Sunday, March 19, 2006

Jim Webb for Senate

He's exactly what the Democratic Party needs to woo back, the Reagan Democrats who deserted our party in droves after the Viet Nam War and at the advent of the culture wars. These were the blue collar and lower middle-class Democrats who thought their party was leaving them behind to join the pot-smoking, wine sipping and quiche and brie eating elites. Ok, so that might be an unfair characterization of what was really happening in the Democratic Party. But when the McGovernites took over, with their anti-war rhetoric and affirmative action stance, it seemed to the blue collar, union member, Roman Catholic ethnic groups that had composed the party as part of the Roosevelt coalition that their party was veering off too far to the left.

In the interests of full disclosure, I was a McGovernite and an anti-war activitist at the time. In fact, I was a small-town local leader of an anti-war group. So, I'm not pointing fingers at anybody but myself here. And by the way, if we had to do it all over, I probably would do much the same thing all over again. Because a lot of what we fought for then, in the historic context of the 60s, 70s and early 80s, were actually the right things to do back then. But they did alienate a lot of blue collar allies who were genuinely concerned about national defense and security, cultural mores, and felt that quotas of any sort were harmful to them.

However, the dawn of the 21st Century has seen a sea change and many once-Reagan Democrats are ready to come home. Jim Webb, former Secretary of the Navy in the Reagan Administration, is running for the Senate in Virginia. His Republican opponent, George Allen, was recently described by Stephen Colbert, on the Colbert report, as "dumb as a doorpost." Trust me, that was a spot on observation. The sitting senator from Virginia is both dumb and divisive. When he was governor of Virginia, he once said of Democrats, "I'd like to shove their soft teeth down their whiny, liberal throats."

This is not a man who is going to bring much needed civility back to Congress. Nor is he likely to provide the oversight this country so desperately needs to the White House.

Jim Webb, on the other hand, describes himself as a moderate who is interested in restoring the Constitutional balance of power to Congress. In addition, as a former Marine hero, who has seen combat, his criticism of the Bush Administration's bungling missteps on national security issues is not mere academic theory. He knows the reality on the ground. For a brief interview with him that appeared in lowkell's diary on the March 14th Daily Kos, go here.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Culture of Death - It's Not Who You Think!

Below is a quote by Andrew Sullivan from a March 9 post on his Daily Dish blog
"The Party of Death

In the latest New Yorker, Michael Specter has a positively chilling story on how theoconservatives and Christianists have waged a quiet war against some critical vaccines, especially against Human papillomavirus or HPV. A vaccine exists against this virus that would drastically reduce the numbers of cervix cancer cases. The religious right opposes it as a mandatory childhood vaccination, because it removes a disincentive to having sex:

'Religious conservatives are unapologetic; not only do they believe that mass use of an HPV vaccine or the availability of emergency contraception will encourage adolescents to engage in unacceptable sexual behavior; some have even stated that they would feel similarly about an H.I.V. vaccine, if one became available. 'We would have to look at that closely,' Reginald Finger, an evangelical Christian and a former medical adviser to the conservative political organization Focus on the Family, said. 'With any vaccine for H.I.V., disinhibition' - a medical term for the absence of fear - 'would certainly be a factor, and it is something we will have to pay attention to with a great deal of care.' Finger sits on the Centers for Disease Control's Immunization Committee, which makes those recommendations.'

Specter has a Q and A about the article here. These people would rather people die of AIDS and cancer than do anything to "encourage" sexuality. And they have the cojones to call the Democrats the "party of death."

The more you read and hear about the religious right and the Republican Party, the harder it is to believe that Sullivan is wrong.

To be sure, as a gay, HIV positive male, he has a dog in this race. However for me, as a female of, shall we say, "a certain age," I have no dogs or ponies in any of the major "culture war" races. You can stop research into an HIV or human papillomavirus vaccine or ban abortion and it probably wouldn't affect me personally. But that still wouldn't make it moral or right or decent.

The New York Times, today, has two pieces, here and here, on South Dakota's abortion ban. In the editorial, the Times points out that South Dakota's argument that it is in favor of banning all abortion except to save the life of the mother is a lot of bunk. South Dakota shows no such admirable concern for the life, safety or human dignity of the fetus once it is born and is a fully viable infant. Indeed, the state ranks as fourth worst in its care for poor babies, and one county with a large Lakota Native American population is dead last.

