Tuesday, June 28, 2005

America's 'Kafkaesque' Detention Policy

Now the Sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their silence...Someone might possibly have escaped from their singing; but from their silence, certainly never.
—Franz Kafka, Parables and Paradoxes
Critics of the U.S. policy towards Terror War detainees have been searching in vain lately for the appropriate language with which to express their concerns. First there was Amnesty International's infamous report that contained this reprehensible comparison: "The detention facility at Guantanamo Bay has become the gulag of our times, entrenching the practice of arbitrary and indefinite detention in violation of international law" (emphasis added).

Then there were Illinois Senator Dick Durbin's comments on the Senate floor after reading a memo prepared by an FBI agent detailing what he saw at Guantanamo:
If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags or some mad regime—Pol Pot or others—that had no concern for human beings.
These two quotes have something in common: they both have a kernel of validity that is shrouded behind a ghastly comparison. The crux of the Amnesty International argument is the "arbitrary and indefinite detention," but it is the glib, insulting comparison to the Soviet gulags—forced labor camps where millions languished and died—that commands the attention.

Senator Durbin intends to make a valid point as well. It can basically be boiled down to this: There are things going on a Guantanamo that most Americans would consider to be inconsistent with our sense of justice and the moral framework upon which our country was based. But, as with Amnesty, his message was overwhelmed by his unfortunate references to Nazis, gulags and the Cambodian genocide. (On a side note, what Amnesty said was far worse than what Durbin said because their's was an actual comparison of the entire camp to a gulag while Durbin took a single instance of abuse and likened it to a single generic instance of abuse in a repressive system—a thin but critical distinction.)

In both cases, defenders of the Bush administration's policy toward detainees were able to deflect attention away from the real issues by screaming bloody murder about the ill-conceived comparisons to Nazis and the Soviet gulag system. And there's no reason they shouldn't have been incensed by these lazy comparisons. You would think that the Democrats and those on the Left would learn their lesson and stop blundering into giving the Republicans the rhetorical high road. By doing so, they allow the other side to steal that sense of outrage that motivated the criticisms in the first place.

A new report, co-sponsored by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, hits a little closer to the mark with its metaphor. While not specifically about Guantanamo, the report focuses on many of the same issues of prisoners being held indefinitely without trial. Rather than go straight for the totalitarian touchstone, however, the writers of the report chose a safer alternative, referring instead to "a Kafkaesque world of indefinite detention." By evoking an atmosphere of absurdity commingled with the depravations of unaccountable power, but without crossing the line into overblown accusations of pure evil, they have done one better than Amnesty International and Dick Durbin.

I expect there will be howls of outrage at this latest comparison—mostly from people who have never read Kafka—but this will probably come from a segment of the population and leadership who will protest comparing the conditions of U.S. terror prisons to anything other than pampered luxury.

The comparison is not, by any means, a perfect one. In The Trial, for example, Joseph K. was arrested for no reason at all (this is not to say that all prisoners being held by the U.S. are automatically guilty, but to point out that, unlike in Kafka, there is an overlaying situation that might warrant the arrests), and he had no ACLU or Human Rights Watch to argue his case for him.

All of this does raise a basic question: why resort to metaphor and comparison at all? In "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell warns against euphemism and bad metaphor in political writing, noting that they often attempt to conceal bad faith. "The great enemy of clear language," he writes, "is insincerity." Another enemy is intellectual laziness. The parallels drawn by Amnesty and Durbin too easily open them up to charges of the former.

In the present situation, sincerity and good faith are desperately needed. Why resort to a bogus rhetorical flourish when the unvarnished truth is compelling enough? Don't tell us what it's like, tell us what it is.

Resorting to comparisons and alleged historical parallels only invites a literal refutation of the specifics of the comparison. It draws the eye away from the actual argument and creates the impression that if the comparison is bad, so then is the argument in general. Guantanamo is not actually like a Soviet gulag, so there must be nothing wrong at all, right?

