How Americans Are

I’m guest-blogging on Crooks & Liars this week. I am trying to constrain myself over there and not write my usual kitchen-sink-plus posts. Yesterday and today I posted a couple of brief (for me) posts on two of my favorite subjects, post-Katrina reconstruction of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, and America’s failing health care system.

Although both posts were triggered by new news stories, there isn’t any information in them I haven’t ranted on about in the past. For the “kitchen sink” details of the “Katrina” post see The Mahablog “Katrina” archive. Past posts on the health care system issue include this, this, and this.

Yesterday’s New York Times ran a column by Bob Herbert about the New Orleans Ninth Ward that I wish were not behind the subscription firewall. I am too repressed to defy the New York Times copyright and permissions department and post the whole thing here, even though I would probably get away with it. Anyway, Herbert writes that it “boggles the mind” that the U.S. seems to have taken the loss of a major city, New Orleans, in stride. Here’s a portion:

Much of New Orleans is still a ruin. More than half of its population is gone and an enormous percentage of the people who are still in town are suffering.

As Mr. [Spike] Lee noted, the public face of the city is to some extent a deceptive feel-good story. The Superdome, a chamber of horrors during the flood, has been made new again. And the city’s football team, the Saints, has turned its fortunes around and is sprinting into the National Football League playoffs. (They beat the Giants in New York yesterday, 30-7.)

“They spent the money on the Superdome, and you can get drunk in the French Quarter again, and some of the conventions are coming back,” Mr. Lee said, “so people are trying to say that everything’s O.K. But that’s a lie.

“They need to stop this focus on downtown and the Superdome because it does a disservice to all those people who are still in very deep trouble. They need to get the cameras out of the French Quarter and go to New Orleans East, or the Lower Ninth Ward. Or go to St. Bernard Parish. You’ll see that everything is not O.K. Far from it.”

Vast acreages of ruined homes and staggering amounts of garbage and filth still burden the city. Scores of thousands of people remain jobless and homeless. The public schools that are open, for the most part, are a scandal. And the mental health situation, for the people in New Orleans and the evacuees scattered across the rest of the U.S., is yet another burgeoning tragedy.

There’s actually a fifth act, only recently completed, to “When the Levees Broke,” in which a number of people reflect on what has been happening since the storm. Wynton Marsalis, ordinarily the mildest of individuals, looks into the camera with an expression of anger and deep disgust. “What is the government doing?” he asks. “They’re trying to figure out how to hand out contracts. How to lower the minimum wage so the subcontractors can make all the money. Steal money from me and you, man. We’re paying taxes, you understand what I’m saying?”

For most of America, Katrina is an old story. In Mr. Lee’s words, people are suffering from “Katrina fatigue.” They’re not much interested in how the levees have only been patched up to pre-Katrina levels of safety, or how the insurance companies have ripped off thousands upon thousands of hard-working homeowners who are now destitute, or how, as USA Today reported, “One $7.5 billion Louisiana program to help people rebuild or relocate has put money in the hands of just 87 of the 89,403 homeowners who applied.”

There are other matters vying for attention. The war in Iraq is going badly. Donald Trump and Rosie O’Donnell are feuding. And, after all, it’s Christmas.

“You know how Americans are,” Mr. Lee said. “We’re on to the next thing.”

That may be how Americans are, but what it says to me is that we have no effective national leadership. One of the most important functions of a leader is to keep people focused and working together on what needs to be done. And we just plain don’t have anyone filling that role right now. Dear Leader Bush is floating around in his bubble oblivious even to the basic responsibilities of the job of POTUS. In a nutshell, whatever doesn’t glorify him doesn’t interest him. And he is way disinterested in New Orleans’s Ninth Ward. Meanwhile, the favored federal contractors are profiteering with abandon, getting fat and rich on our tax dollars, while New Orleans stagnates. And while some individuals have worked hard to help New Orleans, without effective national leadership most of us feel helpless to effect any real improvement.

The Warm Fuzzy Post

I’m sending a big virtual smooch to all Mahablog readers and commenters. You make me laugh, you make me think, you keep me going. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you. Miss Lucy and I hope you have a lovely holiday, whether Christmas or “other.”