The only thing you can actually say about the Christianists, like militant Islamists, is that they are anti-sex. Always were. Always are. And always will be. It's not about saving lives, it's about telling people who don't share their beliefs how to live theirs. And then forcing them to do it.

I sincerely hope that Sullivan is right and that the U.S., at least, is waking up and that there will be blowback for nonsense like this. If the Supreme Court upholds this law, as the Times points out, other states will follow and abortion will no longer be legal, safe and accessible in most of the country. At that point, it will no longer be possible for moderates of either party to weave and bob around the issue. Once the right to a safe abortion is lost, I think it will take center stage again in a way it hasn't for most moderates and independents for a very long time.

The truth is, abortion has only been important to the most partisan and ideological on both sides of the political spectrum. The vast middle has tuned out and concentrated on issues of security, foreign policy, and the economy. They didn't need to refight the cultural wars and were interested in national security and bread and butter issues. As the Times also points out, there was a lot of complacency here. I had one person who has been blithely voting conservative for years because he's a free trader tell me that he didn't think Ronald Reagan (and others) really meant it about outlawing abortion. This person insisted that he just said it to get elected but would never really let it happen.

Might have been true of Reagan. But not so true of our current president, George Bush. Once that right is gone, so will the complacency be. And with his failing record on national security, his one trump card, there may indeed be a backlash against Republicans in general, including the moderates who let this happen. It was their watch too.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Struggling With Faith on the First Sunday of Lent

I don't know if it's the first Sunday in Lent or what, but Andrew Sullivan has some interesting thoughts on Fundamentalism, biblical scholarship and the loss of faith in his blog today. Scroll about half way down, past his post on "Demogogic Democrats" - obviously I'm not going to agree with that - and something else about dogs, to "When Faith Evaborates."

He links to an article in The WashingtonPost about former Evangelical theologian Bart Ehrman whose biblical scholarship took him from fundamentalism to agnoticism. I plan to get Ehrman's new book, "Misquoting Jesus - The Story of Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why."

Sullivan, in his blog, wrestles with the accumulating facts, discrepancies, and contradictions in the Gospels and how to be a believing Christian in the 21st Century in light of what we know today. It's a brave struggle. Like Ehrman, I pretty much lost my faith - if not in a deity, at least, in the God of the Bible, both Old and New Testament. Or to be theologically correct, in the deity of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.

And yet, and yet, atheism leaves too many logical holes to be convincing too. The very same skepticisim that leads me to a critical questioning of the assertions of scripture, leads me to question equally critically the claims of the materialist reductionists.

How do they know that there wasn't some hand in the creation? How did the Big Bang get us from a soup of inorganic material to life? Spontaneous generation as scientific theory has pretty much been dismissed. Life doesn't normally spring from inorganic matter, so how did we get from a bunch of inorganic chemicals to living, breathing humans? To any organic matter? There's a gap there that's not explainable by materialist theory. And there are other gaps in pure materialism. Things that the heart knows, that are intuitive wisdom and that materialism alone just can't account for.

Yet, that doesn't make the Judeo-Christian view of deity particularly satisfying either. Perhaps it requires not an "either-or", but a "both-and solution."

Anyway, for the first Sunday of Lent, and all the Sundays of Lent, remember that the seventh day, besides being the Sabbath, is also the day to fast from fasting. So, have that Chocolate Mousse pie and raise a glass of wine for me.

And if you're ever in the mid-Atlantic area, or anywhere where you can get to hear Celtic music, go see Iona, a wonderful band that I heard tonight at the Old Brogue in Great Falls, Virginia.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Missouri vs the U.S. Constitution

Never mind what's the matter with Kansas. Its neighbor, Missouri, has gone bonkers. According to this report by John Mills of television station KMOV-TV, a CBS affiliate, the Missouri legislature is considering a bill, House Concurrent Resolution 13, to make Christianity the official religion of Missouri.

In addition to naming Christianity the state's official religion, the bill, sponsored by State Representative David Sater of southwestern Missouri, reads that "a greater power exists and only Chistianity receives justified recognition." The bill also would recognize only "the Christian god" and protect the right of the majority to express itself. It would contain no protection for minority religions.