What is needed is more argument and less rhetoric. When the people making charges are calling for a more open, more straightforward approach to detention, it is particularly important for their arguments to be straightforward as well.

However much people like Karl Rove would like you to believe it, the issues brought up by U.S. detention policies are not Left/Right issues. They are basic questions about how we can behave as a nation and still consider ourselves to be civilized.

It is through unaccountability—through silence—that the current administration is able to subvert the normal standards of American justice; and the critics of the administration enable this silence with their boneheaded hyperbole and sanctimony, allowing the issues to be sidelined by bickering and name-calling.

No one is suggesting that all terror detainees simply be released. We need to have faith in our own system and the ideals that buttress it. There's no saying what the U.S. detainees are guilty of, and that seems to be the way the Bush administration wants it. Part of the problem rests in our government's unwillingness to find out in the only way that is acceptable to our standards of justice: end the silence—bring charges and have trials. Without this, Joseph K.'s rebuke becomes more tenable: "The guilt lies with the organization. It is the high officials who are guilty."

Monday, June 27, 2005

Santorum Takes Homophobia to a New Low

There is an interesting item on Andrew Sullivan's blog linking to an article for Catholic Online written by Republican Senator Rick Santorum, who is well known for his homophobia and ultra-conservatism. Santorum blames the priest pedophilia scandal on, you guessed it, liberalism.
Priests, like all of us, are affected by culture. When the culture is sick, every element in it becomes infected. While it is no excuse for this scandal, it is no surprise that Boston, a seat of academic, political and cultural liberalism in America, lies at the center of the storm.
Maybe this is going out on a limb, but I bet the fact that Boston is the biggest city in Massachusetts—one of only two states in the U.S. with a majority-Catholic population (the other being tiny Rhode Island)—has a little something to do with it.

Santorum gets extra God-hates-fags points for blaming the "sickness" of our culture on the fact that media and academic elites "have zealously promoted moral relativism by sanctioning 'private' moral matters such as alternative lifestyles," thus implicitly equating homosexuality with pedophilia. Way to go, Rick! I wonder how someone who believes in Hell could think and say such things.

Friday, June 24, 2005

No Cruise Control

Drudge has a transcript of verbal sparring between Tom Cruise and Matt Lauer from the Today Show this morning.

Cruise caught poor, affable Matt Lauer off guard when he went off on a bizarre rant in which he called psychiatry a "pseudo-science" and claimed that there is "no such thing as a chemical imbalance."
I've never agreed with psychiatry, ever. Before I was a Scientologist I never agreed with psychiatry. And when I started studying the history of psychiatry, I understood more and more why I didn't believe in psychology.
Gee, Tom, tell us something we didn't know. All you have to do is turn on the TV lately to see ample evidence that L. Ron Cruise hasn't spent much time on the therapist's couch.

To his credit, however, Cruise did not repeatedly shout "you're a jerk" at Lauer. Baby steps, Tom.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Karl Rove Exploits 9/11 Dead

Chief Bush advisor Karl Rove is being criticized for remarks he made during a speech to the New York state Conservative Party near Ground Zero today in which he belittled the Democrats' response to 9/11.
...liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers.
Conservatives, on the other hand, "saw the savagery of 9/11 and the attacks and prepared for war."

Let's give Rove the benefit of the doubt and assume that he has simply forgotten this:
Three days after the terrorist attacks, the Senate voted 98-0 and the House voted 420-1 for a resolution authorizing President Bush to use "all necessary and appropriate force" against those responsible for the terrorism.
Then again, let's not. Rove's vulgar remarks represent nothing more than one of his spurious, below-the-belt attacks (the kind of attack of which Rove is the undisputed king).

Unsurprisingly, the White House is defending Rove's comments. By extension, this means that Bush defends the exploitation of 9/11 for partisan gain. But we already knew that, didn't we?

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

House Votes for Flag Over Freedom

The House of Representatives has again voted to approve a constitutional amendment that would ban the burning of the American flag.

