Thursday, September 30, 2010

What's Wrong With The Democrats?

Ben and I talk about the "enthusiasm gap" among Democratic voters in our Scripps Howard column this week. My take:

You almost can't blame President Obama for being frustrated. He's gotten more big things done -- a health care bill, the stimulus, financial reform -- than any Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson, and he's done it in only two years. So why all the complaining from his liberal base? Because it hasn't been enough. And what has been done hasn't been done well.

Yes, the longtime progressive dream of a universal health care bill passed -- but in a messy form that, with its mandate on American citizens to buy their own health insurance or face penalties, seems designed to alienate as many voters as it serves. The stimulus probably averted a Depression-like disaster for the American economy, but liberals believe it probably needed to be bigger in order to lower a still-horrendous unemployment rate. Financial reform took too long to pass and was watered down by the very institutions that must be regulated.

That doesn't even include the president's actions in the War on Terror, where his moves have been barely distinguishable from President Bush. Sure Obama ordered an end to torture. But Gitmo is still open, there are still troops fighting in Iraq and the Afghanistan War appears to be a deepening quagmire. Civil libertarians and gay rights advocates, meanwhile, also have a long list of reasons to be frustrated with the president.

Is all this letting the perfect be the enemy of the good? Maybe.

Certainly, it is difficult to believe many liberals would be happier if John McCain had been president the last two years. But President Obama and his surrogates don't generate enthusiasm when they criticize and mock their most fervent supporters. It's time they stopped complaining and started persuading their liberal critics -- and the rest of the nation -- that the actions they've taken are the right ones.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Barack Obama, Tyrant?

I am profoundly disappointed by the Obama Administration's decision that it can order the killing of an American citizen without due process -- and that it can furthermore evade any accountability for that order by invoking "state secrets" to shut down any court challenges. (Adam Serwer describes the administration's position here.)I'm also disappointed by its effort to require tech providers to build their systems to enable the government to spy on its citizens -- which seems to me somewhat akin to requiring homebuilders to add a secret room in every home where your government watcher can monitor you.

Before Barack Obama's election, I wrote an essay suggesting these kinds of problems might be on the horizon. I think it's worth quoting myself at length:

What do we know about Barack Obama and the presidency that makes me fearful for him?

• He’s made compromises already. If our nation’s decision to torture terror suspects ranks as the Bush Administration’s chief betrayal of American values during the last eight years, then the “warrantless wiretapping” program ranks second. The administration decided to ignore existing wiretapping law — scratch that, broke the law — so that it could listen into private telephone conversations involving Americans. And one of the reasons it did so is because it wanted to prove it could, that there was no check or balance provided by Congress and the courts that presidential power couldn’t override.

When it came time to let participants be punished, or give them retroactive immunity and the power to continue the program — well, Barack Obama voted for the second option. It’s easy to understand why: He didn’t want a “soft on terror” vote (which would’ve been a bogus charge) following him around this campaign.

And let’s not forget that Barack Obama promised to take public financing for his campaign, only to back down when it became less advantageous for him to do so. This makes him a smart politician probably, but it also means that Obama is not a being of pure light. Which leads us to point No. 2.

• Presidential power doesn’t contract itself. The last eight years have seen the Bush Administration repeatedly assert its authority to act as it pleases, without limits from Congress and the courts. The courts have been more effective than Congress in pushing back, but the presidency holds more unilateral power in governmental decision-making than it did when Bill Clinton left office.

And here’s something fundamental about human nature: Presidents don’t tend to give power away. Somebody has to take it away. Congress did a lot of this in the post-Vietnam era, and a lot of those safeguards stood (though they eroded a bit) until the current presidency. Barack Obama has promised to live by the older, less dictatorial limits, but he would be an extraordinary president if he didn’t claim some of the authority the Bush Administration has grabbed for itself. Seems unlikely to me.

And, well, it's kind of worked out that way, hasn't it?

Radley Balko at Reason calls Obama's position "tyranny," and I'm not sure I disagree:

If there’s more tyrannical power a president could possibly claim than the power to execute the citizens of his country at his sole discretion, with no oversight, no due process, and no ability for anyone to question the execution even after the fact . . . I can’t think of it. This is horrifying.

The biggest reason I voted for Barack Obama in 2008 was my deep frustration and anger with a Bush Administration that believed in untrammeled, undemocratic assertions of executive authority. And when Obama took office, he gave me hope -- immediately signing a prohibition on torture. I was optimistic, despite my pre-election warnings.

But in court filings since then, it has become clear that the Obama Administration may think that torture is bad -- but it is also willing to defend the president's prerogative to order torture. It's not defending the actions of the Bush Administration, necessarily, but it is defending the (again, undemocratic) underlying theory that made those actions possible.

Tyranny? Not quite. But we may be on the road.

To be clear, though, I'm not about to join the Tea Party. I don't believe that returning to Clinton-era tax rates is tyranny. (Or else Dwight Eisenhower was history's worst monster.) I don't think making sure that many more Americans have health coverage is tyranny -- though the current method of forcing people to buy insurance instead of providing it through a single-payer system will, I think, feel intrusive to people. As I've said before: It embarrasses me for Tea Party folks that they can see tyranny in such actions but remain silent on a president's ability to imprison people without due process.

But just because the Tea Partiers are wrong about why Barack Obama is a danger to our rights doesn't mean they're wrong about the conclusion, I guess. But he represents a bipartisan danger; it's clear now that both Democratic and Republican presidents will defend the idea of unlimited executive power.

And this leaves me wondering about 2012. I think John McCain would've been a much worse president for this country; for all the problems we have now, I do believe that the Obama Administration has actually mitigated them to a great extent. So the question is: Do I vote for the lesser evil in 2012? Or do I decide the whole system is so rotten that neither major party deserves my vote? And if that's the case, what effective action can I take to rein in a runaway government?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Mr. Mom Chronicles: Working At Home

I'm in the middle of typing out an e-mail to a source on a story when my two-year-old boy climbs up into my lap with a book, "Put Me in the Zoo."

"Booky?" he asks.

This is slightly annoying -- I've got work to do. But the boy is part of my work, too. If I'm going to be a stay-at-home-dad-slash-freelance-writer, then I can't neglect the dad part of the equation. Even if doing so would make the writing part of that equation much easier.

So I read the book. Tobias climbs down, retrieves another tome and brings it to me. "Booky?"

"No, son. I've read you one, and I've got to get this done. Can you read it to yourself?"

Tobias doesn't like the idea. He raises the book high over his head, then slams it down to the ground. Then he toddles off.

We're one week into this experiment -- ok, we're a week into my new way of living life -- and it's clear that this is the battle I'm going to have to fight every day. I've got to write enough to bring in my (desperately needed) share of the family income. But I've also got to give the boy attention and nurturing.

When I'm writing, he wants to play with me. When I'm making a phone call he wants to play with his sound-making toys -- or he wants to play with my phone. This would all be much easier if he would just take a goddamned nap, but that's only happened once this week.(Which I deserve: I drove my mom insane by never once taking a nap after 18 months.)