— maha

Hank Johnson

As I’ve said in previous posts, two of the new House Democrats are Buddhists — the first Buddhists ever elected to the U.S. Senate. One of the two, Maizie Hirono of Hawaii, is discssed here. Now let’s crash ahead to the other Buddhist congressperson, who is Hank Johnson of Georgia. Yes, Georgia.

Johnson’s bio says he is a graduate of Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law and practiced law for 25 years. You might remember that Johnson defeated Rep. Cynthia McKinney in the Dem House primaries, so he’ll be taking over her seat. Like Maizie Hirono, Johnson didn’t make a big deal about his religious preferences during his campaign, but Jonathan Tilove of Newhouse News Service reports that “A spokesman for Johnson would only confirm that he became a Buddhist some 30 years ago and is affiliated with Soka Gakkai International.”

Soka Gakkai International is a lay Buddhist organization with a proclivity for controversy. It has been accused of being a cult, although I don’t believe it is for reasons discussed below. However, I fear that as soon as Rep. Johnson does anything to draw the attention of the Right he’s going to be smeared as a cult follower. Forewarned is forearmed.

Soka Gakkai (literally, “Society for the Creation of Value”) of Japan was founded in 1930 by Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (1871-1944), an author and educator and follower of the Nichiren school of Buddhism, which I’ll explain in a minute. Makiguchi soon found himself at odds with the militaristic warlords who took control of the Japanese government in the 1930s. SGI literature claims that Makiguchi and his close associate Josei Toda (1900-1958) drew the wrath of the Hideki Tojo administration becase they opposed the war, but other sources say the real issue was that they would not honor Shinto as the official state religion. For whatever reason, the two men were arrested as “thought criminals” in 1943. Makiguchi died in prison in 1944. After the war and his release from prison, Toda rebuilt Soka Gakkai as a lay affiliate of the Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist sect, and through it promoted a program of self-empowerment through socially engaged Buddhism.

Daisaku Ikeda, then 32 years old, became president of Soka Gakkai in 1960. After that, the story gets weird.

Under Ikeda’s leadership Soka Gakkai began to act less like a benevolent Buddhist lay organization and more, some say, like a cult. In the 1970s SGI began to employ aggressive proselytizing tactics — proselytizing generally is frowned upon in Buddhism — and developed an intolerance of criticism. In 1975 Ikeda expanded the organization to become Soka Gakkai International (SGI), which has affiliate organizations in 120 countries with an estimated membership of 1.26 million.

I understand there may have been some Soka Gakkai chapters in America since the end of World War II, and the organization had some supporters within the 1960s counterculture. But in the 1970s and 1980s SGI — then called Nichiren Shoshu of America (NSA) — grew rapidly in the U.S. through well-funded and aggressive recruitment. For a time it looked as if Ikeda was trying to copy some of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s tactics by co-opting American patriotic symbolism to establish itself as a respectable “American” organization. For example, according to Daniel Golden of the Boston Globe (October 15, 1989),

NSA literature displays congratulatory letters from then-Vice President George Bush, Sen. Edward Kennedy, Mayor Raymond Flynn, and Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, among other potentates, and Sen. John Kerry was a featured speaker at NSA’s convention in New York City in 1986.

NSA stole the show at Bush’s inauguration in January by displaying on the Washington Mall the world’s largest chair — a 39-foot-high model of the chair that George Washington sat in as he presided over the Continental Congress. The Guinness Book of World Records has twice cited NSA for assembling the most American flags ever in a parade, although in one mention it misidentified the group as “Nissan Shoshu,” confusing the religious organization with the automaker.

If you saw the Tina Turner bio-flick “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” you saw a dramatization of Turner’s introduction to SGI. Other celebrity members included “Dallas” TV star Patrick Duffy, who sometime in the 1980s was quoted in a magazine interview (TV Guide, I think) saying that Buddhism was a religion in which people chant to get what they want. This quote detonated in the North American dharmakaya like a bombshell. What Mr. Duffy said was analogous to claiming that the central purpose of Catholicism was helping women get abortions. That, combined with the Nichiren school’s intolerance of other forms of Buddhism, created some tension in the American Buddhist asangha between SGI and everybody else.