I'm sure the Republicans who back this measure believe that they are doing their patriotic duty by voting in favor of the amendment, but in fact, the opposite is true.

What could be more un-American than believing that our great country is so weak that it cannot withstand criticism and dissent? The flag is a symbol of something, not the thing itself. There are already laws against treason. Are we really so insecure that we need to start legislating against thought crimes in addition to the real ones?

Adding insult to potential injury, Rep. Randy (Duke) Cunningham, R-Calif., exploited the memory of 9/11 to score cheap political points when he spoke in support of the amendment. "Ask the men and women who stood on top of the [World] Trade Center," he said. "Ask them and they will tell you: pass this amendment." This should be seen as nothing less than a despicable act of opportunistic political ventriloquism. It also has the distinction of being incorrect. A 2005 survey showed that 63% of those sampled oppose a flag burning amendment, up from 53% in 2004.

The U.S. is a great nation because it allows the most freedom of expression in the world. Passing this amendment would protect the flag, but at the cost of diminishing what it symbolizes.

'I'm Mad as Hell': AFI's Top 100 Film Quotes

Last night, the American Film Institute unveiled the top 100 quotes from American films. As one might expect from such a subjective undertaking, the list is underwhelming.

The top 10 is about what you might expect, with quotes from Gone With the Wind, Casablanca (one of six quotes to make the top 100), The Godfather and The Wizard of Oz all making the cut.

The list covers most of the obvious bases, including two wooden Arnold Schwarzenegger lines known as much for inducing groans as anything else (why not have "It's not a tumor"?). But, as with any such list, there are glaring omissions.

For example, there's nothing from Mel Brooks or the Marx Brothers (Correction: only one Marx Bros. quote, which is still pretty pathetic). John Hughes didn't make the list (not even Ben Stein's deadpan "Bueller"), nor did anything from It's a Wonderful Life. Joe Pesci's "You think I'm funny?" monologue from Goodfellas is nowhere to be seen. Perhaps most shocking is the total omission of two of the most quoted movies of my generation, This Is Spinal Tap and The Princess Bride.

The AFI list gives short shrift to comedy in general, choosing, for example, only one relatively unfunny line from Annie Hall out of Woddy Allen's entire oeuvre. One notable exception is the wise inclusion of a Caddyshack quote at number 92.

There are also issues of placement. For example, the Silence of the Lambs quote about fava beans and chianti—a quote that I would contend does not belong on the list at all—comes in at number 21, one notch above "Bond. James Bond." For shame.

Sometimes it is difficult to figure out why the Institute chose one quote over another from a given film. They have "May the Force be with you" from Star Wars instead of the arguably more memorable "Luke, I am your father." It seems as though the members of the AFI can't make up their minds whether they're doing the top 100 quotes or the top 100 films.

Another baffling choice is "Open the pod bay doors, HAL," from 2001: A Space Odyssey, rather than the much more memorable "What are you doing, Dave?"

There are two choices that never should have even been considered for the list. At number 38, the AFI chose "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth" from The Pride of the Yankees and they placed "Houston, we have a problem" from Apollo 13 at number 50. These quotes are memorable not because they were in a movie, but because they happened in real life. If someone made a bio-pic of Abraham Lincoln, would they put "Fourscore and seven years ago..." on the list?

All of this raises a basic question: Why even make the list at all? It's far more subjective than ranking the top 100 films, and that process was fraught with controversy as well. And because it's so subjective, the list really has no value as anything other than a marketing tool. If people start talking about their favorite movie quotes, maybe they'll go out and pick up a DVD or two and help out the flagging movie industry in the process.

Seems like a scam, but don't quote me on that.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Hitchens & Gitmo—A Contrarian Writes Back

I was a student in several of Christopher Hitchens' classes at the New School back in the late 90s and I learned many things about justice, Scotch whisky and (I hope) good writing from him. I also learned that it is always the honest writer's duty to value truth over deference. It is in this spirit that I take issue with part of a recent column Hitchens wrote for Slate.

