Thursday, March 30, 2006

Nothing "Civil" About It

Perhaps we'll earn a brief respite from the "blame the media" conservatives, who continue to maintain that Iraq is really a peaceful, prosperous nation and is being misrepresented in the news media (If only that were true). However, today, some good news really did fly its way out of Iraq. Christian Science Monitor reporter Jill Carrol was released by her captors today. Little information was available on NPR this morning, beyond that she was healthy and unharmed. Personally, I hope she gets a fat book deal with movie rights and lives out her life in comfort. The last three months of her life must have been unimaginable...

Unfortunately, this wonderful bit of happiness is overshadowed by the reality of an Iraq situation that grows more dire by the day. The debate has coalesced around arguments about whether or not Iraq is indeed embroiled in a civil war. Conservative warhawks say emphatically "No", because, of course, the reality of a civil war in Iraq belies their narrative of a blossoming peaceful democracy there. Yet the reality of ongoing violence between Iraqi factions remains.

Markos has a fascinating take on the nature of civil war, which applies directly to Iraq:

There's a laughable assumption in wingnutlandia that civil war means perpetual explosions, machine gun fire in the streets, and a people cowering under their kitchen tables. They look at Iraq and scoff at the notion that the nation is wracked by civil war (even though the country's former PM has already declared his nation is suffering such a war).


The Civil War I partly lived through, in El Salvador, cost 100,000 lives over 12 years. That's an average of 23 per day.

The civil war in Algeria has cost 200,000 lives since 1988, or roughly 37 killed per day.

And so on. What we're seeing in Iraq is far more horrific than your garden-variety modern-day civil war. It truly, honestly, isn't a matter of debate anymore. As for temperature, it's already twice to three times as hot of some of the most recent, deadliest civil wars.

This belies the notion by conservative war supporters that somehow Iraq is not in a civil war because the level of violence doesn't reach that point. I can't fathom the reasoning behind this, unless it is some attempt to compare Iraq to our civil war. This Stalin-esque idea that the civil war in Iraq is not so serious because the death toll hasn't reached a high enough level yet is a truly frightening example of how dehumanized the Iraqis have become to the war's supporters. This cavalier attitude is born out of the comfortable catharsis of supporting a war in which you're not actively taking part or living through. It's disgusting, frankly, and shows just how morally bankrupt the pro-war crowd is.

Further, another iteration of this immoral numbers game of lives is the claim that the 30 lives or so lost each day in Iraq are really not that significant. After all, many more Americans are killed daily in automobile accidents, etc. This rationale is laughably obtuse and demonstrates a real lack of both math skills and empathy on the part of the conservatives. First of all, the United States is about 10 times the size of Iraq. I find it impossible to believe that if 300+ Americans were dying each day in shootings and bombings across the country, that conservatives would find little about which to be concerned. Our country would be in a complete state of panic if such a thing were occurring. If the United States were losing 109,000 people per year in domestic militant violence, it would be one of the greatest catastrophes our nation had ever faced. And yet, conservative war supporters blithely dismiss the same level of violence in Iraq as being "ordinary" or, worse, a figment of the media's imagination. Again, it must be so very easy to hold the lives of others so cheaply when it's not your neighborhood being bombed.

Second, the complete lack of empathy towards the Iraqi people by the conservatives is sickening, especially given that helping the Iraqi people is their latest and greatest justification for Bush's war. They're only too happy to consign the Iraqi people to a life of violence and chaos, all in the name of spreading "freedom and democracy", yet they scoff at the idea that the level of violence in Iraq is serious. How very noble of our brave conservative war fanatics to lay down other people's lives for their ideology. Perhaps a little respect, a little empathy is due the Iraqi people; the people who are actually paying the price for Bush's "Big Idea".

In Markos' article, he also quotes a great passage from Peter Daou, who lived through the Lebanese civil war, that really sheds some light on the reality that conservatives so vehemently deny:

While "civil war" is a unitary term that connotes a single event of fixed duration, the daily reality is that life goes on, albeit in fits and starts.

Ceasefires are punctuated by artillery battles punctuated by peace summits punctuated by assassinations punctuated by more ceasefires punctuated by car bombs, and on and on.

One day we'd see kids playing in playgrounds, parents shopping for food, sunbathers on the beaches, the next we'd huddle in bomb shelters as rockets rained down on the city. One day we'd drive to a mountain village to visit with friends, the next we'd hear about people being shot at or kidnapped or disappearing on the same roads we traversed a day before. One minute we'd be sitting down to a quiet meal, the next we'd be racing for the basement as salvos of missiles slammed into buildings and streets and shops and homes.

The violence ebbs and flows, but for ordinary citizens - the lucky ones who survive - what remains is the misery and uncertainty, the demoralization and despair. With regional forces acting as puppet-masters, the victims are the people, the residents of the bombed out and burning cities and towns and villages. And the hatred cuts deep. Village pitted against village, cousin pitted against cousin, friend pitted against friend, neighbor pitted against neighbor, the wounds, physical and emotional, will last long after the violence ends.

So to the cheerleaders of this tragedy, I wish you could have lived it before you so glibly inflicted it on others.

As I've said before, the debate which began to settle around whether or not the Iraq situation had become a civil war is really moot. It's nothing but a desperate attempt by conservatives to divorce themselves from the harsh reality of war. War is the ultimate failure of statesmanship and, moreso, humanity. Certainly some good can come from war, but it's good that could be achieved in other ways, that carries with it such terrible costs as to be the grossest evil mankind can perpetuate on itself. How much greater then is the evil of a war started for no good reason, to champion a failed political ideology? The Iraqi people have paid and continue to pay a terrible price, along with our military personnel, for a war with no more purpose than to provide a laboratory for neo-conservative foreign policy, while most of the Americans who supported the war sit back here in comfort watching the death and destruction and pretending it's not significant.

The war's supporters continue to maintain that we must "stay the course" and "achieve victory" in Iraq, no matter the cost, which, again, is very noble since most of them won't actually be paying that cost. The reality is that there is no victory available in Iraq for the United States. That ship sailed the day the invasion began. There were other ways to help foment a democracy taking root in Iraq. But those options required patience and time, and were just not sexy enough for the pro-war crowd. In the dimwitted fantasy world of the pro-war crowd, military action equals decisive action; it's the good guys taking it to the bad guys and scoring the big win. The long-term diplomatic and humanitarian work required to actually build a new democracy just doesn't pack the cathartic wallop of "shock and awe!". Unfortunately, unlike the simplistic, black-and-white world where Bush and his supporters live, the real Iraq is a place of violence, chaos and hard decisions that will not be popular or exciting. Such is the reality of war, civil or otherwise.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Across The Rio Grande

If there is any piece of public policy that has been used more as a political football than immigration reform, it's hard to think of it offhand. Immigration cuts to the very identity of the United States, as we are essentially a nation of immigrants. The question of how we deal with immigration in a legal sense has taken a fairly brutal turn of late, thanks to the efforts of vigilante groups like the "Minutemen" and Republican ideologues like James Sensenbrennar (R - WI). A hard-line approach to immigration is not without its political costs, however.

From Marc Cooper, via AlterNet:

Saturday saw the largest political demonstration in the history of Los Angeles, and one of the biggest in recent American history.

A half-million people or more flooded two dozen blocks of downtown L.A. to give voice to some sort of rational, realistic immigration reform.


...[N]either party can properly get a hold of this issue. Demographics and global economics are simply racing ahead of any practical political response. The Republicans are deeply divided over the issue. Even as the half-million or so were marching in the streets Saturday, President Bush was on the radio more or less endorsing the protestors' two key demands: that a legal channel be created for the immigration already happening, and that some legal acknowledgement be given to the 12 million "illegals" already living here.

Legal acknowledgement is a good thing, so long as it does not continue to coalesce around the egregious idea of a "guest worker" program. Such has been tried before in the United States and it's a guaranteed way to create a permanent underclass of poor workers, a clear benefit to the corporate interests of the Republican party but not a positive for the workers consigned to such a system. The Republicans continue to either misunderstand or ignore the dangers of class stratification, to their and the country's peril.

My biggest problem with talk of immigration reform is the ugly racist underpinnings that tend to shade any discussion of it. For an anecdotal example, I've heard of complaints in my area about the influx of Mexican immigrants. Complaints seem to center around a fear of strangers, certainly, but also a kind of nativism, as though the Mexican immigrants are diluting the identity of these small villages. A misplaced nationalism seems to rear its head as well, in the form of complaints about the non-English speaking and the occasional display of a Mexican flag. These same folks who decry a Mexican grocery store flying a Mexican flag have no problem accepting a Norwegian general store flying a Norwegian flag.

