Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Bye-bye, Gonzo

The House Lawyer Departs - New York Times

It's one small step for man... one giant leap for the Constitution. Well, probably not giant. But certainly significant.

It's about time Alberto Gonzales resigned. The "loyal Bushie" has managed, in a rather short tenure, to do serious and lasting damage to the Constitution, specifically the Bill of Rights. From the beginning of his time as the titular monarch of the Justice Department, his name has been associated with projects and policies representing a complete departure from American values - indeed, from the rule of law.

The torture memo (with its classic line: "the new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners...") he co-authored was despicable. Spying on Americans without authorization from the FISA courts (an incredibly low hurdle) was appalling. Arguing for the suspension of the Geneva convention and supervising the torture of detainees at Guantanamo was repugnant. The firing of US Attorneys for the most thinly veiled political reasons would have been amusing if the consequences weren't the destruction Justice's independence, not to mention the careers of the Attorneys themselves.

An NPR commentator observed last night that President Bush tends to let staff situations fester until, at the brink of their becoming gangrenous, he is forced to resolve them. Gonzales' predecessor, John Ashcroft, was the target of similar attacks. Bush defended Don Rumsfeld, his Defense Secretary, and his ludicrous and disastrous reversal of the Powell doctrine of overwhelming force, until irreparable harm had been done to the US war effort. That's not to begin to address the fool's errand of the war in the first place.

Another Bush crony, Harriet Miers, was vaulted into contention for a seat on the high court with a laughable lack of credentials. The list goes on. (Rove, anyone?)

The Times editorial, supra, suggests that Bush nominate someone of unimpeachable character and ability to begin the arduous task of rebuilding the credibility of the Justice Department. Let's hope he can do so. Current speculation that Michael Chertoff, current head of Homeland Security, might be Bush's pick. That's predictable -- he proved his loyalty, and his incompetence, following the Katrina disaster. But the country deserves better. Surely there must be some respected conservative that Bush can nominate. Surely he'll want to take this opportunity, with a year and a half left until he rides off into the sunset of history, to attempt in some small measure to improve his horrendous legacy. But the smart money is that Bush will nominate yet another incompetent, committed insider who will continue Bush's assault on the fundamental fabric of American democracy.

So long, Alberto Gonzales. Good riddance.

France: Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran

French Leader Raises Possibility of Force in Iran - New York Times

When the French president took power, he promised a new era in terms of Franco-American interrelations. I hope this isn't what he meant.

The world certainly doesn't need, and may not be able comfortably to absorb, another neo-conservative excursionist into Middle Eastern affairs. Our own has mucked up the already chaotic region quite sufficiently.

I wonder, however, whether this change in the cant of French politics might portend an equivalent change in the attitude of the right in this country toward France. Might the "Freedom Fries" in the House cafeteria go back to their original name? (Note: I know. It's a joke. Relax, fact-check police.)

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Holy Crap: A review of the Creation Museum

I finally got a chance to see the Creation Museum in Northern Kentucky. I've been struggling to decide how to respond to the experience. I didn't change my mind about the veracity of the claims the "museum" makes -- of course, they're complete bunk. The reason I've been struggling is because I was trying to decide how to view the museum: as an innocuous testament to the odd and illogical beliefs of a few, or a vicious attack on truth and reason. As I was going through some pictures I took at the museum, I came up with my answer.

The museum is laid out somewhat logically: one enters and is immediately greeted by workers wearing safari vests with "Prepare to Believe" embroidered on the back. This, presumably, is by way of mise en scene: we're about to take a journey through "history." The place has kind of a Jurassic Park feel. Look out the window to the "botanical garden" and you can see a scale model of the Loch Ness Monster in the pond out back. I'm sure the metaphor was unintentional. Rounding the corner from the ticket window ($20 per person!), the dinosaurs themselves come out.

Not just dinosaurs, though. The New York Times describes the scene this way:

Two prehistoric children play near a burbling waterfall, thoroughly at home in the natural world. Dinosaurs cavort nearby, their animatronic mechanisms turning them into alluring companions, their gaping mouths seeming not threatening, but almost welcoming, as an Apatosaurus munches on leaves a few yards away.

You read that correctly. There are human children in the same diorama as dinosaurs. Never mind that carbon dating of fossils illustrates the absurdity and impossibility of the scene. The museum's response? Fossils came from Noah's flood, and carbon dating doesn't work. But I'll get to that.