In this column, Hitchens frames the controversy over terror war detainees as a tug-of-war between two realities. The first is America's role as a signatory to, and forceful advocate of, the Geneva conventions. "Any wavering on the part of Washington," Hitchens writes, "thus has consequences far beyond itself." The second reality is the fact that "al-Qaida and its surrogate organizations are not signatory to the conventions and naturally express contempt for them. They have no battle order or uniform and are represented by no authority with which terms can be negotiated."

Hitchens therefore declares that the Bush administration "deserves at least some sympathy in its confrontation with an enemy of a new type." On this count, he's absolutely correct and some of the more shrill anti-Bush factions go a long way toward discrediting their arguments by refusing to even contemplate this point. The challenge, then, is to reconcile these competing claims without doing damage either to national (and international) security or to the liberal ideals that make Western democracy worth defending. Hitchens leans a little to far, in my opinion, to the side of sympathy, and in so doing, exposes some troubling inconsistencies in his argument.

In Hitchens' view, the terrorists we are fighting "are more like pirates, hijackers, or torturers—three categories of people who have in the past been declared outside the protection of any law." This is fair enough, but it's all the more reason that we should not venture into the realm of torturers ourselves. Hitchens expressed disgust when the Abu Ghraib abuse pictures came to light in 2004, but his line against prisoner abuse seems to have softened somewhat since then.
An axiom of the law states that justice is more offended by one innocent person punished than by any number of guilty persons unapprehended. I say frankly that I am not certain of the applicability of this in the present case.
Anyone who is at all familiar with Hitchens' eloquent writings against the death penalty should be flabbergasted by this quote. How little faith does he have in liberal principles—in his own principles—if he's willing to cast them aside so blithely? If the war on terror is a battle between two diametrically opposed views of civilization, then it is a terrible admission of defeat to suggest that our side lacks the fortitude to win. I am reminded of George F. Kennan writing at the dawn of the Cold War with undisguised envy about the advantages of a Soviet totalitarian regime that could act without having to consider the will of the people.

Having opened the door to moral ambiguity, Hitchens goes on to defend his position with several half-baked arguments. He overstates his case by claiming that the bleeding hearts want to extract useful intelligence from a detainee "while also reserving the right to demand that he has a lawyer present at all times." This is a straw man argument in which he attempts to pass off an extreme viewpoint as the norm. The fact is that most people concerned about Guantanamo aren't suggesting constant access to attorneys so much as any access at all.

Hitchens also makes the following absurd claim: "Alberto Gonzales was excoriated even for asking, or being asked, about the applicability of Geneva rules." This is not why the Attorney General was excoriated. He was criticized not for asking the question, but for his role in expressly advocating the position that the Geneva conventions do not apply to "enemy combatants" thus opening the door to indefinite detentions and heavy-handed interrogation techniques. Nevertheless, it is very troubling to find Hitchens defending a man whose earlier sinister memos, as an adviser to then Governor Bush, helped grease the wheels of a Texas execution machine that Hitchens decried not so many years ago.

Hitchens then outlines the options available to the U.S. regarding Guantanamo and manages both to offer misleading choices and to misrepresent the choices he does present.
Apparently, Guantanamo won't do as a holding pen until we decide how to handle and classify these people. But meanwhile, neither will it do to "render" any suspects to their countries of origin. How many alternatives does this leave?
First of all, Guantanamo is far more than a "holding pen" for detainees; it is an interrogation center, and one that has spawned a number of credible stories of prisoner abuse. (To read an exhaustive study of abuse at both Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, read this article by Andrew Sullivan.) And why no qualms that it has taken over three years to "decide how to handle" the prisoners we picked up in Afghanistan and elsewhere?