The Latino immigrants in the United States, whether documented or not, have a place in our society, as should all who seek to make their homes here. While I fully support taking the time to make immigration as safe and productive as possible, it's clear that the current system is terribly broken. I find it immoral that Mexican immigrants seeking work in the United States should have to cross the border under the cover of darkness and secrecy. We should welcome those who wish to come here and contribute their hard work. We certainly should not make them criminals, as Sensenbrenner and his Senate contemporaries Cornyn and Kyle wish to do. Nor should we treat them as an underprivileged labor resource, fit only for exploitation by American businesses. Ripping immigrant families apart in the name of "not rewarding bad behavior" is profoundly cruel and a fair bit of hypocrisy from the "Party of Family Values".

The Republicans have stirred quite a hornet's nest this week, and demonstrations across the country do not bode well for Republican efforts to woo the Latino vote. The Republicans seem to have forgotten history (again); each wave of immigrants to America has faced opposition from those who have come before. The influx of Mexican immigrants is no different. Certainly, with open borders, certain criminal elements will exploit our free society. Once again, the price of living in a free country is that sometimes those freedoms are exploited. It's a cost most Americans, at least, are willing to bear.

The undocumented immigrants in the United States who are working and contributing to society deserve the security of recognition by the country they've chosen as their home. The Republican politics of walls and felony charges tarnish our American culture.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Princess Olivia Star

At 2 1/2 Olivia is the epitome of a princess...

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Friday, March 24, 2006

A Sad Day for Diversity

Vernon County Broadcaster Article

Well, Sam promised you a more personal version of the story... at this time I'm really just feeling angry and disappointed in the boring, straight, white, conservative, Christians. Do they have nothing better to concern themselves with, than making everyone like them? I know that it's true, but some days I can't believe the amount of hatred in our world. I can't think of a worse reason to hate someone... because of their sexual preferences, skin color or religious beliefs. There are so many good reasons to dislike people... stupidity, rudeness, bad hair...

I have a lot of trouble sleeping and end up going over these types of scenarios in my head:

Say your a Christian and you believe homosexuality is a sin. Your beliefs tell you that two men or two women shouldn't be together. Goody, goody gum drops for you...
why do you have to worry about what "John & Jack", from down the block, are doing ????? What possible impact does it have on your life?????

Our son is in school with one of Bob & Kevin Gross' (the couple slated to speak) children. I don't really know them personally, but I have seen their interaction with children. They seem to be some of the most devoted and involved parents, out there. Why in the world should they be condemned for having a committed and loving relationship, where they adopted needy children and give them a wonderful life, full of love and support? I just for the life of me... can't understand.

I don't know where I'm going with this, but I have decided... I can no longer just sit at my computer and bitch. I am going to do something about this. I bought some hot pink supplies to make a sign, for our yard. I contacted Anthony Reuter, the young man that took a stand the last time Diversity Day was canceled. I really admire his courage and wrote about him in my first 'meaningful' blog. I was honored that he in turn, visited this site and thanked us! I plan on being involved in any petitions or picketing! I want my children to know that I think diversity is a wonderful attribute and we should all embrace it.

Let's get to know each other for the people we are, inside.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Bearing The Costs Of War

There are at least a million ways in which the reality of war and the conservative fantasy of war are nothing alike. Here is one of the worst, from Time via Adventus:

But the details of what happened that morning in Haditha are more disturbing, disputed and horrific than the military initially reported. According to eyewitnesses and local officials interviewed over the past 10 weeks, the civilians who died in Haditha on Nov. 19 were killed not by a roadside bomb but by the Marines themselves, who went on a rampage in the village after the attack, killing 15 unarmed Iraqis in their homes, including seven women and three children. Human-rights activists say that if the accusations are true, the incident ranks as the worst case of deliberate killing of Iraqi civilians by U.S. service members since the war began.

Now, in fairness, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service is investigating the claims by the locals in Haditha to determine if the Marines are guilty of any wrong doing. The military, of course, makes the claim that the insurgents are responsible for the deaths, as it was they who put civilians in harms way. Fair enough; I'm not going to take a position one way or the other. I hate to think that our men and women in uniform could be guilty of something like this, but after Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, I'm not willing to take anything for granted anymore. I lay the blame squarely with George W. Bush, who launched this ill-conceived war, and Donald Rumsfeld, who has ineptly managed it.

As rmj at Adventus puts it so well: this is what life is like in a war zone. This is the high cost of war that is not being born by any but those sent to fight it and those forced to live through it. All of the inspirational stump speeches Bush can muster cannot change the reality of what's happening on the ground in Iraq. Every person dead, at our hands or at the hands of the insurgency, is one more person for whom the promise of freedom and democracy will never be fulfilled. Their blood is on all our hands.

A free, democratic society is a noble goal and one that I believe the U.S. should always support. But freedom has its costs and it wasn't Bush's place to demand the Iraqis pay it. Those 15 dead in Haditha have paid that cost, not by their own choosing, but because a political leader on the other side of the world felt they should. Those Marines involved have paid that cost as well, regardless of whether their actions were justified or not. They each have to live with their actions and continue bearing the burden of Bush's "Big Idea". If the accounts by the residents of Haditha are true, then these Marines should be brought to justice for what they've done. In any case, however, the responsibility for these deaths rests solely in the Oval Office.

War is expensive. It costs lives and bodies, blood and treasure. The invasion and occupation of Iraq has cost us our credibility in the world. It has cost us our security, as Iraq is now in truth the terrorist breeding ground Bush once warned about. It has cost us our military readiness, as our forces continue to be bogged down in yet another guerilla insurgency. But it has cost the Iraqi people so much more: their peace and prosperity, as they stare down the barrel of an expanding civil war. The cost of this war is so high, and yet so few are bearing it.

Talk, on the other hand, is cheap. And plentiful. It's all we get today from George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld. The same recycled empty platitudes, designed to inflame the passions of the "War is Strength" conservatives. Bush now admits that the war will go on beyond his Presidency, which we already knew but had never had confirmed. An old saying says that a political gaffe is when a politician accidentally tells the truth. Well, Bush committed a major gaffe yesterday, then. He finally admitted that his Presidency is done; he no longer has control of the Iraq situation, if he ever did. Now he looks to his successor, the next President. The one who will be forced to clean up the mess in Iraq and make the hard decisions that Bush will not.

That, ultimately, will be Bush's legacy: the All Talk President. The President who talked big and delivered little. A President who bought a big war and paid for it with the lives of other people's children. The Bush Era may have ended this week, but America and Iraq will be bearing the costs of the Bush presidency for many years to come.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Some Kind Of Local Trouble

It's not very often that the state or national news focuses on my little end of Wisconsin. Today, sadly, is one of those days. I spend quite a bit of time on this blog attacking the Christian fundamentalists and their oppressive social policies. Normally, I have the luxury of shaking my head from afar, as I watch the debacle in South Dakota for example. However, this time, the Christian Right has struck too close to home; right in the town of Viroqua, WI, where I live.

From 365Gay, via No Capital:

For the second time Viroqua High School has cancelled Diversity Day after conservative Christians balked at the inclusion of gay speakers.

The day, held every two years for juniors and seniors, was to have been held on Thursday as a opportunity to promote diversity in the community.

Speakers were to have included representatives of the African American, Latino, Jewish, Muslim, native American and gay communities.

Diversity Day was cancelled in 2004 as well, due to a petition drive spurred by local Lutheran churches. While I don't agree with that approach either, at least it had the advantage of being citizen driven. Not so, in 2006.

From World Nut Net Daily, who I refuse to link:

This time, a fax from Liberty Counsel stated local pastor Don Greven of Bad Axe Lutheran Church and the grandfather of a senior at the high school raised concerns about no Christian, or formerly homosexual, viewpoint being included among the speakers, the Tribune reported.
Liberty Counsel argued a federal court in Michigan had ruled a similar exclusion unconstitutional.

"By excluding the Christian and ex-gay viewpoints, the (Viroqua) District violates the Establishment Clause and the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal protection," the group said.

Perhaps Liberty Counsel's legal rationale is sound; I don't know as I'm not familiar with the Michigan case. However, a certain aspect of this story is missing, as was reported on WI Public Radio news this morning. The intentions of the Christian and ex-gay speakers were in clear contravention of the purpose of Diversity Day. Per Gregg Attleson, a teacher on the planning committee for Diversity Day, the Christian speakers intended to proselytize their message, using Diversity Day as a forum to denigrate homosexuality and evangelize to the students, which, by the way, would make those organizations guilty of the same Constitutional offenses of which Liberty Counsel claims Viroqua High School would be.

So, who is Liberty Counsel and why are they involved? Well, let's see what their website says about them:

Liberty Counsel is a nonprofit litigation, education and policy organization dedicated to advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of human life and the traditional family. Established in 1989, Liberty Counsel is a national organization headquartered in Orlando, Florida, with branch offices in Virginia and hundreds of affiliate attorneys in all 50 states.

Recognized by the IRS as a 501(c)(3) organization, Liberty Counsel is funded by donations from concerned individuals, churches and organizations across the country. Donations to this ministry are tax-deductible.