At this point in the story I must explain Nichiren Buddhism. Nichiren (1222–1282) was a Japanese Buddhist monk who concluded that faith in the Lotus Sutra was the only means of salvation. The Lotus Sutra (a.k.a. the Saddharmapundarika-sutra — I just love those old Sanskrit titles) is a perfectly lovely sutra respected by several sects, although it is not recognized as legitimate by all of them. The original Sanskrit text has been lost; the earliest version of it known to exist is a Chinese translation, ca. 225 CE. Like most of the Mahayana sutras, the author(s) and time of composition of the Lotus are unknown. The Lotus contains a number of parables that some suspect were influenced by Christian parables, which if true would mean it was probably written in the 1st century, but that’s speculation. Anyway, Nichiren fixated on the Lotus as the only sutra that counted. He taught his followers to not only study the Lotus Sutra but to venerate it through devotional practices, such as the chanting of Nam Myoho Renge Kyo (yeah, that’s where that came from), which translates roughly as “turning the wheel of the Law.” Nichiren Buddhism is the only form of Buddhism I know of with the attitude that it is the only true Buddhism and all of the other sects are wrong.

The Rick A. Ross Institute maintains a web archive of articles about Soka Gakkai and its cultlike propensities. And I agree that many of these articles are alarming, such as this BBC transcript from 1995, and Daisaku Ikeda does come across as a scheming megalomaniac. Some believe Ikeda’s real goal has been to use Soka Gakkai as a vehicle for building a political power base in Japan.

But in the 1970s Ikeda and the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood began to butt heads over who really was in control of the sect itself. In 1991 the priests decided it was him or them, so they excommunicated Ikeda and ordered him to disband Soka Gakkai (which he did not do). This meant that Soka Gakkai members were also excommunicated and cut off from the sumptuous temple near Mt. Fuji that their donations had helped to build.

After this the name of the American organization changed from Nichiren Shoshu of America to SGI-USA, and members were sent revisions to the liturgy. But the parent organization did not tell American members why this was happening at the time. I know this because at the time I was active in several Internet Buddhism forums, and the SGI members fell into disunion as word of the split spread among them. There was a great falling out; some stayed with SGI, some left SGI and joined Nichiren Shoshu, and some split from Buddhism altogether.

Compared to other forms of Buddhism, SGI-style Buddhism seems, um, odd. The business about chanting to receive material things, mentioned above, is difficult to reconcile with anything the historical Buddha — the guy who founded the religion — taught. The proselytizing and intolerance of other sects also set it apart. The Lotus Sutra’s place of honor is similar to that of the Bible among Christians, as revealed Truth, whereas other sects of Buddhism regard the sutras as useful guides to understanding but not as Enlightenment Itself in book form.

Yet in spite of these differences, long-time SGI members I have talked to have a remarkably conventional understanding of Buddhism. One SGI-er explained to me that what happens in practice is that, eventually, the desire for material things wears out and is replaced by an interest in the spiritual teachings of the Lotus Sutra (see the story about the student who fell in love with a mysterious lady in this post). Further, SGI members are not encouraged to distance themselves from non-SGI family and friends; nor are they told to stop pursuing individual careers or interests to work for the organization. So it it’s a cult, it’s a loose one. Most of the problems within SGI appear to have come about because of Daisaku Ikeda, who is elderly now and may not be in the picture much longer.

Beside Tina Turner and Patrick Duffy, other converts to SGI you may have heard of include Mariane Pearl (the widow of Daniel Pearl) and Orlando Bloom. A new Broadway pop musical praised by New York magazine, Spring Awakening, was written and composed by SGI followers Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik (see sidebar at linked article).

So, although SGI and Nichiren Buddhism generally don’t appeal to me, I’m not concerned that it’s a cult. It may have been on the way to turning into one, but it seems to have pulled back from the edge.

Update: See also Mumon at DK.

