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Thursday, March 31, 2005

Rest In Peace Terri

And so, it is finally over for Terri Schiavo, her husband, and her parents.

I was sadder than I thought I would be. Like most people, I had expected it to end just as it did, with Terri dying, hopefully, peacefully and without any more pain and suffering. I sincerely hope that there can be closure and, perhaps, even reconciliation between Michael Schiavo and Terri's parents. I don't know if that is possible, or if they will go on blaming him for their little girl's demise.

I do think he ought to honor their wishes for a burial rather than a cremation. At this point, I also think the wishes and the emotional comfort of the living take precedence over those of the deceased. I know others will disagree. But letting the Schindlers have the funeral and burial they want for their daughter might go a long way towards healing between the two families.

On the other hand, I don't think that her death will do anything to assuage the passions of the radical right that has camped out on the door of her hospice these past few weeks. If anything, I think they are just getting revved up for battle. In their minds, they now have more fuel for the fight over the appointments of judges, especially to the Supreme Court. They will take their anger out at all the judges who denied the Schindlers' requests to reinsert the feeding tube, even though many of those judges were, in fact, Republicans appointed by George H.W. Bush. Judge Greer was even a Southern Baptist until asked by his church to resign.

These are dangerous times, my friend, for individual liberty. The radical religious right, in all its permutations, is on the march. It may be the last stand of those afraid to face the uncertainty of the 21st century, with all its dazzling science, art, and culture. But it's a stand that they will fight for until the death, either ours or theirs.

This article from the Miami Herald of a few days ago illustrates how determined Jeb Bush truly was to intervene. State police were prepared to defy a judge's order and to physically take Terri into custody and transport her to a hospital to have the feeding tube reinserted. Only the Pinellas Park police prevented it by alerting the state officials that they were prepared to enforce the judge's order even if it meant a police showdown. Had the state police not backed down, it would have led to a constitutional crisis.

I am grateful for the country, the State of Florida, and for the Schiavos and Schindlers that this agony is over.

But I also still fear for my country. This is indeed the time for winter soldiers and not sunshine patriots.

Meanwhile, rest in peace Terri; your long battle is over and right now, you are seeing the face of God.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Breaking News At Eleven - Okay, At Nine O'Clock

I don’t usually do breaking news. But this is too good to bypass. Every politician who is a hypocrite needs to be called on his or her hypocrisy every time it’s discovered.

This is one of those times.

According to this article in The Tennessean, in 1988, just after Tom DeLay had been reelected to his third term in Congress, his 65-year-old father, Charles, suffered an accident that left him brain damaged. DeLay’s family agreed not to connect their father to life support because, and this is a direct quote from DeLay’s 81-year-old mother, Maxine DeLay:


"There was no point to even really talking about it. Tom knew, we all knew, his father wouldn't have wanted to live that way. He would have been a vegetable. Tom went along with the family decision.”
Yet DeLay’s staff claims that this situation is different from what Terri Schiavo is going through. Indeed, DeLay has termed Michael Schiavo’s attempts to have his wife removed from life support “barbarity.”

But exactly how is it different from the DeLay family’s decision? The only way Tom DeLay can justify his recent actions in Congress is by insisting that while his father had no hope of recovery, Terri does.

But after fifteen years, eight of which were spent seeking every treatment imaginable, when exactly does he, or anybody else, expect Terri to recover? The best medical opinion has stated time after time that, at this point, any recovery of brain function or consciousness is impossible.

The truth is that every time Tom DeLay or Randall Terry or any of the others claim that Terri could recover or that she is able to communicate her wishes, they undercut their own credibility.

First of all, none of their claims are true and every time they have to deny the truth, they lose their best argument. In this case, by claiming that she has any awareness, they are giving credence to the common sense thesis that if she was truly in a vegetative state, it would be ok to remove the feeding tube.

All that needs to be done, then, is to prove that she indeed is in such a state to win the argument. Their best shot, really, was arguing that it didn’t’ matter what her state of awareness was because life is precious regardless of its condition. Once they switched the terms of the argument to denying Terri’s true state, they were admitting that the quality of the life did indeed matter and that if, in fact, Terri was truly in a persistent vegetative state, terminating the feeding tube might be all right, after all.

At least, we now know that the DeLays thought so for their father. How could it be less true for Terri and her husband? The only difference was that the DeLays faced the sad and harsh reality that the Schindlers can’t bring themselves to admit yet. Which is that Terri is as much a vegetable today as Charles DeLay was back in 1988.

Just as the DeLays had the right to honor their father’s wishes in privacy, the House Majority Leader should have the decency to allow Michael Schiavo to do the same for his wife without interference from Congress. And without grandstanding and trying to pass new laws that will torment other families facing similar circumstances in the future.

Monday, March 28, 2005

The Perfect Moral Storm

Well, Easter was certainly serene and peaceful.

But that was then. This is now, and the culture wars rage on with an intensity that is only beginning to gather its full strength. It is turning into a tsunami of moral fervor that is frankly unhealthy to the body politic. I also believe that it’s going to cause the religious right to implode. They are taking their own spin far too seriously. I think their attempts to shove their morality down everybody else’s throats is going to lead to a backlash in a half that they are going to regret.

It’s what happened in Western Europe where, at any given time, you can’t find more than ten percent of the population in a church. The difference is that in Europe, even though the populace is militantly secular, their taxes still support national churches. In America, when people turn against the organized Buttinskies in the church, there isn’t going to be any more money filling their collection plates because we don’t tax people to support unpopular churches.

I think normal people, even religious people, have had their fill of the creeps and weirdos who have been using the Schiavo-Schindler tragedy to advance their own agenda. And now, comes this article in today’s Washington Post. Writer Rob Stein reports on a new movement of so called pro-life pharmacists who refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control pills. Not only that, but in some cases, they even refuse to return the prescriptions to the women so that they can go elsewhere to get them filled. These pharmacists now have several Christian pro-life professional organizations supporting so called “conscience clauses” for these pharmacists.

This is a dangerous development for many reasons. Let’s start with one of the most obvious reasons, not mentioned in this otherwise fine article, but it really leapt out at me as being an obvious danger to patients.

There are many medical reasons for prescribing the birth control pill besides preventing pregnancy. It can be used to alleviate menstrual problems including heavy bleeding and painful periods. Sometimes, though less frequently than in the past, it can be used for controlling acne or other skin conditions. And there are other legitimate health reasons besides pregnancy prevention for the use of birth control pills. So, it is not a pharmacist’s place to question or second guess physicians as to why they are prescribing this, or any other specific medication. In fact, to do so could set a dangerous precedent. What else could a pharmacist, who does not have the educational background of a physician, object to, to the detriment of a patient?

But even if a woman is buying the pill for its most commonly prescribed purpose, it is not the pharmacist’s business. And he or she certainly has no right to refuse to give the prescription back to the woman so that she can take it to somebody more willing to fill it for her. Do we really need to remind pharmacists that patients, too, have rights?

