Friday, March 31, 2006

Shutterbug Canned for Scalia Snap

So, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia makes a obscene hand gesture in church and tells his critics they can f**k off, and the guy who took the photograph gets canned!

Freelance photographer Peter Smith, who was working for the Boston Archdiocese magazine, was fired by the Catholic organization after his photo of Scalia making a rude Italian hand gesture (click above to see the exclusive image) was published in the Boston Globe. The church magazine got first crack at the shot, but they declined on "journalistic grounds" since there's just nothing newsworthy about a prominent Catholic Supreme Court justice cursing his critics and making obscene gestures in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross.

If freedom of speech applies to the people who make the laws, shouldn't it apply to the rest of us? Just wondering.

P.S. Award for best headline on this story goes to UPI: Photo fuels flap over Scalia's flip. Nice work, Moonies!

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Red State Blues

It's hard for a liberal not to do a little gloating over the following map that depicts President Bush's approval ratings by state:



Where, oh where have the red states gone? Only Alabama, which is lucky it has such a short Gulf coastline; the great state of Wyoming, where Cheney is king; and Utah, aka OrrinHatchsylvania, managed to break the 50% mark—and just barely. Every other state that was red in 2004 has taken on a distinct shade of blue.

Battleground states like Florida and Oregon are disenchanted with Bush, and Ohio and Pennsylvania are even more so. Even Texas has turned against its native son. So much for that red state revolution that so enthralled the Sean Hannitys and Rush Limbaughs of the world. Of course, this doesn't necessarily mean all these states will vote for Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections, but it's got to send a shiver up the collective Republican spine.

If Bush's approval ratings stay this low, the Republicans may well be run right out of Washington to be replaced by Democrats, who are, on average, marginally less corrupt and wrongheaded than their GOP counterparts. God bless the two party system!

Vive la Violence!

Sacre bleu! It turns out that the French love a little bit of good, old-fashioned street violence. This from a New York Times article (that I'm not going to link to because TimeSelect sucks but you can find here):
"In France, we always imagine violence to be political because of our revolutions, but this isn't the case," said Sebastian Roché, a political scientist who specializes in delinquency in the suburbs. "The casseurs are people who are apart from the political protests. Their movement is apolitical. It is about banal violence — thefts, muggings, aggression."
Yes, if only the violence were a little less banal. Then it would be perfect.

Oh, unless it's Muslims being violent. Then it's a threat to Western CivilizationTM rather than a life-affirming embodiment of it. Vive la difference! Just don't be different.

Danish PM Blasts Business

Random Platitudes is back after a brief intermission with part 8 of his exploration of the cartoon crisis from a Danish perspective.

This installment deals with Danish businesses, which were threatened by a boycott from the Muslim world following the printing of the controversial Muhammad cartoons. In the non-Danish Western press, this issue was dealt with rather uncritically. RP takes a look at the internal debates between Danish companies, which were trying to avoid being boycotted, and the Danish government, which was—in the person of Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen—trying to look tough on the freedom of speech issue.

Some major Danish companies, including dairy giant Arla, distanced themselves from Jyllands-Posten and the cartoons, having already suffered through a domestic boycott thanks to their heavy-handed competitive tactics. Others, like shipping giant A.P. Møller, had nothing to worry about since Qatar wasn't about to shelve their $5 billion offshore oil field project.

Rasmussen, as always, wanted to score some political points off the cartoon crisis, so he publicly chastised Danish companies for being "unprincipled" (for giving humanitarian aid to the Red Crescent, for example) and he came down hard on Denmark's intellectual PEN club as well for not supporting the government line on the cartoons.

According to RP, Rasmussen's decision to go on the offensive to take on Danish intellectuals and business interests "was to be one of the most potentially self-destructive decisions of his political career." Click here to read more.

Jill Carroll Released

Great news today with the release of journalist Jill Carroll in Iraq. I guess if you're going to get abducted, better to have it be done by these guys, who apparently did not abuse her, than the people who took Nick Berg or Daniel Pearl.

It's instructive to remember that Carroll went over to Iraq as a freelancer because of the terrible journalism job market here in the States. (The Washington Post just announced 80 layoffs in its newsroom, the latest in a long line of carnage that stretches back to 2000.)

Carroll's horrible ordeal pretty much guarantees her a job or a book deal (if she still wants to work in journalism), but that's a hell of a way to make it in the business. To bad so many people have to take Jill's path since the idle scions of the super-rich are increasingly taking the newsroom jobs that daddy got them. Alas.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Hooters Air Goes Bust

After several years of sagging sales, Hooters Air went belly-up today. Apparently the company's debt load, which has been described by experts as "top-heavy", was just too large for the company to adequately support. Hooters Air executives also blamed their woes on difficulties faced trying to negotiate with businessmen who just wouldn't look them in the eyes.

While their dreams of air supremacy may be deflated, Hooters will continue to offer their signature service: providing a place for men to go to "get some wings and watch the game" without technically lying to their wives.

Charles Taylor Captured

After escaping custody in Nigeria, former Liberian president Charles Taylor was captured last night as he attempted to Cross into Cameroon. He has been returned to Liberia where he will await his date with a UN-backed war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone.

Here's what Taylor is charged with:
war crimes (murder, taking hostages); crimes against humanity (extermination, rape, murder, sexual slavery); and other serious violations of international humanitarian law (use of child soldiers) in Sierra Leone.
According to Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa division of Human Rights Watch, "Charles Taylor is one of the single greatest causes of spreading wars in West Africa."

As usual, a bad day for former dictators turns out to be a good day for the rest of us. Taylor will finally get his day in court, likely followed by a lifetime behind bars, right where he belongs.

We'd Rather Not Know

Remember the good old days, back when we believed Whitney Houston when she declared, "Whitney don't smoke no crack"? Back when the most disgusting thing we knew about her—apart from the fact that she married Bobby Brown, that is—involved "doody bubbles"?