This Is Rich

Before going on to the mini-profile of congressman-elect Hank Johnson of Georgia — this, people, is too funny. Remember U.S. Rep. Virgil Goode (R-VA) whose over-the-top bigotry regarding a Muslim in Congress is discussed here? Well, flaming idiot Daniel Pipes says that Rep. Goode is the “target of an Islamic advocacy group’s ‘victimization game.‘”

In other words, an apologist for Goode is claiming to Goode was targeted by an Islamic group after Goode targeted Muslims. This is a bit like the Ku Klux Klan claiming to be the innocent victims of a smear campaign by the NAACP.

I mean nobody can whine about being picked on better than righties, but this is outrageous even by rightie standards.

Pipes said CAIR was “perpetually on the prowl for any incidence of anti-Muslim sentiment, real or imaginary, spontaneous or provoked, major or minor.”

What Goode said was not an “imaginary” sentiment. It was real, and it was ugly.

The organization’s goal, he said, was “to make the United States like so many other countries – a place where Muslims, Islam and Islamism cannot be freely discussed.”

“It is imperative for Americans to retain their freedom of speech about Islam — as it exists in relation to other religions — and resist these many demands for remorse.”

This goes back to the rightie notion that “freedom of speech” includes the right not to be disagreed with. Rep. Goode said what he said. He was free to say what he said. As far as I know, the Speech Police haven’t shown up at his house to haul him to the gulag.

However, if you say some damn stupid, bigoted thing, the people you offend will use their freedom of speech to express their opinion of what you said. That’s how it works, dears.

And if you’re a public official or celebrity, and public consensus is that what you said was bigoted and offensive, prepare to receive truckloads of bad press. This is a lesson Michael Richards learned recently. Do the crime, do the time.

In recent weeks I’ve been struck how much right-wing rhetoric about Muslims sounds like the stuff white supremacists used to say proudly and in public about African Americans many years ago. Just as Strom Thurmond growled ca. 1948 — “All the bayonets in the Army cannot force the ‘Negarah’ into our home, our schools, our churches and our places of recreation” — today’s bigots are posturing and chest thumping to show Muslims who’s in charge.

And like the weenies they are, they whine with self-pity when their victims posture back.

Mazie Hirono

With all the hoohaw about a Muslim in the House hardly anyone has noticed that the new Congress will include the House’s first two Buddhists — Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Hank Johnson of Georgia, both Democrats.

As an editorial in yesterday’s Boston Globe observed, “Strangely, Congressman Goode seems unconcerned about the Buddhist threat to American ‘values.'”

I guess the Buddhist plan to take over America by stealth is working. Excellent.

Seriously, I thought people might be interested in a little background on these two new Democratic congress critters and their respective sects. So here goes.

Mazie Hirono was born in Fukushima, Japan, in 1947 and came to America with her mother in 1955. She was raised in Honolulu and has a JD degree from Georgetown University. You can read more about Hirono’s career here.

Hirono was raised in the Jodo Shu tradition, which in Japan is as mainstream as mainstream gets. According to this story she says she is not a practicing Buddhist today. However,

She said the Buddhist values of truth, wisdom and peace are part of what led her to public service. Hirono is adamant that there should be separation of church and state.

“I think that political leaders should not infuse religion as a central part of why they do anything,” Hirono said. “When I serve, I do my best in terms of what is good for the community, what is just, what is fair.”

There’s some background on Jodo Shu here. Very simply, Jodo Shu is a sect that emerged in Japan through the efforts of Honen (1133-1212), but it is part of the older Pure Land school that can be traced to 4th century China. The appeal of Pure Land is that it offers a devotional practice of Buddhism that is more accessible to laypeople than the more “traditional” sects, many of which demand years of monastic discipline from its followers. Through devotion to the Buddha Amitabha (in Japanese, Amida Butsu), the Jodo Shu Buddhist hopes to be reborn in the Pure Land, where the realization of enlightenment is easier and nirvana “closer” than it is here.

All together the various Pure Land sects probably are the most popular Buddhist sects in Asia. Outside of Asia they haven’t attracted as many converts as some of the monastic sects, possibly because Pure Land comes across to westerners as an Asian version of Christianity — trust in Amitabha as your savior and you get to go to Buddha Heaven.

