Saturday, December 30, 2006

Execution of Saddam Hussein

The "fun": a noxious cad's demise.
Infamous, chained . . . exodus set.
Sin unexcused, hated mafioso!
US foe axed? US sanctioned him!

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The Not-So-Glorious Pageant of Mets History

I haven't written much about my New York Mets lately. Not only is it the off season, but Omar Minaya hasn't made any impressive talent acquisitions this winter. Like most Mets bloggers, I've had a mixed reaction to the loss of Barry Zito to the Giants: I would have liked to add him to our rotation, but the price the Giants ended up paying ($17 million per year over seven years) seems absurdly high. On the whole, I'm inclined to give Omar the benefit of the doubt on this year's apparent lack of activity; he has been so effective in his Mets tenure so far that he deserves that much.

With the news commentary out of the way, let me recommend to my fellow Mets fans this ongoing series of hot-stove diaries at Amazin' Avenue, one of the best Mets-oriented blogs. It's a collection of articles by Eric Simon discussing The 50 Top Mets of All Time, and based on how thorough and interesting each of the first three articles has been, the entire package will amount practically to a book about the best Mets players in team history.

Most striking observation: how very mediocre the "best" Mets have been. Eric's first three choices (top Mets #50, #49, and #48) are Rey Ordonez, Bernard Gilkey, and Kevin Elster--two better-than-average defensive infielders who couldn't hit, and a journeyman outfielder who had one outstanding offensive season. I suspect that none of these would crack even the top 150 list of such franchises as the Dodgers, Cardinals, or Red Sox--to say nothing of the hated Yankees.

Of course, by the time Eric gets to the very top of his list, there will be a handful of truly excellent ballplayers to discuss--Seaver, Piazza, Carter, Hernandez, Strawberry. But let's face it, those pickings are pretty slim. Being a Mets fan has always been an exercise in patience: slogging through long periods of crummy play waiting for a few bright periods in the sunlight.

Thankfully, we seem to be in the midst of one of those bright periods right now--here's hoping it'll hang around for a few years.

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Friday, December 29, 2006

John Edwards--Traitor To His Class

Just saw John Edwards being interviewed on CNN--a typically hostile, vaguely sarcastic interview, replete with questions like, "The voters in your home state rejected you in 2004. Why should they find you any more attractive a second time around?"

Here was the lead-in they used to introduce the whole segment (paraphrased): "Coming up, an interview with presidential candidate John Edwards. Does his enormous personal wealth undermine his credibility as a spokesperson for America's poor?"

We've heard this sort of sniping about "limousine liberals" before. It always leaves me wondering: Who is the penniless person that CNN and the rest of the media have chosen to be the "credible" spokesperson for the poor? Where is the homeless guy or the single mom working at Wal-Mart to whom Wolf Blitzer and Chris Matthews are planning to devote scores of hours of coverage between now and the Iowa caucuses?

I assume there must be such a person, since the "liberal media" would obviously not want the perspective of the poor to be ignored altogether. Their only motive for trashing the motives of any advocate for the less-fortunate who is not poor is simply to protect the integrity of a cause to which they're deeply committed. That's right, isn't it? Isn't it?

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

A Decent Man Who Made a Terrible Mistake

In the wake of the news of the passing of Gerald Ford, the operative word for describing his presidency appears to be "healing." But if that were an accurate description of Ford's administration, why are we currently suffering from an even worse version of Nixon's imperial, anti-constitutional presidency under the auspices of George W. Bush? Rather than healing the cancer, Dr. Ford seems merely to have presided over a brief period of remission. After recurring during the Reagan administration, today that cancer has metastasized and is threatening to kill the patient once and for all.

An aspect of the Ford pardon controversy that doesn't get mentioned enough is that fact that the pardon clearly violated the spirit of the Constitution and the express intentions of the founders. Article 1, section 3 states:
Judgement, in cases of impeachment, shall not extend further than to removal from office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honour, trust or profit, under the United States; but the party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to indictment, trial, judgement and punishment, according to law.
This clause could have ended with the words "United States." But the authors of the Constitution deliberately made a different choice. They carefully specified that a government official who lost his post through impeachment should also be subject to the normal processes of criminal law--not exempt from those processes, as Nixon was rendered through Ford's pardon.