Well, if you prefer your innocence, avert your eyes. According to Tina Brown (that's Bobby Brown's sister, not the famous editor), Whitney do do crack.
I did crack with Whitney. The truth needs to come out. She won't stay off the drugs. It's every single day. It's so ugly. Everyone is so scared she's going to O.D.
Well, at least it would make for a compelling episode of Being Bobby Brown (for a change). But that's not the worst of it, by far. See if you can still picture Whitney singing "I Will Always Love You" after reading this description from the National Enquirer:
In the most explosive interview ever about Whitney, Tina tells how the 42-year-old singer spends days locked in her bedroom amid piles of garbage smoking crack, using sex toys to satisfy herself and ignoring personal hygiene.
"The Greatest Love of All", indeed. Now I've got to go and get my memory erased.

Protestors Do the Robot

It turns out that the massive protests against anti-illegal immigration legislation were coordinated and organized by Spanish-language radio personalities. DJs gave protesters their "marching orders", which included bringing American flags and picking up their trash.

Aha!, say some conservatives. We knew it! These demonstrations weren't "spontaneous", which means that they're illegitimate. Only spontaneous demonstrations can really reflect the feelings of those involved.

Indeed. Just like the 1963 March on Washington during which Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. It was organized by a multitude of groups, including the SCLC and the NAACP. In fact, most civil rights marches were organized by religious and social justice groups, so they don't count either.

To hit a little closer to the GOP heart, the 2000 Florida recount demonstrations don't count because they were organized by GOP staffers themselves. The same goes for any anti-abortion rallies organized by churches that bus in their supporters to intimidate pregnant teens. Gosh, according to this standard, the only demonstration that would really count to some conservatives is an honest-to-God riot. Now that's a platform they can run on in 2008.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

GOP Debate 'Burns' On

Republicans are in a pickle of a jam over illegal immigration. On the one hand, they need to placate their xenophobic base. On the other hand, they don't want to alienate millions of Latino voters, many of whom have voted Republican in the past thanks to "family values" issues.

One of the new anti-immigration talking points that's popping up in Republican circles is that illegal immigration is bad for America because it "hurts the poor." This is a momentous occasion because it marks the first time many GOP politicians have ever uttered the phrase "hurts the poor" without touching their fingertips together and saying, "excellent".

Bush Deals New Card

President Bush's long-time chief of staff, Andy Card, is calling it quits. Announcing his resignation, a teary-eyed Card said, "You're a good man, Mr. President," which, in Bush administration lingo, is code for "you're an abject, miserable failure."

Card's replacement was named as budget director, Joshua Bolten. You read that right. Budget. This from an administration that's never seen a million-dollar project that couldn't be turned into a ten-million-dollar project. Apparently the White House's WMD Czar was unavailable for the post.

The 'Curse' of Religious Literalism

According to a controversial Islamic tradition, all a husband needs to do to divorce his wife is say "talaq", or "divorce", three times. In the Indian state of West Bengal, local Muslim leaders have declared a couple divorced because the husband invoked the so-called "triple talaq" in his sleep.

Notwithstanding that the triple talaq is a hideously sexist practice (only the husband can declare it) with little standing in Islamic jurisprudence, this case exposes the base stupidity of religious literalism. Religious literalism has a long and glorious history in all faiths, and can be thanked, amongst other things, for attempts to teach Creationism in public schools in America. Put into practice, it almost always does violence to the faith it purports to uphold.

In the case of talaq, the only philosophical foundation for the practice is that its utterance represents an exercise of the husband's will and intentions. By insisting that the same words uttered while sleeping are no different than ones uttered while awake, the local imams have removed this philosophical foundation and turned the words into some sort of magic incantation; a "hocus pocus" phrase divorced (if you will) from the intention they represent. For a religion that doesn't even allow representations of the Prophet lest people worship him and not Allah, it is fair to say that magic words amount to a blasphemy in and of themselves.

And just what the world needed: yet another reason to lay off the Ambien.

Running Out the Debt Clock

Presidents are perennially concerned with their legacies. Especially after l'affaire Monica Lewinsky, such a concern was said to animate President Clinton's final years in office. Now, even if Iraq is somehow resurrected from its black hole of violence , President Bush can rest assured he will have a legacy as well. In the history books of the future, may well be known as the man who broke the national debt clock.

Conceived in the Reagan era and erected in 1989 south of Times Square, a giant ticker has displayed the rising of the national debt, dollar by dollar (except in those heady Clinton years when, because the clock was not designed to run backwards, it was shrouded in red, white and blue until, sure enough, President Bush pressed it back into service in 2002). The problem? Well, the clock is only designed to display a 13-digit number.
Sometime in the next two years, the total amount of US government borrowing is going to break through the 10-trillion-dollar mark and, lacking space for the extra digit such a figure would require, the clock is in danger of running itself into obsolescence.
Way to go, President Bush! Thanks so much for that $300 tax refund. That'll take the edge off of my family's approximate $90,000 share of the debt. What a triumph for conservatism, and compassionate, too!

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Afghanistan Backs Down

Charges against Abdul Rahman, who faced a possible death penalty for converting to Christianity, have been dropped. For now, at least.

According to Afghan officials, Rahman's case has been dropped due to a lack of evidence and questions about the legal foundation of the case. He's not totally out of the woods, however, because the case has been sent back to prosecutors who could reintroduce charges. In the meantime, Rahman will be released from prison.

It appears that Karzai is getting his wish, making the case go away without stooping to undemocratic means to do so. One hopes it will stay this way. A word of advice for Mr. Rahman: get the hell out of Afghanistan while you still have your head. Maybe you can go back when they've made it through their medieval period.

Marriage of Convenience

In September 2005, President Viktor Yushchenko ousted Yuliya Tymoshenko from her position as Ukranian prime minister. Now, Yushchenko's Our Ukraine Party is not expected to win enough seats in parliament to form a government. In order to prevent pro-Russia hardliner Viktor Yanukovych from regaining control of the country, Tymoshenko is forced to contemplate aligning her block with Our Ukraine. Here are her thoughts on that prospect:
I am reminded of Queen Victoria's advice to her daughter on her wedding night: "Close your eyes and think of England."

You Don't Need a Weatherman...