Second, Hitchens glosses over the terrible practice of rendering, in which prisoners are sent to friendly tyrants with, shall we say, looser definitions of torture than may apply in the U.S., so that they can do the dirty work for us. (One favorite destination has been Uzbekistan, where the preferred method of torture is boiling victims alive). Prisoners are not necessarily, as Hitchens implies, sent to their countries of origin (where they might actually receive protection from some quarters); they are sent to where they can be broken.

Hitchens evidently intends his question to be rhetorical when he asks what the other alternatives are, but he goes on to answer his own question with a sensible—even obvious—solution that undermines much of his previous argument. "I ... express the wish," he writes, "that more detainees be brought, like the wretched American John Walker Lindh, before a court." That's exactly right! That's what serious-minded critics of the Bush administration's policy toward terror war prisoners want as well. To be brought before a court is to be charged with a crime and to have the opportunity to defend oneself. It would mean the end to indefinite detentions and the lack of representation—the very issues that make people so uneasy about Guantanamo in the first place.

Unfortunately, the current policy toward detainees is not designed to bring terrorists before a judge. It appears to be aimed, rather, at forestalling that end. This administration also dismisses, enables and excuses acts of abuse that run contrary to the Enlightenment ideals upon which all of Western civilization is based. Hitchens suggests that in this time of crisis, the rules can be bent. In fact, it is these very rules that underpin who we are as a society.

When we are trying to spread Western ideals into the oppressed corners of the earth is no time to shelve these ideals ourselves, no matter what challenges we face. The superiority of freedom over tyranny and the natural yearnings of humanity all but ensure our victory. Let's just make sure that it is not a Pyrrhic one. To do so requires that we strike a balance between defending against the enemy without and the enemy within. It is possible to support the fight against terrorism without supporting torture and unaccountability, both of which erode our moral foundation and furnish the enemy with made-to-order propaganda.

Hitchens is fond of saying that the definition of tragedy is when rights conflict. The fact that he sees no elements of tragedy here—that he seems too eager to paint over shades of gray with black and white—is altogether out of character for a brilliant thinker who counts Twain and Orwell among his touchstones.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Tom Cruise Calls Kettle Black

After pranksters doused Tom Cruise with a water gun disguised as a microphone at a War of the Worlds press event in London's Leicester Square, a flummoxed Cruise could only shout "You're a jerk!" repeatedly at his "assailant." (Click here for an account of the incident and a link to the video.)

That, and the fact that Maverick had the 4-man crew (who were working on a new comedy show for Britain's Channel 4) arrested, proves that there's no chapter on having a sense of humor in Dianetics (a "book" written by sci-fi author L. Ron Hubbard, the man who invented a machine that measures human gullibility).

It also makes one suspect that all it takes is simple tap water to wash away that plastic, creepily cheerful Scientology aura. I guess it'll be another donation and back to the machine for Tom.

Goss Shows His Hand

In a recent Time interview, CIA Director Porter Goss told the magazine when asked about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, "I have an excellent idea of where he is." He blamed the fact that he is still at large on the "difficult question of dealing with sanctuaries in sovereign states, you're dealing with a problem of our sense of international obligation, fair play."

All of this begs the question: Why show your hand? What is the purpose of letting Osama know that we have him in our sights? If he knew what was good for him—and all indications are that he does—he would just slip away again.

Perhaps by making this revelation, the CIA intends to force Osama into a blunder that flushes him out of hiding . Of course, that would assume that U.S. intelligence agencies are on top of things; a proposition that is, to put it mildly, unsupported by the facts.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Jeb Won't Let Issue, Terri Die

Florida's Governor Jeb Bush, who fought tooth and nail to keep Terri Schiavo alive in a persistent vegetative state, is refusing to let the issue die months after Terri passed away in a Florida hospice. Bush is calling for an investigation into whether Schiavo's husband, Michael, should be prosecuted for allegedly waiting 70 minutes before calling 911 after his wife collapsed in 1990.