And speaking of medical reasons for using the pill, what if the woman’s doctor prescribed the pill to prevent pregnancy because the woman would have an at risk pregnancy that must indeed be prevented for health reasons?

If a woman’s life or health were put at risk by pregnancy, isn’t prevention a medical decision that only the woman and her doctor should make without the interference of a third party pharmacist?

It would also be wise for these self-appointed keepers of morality to bear in mind that not every religion has decreed that the right of a not yet conceived human being takes precedence over the health and well being of a living woman. In fact, I believe, it’s only the Catholic Church and the most fundamentalist of Protestant denominations that would insist that even the risk of a woman’s life would not be an allowable exception to their contraceptive ban. And frankly most Catholics ignore their own church on this particular teaching. If a woman’s life was to be at risk from carrying a pregnancy to term, most of my Catholic friends would avoid the pregnancy and it wouldn’t be by playing Vatican Roulette with the Rhythm Method either.

On the other hand, Orthodox Jews, who also forbid abortion and birth control, absolutely insist on both contraception and even abortion if either are necessary to save a mother’s life; so, perhaps good Christians should think twice before interfering with somebody else’s faith tradition or individual conscience.

But the final irony in all this is that the pharmacists who insist most vociferously that filling prescriptions for contraceptives is a moral wrong play into the hands of the anti-abortion movement’s most strident enemies. There are many pro-choice people who sincerely believe that the pro-life movement is not really concerned about the life of the fetus at all, but is really just attempting to impose its moral standards on everybody else as well as trying to control women’s bodies.

After all, prevention of conception is not the same as aborting a fetus which has already been conceived and is a growing human being, even in the womb. It is only by willfully ignoring the most basic science that somebody can equate birth control with abortion. Even the morning after pill is not an abortion. The morning after pill simply prevents sperm from fertilizing an egg. It’s not murder. It’s the prevention of conception. Again, only the most unscientific of Luddites would fail to make that distinction. (I know, I know, what am I saying – these are the same Luddites who do practice junk science on a regular basis).

It is anybody’s right to believe that birth control is wrong and that every act of lovemaking must be open to the possibility of conception. But it is nobody’s right to impose that belief on somebody else. That steps over the line of religious liberty in this country. Pharmacists do have the right to follow their conscience. So, in their own personal lives, if they believe that birth control is wrong, they don’t have to practice it in their lovemaking. But it is not their place to make this decision for anybody else. And remember, we are not talking about the taking of a life here. That is a different matter entirely.

This is just about freedom of conscience. And pharmacists are not God. They have to respect women’s and doctors’ freedom here too.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

He Is Risen Indeed

There will be no posts on Easter Sunday. Happy Easter to all.

The Great Easter Vigil

There is an ancient Christian tradition of keeping vigil on the Saturday night before Easter. Although many Protestant churches, in the Reform tradition, celebrate Easter with sunrise services, the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Episcopal Church all celebrate the Great Easter Vigil beginning on Saturday night. They follow a custom that began in the first years of Christianity, in fact, probably with the very first Easter.

And tonight, Terri Schiavo’s parents, her husband, Michael, and many of those who have followed Terri's situation are keeping another kind of vigil. A deathwatch for Terri.

The irony of all this occurring during the Easter season has not been lost on many of us.

Easter is a holiday that emphasizes fresh beginnings, resurrection. Indeed, the entire season of spring is a time of rebirth. Most of the world’s religions have a holiday to mark spring.

For Jews, Passover is around the corner and it commemorates the liberation of the ancient Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. That holiday stresses the meaning of freedom from bondage, both the national bondage of the people and each one's personal bondage and liberation. So, Passover is a holiday of renewed hope for those who were once enslaved.

The ancient pagans and modern neo-Pagans celebrate the rebirth of nature at spring equinox. Indeed, the holiday Easter is actually named for an ancient German goddess, Eostre. And the great celebrations to the Greek god, Dionysus, were held in Attica at springtime. Dionysus, by the way, was a god who was believed by his followers to have died and been resurrected too. His central myth was acted out in rituals during his annual festival and became the great national dramatic theater festivals at Attica. It was at the Dionysian festivals that the Greek tragedy was born.

And so, at a time of year that stresses the beginnings of life, regardless of one’s faith tradition, Terri Schiavo’s family must wait for her death.

However, Easter, in Christian tradition, also teaches a universal truth that is appropriate to keep in mind during the tragic vigil for Terri Schiavo. Without death, there can be no renewed life. Indeed, Jesus taught that one must lose one’s life in order to gain eternal life.

Usually, of course, we interpret that figuratively not literally. We take it to mean that one must turn away from one’s old and sinful ways. One must repent and then be reborn to a new life in Christ. However, it is also literally true that one cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven while still alive. And for Terri, that is her best hope now.

In today’s Washington Post there was an article on the front page about the reaction of churchgoers to the events surrounding Terri Schiavo, including their opinions of Congress’ actions. Most of those interviewed felt that Congress had overreached and intruded into what should have been a private family matter. And most felt that were it their family member, they would take him or her off life support as Michael Schiavo has been seeking to do.

Only two of those interviewed disagreed, both Catholics. One said that people in our country had forgotten how to suffer and so preferred death to accepting the inevitably of pain. He also cited the Pope as a noble example of somebody who is suffering with dignity and purpose. The other, a Catholic woman, also stated that she was simply opposed to assisted suicide because she was pro-life.

While the man was right about the Pope, he could only be opposed to removing the feeding tube by misreading the situation and misunderstanding Terri’s true condition. Both the Catholics did. This is not an assisted suicide. This is not about the refusal to suffer or the denial of the value of suffering. This is about keeping alive a woman who cannot suffer, cannot feel, and who cannot recognize meaning and purpose. It’s about keeping alive a body whose brain has died and whose consciousness is gone. As I’ve said before, Terri doesn’t live here anymore.

And so, it is appropriate to begin the sad process of letting her go at Easter, to keep the Great Vigil, and to commit her into the arms of a loving God who can restore her consciousness, but not on this earth. In his Kingdom, every tear will be wiped dry.

Good-bye Terri. May you finally find peace.

Monday, March 21, 2005

A Plea For Terri Schiavo - Please Let Her Go

I have very mixed emotions about writing anything concerning the Terri Schiavo case. First of all, I believe there are few villains here, but if I had to pick anyone for that role, it would be the Republicans in Congress. I think there are some members of Congress who voted to have the feeding tube reinserted who honestly are well intentioned. But I think a lot of the Republican members of Congress got caught red handed because of the discovery of that cynical memo labeling it clearly as a great political issue that would excite their base. For some of them, everything is about exciting their Luddite and moronic right wing base.