Bob Dylan once told us "you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." At the New York Times this may be true. What they need is an ombudsman. Here's a bizarre correction from today's "Week in Review":
A picture caption last Sunday about wildfires in Texas misstated the direction of the winds that blew plumes of smoke across the Panhandle. They were southwesterly (that is, from the southwest), not northeasterly.
All the news that's fit to print, indeed.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Faith-Based Diplomacy

There's an interesting little tidbit from Condoleezza Rice buried in an AFP story about Abdul Rahman. The report mentions that the Secretary of State phoned Afghan president Hamid Karzai yesterday to voice Washington's concerns about the man being threatened with execution for converting to Islam. Apparently, during the conversation, Rice said this:
There is no more fundamental issue for the United States than freedom of religion and religious conscience.
While freedom of religion is certainly vital to a truly open society, is it more fundamental than democracy or respect for human life? What an odd thing to say.

It's doubly confusing considering the fact that Bush and his "conservative" buddies are doing everything they can to make sure that his personal religious beliefs dictate the way we give provide AIDS relief to Africa, the way we conduct scientific research, the way charities in operate in the United States, what kids can and can't study in school, whose love is worth celebrating, how much control we can have over the heath care of loved ones, ad infinitum.

Sounds more like the freedom of one religion to me.

To Hell With Health

In January, we learned that the health benefits of soy, the alleged miracle bean, may have been overstated. We've already been through this with oat bran. Now, a new study is casting aspersions on the health benefits of fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids. What's next? Vitamin C causes genital warts?

Let's sum up the wisdom we've gleaned from our friends in the nutrition sciences in recent years:
  • Pork rinds and bacon are great for weight loss—or, they'll explode your heart on contact
  • Several cups of coffee per day is just fine and dandy—or, you're digging your own grave one skinny caramel macchiato at a time
  • Drinking milk helps you lose weight—or, it makes you fatter than the heifer it came from
  • Carbs are evil and deadly, worse than the terrorists—or, carbs are evil and deadly, just not quite as bad as the terrorists
You know what? Just stop. No more testing, no more studies. Obviously every trip to the refrigerator is like walking through a minefield. The last thing we need is a bunch of people arguing over where we should or shouldn't step. Let us heal/poison ourselves in peace. Heck, maybe while I'm waiting for that swordfish embolism or yellow fin aneurism, you guys will decide that I really just cured my hepatitis and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma instead. Better yet, don't tell me. I don't want to know.

Who's up for sushi?

Albright Sees the Light

There is a sane and important editorial in the LA Times written by former Secretary of State Madeline Albright that basically expands upon issues I wrote about in my last post. Under the title "Good versus evil isn't a strategy", Albright disputes what she calls the Manichean world view of the Bush administration and sheds some light on the real battles we face in the Middle East.
It is sometimes convenient, for purposes of rhetorical effect, for national leaders to talk of a globe neatly divided into good and bad. It is quite another, however, to base the policies of the world's most powerful nation upon that fiction.... The first [suggestion] is to understand that although we all want to "end tyranny in this world," that is a fantasy unless we begin to solve hard problems. Iraq is increasingly a gang war that can be solved in one of two ways: by one side imposing its will or by all the legitimate players having a piece of the power.
What this means is, we have to scrap the "axis of evil" bullocks and engage with Iran, because there will be no peace in Iraq without support from Iran. I only hope Albright is correct when she opines that Iran's "choleric and anti-Semitic new president...will be swallowed up by internal rivals if he is not unwittingly propped up by external foes." There's already some evidence to support her claim.

Albright goes on to say that she "hopes" the future of the Middle East is determined by those serious about fomenting democracy.
But hope is not a policy. In the short term, we must recognize that the region will be shaped primarily by fairly ruthless power politics in which the clash between good and evil will be swamped by differences between Sunni and Shiite, Arab and Persian, Arab and Kurd, Kurd and Turk, Hashemite and Saudi, secular and religious and, of course, Arab and Jew.
I hope all the xenophobes and Bush acolytes read enough of Albright's editorial to get to this part, because this is the crux. There's not a Western culture and a Muslim culture that are locked in battle. There is a patchwork of Middle Eastern cultures, ethnicities and ideologies, all locked in a bitter battle amongst themselves. The sooner we realize this, the sooner we might actually start helping to solve this problem. Planning an airstrike against Tehran isn't going to help. Even Christopher "This is a Battle for Civilization" Hitchens admitted that much.

Now it just remains to be seen if Albright can get an oil tanker named after her. I guess pursuing peace in the Middle East probably isn't the way to go about that.

Radical Islam, Broken Societies

Wow, Andrew Sullivan really blows hot and cold on Islam. A couple of days ago he was practically sneering at the idea of moderate Muslims, as he has done many times before. Then yesterday, in response to the Abdul Rahman case, he writes this:
I know there are moderate Muslims. I know that in Malaysia, Turkey, Indonesia and India, for example, these kinds of views are not common. I also know that it wasn't that long ago that Christians held similar views about heretics or Jews, and that today's fundamentalist Christianity is often supportive of the death penalty and torture. But that a religious faith contains this kind of fanatical intolerance and violence anywhere is disturbing. It's barbaric. And it is in the Middle East that this kind of theocratic fascism is ascendant.
First off, I'm glad to see him step back from the precipice. We're not ever going to make progress against militant Islam if we continue to pretend like that's all there is.

I agree with Sullivan's statement that religious faith with fanatical intolerance is disturbing. Of course you find that in any and every religion. There are plenty of hateful Christian groups right here in America, and I just wrote the other day about some particularly distasteful remarks made by a Kabbalist rabbi. The problem is—and it's an indisputable one—there seems to be more of it in Muslim societies.

But, not in every Muslim society, as Sullivan adroitly points out. In fact, Muslim intolerance tends to occur in the most backwards societies—the ones that were colonized to all hell and then left to rot. It's no surprise at all that the horrible case of Abdul Rahman is happening in Afghanistan, a country with arguably the most tragic history of any of the Muslim nations. It's the most stunted society, and it's also the most intolerant. That seems to be pretty fair evidence that Islamic intolerance is a symptom of geo-political influences rather than a flaw within Islam itself.