The explosive charge is based solely upon Michael's recollection of a traumatic event some fifteen years ago. Michael told the Medical Examiner's Office that he found his wife at 4:30 a.m., but 911 records show that his emergency call was not placed until 5:40 a.m. Jeb Bush and Terri's parents are interpreting this as a possibly criminal act.

That said, it is extraordinarily unlikely that this is anything more than a foggy memory. Both Michael Shiavo's attorney and an independent expert interviewed by the St. Petersburg Times for their story contend that Terri would have been dead if seventy minutes had really elapsed before her treatment began (paramedics got her pulse started at 6:32 a.m., which would have been over two hours since her collapse if the allegation is true).

Politically, for Governor Bush, this is an unconscionable attempt to keep the Schiavo issue afloat in order to pander to right-wing supporters and to save face after the embarrassment of the bogus court battle to save her life and now the medical evidence disclosed in the autopsy report which vindicates the other side.

For the family, there is a sad but perhaps understandable unwillingness to accept this tragic situation. This is their last-ditch effort to find a scapegoat upon which they can transfer their pain and anguish. The fact that they feel it necessary to deny to Michael the sorrow that they themselves feel is horrible, yet at least it makes sense in the context of their inability to handle grief. But what can be excused on one hand as the irrational behavior of a heartbroken family, becomes, for Jeb and others trying to capitalize on this tragedy, a vile reminder of what politics has become in the 21st Century.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Schiavo and the Politics of Denial

The results of Terri Schiavo's autopsy were made public yesterday, and they totally vindicate the claims—viciously attacked as they were at the time—of Terri's husband.

The autopsy reveals that Terri suffered from extreme and irreversible brain damage that made her blind and incapable of any cognizance or interaction of any kind. These revelations prove beyond any doubt that claims made by Terri's parents and other family members that she could see, could recognize voices and could even attempt to speak were false.

This doesn't necessarily mean that the family lied, but rather it points out the incredible and sometimes overwhelming power of wishful thinking in sad cases such as this—a power that sometimes borders on the delusional.

Terri's life is over and the "crisis" has passed; only the delusion remains. While Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, once an outspoken critic of Terri's diagnosis, seems to be backing down, members of Schiavo's family and the religious-right icons who flocked to their cause say the autopsy changes nothing. They put no faith in doctors while Terri was "alive", so it is unsurprising that they scorn conclusive scientific evidence now.

It's easy to see the family's reaction as one of denial brought on by extreme grief. Unfortunately, there are religious fundamentalists in this country who have no qualms about taking advantage of this grief, and using this sad event to further their own agendas. Those who can stare in the face of irrefutable evidence and say, "it doesn't matter," are a danger to public discourse and, in the degree to which they have political power, to this country as well.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Jacko Beats the Rap-o

Ah, justice, American style. Michael Jackson has been cleared on all counts in his child molestation trial.

Perhaps now he will make good on his threat (promise?) to leave the U.S. and move to Africa. I think there are an awful lot of AIDS orphans that could use his "comfort" there. God help them.

On the bright side, more people may now feel the urgency of the "Save the Children" campaign.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

'Dirrty' Tricks at Gitmo

Stepping on the Koran and urinating on detainees is one thing, but Time magazine has disclosed U.S. interrogation techniques that even the most pro-American partisan couldn't see as anything other than irrefutable evidence of torture:
The interrogation sessions lengthen. The quizzing now starts at midnight, and when Detainee 063 dozes off, interrogators rouse him by dripping water on his head or playing Christina Aguilera music. (emphasis added)
It's time to put the genie back in the bottle. For the sake of our country, for the sake of the world—close Gitmo now!

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Dean's 'Race' to the Bottom

Howard Dean is in hot water again, this time for calling the Republican Party "pretty much a white, Christian party." "Pshaw!" shout the Republicans. "Look at all the minorities appointed to prominent positions in the Bush administration." This is, of course, a point that can't be argued.