The base is probably also pretty villainous, not because they aren’t well intentioned but because they are willfully stupid, anti-scientific, and adamantly ideological.

Terri’s parent, the Schindlers, her brother and sister are not in this category. Regardless of the ill feeling between them and her husband, they are loving family members who just can’t let go of their beloved daughter and sister. Believe me, I sympathize with them mightily.

About eleven years ago, my husband had cancer and had to go to the hospital for a bone marrow transplant. Although this wasn’t major surgery, there were risks involved. The biggest risk, of course, wasn’t from the bone marrow transplant itself but from the possibility that his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma would not respond to the treatment. Nevertheless, with any surgery there are dangers, and so my husband filled out a living will.

The night before the surgery, he also called me into the living room and made his wishes known, not just to me, but to our best friend as well. He wanted to make absolutely sure that I would have a witness should somebody need to make a decision to pull the plug. He did not want extraordinary measures or indefinite life support. And he wanted no ambiguity just in case well meaning family tried to dispute this decision.

Actually, I was the well-meaning family that he didn’t really trust to carry out this wish. Without our best friend, Darryl, as a witness I would never have had the courage or unselfishness to honor his request. Fortunately, we never had to face this situation. Dan came through the surgery fine. And every day I thank God that he is still cancer free.

But because of this experience, I understand the Schlinders. I would never condemn them for their refusal to give up on their little girl. Just like them, I would have fought against all reason to deny the inevitability of my loved one’s demise.

But the sad truth is that their little girl is gone.

From everything I have read about persistent vegetative states, Terri Schiavo no longer has a consciousness. Her eyes can wander around a room. Her face can make a series of grimaces that appear to be smiles or expressions, but they are really just muscle twitches, tics. Terri Shiavo’s brain is dead. The hardwiring is gone and there is no conscious awareness. Put bluntly, she doesn’t live there any more.

In watching this, what strikes me as truly sad, as a religious person, is that if one believes in a soul and an afterlife, when does somebody finally get the courage to release her spirit so that it can move on?

There’s a science fiction/fantasy novel by author Katherine Kurtz that has an episode where an occultist calls the spirit of a dead person back into his rotting body to gain knowledge that only that spirit could impart to the greedy and selfish magician.

Although this is obviously fiction – and science fiction/fantasy at that – the situation reminds me of what is now taking place before the world’s eyes. People who claim to be deeply devout are forcing the spirit of a brain dead woman to stay within a damaged body that no longer has a consciousness, rather than letting it move on to heaven, in order to make a political point for their cause.

Their cause may be just, but this is the wrong situation to press it. If you truly love Terri and you truly believe in an afterlife, please let Terri’s soul move on now.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Evolution of a Theory In a Red State

The first time I ever heard a Fundamentalist Christian say evolution was just a theory, not a fact, I wanted to hit my head against the wall so that when I stopped, the dull ache in my head would at least go away.

I couldn't decide whether he was being deliberately obtuse or really was that ignorant. I think, in some cases, the ignorance is genuine. But some of the people who make that confident remark in defense of creationism know what they are doing: manipulating the language.

There's a great article in today's Washington Post, by Steve Olson, author of the book Evolution In Hawaii, that begins with an excellent definition of the term "theory." Actually two definitions of it, the layman's term and the scientist's term.

I've given these two definitions many times myself, including several times on message boards at Beliefnet (sorry, it was so long ago that trying to get you a link would be nearly impossible).

Basically, as Olson and others, including me, have pointed out, the term "theory" does double duty and has two separate meanings that are almost at odds with each other.

When a layman uses the term "theory," he usually means an opinion or a hunch, not something factual. For example, he'll say, I have a theory as to why the new baseball team in Washington is going to be so popular. They haven't had a team of their own in so many years.

Probably it's a good theory. But unless this guy's a pollster and took a survey, it's just his own opinion, just his theory.

But when a scientist talks about a theory, whether it's Einstein's theory of relativity, or Darwin's theory of evolution, it's a lot more than mere conjecture. It's an observation based on the accumulation of a great deal of scientific evidence from the field. It's something that has been laboratory tested and is accepted as factual.

When a scientist talks about a hunch or opinion, he would use the term hypothesis. So, he might start with a hunch, a hypothesis that if you throw an apple in the air, it will always come down and hit you in the head because of gravity. He will then test his hypothesis over and over again in a laboratory and come up with the theory of gravitation.

Only after a hypothesis has been tested many times, by many different scientists, will it be accepted as a scientific theory. So, it has the accumulated weight of many minds in the field vouching for its accuracy as the best theory for explaining all the evidence.

After describing all this much more clearly than I just did, Olsen does a surprising turn. He says that hypotheses such as creationism and intelligent design should be discussed in schools alongside the theory of evolution.

As Olson claims, and I agree, neither creationism nor intelligent design should be taught as actual science or as accepted mainstream scientific alternatives to the theory of evolution because they are not that. But there does need to be debate between biologists who understand the theory of evolution and those theologians who oppose it. As Olson points out, whenever science has debated and defended its position, it has acquitted itself well and come out ahead.

High schools should have, not only hard science classes where evolution is taught, but philosophy of science or history of science classes where alternative theories can be explained and debated. That probably won't make the Fundamentalists happy, but it will shed more light on the debate for ordinary laymen like you and me.

Another thing that scientists need to do (Olson doesn't mention this; it's my own opinion) if they are going to stop the endless attacks on science in red states, is to explain the importance of accepting the theory of evolution and give some pracitical applications of evolutionary theory.

One very practical application, for example, is in the medical field. If we don't understand evolution, natural selection and the ability of living organisms to adapt and pass on the traits that are most likely to ensure their survival, we will not be able to understand why it's important not to over prescribe antibiotics for viruses. These powerful medicines don't work on viruses, but for years doctors prescribed them to patients thinking they would do little harm. But the harm they did was to cause bacteria to mutate - or evolve into deadlier strains with greatly increased resistance to these drugs.

Another reason to understand evolution is because then we can appreciate how difficult it has been to discover a vaccine for HIV/AIDS. The virus that causes this deadly disease mutates so rapidly and adapts so efficiently that it's been impossible to come up with an effective vaccine.

Doctors need to understand these things. So do ordinary, educated laypeople. And if children from Kansas are forbidden to learn evolution in school, it's going to eventually put that state's medical profession at risk. I don't know about anybody else, but I don't want a doctor who doesn't understand basic, mainstream science. Even if that means I have to avoid Christian doctors from red states. And that might be very much what's the matter with Kansas.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

First, Don't Think About Sheep

Everybody knows that if you tell someone not to think about sheep leaping over a fence, that’s all he will be able to think about. Day and night. His mind will obsessively ruminate on nothing but the sheep jumping over the fence.

So two years after The Da Vinci Code hit the market and became a bestseller, a Roman Catholic Cardinal is telling the faithful that they shouldn’t buy the book. Cardinal Tarcisisio Bertone, Archbishop of Genoa and former member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (AKA the Inquisition), today announced that nobody, and especially not Catholics, should read this book.