I would not have objected if Ford had pardoned Nixon after the former president had been tried and either convicted or (less likely) acquitted. I had no special desire to see Nixon led away to a jail cell in handcuffs. But by pardoning Nixon before indictment or trial and thereby preventing an open airing in court of all the evidence relevant to the Watergate offenses, Ford damaged the nation in several ways:
  1. He made it easier for Republican revisionists to spread the notion that Nixon and his fellow conspirators were victimized by the Democrats for partisan reasons rather than because of the crimes they committed.
  2. He created a precedent for treating crimes against the Constitution as mere political pecadillos "(the criminalization of policy differences," as Bush the elder claimed during Iran-Contra) rather than as the serious offenses they are.
  3. He signaled that the president is not subject to the law, like all other citizens, but rather is above the law.

Emboldened by the pardon, a generation of Republicans--including Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld--made it their mission to restore power to the supposedly crippled White House. They took the process part of the way under Reagan, and under Bush the younger have been striving to complete the mission of transforming US government into a kind of elective monarchy. The chief question we face over the next two years will be whether the Democratic congress has the insight and will to arrest the process.

Gerald Ford seems to have been a decent man, and from the vantage point of 2006 it is easy to wax nostalgic over the memory of a truly centrist, civil, generally honest Republican president. But his chief legacy, the pardon of Nixon, was a terrible mistake that (I fear) will someday be recognized by historians as one of the milestones in the downfall of the American republic.

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Sunday, December 24, 2006

Virgil Goode and His Koran-Wielding Bogeyman

Speaking of immigration . . . you've no doubt heard about the controversy over Virginia Congressman Virgil Goode's attack on Congressman-elect Keith Ellison. Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota, is the first Muslim to be elected to Congress, and he has said he plans to use the Koran rather than the Christian Bible during his private, unofficial swearing-in ceremony. (Traditionally, no book of any kind is used during the public, official swearing-in ceremony for members of Congress.)

In response, Goode denounced Ellison in a letter to his own constituents, saying, among other things,

If American citizens don't wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration, there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran.
Later, when interviewed on Neil Cavuto's Fox TV program on December 22nd, Goode invoked the nightmare scenario of "a majority of Muslims elected to the United States House of Representatives." (Let's see: After 226 years, we just elected our first-ever Muslim to Congress, leaving 434 non-Muslim representatives. If we add another Muslim every 226 years, how long until Muslims make up a majority? Maybe someone with better math skills can help me with the projection.)

Now, the "immigration" issue is a total red herring in this case, since Ellison is not an immigrant to this country--in fact, his family has been in the US since 1742. But it gives at least a wisp of plausible cover to Goode's bigotry. And that's plenty for the conservative punditocracy to run with, as seen in the following exchange on CNN's Situation Room. ("Jeffrey" is Terry Jeffrey, editor of the conservative magazine Human Events.)
JEFFREY: I'm someone who lived in the Muslim world. Twenty years ago I lived in Cairo, Egypt, studied Arabic at the American University in Cairo, had Muslim roommates. I believe Cairo may be the largest Muslim city in the world. It is a city that is very peaceful and not much crime there, a great place. I know that Muslims can be good neighbors. I know they can be good neighbors and Americans here.

I do think under Virgil Goode's concern, there is something Americans should think about. America is a culture I think is basically rooted in the Judeo-Christian civilization of the West. Egypt is a country that is rooted in the civilization of Islam. I think history has shown where you have countries that are divided between those two civilizations it causes friction we don't want to have in the United States and I think that's a legitimate concern for immigration policy.

BLITZER: You think we should block Muslims from coming into this country?

JEFFREY: I think we need to have a immigration policy to make sure the immigrants we bring in are assimilated into our culture and become fully Americans.

And I think quite frankly right now we have a situation where we've had too many immigrants come in legally and illegally and the at the same time the engines of assimilation in the United States have been broken down by multiculturalism.

I think we need to solve that first.
This "clash of civilizations" blather is useful because it makes anti-immigrant spokespeople like Jeffrey, Pat Buchanan, and Lou Dobbs sound like thoughtful, big-picture analysts concerned about the grand sweep of history, the rise and fall of empires, cultural trajectories, and other hifalutin topics out of Edward Gibbon or Samuel Huntington rather than simple bigots a la David Duke.

