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Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Shot Heard Round the World

It might hardly be that dramatic. But make no mistake, the South Dakota legislature intended it be the line drawn in sand to challenge Roe v. Wade. The only question, now, is whether the governor, Mike Rounds, an anti-abortion Republican, will sign it into law next week.

This is no longer attempting to ban abortion by small increments such as parental consent laws, bans on partial birth abortion, or local ordinances that make it difficult to operate an abortion clinic. All those tried and true firebreaks that obstruct a woman’s access to a medically safe abortion, especially in rural areas, without outright banning the procedure are gone.

At least all those obstructions had the benefit of enjoying some public support because they tapped into America’s deep ambivalence over abortion. While polls have remained remarkably consistent for years, showing that the American public supports a woman’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy, especially in cases of rape, incest, and to protect the mother’s health, support for abortion rights drops off when it’s either a late trimester abortion or when the woman seeking it is a minor.

People are uneasy about granting the same right to make a major medical decision to a minor that they give to an adult woman. And they support parental involvement or, at least, the intervention of a judge or other responsible adult in the decision-making process when it involves an underage girl.

The public is equally uncomfortable with the procedure misnamed partial birth abortion. Indeed, the very description of the procedure is grisly in its details. The anti-abortion right has gained much traction in their fight simply by presenting this procedure as more commonplace than it actually is. In truth, it is dangerous enough that it is performed in only one to five percent of women seeking abortions and usually only when the mother’s health is truly endangered or the fetus has little hope of being born normal. And we are talking here of severe birth defects.

The public’s ambivalence, however, fades rapidly when the issue is the right of a woman of legal age to terminate a pregnancy in the first trimester, when the vast majority of abortions are performed. Opposition to abortion also drops rapidly for victims of rape, incest, or where the fetus is damaged and is unlikely to be born normal or to live at all.

And all of these abortions would be illegal under South Dakota’s new law. This is the harshest legislation on the books since the sixties when abortions first began to be legalized by state legislatures and courts. The only exception to the South Dakota law would be save the life of the mother. That’s it.

Not even to protect her health. And it would make the performance of an abortion a criminal offense for the doctor, who, if charged, could go to jail for up to five years.

This law is a throwback to the days of the double standard for women and could well result in a return to back alley abortions complete with rusty coat hangers, desperation and death for young women “in trouble.”

Of course, the law is also a deliberate challenge to Roe v. Wade brought on by the new make up of the Roberts-Alito Supreme Court. If, indeed, this court challenge succeeds, other states across the South and Midwest will soon follow suit. And while this might not exactly be the shot heard round the world, it will draw enough blood to dramatically alter the landscape of young women’s lives across America.

At the very least, it will wake up a lot of women, and even their male friends, from the complacency that let them think that Roe v. Wade was inviolable. They have long ignored the threat from the social conservatives because, quite simply, they thought their right to choice was safe. It was “settled law.”

Of course, Republican moderates in the senate should have known better. Should the Supreme Court, indeed, uphold the constitutionality of South Dakota’s new law, the blood of every victim of an illegal, back alley abortion will be on the hands of Arlen Specter, Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins and all those other moderates who led their states’ voters to believe that they were pro-choice and then sold them out for thirty pieces of GOP party discipline.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Get A Rope

As a former and rather repentant Marxist, one of my favorite quotes by Lenin always was “After the revolution, the capitalists will bargain with us for the price of the rope we buy from them to hang them.”

As these two articles, one from the Washington Post , and the other from the New York Times, demonstrate, the greedy mindset of the business class hasn’t changed much since 1917. The international business community, including the clueless free trade supporters at the Washington Post, are trying to write the narrative of the opposition of both Republican and Democratic congressmen and the U.S. public to the Dubai port deal as nativist and tinged with racism rather than a rational or legitimate debate about American security interests.