Honest to God, did author Dan Brown pay him for this kind of publicity? What? Are the book’s sales finally sagging? Or is this just an attempt to gin up some controversy for the soon to be released film starring Tom Hanks and directed by Ron Howard? After all, look what controversy did for Mel Gibson and his film, The Passion.

Two years after the The Da Vinci Code hit the bestseller list and sold eighteen million copies, the Vatican decides to weigh in that people shouldn’t read it? I’d say it’s too late to slam that barn door shut now.

Okay, the Archbishop has a good point. There are people reading this book who believe the central thesis that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and they had offspring. Of course, no reputable historian or theologian buys that, not even the Jesus Seminar.

There’s been a cottage industry for years, fueled by nonfiction tomes like Holy Blood, Holy Grail and other conspiracy books that accuse the Vatican of covering up Jesus’ marriage and his siring of children. The problem is none of them have been as spectacularly successful as The Da Vinci Code. The Da Vinci Code is a fast paced thriller novel. But does it really need to be said that it is fiction?

Apparently so, given how many people have stated they actually believe it’s true. All I can say is that most Americans also still believe Saddam Hussein is linked to al Queda and that he was the one who attacked America on September 11, 2001. Americans are good-hearted, generous people. But frankly, they’re also misinformed, gullible, and sometimes downright dumb as dirt. This would be one of those times.

No, Jesus didn’t marry Mary Magdalene, No, they didn’t have children. Get over it.

Unfortunately, the good Archbishop is doing more to spread publicity for the book and movie. All he’s doing is guaranteeing more readers for the book he thinks nobody should read. Someday opponents of books and movies will learn that the best way they can combat them is by simply ignoring them. But probably not any time soon.

Ironically, the one person who does realize this is Bernardo Estrada, a New Testament scholar in Rome and a member of Opus Dei.

Opus Dei is a controversial, conservative Catholic organization with Vatican ties. They didn’t fare too well in Dan Brown’s book. For the three people left who still haven’t read the novel, the villain, a whacked out religious fanatic who tries to surpress the truth by attempting to murder the protagonists, is an Opus Dei member given to extreme self-flagellation.

But despite that negative portrayal of the organization of which he is a member, Estrada proves to be the only sane and non-whacked out participant in this discussion. Here’s the money quote about his reaction in today's Washington Post:


"Scandal is what such books are all about," said Bernardo Estrada, a teacher of the New Testament in Rome and a member of Opus Dei, a worldwide Catholic lay organization with strong Vatican connections. Opus Dei is one of the villains in "The Da Vinci Code." It is portrayed trying to suppress knowledge that Jesus left a lineage on Earth and meant for Mary Magdalene to be head of the church. "It's an attack on the church as obscurantist, and Opus Dei is just a vehicle for the attack," he said.

But Estrada doesn't think "The Da Vinci Code" ought to be banned. Rather, priests need to read it so they can talk about it. "Anyone with a historical and religious base can refute it. I rather liked it, it's a good thriller," he said.”


I rather liked it too. But that doesn’t mean I believed it. It’s a novel. It’s fiction. And I think the Vatican has more important things to do than chase after fictional heretics. It can, for example, clean out the pedophiles still abusing kids in the churches. That’s, unfortunately, still a fact.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

J'Accuse, Virginia

Several years ago, I volunteered with a group that protested the death penalty in Virginia by meeting at an old, historic church cemetery to mark each execution. At the time, it felt to me like we were meeting every week. In fact, we were. There were eleven executions in the great State of Virginia that year.

In fact, only Texas executes more people than Virginia each year. But it's not for lack of trying. Texas is a larger state with a bigger death row population. However, Virginia works hard to be number two.

It works so hard at it that it has something called the “21 Day Rule.” Even by the most gung ho pro-death penalty standards, the 21 Day Rule is a pretty bizarre regulation. After twenty one days, somebody convicted of a capital offense can no longer appeal, even if brand new evidence is discovered that proves his or her innocence. In fact, a former attorney general, who ran unsuccessfully for governor, Mary Sue Terry, once famously said, “evidence of innocence is irrelevant,” in answer to an appeal to introduce new evidence from a prisoner sentenced to death. And she was the Democratic candidate, no less.

Parts of the 21 Day Rule were modified to allow newly discovered DNA evidence to be admitted on appeal even after twenty one days. But, as Virginians Against the Death Penalty points out, newly discovered DNA evidence still seldom leads to exoneration. In most cases, it's more mundane types of evidence, including last-minute confessions by the real killer, that frees wrongly convicted people. But even an eleventh hour confession by the actual guilty party is still not admissable for an appeal in Virginia after twenty one days have passed.

So, there’s a man, who, according to this report by Donna St. George, “could be dead by this summer.”

But he has a surprising champion. Ken Starr!

Yes, that one. Kenneth Starr the overzealous Special Investigator who tried to get Bill Clinton impeached.

Starr’s firm, Kirkland & Ellis took on the case of Robin Lovitt as a pro bono project.

The facts of the case are simple. On the night of November 18, 1998, Lovitt, an addict who had been in trouble with the law before but was trying to clean up his act, had just gotten out of detox. But he had a bad relapse. He sold his TV set for $20 and bought two rocks of crack and smoked them with some friends. He then made his way to a pool hall, in Arlington, where he once worked. This was at about 3 a.m. After being fed by his old friend, the night manager, Clayton Dicks, Lovitt claimed that he stopped in the restroom. When he came out, he saw Dicks fighting with another man and ducked back into the restroom to avoid getting involved in the fight. When he ventured out again, the place was empty and Dicks was dead. Fearing he would be blamed, not unreasonable given his previous record and the fact that he had just gotten out of detox the day before, Lovitt ran. Unfortunately, before he did, he grabbed a drawer full of money from the cash register.

At his trial, of course, the police testified that Lovitt had come to the pool hall to steal the money in the first place. Let’s face it, that wasn’t an unreasonable assumption either. The police also testified that their hunch was that when the victim, Dicks, confronted Lovitt stealing, Lovitt grabbed a pair of scissors from the bar and stabbed him six times.

Two eyewitnesses testified that they were “pretty sure” Lovitt was the assailant. A cellmate also claimed that Lovitt had confessed. And the cash register drawer was found in Lovitt’s cousin’s house. The circumstantial evidence looked pretty bad for Lovitt.

After two hours of deliberation, the jury found him guilty and later recommended the death penalty.

With all this evidence against Lovitt, why is a legal luminary like Ken Starr involved?

Because crucial evidence that could exonerate Lovitt was destroyed. In May 2001, a court clerk destroyed the scissors that are alleged to be the murder weapon, despite the warnings of two fellow clerks. Virtually all the physical evidence was also destroyed at time by that same clerk.