Let's not forget that if Christian societies took the Bible literally and applied laws based upon it, we'd be no different from Afghanistan. There's nothing special about Islam; there's something special about huge swaths of the Muslim world. We must fight against religious intolerance wherever we find it, but we must not fool ourselves into believing that theology is our only problem in the fight against Islamism.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Who Would Jesus Waterboard?

Just to show that I'm not totally against Andrew Sullivan, he's always been totally on the mark in his opposition to torture. Yesterday, he highlighted a depressing poll that shows widespread support for torture from the American public—especially from Christians. One would think, particularly in light of The Passion of the Christ, that Christians would disapprove of torture. Alas.

Today, Sullivan posted his response to an email that suggests that Christians have a long history of doing horrible, evil things in the pursuit of their faith. Here's Sullivan's rejoinder: "All I can say is that faith founded genuinely on Jesus could not begin to endorse such a concept..." He goes on to claim "Christianity will survive Christianism."

Quite right. All I would ask is this: Is it too much to ask him to cast the same discerning eye on Islam that he does on his own religion?

Apostasy and Absolutism

Weblogistan has been abuzz in recent days, discussing the strange case of Abdul Rahman, an Afghani who faces a possible death sentence for converting to Christianity. (He has not been "sentenced to death," as so many bloggers have alleged—he hasn't even been tried yet.)

In particular, xenophobic bloggers and Christian "activists" have seized on this terrible case to prove their contentions that Islam is an evil religion that simply is not compatible with Western CivilizationTM. Most prominent among these offenders is, as always, Andrew Sullivan. On March 20, Sullivan wrote a brief post called "'Tolerance' in Afghanistan" in which he quoted the barbaric words of the prosecuting attorney in the case and then made this sarcastic appeal:
There are many Muslims in the West and elsewhere who do not support or tolerate this kind of medieval oppression. I look forward to hearing their protests. Please let me know of any I might have missed.
I fully understand his hostility to this case in particular. What I don't appreciate is his underlying hostility to Islam in general. Sullivan fluctuates between recognizing moderate Muslims in good faith (as in the case of the anti-extremist manifesto published by his friends Salman Rushdie and Irshad Manji) and wringing his hands over the dearth of moderate voices and the fundamental incompatibility of Islam with the West.

The problem with viewing the entire Muslim world as a monolithic swamp of intolerance (apart from oversimplifying things to the point of utter absurdity) is that it undermines the logic of trying to affect political change in the region—attempts that Sullivan, paradoxically, supports. If this view is accurate, then there's really no difference between Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas, or between the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. It's a view that simply makes no sense. If the only way to be a tolerant Muslim is to be an apostate Muslim, then we are left with only two choices, both of which Sullivan would presumably reject: we can leave them all to rot, or we can pull an Ann Coulter and invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them all to Christianity.

In this light, Sullivan's sarcastic call for Muslim protests over the Abdul Rahman case is unseemly. It assumes, first of all, that none will be forthcoming because all those terrible Muslims really do believe you should be killed for abandoning Islam. Secondly, the implication that all Muslims are somehow responsible for the conduct of all other Muslims, wherever they are, and therefore have a responsibility to speak out about every atrocity is nothing more than stereotyping at its ugliest and most xenophobic. I am not responsible for everything done in the name of Christianity; why on earth should Mehmet in Istanbul be held responsible for something Ali does in Medina? It's actually a very insulting expectation to have. Just because you're ignorant about the endless variety in the practice of Islam doesn't mean that it's adherents have a duty to educate you. Pundit, heal thyself.

The first thing to realize in the Abdul Rahman case is that there's a tremendous "duh" factor involved. Of course most people, Muslim or otherwise, don't agree with it. Assuming that if someone does not speak out against this ridiculous case means they support the prosecution is absurd and degrading. Expecting Muslims to speak out on this case and every other one like it is akin to forcing foreigners to sign a loyalty oath and then continually reaffirm it. Reasonableness is a trait that is assumed in non-Muslims until proven otherwise. Sullivan and his ilk have a different standard for all Muslims. They are, in a manner of speaking, guilty until proven innocent—a belief that would appear to stand in contradiction to Sullivan's own proclaimed ideals.

That said, two of the most prominent Muslim organizations in America have come out against the impending trial of Abdul Rahman. This statement is from the website of the Council on American-Islamic Relations:
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, based in Washington, called for Mr. Rahman's release, saying that the Koran supported religious freedom and that Islam was never compulsory. CAIR said its position was endorsed by the Fiqh Council of North America, a committee of Islamic legal scholars.... "the man’s conversion is a personal matter not subject to the intervention of the state.... Islam advocates both freedom of religion and freedom of conscience..."
So sorry to disappoint those of you hoping this wouldn't happen.

This obscene apostasy trial is notable not because it tells us something about mainstream Islam, but because it tells us a whole lot about modern-day Afghanistan. President Hamid Karzai and the Pashtun plurality from which he comes have created a Kabul-centric government that has done little to address the regional and ethnic divides in the country. The New York Sun quotes a representative of Human Rights Watch as saying, "This represents politics in Afghanistan being played out on this guy's body." According to their source, Karzai's lack of control over the judiciary is linked to "efforts to win support from a regional warlord, Abdul Sayyaf."

So we have a leader of an exceedingly fragile democracy who is trying to live up to his more liberal beliefs while keeping the country from falling apart. That's why we don't see a ham-fisted attempt on the part of the Afghan government to stop this case. It is apparent that Karzai would like the case to be dropped without having to resort to undemocratic means to achieve this goal. Many reports indicate that the government has been working diligently behind the scenes to make this happen. Here's hoping they're successful.

In the meantime, to hold Afghanistan up as the exemplar of mainstream Islamic belief is, to say the least, to argue in extremely bad faith.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Goose-Steppers of the Enlightenment

In the great Clash of CivilizationsTM that pits the Western world against the Muslim world, we can always count on the West, bastion of Enlightenment values that we surely are, to be on the side of tolerance and freedom. In that spirit, it's worth noting an AFP report that quotes an article in the Italian daily Repubblica about how soccer hooligans and neo-Nazis are gearing up for a bloodbath during this summer's World Cup. Their target? Muslims.