I don’t want to join a chorus of those who criticize Dubai, which has been an ally of ours. And I have to confess that I am an agnostic about the actual deal. There are some compelling reasons why it is not a security disaster in the making. As has been pointed out, Dubai is a U.S. ally and has cooperated and gone the extra mile in aiding our intelligence efforts. This is less about Dubai than it is about any foreign government-owned company coming in to operate U.S. ports. It’s also part of a larger examination of the problems and perils of outsourcing as well as its many benefits. And there are both perils and benefits involved. That’s why the debate is legitimate.

But one thing that must be challenged is the characterization by some of the eager rope- bargaining free traders that the opposition to this deal is racist. No it’s not!

If it were a company owned by an American citizen of Arab descent that was being blocked from operating an American port, yes that would be blatant racism. And it would be wrong.

However, that’s not what’s at issue here. There is a very real question as to whether it is in America’s security interest to outsource the operation of vulnerable ports to any foreign country. Yes, the fact that it is an Arab country from which two of the 9-11 hijackers came raises extra concern. But the heart of the matter is whether it is appropriate for any foreign governmental entity to own and operate U.S. ports.

The New York Times piece tries to make the case that Europeans, presumably with a more international mentality, are puzzled by the American outpouring of opposition. They consider it simply global capitalism.

But that’s not even an accurate assessment. In fact, when a foreign government owns the company, it’s actually socialism not capitalism. I think I remember that much from Marxism 101 back in college.

Whatever you call it, though; sometimes free trade and better oil prices need to take a backseat to security concerns. There is a point at which reality has to trump ideology and this may be it.

It is faint comfort to many Americans that various U.S. intelligence agencies at Treasury at Homeland Security are vouching for the safety of this deal. Most people are all too aware of this administration’s propensity for cherry picking intelligence it wants to support positions that it already holds. These same intelligence agencies, after all, assured us that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and that ordinary Iraqi citizens would welcome American invaders with flowers. They failed to see that religious extremists in Iraq would rush in to remake a largely secular society into a theocracy. So, how much credence should Americans give to the assurances of intelligence agencies that have been so wrong in their reports in the past? And even more, how much should we believe a proven incompetent, ideologically driven and fact challenged administration that just doesn’t know truth when it sees it.

The opposition to this deal is less about distrusting Dubai and more about distrusting our own government to put America’s best interests first.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Trouble With Moderates

The major trouble with moderates is that - well - they're moderate. This article, by Peter Slevin, in the February 2, 2006 Washington Post describes former senator and Episcopal priest Jack Danforth's very laudable goal for moderate Republicans to take back their party from the religious right.

However, as this letter to the editor, by Jay Sidebotham, in today's Washington Post questions, where was Danforth, while he was in the Senate, when he had a chance to vote against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas? His was one of the votes that led to the victory of the same right wing Christianist Republican conservatives that he now wants to take on. The Thomas victory was pivotal to the beginning of the Supreme Court's swing right, which is now nearing completion with the confirmations of Roberts and Alito.

And once again, Danforth's moderate Republican colleagues voted for confirmation. It's true that they probably couldn't have stopped either of those nominees from being confirmed, but they should have stood with fellow centrists across the aisle, on the Democratic side, and voted their conscience. Indeed, they should have voted to represent the many pro-choice moderate citizens in their home states who put them in office precisely because they campaigned as pro-choice moderates. Some of these senators had more conservative challengers in their primaries and won office precisely because they weren't that far to the right.

You can't trust Republican moderates when the chips are down. They pick party discipline and party loyalty over loyalty to their constituents, their nation and their own conscience every time.