I've added some emphasis to what I feel matters in this "About Us" bio. It infuriates me when religious-political organizations use coded language like "advancing religious freedom" when they really mean "advancing the prominence of conservative Christian morality in public and private affairs". Such organizations use this coded language as an attempt to side-step First Amendment issues and to protect their 501 (c)(3) status. No sense in rendering unto Caesar if you can avoid it. A little more honesty should be expected from a Christian "ministry" like Liberty Counsel. If only the Bible had some sort of restriction or Commandment against lying...

Again, I can't say whether or not there is a genuine First Amendment issue here, but I suspect not. I can't imagine what kind of claim Pastor Greven thinks he's making by complaining of a lack of Christian diversity at Diversity Day. Conservative Protestantism is the status quo in Viroqua. It's the baseline that begs the need for diversity education in the first place. Unfortunately, diversity in faith or morality is not something conservative Christians are even willing to consider, since there's is the "One True Faith" and all. In any event, the purpose of Diversity Day is to educate students about the differing lifestyles of others, not create a forum for debate on the societal merits of such. Conservative Christians have such an axe to grind against homosexuals that they can't even bear the slightest hint of anything that might paint homosexuality in a positive light. It's a gross failure of faith and community, frankly.

Homosexuality is not going to disappear from the country, no matter how hard ministries like Liberty Counsel or Bad Axe Lutheran fight against it. The currents of progress always flow on, and just as racism and sexism fade more with each generation, so will bigotry against gays. Attacking things like Diversity Day only demonstrates an irrational hatred, and will certainly be even more instructive to the young folks of Viroqua than any speech. Pastor Greven and his ilk are an anachronism of a darker past, and the sooner they are consigned to the dustbin of history, the better.

[Editor's Note: Stay tuned, as Gifted-1 will be addressing the personal side of this story in a separate post. - S. Sam]

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Dueling Democracies: Japan and Iraq

In his speech in Cleveland yesterday, President Bush tried once (again) to defend the failed occupation of Iraq by evoking the ghosts of wars past (again). Particularly, Bush and his fellow conservative war hawks like to focus on World War II, due to the conservative belief that it was the ultimate example of a "noble" war. They romanticize it as the valiant struggle of the forces of good over the forces of evil, which fits perfectly into George W. Bush's vision of a comic book world. Thus, the examples from World War II get trotted out in support of the current debacle in the Middle East, in hopes of channeling nostalgia for the "Great War" into support for the "Long War".

For example (from The Ministry of Truth):

We've seen freedom conquer evil and secure the peace before. In World War II, free nations came together to fight the ideology of fascism, and freedom prevailed. And today, Germany and Japan are democracies -- and they are allies in securing the peace.


History has proven that democracies can change societies. The classic case I like to cite is Japan.


Sixty years ago, Japan was the sworn enemy of the United States. Today, they're an ally in peace. And what took place? Well, what took place was a Japanese-style democracy.

Bush keeps trying to establish that Iraq will become a peaceful democracy because Japan became a peaceful democracy, which ignores any and all historical context between the two situations. I think it would be instructive to look at two of the key factors affecting the possibility of democracy in each nation as well as the character that democracy might take.


Japan actually had a functioning democracy from the 1890's until the rise of Tojo's military dictatorship in the 1930's. Japan's government was made up of many political parties, with the prime minister's cabinet and the representative Diet working in a bi-cameral fashion. Note that voting rights were restricted to men only, though Japan was the first Asian democracy to extend sufferage to women. The samurai class of old eventually evolved into the political class of the modern day. It's worth noting that even during the Tojo war years, dissent still existed within the Diet against the war with China and the United States.

Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire, until control passed to the British following Britain's invasion during World War I. After the war, the British merged the provinces of Basra, Mosul and Baghdad into what is now modern Iraq. After forcefully putting down an Iraqi revolt in 1920, the British installed deposed Syrian emir Faysal I as king of Iraq, under the requirements that it be essentially a constitutional monarchy. While a bi-cameral legislature did form, it remained unstable throughout the monarchy's existence, and become more authoritarian as time went on. The overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy led to a brief period of republican government, though sectarian conflict between Arabs and Kurds, Shias and Sunnis was common. This sectarian strife led to a souring among the Iraqi people for the political process, allowing for the rise of a military dictatorship ruled by Saddam Hussein and the Ba'ath party.

U.S. Occupation

Following the surrender of Japan, an occupation by the United States was decided upon, with General Douglas MacArthur acting as Supreme Allied Commander of the country. MacArthur chose to use the existing Japanese government, under his direct control, as an intermediary with the people. This included leaving the Emperor as symbolic leader of the nation, though MacArthur required an American-style democracy be formed.

The first Japanese constitution was rejected by MacArthur, who then tasked his own bureaucrats to create one more in line with U.S. interests. Former prime minister Tojo and several members of his cabinet were executed for war crimes, while the entire Japanese military was disbanded and barred from entering the political arena. Further, the U.S.-written constitution explicitly forbade the Japanese government from granting itself any war-making powers in the future. Government-controlled corporations were broken up and privatized, while government establishment of shinto as the state religion was abolished. MacArthur also forced a liberalization of Japanese social policies, including granting expanded civil rights and establishing trade unions. MacArthur required the release of all political prisoners and the granting of sufferage to women voters.

The Japanese may have been more open to such changes for several reasons. First, they had fought a disastrous war with the Allies, losing over 3 million people and two major cities. Also, the armed U.S. presence essentially enforced martial law throughout the country. Finally, the historical groundwork for democracy already existed; MacArthur used his authority to liberalize and modernize the Japanese government and economy in the same model as the United States.

The invasion of Iraq was predicated upon questionable weapons intelligence and the belief by the Bush administration that the regime of Saddam Hussein represented a clear and present danger to the United States. Once the invasion repudiated White House claims about the dangers of the Hussein regime, the justification changed to building a democratic Iraq, under the pretense of "spreading freedom and democracy". Iraq was originally governed by the Coalition Provisional Authority, a largely U.S.-run political organization comprised of Republican party loyalists and Bush appointees. While the standing military of Iraq was disbanded, the police force was reformed under the guidance and training of the U.S. military. The level of training and competency of the Iraqi police force has varied widely, with optimistic reports from the Pentagon contrasting notably with reports from in country. Reports have also surfaced of the police force being used as an instrument for sectarian reprisal.

The Iraqi constitution was written by the provisional Iraqi government, following numerous delays. While it does establish a democratic government, it also enshrines a great portion of Islamic sharia law into the government, which has caused concerns about further sectarian conflict and civil rights violations. While Iraq has undergone several elections since the U.S. invasion, the new parliament has managed to meet only once, and no coalition government has yet formed. Sectarian violence has continued, prompting former Iraqi interim prime minister Ayad Allawi to proclaim the violence a civil war. The Bush administration continues to espouse the belief in a "stand up" by the Iraqi military, in clear contrast to the prohibition against such in Japan.

The differences between Japan and Iraq could easily be expanded from here into a full thesis, which I certainly don't intend to write. The point is that the situations prior to a peaceful democracy rising in each nation are completely different. Even Japan, which had the infrastructure and the conditions favorable for a democracy, took 7 years to fully self-govern again. Iraq has none of the same advantages. Many conservatives, including the President, seem unable (or unwilling) to recognize that democracy is worlds more than just a national election. Iraq has none of the institutions of democracy such as Japan had after WWII, and the kinds of comparisons Bush continues to make between the two are pointless.

In closing, I have to say that I don't believe that democracy is unattainable for Iraq. But I also believe that it is probably many years and much hardship away from today. Bush and his supporters have an almost religious misconception of democracy, which completely belies the reality of the world in which we live. Democracies are not inherently peaceful, nor are they proof against internal strife. The Union and the Confederacy were both democracies that left over 600,000 Americans dead from a civil war. Bush's comparisons serve no other purpose than to rose-tint his Iraq disaster in the eyes of his supporters for whom World War II is remembered as a glorious victory for the "good guys", rather than a global catastrophe that left millions upon millions dead. It's nothing but cheap political pandering to the delusional armchair war hawks, for whom the death and struggle of other people's children bring a kind of macho catharsis. There is no such gilded edge to the horror of war, either in 1945 Japan or modern day Iraq.

All the wishing in the world cannot make Iraq the noble adventure Bush wishes it were...

Givin' Sam Some Props!

Well, you may or may not know... Sam works in the wonderful world of accounting. Well, today he was promoted to Fixed Assets Supervisor & will have two accountants working for him!
Make sure you congratulate him on his move closer into the evil world of "Corporate Middle Management" and here's hoping (holding your beers high) that he can continue to make a difference, one asset at a time! Salute!

Monday, March 20, 2006

The Moral Minority

The dangers of tying a political platform to a given religious doctrine are legion, as the conservative Christians who dominate the Republican party have amply demonstrated. Attempting to legislate restrictive personal behavior based upon Biblical dogma has the definite possibility of engendering resistance, even in a country as flush with religiosity as the United States.