When Maizie Hirono says she is not practicing, I assume she means she no longer chants the nembutsu (in its entirety: “Namu Amida Butsu” — loosely translated “I rely upon the compassion of Amitabha Buddha”) daily. Beyond the nembutsu, Jodo Shu teaches the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and other foundational Buddhist doctrines. Jodo Shu is often confused with another Buddhist sect, Jodo Shinshu, which I understand is sorta kinda a reformed version of Jodo Shu.

At this point I want to explain that to many of the other schools of Buddhism such as Theravada or Zen, the notion of being reborn in a Pure Land is absurd on several levels. Japanese Zen folklore (or “monklore”?) contains a number of stories about great masters who were offered entrance into the Pure Land and who refused, either because there is no such place or because the Pure Land is for weenies. On the other hand, I remember an offhand remark by a sure-enough Zen dharma lineage holder to the effect that long-time Pure Land Buddhists tend to be gentle and compassionate, whereas long-time Zennies tend to be snots.

On the whole, most of the older sects of Buddhism (note that there are exceptions to everything) have developed an attitude that there’s no salvation to be found in beliefs, because beliefs are unreal. Instead, beliefs and doctrines are understood to be provisional means to wisdom, not absolute truths. This is illustrated by a Japanese folktale about a lazy student who met a beautiful lady and fell madly in love with her. The lady was aloof at first, but took an interest in his studies. So he worked his ass off to impress her. The more learned he became, the more interested she seemed. Eventually he became the most distinguished scholar in the land. He went to his lady tingling with anticipation because now, he thought, she would not refuse him. But this time when he saw her she explained she wasn’t a woman at all but a benevolent spirit, and her goal all along had been to inspire him to reach his potential. Then she disappeared in a puff of smoke.

According to the story, the student was not disappointed at all but only grateful for what the spirit had done for him. Yeah, right.

The point is that, although western Buddhists sometimes dismiss Pure Land as too much like a theistic religion and very out of sorts with the historical Buddha’s teachings, it’s still Buddhism.

Next: Hank Johnson, congressman-elect from Georgia.

I Swear

The Westchester County (New York) Courthouse was built in 1973. When the Dumbest Trial of the Century ended I googled for this information. I had guessed the courtrooms, at least, dated from the 1960s or 1970s. The courtrooms are all in blond wood — cold, blocky, and graceless — and back then when people talked about “modern” decor there was nearly always blond wood involved.

In the front of the “dumbest trial” courtroom, high on the wall above the judges’ chair, the words IN GOD WE TRUST were carved in capital letters in the blond wood. And a Bible was kept on the witness stand for the swearing-in of witnesses. All the witnesses were asked by the clerk to put their left hands on the Bible and raise their right hands. (These directions confounded some of the witnesses, who needed reminding which hand was which. That was often the best part of their testimony.)

I realize that to many citizens religion is a primitive and irrational cult. And, of course, lots of religion is a primitive and irrational cult. The inscription didn’t bother me, but if I’d had anything to say about it I would have chosen something else out of consideration for non-believing citizens. Maybe “Justice is the set and constant purpose which gives every man his due” (Cicero) or “Justice in the life and conduct of the State is possible only as first it resides in the hearts and souls of the citizens” (unknown) or, my favorite, “The law isn’t justice. It’s a very imperfect mechanism. If you press exactly the right buttons and are also lucky, justice may show up in the answer. A mechanism is all the law was ever intended to be” (Raymond Chandler). Hey, it’s a big wall. But then, I would have stipulated oak paneling and furniture in a Mission or Shaker style, with bright red and blue cushions and carpeting. That courtroom was just too … beige.

But the swearing on a Bible thing concerns me a little. I don’t know if all judges still expect people to swear on Bibles, but the “dumbest trial” judge, apparently, did. I wonder what happens if a witness doesn’t want to swear on a Bible? This might be OK with the judge, but wouldn’t it be prejudicial to some jurors?

As far as church-state issues go, this one hardly belongs at the top of the list. I’d like to hear other opinions, though.