However, it is less instructive to look at the unelected positions in the GOP, than at the Republicans chosen by the electorate. In this light, Dean's comments carry a little more weight. For example:
  • The Senate is 1% black (meaning you, Barak Obama)
  • The House is 9.7% black
  • All black members of Congress are Democrats
  • There has been only one black Republican Senator since Reconstruction, and he left Congress in 1979
  • The Senate is 2% Hispanic; one Democrat, one Republican
  • The House is 6% Hispanic, and of those 26 members, 21 are Democrats
Overall, it looks bad for the Republicans, but the Democratic Party is no multi-cultural rainbow either. The bottom line is that all political parties in the US are by and large white, Christian parties because that's what the majority of the country is.

The Democrats have always taken the minority vote for granted, and as the breakdown in Congress suggests, they have reason to do so. However, 40% of Hispanics voted for Bush in 2004, signaling a demographic reality that Dean and the Democrats are going to have to address. If his comments were an attempt to do so, he has obviously failed.

The biggest question raised by Dean's remarks is one of strategy. What was he trying to accomplish? If what he meant to say was, "The Democratic Party is pushing an agenda that strives to be inclusive of minorities while the GOP is more and more defined by a specific set of conservative Christian values," then he should have come out and said that. Instead, he comes across as someone who scorns white Christians (such as, it seems, himself). I don't believe that's what he intended, but it is clear that he has a problem keeping his foot out of his mouth, and nothing could be more deadly to the Democrats' chances in 2008.

Other than running Kerry again, that is.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Dean Energizes the Base

In an impassioned speech on Thursday in front of a "Take Back America" crowd, DNC Chairman Howard Dean electrified the Democratic base by outlining a battle plan for taking back the White House in 2008. The dazzling three-pronged attack strategy includes making pensions portable, making Election Day a federal holiday and establishing a law "that says you cannot use a voting machine unless it can be recounted by hand."

Just in case those heavy-hitting reforms are not enough to woo the fence-sitters, allow me to propose one more that could help the Dem's chances in the next election cycle:

The GOP is encouraged to steal this idea, too.

The Lone Pisser Theory

The Pentagon has now confirmed several instances of "mishandling" the Koran at Gitmo. Cases range from the mundane to the downright implausible:
The most recent, and perhaps strangest, case of mishandling was on 25 March, 2005, when a detainee complained to the guards that urine came through an air vent in his cell and "splashed on him and his Koran."

The report notes that the guard responsible reported himself to his superiors and was reassigned to different duties, while the detainee was given a new uniform and Koran.

"The guard had left his observation area post and went outside to urinate," according to a summary of the incident. "He urinated near an air vent and the wind blew his urine through the vent into the block."
Sure, that could happen. To be absolutely sure, however, we're going to need to exhume the body of Earl Warren so he can formulate the Magic Urine Theory.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Deep Throat vs. Linda Tripp

With all the references to blowing (whistles) and Deep Throat going around, it's inevitable that Bill Clinton's name would come up (so to speak).

Lots of people are suggesting that if Mark Felt is an American hero, well then so is Linda Tripp (for example, here, here, here and here).

There is an important distinction to be made between Felt and Tripp, however. Linda Tripp exposed the moral shortcomings of President Clinton, and it was only after the fact that Bill perjured himself. Felt, on the other hand, was exposing prior criminal acts of a sitting president. A fine but important distinction.

Doesn't make what Clinton did suck any less (so to speak).

Hail to the Whistleblowers

The debate is on. Should Mark "Deep Throat" Felt get the Presidential Medal of Freedom or should he be drawn and quartered in the town square? A growing chorus of right-wingers, perhaps sensing an opportunity to rehabilitate Richard Nixon's image, are leaning toward (but maybe not quite approaching) the latter point of view.

Former Nixon speechwriter and current xenophobic whack-job Pat Buchanan referred to the former FBI agent as a "snake."