That's why Democrats need to concentrate on defeating the Northeastern block of Republican moderates more than they need to indulge in party feuds as they are doing in Connecticut. Democratic senatorial challenger Ned Lamont may be a liberal's dream. But he probably won't defeat Joe Lieberman, who has over an 80 percent COPE rating (means he votes pro-labor and liberal that percent of the time). His one egregious mistake (and it is egregious) is that he is pro-Iraqi war. But he voted against both Roberts and Alito. Never mind that he also voted for cloture. So did most Democrats. He voted with the Democratic leadership, unlike Ben Nelson or Robert Byrd both of whom voted for confirmation of Roberts and Alito. (But those two were voting their consciences and their constituents knew where they stood when they elected them. So, while I disagree with their votes, at least, I don't feel betrayed by them. I sorta knew that's what they'd do.)

However, voting for cloture was very different from voting for confirmation. There was simply nothing to be gained at that point for a Democrat to block the nominees from a straight up or down vote. The issue wasn't resonating with the public. Democrats would have risked looking like obstructionists if they had won the vote against cloture and been able to fillibuster.

But if a moderate, pro-choice Republican had risen to the occasion and made it bi-partisan, then Democrats could have jumped on the bandwagon. But they didn't. Not even Lincoln Chafee, who, at least, did vote against the Alito confirmation - the only Republican to do so.

So, if you want to be mad, be mad at Republicans who claim to be centrists in good times and then let you down. If anybody is going to break the stranglehold of the Republican right, it's going to be Democrats, not Republican moderates, no matter how well-intentioned St. Jack Danforth is. Because, even he wouldn't vote against his own party back when it counted.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

The American Taliban

The U.S. Air Force Academy has once again revised its rules on religion according to this Washington Post article. But whether it's an improvement depends on where you sit. It's like the old joke about the man whose son breaks his leg and a neighbor rushes to tell him how bad it is. The man phlegmatically says, "It all depends. It could be bad, it could be good." Turns out that because of the son's broken leg, he's spared from having to go to war, so the neighbor tells him the broken leg was a good thing. But, once again, the father calmly replies, "It could be good; it could be bad." Because the son didn't go to war, he never got a pension or a chance at going to college on the GI Bill. To this the father replies, "it could be good; it could be bad..."

I think you get the point of the joke, which is that whether something is good or bad depends on your perspective.

So, if you're an evangelical Christian, the newly revised Air Force regulations are a good thing, as compared to the original revision, which came in response to investigations into the Air Force Academy's policy of allowing evangelical commanders, coaches, and upperclassmen to proselytize non-Christian students. Groups like Americans United for the Separation of Church and State had charged that undue pressure was being brought on cadets of minority religions or non-believers.

Evangelical groups and conservative Republican members of Congress pressured the Academy to cave into the demands of intolerant Christianists who are really no better than the Taliban. They are the ones who insist that they must force their beliefs on others and who overstep not only the Constitutional boundaries of separation of church and state but also all boundaries of good taste and respect for others' rights.

They insist that their rights, either to free speech or to practice their religion, are being infringed upon whenever they are prevented from forcing their own faith on a captive audience. But more and more that is coming to remind me of a schoolyard bully who demands protection for his Consitutional right to swing his arm freely even if in doing so, his fist lands a punch that gives me a bloody nose.

I am afraid that sensible people are going to have to convince him that his right to swing his arm freely does, in fact end at the tip of my nose and if he swings too far, he might just lose that arm.

Likewise, insist upon walking all over the rights of practitioners of minority religions, and trashing the protection of the Constitution, could lead to a backlash someday. The important thing to remember is that Christianity is not always the majority faith tradition in every location even in the United States. And the same principles of separation of church and state and of religious tolerance that protects non-Christians in Colorado (where the Air Force Academy is) may protect Christians someplace else where they may find themselves the minority faith. Tolerance is a good principle that never hurt anybody. Its opposite, though, has harmed countless numbers of people.

This Just In - Global Warming Is a Threat to the Atlantic and Gulf Coast After All

Dark Syde, at Daily Kos, wonders, in this thoughtful post (scroll about half way down), if we remember the many interviews on cable t.v. shows and news reports last year, when climate scientists stated emphatically that global warming played no part in the 2005 active Atlantic hurricane season.