According to "ultras" hooligans associated with AS Roma, "neo-Nazis across Europe met in Braunau in Austria to plan attacks against supporters from Islamic countries during the World Cup in Germany from June 9 to July 9."
"We are united. For the first time we are talking and planning together, with the English, the Germans, the Dutch, the Spanish, everyone with the same objective. At the World Cup there will be a massacre," said the Italian ultra. "We will all be in Germany and there will be Turks, Algerians and Tunisians. The Turks, we can't stand them. In [Italy] there are not many, but in Germany, there are many of those guys there. They are Islamic terrorists. We will attack them. They are all enemies that need to be eliminated, just like the police."
Charming. If nothing else, this illustrates the myth of "Western culture." These European neo-Nazis are heirs to the same Western tradition of tolerance and openness that I am, but do I have anything in common with them at all? I sure hope not. There's no such thing as a single "Western culture." Instead, there are a multiplicity of cultures under the umbrella of Western civilization, and some of them, as our European friends have shown us, are unspeakably evil. Perhaps our culture warriors should remember this the next time they ascribe a monolithic, evil culture to the entire Muslim world.

If we want moderate Muslims to denounce the very real and troubling extremism of some of their co-religionists, it's every bit as important that we don't forget to denounce the no-less-real extremism produced by our own societies. It's not about equivalency. It's about common decency. Ultimately, we're all on the same side, here. Right?

Madonna Causes Bird Flu?

What's a girl like Madonna to do? It's no secret that she's deeply immersed in Kabbalah, the once-obscure form of Jewish mysticism that, thanks in large part to the Material Girl (or Esther, to call her by her "Kabbalah name"), has taken over Hollywood like the next incarnation of Transcendental Meditation. Everywhere you look, anorexic wrists are sporting red Kabbalah strings and doe-eyed starlets are sipping "completely positive, healing energy" from their bottles of Kabbalah water (only $1.75 per half-liter!).

Why this love for Kabbalah in the entertainment ranks? It allows them the excitement of cultural squatting while fulfilling their basic need to feel superior to the rest of America. Madonna, obviously, has a ravenous appetite for that sense of superiority. After all, she already has a bazillion dollars and a phony British accent. That would be enough for most people.

Hollywood Kabbalah, like Richard Gere's Buddhism, has a certain hippy-dippy, experimental cachet, and many adherents like to believe that they're slaking their spiritual thirst without contaminating themselves with the orthodoxies associated with mainstream religion in America. That said, I wonder what Madonna's reaction is to this from a recent Reuters article:
An outbreak of deadly bird flu in Israel is God's punishment for calls in election ads to legalize gay marriages, according to Rabbi David Basri, a prominent sage preaching Kabbalah or Jewish mysticism....The bird flu outbreak stemmed from far-left political parties "strengthening and encouraging homosexuality," Rabbi Basri's son quoted him as saying.
Pat Robertson couldn't have said it better. Basri's comments were brought on, in part, by a political advertisement in Israel that shows two brides kissing. I certainly hope the rabbi didn't catch the "duet" between Madonna and Britney Spears at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards!

This is not to say that Kabbalah in general is as intolerant as, say, fundamentalist Christianity. It just goes to show that when you do spiritual cherry picking, you sometimes end up with the pits.

P.S. If this proclamation had come from a Muslim, Weblogistan would be going crazy. Where's your outrage, Andrew Sullivan?

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Colder Side of Global Warming

It's the second day of spring, and, after virtually no snow all winter, we're getting buried by a freak late snowstorm here in the Midwest. Rush Limbaugh started his program yesterday with a glib one-liner about how this spring snowstorm proves that global warming is a crock. Drudge, a weather porn addict if there ever was one, loves to highlight events that seem to contradict global warming.

Not so fast, my modern day flat-earthers! Wishful thinking is not going to change the data and an erroneous appeal to "logic" won't keep old Rush's south Florida studios above the waterline. The global climate is a complex thing, and complex things often defy the base logic of men like Rush and Drudge.
As several scientists have warned, global warming will be full of surprises. Warming over the past half-century has already brought more erratic and extreme weather. Some climatologists are increasingly concerned about the stability of the climate system itself and the potential for abrupt shifts - to warmer or even much colder states.
Erratic and extreme weather—like record hurricane seasons, November tornados, heat waves and, yes, spring blizzards. Anyone paying attention to the weather at all knows that something screwy is going on. The quotation above offers an explanation. That's from a 2003 Boston Globe article by Dr. Paul R. Epstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, and James J. McCarthy, professor of oceanography at Harvard University and a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

We're just going to have to decide who we trust when it comes to the global climate: scientists who specialize in the global climate, or right-wing pundits who wouldn't know an isobar from a hole in the ozone layer.

Monday, March 20, 2006

The Ravages of Time

Drudge has a photo of President George Bush on his site that took me aback. In it the president looks so old; haggard almost. It's a graphic reminder of the toll the presidency takes. Here's a picture of George Bush in 2000 compared with Bush in 2006:



The same thing happened to President Clinton, who entered the Oval Office in 1992 looking youthful and vibrant, only to emerge in 2000 white-haired and wizened by his 8 years in office.



Nothing can compare, however, to the transformation that John F. Kennedy underwent, despite spending only three years in office:

Putin Backs Election Fraud, Again

Anyone harboring hope that Russian president Vladimir Putin is not succumbing to his authoritarian tendencies suffered yet another blow today with the presidential election results in Belarus. Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory with 82.6 percent of the vote in a contest he termed "honest and democratic".


Putin (l.) and Lukashenko have a meeting of the minds

The United States, the European Union and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe all beg to differ. The US claimed the election was run in a "climate of fear" and White House spokesman Scott McClellan echoed Belarussian opposition candidate Alexander Milinkevich's calls for a new election. The OSCE stated that "a pattern of intimidation and the suppression of independent voices was evident."

But have no fear. Lukashenko is not left without a friend in the world. He always has old, reliable Vladimir Putin, who congratulated him on his victory, saying, "the results of the election testify to the fact that the voters trust in your course." Just as he has done in elections in Georgia and Ukraine, Putin comes down on the side of authoritarianism against democracy and reform. Maintaining Russian influence in former satellite states is Putin's goal—a goal that might make those of us who can remember the old Soviet Union a bit uneasy.