Wow! First of all, what a monument to both intolerance and theological ignorance. Last I looked, monotheistic religions believe there's only one God. The idea that Muslims and Jews recognize a different God than Christians do is breathtaking stupidity that is not supported by the theology of any major branch of mainline Christianity, including the Roman Catholic Church. Most Christians believe that God is revealed most fully through Jesus Christ. Catholicism also believes that it has received the fullness of faith. And while one can certainly argue with those propositions, they don't suggest that the God of Islam or Judaism is in any sense false.

But theology aside, establishing an official state religion goes against (to be repetitive and obvious) the Establishment clause of the Constitution. This one's so cut and dried that even Harriet Miers would have no trouble ruling against it if she were a Supreme Court justice.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Update on What Bush Knew and When

I thought I had put this story to bed with The New York Times articles I had linked to earlier. But I saw this in today's Washington Post and it's an even more devastating account of what this administration knew and when. Not only do they refuse to acknowledge their true responsibility for screwing up in New Orleans, but they have been caught red handed lying through their teeth about it.

You know, I can't help but think that if all those Republican claims that Clinton was impeached not because he had sex with an intern (which after all is not against any law) but for his lying, what will it take to get these fabricators out of office? They aren't lying about a breach of personal conduct but about the performance of their official duties and to cover up the devastating effects of their failure on thousands of peoples' lives. For God's sake, when is enough too much?

Da Vinci Code Lawsuit

The lawsuit brought by the authors of the 1982 bestseller, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, is a ludicrous stretch. Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh are suing their own publisher, Random House, which also published Dan Brown’s best selling novel, The Da Vinci Code, for breach of copyright.

Their claim is that Brown used their historical speculation as the basis for his book. For some background, what is being referred to is their central thesis that Jesus Christ was married to Mary Magdalene and the couple produced a royal bloodline that once reigned over France as the Merovingian dynasty.

While it’s true that those ideas figure prominently in Brown’s book as the motive for the murder of the museum official who, because he is the guardian of this secret, is found dead in the first chapter, The Da Vinci Code is so much more than that. It is a thriller that takes its protagonists, Robert Langdon, a professor of art and religious symbolism, and Sophie Neveux, the granddaughter of the murder victim and the leading suspect, on a chase across Paris to flee the police and gather evidence to prove her innocence of the crime. It also pits the duo against a shadowy Opus Dei member who is trying to kill Langdon and Neveux to prevent long guarded Church secrets from being uncovered.

There’s no doubt that all the speculation about Jesus, Magdalene and a holy bloodline contributed to the public’s fascination with Brown’s story. But it’s also a heart-stopping thriller with a zillion plot twists that are original to Brown, the novelist.

Brown is not being sued, his publisher is. However, the question is whether he breached the other authors’ copyrighted material. He’s not accused of lifting out verbatim passages from their work. Rather, the accusation is that he misappropriated their ideas for his book.

There are, at least, three separate objections to this accusation. First, and this seems to be the way the legal defense is leaning, published ideas and speculations of this sort become part of the public domain, so this particular claim of copyright privilege is too broad.

That may be true. After all, if nobody could ever build on another’s ideas and speculation, virtually no new ideas could ever be formed since most of what we think of as original work is really old ideas reformulated in new and startling patterns.

But besides the objection that the plaintiffs are overreaching, a second point of objection is that Brown never made a secret that Baigent’s and Leigh’s earlier work formed the basis for his own speculation. Indeed, Brown seemed determined to give Baigent and Leigh all the credit he could at every turn. He lists them in the book’s bibliography. He has one of his characters, Leigh Tebing, quote their book, with attribution. And he mentions the earlier book in an acknowledgement. You would think that a normal person whose book has been off the bestseller list for ten years would be grateful for such a plug.

However, in still a third point, why pick on Brown when others have been working the same waterfront for more years? Indeed there is a virtual cottage industry of books about exactly the same themes that Baigent, Leigh and Henry Lincoln (who is also a co-author of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, but who declined to join the suit) explored in 1982. Why did these writers never sue Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince whose The Templar Revelation covers much the same ground that their own work did and was non-fiction to boot? Or other non-fiction writers, such as Margaret Starbird, author of The Woman With the Alabaster Jar, or Laurence Gardner, who wrote Bloodline of the Holy Grail and other tomes that also explore the royal dynasty left by Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ?