But let's spend ninety seconds analyzing their actual position. The conservatives evidently want to stop immigration by non-"Judeo-Christians." That eliminates not only Muslims but Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and adherents of most of the other religions of Asia, Africa, and the developing world (to say nothing of atheists and other non-believers). Too bad if you're a Japanese scientist, an Indian computer programmer, a Taiwanese mathematician, or an engineer from Nigeria--you're not welcome in Virgil Goode's America.

The challenge is even bigger than this, however. Remember the Mexicans, the only group that the Lou Dobbses of the world are more worried about than even the Muslims. The last time I looked, the Mexicans were Christians--many of them quite devout, as it happens. But in the eyes of conservative anti-immigrationists, their Christian faith doesn't make up for the fact that they're poor, often relatively unskilled, and eager to take jobs in the US at modest wages. So accepting "Judeo-Christian" culture won't earn you a welcome from the guardians of our borders--bad news for the millions of people from Central and South America who would like to help participate in (and build) the US economy.

It's beginning to be unclear who exactly would qualify to enter the US if Goode or Jeffrey were in charge of immigration policy.

Africans? Maybe if they are middle-class, highly educated, and untainted by "multiculturalism"--no Kente cloth or bougaroubou music, please!

Western Europeans? Surely not those secular-minded, Muslim-appeasing, brie-eating, Volvo-driving, universal-health-care-guaranteeing surrender monkeys (who in any case are going the way of the Etruscans and can't be bothered to reproduce their own numbers, let alone providing emigres to the US).

I suppose we could make room for a few Canadians or Australians, if they are the right sort. (At least they know English, our noble language under siege from the bilingualists.)

But hey, let's just keep this simple. The ideal solution is to shut and lock the doors to America and throw away the keys. That's the only way we can be sure we're protecting America from the mortal danger posed by Keith Ellison and his Koran.

What a weird, frightening fantasy world Virgil Goode and his conservative compatriots must live in. They would surely deserve our pity . . . except for the fact that, in the real world, they wield power which they use to make life harder for the rest of us, all in a vain effort to stave off the nightmares they live with.

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The Menace of the Mexican Melons

A bit of reporting from the public opinion front lines:

Scanning the produce section in our Local Stop and Shop store yesterday morning, I couldn't help overhearing the shouted questions of a big burly guy with a stubbly gray beard and a baseball cap (bearing a slight resemblance to Michael Moore) to the clerk on duty:

BURLY GUY: Was this lettuce born in America?

CLERK: Yeah.

BURLY GUY: What about this melon? Smells great, but where's it from?

CLERK: I dunno, I'll have to check.

I rolled my cart over towards the Burly Guy.

ME: Excuse me, I'm just curious. How come you want to know where the produce comes from?

BURLY GUY: Because I don't want to buy anything from Mexico.

ME: Oh yeah? How come?

BURLY GUY: 'Cause of everything--the illegal immigration, the drugs . . . the other day they arrested two Americans [rising tone of outrage] because they shot a drug dealer coming over the border! Don't you listen to Lou Dobbs?

ME: [Getting the drift and beginning to edge away] Uh, once in a while.

BURLY GUY: [Laughing] He's driving me crazy! [Surprising bit of self-awareness there, wouldn't you say?] And now you've got me going, early in the morning!

ME: [Chuckling uneasily] Well, it's Christmas time. A good time to think about peace and harmony . . .

BURLY GUY: [Now muttering in a tone of annoyance] Yeah, but those nuts won't even let us say Merry Christmas! [I don't think he was talking about the Mexicans at this point.] It's gotta be Happy Holidays!

ME: [Fleeing to the deli counter] Hey, you can feel free to say Merry Christmas as far as I'm concerned. Have one on me . . .

Later that morning, while rolling my cart down the dairy aisle, I bumped into Burly Guy again, and we greeted each other as buddies. By this time, the obvious counter-argument to Burly Guy's personal boycott had occurred to me--namely, that damaging the Mexican economy is not exactly the best way to discourage immigration to the United States. But I didn't launch a debate with Burly Guy, just got a quart of heavy cream to make ice cream for Christmas Eve and beat a hasty retreat. Maybe he'll read this post and we can engage the issues of Mexican immigration and the War on Christmas online . . .