The rest of the museum was more of the same. I'm not going to go through each exhibit pointing out the logical flaws. For one reason, that post would take too long. For another, it's already been done. Instead, I'm going to address the basic premise of the museum, because as far as I'm concerned, it's the most dangerous.

Wikipedia reports an ABC poll indicating that 60% of Americans believe that "God created the world in six days." 48% believe, according to Newsweek, that "God created humans pretty much in the present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so."

One of the greatest strengths of America is the ability of its citizens to believe, speak openly about, and debate any view of their choosing. If adults want to believe in Flying Spaghetti Monsters, or unicorns, or the Easter Bunny, nothing prevents them from so doing. I say "adults" as opposed to "people," because adults should, in theory, have the cognitive capacity to weigh an idea, considering the arguments for and against it, and make a reasoned choice of whether or not to support that idea. If people subject Flat Earth Creationism to that scrutiny, so be it. Let's just hope they don't organize politically and begin to influence our elections.

But of course, the Creation Museum doesn't intend to be a harmless gathering grounds for, shall we say, eccentric adults. Its stated purpose is to indoctrinate children. Again according to Wikipedia (with citation to the museum's web page),

The facility's stated mission is to "exalt Jesus Christ as Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer," to "equip Christians to better evangelize the lost," and to "challenge visitors to receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord."

All well and good. OK, not good, but at least tolerable. But the museum goes much further. The emphasis on dinosaurs, and the attention to detail on the dinosaur displays, clearly identifies one of the museum's core audiences: young children. Kids love dinosaurs (I know this first hand). Kids are voracious consumers of any dino-knowledge. By focusing on dinosaurs as the vehicle for the museum's anti-Enlightenment message, it is brainwashing innocent children.

Anti-Enlightenment is not my interpretation of the museum's message. It's stated in so many words. After the "cave of sorrows," featuring a parade of horribles like stem cell research, gay marriage, pornography, and ACLU, all of which resulted from eating some fruit, the museum gets into the history of the battle against flat-earth creationism. A video describes the "atrocity" of the ACLU during the Scopes Monkey Trial, during which "ACLU lawyer Clarence Darrow" viciously attacked and mercilessly mocked William Jennings Bryan for his literal interpretation of the Bible.

I grant them that point, though of course I don't subscribe to their interpretation. Darrow did savage Bryan quite deliciously:

[Counsel] objected [to Darrow's questioning of Bryan], demanding to know the legal purpose of Darrow's questioning. Bryan, gauging the effect the session was having, snapped that its purpose was "to cast ridicule on everybody who believes in the Bible." Darrow, with equal vehemence, retorted, "We have the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States."

Further, several posters detail "tragic" historic events, like when "In the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, the infidel philosopher Voltaire forecast that within a century no Bibles would be left on earth." Luckily, "... fifty years after he died, the Geneva Bible Society took over his house and printing press to produce thousands of Bibles." I guess they're still a bit miffed about Candide.

This is where the language ceases to be innocuous. One doesn't call someone "with a different starting point ... [who reaches] different conclusions" an infidel. There's a reason why Richard Dawkins refers to "the Taliban and its American equivalent."

The museum goes further. In an explanation of why Cain's marrying his sister was not wrong, a poster explained that since there weren't too many genetic mutations in the human genome, such a marriage wouldn't result in deformed children as it would today. Furthermore, the only reason marrying one's sister was wrong was because God said so. OK. No problems there. But then it says:

Since God is the One who defined marriage in the first place, God's Word is the only standard for defining proper marriage. People who do not accept the Bible as their absolute authority have no basis for condemning someone like Cain marrying his sister.

Divine command theory has plenty of adherents. It's an intellectually lazy and vacuous theory, but that's (somewhat) beside the point. To claim, however, that it is the only basis from which to derive a standard of morality is a blatant version of the same type of arrogance the Flat Earth types accuse "Evolutionists" of having. They assume the hegemony of their worldview. Thankfully for humanity, that particular worldview was well on its way out the door when Galileo muttered "Eppur si muove."

So the problem isn't the beliefs per se. The problem is what the museum attaches to those beliefs. Teaching children that what they learned in school is wrong is obviously problematic. But foisting Flat Earth creationism onto an apparently (and appallingly) vulnerable populace is downright dangerous.