From the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

The overwhelming majority of U.S. citizens profess some religious faith, although far fewer attend worship services on a regular basis. The public square has become increasingly dominated by religious (specifically, Christian) rhetoric, from the "values voters" of the 2004 presidential election to hot-button cultural issues that carry a religious edge -- abortion, gay rights, stem-cell research, intelligent design, the right to die.

And yet at the same time a compelling undercurrent is at work. A study done by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York found that the percentage of the population that describes itself as "nonreligious" more than doubled from 1990 to 2001, from 14.3 million to 29.4 million people.

(Emphasis mine)

The fascinating reality here is that the tireless efforts of powerful conservative Christian political organizations to legislate Biblical moral laws have actually had the effect of driving folks away from the church. This is a result in direct conflict with the man whose name Christianity enjoys, who exhorted his followers to spread "The Word" to others. The political machine is eclipsing the faith by aligning the institution of Christianity against a large portion of the populace.

The fact is that most Americans favor at least some rights for homosexuals, if not full equal rights as I do. Most Americans believe the government should not be involved in reproductive issues or end-of-life issues. Most Americans support stem cell research and do not necessarily consider a small cluster of cells a full human being. In other words, the majority of the country, while identifying as Christian, is not willing to support laws which force them into a certain kind of behavior. This is the ultimate failure of conservative Christianity; it has failed to recognize and support the sovereignty of individual choice in morality. The value of a Christian life is nullified when it's forced upon people against their will. This is also the side of church/state separation that often gets ignored: the deleterious effect politics has upon religion. It tends to make the sacred mundane and the spiritual banal. It sucks the life out of faith by making it an oppressive tool of the institution, even if that institution has majority support.

The good news, as far as I'm concerned, is that the number of atheists in the country is growing. Now, I don't assign any value to atheism over theism per se; they are each merely different ways of answering the fundamental question "Does God exist?" I'm glad for this development in the recognition that as more people identify as atheists, the more socially acceptable such an identification becomes.

'Cause it ain't easy being an atheist in America:

"Atheists are not very well-thought-of in America," says John Green, a senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "It's still acceptable to criticize atheists in a way that's not polite. People may harbor negative views about Jews, Catholics, Muslims and evangelicals, but they know they're not supposed to voice those views, so they don't. But it's still OK to say anything bad you want about atheists."

The "anything bad" Green alludes to can and does include comparisons to Hitler and Stalin, as well as every other social evil imaginable. Of course, such comparisons are baseless and generally ignorant of the underpinnings of ethical behavior, which are deeply personal and difficult to define. The argument stems from the condemnation of the moral relativist atheist by the "moral absolutist" person of faith. I put "moral absolutist" in scare quotes because I don't believe that such a philosophy really exists.

Morality is fundamentally a human construct which has enabled humans to build societies together. Assigning a supernatural source to common social conventions does not, in my opinion, imbue them with any intrinsic value. All moral decisions are relative on some level. The problem arises in the details, however, and this is where the absolutist argument lacks any substance. The moral absolutists have made a fine art of splitting moral hairs on issues, all in the name of balancing the desire for moral "laws" with the need for a workable society. It's a fascinating sliding scale of definition.

For example, let's use the Biblical commandment of "You shall not kill." The moral absolutist looks at this and identifies it as an immutable law from God. However, "kill" is an awfully broad term and, really, not ALL killings can be immoral. Is it wrong for a father to kill in defense of his children? What about a security guard that kills a burglar at the local bank? Is it wrong for a soldier to kill another soldier? The conservative viewpoint would say that these examples are certainly not immoral, thus "You shall not kill" becomes "You shall not kill except in defense of yourself, your family, your property or your country".

Unfortunately, now the moral absolutist has to decide exactly what constitutes murder. Certainly, says the moral absolutist, the soldier is not committing murder by killing an enemy soldier. But what about the soldier that kills a suspected Iraqi insurgent? That soldier may not be defending anything, but rather fighting in support of a cause. It can't be justified by orders, as the Nuremberg trials held. However, that insurgent may have had a history of violence and was likely committed to future acts of violence, thus perhaps justifying the killing. Now, "You shall not kill" has become "You shall not kill except in defense of yourself, your family your property, your country or the innocent, unless it's justifiable by the actions of the person being killed, which removes their innocence".

Unfortunately, now the moral absolutist has to decide exactly what constitutes innocence and what that means for the person committing the killing. The soldier killing an armed insurgent may not be committing murder but what about the bomber pilot that bombs an insurgent stronghold and inadvertently kills a couple of nearby civilians. Is that murder? Or is there a collateral damage exception? To bring it back domestically, what about the death row inmate who is exonerated posthumously by DNA evidence? Has the doctor performing the lethal injection committed murder? Has the governor by not staying the execution? Have all the people who the governor represents by not electing a more morally upright governor? Finally, what about abortion? Is that truly murder? What about an innocent woman who's life is in grave danger from her pregnancy? Is she a murderer for aborting her pregnancy to save her own life? Is the doctor a murder either way, by either aborting the pregnancy or allowing an innocent woman to die? What about suicide, which most conservatives believe to be forbidden as well? Is choosing your own death murder?

After all this is taken into consideration, what was once the morally absolute position of "You shall not kill" has become so narrowly defined and fraught with exceptions as to be a meaningless in an absolute sense. Thus, the conservative Christian can claim to be bound by the absolute moral law of "You shall not kill", while supporting wars, the death penalty and abortion restrictions that have exceptions for the mother's life, among other conflicting positions. "You shall not kill" has become no absolute law, but rather a loose guideline decided on a case by case basis, which is essentially the foundation of moral relativism.

The point of this lengthy example was not to mock moral absolutists (or bore the reader) but to demonstrate that moral absolutism as a philosophy has no substance. The moral absolutist clings to a stated law, but then creates as many legalisms as necessary to fit the law into the prevailing social construct. Thus, each moral law is pared down to a razor thin edge, accompanied by dozens, if not hundreds, of exceptions that are not affected by the law. This is the obvious cognitive dissonance caused by attempts to legislate morality, particularly the dogmatic laws of religious beliefs. The law of God must be obeyed, even if it requires twisting logic and reasoning to conform it to the normal, everyday workings of society.

By way of contrast, the morally relative atheist can look at "You shall not kill" and evaluate it purely on its merits. Different situations can be evaluated and judged differently, without the worry of conforming to some archaic social stricture penned by a Bronze-age tribal chief. For example, I would say that a soldier killing an enemy soldier in defense of country is morally acceptable, because that soldier is helping to protect his family, friends and neighbors. However, I also believe that, for this reason, wars of aggression are wrong. It was wrong for the United States to invade Iraq, because they did not pose a threat to us. Our military has been forced to kill Iraqis that represented no danger to the United States, which has forced them into a morally compromised position. That's why the role of Commander in Chief is many magnitudes more important than just strutting around in a flight suit and saying "Bring 'em on". The decision for war against Nazi Germany was a different situation, and thus must be evaluated on its own merits, not forcefully pegged into a framework of absolute morality.

In the end, I suspect that all of the vocal opposition to conservative Christian political aims by progressive voices is probably not likely to derail the political machine of Focus on the Family and The Family Research Council. These groups are large, well-funded and politically connected. Rather, the death of the Christian theocratic movement will come from an exodus by people of faith. Once religious dogma is made cheaper and more exclusionary by investing its authority in a political party, it loses that which makes it spiritually compelling. Making the personal choice to say "I am a Christian and I believe thus" bestows a conviction on someone that no law can duplicate. Thus, banning abortions, outlawing gay relationships, breaking down the wall between church and state, serve only to erode the very ideals that conservative Christians claim to support. If a compelling case can be made for why these things should be avoided, then no law should be necessary. Personal choice will gravitate towards the best end. If, however, these sorts of social restrictions have no moral value, outside of the deceptive "moral absolutist" framework, then the only way to bring them about is through the legislative process, which usurps the right of individuals to choose their own spirituality.

I believe this to be the truth of why the number of folks identifying as "non-religious" is increasing. Restrictions on abortion, birth control, stem cell research and homosexual rights, to name a few, have no compelling moral value and certainly no social value (quite the opposite, in fact). Thus, those supporting such measures cannot rely on personal choice to move the country in the direction they desire. They are then forced to make a political platform of their beliefs, and seek laws legislating their morality over others. It's an abject failure of policy and an affront to the faith of millions, this theocratic social engineering. It's held sway over our public discourse for far, far too long.

But the tide is turning 'round...

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Liam the Adorable!

Here are Liam's 4 year old pics!

Friday, March 17, 2006

The Long War

I think it's safe to say that the march towards a conflict with Iran began years ago, with Bush's infamous "Axis of Evil" speech. The open hostility of the Bush regime towards Iran is palpable in U.S. foreign policy. The "so-called Liberal Media" is all a-twitter with reports about the impending dangers of a nuclear Iran. But is the concern legitimate, or just more fear-mongering by the Bush White House?