Here’s what Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project in New York told the Washington Post writer Donna St George, “No one ever took apart the scissors, and we know from many other cases that criminalist often uncover important blood evidence in the screws or joints of scissors.”

DNA technology has gotten more sophisticated since Lovitt’s 1999 trial. According to Neufeld, “to proceed with an execution in spite of missing evidence constitutes a gross injustice.”

Yet in the spirit of Mary Sue Terry, Arlington county prosecutors have argued successfully that the destruction of evidence was a mistake and that there was no proof of “bad faith.”

Ok, perhaps not bad faith, and maybe not even true maliciousness. But at the very least, destroying evidence of a death row case in 2001, before the appeals process had run its course, was gross incompetence. Call me crazy here; but, civil service rules notwithstanding, this should be a firing offense. Both the clerk and the prosecutor who defended this action should be disciplined and dismissed.

Ken Starr is not an opponent of the death penalty. But he is troubled by the mistakes and the holes in this case. Here's what he said:

“A compassionate and decent society has to ensure that a death penalty regime is as error-free as humanly possible and as fair as humanly possible.”

Virginia has not done that by a long shot. It's not holding to Ken Starr's standard of justice. Unfortunately, it's holding to the standard of Mary Sue Terry, one of the last members of the old and impossibly corrupt Byrd Machine.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

The Scandal That Keeps Giving

The federal investigation into Republican uber lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, is the scandal that just keeps giving.

Reporter Susan Schmidt, in today's Washington Post, documents the long, circuitous machinations of Abramoff and his associate, Mike Scanlon, as they collected money from some Indian tribes to promote their casino interests in Congress at the expense of other, smaller tribes. And worse, to do so, they used the anti-gambling Christian Right to write the letters, lean on elected officials, even up to the White House, and to unwittingly do their dirty work.

It seems that a small, impoverished tribe, the Jena Band of Choctaws, a group of about 200 Native Americans spread out across rural Louisiana, wanted to set up a casino in Vinton, Louisiana, near the Texas border. They are a pretty modest group. They didn't win federal recognition as a tribe until 1995; and so they don't even own a reservation. But they knew that setting up their own casino could improve the tribe's fortunes, as gambling had for so many other Native American tribes.

The obstacle they encountered, which brought down on them the opposition of the heavy guns in the Republican Party and the Christian Right, was that the location they picked for their casino, and reservation, was only an hour ride from a similar casino in Kinder, Louisiana, already being operated by a rival tribe, the Coushatta.

The Coushatta, a powerful, wealthy, and well-connected tribe, ran a highly profitable operation. They were determined to protect their business from the competition; and they had deep pockets and friends in high places, namely Abramoff. Of course, they bought that friendship for $32 million over a three year period.

Jack Abramoff is the far sighted Republican operative who recognized how lucrative Indian support could be for Republicans, and himself, and was the one who approached tribal leaders to convince them that they needed to expand their traditional support of Democrats to the new conservative Republican majority in Congress.

He was wildly successful at it, not a mean trick considering how many of these newly minted conservative Republican congressmen were actually opposed to gambling and drew their support from the morals crowd.

Not to worry, Abramoff somehow even managed to snare the Christian Right in his smarmy plans. By the time the federal investigation finishes on this one, nobody's going to emerge looking like a moral paragon.

Abramoff encouraged the Coushattas to contribute $225,00 to the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy (CREA), founded by Gale Norton, before she became Secretary of the Department of the Interior in 2000. Most real environmentalists regard CREA as a Republican attempt to put a positive spin on mining interests out west. Norton was ultimately the official who had to make the decision on whether the Jena Band could operate their casino in Vinton. To her credit, Interior ultimately did approve their casino plan, but not before a lot of convoluted lobbying went on and a lot of money passed hands, enriching all kinds of conservative candidates and Christian Right groups.

In addition to getting the support of key conservative lawmakers, such as Tom DeLay, Majority Leader in Congress; Dennis Hastert, Speaker of the House; and Roy Blunt, of Montana, who is Majority Whip in the House, Abramoff also managed to enlist the support of Focus on the Family founder, James Dobson, and Ralph Reed to lobby against the Jenas.

Indeed, Reed received $4 million from Abramoff to fight the expansion of gambling in Louisiana. Both Reed and Dobson swear they didn't know the money they received from Abramoff actually came from gambling interests. But there were many advantages to opposing the gambling interests of the Jenas while supporting it for the Coushattas. Here's the money quote from Schmidt's article:

"Meantime, the spoils of the lobbying war have been bountiful.

Tribal money bolstered the campaign coffers of many members of Congress. Dobson had the opportunity to flex grass-roots muscle that he would later use to mobilize evangelicals for Bush's reelection. Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition, quietly received as much as $4 million to whip up public sentiment against expansion of gambling in Louisiana and Texas. Reed's efforts, in turn, boosted support for a congressman from Louisiana who was elected last year to the U.S. Senate.

Abramoff profited, as well. He and Michael Scanlon, the public affairs executive he recommended to the tribe, were paid $32 million over three years by the Coushattas."

For that money, the Christian groups, and the conservative lawmakers, wrote letters and lobbied both the White House and Gale Norton, and brought all the pressure they could bear to getting a ruling against granting casino rights to the Jenas. They did this mostly on the grounds that they were against the expansion of gambling, not because they directly supported the Coushatta's casino. Indeed, Reed and Dobson probably had no idea that, by opposing the Jenas, they were aiding another gaming interest. Many of the elected officials, however, probably did know what they were doing because they had taken plenty of money into their campaign coffers from the Coushatta tribe. Norton's deputy, at Interior, J. Steven Griles, was heavily involved in aiding Abramoff. He's since resigned from Interior and gone back to private consulting. But while he served as deputy, he acted as a go between to try to drum up support for Abramoff and the Coushattas both at Interior and in the White House. His relationship with the head of CREA, Italia Federici, is also under investigation.

The first casino proposal by the Jenas was turned down, but they came back with a second proposal for a site in Logansport, Louisiana. The second proposal won support from career civil service officials at Interior and finally the Inspector General, Michael G. Rossetti openly clashed with Griles, stating that he did not want Secretary Norton's decision making process to be influenced by "outside people." I think that means people like Griles, Federici, and Abramoff.

The Jenas, no dummies, also learned an important civics lesson in the way the American system really works. They went out and hired another big lobbying firm, Patton Boggs, to fight for them and that's how they ended up with the second proposal for Logansport finally succeeding.

The story doesn't have a happy ending for the plucky underdog, however, It seems that, although the Jenas had the support of former Republican Governor of Louisiana, Mike Foster, when he left office, he dumped the whole state approval process in the lap of the new governor , Democrat Kathleen Babineaux Blanco. Now, the whole thing is stalled and the Jena still don't have a casino.