In addition to a history of rigged elections, Lukashenko and his henchman have been implicated in the disappearances of opposition candidates and journalists and have been accused of anti-Semitic activities. The Committee to Protect Journalists listed Belarus in the top 10 "Worst Places to be a Journalist" in 2003. It remains to be seen if Milinkevich and his supporters will be able to pressure Belarus into new elections—or whether they’ll be allowed to stage further protests at all. We all know what side Putin comes down on in all of this.

Last year the United States described Lukashenko as "Europe's last dictator." Vladimir Putin is well on his way to making that claim obsolete.

Party Politics in Denmark

Random Platitudes has posted part 7 of his look at the cartoon crisis from a Danish perspective. This epistle is devoted entirely to the political fallout inside Denmark.

RP highlights polls that show that the major opposition party, the Social Democrats, lost electoral support during the cartoon crisis, not because they attacked the ruling party, but because they tempered their response to the crisis for fear of appearing too "immigrant-friendly."

The ruling party's support remained constant, with big gains for the xenophobic Danish People's Party (Dansk Folkeparti) and the Danish Social Liberal Party (Radikale Venstre).
Clearly, the DPP were gaining as a result of a public perception that they represented a "tough stance" on "Islamic aggression" towards a Denmark that increasingly considered itself the wronged party.
That is not to say that Denmark has become a more xenophobic place on balance. The Social Liberal Party also saw gains from last October to this February, and they are a party that has "made working for a stable multi-ethnic Danish society a key plank of their platform." The party is home to several moderate Muslim politicians, including Naser Khader.
In response to the crisis, he had been instrumental in forming a moderate Muslim political network, Demokratiske Muslimer ("Democratic Muslims"), which strove to bring a moderate Muslim viewpoint to the debate, both in Denmark and in the Islamic world.
Of course, his existence has barely made a ripple in the international press (only 32 hits in Google News), but why would it? Complex political realites simply don't fit the template so many pundits are working off of here. Denmark is enlightened and Western (and therefore has no xenophobic tendencies), the "Muslim world" is backwards and threatening, and never the twain shall meet.

Not to burst that bubble, but here's what Khader's party had to say in the Danish parliament:
We agree that JP [= Jyllands-Posten] has the right to publish illustrations and text that provoke and test limits. That right to freedom of speech is something that we will defend every day. But we also have the right to have an opinion about what we read in a newspaper. Isn't that what the intent of the provocations in JP, among others, is?
This idea, in the shrill atmosphere of Weblogistan and beyond, is tantamount to heresy. Black or white! And choose fast! Life is never that simple, of course, but real life doesn't matter when you're working at the lofty level of a clash of civilizations.

A for Anti-Intellectual

On Friday, I wrote about how conservatives are in high dudgeon over V for Vendetta, a new film that has been called anti-American and pro-terrorist. Well, this weekend I did something that most of the complainers won't bother to do. I actually saw the movie.

Overall, it's a very good film, with an exceptional performance by Natalie Portman as an accidental activist who is swept up and carried along by events that are—at least in the beginning—beyond her control. I don't want to spoil anything here, and I don't particularly feel like writing a film review. I will say, unequivocally, that anyone who dismisses this film as an attack on America (which is hardly mentioned) or a paean to terrorism is either unspeakably stupid or willfully anti-intellectual.

V for Vendetta is rife with moral ambiguity and the viewer is not sure whether to admire or to abhor the masked vigilante "hero" who has a penchant for making very loud, explosive statements. That is the point! People who dismiss this film out of hand are committing the first and greatest sin against art: they're refusing to see it as a work of the imagination. Instead, it must be taken literally. Art, for these dullards, is not there to provoke thought, but rather to provide instruction (or, in this case, marching orders).

The imagined future dystopia of this film could not be a fantasy, a thought experiment or a "what if" scenario; it is necessarily meant to be a factual representation of our situation here and now (never mind that it was first dreamt up in the early 80s, when George W. Bush was about as far away from the presidency as a person could get).

Not every artist has a mission to provide answers. In fact, most artists prefer to ask questions and provoke discussions. V for Vendetta will do that, if you're open for a discussion. The political pundits-turned-critics have no knowledge of art as anything other than politics, and they certainly have no interest in discussion or debate. To them, this film is no different from a statement by Charles Schumer or a proclamation on the floor of the House of Representatives by Russ Feingold.

Underlying all of this anti-Intellectualism is a basic contempt for the American public. Because they're too thickheaded to look at a film as anything other than an attempt to reproduce reality, they assume that we're the same way. They think we're too stupid to watch a movie and not come out of the theater brainwashed zombies. The irony in the fact that it is these very people who act like groupthink zombies and use their Fox News Channels and Rush Limbaugh programs to try to dumb-down the American public is almost too great to miss. The fact that they do miss it only proves my point.

Friday, March 17, 2006

O for Overreaction

I just don't get all the fuss about the new movie V for Vendetta, which opens today. "The hero is a terrorist," whine right-wingers, panties tightly in a bunch. Drudge has the opening as his main story right now, complete with a headline that reads "Let's Blow Up Parliament." Right wing pundit Debbie Schlussel called it "a horrid, anti-American, pro-terrorist film."

Now, a caveat. I haven't seen this movie yet (and neither have many of the people complaining about it), but I've heard enough to be scratching my head over all the controversy. Yes, the film's "hero", who has been described as character of ambiguous morality in many reviews, is a terrorist hell-bent on destroying the British government via shock and awe. But, this isn't Tony Blair's England we're talking about.

V for Vendetta, based on an 80s comic book, takes place in an alternate-reality universe where, as if the Nazis had won World War II, a Hitleresque demagogue (played by John Hurt) rules over Britain with an iron fist. Our hero/anti-hero is fighting against totalitarianism, which, at least back in the Cold War days, was the right wing's bread and butter.

If someone had the chance to blow up the Reichstag in 1939, killing Hitler and his generals, should they not have done it? Would it have been terrorism if they had? Would right-wingers have been up in arms if Winston Smith had an open shot at Big Brother and took it? Remember, this is "a boot stamping on a human face—forever." Is fighting against that not valued by the right wing?