If past events are any indication of future results, we all should know the answer to that question (from Juan Cole via AlterNet):

If the Supreme Jurisprudent of theocratic Iran has given a fatwa against nukes, if the president of the country has renounced them and called for others to do so, if the International Atomic Energy Agency has found no evidence of a military nuclear weapons program, and if Iran is at least 10 years from having a bomb even if it is trying to get one, then why is there a diplomatic crisis around this issue between the United States and Iran in 2006?

The answer is that the Iranian nuclear issue is deja vu all over again. As it did with regard to the Baath regime in Iraq, the militarily aggressive Bush administration wants to overthrow the government in Tehran.

I am certainly opposed to theocratic regimes of all kinds, as religious autocracy is no less oppressive than a secular regime such as Saddam Hussein's. However, Bush's reckless policy of aggression towards nations he deems "evildoers", as though the world were scripted by DC Comics, helps foment the very danger from which he claims to be protecting us.

The Iraq war has descended into a chaotic mess, much as every opponent of the war had predicted back in 2003. What began as preventive war, based on faulty and misleading intelligence, has since morphed into an impossible nation building exercise, to the likes of which conservatives used to be opposed. It has cost the United States thousands of lives and billions of dollars, to say nothing of the terrible cost to the Iraqi people. All of this sacrificed to achieve what can probably be called a slow boiling civil war which could boil over at any time. Iraq is the terrible consequence of a foreign policy based in neo-conservative ideology, unfettered by the political complexities of the real world.

And now the sights of the Bush administration are turning to Iran. The Bush Doctrine of preemptive war and regime change can appear seductively simple, at least on paper. Confront regimes that are hostile to democratic freedom, use our military force to remove oppressive regimes and then help the people of the newly liberated nation build a golden age of democratic peace. It sounds so easy, this utopian vision of a democratized world. No messy diplomacy, no morally ambiguous expediency. Nothing but the crusader certainty of "shock and awe". Reality, sadly, has little familiarity with utopia.

The reality is that many autocratic nations, such as Iraq, have a seething current of sectarian strife, held in check only by the authoritarian jackboots of the ruling regime. Iraq is rife with sectarian reprisals, as the vicious cycle of retribution between Sunnis and Shi'ites continues to yield greater bloodshed. Further, there is no such thing as a war against one man. The invasion of Iraq may have had as one of its many causus belli the toppling of Saddam Hussein but the reality is that tens of thousands of Iraqis have died along with their former leader. It's akin to performing delicate surgery with a large chainsaw; the tumor may be removed but the patient is in no less peril.

That's one of the reasons the insurgency against the U.S. occupation continues. Not because Iraqis liked living under Saddam Hussein but because at this point every Iraqi has lost a friend or family member to the violence. Democracy and the freedom from tyranny may seem hollow next to the reality of a dead child, a dead coworker or a dead parent. Such is the price of freedom, of course, but it was never George W. Bush's place to impose that price on the Iraqi people by demanding their sacrifice.

Iran certainly bears close watching, as does any autocratic regime. But, again, as with Iraq, the clear and present danger seems to be more from U.S. aggression than from any tangible threat from Iran. The problem remains the conservative love of war, combined with a White House filled with veterans of the Cold War. The Republicans have made mythical the notion of the "just war"; the noble battle for freedom.

The use of military power has been so enshrined within the ideals of U.S. nationalism, that many conservatives now believe that military action is its own justification. Many and loud are the cries that we must not "cut and run" from Iraq, as if Vietnam didn't teach us the folly of a self-sustaining war. Strong is the insistence that, now that Bush has taken us to war, the American people should line up and unequivocally support "the mission" because it's the only way to support the troops. Such is a total abrogation of our responsibility as Americans to make certain that our military is not exploited in a war of ill-purpose such as this. President Bush works for the American people and it is our responsibility to determine when the mission is no longer in our interest. Bush clearly doesn't have the integrity or leadership ability to admit that the war in Iraq was the wrong mission for our military. Those advocating for an unending "long war" for no better reason than their own macho catharsis, their need to be the biggest, most violent bully on the world stage, demonstrate nothing but contempt for the men and women forced to lay their lives on the line for such hubris.

The "long war" continues, sadly, and it didn't begin in Iraq. It began in a political party of cowards and opportunists, who need the blood of other people's children to feel powerful and the profits of war to feel wealthy. It began with the Cold War and yet never ended, because these same conservatives can only define themselves by their enemies. They need Al-Qaida in the same way they needed the Soviets. A constant enemy, a constant threat, by which any amount of war profiteering or any degree of curtailing of civil liberties can be justified. Without the constant fearmongering and endless war, the American people might look up and realize that their nation is only a wavering light, dimmed by fear and bloodshed, when it could be a blazing beacon. And then where would the Republicans be, if the American people began to dream of how great a nation they could have once unfettered by constant war and fear?

Unemployed, I think.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Borrow And Spend Republicans

The so-called "Party of Fiscal Responsibility" strikes again, this time by further burdening our children with their spend-happy ways.

From Dkos:

The U.S. Congress approved a $781 billion increase in the federal government's debt limit, the fourth time lawmakers have raised the cap since President George W. Bush took office.

The Senate voted 52-48 to increase the legal limit on federal borrowing to $8.97 trillion, up from $8.18 trillion. The House approved the measure last year, meaning the legislation now goes to the president for his signature.

Since President Bush was appointed to office, the federal debt has increased by $3 trillion. That's roughly $600 billion per year from a President that claims to be a conservative. That's money that will one day have to be repaid, and until that day, will have interest accruing that the U.S. taxpayers have to cover.

It's long past time to put to bed the myth that Republicans believe in fiscal responsibility. That claim is nothing but empty rhetoric on a day when our statutory debt limit has been raised to about two-thirds of our gross domestic product. Republicans are not against government spending. They're against taxes which pay for government spending. They believe their wealthy supporters should bear no fiscal responsibility towards the country that has allowed them to accumulate such wealth. Allowing the wealthiest of Americans to shirk their civic responsibility is nothing but class warfare on a national scale. It's a blatant attempt to abet the concentration of wealth at the top tier of society, a trend which has historically spelled disaster for the nations in which it occurs.

Actually, Bush's tax cuts don't really exist at all. It's impossible to cut taxes without cutting spending, unless the Republicans plan on defaulting on our obligations and ruining the U.S. economy. The Bush tax cuts are nothing but tax deferments. Taxes will have to be levied on our children one day in order to meet the obligations this President is placing upon them. Republican fiscal policy represents the very worst irresponsible money management; the borrowing of money today that succeeding generations will be required to pay tomorrow.

The facts of the matter are clear, no matter what the Republicans claim. The last three Republican presidents have plagued the United States with their reckless spending habits while cutting taxes for the wealthy (Bush the Lesser) or raising taxes on the working class (Bush the Greater, Reagan). Only Bill Clinton actually balanced the budget and used budget surpluses to retire some of the debt. That's fiscal responsibility. Not cutting taxes for those most able to pay while burying future generations under a mountain of debt.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Robertson Captures The Conservative Conscience (Again)

Fear and hatred. Hatred and fear. It seems to be all the conservatives can muster these days when confronted with the reality of our modern world. This includes their spiritual leaders, such as radical cleric Pat Robertson, who reminded us all again today of what a respected leader he is in the conservative Christian community.

From Americans United:

On the live version of his "700 Club" program today, Robertson charged that Islam is not a religion of peace, that Muslims are demonic and satanic and that they are trying to take over the world.

Said Robertson, "These people are crazed fanatics and I want to say it now: I believe it's motivated by demonic power, it is satanic and it's time we recognize what we're dealing with. The goal of Islam, ladies and gentlemen, whether you like it or not, is world domination." He insisted that "Islam is not a religion of peace."

I love the response of Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United:

"At a time when inter-religious tensions around the world are at an all-time high, Robertson seems determined to throw gasoline on the fire," said Lynn. "His comments are grossly irresponsible. Robertson seems to be wrestling with demons of his own, namely intolerance and bigotry. To condemn an entire religion because of the behavior of some is deplorable."

The thing that makes these rabid outbursts from Robertson so instructive is that they reveal what conservatives actually believe about Muslims, which is why conservatives tend to distance themselves from Robertson so quickly. He doesn't bother to couch his bigotry in carefully coded language, the way most conservatives do. Their opinion of Muslims and Arabs remains the same, however, and Robertson is certainly not the only conservative to say so. Don't forget:

Ann Coulter

"We know who the homicidal maniacs are. They are the ones cheering and dancing right now. We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity."

Or, more recently:

"I think our motto should be post-9-11, raghead talks tough, raghead faces consequences."

And that's only the tip of the iceberg. Robertson and Coulter are just a few of the more obvious bigots because they eschew any sense of political correctness. They take pride in their message of intolerance and their popularity with rank and file conservatives is undeniable. They speak for far too many others in the United States who are only too willing to embrace the "War on Terror" as a war between Christianity and Islam.