Inalienable Rights

Two hundred and seven six years ago, three members of the Danbury Baptists Association composed a letter to President Thomas Jefferson regarding religious discrimination in the state of Connecticut. Connecticut had established Congregationalism as the official state religion, and the Congregational Church was supported by state taxes. Connecticut law provided that people of other faiths could file exemptions to have their religious taxes routed to their own churches, but the exemptions often were not approved.

Some background: In 1801 Connecticut had not yet adopted a written state constitution, but instead was operating under a government derived from its old colonial charter, received from King Charles II in 1662. Charles’s policies were more tolerant of religious diversity than was often the case in those days, but religious establishment, politics, and government were tightly knotted together in Britain, as illustrated by the history of the Puritans. Charles’s charter assumed the colonists would work diligently to convert the “Natives of the Country to the Knowledge and Obedience of the only true GOD, and He Saviour of Mankind, and the Christian Faith, which in Our Royal Intentions, and the adventurers free Possession, is the only and principal End of this Plantation.”

The Bill of Rights had been adopted in 1791, but the First Amendment prohibited only the Congress of the United States from establishing religion. It would be many years before the Fourteenth Amendment extended this prohibition to the states.

Anyway, the Danbury Baptists were pretty fed up with religious discrimination in Connecticut, so they wrote to President Jefferson:

Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty–that religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals–that no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious opinions–that the legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbors;

“The legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbors.” That’s a point we might want to discuss sometime.

But, sir, our constitution of government is not specific. Our ancient charter together with the law made coincident therewith, were adopted as the basis of our government, at the time of our revolution; and such had been our laws and usages, and such still are; that religion is considered as the first object of legislation; and therefore what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the state) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights; and these favors we receive at the expense of such degrading acknowledgements as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen.

I included the historical background about the charter because some right-wing religious historical revisionists have claimed that the “ancient charter” the Danbury Baptists referred to was the U.S. Constitution, even though the Constitution was hardly ancient at the time and had not even been written, much less “adopted as the basis of our government, at the time of our revolution.” The revisionists try to claim that the Baptists were OK with government getting entangled with religion as long as it did so in a non-preferential way.

But that’s bogus. The Baptists continued,

It is not to be wondered at therefore; if those who seek after power and gain under the pretense of government and religion should reproach their fellow men–should reproach their order magistrate, as a enemy of religion, law, and good order, because he will not, dare not, assume the prerogatives of Jehovah and make laws to govern the kingdom of Christ.

Jefferson famously wrote back in 1802:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

What this exchange amounted to was that the Danbury Baptists wrote Jefferson complaining about legislators in Connecticut who “assume the prerogatives of Jehovah and make laws to govern the kingdom of Christ,” and asking for his assurance that the feds wouldn’t do the same thing. And Jefferson wrote back saying, damn straight we won’t, because the First Amendment doesn’t allow it.

So now it’s more than two centuries later, and some Americans are still struggling to wrap their heads around the idea that government may not be used to enforce or coerce religious beliefs and practices, and that a person’s religion ain’t none of the Gubmint’s damn business. Such a person is U.S. Rep. Virgil Goode (R-VA) who sent a letter to constituents

… warning that unless there is an immigration crackdown “many more Muslims” will be elected to public office. And these Muslims, Goode noted, would take the oath of office with a hand resting on the Koran. In a December 7 letter, a copy of which you’ll find below, the Republican congressman warned that if “American citizens don’t wake up” and adopt the “Virgil Goode position on immigration,” there will “likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran.”

The Congressman actually wrote,

I fear that in the next century there will be many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America and to prevent our resources from being swamped.

Alan Dershowitz writes about a Jew, Jacob Henry, who was elected to the North Carolina state legislature in 1808 but was blocked from taking his seat because of a state law that required legislators to accept the divinity of Christ. And now almost two centuries later another Jew, Dennis Prager, is leading a campaign to keep a Muslim elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from being sworn in on a Koran.

As they say — the more things change, the more they stay the same.

