth and Wisdom of the Cosmos Forever and Ever Amen. This reminds me of an essay written by John McGowan and posted at Le Blogue Bérubé in June 2005. This is about politics, but it speaks to any issue (emphasis added) —

My point is that liberalism, first and foremost, is a set of expedients (mostly institutional and legal) for minimizing tyranny by setting limits to government power. It also tries to prevent the consolidation of power by fostering the multiplication of power. Democracy, in my view, is not worth a damn if it is not partnered with liberalism. Democracy and liberalism are a squabbling pair; they each locate power in a different place—democracy in the people, liberalism in the law—and they aim for different goods: democracy (in its most ideal form) for something like the “general will,” liberalism for a modus vivendi in a world characterized by intractable conflicts among people with different beliefs, goals, ambitions, and values. Neither one trumps the other; both, in my view, are essential ingredients of a legitimate polity.

Not only the Republicans, but the American nation as a whole, seem to have lost any sense whatsoever of what liberalism means and what it strives to insure. Even at the best of times, the liberal check upon power is a tenuous bulwark that fights against the odds. There is nothing that underwrites the rule of law except the continued practice of upholding it. The law must be reaffirmed anew each and every time it is enunciated and enforced. And the temptation to circumvent the law, to rewrite it to accommodate one’s current beliefs and practices, is also ever present. To pay the law heed is to accept that one’s own virtue is doubtful—or that one’s own beliefs are, in every sense of that word, “partial.” It is their assurance in their own virtue that renders the Republicans most dangerous, most prone to set the law aside when it gets in the way of doing when they know in their hearts is right. Impatience with the law is endemic—and it is the harbinger of extreme politics of either the right or the left. (It is here, of course, that the leftist will leap. But why should we think leftist self-righteousness any more attractive or less dangerous than the rightist variety?) …

… I just want to end by noting how “unnatural” liberalism seems. It involves self-abnegation, accepting the frustration of my will. It involves, as I will detail in my next post, compromise in almost every instance, and thus can seem akin to having no strong convictions, no principles. Yet its benefits are enormous; it provides, I am convinced, the only possible way humans can live in peace together in a pluralistic world. Given how distasteful liberal expedients are in experience, it is a miracle that they ever get established and maintained. But the benefits of that miracle are multiple—and we, as a nation, will sorely regret it if we trash our liberal edifice out of impatience, frustration, or, even worse, sheer forgetfulness of why that edifice was put in place, how it works, and what it accomplishes.

It frustrates Michael Medved’s will that filmmakers are allowed to express their own points of view in their films. Religion itself seems to frustrate Richard Dawkins’s will. But the contest shouldn’t be between opposing points of view on religion, but between those who support the First Amendment of the Constitution and those who would circumvent it.

Whatever your religious beliefs, as long as you’re with me on the Constitution’s side, we’re good.

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Why Does Dennis Prager Hate America? And Other Religious Questions

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conservatism, Religion

Dennis Prager: One more rightie who wants to shred the Constitution. Just read this sewage he spewed out at Townhall.

Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the first Muslim elected to the United States Congress, has announced that he will not take his oath of office on the Bible, but on the bible of Islam, the Koran.

He should not be allowed to do so — not because of any American hostility to the Koran, but because the act undermines American civilization.

First, it is an act of hubris that perfectly exemplifies multiculturalist activism — my culture trumps America’s culture. What Ellison and his Muslim and leftist supporters are saying is that it is of no consequence what America holds as its holiest book; all that matters is what any individual holds to be his holiest book.

If “America” forces an elected official to venerate a religion other than his own in order to take office, then “America” has just shredded the First Amendment and violated Article VI, paragraph 3:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

According to Robin Marty of the Minnesota Monitor,

In our country’s history, four presidents have been inaugurated without swearing an oath on the Bible. Franklin Pierce was affirmed, and swore no oath, Rutherford Hayes initially had a private ceremony with no Bible before his public ceremony, Theodore Roosevelt had no Bible at his ceremony, and Lyndon Johnson used a missal during his first term.

Despite Prager’s insistence that “for all of American history, Jews elected to public office have taken their oath on the Bible, even though they do not believe in the New Testament,” it is clear that he is wrong. Linda Lingle, Governor of Hawaii, took the oath of office on a Torah in 2001. Madeleine Kunin, a Jewish Immigrant and Governor of Vermont “rested her left hand on a stack of old prayer books that had belonged to her mother, grandparents, and great grandfather” as “a physical expression of the weight of Jewish history.”