I've tried putting him in his room behind a baby gate. Sometimes he'll take it. Sometimes he won't. I've had to dump him in his crib for 10 minutes at one point just so I could finish writing a piece with a clear head. I feel bad about this. I'm home with him! I'm the parent! I don't really want to shuttle him off to day care -- and I couldn't afford it now, even if I did.

But always, the work is calling. I don't think I'm going to solve this problem. I think that's simply the way it is.

John Yoo and the Tea Party

John Yoo believes that during wartime there's virtually no limit -- legal, constitutional, treaty or otherwise -- on a president's power. He can suspend the First Amendment. He can order the testicles of a small child crushed. It was his legal advice that helped pave the way for the American torture regime.

So, of course: John Yoo is a featured speaker at Tea Party events.

Now: There are undoubtedly many fine and sincere Tea Party participants who legitimately want to see government restrained and fitted for a Constitutional straightjacket. That's fine. But even now, it's easy for me to believe that there's also a sizable chunk of people who didn't mind expanding deficits and tyrannical government overreach as long as a Republican is president. Tea Partiers who turn out for a John Yoo speech? Almost certainly in the latter group.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Deborah Solomon Versus: Phil Collins

Rest assured, Deborah Solomon will
always ask personal questions
about money.
Rather than repeat my litany of gripes against Deborah Solomon's stewardship of the Q&A section of the New York Times Magazine, I'm going to start a (almost assuredly) weekly feature: A look at how she focuses relentlessly on money -- without it being at all enlightening about the interview subject. This week's money gotcha: Phill Collins:

Did I read somewhere that your divorce settlement was $50 million and, at the time, the largest paid by an entertainer in British history?
I think Paul McCartney’s was the largest.

I read that he paid $49 million to Heather Mills.
It’s only money. Of course, only people with money will say, “It’s only money.”

Nice line by Phil, but it tells us something we already knew: He's rich.

That's Deborah Solomon for you: Asking questions that are rude for no real purpose. She's gaucheriffic!

Letter to a Christian Friend

As some readers may know, I grew up Christian, mostly among Mennonites in the Midwest. I even attended a Mennonite Bretheren college, and count many of my friends from that time as dear friends still. But I no longer share their faith.

Some friends still gently nudge me toward faith. And I understand the good intent of their efforts, even if it makes me somewhat uncomfortable. I received one of those nudges today -- and I responded thus. The letter is lightly modified to omit unnecessary details:

Hi Friend:

It's true that I'm not too enamored of how many, perhaps most, Christians choose to live their faith. It seems at odds -- to me -- with the ethic of Jesus that I find in the Bible. But that's not the fundamental reason I'm in my current rather faithless state.

I think the best way to describe me now is "apathetic agnostic." That is: I simply don't know whether there is a God or not. And it seems to me that if there is a God, that God has chosen to reveal himself (I'll skip gender-neutral language here for the sake of simplicity) at something of a distance from my own 2010 existence. Because of that, it seems to me that time spent trying to deduce the details of God and God's wishes is akin to debating the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin. (The answer is 19, by the way.) I feel -- at this point in my life -- that my time is better served facing the solid facts of the real life that I live.

And I've made something of a reverse Pascal's Wager along these lines. Pascal decided to go with Christianity because if it was right, he guaranteed himself an afterlife and if it was wrong, well, no harm done. My wager: If there IS a God -- as big and amazing as all the religions would have us believe -- then that God probably isn't going to be particularly concerned with the particulars of my belief system and wouldn't punish me anyway.

And if there is a God, and that God decided to punish me because I didn't love HIM, or because I didn't have precisely the correct way of understanding him or obeying him -- even though our last overtly direct communication with him came over 2,000 years ago -- perhaps that God isn't worth worshipping. Powerful abusers are still abusers.

Now: I know you'll disagree with the details of this. A couple of thoughts:

* My current way of thinking isn't the result of not having a good understanding of the Bible or the church. I spent 30 years of my life immersed in both. I understand the arguments that might be made against the scenario I just presented -- at one time, I made those arguments.

* I don't explain myself here in an attempt to persuade you. I still feel a keen responsibility not to cause my brother to stumble; I have no interest in undermining anybody's faith -- though I will challenge them if I feel their faith is used for sinister ends. But I do want to explain to you my thinking.

Now, all of this might be temporary. I've gone from being a fervent Christian to an agnostic in the span of 20 years, and I cannot discount the possibility of a return trip. I know there are many people who pray for just such an event -- and I appreciate the spirit of their intent, even if the action causes me some discomfort.

But: This is who I am right now.

With respect and affection,

Friday, September 24, 2010

Barack Obama, Bob Woodward, and the War in Afghanistan

Our Scripps Howard column this week is about Bob Woodward's new book, "Obama's Wars." My take:

Bob Woodward's new book reminds us of an important proposition: American democracy and long-term war are a bad mix.

It's certainly bad for democracy. One of the most disturbing revelations is the lengths that President Obama went to in order to ensure the military obeyed his orders in Afghanistan -- dictating a six-page single-spaced document dictating the terms of 2009's surge of 40,000 troops to that country. Why the detail? Because the president felt sure his generals and admirals would find "wiggle room" to violate the spirit of the order setting a 2011 deadline to begin drawing down troops there.

The American Constitution is clear: The president is the commander-in-chief. He makes the country's big decisions about how we fight war. Generals and admirals give their best military advice, and then execute the decisions the president has made. But top military officials clearly see themselves as political players in the process, lobbying the president and circumventing his orders. Woodward reports Gen. David Petraeus told his staff Obama was "(messing) with the wrong man." Such reports should concern anybody concerned with Constitutional order.

But if war is bad for democracy, democracy can also be bad for war. If it goes on too long, the politicians in charge can take their eyes off the bottom line -- what can be done to enhance American security -- and start factoring partisan politics into the mix. Obama tells Woodward in the book that he set the 2011 withdrawal deadline because "I can't lose the whole Democratic Party." That is, even from a liberal viewpoint, a chilling admission.

"Obama's War" affirms that at this point, there's little America can gain -- and a whole lot it can lose -- from continued large-scale fighting in Afghanistan. We can't fix that country. The longer we stay there, though, the more we might find our own democracy in need of repair.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Mr. Mom Chronicles: The Playground

Daddy was trying to work. Tobias didn't care.
I hate taking Tobias to the playground.

Step back: It's not that I don't enjoy giving the boy a chance to enjoy himself -- and I'm really not opposed to him wearing himself out by running around. What's more, I'm not one of those parents who hovers over my kid: We get there, I sit on a bench and keep an eye on him, but I don't really follow him from toy-to-toy, adventure-to-adventure.

No, what I don't like is ... all the other kids.

I'm not a monster: I obviously like my kid. And I'm not one of those fussy adults who wants to ban the under-10 set from restaurants or movie theaters or other public places. Kids are necessary. But I don't much like childhood: It's all id, no ego, too much trying to hog toys, too much possibility of sudden and minor violence, too much willingness to inflict hurt feelings if the physical hurt can't be gotten away with. Kids are assholes.