V for Vendetta opens up a Pandora 's box of uncomfortable questions. It's like the naively relativistic postcard sold in head shops and college student centers around the country that wonders at the difference between a "terrorist" and a "freedom fighter." To some extent, of course, that distinction is in the eye of the beholder. Let's not forget that President Reagan called the brutal Contra guerillas "freedom fighters" and the "moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers." There's certainly some relativism built into this equation, but not entirely. As a human civilization, we are capable of coming to something at least close to an objective definition of freedom. We're even better at agreeing—because we’ve had so much experience with it—on what totalitarianism is.

Is V for Vendetta promoting terrorism against America and the West, as so many conservatives argue? Only if we are, on balance, promoting the cause of totalitarianism. Whatever our failings (and they're many), I would say that we aren't. If right-wingers see themselves reflected back in John Hurt's steely eyes, that's their problem, not mine.

I'll weigh in again once I've seen it.

Fear Factor

Last night our dear and fearless leader proved that he is, well, fearless. During a pep talk/cheerleading session with GOP fat-cat donors, President Bush said, "we don't fear the future. We welcome it." He went on to add, "we can be like they are. Come on, baby. Don't fear the future. Baby take my hand."

Why would Bush fear the future? He doesn't worry about the past or the present either. President Bush just pushes onward with eerie confidence, seemingly oblivious to the massive debts he's racking up or the degree to which he is disliked by the majority of the American people.

Good news for Bush: it seems to be working. Republican donors gave $8 million to the GOP at the event last night (or eight nine-millionths of the new national debt ceiling). And one of Bush's talking points last night? More tax cuts! Oy.

Favorite line from last night's speech:
I can stand up here and tell you that we have delivered results for the American people, and we've got an agenda to continue to do so.
"It would be a bald-faced lie," Bush continued, "but I can stand up here and say it. Don't fear the future! Who needs a little more cowbell?"

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Innumeracy on Capital Hill

Today, the Senate voted to increase the national debt limit to $9 trillion. That's a nine with twelve zeros. Democrats refused to support this necessary bill, forcing Republican lawmakers to take the black mark on their voting records instead under the rarely invoked "you broke it, now you go fix it, jerk!" rule in the Senate.

So, nine trillion. That's a lot of dough. It works out, as the newspapers will tell us tomorrow morning, to about $30,000 for every man, woman and child in the United States. Here's what else you can get for a cool $9T, in terms that our materialistic culture can understand:
  • 155,172,413 Cadillac Escalades (2007)
  • 529,723,366,686 copies of Breakaway by Kelly Clarkson
  • 849,056,603,773 boxes of Dick CheneyTM 28 gauge birdshot cartriges (25 to a box!)
  • 30,000,000,000 $300 tax refund checks to pay down the budget surplus (oops!)
  • 3,750,000 Republican Congressmen
  • 12,857 U.S. Presidential election campaigns (all candidates)
  • 112.5 Googles (market value)
  • 180 more years of war in Iraq
Coincidentally (or not??), that's the same number of Bill Gateses you could buy. But on the up side, all we have to do, as a society, is produce 180 more philanthropic Bill Gates-types who could bail us out of all this. Or our children could starve. Either way.

Ban a Book for Freedom!

According to an article written in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten (hello, old friend!), a German vigilante citizens' group is attempting to ban the Qur'an—in the name of freedom and Western values.

An indictment has been prepared in five German states, "charging that the holy book of the Moslems...is incompatible with the German constitution." What's the problem with the Qur'an?
The Quran says that it is the words of Allah. According to the views of several, including leading, Moslems in Germany, it is literally and absolutely true at all time and in all places, the indictment says.
That's weird. The U.S. is run by a man who, as a fundamentalist Christian, believes the same thing about the Bible. But that's ok, because it's Christian, and no Christian has ever stood in the way of freedom or liberty. Plus, there aren't any rational Germans who would believe such nonsense. Not, say, the current Pope...
The indictment is against the 200 verses of 114 suras (chapters) of the Quran that are not compatible with the constitution, including demagoguery, incitement to murder, murder and mutilation, war, acceptance of thievery against infidels, meaning all non-Moslems. Verses are also pointed out where the equal rights of men and women are not upheld and where people of different faiths are oppressed.
It's been a while since my Sunday school days, but I seem to remember something in the Bible about smiting, there's certainly a bit about stoning homosexuals, and it might have a thing or two to say on the equality of women, too. Oh, here's one: "Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church" (I Corinthians 14:34-35). You go, Paul! Tell it like it is!

Now, where was I? Oh, right, the Qur'an is an evil book full of violence and hate and should therefore be banned. It's also been a while since my last world history class, but I think the Germans have been down this path before. I can't remember how that turned out...

According to Jutta Starke, author of the Hamburg indictment against the Qur'an, "it is a task of Sisyphean dimensions to inform the media, politicians and churches of the true intentions of Islam in the enlightened world of the West." It's a shock that her fingertips don't burn whenever she tries to type the word "enlightened" on her keyboard. As if Islam has a "true intention." Islam, like any other religion, has many different followers with many different agendas. To try to paint all Muslims as equivalent to the worst among them is pure demagoguery. Hey, maybe her indictment should be banned!

The driving force behind the attempt to ban the Qur'an in Germany is a group called Bundesverband der Bürgerbewegungen (Federal Association of the Citizen Movements, in English), that we'll call BDB for short. By their own account, the BDB "is a union of citizen movements, which are engaged in preserving liberal-democratic principles and against the formation of islamistic [sic] enclaves in Europe." I can't remember when banning books became part of the "liberal-democratic" tradition, but it's been a while since my last "bullshitting away liberal values" class, too.

On their website, one can find a grotesque political "analysis" of Islam, and a link to their info page where the set out the values that they're fighting for and complain about the fact that they are being overrun by Muslims who breed too much.
Home region (Heimat) means recognition, preservation and respect for our culture, language and circumstances in life. The development of islamic-dominated communities within a democratic country is undermining democratic principles and is preventing integration. The BDB is making an effort for the conversation and the protection of our home. Diversity of the regions with its different cultural characteristics is a responsibility for us. We are not alone with this agenda in Europe.
So, the BDB wants to maintain the diversity of Germany's regions, which means limiting the influence of Muslims who, being so different, take away from Germany's diversity. Follow that logic?