And in North Carolina, the Notary Public has a written code for swearing in:

    “A person taking an oath should place one hand on the Holy Scriptures. This book will vary depending on the person’s religious beliefs: Christians should use the New Testament or the Bible; Jews, the Torah or the Old Testament; Moslems, the Koran; Hindus, the Bhagavad-Gita; etc.”

Prager’s column is nothing but bigotry and jingoism. Prager and other whackjobs (see previous post) demand that their points of view be respected, but there’s no virtue in tolerating intolerance (or, as in the previous post, plain ol’ idiocy).

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Cute Animal News

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conservatism, entertainment and popular culture, science

Off the whackjob charts — Media Matters reports that the Christmas warriors have taken cartoon penguin hostages.

Not content with their annual discussion of a supposed “War on Christmas,” conservative talking heads have taken on a new issue this season: environmentalist propaganda in children’s movies. CNN Headline News’ Glenn Beck and Fox News’ Neil Cavuto recently spoke out against Warner Bros.’ new animated children’s movie Happy Feet; criticizing the film for its alleged pro-environmentalist content. Media Matters for America spokesman Karl Frisch responded to the criticism, lambasting the conservative talking heads for their return to holiday-season absurdity.

“The idea that anyone would make such comments against a children’s movie about a tap-dancing penguin shows just how low the bar has dropped for what the media consider real news,” Frisch said. “Conservatives seem to have abandoned their traditional coverage of the supposed ‘War on Christmas’ for a ‘War on Penguins.’ “

Full disclosure: My daughter and I saw Happy Feet this weekend at the local IMAX cinema. My daughter is 26, btw. Except for the excessive number of rugrats in the audience, we had a fine time. Good animation, catchy music, Hugh Jackman doing an Elvis impersonation. What more could one want?

…in a November 17 entry on his Townhall.com weblog, conservative talk-show host Michael Medved referred to the film as “Crappy Feet,” and said it was the “darkest, most disturbing feature length animated film ever offered by a major studio.”

I take it Medved never saw Dumbo.

From the November 20 edition of Fox News’ Your World with Neil Cavuto:

    CAVUTO: Well, those cute little penguins in Happy Feet winning at the box office, earning more than $42 million. Now, in the movie, the penguins are starving, the fish are all gone, and it’s clear that humans and big business are to blame. Is Hollywood using kids films to promote a far-left message? Entertainment critic Holly McClure says yes and it’s wrong. Holly, so you thought it was over the top?

    McCLURE: Well, I did, Neil. I tell you. First of all, I went watching this movie thinking, “OK, great. A lighthearted, fun film. Love these animated pictures, and it’s interesting how realistic it looks.” And you get in there and you’re enjoying all the fun and frivolity, and, yes, it’s kind of a takeoff of the penguin documentary, and then along comes the subtle messages. And one by one they come in, and I felt like I was watching Dirty Dancing, penguin-style.

Perhaps McClure was watching a different penguin movie.

    CAVUTO: Well, you know, Holly, I saw this with my two little boys. And what I found offensive — I don’t care what your stands are on the environment — is that they shove this in a kids movie. So you hear the penguins are starving, and they’re starving because of mean old man, mean old companies, Arctic fishing, a big taboo. And they’re foisting this on my kids who, frankly, were more bored that it was a nearly two-hour movie, and they’re kids!

    McCLURE: Well, I’m just kind of curious. Were your kids scared or kind of bothered at all by the big walrus?

There was no walrus.

    Because I thought there were some pretty intense scenes. I don’t call this a toddler — a little-kid-friendly movie.

The penguins are chased around by leopard seals and killer whales, but nobody dies. (Unlike in Bambi.)

    … McCLURE: Well, what’s even more objectionable is the fact that they present all these things about man being mean, and taking the fish away, and the — you know, killing the wildlife and fish and penguins. And then furthermore, which, I don’t want to ruin anything for anybody, but to see penguins in an aquarium situation. OK, are we supposed to tell our kids then it’s not right to go to San Diego Sea World, or it’s not right to go to your local zoo, or it’s not right to have animals where you can go observe them? Should they feel guilty, then? I think the message is, “Yeah, we subtly put it in there.” But where does it stop? It doesn’t give you any solutions. So our kids should feel guilty, then, for enjoying to see wildlife, you know, in man’s environment?