Sartre said that "hell is other people." Me? I say that hell is other people's children. And I'm certain other people think the same thing about my kid; I can't say that I'd blame them.

So I feel an abnormal amount of anxiety when I take Tobias to the playground, because it is the place where lots of kids are, and where they are at their most kidlike. Maybe I just didn't have the right kind of childhood, because it looks like a battleground to me. I see only the negative possibilities.

While I was the office worker and my wife the stay-at-home parent, I didn't have to worry about any of this. She took the boy out to play; I hung with him at bathtime. Even after I lost my job, most of the playground duties fell to her. Trips to play just made me itch. Why oh why couldn't my son have been born a 30-year-old slacker with a penchant for reading novels in coffee shops?

Tobias, of course, gets none of this. At least, I hope that's the case. He ambles around the playground -- adventurous, but not too adventurous. He'll climb ladders that surprise me, given that he's just turned two. But he won't go anywhere near a slide without a hand to hold onto.

He's similarly middle-of-the-road when it comes to interactions with the other kids. I don't want to pass my anxieties onto him: I want him to make friends, to learn to share, to have fun. Often, he floats along the edge of a group; if the other kids start to include him, he jumps in and participates wholeheartedly. If they ignore him, he moves onto the next thing. And it's no big deal: my emotional life is far more concerned with these interactions, it seems, than his is.

Last week, a kid slugged him in the chest. I saw it. Tobias went up to play with the young, curly-headed boy -- and the boy wanted nothing of it. So he hit Tobias. Tobias smiled -- smiled! -- and moved on to the next group. He's social, but he doesn't stay where he's not wanted, and he doesn't particularly care that he's not wanted. I love this! I hope this attitude sticks with him the rest of his life! Oh, God be merciful!

Me? I swooped him into his stroller and marched home.Wrong reaction, probably.

It's already begun. I want to protect my kid from all the crap that's sure to come. I want his feelings and his body to stay as innocent and unmarked as they are right now. But the only way he's going to really learn to play nice with others is if he gets out and plays nice with others. The best way for me to be a good daddy is to swallow my neuroses and walk him down to the playground.

But I'll still keep an eye on him.

DADT and the GOP's Faux Populism

Back in the spring, when Democrats -- after a decades-long odyssey -- were preparing to pass a comprehensive health insurance bill, Republicans expressed outrage their opponents would do something the public didn't want them to do: the polls, they said, showed a clear majority of Americans opposed the bill. A CNN poll in March showed that 59 percent of respondents didn't like it. Passing the bill in the face of such opposition, the GOP said, was profoundly undemocratic.

Fast-forward to yesterday, when the GOP blocked progress of a bill that would repeal "Don't Ask Don't Tell," the law that lets the armed forces boot gay members. What's funny about this? Well, polls show that around 57-58 percent of Americans favor the DADT repeal -- almost exactly the same percentage that opposed the health care bill. The same Republican Party members who stood for the perogatives of majority-according-to-polling ignored the polling when it conflicted with their stances.

Why? Easy enough to guess. Some Republican senators presumably do believe -- without merit, I think -- that letting gays serve openly will disrupt the armed forces. Others were pandering to their anti-gay base, or just signing on for party unity. Whatever. I'm sure there are some other principled reasons for opposing the bill, but the fact is this: the GOP is staunchly for what the majority of Americans want, unless it isn't.

Our Ungrateful Elites

Kevin Drum doesn't think much of America's modern elites:

To a dispiriting extent, the top stratum in America no longer really seems to care about America. They care about themselves, and their money, and keeping themselves safe from the huddled masses, but for all too many of them that's about it. I'm not sure I have quite the rose-colored view of the ancien regime that Mike does, but he's certainly right about today's millionaires. No class, no gratefulness for their success, and no sense of bond to the broader society they live in. This is not a winning combination for a country that aims to lead the world.

There's been some talk lately, on the right, about how the rise of American meritocracy -- the best students get into Harvard these days, for example, instead of just the sons of the richest families -- has created a "ruling class" enamored of its own expertise and disconnected from American values. I'm not sure I buy the critique, entirely, but there's something about the word "gratitude" here that strikes a chord with me.

It seems to me that the prevailing ideology among the upper crust discourages gratitude more specific than generalized "proud to be an American" thinking. We're a nation of rugged individualists, the thinking goes, and people who end up with the successful Harvard applications and good jobs and well-appointed friends have come to believe that they have entirely earned their success. They don't consider how the institutions and foundations created by government -- and in the culture -- have made their success possible. What they're told, instead, is that they've been "free" to pursue that success. That's right, of course, but only partly.

I don't pine for aristocracy, but I can see how noblesse oblige might've developed. If you're the third- or fourth-generation of a wealthy or influential family, you might naturally believe that you're in your rightful place in life -- but it would probably be difficult for you to believe you had created your "success." Gratitude might be a more easily accessible emotion in such circumstances. Today's elites believe they're entirely self-made; they're not entirely right, but such attitudes create arrogance and a distance from the broader citizenry.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Surveillance State Update: The FBI Spies On PETA

Washington Post:

The FBI improperly opened and extended investigations of some U.S. activist groups and put members of an environmental advocacy organization on a terrorist watch list, even though they were planning nonviolent civil disobedience, the Justice Department said Monday.

A report by Inspector General Glenn A. Fine absolved the FBI of the most serious allegation against it: that agents targeted domestic groups based on their exercise of First Amendment rights. Civil liberties groups and congressional Democrats had suggested that the FBI employed such tactics during the George W. Bush administration, which triggered Fine's review.

But the report cited what it called other "troubling" FBI practices in its monitoring of domestic groups in the years between the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and 2006. In some cases, Fine said, agents began investigations of people affiliated with activist groups for "factually weak" reasons.

In others, the report said, the FBI extended probes "without adequate basis" and improperly kept information about activist groups in its files. Among the groups monitored were the Thomas Merton Center, a Pittsburgh peace group; People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals; and Greenpeace USA. Activists affiliated with Greenpeace were improperly put on a terrorist watch list, the report said.

Any folks on the right who want to dismiss the seriousness of the surveillance because it's aimed at lefty fringe groups might want to pause and think about how, say, Tea Party activities might be viewed by the FBI. The surveillance state doesn't tend to be that discriminating.

Mr. Mom Chronicles: Day One

This morning, my lovely wife woke shortly before 6 am. She eased her way into the day with some sort of apple juice concoction, then showered, blow-dried her hair (!), made lunch, then departed to catch a bus. It is her first day of work.

Tobias at the playground
this morning. His daddy was the
only daddy there.
Me? I drank some coffee, read the papers and waited for my son to wake up. This is also my first day on the job, this one as a full-time stay-at-home dad.