Since all of those are non-fiction books that are actually closer to rivaling Holy Blood, Holy Grail than Dan Brown’s novel, it seems suspicious that just now, with a movie version of The Da Vinci Code coming out, that this should land in court.

However, the ideas in dispute were not even original to Leigh and Baigent. The truth is that speculation about Jesus and Mary Magdalene have been floating around since at least the second century Gnostics. In fact, if I were a clever and ambitious lawyer out for a bit of publicity, here’s the lawsuit I’d be drawing up right now: Baigent and Leigh v. the International Brotherhood of Gnostics and Heretics – Local 666.

With Accountability for Some and Justice for None

In the federal community – that is the community of career civil servants – the buzz is all about reforming the Civil Service. The emphasis is on demanding accountability from low-level federal workers and linking their pay raises and promotions to performance measures to achieve that accountability. All in all, not bad reforms if done properly. The question, though, is how to set up a system that spells out clear standards of performance and then measures workers fairly for meeting them? One of the major agencies spearheading the reforms, the Department of Homeland Security, is having their own problems with the performance and accountability of its own top officials.

Indeed if the chief is supposed to lead by example, these reforms are in deep trouble across the federal government. From Katrina to the mining disaster at Sago, accountability standards have flown out the door as the senior most executives moved aggressively to avoid responsibility for their own poor performance.

As this article in today’s New York Times shows, the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency set up to ensure that safety standards are met at U.S. mines, has been more interested in promoting cooperative relations with mine owners than with protecting workers. Better relationships with the operators trumped worker safety as federal regulators overlooked safety violations and permitted mine operators to pay the lowest amounts allowable for fines, often as low as $460, which is one thousandth of 1 percent of the $110 million profit reported by the owners of the Sago Mine where 12 workers died in an explosion.

In fact, fines are so low that they are considered a cost of doing business. And in some cases, the fines, inexpensive as they are, were never even in collected. Here’s the money quote:
" 'The agency keeps talking about issuing more fines, but it doesn't matter much,' said Bruce Dial, a former inspector for the mine safety agency. 'The number of citations means nothing when the citations are small, negotiable and most often uncollected.' "
Furthermore, while the Mine Safety and Health Administration is failing to protect American miners, the Department of Homeland Security is apparently failing to protect everybody else.

This new video transcript, described in today’s New York Times, shows clueless top federal and state officials were praising each other’s performance just hours before the levees in New Orleans were breached last August.

The video transcript also helps vindicate Michael Brown, the FEMA director who, it turns out, took the heat for his boss Michael Chertoff’s inattention to the true dimensions of the disaster. And it certainly gives credibility to Brown’s claim that he had been warning Chertoff for 3 years that budget cuts and bureaucracy were hurting FEMA’s ability to respond to disasters.

But the real level of disengagement by top Bush Administration officials first came to light in this February 9, New York Times article which showed that FEMA official, Marty Bohamonde, reported the true extent of the disaster, including the breaching of the levees and the flooding, directly to Chertoff’s office while Brown was also reporting it to an equally disengaged White House.
The level of inattentiveness to this dire situation even disturbed some of Bush's staunchest supporters in Congress. Here's the money quote:
"But the seriousness of the situation did not register at the highest levels of the Administration. Representative Thomas M. Davis III, Republican of Virginia, chairman of the special House committee investigating the hurricane response, said the only government agency that performed well was the National Weather Service, which correctly predicted the force of the storm. 'But no one heeded the message,' he said.

'The president is still at his ranch, the vice president is still fly-fishing in Wyoming, the president's chief of staff is in Maine,' Mr. Davis said. 'In retrospect, don't you think it would have been better to pull together? They should have had better leadership. It is disengagement.' "
Yet in a true example of crap rolling downhill, Michael Brown was the one fired for the government’s poor performance in this disaster. Everybody above him remains unscathed by their failures and unwilling to even admit any responsibility for failure to act.

From bureaucratic bungling to inadequate funding, FEMA took a hit that can only be blamed on the shortsightedness of a disengaged and incompetent administration more intent on protecting its friends than measuring their performance by the same standards it demands from lower level workers. Meanwhile the Mine Safety and Health Administration is more interested in winning friends and influencing big Republican donors who happen to own mining companies in West Virginia than in protecting worker safety as they are tasked to do. Oh, and the reason for FEMA's inadequate funding is probably due to the federal government's across the board budget cuts to pay for the burgeoning deficits – all because big millionaire Republican donors need their tax cuts more than Americans need a functioning, adequately funded government to protect them.