My daughter commented after we left the theater that it was nice the humans in the film were not bad, meaning that they were not deliberately mean to the penguins. They just didn’t realize there were all these singing and dancing penguins that didn’t have enough fish to eat. (Should I post a spoiler alert? Oh, who am I kidding …) At the end people came to make a film of the singing and dancing penguins, the humans stopped taking all the fish, the hero penguin (Elijah Wood) gets the girl penguin (Brittany Murphy; not sexually explicit), and even the grumpy old penguin who didn’t approve of dancing (Hugo Weaving) was happy.

I suppose PETA could complain that the film says animals are only worth saving if they are entertaining.

On reflection, I suppose one could say the film makes fun of religion. The penguins have a penguin religion that venerates a mystical giant penguin. And a penguin character named Lovelace (Robin Williams) is depicted as a cross between a television evangelist and New Age guru. (The main penguin characters go on a heroic quest to get one of those plastic six-pack ring holders off Lovelace’s neck. I won’t reveal how that turned out.)

You might also argue that the film promotes family values, since the penguins’ highest purpose in life is producing chicks. This is why righties got off on March of the Penguins, which is about penguins producing chicks. Jonathan Miller wrote for The New York Times (September 13, 2005):

“March of the Penguins,” the conservative film critic and radio host Michael Medved said in an interview, is “the motion picture this summer that most passionately affirms traditional norms like monogamy, sacrifice and child rearing.”

Speaking of audiences who feel that movies ignore or belittle such themes, he added: “This is the first movie they’ve enjoyed since ‘The Passion of the Christ.’ This is ‘The ‘Passion of the Penguins.’ ”

In part, the movie’s appeal to conservatives may lie in its soft-pedaling of topics like evolution and global warming. The filmmakers say they did not consciously avoid those topics – indeed, they say they are strong believers in evolutionary theory – but they add that they wanted to create a film that would reach as many people as possible.

“It’s obvious that global warming has an impact on the reproduction of the penguins,” Luc Jacquet, the director, told National Geographic Online. “But much of public opinion appears insensitive to the dangers of global warming. We have to find other ways to communicate to people about it, not just lecture them.”

OK, but Happy Feet didn’t say a word about evolution, and I don’t recall anything about global warming. And Medved is OK with films that push his political ideas.

But if Medved was offended by Happy Feet, this news story ought to make his head explode:

Cetaceans, the group of marine mammals that includes whales and dolphins, have demonstrated remarkable auditory and communicative abilities, as well as complex social behaviors. A new study published online November 27, 2006 in The Anatomical Record, the official journal of the American Association of Anatomists, compared a humpback whale brain with brains from several other cetacean species and found the presence of a certain type of neuron cell that is also found in humans. This suggests that certain cetaceans and hominids may have evolved side by side. The study is available online via Wiley InterScience at http://www.interscience.wiley.com/journal/ar.

Could humpback whales be smarter than Michael Medved? Hell, there are goldfish smarter than Michael Medved.

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Civil War

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Bush Administration, Iraq War

Today NBC declared that the Iraq conflict is, in fact, a civil war. Naturally, the Official White House Position is otherwise. This is from today’s press gaggle:

Q Do you maintain it’s still not a civil war in Iraq?

MR. HADLEY: Well, it’s interesting, the Iraqis don’t talk of it as a civil war; the unity government doesn’t talk of it as a civil war. And I think the things they point to when they say that are, one, that at this point in time the army and the police have not fractured along sectarian lines, which is what you’ve seen elsewhere; and the government continues to be holding together and has not fractured on sectarian terms.

But, look, the point is, it is what it is. There is a high level of sectarian violence. It is a challenge for the Iraqis. It’s a challenge for us. We need to be talking about a way forward and a strategy for dealing with it. And that’s really what the President has been focusing on and where we need to focus — how to deal with this particular challenge going forward.

Q — the President fears that were he to —

MR. SNOW: — (inaudible) — civil war? No, but you have not yet had a situation also where you have two clearly defined and opposing groups vying not only for power, but for territory. What you do have is sectarian violence that seems to be less aimed at gaining full control over an area than expressing differences, and also trying to destabilize a democracy — which is different than a civil war, where two sides are clashing for territory and supremacy.