Amongst the proposals of the BDB is a new standard for immigration. In addition to a language test and proof that a prospective immigrant has "unlimited willingness for integration," the BDB proposes the following:
—Cultural differences are resulting in borders and have to be considered, which means further immigration from the islamic countries should be limited

—Renuncation [sic] of islamic power symbols of muslims living in germany

—Prohibitation [sic] of clubs and unities hostile towards integration
Remember, this is to be done in defense of freedom and liberty. It also assumes that all problems with integrating Muslims into German society are caused by the Muslims themselves, apportioning no blame to a German population that treats Muslims like second-class citizens (if they’re lucky).

They affirm that religion and politics must be kept separate, but seem oblivious to the fact that an attempt to use the laws to prevent Muslims from practicing their religion flies entirely in the face of free expression. There shouldn't be an established state religion, but the government ought not prevent the free expression of religion either. Banning the Qur’an would kind of do that. Freedom is a two-way street, but these Germans want it to be one-way, and hell, the Muslims can be speed bumps, for all they care.

The total lack of awareness that what they're doing is absolutely antithetical to notions of freedom and liberty, from the BDB to the sycophantic Jyllands-Posten write up, is proof that these people are not concerned with universal liberty. When they get behind efforts to ban the Qur'an, it becomes clear that their purpose is not to defend freedom, but to keep Europe for the Europeans. Dressing their bigotry up in the garments of the enlightenment is a grievous insult to the defenders of liberty wherever they may be found.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Sullivan Sounds Alarm on Islam, Again

In a post entitled "Facing Down the Bullies", Andrew Sullivan alerts his readers to a "very credible death threat" against Salman Rushdie and the other eleven signatories to an anti-Islamist manifesto occasioned by the Muhammad cartoon protests. The threat was posted on Ummah.net, which Sullivan refers to as a "British Islamist site."

The only problem: it's not. Or is only if no distinction whatsoever is made between the word "Islamic" and the word "Islamist." Ummah.net is a general clearing house for people seeking information about Islam and it features some Islam-related news (much of it poorly written and anti-American, but no more so than Michael Moore). Here's an example of the kind of Islamic radicalism being touted by Ummah.net:
We should pray too that God in His infinite Mercy will guide us to do good, avoid evil and shun intolerance and bigotry.... We should implore our Lord to allow children of all races, nations and creeds to know laughter and banish forever the tears from their eyes.... We face a potential debacle because we have abused our faith. We have allowed the voices of intolerance and extremism to smother the gentler tones of those who prefer to work for inclusiveness and moderation.
If that's Islamism, sign me up! I struggle to see how this differs in any way from the message that Sullivan has been seeking ever since the cartoon crisis broke.

The post in question, which appears to have been removed from the site (I can't locate it, at least), was apparently in the website's online forum. There's a thread up now in the forum that discusses the death threat, which was allegedly posted on Saturday. If you read it, you'll notice that it has one thing in common with most non-Islamic online forums: it appears to be written entirely by 15-year-old boys.

On what authority does Andrew Sullivan deem the threat "very credible"? I wouldn't regard anything written in these forums as even moderately credible. Standing up against death threats and intimidation is one thing—and a great thing. But it's no excuse for having your facts wrong. Why, when it comes to Islam, does Sullivan always seem to jump the gun?

Update: Sullivan has updated his blog with a post that bears a description of Ummah.net that is a little more nuanced than "Islamist." Good for him.

The Army's Arab Handbook

The U.S. Army has put out a remarkably even-handed booklet (large PDF) on "Arab Cultural Awareness" for use by soldiers in Iraq. It contains vital information, such as the fact that all Muslims are not Arabs, and all Arabs are not Muslims (nor are they all terrorists)—oh, and they basically invented mathematics.

There's a lot of generalization in the 66-page booklet, but it has a wealth of very valuable information. It's true, Arabs are people, too.

One question: Why is it only coming out now, after we've been in Iraq for three years?

(Hat tip: Tiercel)

An Open Letter to Europe

It's all well and good to lecture Muslims about the value Western cultures put on the freedom of speech and religion. Your argument would be much more convincing, however, if you practiced what you preach. It would be much less hypocritical of you to proudly tout your "right to offend" if you didn't have so many laws prohibiting just that.
  • Austria prohibits the ridiculing of a religion. Penalty—6 months in jail. Holocaust denial is also a crime. Historian David Irving has just been sentenced to three years in prison for violating that law.
  • Britain outlaws blasphemy against the Anglican Church and has no codified free speech protection.
  • Denmark has a law against anyone who "publicly offends or insults a religion that is recognized in the country." Penalty—Fines and up to four months in jail.
  • France outlaws religious hatred. In 2005, the Catholic Church succeeded in banning a fashion ad based on the Last Supper. According to the judge, the ad was "a gratuitous...act of intrusion on people's innermost beliefs." Holocaust denial is also a crime.
  • Germany has a law against blasphemy that was last used in 1994 to ban a musical comedy. Holocaust denial is a crime.
  • Italy has a law against "outrage to a religion." A case against Oriana Fallaci is now pending on charges that she violated this law.
  • The Netherlands bans "scornful blasphemy." Penalty—three months in jail and a fine of 70 euros.
  • Norway has a "public order law dating from the 1930s which in principle outlaws blasphemy." Penalty—six months in jail.
  • Poland has a law against "publicly offending a person's religious feelings." Penalty—up to two years in prison. Artist Dorota Nieznalska is currently being prosecuted under this law.
  • Portugal outlaws religious hatred, as does Spain.
People are fond of saying that freedom of speech is freedom of speech, period. Once you start to limit it, you don't really have it. If you want to lecture the rest of the world about your precious freedoms, at least have the common decency to wipe the stain of blasphemy and anti-free speech laws off your books. Doing so may prompt a debate that will reveal just how comfortable Europeans would be with real freedom of speech. If you want people to see you as enlightened, you have to act enlightened.
Listed on BlogShares