This is not where I expected to be. Oh, I've always said I was willing to be the at-home parent if it came to that, something easy to say to prove my feminist bona fides. But honestly, we moved to Philadelphia a month before Tobias was born -- not exactly prime job-hunting time for my wife, particularly as a recession was starting to bare its ugly fangs. The birth happened, she stayed home with our kid, I went off to the office every morning, and that was it. I never expected to actually have to back up my words with, you know, action.

When I lost my job six months ago, though, my wife drew a line: "It's my turn," she told me. Repeatedly. And then a few more times, for good measure, just in case I hadn't gotten the point: She was ready not to be home with the kid all day. It's not that she doesn't love Tobias; she adores him. She just wanted the chance to miss him now and again.

I suggested that we should probably both of us race to get a job -- that producing an income was the most important thing -- and we could figure out the way forward from there. And, well, she won the race.

Step back: She mostly won the race. I've been picking up some freelance work in recent months, and for us to survive on her full-time job, I'll have to basically make our rent money and she'll get all the other bills. But: Taking care of our two-year-old son is going to be a heavy, maybe the heaviest, part of my responsibilities during the day.

There will be getting him up. And feeding him. Making sure he gets play time. Making sure he gets enough of my attention. And feeding him. And changing his diaper. And feeding him. The reporting and writing I need to do to make my nut? That'll come in the in-between places. Parenting, in a way it's never been before, is my job now.

And that's great: The glory of losing my job when my son was 18 months old is that I've been around quite a lot while he really evolved from babyhood into being a real person with his own real personality. I've been grateful -- grateful as one can be for being unemployed and worried about the future -- to get to be around my son during this time.


It didn't escape my notice this morning that I was the only dad in a sea of moms and nannies at the playground. A quarter-century has passed since Michael Keaton played "Mr. Mom," but gender roles and expectations and actions haven't changed that much. What we're doing -- what I'm doing -- is ... kind of weird. I get that. I'm OK with that. But it will probably involve negotiating my way through some unwritten protocols.

So I'll be writing about that. And I'll most likely be asking your help. I'm not sure how this is going to work, or frankly how long it can last. What I do know is this: We love Philadelphia and want to stay here. Right now, this is the best shot we've got.

War Always Leads to Irrational, Overreacting Prejudice

Reading Peter Beinart's "The Icarus Syndrome," a passage leaps out to me as perhaps having some modern relevance. It's about the public reaction to German-Americans during World War I:
Cincinnati outlawed the sale of pretzels; Iowa's governor made publicly speaking German a crime. When a Wyoming man was overheard saying "Hoch der kaiser" ("Up with the kiser"), a group of townspeople hanged him, cut him down while still alive, and made him kneel and kiss the American flag. In April 1918, a St. Louis mob abducted a young German-American, stripped him, dragged him through the streets, and then lynched him, while a crowd of five hundred cheered. At trial, the defense attorney called the murder patriotic, and it took a jury twenty-five minutes to acquit.
Luckily, the United States seems to be more or less in a post-lynching phase of its history. But we're appalled today at the last century's irrational prejudice. I suspect our descendants will look at us -- our debates about mosque locations the the intrinsic ability of Muslims to be good Americans -- and have similar feelings.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Bag O' Books: 'Cloud Atlas' by David Mitchell

I'm not sure how I missed "Cloud Atlas" when it came out in 2004: I was reading lots of novels at that point and was trying to stay current with all the best stuff. But I missed it, only to find out about it when David Mitchell's newest book resulted in a bit of hype.

Is "Cloud Atlas" a work of genius? I'm not sure. It's certainly a work of talent. It's as though Mitchell wrote a half-dozen novellas -- a South Sea adventure; a Jazz Age cautionary tale; a pulpy '70s mystery; a dystopian "Blade Runner"-meets-Asimov near-future sci-fi tale; and a post-apocalyptic story of the Last Humans On Earth -- and stacks those novellas on top of each other, weaving enough commonalities and references to the other stories to give it the sheen of a holistic artistic vision. Does that work? Maybe just barely; we begin and end in the same place -- the death of civilizations, redeemed only by the hope offered by one or two good people.

That's not to detract from Mitchell's accomplishment. The South Sea tale -- "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing" -- sounds remarkably like something written in its era. Same for each of the stories; Mitchell's voice morphs to match his subject matter, cleanly and convincingly in a way few writers can match. Some critics have complained, apparently, that we don't know what Mitchell's voice sounds like in all of this. But that's a silly, forced complaint in the face of his virtuosity. Mitchell and "Cloud Atlas" might be the topic for debate within the "literary fiction" universe, but he just might be the best genre fiction writer alive -- in a number of genres, and all in the same book. The result? More than a little reading pleasure.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Is the Army Thinking About Bacevichian Isolationism as 'Grand Strategy'?

A few weeks ago I pondered what America would look like if Andrew Bacevich ran the country. Though Bacevich rejects the term "isolationism" to describe his worldview, it's a term that'll do in a pinch: He essentially envisions the United States divesting itself of overseas military commitments and bringing troops home so that A) the defense establishment can concentrate on defending the United States, instead of projecting power around the world and B) the United States can start to live, fiscally, within its means.

Turns out Bacevich's vision has some fans inside military circles. The latest issue of Military Review -- one of the Army's intellectual journals, published at Fort Leavenworth -- contains an article retired Navy Commander John Kuehn, an associate professor of military history at the Army's Command and General Staff College for rising career officers at Leavnworth. His piece references and echoes Bacevich.

Prior to the outbreak of World Wars I and II, Kuehn writes, America's national security strategy was simple: Dominate the Western Hemisphere, use the Navy to guarantee free access to markets elsewhere -- and otherwise stay the hell out of the way:

Over time, the grand strategy came to encompass military nonintervention outside the Western Hemisphere, free trade access to whatever markets Americans desired, and the right to act as the hemispheric hegemon. These last two components are known as the Monroe Doctrine and the Open Door Policy, respectively.13 The attainment of a contiguous landmass from sea to shining sea completed the defensive geographical requirement needed by this strategy with a sort of buffer zone in the southwest along the Rio Grande. This was the American grand strategy, constitutionally based, for almost 150 years—although the geographical land component came after the war with Mexico.

The Cold War necessarily changed that vision, Kuehn writes. But the Cold War has been over for 21 years. It's way past time for American to revert to the old ways, he says.

I would submit that there is not much work to do to adopt a new grand strategy. Just re-adopt the old one, technologically updated of course and with a strong, but smaller, military establishment capable of defending our air,sea, and space “moats.” The war that lasted from 1914 to 1989 is over. The grand strategy that served the United States well before World War II is a fine framework for the 21st century.

Today’s operational environment is actually a more promising one in which to implement the traditional strategy than it appears at first blush. The American voting public does not favor interventionism. We need only divest ourselves of commitments made in error (Iraq), in haste with little thought of the end state (Afghanistan and Iraq), and those that have outlived their utility (Korea, Japan, troops in Europe, and our Navy in the Persian Gulf). Strategic retrenchment of this sort, in which we remove the training wheels from the bicycle and stand on the sidewalk, is a necessary step toward healthy growth. The United States has more than enough national power to get involved if the bicycle falls down, but the U.S. must control its tendency toward strategic impatience (a feature of our strategic culture). We need to practice strategic patience. We need to learn to say “no.” In doing so, we may find we actually have more strategic choices—and less strategic imperatives—than ever.