Q Can I just follow on — isn’t the President’s fear that were he to acknowledge that it is a civil war that there would be a further bottoming-out of public support? There certainly have been Republicans and others who have said the public would not stand by for U.S. forces to be in the middle of a civil war. So isn’t there a political dimension to this that nobody wants to admit, including the Iraqis, that it is a civil war?

It goes downhill from here. Way downhill. I’m quoting some more just so you can appreciate the degree of deterioration.

MR. HADLEY: I don’t think Americans have any — I think they — through the media and other things, there is a high degree of awareness, obviously that there is a lot of sectarian violence. You know, you show it on your TVs and it’s in the newspapers. This is something that they’re well aware of and they’re obviously very concerned about it and want to know what our strategy is going forward, in light of this phenomenon — which has really served us, since February and the bombing of the Shia mosque.

So it is a new element on the security scene; it is a real challenge to the government; it is something that the government needs to address. The unity government is clear and aware of that. And it’s a big challenge, and people understand that. So I think people are aware, they’re concerned, they want us to work out a strategy with the Iraqi government that offers the prospect of dealing with this problem. And that’s what we’re going to try to do.

Q Can you explain how something that started in February is a new phase?

MR. HADLEY: I said it is a new phase that started in February, and obviously we have seen more of it in recent days. I think one of the things one has to recognize is that while we call it sectarian violence, there is evidence, for example, that Saddamists, and particularly al Qaeda, are trying to foment and encourage the sectarian violence. You have heard it, you have read al Qaeda’s words — it was clearly part of Zarqawi’s strategy. We continue to see evidence that this is being something that is triggered in order to encourage the kind of effect it has the society.

So we call it sectarian violence — but I think one has to recognize that for certain Saddamists and al Qaeda, particularly, this is premeditated, this is a technique they are using. The effect of it, of course, is very destructive, it sets communities against one another. And it is something that we have addressed. It is, as you know, largely centered at this point in Baghdad. We have been trying to address that through a Baghdad security strategy. We have been through two phases. And I think the answer to that is, at this point, it has not proceeded well enough or fast enough. And, therefore, one of the subjects on the agenda is what is a better approach to the challenge in Baghdad.

So it is new, that appeared in February; it is something we have been dealing with and trying to adapt to with the Iraqi government. But, again, we have not done well enough or fast enough to be satisfactory to Prime Minister Maliki and his government, or to the President. That’s just the facts.

Oh, give up, Hadley. Or just read the press releases. From NBC’s First Read (via Froomkin):

The White House is objecting this morning to descriptions of the Iraq conflict as a civil war. National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said, ‘The violence is primarily centered around Baghdad and Baghdad security and the increased training of Iraqi Security Forces is at the top of the agenda when [Bush and Maliki] meet later this week.

That doesn’t make sense either, but at least it’s succinct.

I was semi listening to Hardball today and I do believe I heard Tony Blankely argue that if Iraq is in a civil war, that would prove President Bush’s policies were wrong. Therefore, it isn’t a civil war.

Brilliant.

Edward Wong wrote in yesterday’s New York Times:

Some Bush administration officials have argued that there is no obvious political vision on the part of the Sunni-led insurgent groups, so “civil war” does not apply.

In the United States, the debate over the term rages because many politicians, especially those who support the war, believe there would be domestic political implications to declaring it a civil war. They fear that an acknowledgment by the White House and its allies would be seen as an admission of a failure of President Bush’s Iraq policy.

They also worry that the American people might not see a role for American troops in an Iraqi civil war and would more loudly demand a withdrawal.

No shit.

But in fact, many scholars say the bloodshed here already puts Iraq in the top ranks of the civil wars of the last half-century. The carnage of recent days — beginning with bombings on Thursday in a Shiite district of Baghdad that killed more than 200 people — reinforces their assertion.

Mr. Fearon and a colleague at Stanford, David D. Laitin, say the deaths per year in Iraq, with at least 50,000 reportedly killed since March 2003, place this conflict on par with wars in Burundi and Bosnia.

As Michael Ware told Wolf Blitzer, “If this is not a civil war, Wolf, I don’t want to see one when it comes.”

Update: I should have paid for attention to Hardball; I missed this part (from Think Progress).

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