Well, it turns out that not only may that not be true, but that there may have been a deliberate disinformation campaign by the Bush administration to play down the role of global warming in the recent spate of deadly hurricanes.

The official line of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is that we’ve merely entered into a period of increased storm activity, which occurs every few decades. The effects appear more noticeable because we’ve had an unusually calm Atlantic period for about 40 years. Scientists have claimed that this switch to more active storm seasons is merely a naturally occurring shift.

Perhaps there’s some truth to it. As Dark Syde points out, the increase in the number of tropical storms forming off the coast of Africa may indeed be part of a natural decadal shift; but the fact that those storms travel as far as they do, hold together as well as they do, and increase into well formed and intense hurricanes are all influenced by the fact that the ocean temperature has been rising. It only takes a difference as small as a few degrees to affect the strength and intensity of a tropical storm. Indeed, whether they hold together at all and develop well-formed eyes, which allow them to strengthen into hurricanes, is determined by the temperature of the water. In cold waters, tropical storms fall apart.

It turns out that the majority of scientific opinion may be that global warming is playing a role in the increase in the number of severe hurricanes affecting the U.S. But those scientists working at NOAA who might hold this opinion are being discouraged from speaking to the media about it. NOAA, like all federal agencies, has a policy that all their staff experts must clear statements with their public affairs department before going to the press. And the public affairs departments at most federal agencies are staffed by political appointees. So, the only scientists being encouraged to discuss global warming and its influence on the active storm seasons we’ve been suffering are those whose opinions may actually be in the minority and even outside the mainstream. They don't necessarily represent good science. They may simply be representative of this administration's political policy.

None of this surprises me. I’ve said before that it appears counterintuitive to dismiss global warming as a factor when the storm activity has gone off the charts. Come on, there have been so many Atlantic storms that NOAA ran through the entire alphabet and then started using the Greek alphabet and then simply ran out of letters. Never in my memory has that happened before. And I’m over 50 and track Atlantic storms as a hobby.

And we’ve been getting more “storms of the century” than there have been years in the century. You can’t have a storm of the century in the summer, then a blizzard of the century in the winter practically every year and still call them all “storms of the century.”

Global warming is here. We’re feeling its devastating effects right now. How much more proof do you need than the reality on the ground that you can see with your own eyes?

The problem is that the Bush administration is the most fact-phobic crowd ever to have misgoverned our nation in a century. They’ve been outed by disgruntled NOAA scientists and EPA scientists both. And so has a gullible media that never seems to question the lies these guys put out until after it’s too late.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Buy Danish

No, I don't mean the pastries - although of course you can buy those too. I'm talking about products from the country of Denmark. Most of the Arab world is now boycotting Danish goods because of the controversial cartoons by a Danish cartoonist, which have led to protests, riots, and threats of violence across the Muslim world. There's a great discussion of this over at Andrew Sullivan's blog. In addition, here's a link to a list of goods from Denmark that you can buy, provided by Sullivan. And here's a good discussion on it at Beliefnet.

Yeah, it's about freedom of speech, and the whole Western world seems to be going crazy, falling all over themselves to deny that. Are they that afraid of Islamist terror?

So, buy some Danish cheese, rent a copy of Last Temptation of Christ, and read a BC comic. Be an equal opportunity offender - but support free speech.

Tim Kaine Leads The Way

The other night Tim Kaine became a national figure whose true significance has yet to be completely understood. He is the newly elected governor of Virginia, who gave the Democratic response to Bush’s state of the union address. However, his superb performance on national television isn’t the only reason he has been stirring so much buzz in the media and in the blogosphere.

It’s his religion.

Kaine has been heralded by pundits for being a member of the new breed of Southern Democrats, who are unafraid of standing up for their religious convictions and pushing their party to the right on social and cultural issues. It’s a great media line. Only it’s not quite true.