Now, I don't want to overstate what's being said here: Military Review is one of those places within the Army that smart folks in the military establishment can do their "blue sky" thinking. It's unlikely President Obama is going to start bringing troops home from Korea and Japan anytime soon. But Kuehn, it should be noted, develops the military history curriculum at CGSC, where virtually every Army officer goes for mid-career education after making the rank of major. These are the ideas being kicked around by the next generation of generals. Maybe we should be taking them seriously.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Andrew McCarthy, Robert Wright, Moderate Islam and the Fundamentalist Mindset

The face of "real" Christianity?
Not long ago, National Review's Andrew McCarthy wrote something that has stuck in my craw for a few days. He conceded that there are many moderate Muslims while dismissing the possibility of moderate Islam itself. Here he is:

There is no moderate Islam in the mainstream of Muslim life, not in the doctrinal sense. There are millions of moderate Muslims who crave reform. Yet the fact that they seek real reform, rather than what Georgetown is content to call reform, means they are trying to invent something that does not currently exist.

In other words, McCarthy dismisses "millions of moderate Muslims" because -- even though those millions of Muslims live their lives in what we're calling "moderate" fashion -- Islamic doctrines aren't similarly moderate. And that makes little sense: It's like insisting that there are no Catholics who use birth control or Southern Baptists who dance, because the doctrines and practices of those churches prohibit or discourage such practices. We know that's not the case, though.

I have no idea what religion, if any, McCarthy practices and observes. But it seems to me that many of the people who insist that "real Islam" is the ugliest version of itself revealed in the Koran are people who -- like Florida Rev. Terry Jones -- are Christian fundamentalists themselves or, like the broader American conservative movement, often politically allied with fundamentalists.

Homeland Security, Gay Terrorists and the Tragedy of Gov. Ed Rendell

Big Brother
A couple of days ago I wrote that "the surveillance state always claims to be acting in the interest of our safety and security. Sometimes, it's even true." I was writing then about a 40-year-old incident involving the civil rights movement; luckily, the State of Pennsylvania has decided to offer us a fresh example:

HARRISBURG – Gov. Rendell said Tuesday that he was "appalled" and "embarrassed" that his administration's Office of Homeland Security has been tracking and circulating information about legitimate protests by activist groups that do not pose a threat to public safety.

Rendell said he did not know that the state Office of Homeland Security had been paying an outside company to track a long list of activists, including groups that oppose drilling in the Marcellus Shale, animal-rights advocates, and peace activists.

The office then passed that information on to large groups of people, including law enforcement and members of the private sector.

"Let me make this as clear as I can make it," the governor said at news conference Tuesday night, pounding his fist on the podium. "Protesting against an idea, a principle, a process, is not a real threat against infrastructure. Protesting is a God-given American right, a right that is in our Constitution, a right that is fundamental to all we believe in as Americans."

Nice words. Except for this:

Rendell said that he will not fire or discipline anyone in the Office of Homeland Security, headed by director James F. Powers Jr., for the lapse. But he said he ordered the office to terminate its contract with Philadelphia-based Institute of Terrorism and Research Response, which he said has been paid $125,000 in the last year to gather data about possible security threats.

That, my friends, is scapegoating. An outside contractor loses a nice little paycheck and that's supposed to be accountability. But "security" officials who received the information -- and published them in a thrice-weekly intelligence bulletin? They get to keep their jobs, even though they should've known better. They didn't know better -- which suggests that Gov. Rendell wasn't really setting a "protect the civil rights of Pennsylvanians" vibe in office.

Say, who were the "threats" anyway?

The bulletin included information about a PrideFest by gays and lesbians; a rally that supported his administration's education policy; and an anti-BP candlelight vigil.

The controversy over the Homeland Security Office's intelligence bulletins came to light after one became public last week. The August bulletin included a list of forthcoming - and mostly public - hearings involving Marcellus Shale natural-gas drilling, and noted that they would be attended by anti-drilling activists. It also listed a planned screening of the controversial movie Gasland in Philadelphia.

It's laughable, really. And our lame-duck governor gets to say a lot of nice words about rights without holding anybody in government responsible for infringing on those rights. So I don't believe Ed Rendell. The surveillance of peaceful protest groups happens too often -- here and elsewhere -- for a reasonable person to believe it's anything but business as usual. The problem, for government officials, is getting caught.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Tragedy of Ernest C. Withers

Earnest C. Withers, a black man who photographed so many key moments of the Civil Rights Movement, was apparently a paid informant of the FBI during the 1960s -- keeping the government apprised of the movements and plans of Martin Luther King Jr. and his allies who fought for equal rights.

Civil rights leaders have responded to the revelation with a mixture of dismay, sadness and disbelief. “If this is true, then Ernie abused our friendship,” said the Rev. James M. Lawson Jr., a retired minister who organized civil rights rallies throughout the South in the 1960s.

Others were more forgiving. “It’s not surprising,” said Andrew Young, a civil rights organizer who later became mayor of Atlanta. “We knew that everything we did was bugged, although we didn’t suspect Withers individually.”

The children of Mr. Withers did not respond to requests for comment. But one daughter, Rosalind Withers, told local news organizations that she did not find the report conclusive.

“This is the first time I’ve heard of this in my life,” Ms. Withers told The Commercial Appeal. “My father’s not here to defend himself. That is a very, very strong, strong accusation.”

Mr. Withers is dead, so we can't possibly know his motivations for informing to the FBI.

But I was reminded of the great movie "The Lives of Others," about East Germany's extensive domestic spying program during the Cold War. As that movie -- and ample documentation from that era show -- a surveillance state is a leviathan that does much more than simply "surveil." It reaches into the lives of the people it observes, and the people around them, seeking control through manipulation, fear and the ever-present reminder that you are being watched. We think of ourselves in the West as being more free and more enlightened than East German stooges -- and, mostly, we have been -- but there have been times, such as when J. Edgar Hoover ran the FBI, that it has been a fairly close call.

We should thus mourn the tragedy of Ernest C. Withers, then: a man, maybe a man who could've been great, apparently compromised by forces much bigger than he.

And we should be concerned, too, that some 40 years from now we'll be finding out similar, horrifying revelations, about our friends and neighbors and government. The surveillance state always claims to be acting in the interest of our safety and security. Sometimes, it's even true.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Letter From A Reader on the 'Ground Zero Mosque'

Presented without comment with comments in the comment section:


I'd like to help you put this whole arguement in a perspective you've never considered. All my life, I have admired the athletic, popular, totally successful guys who are so good at what they do, they don't feel that they have to constantly prove themselves. They are confident and secure in their own identity but they never take themselves too seriously.