Yeah, cronyism doesn’t get any better than this.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

What's Wrong with the Dubai Ports Deal?

Actually, nothing.

The United Arab Emirate, which owns Dubai Ports World, is a moderate Middle Eastern regime. They are a valuable ally. The American military has used their deep water port to dock ships and off load supplies and personnel. We've also used their airstrips to send planes to Iraq and Afghanistan. And the UAE has shared in intelligence operations against terrorists. They can't be blamed for the fact that two of the 9-11 hijackers came from there any more than Britain can be blamed for the fact that shoe bomber Richard Reed was a British citizen.

The uproar over the proposed purchase by Dubai Ports World of the right to operate five major U.S. ports is a mixture of pure political pay back and public naivete. Firstly, most people don't focus much on our ports. They may have read something about holes in the security of the ports. And they may have some vague idea of that being a threat. But most people were never particularly focused on the fact that most of the world's ports are, in fact, run by large corporations, many of whom are foreigners, regardless of which country the port is in. Operating ports is a huge multi-national business. And in the case of Dubai Ports World, the corporation is owned by the United Arab Emirate.

That's freaked a lot of Americans. I still say it's not because they are xenophoic, anti-Muslim racists. The issue isn't an American company whose owners happen to U.S. citizens of Arab descent. I don't think that would have grabbed as much attention or raised the opposition this has. Call me naive, myself but I honestly believe it's not the fact that this is an Arab or Muslim owned corporation that is fueling the opposition as much as the fact that it is a foreign owned company.

Yes, the fact that the company's point of origin is the Middle East is part of the problem. When a British company owned the operating rights, nobody paid much attention. But Americans had the same reaction of horror when the Chinese government tried to buy Unocol. And even when the Japanese purchased Rockefeller Center a few years ago, many Americans had mixed feelings. Again, we're not talking about Americans who happen to have Japanese ancestry or Chinese ancestry arousing these objections. It's not the race or nationality, it's the fact that these are not American citizens that is causing the conflict.

This is especially true when the companies involved are actually government owned. It may be free trade but I'm not sure you can really defend it as either Capitalism or a level playing field. Our government declines to run American ports but privatizes them and then lets companies that are really government entities do it for us. Many U.S. citizens are rightfully asking what gives?

And the Democrats, of course, are playing it for all it's worth.

After being browbeaten through two election cycles by Bush's strategy of claiming the mantle as the security president, they are rightfully having a field day with this. Let's face it, many soccer moms turned into security moms. And this Administration, with it's every changing color codes - remember orange alerts and yellow alerts? - played on our fears like a master violinist plays a Stradivarius. They were so skilled at stoking our paranoia about Arab terrorists.

And any Democrat who dared to question their Middle East policy or to criticize their handling of the war in Iraq was practically accused of treason. To suggest that Iraq was not going well or that we needed a time limit and an exit strategy was to have a "pre-9-11 mindset" or to be "anti-military" or to be unpatriotic.

The Republicans wrapped themselves in the mantle of strength, competence and resoluteness. They were the only ones who were tough minded enough to keep us safe in a scary new world.

Then, Katrina blew away the illusion of their competence. And now the Dubai World Ports deal is blowing up the last shred of their credibility. That's the blowback when you've fanned the flames of fear and irrationality.

It's something about those who live by the sword will die by it.

A Church Can't Fly Without It's Left Wing Too

I first stumbled across this while I was browsing through Andrew Sullivan's blog.

A majority of Roman Catholic Democrats in the House of Representatives signed this statement of principles. The effort was spearheaded by Representative Rosa DeLaura and some of the signers are among the most prominent Catholic Democratic members of the House. Fifty-five of them signed on to what may be one of the finest statements of Catholic social justice teachings that I've read. Bravo to them for standing up to the theocrats and their Christianist agenda, which is hijacking both the Church and our country.

As Sullivan states (and he is by no means the only one - I've heard many, many other Catholics say the same thing), "it's our church too." And, I might add, it's our country too.

It's time for us to take them both back.