Make no mistake about it, Tim Kaine is very much a man of deep religious commitment, but his faith and his approach to politics and religion are very different from that of some others who are competing with conservative Republicans to win back the South and rural Midwest. And it’s important to look at the very pronounced way that he is different.

To begin, you need to see how two other Southern politicians are using religion to win voters.

In a January 27, 2007 New York Times story, “Democrats in 2 Southern States Push Bills on Bible Study,” David D. Kirkpatrick writes about two Democrats, from different Southern states, who both support bills that would authorize their school districts to begin teaching from the textbook “The Bible and Its Influence.”

The non-partisan and ecumenical Bible Literacy Project produces the textbook, which simply provides a survey of the Bible’s influence on Western history, literature and art. It’s tone, according to Kirkpatrick’s article, is “academic and detached.” In other words, any course using this particular textbook should simply be a dispassionate look at the Bible’s role in Western history and not a tool to evangelize non-Christian students or make them feel uncomfortable and left out.

In fact, it could be argued that it would be difficult for any student to comprehend much of Western history without understanding the influence of the Bible and religion. How else could you grasp the cause of the conflicts and controversies of Europe from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment? After all, how do you explain the rise of the burghers, the decline of the aristocracy, the beginning of democracy, and the defeat of the monarchies without understanding Martin Luther’s religious objections to the practices of the Catholic Church of his time and the Protestant rebellions that followed from it? How do you comprehend the significance of the Reformation and Counter Reformation, or the Renaissance and Age of Reason without understanding the role religion played in European culture? How could you even appreciate the majority of Western art without knowing its religious context? So, a course on the influence of the Bible on Western civilization is not an irrational idea if you want to understand Western history, culture and art.

But it is easy to be suspicious that a dispassionate understanding of history is not the real goal of many of those supporting bible courses in public schools. For some, the motivation is mostly pragmatic politics. It’s tough enough to be a Democrat in Georgia or Alabama right now. So, Kasim Reed, a Georgia state Democrat from Atlanta is proposing the new course in Atlanta’s public schools.

This is a change of direction for Democrats, who only a few years earlier opposed a Republican proposal to authorize the teaching of a different bible course in public schools. Without knowing exactly what the difference is between the two courses, it’s difficult to fault the Democrats for inconsistency. There could, after all, be a very legitimate reason for their opposition to the earlier bible course. The difference is whether it had a hidden agenda to proselytize a specific religious faith.

On the other hand, in Alabama, Ken Guin, a state representative from Carbon Hill, is supporting a bill specifically for the purpose of furthering just such a religious agenda. Since Alabama is a deeply religious state where the governor once sang “Give Me That Old Time Religion” at campaign stops, Guin and his fellow Democrats are making no bones about their agenda, which is exactly the same as the Republicans’ game plan. They support prayer in the public school and are happy to aggressively run away from the national Democratic Party on that issue.

Meanwhile, Indiana Democratic legislators are among the leaders of a bi-partisan effort to preserve opening their daily legislative sessions with specifically – and aggressively – Christian prayer in the statehouse. Again, the point is to very visibly favor one religion over others, and also to run away from what Democratic activists on the national level consider one of their core values: secularism.

But does a candidate really have to choose between secularism and an aggressive form of religion that leaves out those of differing – often minority – religions or no religion?

Perhaps not. And here is where Tim Kaine is proving to be a real leader, not just among Southern Democrats. His way should be a model for the national Democratic Party. He is demonstrating exactly the way that those Democrats who are genuinely, and often deeply, religious should incorporate their faith into their politics, in a manner that is not divisive and that does not exclude those who don’t share their religion.

Those, like Tim Kaine, who speak from a place of respect for others’ religious and cultural differences strengthen America. On the other hand, those Democratic politicians, like the ones in Indiana, Georgia, and Alabama, and like their Republican compatriots, who would trample over the religious rights of the minority, weaken the country and cheapen their own religion.