That's an analogy of the United States population. We are a very benevolent society, having given more to provide food and shelter to the afflicted than all the other countries of the world combined. Who else defeats an enemy in war and then pays to rebuild their country? The US bears the torch of freedom for the rest of the world and we must be doing something right because everyone wants to come here.

Even the malcontents that scream from the rooftops about all that is wrong with our country never stop to thank God that they live in a country where they can shout obsenities and hide behind the internet to dispel their hate without being arrested as traitors.

As for the Muslims. They are a minority, are they not? In a way, that makes them guests in our house where we sweat and fought to build this country long before they got here. We extend our courtesy to them and grant them every right we've earned and initiated. We tolerate them, we tolerate their religion, but, as a virtuous and principled people, we will not tolerate bad behavior, nor should we.

No nation can survive without virtues and values. One of our most cherished values is the right to raise our children as we see fit. We love them, but when they do wrong, it is because we want them to blend into a diverse society that we teach them good behavior. The Muslims that want to build this mosque are exhibiting bad behavior, basically being rude. I mentioned before that minorities can be considered guests in our American 'house' and we will treat them as equals and defend their rights when they show good intent. The Muslims who insist on imposing their will on this country by trying to use our own constitution against us are, without a question, within their rights. However, they are exhibiting bad behavior in our house. As a guest in someone's house, wouldn't you respect their wishes? After all, part of democracy is 'majority rules' and every special interest group cannot be pleased all the time.

One more thing. If I lose a fight/contest/game, I'll be a good sport and gracious loser. But if the person that beat me insists on 'rubbing my nose in the dirt', I get riled. As the tolerant man I mentioned in the beginning, we have been polite but we're tired of being tolerant to people that behave badly and enjoy rubbing our face in the dirt.

Why is it always American that has to be tolerant? Why can't the minority be tolerant and respectful of the wishes of the majority, especially if they insist they want to blend with this majority? What is it about these Muslims that they can't be good guests in our house and let us be good hosts witout having to rub our faces in the dirt? We can be tolerant but allowing our faces to be rubbed in the dirt is just plain cowardice and weakness. We didn't get where we are by being weak.

As a last word, let me offer this comment. If I am a racist because I don't want my face rubbed in the dirt, then you are a traitor for not standing up for your country. Toleration is a good thing, but children have to be taught good behavior and these people must be 'persuaded' to behave as the good citizens they claim to be. Anyone that is OK with this mosque, I wouldn't want on my side in a fight because they have no problem laying down and giving up while their face gets rubbed in the dirt.

This whole arguement is not a legal one and not an arguement of toleration of diverse groups, it's all about pride of country and pride for self.

Jim Crawford
Louisville, Georgia

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Netflix Queue: 'The Men Who Stare At Goats'

A recent New York Times interview with Elliot Gould lamented that -- 40 years after "MASH," nobody is making good American war comedies anymore, a loss to be lamented all the more because there are some aspects of the last decade of tragedy and death that are in ripe need of satire.

Don't listen to the Times. Yes, there's been tons of anti-war schlock out of Hollywood, failures that are cause for joy among conservatives every time one goes down in flames. But the new era has given at least one fairly entertaining war satire: "The Men Who Stare At Goats."

Now: It's not a great movie. It's a deeply flawed movie, in some respects, clumsily playing for pathos near the end -- and coming up with a trick in its last second (literally) that weakened the whole "do they have powers or not?" structure of the flick. And structuring it around the home life of the journalist played by Ewan McGregor was, well, a misfire.

What's more, the movie wasn't really pitched as a war satire in the previews like the one above. Instead, it's sold as a wacky comedy -- more "Sgt. Bilko" with Jedi powers, maybe, instead of "MASH." But most of the movie is set in Iraq during the 2003 invasion -- and it plays for laughs gun battles between Blackwater-type private security contractors, the confusion of Americans unable to distinguish Al Qaeda from common local criminals and, yes, the torture of Iraqis.

Mostly this got missed by critics when the movie came out in 2009 -- focusing on the absurdities of a small-bore program (allegedly) started by the U.S. government instead of what the movie had to say about the big-picture absurdities of our presence in Baghdad. That's ok. The movie only made $32 million at the box office, but I suspect it will age well and garner a new a devoted audience in the years to come. Like the Iraq War itself, it may prove more popular after the fact.

Bag O' Books: "Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War" by Andrew Bacevich

I'm trying to imagine what the world would look like if Andrew Bacevich ran the United States.

Every couple of years, Bacevich -- a retired Army colonel who is now a history professor at Boston U -- releases a new book that goes something like this: America is overextended and entirely too militarized. We need to live within our means, bring the troops home and start practicing a citizenship where all of us (and not just the one-half of one percent of us) serve as citizen soldiers, devoted to the common defense of our nation instead of power projection around the world. "Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War" is another one of these books; Bacevich is a bit of a one-note Johnny -- but it's an interesting, angry, erudite note, and so I keep returning to him.

Instead of rooting him on, though, it might be good to ponder how things change if anybody in power took Bacevich's views seriously.

So what does the world look like if America took Bacevich's advice? Different. There would've been no Iraq War, nor a Vietnam War, nor Korea. (Bacevich is a Vietnam veteran.) We wouldn't have troops in Europe or the Middle East or Asia. I'm guessing that Hawaii and Alaska might not even have statehood status. We wouldn't be importing oil -- our standard of living, as a result, would look quite a bit different -- and we might not be enmeshed in Afghanistan right now, in part, because America's meddling in the rest of the world wouldn't have invited the "blowback" of 9/11.

We'd look a lot more like Switzerland, in other words.

All well and good, I suppose. But there's more than that. In Bacevich's world, maybe the United States doesn't get involved in World War I. That doesn't seem like such a bad deal -- what did Americans get out of that war, exactly? -- but maybe we wouldn't have entered World War II either. Or if we had, we wouldn't have kept troops in Europe during the Cold War, and maybe we would've left Communism ascendant in places that were relatively free during the postwar period.

Much of this is conjecture on my part. But Bacevich's basic idea is that the United States shouldn't be trying to dominate and shape the rest of the world to its liking -- that we should be looking inward, trying to create and perfect our own democracy as an example to the world, rather than a model that we try to push. We should be trying to fix Cleveland and Detroit, he repeatedly says, instead of Baghdad or Kabul.

This sounds isolationist, though Bacevich swears it isn't. And though it's a challenge to the worldview put forward by the Bill Kristol wing of the GOP -- which, in foreign affairs, is actually the only wing that matters -- it also strikes me as profoundly conservative. (Bacevich, despite the Amy Goodman blurb on this book, seems to identify as a conservative of the Ron Paulish variety; he has written for National Review and remains a contributor to American Conservative magazine.)