As a general rule, I try not to get too much into the "My God can beat up your God" argument. As an atheist, I don't believe that any religion has the market cornered on truth and enlightenment. However, in light of Robertson's remarks I have to point out once again the hypocrisy of blaming all of Islam for the actions of Al-Qaida or Islamic Jihad. It's comparable to blaming all Christians for the actions of the Ku Klux Klan or Christian Identity movement. Robertson is taking extreme examples of bad behavior, mixing in a heavy dose of his own fear and bigotry, and producing a "straw man" of Islam that doesn't really exist.

The reality is that if Robertson's opinions of Islam were correct, the "War on Terror" would already be over and we would have lost. Quickly. There are over a billion Muslims on the planet and if all were the violent stereotype conservatives fear, then the "war" would be over. Fortunately, such bigoted stereotypes are figments of the paranoid conservative imagination and nothing more.

Religions are only as peaceful or as violent as the societies they exist within. Neither Islam nor Christianity are inherently violent or inherently peaceful. Both contain teachings for war and for peace, just as human history demonstrates times of both. War and peace have many causes and there is no objective way to distill out religion, or the lack thereof, as a significant cause of either. Only steadfast commitment to the civil rights of others, whether founded in a humanist belief in equality or the "Golden Rule" of Jesus, can lead to peace. Robertson, and those who feel as he does, miss that point completely, which is why their faith is essentially meaningless.

To close, I leave you with a quote from the Q'ran, espousing the value of peace. Realize that it's the same Q'ran that both Osama bin Ladin and Yusuf Islam read, just as both Pat Robertson and Mother Theresa read the same Bible.

And the servants of the God of Mercy are they who walk upon the Earth
softly; and when the ignorant address them, they reply: "Peace!" 25:64

Monday, March 13, 2006

Helping Bush Answer The "Call Of History"

Specifically, the call from 1834, when President Andrew Jackson became the first and, thus far, only President to be given a Congressional censure. Senator Russ Feingold thinks it's time to give Andy some company.

From the AP, via AmericaBlog:

A liberal Democrat and potential White House contender is proposing censuring President Bush for authorizing domestic eavesdropping, saying the White House misled Americans about its legality.

"The president has broken the law and, in some way, he must be held accountable," Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., told The Associated Press in an interview.

The facts of the matter couldn't be any more clear. Bush has publicly admitted that he violated the FISA, is currently violating the FISA and intends to continue violating the FISA in the future. His supporters have argued alternately that he either has the authority to ignore the law under the Constitution, which a quick read will show is completely baseless, or that the Congressional Use of Force authorization following 9/11 gave him such authority, which even Alberto Gonzalez doesn't believe is true. The fact is that President Bush knowingly and willingly broke the law and continues to do so.

I fully support what Feingold is proposing here because it serves two important functions. First, it lets the President know that the people of the United States and, to a lesser extent, the Congress, are not going to tolerate a President that openly flaunts the law. The Republicans have continued to stonewall any investigation into this matter, which is even more of an indication that the White House has been up to no good. However, at the end of the day, even if Bush had the noblest of intentions, it doesn't matter in terms of the censure proposal. Bush has admitted to breaking the law and that's not something we can accept from a President, regardless of how noble he believes his intentions to be.

Second, a censure resolution will keep this issue in the public eye throughout 2006. The Republican-controlled Congress has continually obscured or ignored any attempts at investigating Bush's lawlessness, and they should pay a price for it at the polls this fall. We are a nation of laws and no one, not even the President, is above those laws.

I don't normally endorse political action here, as I feel that's the responsibility of the reader to decide for themselves. But in this case, I will make an exception. Please visit Feingold's Progressive Patriot Fund website (link in my sidebar under "Noble Causes") and consider signing the petition backing his censure resolution. Better still, call your elected Senators and ask them to support Feingold's efforts. It's far too easy for the "go along to get along" centrist Democrats to run away from an important issue like this, so hold their feet to the fire where you can. Let them know that, even if Congress refuses to investigate the President's law-breaking, the American people aren't going to tolerate an outlaw regime in the White House.

Give old Andrew Jackson some company in the history books.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Sopranos Sunday... Sixth Season Starts!

So, tonight was the much anticipated 6th season opener. I thought that it was really well done, especially how they had honored the extended time span and didn't pretend that the 5th season ended last week. I was surprised at the lack of nudity, but was pleasantly surprised at the high body count. ;)
Most agree it is a great show, but there are many who think that the show is promoting negative Italian stereotypes and treating women like gold-digging pieces of property. Personally, I say... it's on HBO, so don't pay the extra $10.00 a month if you don't want to watch it!

Friday, March 10, 2006

Philosophy Friday: A Christian Atheist

It sounds like an incredible contradiction in terms, doesn't it? Yet, as I read the following article, it really made me think.

From Robert Jensen at AlterNet:

I don't believe in God.

I don't believe Jesus Christ was the son of a God that I don't believe in, nor do I believe Jesus rose from the dead to ascend to a heaven that I don't believe exists.

Given these positions, this year I did the only thing that seemed sensible: I formally joined a Christian church.


So, I'm a Christian, sort of. A secular Christian. A Christian atheist, perhaps. But, in a deep sense, I would argue, a real Christian.

I have to say I love what Jensen is doing here. He's drawing a dividing line between the moral philosophy of Christ's teachings and the metaphysical mysticism that dominates much of Biblical scripture. So how can one be a secular Christian?

Jensen goes on to explain:

[M]y decision to join a church was more a political than a theological act. As a political organizer interested in a variety of social-justice issues, I look for places to engage people in discussion. In a depoliticized society such as the United States -- where ordinary people in everyday spaces do not routinely talk about politics and underlying values -- churches are one of the few places where such engagement is possible.


Many no doubt would reject the idea that [a church which would accept non-traditional views of Christ] is truly Christian and would argue that a belief in the existence of God and the divinity of Christ are minimal requirements for claiming to be a person of Christian faith.

Such a claim implies that an interpretation of the Bible can be cordoned off as truth-beyond-challenge. But what if the Bible is more realistically read symbolically and not literally? What if that's the case even to the point of seeing Christ's claim to being the son of God as simply a way of conveying fundamental moral principles? What if the resurrection is metaphor? What if "God" is just the name we give to the mystery that is beyond our ability to comprehend through reason?

What Jensen is essentially doing here is separating out the Christian faith into a couple of its core components; components which most religions have. He's recognizing the difference between the moral teachings of Christianity and the colorful mysticism found in the Bible.

Personally, I would answer his question above with a definite "Yes!" I believe the Bible is written full of symbolism and allegory, which are used to breathe life into the moral teachings. I have long rejected Biblical literalism, as I feel it often detracts from the importance of Christ's teachings and often stands completely contrary to the world we know. It's not important that Jesus walked on the water, it's important that he walked among the sick and downtrodden. It's not important that he turned water into wine, but that he shared his food with the hungry. Christian apologists will claim that Christ needed miracles to convince the skeptical, believing that many in the days of Christ had magical powers. I say the miracle was in his teachings of empathy, compassion and peace. To lose track of this is to lose what truly made Jesus so important.

Jensen mentions in the article the tremendous religiosity of the United States. I can testify that it can be very uncomfortable sometimes being an atheist and secular humanist in America. It's something I kept to myself for a long time and, prior to writing about my beliefs here, I didn't talk about my beliefs much in front of my friends, family or co-workers. I grew up in a very Christian community and attended church quite a bit of my formative years. Many of my friends and most of my family remain conservative Christians today and often support many of the social policies I rant about here everyday. Offending them with what I write is a risk I have to take or else forfeit my integrity. But it's not easy...

It's not often that I read something that really speaks to me on a personal level, but this article did. I believe, as Jensen does, that it is wholly possible to be a Christian atheist. In fact, for me, the teachings of Christ are more important and more moving once the supernatural is set aside. For me, how Christ died is immaterial. It's how he lived that mattered. He set an example of social and personal responsibility that is just as insightful today as it was 2,000 years ago. Pity that so many conservatives today claim to be Christian yet their political goals and beliefs have little if anything to do with the teachings of the man whose name they give themselves.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Abortion Ban Reality

Since the Religious Right, with its proxies in South Dakota in the lead, have become emboldened in their efforts to roll back women's rights into the pre-Enlightenment age, I thought it might be instructive to look at the real world effects of abortion bans. One of the biggest difficulties in finding good scientific evidence to oppose abortion bans is that, prior to Roe vs. Wade, abortion records are very hard to quantify. Obviously no one was keeping detailed records of these illegal procedures, since that would have presumably been incriminating evidence in most states.

However, it just so happens that there are a lamentable number of nations in the world where women are still second-class citizens and the attention paid to female health issues reflects this primitive thinking. Let's take a look at one such nation, Bangladesh, and see where the criminalization of abortion leads. All information to follow is from the World Health Organization for South-East Asia (WHOSEA), unless separately noted:

Although induced abortion is illegal in Bangladesh except when done to save a woman's life, the practice is believed to be common. Approximately half of the admissions to gynaecology units in major urban hospitals of the country are for complications of abortion. Every year 2.8% of all pregnant women undergo Menstrual Regulation (MR) and 1.5% undergo induced abortion. These services are usually provided by untrained paramedics and ill trained doctors in a logistic constraint setting (MOHFW, 1998).