The New York Times just ran a piece about the resurgence of political theology. The author, Mark Lilla, describes the fear Hobbes had of a theocracy:

And the debilitating dynamics of belief don’t end there. For once we imagine an all-powerful God to protect us, chances are we’ll begin to fear him too. What if he gets angry? How can we appease him? Hobbes reasoned that these new religious fears were what created a market for priests and prophets claiming to understand God’s obscure demands. It was a raucous market in Hobbes’s time, with stalls for Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Calvinists, Anabaptists, Quakers, Ranters, Muggletonians, Fifth Monarchy Men and countless others, each with his own path to salvation and blueprint for Christian society. They disagreed with one another, and because their very souls were at stake, they fought. Which led to wars; which led to more fear; which made people more religious; which. . . .

Luckily, the Creation Museum itself is the best argument against Flat Earth creationism and its logical (no pun intended) necessities. As long as people don't check their rational minds at the door, seeing straight-faced assurances that the Grand Canyon was carved in a couple of days should pretty much absolve the view of any danger it may have had among the public at large.

The larger point, however, is this: If it becomes even more politically dangerous to label this nonsense what it is, then we may have a real problem on our hands. We laugh when George W. Bush says "the jury is still out on evolution." But when statements like that become more commonplace, and it becomes dangerous to oppose them, that's when the real nightmare scenarios come to bear.

Thomas Jefferson famously said "We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it." Let's hope reason remains free. As for me, I'll err on the side of reason. I'll take "I think, therefore I am" over "I am who am" any day.

I could keep going. The "museum" is vulnerable to attack on pretty much every front. But, like the punch Ali didn't throw at Foreman, I'll abstain.

Monday, August 20, 2007

FISA court coming around?

Well now. The ACLU may be making some headway in its effort to force the Bush administration to belly up to the rule of law with regard to its illegal, warrantless wiretapping program. Not much, but as they say, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Or something like that. Check out the story on Digg.

read more | digg story

Sunday, August 19, 2007

So long, Voldemort

Howard Kurtz - Karl Rove, Insider With an Outsize Reputation - washingtonpost.com

So, the Dark Lord retired. I think we can all agree this is a positive thing. I'm interested in two comments Howard Kurtz, a columnist for the Washington Post, made in his article about all of the hoopla.

Or perhaps there's a cruder explanation: that some journalists believe Bush lacks the intellectual heft to achieve big things on his own, so they attribute his most consequential decisions to a powerful Svengali at his side.

Whether or not Bush is as dumb as he seems (seriously, can you blame journalists for having low opinions of a guy who can't pronounce "nuclear" and only occasionally can speak in complete sentences?), it seems perfectly clear that his advisers are rather important. The White House certainly went out of its way to create the impression that Rove was a wizard; next to Cheney, Rove was one of the favorite proxies to send to the Sunday morning shows.

I don't think you can blame journalists for having opinions, liberal or conservative. You certainly can blame them for writing those opinions into their coverage, but interestingly, that's not what Kurtz says they did. He interprets the focus and frenzy surrounding the Rove departure as proof of what he says are their unspoken beliefs. Me thinks he doth protest too much: it sounds like he's kind of worried that in fact, Bush might not have the intellectual heft required to order lunch, let alone to plan an invasion and subsequent occupation of a strategically important Middle Eastern country (apparently no one in the Bush administration did, so it's hardly fair to lump all of the blame on Bush) or to deal effectively with a major natural disaster. Granted, he probably doesn't have that intellectual capacity. But what's interesting is that Kurtz projects his fears onto journalists.

In a footnote to his column, Kurtz makes another attack on journalists:

Footnote : In an embarrassment to the industry, some staffers at a Seattle Times news meeting cheered when Rove's resignation was announced. To his credit, Editor David Boardman made the incident public and warned that staff meetings should not "evolve into a liberal latte klatch." Rove responded by sending a basket of cookies to the newsroom, with a note saying "my wife shares in your enthusiasm."

Again, is the implication that journalists aren't allowed to have opinions? No one claims that these opinions made it into the Seattle Times' coverage of the event. Journalists are by definition among the most engaged of our citizens. They form (or used to) the "fourth estate," the check on the government as a whole that the founding fathers envisioned. They should care about politics. They should have opinions about our leaders. They should not be punished for voicing those views.