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Friday, December 22, 2006

Curl Up With a Good Carnival

Carnival of the Liberals launches its second year with a Christmas edition at Living the Scientific Life. Some excellent stuff here, as usual (including one of our diaries)--check it out.
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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Episcopal Schism "Very Well Staged"

Updated below

You've probably been reading and hearing about the "schism" within the Episcopal church over issues like the empowerment of women, abortion, and, especially, gay rights. Here is a side of the story you haven't seen reflected in the MSM.

This article from the church's official Episcopal News Service describes the experiences of Sandra Kirkpatrick and Dawn Mahaffey, two longtime members of St. Stephen's Church in Heathsville, Virginia. It's one of eight parishes in the state that recently voted to "secede" from the Episcopal church and place themselves under the leadership of a new right-wing splinter organization headed by a bishop from Nigeria.

In December 2003, Kirkpatrick said, a vestry survey showed that the majority of St. Stephen's members wanted to remain in the Episcopal Church.

However, Mahaffey recalled, the perceived failings of the Episcopal Church "became the topic of [Rector Jeffrey Cerar's] sermons from that point forward. It did not matter what the liturgy was for any given Sunday or what the Gospel was, there was always a way to bring the topic around to that issue. We very often got the message that the Episcopal Church had sinned and needed to be repentant."

"It got to the point that our needs for pastoral oversight and ministry were not being met because of the single-minded focus on this issue. We were not hearing the Word and how that was applicable in our daily lives. I don't think we were being ministered to in all of our needs."

There was a "steady outgo of people who found this message intolerable," Kirkpatrick said, and a "steady influx" of people who approved of the leadership's position.

"Everyone down here knew that St. Stephen's was taking this stance," she said.

Mahaffey said the growing disaffection with the Episcopal Church "has been very well staged."

"I think it has been sold to the congregation," she said. "Three years of hearing it week after week after week."

The issue of homosexuality was the "precipitating event but it has gone so far beyond that that I haven't even heard that mentioned in probably the last year," Kirkpatrick said. "The first year it was an issue, but not since. It has been: 'We know the truth and we are telling it to you. If you don't accept this truth then you really don't belong here."
After almost three years of this, the parishioners voted to support Father Cerar's "secessionist" proposal. It's an interesting approach to democratic governance. I tell you what: Give me control of a church pulpit for close to three years, let me use that pulpit to promulgate my social and political beliefs every Sunday, and I bet by the end of the experiment the majority of people remaining in the pews will be people who agree with me.

The so-called conservatives who support the secessionists might respond to my sarcasm by saying, "You liberals can dish it out, but you can't take it. Why is it all right for the church to ordain homosexuals, thereby advancing your left-wing agenda, while our traditional values have to be silenced?"

Personally, I wouldn't much care for a parish where the rector preached a sermon in support of acceptance for homosexuality every single week. There are other topics of importance in the life of the church. So I have serious questions about any priest who chooses to use his weekly sermon exclusively to promote a political agenda--whether I happen to agree with that agenda or not.

More important, however, let's remember that this is not a symmetrical debate. The "liberals" in the church are not forcing or urging anyone to be gay. They are not forcing parishes to recognize gay unions. They are not even forcing anyone to have gay friends or a gay rector. (Episcopal churches hire their own priests, and each parish is free to be as progressive or conservative as they like in their choice.) They are simply permitting individual parishes and dioceses to recognize gay rights--and, if they choose, to recognize the ability of gay men and women to serve as deacons, priests, and bishops.

So if the "conservatives" feel they can no longer remain members of today's Episcopal church, it's not because anyone is forcing unacceptable religious, liturgical, political, or even "lifestyle" choices upon them. It's simply because--metaphorically speaking--they can't stand being in the same room with certain of their fellow Christians.

I think that schisms within and between denominations are very unfortunate. I believe God wants all humans to be brothers and sisters--and obviously that should apply to all Christians as well. I appreciate the good-faith efforts that the "liberals" in the church have made to accommodate the strong feelings of their "conservative" brethren (and susteren--as in Greta?), including the self-imposed 15-month moratorium on ordinations of gay clergy consecrations of gay bishops that the church maintained through June of this year. Christians who find themselves at odds with one another over matters of faith or practice shouldn't be in a hurry to head for the divorce court.