Nixon aide Charles Colson, who served seven months in prison because of Watergate, disapproved of Felt's methods. "When any president has to worry whether the deputy director of the FBI is sneaking around in dark corridors peddling information in the middle of the night, he's in trouble," Colson said. He might have added that whenever a president needs to worry that his role in an illegal plot and its subsequent cover-up might be exposed, he's also in trouble.

Colson went on to accuse Felt of "violating his oath to keep this nation's secrets." I wasn't aware that FBI agents swore an oath to help cover-up the illegal shenanigans of a sitting president. In fact, I'm pretty sure that they're sworn to uphold the law.

Republican consultant Greg Mueller had this to say: "I don't know that we should be making [Felt] out as a superhero. He played a role in bringing down a president who was fighting the Cold War." So what? It's not like Nixon's successors ignored the Cold War. I seem to remember an Olympics boycott and a fellow named the Gipper amongst other things. Plus, if the Cold War had ended any earlier, the Scorpions never would have recorded "Winds of Change." Would you really want to live in a world where that was true? I didn't think so.

The Most Hysterical Deep Throat Reaction Award, however, goes to Ben Stein by a long shot. Although Stein is best known for his bit role intoning "Bueller" over and over again, he was actually a Nixon speechwriter back in the day (and some writer he must have been, considering his legacy). In an article in The American Spectator, Stein actually accuses Felt of making the "conditions necessary for the Cambodian genocide."

Allow me to borrow a line that was once deployed in the Senate some fifty-odd years ago: Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?

It is understandable that Felt himself is conflicted about his role as Deep Throat, but, Ben Stein's ranting aside, it's clear that he did this country a favor. Some may disapprove of his cloak and dagger methods, but they make sense. Why should Felt have to resign from his job just because Nixon's a criminal jerk? Plus, the officials up the totem pole were all implicated in the scandal he was exposing.

Folks on the right seem to have an allergic reaction to certain kinds of whistleblowers. What's true for Felt is true for people like Army Spc. Joseph Darby, who first exposed abuses at Abu Ghraib (click here to read a particularly vile thread attacking Darby). They are accused of being unpatriotic tattlers intent on damaging their country's image and, in the latter case, putting its soldiers at additional risk.

Do revelations such as Watergate and Abu Ghraib tarnish America's image? Yes. The only thing that would tarnish it more would be if such abuses of power were allowed to go on unchallenged.

People like Felt and Darcy believe in America not as it sometimes is but as it should be. The implicit suggestion from the bellyachers on the right is that such abuses of power should be hidden from public view, even if it means condoning them. This is a defeatist and creepy line of thought. We don't want to defend our country so unquestionably that we actually help it become something not worth defending. Don't the people on the right believe in America enough to know that it's strong enough to withstand scrutiny?

So, let the whistles blow. We're a stronger country because of it.

What Europe Can Learn From America

First the French said "non," then the oh-so-tolerant Dutch voted "nee." The EU constitution appears to be dead in the water.

There are many reasons for this defeat, but high on that list is Old Europe's traditional xenophobia. The French and the Dutch, not to mention the Germans and others, are afraid of having their "national identity" swamped in a flood of immigrants (and not just Muslim immigrants—Western Europe has always harbored a distaste for their Eastern European brethren).

Looking across the pond at some of the ugliness that pervades Europe causes me to reflect on one of the things that makes America a great country: anyone can become an American. We shouldn't take this for granted.

Take, for example, a Turk living in Germany. He will never be a German. His children and their children may live their entire lives in Berlin, speaking only German, and they will still be Turks living in Germany. America is perhaps the only country in the world where that is not true. If the same Turk became an American citizen, he'd be considered by most to be an American, and no one would question that his children would be.

This is not to say that we don't have major problems with racism and xenophobia of our own—we do—but we also have an expansive definition of what an American is. This definition has evolved over centuries of struggle and assimilation—an evolution that Europe is attempting to cram into a few decades.

As it stands now, Pat Buchanan would be a mainstream figure in much of Europe. Here he is seen for the marginalized bigot that he is. If that isn't a point in our favor, I don't know what is.
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