As a point of information (because I didn't know this when I was researching this topic), menstrual regulation is defined as follows:

Menstrual regulation is defined as any procedure which disrupts the intrauterine environment so that embryonic implantation either cannot occur or cannot be maintained (Brenner & Edelman, 1977)

MR basically includes most methods of abortion with which most Americans are familiar, including vacuum extraction, administering prostaglandin or certain surgical methods. Induced abortions, for the sake of the article, include a few other techniques not so widely used today but familiar to the pre-Roe days, such as:

[I]nserting a foreign object, such as a stick or root [or coat hanger](sometimes treated with herb), into the uterus[.]

In the WHOSEA study of Bangladesh, the object was often left inserted until an abortion or complications resulted.

Not surprisingly, the study shows that the abortion rate in Bangladesh is largely unaffected by the laws criminalizing such:

The annual number of induced abortions is about 730,000 of which menstrual regulation is 430,000. The overall rate of hospitalization for abortion is 2.4 per 1000 live births and about 75% of these complications are due to unsafe abortion and the remainder is due to menstrual regulation. The annual estimated number of complications requiring hospitalization that result from MR is about 19,300, which is approximately 4% of the 468,000 MR performed annually (Singh et al,.1997). Induced abortion other than menstrual regulation is estimated to have a complication rate of about 40% and a hospitalization rate of about 20% (Chowdhury et al., 2002).

That's 730,000 abortions in a tiny nation where the procedure has never been legal. A tiny nation where women's rights lag far behind those of men and social, cultural and religious restrictions abound in regards to female sexuality.

Back to the induced abortions from above:

Health workers in 795 health centers were interviewed under a study about complications arising from induced abortion in rural Bangladesh. A total of 1590 cases of complications from abortion were reported.


Menstrual regulation (MR) or dilatation and curettage (D&C) , the medically approved procedures, was reported to have been used 9.1% of the time.

Imagine that: less than 1 out of every 10 illegal abortions in Bangladesh is being performed by a medically approved procedure. That's why 40% of these abortions resulted in serious complications, such as:

The most frequent complications are incomplete abortion, sepsis, haemorrhage and intra-abdominal injury, such as puncturing or tearing of the uterus. These can be fatal if they are not treated promptly.

This is the reality about banning abortion that those opposed to women's rights don't like to talk about. I can imagine the argument from the Religious Right, that we are a more developed country and such things couldn't happen here. That's garbage. The missing ingredient in the Bangladesh example is the availability of medically viable reproductive services, much the same way those things are almost non-existent in many states, such as South Dakota and Mississippi. The criminalizing of abortion, combined with patriarchal social, cultural and religious views that stigmatize women's sexuality, is the starting point for a whole host of medical and social problems, as the Bangladesh study has shown. All of these things are part of the religious fundamentalist agenda being pushed by the Anti-choice crowd.

This is the kind of nation conservatives want to live in, even though many of them probably never bother to consider the effect their "beliefs" have on women. They've fetishized unborn babies to an extreme degree that defies all rationality. This is the reality the Religious Right wants for our mothers and wives, our sisters and daughters.

Take a good look.

Who's Exaggerating What Now, Rummy?

I'm shocked to report, as a follow up to yesterday's post, that Rumsfeld was either grossly misinformed or lying about the level of violence in Iraq lately. I lean towards the latter, mainly because it's easier for me to sleep at night believing Bush and Rumsfeld to be mendacious than to believe they are this utterly incompetent. As it turns out, it appears the level of violence following the Golden Dome bombing hasn't been quite so sedate as previously reported (from the Washington Post, via SusanG at Dkos):

Official Says Shiite Party Suppressed Body Count
By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 9, 2006; A01

BAGHDAD, March 8 -- Days after the bombing of a Shiite shrine unleashed a wave of retaliatory killings of Sunnis, the leading Shiite party in Iraq's governing coalition directed the Health Ministry to stop tabulating execution-style shootings, according to a ministry official familiar with the recording of deaths.

The official, who spoke on the condition that he not be named because he feared for his safety, said a representative of the Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, ordered that government hospitals and morgues catalogue deaths caused by bombings or clashes with insurgents, but not by execution-style shootings.

A statement this week by the U.N. human rights department in Baghdad appeared to support the account of the Health Ministry official. The agency said it had received information about Baghdad's main morgue -- where victims of fatal shootings are taken -- that indicated "the current acting director is under pressure by the Interior Ministry in order not to reveal such information and to minimize the number of casualties."

It appears the new government of Iraq has learned quite a bit from its American neo-conservative supporters. It doesn't matter if the violence has escalated as long as they can make people believe that it hasn't. The facts are irrelevant. Just cover up the truth and then loudly proclaim what you wish the truth to be, while wrapping yourself in the symbols of nationalism. It's worked for Bush and Rummy; no doubt it will also work for the Iraqi government as well.

This story also clears up why Fox News was reporting a few weeks ago that the Washington Post had misconstrued the casualty numbers following the Golden Dome bombing. No big surprise that Fox News is carrying water for the conservative belief in the Magic Democratic Kingdom of Iraq that the Liberal Media is Hiding, but it does settle why there was such a discrepancy. Not that it will matter to the viewers of Fox News of course. They have their Iraq narrative and no amount of factual investigative reporting is going to shake their ignorant certainty. As far as they're concerned, it's all media bias anyway. I'm sure Fox News, Newsmax, The New Republic, Men's News Daily, the Right Blogosphere and so on, will begin reporting all that wonderful good news from Iraq that the rest of the world isn't hearing any time now. Any time...

On a related note, a group calling itself Vote NO to Cut and Run has popped up in Madison and one of their members, Bill Richardson, graced WPR this morning for a rousing hour of "Name That Republican Talking Point". I have a slight bit of respect for this gentleman after hearing him defend the Iraq war, if only because he's one of the few conservatives I've heard who is willing to admit that Iraq is just a retro-fit of Vietnam. See, according to this Anti-Cut n' Run group, pulling out of Iraq would be a mistake, just like pulling out of Vietnam was a mistake. Apparently if we'd only just sacrificed a few hundred thousand more American G.I.'s, then Vietnam could have been the big win conservatives so desperately crave. He of course used all the same tired conservative talking points: the media is biased, no reporting of the "good news" from Iraq, Zogby is biased, anti-war is anti-military, etc. Nothing new under the sun here, especially if you remember the early 1970's. Sadly, I lost that little bit of respect from earlier in the paragraph when I realized that Richardson's group doesn't have the guts to actually put any contact information on their site.

My biggest objection to this group, which was formed to combat anti-war referendums hitting the ballots in 30 Wisconsin towns this year, and others like it is the use of obtuse jingoism like "cut n' run". It seems to be a personal favorite of the pro-war conservative crowd back here in the States. You know, the place where they aren't fighting the war they worship. This is another iteration of the view that our military is kind of like a national sports team, in that while conservatives don't really want to get out on the field and play, they also don't want their "team" to lose. So they throw up moronic ideas like "cut n' run" to lend some sort of macho glamour to the horror of war, as if thousands of people haven't lost their lives for this folly.

What's so frightening about this particular conservative nonsense is that it leads to a never ending state of war. If conservatives think we should support the mission because our troops are involved, then by default that means we're supposed to support ANY military action anywhere if U.S. soldiers are involved. (Funny how that didn't apply when Clinton was in office, but I digress.) That's a complete abdication of any and all civic responsibility for the actions of our government; ironic, coming from the "party of personal responsibility". This is why the military has civilian oversight. At some point, it is the responsibility of the elected civilian leadership, and by extension, the American people, to stand up and decide when the mission is no longer feasible. We cannot allow, as conservatives want to, every military action to become its own justification. Supporting the troops means using the military in a responsible manner, as Bush certainly has not done, and having the courage to admit when our foreign policy goals are no longer militarily achievable, as not one conservative coward in America has the guts to do.

Iraq may become a peaceful democracy one day and I certainly hope it does. Between the British occupation, the Ba'athist regime and now the U.S. invasion and occupation, the people of Iraq have more than earned some peace and prosperity. But the reality is that the United States military cannot make that happen by military force. We cannot drop enough bombs or kill enough insurgents or patrol enough streets to ever bring about that change in Iraq. That's what we in the anti-war crowd have know all along and what conservative war hawks need to understand. We cannot force a positive change on other countries at the point of a gun. The world is far, far more complex than the "we're the good guys, they're the bad guys" comic book rhetoric of conservatives. Foreign policy and world politics requires a more *gasp* nuanced understanding than just "shock n' awe!". Our military cannot create a liberal democracy in Iraq, no matter how much anyone believes in that noble goal. It's time to bring them home and look for a better way to help the Iraqi people.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Tinkerbell Strategy

What color, I wonder, is the sky over the land Donald Rumsfeld sees each day when he looks towards the Middle East? Obviously it's rosy pink over a peaceful desert land, full of Iraqi freedom lovers and freshly painted schools. It's a land where the violent insurgency that has wracked the land since 2003 is always in its last throes and mass executions are just a small bump on the road to democratic utopia. At least, that's the impression I get when I read stuff like this, via The Ministry of War:

So, too, today the key to success will be perseverance. In Iraq, the terrorists are obviously trying to ignite a civil war to divide that country and to demoralize the coalition that's helping them along the path towards self-government. The desire to foment civil strife was behind last month's bombing of the golden dome shrine. It has been and remains a time of testing for the Iraqi people, but the Iraqis are meeting that test thus far successfully, I would say, and defying the seeming rush to -- by some here and abroad -- to proclaim exactly what the terrorists seek, namely a civil war.