I'm sure the newsroom at the Washington Post wasn't silent and sterile on the Nixon administration during the Watergate investigations. Especially when one of Nixon's goons made a veiled threat on Katherine Graham, its publisher: that' she'd "get her tit in a vice" if the Post continued with its stories. I imagine the reporters there had some choice words to say about Nixon's boys. Are we to fault them for this? Does that make their investigation of him or their stories resulting from that investigation any less valid? Of course not.

What possible reason could Boardman have for making public some private reactions of his staff? I can think of a couple: to embarrass the staffers, or to curry favor with the administration. Apparently, given the cookies Karl sent, the latter motivation was right on the money.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Implosion of the Right

The Economist has an article about the decline of the Conservative movement in America. It cites a shift in American attitudes about certain bellwether issues, summed up in poll questions like "I believe government should help the needy even if it means greater debt," "I believe the best way to ensure peace is through military strength," and "I never doubt the existence of God."

The magazine notes that answers to those three questions, among others, have shifted leftward since the ascent of the Conservatives starting in the 1980s, according to the Pew Research center. It's about time.

It's probably worth looking at the implications of each of those statements.

"I believe the government should help the needy even if it means greater debt."

For years, the conservatives have managed to pervert and distort what should be an easy question for a human of average empathetic capacity. The Horatio Alger plot formula simply does not apply in every situation. With a few very notable e exceptions, there are no "welfare queens." When JFK toured Appalachia in 1960, the country was shocked to see the abject poverty in which Americans were living. RFK repeated the trip, with much the same results. The media, and, by extension, the American people, were forced to pay attention.

Fast forward 40 years. The Republicans have managed to propagate the "morning in America" myth. Reagan's "trickle-down" theory has had its intended (though not its stated) effect: the rich got richer, the poor got poorer. The Clinton presidency managed to do some good, though not enough. Then, of course, Bush fiddled while the world (Darfur, New Orleans, Afghanistan, Iraq) burned.

Leave aside the (hopefully) obvious moral considerations. They're more than sufficient to prove the case, but the electorate needs some more tangible arguments. When will we learn that we ignore poverty and suffering at our extreme peril? If gang members had legitimate opportunities, does anyone seriously believe they would choose a life of extreme danger and crime over the safety, security, and comfort of middle-class existence? If the majority of the Sunni extremists had jobs, homes, and full bellies, would they follow the radical imams? Of course not. Without discontent, there would be no hatred to direct against America.

Increasing the debt will be the least of our concerns if we don't "help the needy." There is no possible way to prevent another 9/11, or reduce domestic crime, if we don't address their root causes. No, it's not sexy. Yes, it's easier to blame people for their circumstances. Yes, it's hard to give up some of our wealth for the benefit of others. But that's the only way to enjoy any measure of security. Oh, and it's the right thing to do.

"I believe the best way to ensure peace is through military strength."

I started to address this in the previous section. Of course we need military strength. Of course we need the most powerful, most invincible military in the world. No one seriously questions this. But it's quite obvious that this isn't enough. We had the most fearsome military in September of 2001, and that tragically was insufficient to protect us from 19 hijackers and some evil plotters in Afghanistan.

The best way to ensure peace is through a combination of direct aid, engagement with other world powers (including those with whom we disagree), thoughtful, considered and considerate foreign policy, and yes, unstoppable military might. Relying on any one of these to the exclusion of the others is a recipe for disaster. Just look at Iraq.

"I never doubt the existence of God."

It's not clear why this should be a measure of political bent. Undoubtedly, in American politics, it is. This is a measure of the Republican party's complete subservience to James Dobson, et. al. Republicans, especially in the last 15 years or so, have made a Faustian bargain with the religious right. They were so desperate for power that they relied on the get-out-the-vote prowess of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobsen and their ilk. Evangelical leaders have an undeniable ability to brainwash their congregants, telling them whom to vote for and what to think, or rather, what to regurgitate. The Republicans grew drunk on this power, and found themselves bound to follow their instructions. Thus, right-wingers fought hard to keep Terri Shiavo alive. They positioned themselves firmly behind the movement to dismantle Roe v. Wade. They floated a federal marriage amendment.

This put them at odds with the majority of the electorate. And it's starting to catch up with them.