But if, upon careful reflection, the "conservatives" decide that they find me or certain of my fellow Christians so repugnant that they can't bring themselves to share the same church with me--all I can say is, they shouldn't let the door hit them on the way out. And if, as they depart, they expect to claim ownership of church property that generations of Episcopalians, straight and gay, helped to pay for--well, we "liberals" can hire lawyers, too.


In my original version of this post, I goofed--I described the moratorium from March, 2005 through June, 2006 as having been a moratorium on ordaining gay clergy. Actually, it was a moratorium on consecrating gay bishops, as reflected in my correction above. Sorry for my error.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

A Good Night's Sleep for Bush

I came across this feel-good story on the New York Times website today, about the extraordinary level of support children of deployed soldiers receive at a school on Fort Bragg. The article talks about a five-year-old girl who began suffering from nightmares and sleeplessness after her father was deployed in September. It ends with an incredibly sad image of the little girl trying to sing herself to sleep with a song her teacher made up for her, in which sleeping is ok because she can dream of being with her father again: "I can dream we're going to play piggy-back ride. I can dream we're going to play Xbox. I can go to sleep now. And dream we're going to eat lunch together."

This brought to mind a Bush quote I saw on Salon last week, from an interview he did with People magazine: "I must tell you, I'm sleeping a lot better than people would assume." (I'm SO happy for him!) I wonder if Mr. Bush would be interested in justifying to this little girl how he can sleep at night when he has put her father and so many others into harm's way, and been responsible for thousands of deaths, due to his arrogance, ignorance, and cowboy machismo? If not, perhaps he can give her some tips on how to be as callous and self-centered as he is, so maybe she can get a good night's sleep too.
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Would You Buy a Used War From These Men?

Here is Digby of Hullabaloo on the reality behind the president's "surge" initiative:
Fred Barnes just said that it's not true that the joint chiefs unanimously oppose an escalation of the war--it's that they are afraid Bush won't send enough troops to get the job done and that if it's a temporary escalation, the whole place will fall apart after we pull those troops back out.

He didn't think those were important differences of opinion, naturally, because he has once again cast his lot with Junior, but really, these are huge and serious concerns.

It's clear that Bush is listening to these armchair Napoleons because they are saying that he can "win" if he just sends in a few more troops for a few months and claps louder. And his generals are all saying that the only way he can "win" is with a massive new army that stays in Iraq forever. That is the reality based choice for "winning." Period. And it isn't going to happen because 70% of the country have wised up to the fact that this pony hunt is making the country less safe and it's costing us our future.
Maybe you're getting tired of Iraq/Vietnam analogies, but it seems to me that we are in much the same place we were in May, 1967, when I.F. Stone wrote this:
Let us put the case in the most hard-boiled terms. The United States can win this war in Vietnam if it is prepared to put in a million men, or more, and then to slug it out patiently year after year until the guerrillas are worn down. It can win if it deliberately de-escalates the firepower and meets the guerrillas on their own terms, in close combat, instead of alienating the entire population with indiscriminate artillery and airpower. A nation of 30 million cannot defeat a nation of 200 million if the bigger nation cares enough to pay the price of victory and has the patience to to pursue it. The key is patience, and patience is what the United States lacks. It is not just the signs of popular opposition to the war which encourage the other side. It is the visible impatience. Even our hawks don't like the war and want to get it over with as quickly as possible. For us the war is a nuisance. For them the war is a matter of life-and-death. They are prepared to die for their country. We are prepared to die for our country too--if it were attacked--but not for the mere pleasure of destroying theirs. This is why they have the advantage of morale, and for this General Dynamics cannot provide a substitute.
The realistic proviso from the Joint Chiefs today and from I.F. Stone in 1967 is what the neocons and the "armchair Napoleons" will never acknowledge. In years to come, after the inevitable failure of our current half-hearted effort, the withdrawal, and the likely emergence of an Iraq ruled by some anti-American, Islamist tyrant--after all this, the right-wingers will launch the same kind of "liberals lost the war" propaganda assault they created after the collapse of Vietnam. And a large chunk of the general public will swallow the line that "we could have won in Iraq"--unaware of the unspoken proviso: " . . . if only we'd committed a million men and women for at least the rest of the decade."