This whole thing stinks of big money, political cronyism, and hypocrisy. Here you have conservatives who tell their supporters they are opposed to the expansion of gambling. They run on anti-gambling platforms and then they take money hand over fist from gambling interests. Whether its Tom DeLay killing a bill that would curtail gambling interests, or Jack Abramoff enlisting Christian groups to write letters to lobby against granting a casino to a small tribe, all in the interests, not of curtailing gambling, but of protecting a larger and more powerful tribe from competition, the corruption in big money Republican circles is starting to stink like three day old fish.

This could be their Dan Rostenkowski moment.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Oh, The Ethical Challenges of Tom DeLay

This report from today's Washington Post has to add to the woes of ethics challenged Tom DeLay.

According to the article, the peripatic House leader accepted a junket to England from the highly successful but equally ethics challenged Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The trip was paid for with funds from a non profit organization called the National Center for Public Policy Research, which Abramoff heads. The purpose of the trip was listed in federal ethics disclosure forms as "educational". While in England, DeLay did meet with Margaret Thatcher to discuss conservative policies. But he also played golf at St. Andrew's golf course, where Abramoff is a member.

It's not unusual for members of Congress to combine business and pleasure on these overseas junkets and virtually all congressmen take them. Often real work and study do go on, but so do shopping trips and entertaining on the side.

Personally, I'm not a Puritan and if hardworking folks kick back a little in the evening while on an official business trip, it doesn't offend me (and really, they all are hardworking; whether you love or hate their politics, these people spend twelve hours a day working). As long as they actually conduct the official business they say they are over there to do, there's no reason to deny them some personal, recreational time. Especially since they usually take these trips when Congress is not in session, so they are really on their own time. And the taxpayer isn't funding it. The big issue, though, is who is funding it and whether their generous financing raises questions of conflict of interest.

The problem, for DeLay, isn't the trip per se. It appears that he did indeed have some meetings with British conservatives to discuss the Thatcher Administration and her policies and reforms in the eighties. So, yes he did conduct official, educational business as listed on his disclosure form.

Where DeLay runs into trouble is over who actually funded the trip. Although it was paid for by the National Center for Public Policy Research, the question is where that organization originally got the funds they used to pay for DeLay's trip.

It turns out they got the money from two gambling groups, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, which runs profitable gambling casinos, and eLottery, a Connecticut firm that provides Internet services to state lotteries. They each coughed up $25,000 to the National Center for Public Policy Research for the DeLay trip to England.

In addition to the fact that the funding source for the trip was most likely inappropriate, the timing is turning out to be an embarrassment too. It seems that two weeks after the trip, DeLay, along with 43 Republicans and 114 Democrats, helped kill the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act. This bill was opposed by both the groups that funded his trip.

Although the whole thing is now under investigation, it's going to be difficult to actually make a case that DeLay violated either the law or any ethics regulations, although he came right up to the line on both.

Any case for ethics violation hinges on whether DeLay actually knew, or could reasonably be expected to know, who truly funded his trip. As his staff claims, the National Center for Public Policy Research claims they paid for it. How, they ask, can they be expected to know that the funding really came from the two other groups that promote gambling interests rather than the Center?

They've got a point. From the outside, and with anybody other than DeLay, you would have to give the elected official the benefit of the doubt. In addition to DeLay claiming that he didn't know the funding came from the two gambling groups, both those groups also claim they didn't know the money they gave to the National Center for for Public Policy Research went to fund DeLay's trip. So that leaves only Abramoff and his group holding the bag for this. At worst, all you could prove is that Abramoff was guilty of money laundering to pay for the DeLay trip. Both the other principals are denying any knowledge of who paid what to whom with regard to the the trip.

Nevertheless, this has got to hurt DeLay politically. Even if the man doesn't go to jail, where he actually belongs, voters probably are going to view this with a jaundiced eye. After all, a pattern is emerging that DeLay is the force behind illegal funding and political activity associated with the Texas redistricting effort last year. All the groups being investigated for illegal activity link back to him. Now, he's caught accepting money from gambling interests to go on expensive junkets overseas. And, although he portrays himself as a long-term opponenet of the expansion of gambling interests, he helps kill a bill that would have curtailed gambling. This is a bill that true opponents of gambling supported and that the gaming industry opposed. At very least, even if you want to give this guy the benefit of the doubt on everything else, he's clearly a hypocrite.

Don't forget, a major portion of DeLay's support comes from the morals crowd down in Texas. And most of them abhor gambling. Somehow, I don't believe it's wishful thinking to believe that all this is bound to catch up with him and take its toll.

A smart, centrist Texas Democrat could go far with this issue.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Weather Man Blues

Most people curse the weather man when it rains on their picnic unexpectedly or when he assures them that it's going to be a beautiful, sunny day and they wake up to snow and ice on the ground and a miserable morning rush hour or, worse, a ruined weekend. But they don't get upset when the predicted snow fails to arrive and they're greeted by bright sun instead. Indeed, then they're as gleeful as children who learn the dreaded math test has been canceled.

Not me.

I woke up expecting to spend my day inside, wrapped in a soft white cocoon of inclement weather and plans to clean my house, work on my blog, and work on some other writing. Instead, the bright sun beckons like a sultry lover with a seductive smile. You know you shouldn't succumb to him. That you should stay with your original plans even though they're as dull as the good, steady, cheerful and hardworking mate that you really love but whose sameness you know too well.

Instead of cleaning the grout and working on new links, now a bright, beautiful day crooks its finger and beckons me on. There are malls to visit, shops to see, Borders bookstore to meander through, and Starbucks to sit in for hours with a steaming cup of cappucino and a good book, while chores and obligations go neglected. Because a bright, beautiful day doesn't come along all the time, you know.

Maybe I'm just more susceptible than most people to temptation. But, also, maybe the snow and rain will come tomorrow and I can do the work at home then. But I don't know. Maybe tomorrow will be just as nice as today and I'll still want to go out and play. And maybe the commute that I so cleverly planned to miss today will be just as miserable on Monday.

Monday was supposed to be nice and sunny. Now, who knows? And that's the problem when weather men get it wrong. Isn't life uncertain enough?

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Baghdad Burning: New Link Added to My Blogroll

I just added a new link to my blogroll. It's to Baghdad Burning. Probably most denizens of the blogosphere already know about this incredible site. It's on just about every blogroll of every site that I visit and with good reason.

My God, can this young woman write. She makes me want to weep for what the Iraqis are going through right now. I couldn't imagine waking up to the sounds of explosions, gunfire, and peoples' cries on an almost daily basis.

Her writing is so vivid, even something as simple as describing the way that she can tell how the occupation is going in Basr by which vegetables are available at her neighborhood vegetable stand. It reminds me that when I first moved to the Washington, DC area people told me that I would be able to tell whenever the U.S. was going to mobilize troops to send them to a war because the Pentagon parking lot would be filled late at night. And the pizza delivery people always know when there's a crisis because they're delivering those late night pizzas while the military burns the midnight oil and plots their war strategies.