The Economist reported that 150 Bush administration staffers went to Regent University. Yeah - Pat Robertson's Regent University. That one. Yeah. Tangent: isn't the point of an institution of higher learning supposed to foster independent thought? Schools whose stated purpose is to inculcate one particular worldview don't deserve the name 'school.'

OK, sorry about that. Bush has 150 staffers who were "educated" in Pat Robertson's mind mold. Who can feel good about that?

So now there are more people who disagree with the statement that "I never doubt the existence of God." Good or bad, it may indicate that people are realizing what our Founding Fathers knew - that it's probably not a good idea to let religious leaders have anything to do with governing a country.

The Economist article closes with the observation that the Democrats haven't really done anything to deserve their uptick in power. The approval rating of the Democratic-controlled Congress is lower than Bush's. Most people think that the Democrats will will the White House in 2008. Hopefully so. History has shown that the Democrats, more than any other group, simply excel at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Please, please don't fuck this up. The world can't handle another right-wing presidency.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Obama: Bambi-esque?

(As does pertain to Bambi)

So I'm a little worried about Obama. First there's the flap from the CNN-YouTube debate with Hillary. For the record, I think she's right regarding not making blanket statements about meeting with dictator-thugs. Point: Clinton.

Then on NPR, second-tier candidate Joe Biden (who has, by the by, some remarkably cogent insights) accused Obama of recklessness over his comment that he would, given actionable intelligence, combined with Musharraf's inaction, bomb Pakistan. Biden's argument was that Obama's comment would stem the flow of Pakistani intelligence. Sounds reasonable, Joe.

So Barack: Let's watch the extemporaneous foreign policy remarks. You're starting to worry me.

What's the baseline?

The New York Times has an article about several universities in Michigan and elsewhere installing footbaths for the use of Muslim students, whose religion dictates that prior to their quince-daily prayers, they must wash their feet. It seems that some students had been washing their feet in the sinks in the bathrooms, resulting in wet floors and sinks pulling away from the walls.

The question being raised by conservative bloggers and others is whether the expenditures by the public universities (some of the units cost $25,000 each) constitutes an unconstitutional (no pun intended) establishment of religion.

On its face, the answer to this question seems to be "of course." The state, through its agents, is building fixtures specifically for the use of a single religious group (statements about lacrosse players washing their feet and janitors filling buckets notwithstanding). But as usual, this question is much more interesting.

Some Muslims have raised a valid point that the schedule of every public school makes accommodations for Christmas, by definition a Christian holiday. So any thoughts of the state's non-intervention into religious activities are illusory.

I'm not suggesting a radical re-scheduling of school calendars nationwide. I think it's pretty obvious that the schedules as they are work to the benefit of Christians, but by this point, after 200+ years of dependence on such schedules, changing them would do more harm than good. It's important though, to realize that the current status quo does support an establishment of religion. Since we can't change at this point, let's accept it as the current baseline.

If that's the baseline, then any additional accommodations for a particular religion are unconstitutional. That's not to say that government cannot make changes to get out of the way of religious practices; it must allow citizens to practice their religions unencumbered. It may not prohibit individual citizens (or groups of them) from exercising their religious views. It may not prohibit girls and women from wearing the hijab; it may not prevent students from holding prayer meetings.

But it may not go out of its way, above and beyond the established baseline, to support a particular religion. It may not erect monuments to the Ten Commandments on public property, and it may not build facilities to aid any particular religious practice. In other words, no publicly-funded footbaths.

So then. Must universities let students wash their feet in the sink? Maybe. They certainly can't prevent students from washing their feet, if that's what their religion requires. Obviously there's the potential for a slippery slope here (what if my worship of the Flying Spaghetti Monster dictates that I play Four Square in a study lounge? Must a university let me practice my religion?), but let's table them for the time being. It's not clear, though, that they must allow students to wash their feet in sinks not designed for that purpose, especially if doing so creates a legitimate public danger (it's no stretch to imagine someone clipping and breaking their neck washing their feet in a sink; is the school liable?). Can the students wash their feet in any other manner? Can they, for example, use the showers without too much trouble? If so, then there's no reason the school can't forbid them from using the sink, simply for their own safety. If not, then there's an argument for building the footbaths.

But seriously: $25,000? That's the cost of several full scholarships at most state schools.