First of all, I'd love to see Rumsfeld's definition of exactly what would constitute a civil war. Further on in the press conference yesterday, he attempts mightily to dodge the question but in the end quantifies it in terms of how loyal the Iraqi defense force is to the elected government. In other words, Iraq will never be in a state of civil war, according to the Bush administration, because an Iraqi civil war would be politically damaging to Bush. For the Bush administration, as well as its supporters, reality is whatever their political narrative says it is. If they don't admit Iraq's in a state of civil war, then it isn't, facts be damned.

Personally, I think the civil war question is largely a rhetorical one anyway. To my thinking, once you have conditions on the ground that are making people ask "Is this a civil war?", well, then, it probably is. I accept that there are likely foreign elements helping stir the pot in Iraq, but fundamentally this is an armed insurgency fighting an invading force and the government it supports. That government was voted in by a majority of Iraq's citizens. That makes this a civil war, Iraqi vs. Iraqi, with the United States and Al-Qaida supporting opposite sides. The situation in Iraq has been well-documented by every major news entity around the globe and all agree on one thing: the situation is not getting any better.

So what does Rumsfeld, the architect of the war effort, think of the Iraq mess? Why, goodness gracious, it's a huge liberal media conspiracy, of course:

From what I've seen thus far, much of the reporting in the U.S. and abroad has exaggerated the situation, according to General Casey. The number of attacks on mosques, as he pointed out, had been exaggerated. The number of Iraqi deaths had been exaggerated. The behavior of the Iraqi security forces had been mischaracterized in some instances. And I guess that is to say nothing of the apparently inaccurate and harmful reports of U.S. military conduct in connection with a bus filled with passengers in Iraq.

Interestingly, all of the exaggerations seem to be on one side. It isn't as though there simply have been a series of random errors on both sides of issues. On the contrary, the steady stream of errors all seem to be of a nature to inflame the situation and to give heart to the terrorists and to discourage those who hope for success in Iraq.

See, the failure of the Iraqi invasion to produce a flowering, liberal democracy isn't the fault of Rumsfeld, who has managed the war effort. It's not the fault of President Bush and his staff, who lied and manipulated CIA intelligence to create a bogus cause for war. It's not even the fault of Al-Qaida, who has assuredly benefited from the U.S. destabilizing Iraq.

No sir, it is completely the fault of we liberals who just didn't clap loud enough for freedom. If only we had believed in this war with all our hearts, then the candy and flowers would have surely rained down upon our invasion force. If only our soldiers didn't have to hear each day from Rush Limbaugh, via Armed Forces Radio, about how liberals have undermined this war from the beginning and have refused to support our Commander In Chief, then they'd have the morale to assure victory. If only those damn hippy peaceniks had just...Oh, sorry, wrong war. It's frighteningly easy to confuse the two...

I see this as the end game coming at last. All the neo-conservative ideology in the world cannot force Iraq to become a peaceful democracy. In fact, the neo-conservatives running the White House and both houses of Congress have done a very poor job of supporting democracy at all, either in Iraq or right here at home. Iraq has some very tough decades ahead as it sorts through the damage done to it by Saddam Hussein's regime and the U.S. occupation.

One thing is certain, though, and that is that Bush is all but done with this war. He's lost the American people and, thus, it's time to start the political damage control. That means making sure that, just as Bush had many fabricated reasons for starting the war, he'll have just as many fabrications to assign blame for its end. At no time will it ever be the fault of the Bush White House, the neo-conservatives or the Republican party. Rumsfeld is laying the groundwork for Bush's favorite political strategy: make huge, ideologically-driven mistakes that harm both the country and the world at large and then dodge any and all accountability. Rummy's just the first line of defense against any charge of responsibility for Iraq.

The U.S. involvement in Iraq is essentially in a state of political stasis which only a change in leadership can unlock. Bush and Rumsfeld are both grossly incompetent and, given their track records, there is really no hope for a way out of the Iraq mess with these men at the helm. The Iraq war has drained our Treasury, lost us the good will of most of the world and, most tragically, cost thousands of American and Iraqi lives. All to give Bush the "Wartime President" label he so desperately wanted and the neo-conservatives the geopolitical "shake-up" they wanted. It's hard to conceive of a grander or more costly failure of policy and leadership.

The Bush Doctrine is dead and no amount of furious conservative clapping will resurrect it.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Ghost Of Policies Past

Not to go all wonky on everyone here on a Tuesday afternoon, but I had to take note of President Bush's proposed revival of the line-item veto in a speech yesterday. True, it was in his State of the Union address, but then so was a call to ban human-animal hybrid cloning. The point being that most of what Bush says in any speech is just rhetorical fluff designed to make his base think he's actually doing something while in office. However, this time he may be a bit more serious.

From The Ministry of Truth:

Here's another idea for [Congress]: They need to give the President the line item veto. Congress gave the President a line item veto in 1996, but because with problems the way the law was written, the Supreme Court struck it down. That should not be the end of the story. So in my State of the Union I called for new legislation creating a line item veto that will meet Supreme Court standards. Today, I'm sending Congress legislation that will meet standards and give me the authority to strip special spending and earmarks out of a bill, and then send them back to Congress for an up or down vote. By passing this version of the line item veto, the administration will work with the Congress to reduce wasteful spending, reduce the budget deficit, and ensure that taxpayer dollars are spend wisely.

Some of you may remember that the line-item veto actually was voted into law by Congress in 1996. The reason many don't remember it much is because President Clinton really wasn't able to make much impact with the power. While Clinton was politically successful in staring down Congress during the federal shut-down of 1996, most Presidents are not willing to make that kind of gamble on the federal budget.

The end of the line item veto came in 1998, with a 6-3 Supreme Court decision in President Clinton vs. The City of New York. Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority opinion, essentially held that the line item veto violated Article 1, Section 7 of the U.S. Constitution, which narrowly defines the President's bill signing responsibilities, and thus the law was struck down. The relevant passage from Article 1 reads as follows:

Every bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a law, be presented to the President of the United States; if he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it, with his objections to that House in which it shall have originated, who shall enter the objections at large on their journal, and proceed to reconsider it.

The bolded line is the key; the Supreme Court held that the veto power of the President is essentially "all or nothing". Either the President signs a bill into law or vetoes it; there can be no middle ground without a Constitutional amendment.

My first inclination when I read Bush's speech from yesterday was to believe that this was another attempt, in the same vein as the new abortion ban in South Dakota, to test the conservative credentials of the Roberts court. The line-item veto has long been a part of the Republican "fiscal conservatism" myth. The thinking was built around the idea that the President could use the line-item veto to impose spending discipline on Congress, which is not such a bad idea in theory. In the real world, where conservative ideology goes to die, Republican support for the line-item veto was built around another popular myth: that of the "tax and spend" Democrat. Given that in the last 25 years the only President to balance the budget and exercise fiscal responsibility was, in fact, Bill Clinton, demonstrates the ridiculous hypocrisy of both myths.

In any case, the problem with the Supreme Court challenge a second time around is that the two departed Justices, Rehnquist and O'Connor, were split on this issue in 1998. Unless Alito, Roberts and Scalia can convince Thomas to change his stance, the line-item veto would remain unconstitutional by a 5-4 vote.

The bigger issue here, however, is the implication for executive power. That rings true to me as the reason why Bush really wants the line item veto. Plus, it allows him to at least pay lip service to the fiscal conservatism myth, while the Republican-controlled Congress continues to rubber stamp Bush's spending initiatives. It's a joke anyway that President Bush, who has yet to veto any legislation, needs another way to check the Congress. The Republican party walks in lock step legislatively, even if they have certain policy disputes in the public arena.

Finally, the line-item veto comes down to trust, like most government functions do, and, to be blatantly partisan, I would not trust any Republican with this power. I have no faith that a party with such reckless fiscal policies could offer a President trustworthy enough to exercise restraint when using the line-item veto. Bush, for example, has abused just about every authority granted the Presidency by the Constitution; I really can't see any reason to grant him another power to turn against the country's interests. It's not hard to imagine a Bush White House exercising the line-item veto in order punish political opponents. The little good that the line item-veto could do is outweighed by the potential for abuse, especially by this President.