What was chilling, to me, was that Riverbend confirmed my gut feeling about the so called free elections in Iraq. It's not just the Sunni who have reason to fear. As I wrote, back in February, right after the elections, the religious factions are in the ascendancy. Iraq was once a secular Arab country. Now, the women are all veiled. Before our invasion, the women wore western-style clothing and had their hair styled in salons. They held jobs, went to universities, and were articulate and engaged in the politics and affairs of their country. And they expressed fears that if Hussein was deposed, the Islamic fundamentalists would drive them back into their homes and back into wearing veils.

Yes, Saddam Hussein was a tyrant. I know that; but what's coming up next is not much better, at least for women and Sunnis.

This is something the mainstream press doesn't report. To listen to our corrupt reporters, the election was a milestone. Even those who opposed our going to Iraq, like Paul Krugman, spoke in hushed and humbled tones about the election. Krugman isn't corrupt, but I think he felt chastened. After all, how do you wish for an election to fail? How do you just dismiss the signs of democracy or begrudge people a vote?

The wingnuts out there were already accusing progressives of doing just that and being mean spirited, elitist and anti-democracy. And so liberals were afraid to give the right wing more ammunition. So they bowed their heads and kept their mouths shut and ignored the obvious.

The women are in veils. The Sunnis are being silenced. And now, there is proof.

Evangelicals for the Environment?

This article, from the New York Times, truly amazed me. I still have serious doubts about how far across the aisle Evangelicals and various progressive groups, such as environmentalists, anti-poverty activists and human rights activists can work together.

I haven't yet read the Reverend Jim Wallis' book The Politics of God: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Just Doesn't Get It. The early reviews are good and I'm looking forward to curling up some cold night, in a warm room, with this book. Until I do, I have to withhold judgment out of simple fairness. But I do know that Rev. Wallis is a respected progressive Evangelical. And I've long admired his magazine, Sojourners.

This New York Times article sounds like exactly the type of cause he's talking about, where people of faith, regardless of whether they consider themselves "right" or "left" can come together to solve a serious issue. According to the article, 100 Evangelicals, many of them scientists, have banded together to encourage Congress to take action on global warming. As the leaders point out, they've long lobbied Congress to take action on "behavioral sins" (their opinion, not mine) such as legislating against abortion. So, they should equally encourage legislative leaders to take action on global warming, which is an issue of stewardship of God's creation that has been entrusted to us by our Creator.

Considering how much of the right, with encouragement from the business community, has been in denial about global warming, including Andrew Sullivan, a conservative who is usually better than that, this article is both startling and hopeful.

If the environment concerns you more than ideology does, this has got to give you a reason to hope too.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Happy International Women's Day

March 8th is International Women's Day, a holiday celebrated all over the world. Go here for a history of this day and why it's important to remember it.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Democrats Who Fly Under The Radar

There's been a lot of turmoil today over at Daily Kos about Senator Joe Lieberman, who seems to be infuriating the loony left because of a report in today's New York Times that he's one of the centrists willing to cut a deal with Republicans on Social Security.

But I'm amazed that Lieberman is drawing all the fire here, while other far more conservative Democrats are being virtually ignored by the blogosphere. Maybe I've got a different perspective because, instead of reading just the New York Times report, I saw yesterday's Washington Post, which also ran a piece on centrist Democrats looking to deal with Republicans to pass Social Security reform legislation. In yesterday's Post, Lieberman's name wasn't even mentioned in the mix.

They named Senators Ben Nelson, of Nebraska; Max Baucus, of Montana; and Mary Landrieu, of Louisiana as moderates looking to work across the aisle. Even then, it's by no means a done deal. This is all speculation. Republicans are looking for any bi-partisan cover for Social Security reform so they don't get their balls cut off by angry constituents when they get home from Congress. To say that Social Security reform is not going well for them is a definite understatement.

That's why I'm surprised that, in the blogosphere, Nelson, Baucus and Landrieu are flying under the radar while so-called Democratic activists are reading the riot act to old Joe. And they are practically accusing Lieberman of being a Republican wolf in sheep's clothing. But, I wish they'd define Democrat for me?

You see, I ran a quick check of all of these senators' AFL-CIO COPE ratings. That's the survey of how often they vote right on union issues. And unions define their issues pretty broadly, not just bread and butter issues for their own members. A high COPE rating is a pretty good indication of how liberal a politician is overall. Here are the numbers for the last year available, 2003:

2003 Rating Lifetime Rating

Ben Nelson, of Nebraska: 62% 69%

Max Baucus, of Montana 62% 74%

Mary Landrieu 77% 74%

Joseph Lieberaman 100% 84%

As you can see, Lieberman has a pretty good COPE rating. To put it in perspective, lots of conservative Republicans rank about 18% or less. So none of these moderates are actuallly doing that shabbily, at least, as far as the AFL-CIO is concerned. But Lieberman's COPE rating is certainly highest of these so-called moderate Democrats. And they're not catching any flack or being called turn coats. Furthermore, Lieberman was one of the 42 Democratic senators who signed a letter opposing Social Security privatization. He has said, every time asked, that he opposes the President's plan to privatize Social Security accounts. So what gives here?

I think Joe is their scapegoat because they actually don't like his stand on Iraq and the Middle East. I don't either. But this is about Social Security. And I think we need to keep the pressure on any and all the moderates that are expressing interest in compromising with Republicans not furthering other agendas.

As far as some Social Security reform, there are funding problems that will need fixing. Even Barbara Boxer admitted this on television this Sunday. However, like most of the Democrats, she won't even discuss any reform until the Republicans get privatization off the table.

Most Democrats agree that there is a funding problem. But they vehemently deny there's a crisis. There isn't, by the way. They all believe that some modest reforms could fix the system. Lieberman may be more likely than a lot of them to work across the aisle for a forge a deal but he's hardly the sell out that some of the more excitable bloggers and commentators are making him out to be.

That said, I do think they're right to oppose any Democrat, including Lieberman, helping the Republicans out here. Whatever I think of some of their ulterior motives for singling Joe Lieberman out, their main point about not compromising with the Republicans on this issue is impeccibly correct.

Social Security is the Democrats' defining issue. It cuts to the core of who we are. And it's also good strategy to oppose any Republican plan that includes privatization, which both Chuck Hagel's and Lindsey Graham's alternative plans do.

Besides the fact that we shouldn't help them off the hot seat, championing Social Security defines us to all those voters who in 2004 claimed they didn't know what we stood for. If we go wishy washy on this, they'll still wonder why they should vote for us. If we are seen as fighting for their rights and benefits, it gives them a reason to consider coming back to the Democrats.