I already wrote about Dennis Prager and how he hates America, here. Since then I’ve heard from a number of people that U.S. Representatives don’t put their hands on anything when they are being officially sworn in, but sometimes pose with Bibles at photo-op swearings-in at another time. So this whole swearing-in controversy is bogus on several levels.

(However, during my recent detention at the Westchester County Supreme Court as a jurist for the Dumbest Trial of the Century, I observed a whole lot of swearing-in of witnesses on the Bible, and I have some thoughts about that I want to put into another post soon. And since two of our new congress critters are Buddhists, I want to explain why the practice of swearing on sacred books of any sort is problematic for Buddhists.)

I’m pleased to report that not everyone on the Right agrees with Rep. Goode’s letter. For example, blogger Rick Moran of Right Wing Nut House wrote,

But beyond the shameless, shallow pandering by Goode is a revealed truth; that too often Republican politicians are using this “traditional values” theme to capitalize on some unimagined fear as in the case of Goode and his phantom Muslims. We also see other individual groups like gays targeted as somehow being in conflict with traditional American values – as if these values are practiced by people solely as a result of their religion, sexual orientation, ethnic heritage, or any other qualifier that a politician seeks to use to drive a wedge between us….

…I’m all for controlling our borders. I’m all for enforcing the law. But I am also in favor of increasing legal immigration. If someone wishes to go through the bureaucratic rigmarole that it takes to get here legally and then work toward citizenship, that alone should denote a person’s interest in the “traditional values” of America. There are plenty of Muslims here today – second and third generation Muslims – who embrace the same values you and I do and are no more a threat to those values than my pet cat Snowball.

For Goode to posit the notion that Muslims are incapable of adopting and embracing traditional values not only flies in the face of history and everything we know about immigrants but also bespeaks a shallow and corrupt mind, incapable of grasping the shining truth about America as a melting pot that embraces all cultures and ethnic groups.

And that may be the most traditional of all American values.

Probably the last thing Mr. Moran wants is praise from me, but I’ll say it, anyway … Amen.

On the other hand, there are plenty of righties who live down to our expectations. The blogger of Riehl World View writes,

Founded, to a degree by Deists, or not – American tradition and the root of her social values is Judeo-Christian belief. That is a fact and no amount of protestation is going to change it. Though certainly a large influx of, say a Muslim or Hindu population most certainly would.

Which takes us back to Mr. Jefferson, who wrote in his autobiography of the adoption of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom:

The bill for establishing religious freedom, the principles of which had, to a certain degree, been enacted before, I had drawn in all the latitude of reason & right. It still met with opposition; but, with some mutilations in the preamble, it was finally passed; and a singular proposition proved that it’s protection of opinion was meant to be universal. Where the preamble declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word “Jesus Christ,” so that it should read “a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion.” The insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of it’s protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.

Heh. But blogger Riehl is less worried about religious liberty and inalienable rights than he is about preserving our “social values.” The fact is that our “social values” have already changed enormously since Jefferson’s time — slaves were freed, women got the vote, the Irish became respectable, etc. If we could go fetch Mr. Jefferson in a time machine and bring him here, he’d be shocked out of his stockings. So many of the social values of Jefferson’s time have disappeared that the nation would be as alien to Mr. Jefferson as Mars. And social values will continue to change whether large numbers of Muslims move to America or not, because that’s the nature of human society.

That said, I would insist that Muslims or anyone else who move here be advised of the Wall of Separation and warned not to try to tear it down. It protects us all from the likes of Rep. Goode.


Today the New York Times is running a “redacted” version of Flynt Leverett’s op-ed, discussed here. The column, headlined “Redacted Version of Original Op-Ed,” was published with black bars over the parts redacted.

As egalia of the Tennessee Guerilla Women says, “Take a look at the graphic here, and tell me you are not living in a state similar to the USSR.”

According to an accompanying editorial, parts of the original text were

… blacked out by the Central Intelligence Agency’s Publication Review Board after the White House intervened in the normal prepublication review process and demanded substantial deletions. Agency officials told us that they had concluded on their own that the original draft included no classified material, but that they had to bow to the White House.