Conservatives have one pretty nifty insight: That government can't control all the outcomes of its actions, and so the bigger it gets and the more it does, the more problems it is likely to make -- and the more likely it is to infringe on the liberty of people to make their own way in the world. I don't completely buy into the argument, which at its most extreme would eliminate a safety net for many Americans, but I can't disregard it. The problem is that -- for many conservatives -- that insight ends at the shoreline. Many of the folks who root on the Tea Party marchers would say it's not up to the federal government to fix Cleveland or Detroit; somehow, though, many of them are sold on the ability of that same government to fix -- or, at least, repair to a reasonable enough state -- Kabul or Baghdad. They would fly the Gadsden Flag at home, but the American flag over foreign capitals. It's not just inconsistent; it's incomprehensible. At least Americans understand the language and culture and religion and politics of Detroit. We've made a lot of mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan because we didn't know the landscape like we should.

So what does America look like if Bacevich runs it? We're a smaller, probably less-rich place. (America's economic might being both the result and the foundation of our power projection around the world.) We're still rife with conflict -- because, hey, that's what happens in democracies. But maybe we're more civic-minded, more bonded to our neighbors -- and, maybe, a bit less vulnerable to the horrors of the world beyond. (How often to terrorists try to attack Switzerland, after all?) There's something simple and pure, and thus seductive, about this vision. And maybe we'll find out what it looks like in reality sooner than later. We can't afford to be the world's policeman anymore. It would be nicer if we could choose, wisely, that sort of future for ourselves. It looks like we'll have to bankrupt ourselves to it, instead. The result is likely to be unpleasant and wrenching. The good old days are probably over.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Afghanistan Quagmire Alert

Here's a couple of contrasting quotes for you:

Gen. Stanley McChrystal
, 8-30-09, in the memo that laid the foundation for President Obama's surge of American forces in Afghanistan.

The people of Afghanistan represent many things in this conflict -- an audience, an actor, and a source of leverage - but above all, they are the objective. The population can also be a source of strength and intelligence and provide resistance to the insurgency. Alternatively, they can often change sides and provide tacit or real support to the insurgents. Communities make deliberate choices to resist, support, or allow insurgent influence. The reasons for these choices must be better understood.

GIRoA and ISAF have both failed to focus on this objective. The weakness of state institutions, malign actions of power-brokers, widespread corruption and abuse of power by various officials, and ISAF's own errors, have given Afghans little reason to support their government. These problems have alienated large segments of the Afghan population. They do not trust GIRoA to provide their essential needs, such as security, justice, and basic services. This crisis of confidence, coupled with a distinct lack of economic and educational opportunity, has created fertile ground for the insurgency.

...eventual success requires capable Afghan governance capabilities and security forces. While these institutions are still developing, ISAF and the international community must provide substantial assistance to Afghanistan until the Afghan people make the decision to support their government and are capable of providing for their own security.

Today's Washington Post:

U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan are developing a strategy that would tolerate some corruption in the country but target the most corrosive abuses by more tightly regulating U.S. contracting procedures, according to senior defense officials.

American officials here have not spoken publicly about countenancing potentially corrupt local power brokers. Such a stance would run somewhat against the grain of a counterinsurgency doctrine that preaches the importance of building competent governance.

But military officials have concluded that the Taliban insurgency is the most pressing threat to stability in Afghanistan and that a sweeping effort to drive out corruption would create chaos and a governance vacuum that the Taliban could exploit.

So: The Taliban is winning because the Afghanistan government is corrupt.

And: The Taliban is winning, so we can't do anything about the Afghanistan government being corrupt. In fact, we'll find ways to facilitate it!

Friends: That smells like quagmire to me.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Livin' It Up at the Hotel Pennsylvania

Me outside the Empire State Building
(on the right!) on the trip in question.
The first time I stayed at the Hotel Pennsylvania was in the fall of 2004. I had turned 30 a year previously, and had recently concluded it was time for me to be done waiting. I had spent the bulk of my adult life waiting for a mate -- somebody to make me complete, an actual grownup. It was only then, I thought, that I could embark on grownup adventures like trips to New York. Who would ever do such a thing on their own?

There was an obstacle, however: Money. I wasn’t poor, exactly, but I was a journalist, and of course had little money saved. But the idea of a New York trip -- centered around the annual New Yorker Festival -- had taken hold of me.

So I resolved to be profligate -- I would use a credit card -- but not too profligate. I would stay at the cheapest non-scary hotel I could find in Manhattan. A search at gave me just one plausible answer. For less than $200 a night, I could stay at the Hotel Pennsylvania.

What the website didn’t tell me, I would glean soon enough: That once upon a time, the Hotel Pennsylvania had been a thriving New York City hotspot; that Glenn Miller and his band had played there; that Miller’s famous song, “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” took its name from the hotel’s phone number. All I really knew was that in photographs on the Internet, pictures of the rooms looked clean. That was all I needed.

And when I arrived at the hotel, fresh off a plane from Kansas, I was initially dazzled. The lobby was beautiful! You had to show your key to a doorman to get on the elevator! The elevator had a TV! What kind of luxury was this?

My perspective changed when the elevator doors opened on the 14th floor. The hallway was ominous: Threadbare carpeting and dim light, lined by a row of room doors that -- in their size and bulk -- looked like they belonged on meat lockers, or in a morgue.

This is my main memory of the room: A huge, blotchy stain on the carpet that very much appeared to be the result of somebody bleeding to death about 30 years prior. The furnishings, with the exception of the television, seemed to have gone unchanged since the 1970s.

I kind of loved it. No Disneyfied Giuliani New York for me! I was staying in an honest-to-goodness fleabag hotel! This, I felt, revealed something important and flattering about my character.

The Hotel Pennsylvania thus became my New York City lodestar. I spent the next few days walking as far as my legs could carry me around Manhattan. Down the Avenue of the Americas, eventually to Greenwich Village and Washington Square Park, where I was challenged to a chess game. Up through Times Square, to Central Park. One night, I stumbled back to my room -- tipsy on free wine -- up a darkened section of Broadway, returning from a New Yorker event. Another late night, I found myself with a handful of fishnetted thigh -- I’m still not certain how -- as a Greek hooker offered me her services not far from the Ed Sullivan Theater. By the end of my stay, my feet were covered with blisters. Every night, though, they carried me back to the Hotel Pennsylvania.

So I was a little sad to find out the hotel is not long for this world. Sometime in the next few years, it will be demolished to make way for a giant new skyscraper they say will rival the nearby Empire State Building on the New York skyline.

That makes me wistful, because the Hotel Pennsylvania is still where I start my New York experience. The BoltBus from Philadelphia -- where I live now -- drops its passengers at nearby Penn Station. When I visit, I always walk to the hotel to get my bearings, then stroll down 33rd Street for breakfast and the New York Post at Times Square Bagel and Deli, which is nowhere near Times Square. After that, I can begin my business in the city.

It is likely, however, that I have contributed in a small way to the hotel’s demise. Two years after that first stay, I returned to New York -- on a honeymoon. I’d finally grown up. It seemed unwise and unromantic, however, to subject my new wife to bloodstains and a rickety bed. We stayed at a Holiday Inn.