It would be nice if, one day, the tough guys on the right, from McCain and Giuliani on down, would run for office on a platform that discloses, in advance, the true costs of the military adventures they espouse. The only question to be decided on Election Day would be whether they'd lose to Hillary or Obama by more or less than twenty percentage points.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Muhammad Yunus's Vision

Here's a link to Muhammad Yunus's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. It is short and well worth reading in its entirety, but for those with lazy trigger fingers, here are a couple of choice excerpts.

I became involved in the poverty issue not as a policymaker or a researcher. I became involved because poverty was all around me, and I could not turn away from it. In 1974, I found it difficult to teach elegant theories of economics in the university classroom, in the backdrop of a terrible famine in Bangladesh. Suddenly, I felt the emptiness of those theories in the face of crushing hunger and poverty. I wanted to do something immediate to help people around me, even if it was just one human being, to get through another day with a little more ease. That brought me face to face with poor people's struggle to find the tiniest amounts of money to support their efforts to eke out a living. I was shocked to discover a woman in the village, borrowing less than a dollar from the money-lender, on the condition that he would have the exclusive right to buy all she produces at the price he decides. This, to me, was a way of recruiting slave labor.

I decided to make a list of the victims of this money-lending "business" in the village next door to our campus.

When my list was done, it had the names of 42 victims who borrowed a total amount of US $27. I offered US $27 from my own pocket to get these victims out of the clutches of those money-lenders. The excitement that was created among the people by this small action got me further involved in it. If I could make so many people so happy with such a tiny amount of money, why not do more of it?

That is what I have been trying to do ever since.


Capitalism centers on the free market. It is claimed that the freer the market, the better is the result of capitalism in solving the questions of what, how, and for whom. It is also claimed that the individual search for personal gains brings collective optimal result.

I am in favor of strengthening the freedom of the market. At the same time, I am very unhappy about the conceptual restrictions imposed on the players in the market. This originates from the assumption that entrepreneurs are one-dimensional human beings, who are dedicated to one mission in their business lives--to maximize profit. This interpretation of capitalism insulates the entrepreneurs from all political, emotional, social, spiritual, environmental dimensions of their lives. This was done perhaps as a reasonable simplification, but it stripped away the very essentials of human life.

Human beings are a wonderful creation embodied with limitless human qualities and capabilities. Our theoretical constructs should make room for the blossoming of those qualities, not assume them away.

Many of the world's problems exist because of this restriction on the players of free-market. The world has not resolved the problem of crushing poverty that half of its population suffers. Healthcare remains out of the reach of the majority of the world population. The country with the richest and freest market fails to provide healthcare for one-fifth of its population.

We have remained so impressed by the success of the free-market that we never dared to express any doubt about our basic assumption. To make it worse, we worked extra hard to transform ourselves, as closely as possible, into the one-dimensional human beings as conceptualized in the theory, to allow smooth functioning of free market mechanism.

By defining "entrepreneur" in a broader way we can change the character of capitalism radically, and solve many of the unresolved social and economic problems within the scope of the free market.


I support globalization and believe it can bring more benefits to the poor than its alternative. But it must be the right kind of globalization. To me, globalization is like a hundred-lane highway criss-crossing the world. If it is a free-for-all highway, its lanes will be taken over by the giant trucks from powerful economies. Bangladeshi rickshaw will be thrown off the highway. In order to have a win-win globalization we must have traffic rules, traffic police, and traffic authority for this global highway. Rule of "strongest takes it all" must be replaced by rules that ensure that the poorest have a place and piece of the action, without being elbowed out by the strong. Globalization must not become financial imperialism.
As these excerpts perhaps suggest, Yunus is a very interesting thinker, quite difficult to pigeonhole. Conservatives might appreciate his emphasis on self-help and his scorn for most government interventions in the economy. (In my conversations with him, he expresses impatience and disdain whenever the idea of relying on government to alleviate poverty is mentioned.) Conservatives would also respect his appreciation for the role of cultural factors in perpetuating poverty. The Grameen Bank's "Sixteen Decisions" are a set of personal and social commitments that Yunus sees as being vital to helping individuals and communities become self-sufficient. They represent values (including Discipline, Unity, Courage, and Hard Work) that most conservatives would probably be happy to endorse.