Also, we shouldn't forget recent history and how the Republicans stuck it to us back in the early nineties, when the Clinton administration tried to get health care reform passed. Not one Republican moderate would cross the aisle to even try to compromise or cut a deal to get that passed. They told their Democratic colleagues that their leadership had warned them off this one. Rather than work for much needed health care reform, it was the Republican moderates who ensured that the American public would be denied much needed health care relief. And our country is still suffering because of this. Medical costs are soaring, insurance companies and HMOs are still gouging us at excessive rates for premiums and failing to deliver adequate service. But killing a good health care plan was effective politics. It's what swept them into power in the mid-term elections in 1994.

So, there is absolutely no reason for Democrats to come to the Republican rescue now. They are sinking like a stone under the weight of an unpopular and dubious reform. It is to the Democrats' advantage to be seen opposing it and fighting to save Social Security benefits.

The difference, however, between us and them is that in order to make political hay, they held firm to deny Americans much needed health care reform that actually would have benefitted both our economy and ordinary citizens. We, on the other hand, should hold firm not only because it's smart political strategy, but because it would be saving one of the most successful social programs the world has ever known. This is a program that has saved senior citizens from poverty and brought the assurance of a decent standard of living to all who retire. Folks, we are on the side of angels here. The last thing we need is for the public to see any of us trying to cut a deal with devil on Social Security reform.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

So That We Never Forget

This from Daily Kos is too touching for words. I promised, in a comment, to post link to it. So here it is.

Plus my reply, which was on the Daily Kos comment thread that went with the above linked post:

"This story was so incredibly touching. Thank you for sharing it with us. And if I may, I would like also like to share a memory

My father came to America from Poland as a young boy of twelve. When he grew up, he was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II and returned, as a GI, to Europe. His unit was one of the first American troops to march into one of the concentration camps. It wasn't Auschwitz or Dachau or any of the larger, more notorious camps. But it was still bad enough to haunt him even to this day and he's 92 years old.

He was so conflicted. On the one hand, he was the American hero who marched in to liberate these concentration camp victims. But on the other hand, he like them was a Jew. And there but for fortune, it could have been him on the other side as the victim.

He always taught me that it wasn't the German people who killed the Jews and so many others. It was hatred. It was Nazism, it was ideology.

Once when I was sixteen and we were traveling down South, my father pulled our car over to the side of the road on I-95 in North Carolina. There was a sign in a field that pictured a hooded Klansmen on a horse that was rearing up on its hind legs. The sign proclaimed, "You are in Klan Country now."

My father pointed at that sign and said, "that is what killed the Jews, the gypsies, the liberals in Europe and the now the blacks in America. That is your true enemy. Hatred, wherever it is and whoever preaches it."

That's why I still fight it whenever I can. And why, when I'm finished here, I'm posting a link to this from my own blog."
And so, I have posted that link. It's important. Wherever there is hatred, we need to name it, challenge it, fight it.

Friday, March 04, 2005

A Dismal Scientist Speaks Out

The dismal scientist is Paul Krugman, who, besides being a New York Times columnist, is a respected economist that has written over twenty books on the subject and taught at some of the top universities in the country, including Yale, MIT and Stanford. Because Paul Krugman is such a genius at it, I'll let this speak for itself.

The crux of what he is saying is that the once much respected Alan Greenspan spent his political capital by pandering to the current administration. He keeps spinning their line, first about how tax cuts were a desireable thing for the economy and now how Social Security benefits must be sharply reduced to save that same economy from bankruptcy.

I've read some of what Greenspan has said lately in both the Washington Post and the New York Times. After reading each article, I came away with the same reaction. If our economy is in as much trouble because of the deficit, as he claims, why not end the tax breaks, or - heck I know this is the real third rail of Republican orthodoxy - why not even raise taxes?

It seems that before you start cutting benefits from poor or middle class people, you ought to squeeze a little out of the super rich. Oh but that would be - dare I say it - class warfare. And that would be wrong boys and girls.

Anyway, I'm not an economist with credentials up the wazoo like Krugman is, so I was willing to admit that maybe I had missed something in this discussion. But after reading Krugman, who has quite a bio as an economist, I'm happy to say he has the same questions for Greenspan that I do. And, like me, he thinks this is Greenspan's game of three card monte.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Shrub's First Failure

Here's another good article from the New York Times about how the public not only isn't buying Bush's hardsell on Social Security, but now feels that Bush is out of step with the majority of American people. According to this story, the people polled did not share Bush's priorities on Social Security or the deficit.

I have a theory that this is going to be much harder to sell than the tax cuts were. In truth, when Americans were polled, they always said that they were more concerned about a budget deficit than having their taxes cut. Even at the very beginning when the country still had the budget surplus, Americans weren't keen on a tax cut. But, once they got it anyway, it was tough to actually be angry about more money in your pocket. In fact, those of us who were still opposed to the tax cut, were probably motivated by ideology rather than rational self-interest. Not a bad thing.

But most people do balance their ideals with the self-interest. At their best, though, rational self-interest is the key concept, not galloping blind selfishness. So, while people weren't about to get worked up about getting a tax refund, they also weren't rushing out to vote for Bush just based on that, in most places. Of course, there were exceptions. But most of the people who supported tax cuts did so less for personally selfish reasons than for ideological ones. They really do believe in "starving the beast," as Stephen Moore, from the Club for Growth, calls the government. It's not just that they want to keep their money. They really do hate the government. Any government that interferes with guns and the corporate boardroom. Of course, marching into your bedroom or doctor's office or issuing a supoena for your medical records is an entirely different matter. Then, the beast can rear its ugly head.

But, like the tax cuts, privatized Social Security is an ideological issue for those who hate government and don't want anybody to benefit from it because they are trying to make us, not just "starve the beast" but also hate the beast. They want us to believe that government is good for nothing.

But Americans aren't buying it. They believe it is the government's responsibility to guarantee a decent retirement to senior citizens. And that's the reason Bush, while successful at getting his tax cuts, will fail at this.

This involves taking something away from middle-class people that they feel entitled to. Most Americans are not ideological warriors. They are pragmatic. And this is cutting an actual benefit from them. Giving them a tax cut wasn't asking them to make a sacrifice. Yeah, maybe they cared about the deficit, but let's face it, this put something in their pocket, so how mad were they going to get even if they disagreed with the need to do it? They personally benefitted by it. This isn't putting it in their pockets. Instead, it's taking it away.

And most Americans are too savvy to trust something as important as their golden years to the vagaries of the stock market. We're too fresh from witnessing the bursting of the dot.com bubble. Although the market is doing better now, too many people lost too much money too recently to be comfortable with a risky retirement scheme that depends on their investing in that market, which is still a wild rollercoaster ride They already did that with their 401(k)s. Kinda, been there, done that. Not dumb enough to make that mistake again.

Oh yeah, and even Republicans can read polls and know when they shouldn't touch the third rail. This dog ain't gonna hunt.