Charles Krauthammer, Barack Obama and the Vagaries of History

Toward the end of his column urging President Obama to embrace being a wartime president, Charles Krauthammer makes a really perplexing statement:

Some presidents may not like being wartime leaders. But they don’t get to decide. History does.

It's a bizarre statement. History is not a force that moves on its own; it's made by people. And presidents, more than most people, have a say about its direction. We went to war in Iraq because one man, President George W. Bush, decided it was in the national interest. If he hadn't wanted the war there, we wouldn't have had it.

We did learn in Iraq that the president's vision and acts aren't the only one that matter. But that's because other people also made decisions. "History" wasn't acting independently of human agency.

Similarly, we're ramping up our involvement in Afghanistan not because "history" demands we do so, but because President Obama, having examined his options, decided it was in the national interest. I happen to disagree with that decision, but it wasn't inevitable.

I suspect that Krauthammer's formulation was just a bit of lazy columnist shorthand, a means of wrapping up an 800-word column with something pithy. It just doesn't stand up scrutiny. People make choices, presidents make choices, and those choices constitute the stuff of history. The problem isn't that President Obama isn't heeding the call of history. It's that he is making choices Krauthammer doesn't like. That's different.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and America's Lost Honor

Glenn Beck has "honor" and "being honored" confused.
Has America lost its honor? That's the topic of my latest Scripps Howard column with Ben Boychuk -- inspired by Glenn Beck's "Restoring America's Honor" rally last weekend. My take:

Has America lost its honor? Absolutely. The campaigns against Muslim mosques in New York City and Murfreesboro, Tenn., represent a profound betrayal of this country's traditional values of religious tolerance.

We Americans should repent the ugliness directed at our Muslim fellow citizens.

What? Wait. You mean that's not the "lost honor" Glenn Beck was talking about? Of course not. Whatever you think of America's honor, one thing is certain: Double standards are alive and well in this country. When liberals point out how America falls short of its ideals, they're often accused of "hating America." When conservatives do the same thing, they're treated like prophetic voices calling citizens back to their roots.

Why is that? Possibly because when liberals call on the country to be true to its ideals, they're asking us to do hard things. Like letting Nazis or the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church march in public. Like providing a process where terrorism suspects can prove their innocence. Like ending torture. These aren't easy tasks, but they're required of a country that enshrines freedom and the rule of law as its founding ideals.

But when conservatives like Beck and Sarah Palin talk about "restoring America's honor," they seem to mean: "Let's feel good about America without worrying about how we sometimes fall short of our ideals."

Just listen to Beck at last weekend's rally: "This country has spent far too long worrying about scars and thinking about scars and concentrating on scars. Today, we are going to concentrate on the good things in America, the things that we have accomplished and the things that we can do tomorrow."

Real honor is duty tempered by humility. It is a devotion to responsibility in the face of opposition and easier ways out. Beck and Palin's version of "honor" isn't the real thing. It's comforting happy talk.

Ben's no Beck fan, I think, but he still differs from me. Read the whole thing for his take.

Walter Phillips Wants Philly Courts To Violate The Constitution

Philly's court system is a mess. Lots of people get charged, but not so many ever make to a plea or a trial: They go underground instead. In today's Philadelphia Inquirer, former prosecutor Walter Phillips provides the solution: Trials in absentia!

One way the city's Common Pleas judges could address this problem - without any expense - would be to take the unified stance that trials will go on even in the absence of such defendants.

The trouble is that many Philadelphia judges just won't call the bluff of absent defendants and follow the law that allows trials to go forward in their absence. A variety of reasons have been advanced for their timid stance: fear of reversal, the awkwardness of forcing defense attorneys to make fundamental decisions without consulting their clients, and just plain lethargy.

This would seem to violate Constitutional guarantees that a defendant can confront the evidence and witnesses against them. But Phillips waves those concerns away, suggesting that there's plenty of Supreme Court precedents suggesting such trials can take place anyway.

And sure, the topic has been addressed by the Supreme Court, but the takeaway is that conducting a trial without the defendant present can take place only in limited circumstances: If a defendant is disruptive during the proceedings, for example, or skips town after the trial has begun.

But widespread, systemic absentia trials for tens of thousands of people? No. Here's why: Those rules allow for the trial to proceed only if a defendant is present at the very beginning of a trial.

There are, I'm sure, exceptions to what I'm about to say. But the problem with absentee defendants in Philly isn't that they show up for the first day -- or first hour -- of their trial, then flee the scene. It's that they don't show up at all.

Philly courts are a real mess, yes. And nobody likes to see justice delayed or denied because some two-bit punk hit the road. But violating the Constitution -- despite Walter Phillips' protestations -- isn't really the way to proceed.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Islamophobia, Park51 and Stu Bykofsky's Collective Guilt For Thee, But Not For Me

Oh, Stu.
Stu Bykofsky's at it again. He's in the Daily News today, taking on the "Ground Zero mosque" issue by decrying the intolerance and insensitivity ... of the left.

No really.

I don't oppose building Cordoba House or Park51, or whatever it's called this week, near Ground Zero, but I understand why many dislike the location.

They are assaulted by the Hard Left as un-American, Islamophobic bigots. Is that fair? Is there no other possible explanation for their opposition?

The Hard Left demands, rightfully, that we not judge all Muslims by the acts of a few, but then judges all conservatives by the acts or remarks of a few.

It's disheartening that the same progressives who condemned Sen. Joe McCarthy's guilt-by-association tactics find it so easy to smear their opponents.

I'm not quite sure who all Stu is lumping into the "hard left" here, but I get the feeling it includes a lot of people who are merely, you know, liberal. And vigorous about defending First Amendment freedoms.

The problem here is that Stu gives the game away with is appraisal of the project.

Two-thirds of Americans agree that Muslims have a right to build it, yet think the location is unhelpful. They may be letting emotion trump reason, but are they Islamophobes?

If you despise - as I do - the Westboro Baptist Church for holding up "God Hates Fags" signs and desecrating soldiers' funerals, are you anti-Christian?

Well, Stu, no. But if you oppose the presence of, say, Lutherans or Catholics or Methodists at military funerals because they're Christians and Fred Phelps is a Christian, then yes: you're anti-Christian. You'd be burdening an entire religion with collective guilt from the actions of a few jerks. And that would be irrational, unthinking and unconcerned with the facts. More than that: It would be wrong.

That's more or less what's happening with the "Ground Zero mosque." (Which, as has been pointed out many times, isn't actually at Ground Zero.)

So what Stu is really saying here is: Collective guilt for thee, but not for me. It's understandable that all Muslims be painted as terrorists-in-waiting, but oh so unfair to paint all critics as Islamophobes! Stu's complaint breaks down under the weight of its own contradictions.

It also breaks down under the weight of, you know, the facts: Plenty of liberals have praised Sen. Orrin Hatch -- a conservative's conservative -- for defending the First Amendment rights of the Park51 leaders. Lots of them have linked to columns by former Bush aides Michael Gerson and Mark McKinnon mounting a similar defense. So we're not calling all conservatives "Islamophobes." Just the Islamophobic ones.