Indeed, the deleted portions of the original draft reveal no classified material. These passages go into aspects of American-Iranian relations during the Bush administration’s first term that have been publicly discussed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; former Secretary of State Colin Powell; former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage; a former State Department policy planning director, Richard Haass; and a former special envoy to Afghanistan, James Dobbins.

Not only that, the editorial says, all information censored by the White House has been published before. With the editorial are the citations the NY Times provided the censors

… to demonstrate that all of the material the White House objected to is already in the public domain. Unfortunately, to make sense of much of our Op-Ed article, readers will have to read the citations for themselves.

Even weirder, the NY Times op-ed is a condensed version of an already published paper by Leverett that is freely available for download in PDF format from the Century Foundation (per SusanUnPC at No Quarter).

The only logical conclusion one can draw from this is that the op ed was censored because the White House disagreed with Leverett’s opinion.

Looks like Bubble Boy is fixin’ to expand the bubble.

Apparatchiks With Shovels

Here’s a seriously disturbing story from TPM Café. Vali Nasr writes,

It now looks like the administration has adopted the surge strategy as its mantra. Simply put it means no new political road map for Iraq in place of the “national unity government” formula that has so far failed (has not delivered on the insurgency but has managed to alienated the Shias, and has actually caused more rather than less sectarian violence since the U.S. adopted it); going it alone (ignoring ISG’s recommendation to talk to the neighbors); and putting more boots on the ground. This last item deserves special attention. The language of the administration suggests that the surge will be used to fight radical groups and sectarian militias—Sunni ones and especially Shia militias and death squads associated with Muqtada al-Sadr. But listen closely; what they mean is that surge is in fact meant to finish off Sadr. And there lies the danger.

This is stunning. This means that the war will escalate, and our troops will be taking on multiple sides of a civil war at the same time. And by taking on Shia militias, Nasr says, we run the risk of inciting a Shia insurgency, which is about the only sort of violence Iraq hadn’t seen already.

The generals (who, we’ve been told until now, were making “decisions on the ground”) are opposed to the surge. But as if on cue, today several news outlets have reported that soldiers in Iraq support the surge. David Cloud of the New York Times writes,

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, talking to enlisted soldiers on his second day in Iraq, heard broad support today for a proposal to send more American forces to Iraq, an idea that has emerged as a leading option as the Bush administration considers a strategy shift.

“I really think we need more troops here,” said Specialist Jason T. Glenn, one of several soldiers at a breakfast meeting with Mr. Gates who backed the idea. “With more presence here,” he said, security might improve to a point that “we can get the Iraqi Army trained up.”

You can read essentially the same story from the Associated Press. Thomas E. Ricks and Howard Schneider report for the Washington Post,

Bush said this week he is waiting to hear from Gates after the new defense secretary returns from Iraq before making a final decision on the issue.

In a breakfast earlier in the day with more than a dozen enlisted soldiers, however, Gates got an earful about the need for more personnel.

“I really think we need more troops here, with more presence on the ground. More troops might hold [the insurgents] off long enough to where we can get the Iraq army trained up,” said Spec. Jason Glenn, a member of an intelligence unit in the first infantry division.

“I think we do need more troops over here,” agreed PFC Cassandra Wallace, a support soldier in the Tenth Mountain Division. “More troops would help us integrate the Iraqi army into patrols here.”

You don’t have to wait for the White House speechwriters to put this together for you, do you? You know that sometime soon President Bush is going to announce that soldiers are asking for more troops in Iraq, so we have to send them.

I guess now we’re bypassing the generals and are asking the soldiers to make decisions on the ground.

Secretary Gates is, in fact, doing a heck of a job hearing what Bush wants to hear. According to Ricks and Schneider, not only is Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declaring stoutly that Iraq will “take the lead role in solving the country’s security problems,” (translation: See? Iraqification is working!) but Gates is saying that both Iran and Syria are playing “a very negative role” in Iraq. Iran especially (translation: Just forget about discussions with Syria and Iran).

You know that Bush has already decided what the Great Leap Forward to Victory will be, and that it will look remarkably like the old plan on meth. What we’re seeing now is just the pre-leap ceremony.