But many economic conservatives would be uneasy with his emphasis on the limitations of the free market. That is why they write silly articles like this one, claiming that Yunus's vision of microcredit is doomed to failure because it fails to pay sufficient obeisance to the profit motive. (For the record, Andrew Curry is wrong when he says that Grameen Bank relies on NGO grants to remain in business. Grameen is financially self-sufficient and has not depended on grant money since 1995. This factual error demolishes Curry's argument that Grameen Bank is a "subsidized" competitor that unfairly undercuts the work of for-profit institutions.)

Yunus has no problem with multinational corporations like Citibank getting into the microcredit business, but he thinks they'd be misguided to expect to make significant profits from it. He likes to say, "There will be plenty of time to make money off the poor in the future--when they are no longer poor."

Yunus's vision of "social business" as a third form of enterprise--self-sustaining, like a traditional business, but focused on building a better world, like a traditional NGO--is still in its formative stage. He used the Nobel speech to introduce that vision to the world, and the new book that I am helping him with will explore it in much more detail.

Does that vision have the potential to eliminate global poverty altogether, as Yunus believes? It's too soon to tell. The goal is incredibly ambitious. But given the enormous positive impact of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, and of the other microcredit institutions that have sprung up around the world in emulation of Grameen, it would be foolish to dismiss Yunus's vision as a mere pipe dream. Yunus is that rare thing--an idealist with a gift for building institutions that work. We need to pay attention to such people.

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Monday, December 11, 2006

Bush's Car: Not Equipped To Make U-Turns

A recurrent theme in the preaching of our friend Joel Mason, the priest at St. Mary the Virgin (Episcopal) church in Chappaqua, New York, is the Hebrew concept of repentance, encapsulated in the noun teshuvah or the verb shuv. As Joel explains, shuv literally means "to return" or "to turn around." When giving a sermon, he illustrates the concept by walking down the aisle of the church and then literally doing a U-turn, to represent what we should do when we realize we are going in the wrong direction. That's what repentance is about. (And as anyone who has ever gotten lost when driving has discovered, the longer you keep going the wrong way, the longer it will take to retrace your steps and start making progress toward your actual goal.)

Which brings us to the cover of this week's Economist magazine (hat tip to Bagnews Notes for drawing attention to it):

Yes, it's a warning to Bush against falling prey to the advice from the Iraq Study Group to set a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. (You can read the editors' leader explaining their reasoning here.) And the image they use is precisely Father Joel's image of teshuvah--except that the editors of The Economist are urging Bush, "Don't reverse course! Keep going in the direction everyone agrees is disastrous! Whatever you do, don't repent!"

I'm dismayed and a little surprised that The Economist is lending itself to the expanding rightwing assault on the ISG's recommendations. I hold no brief for James Baker (the sanctimonious thief of Florida's electoral votes in 2000), but I expected "mainstream conservative" voices to happily line up behind the ISG plan as a way of extricating the US from Iraq without accepting any blame or responsibility for the fiasco. So, like many Democrats, I was hopeful that the release of the ISG report would at least break up the logjam caused by Bush's intransigience.

But then, perhaps it makes little difference what The Economist or anyone else advises Bush. As he loves to remind us, he is The Decider, and his increasingly petulant comments over the last few days make it clear that he intends to do in Iraq exactly what suits him best--which is certainly not to admit error.

For all his Christian posturing, repentance has never been George W. Bush's style.

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Here's My Choice

Who's yours?

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Saturday, December 09, 2006

Meaning in the Constitution and the Bible

Several months ago, my friend Rob lent me a pair of short books by Supreme Court justices--A Matter of Interpretation by Antonin Scalia and Active Liberty by Stephen Breyer. Rob said that the dueling books offered an interesting look at contrasting ways of interpreting the law. (A Matter of Interpretation also contains essays responding to Scalia by Gordon Wood, Laurence Tribe, Mary Ann Glendon, and Ronald Dworkin.)

Well, life intervened and I didn't even crack open the books until the last two weeks. Sorry, Rob! But now that I've read them I can confirm that they do indeed offer an interesting and clear contrast between "conservative" and "liberal" ways of reading and applying the written law--especially, of course, the constitution.

Now of course I am neither a lawyer nor a constitutional scholar. But as a writer, editor, and sometime literature student, I have spent my life immersed in the question of how we derive meaning from texts. And based on that experience, I must say that I find Breyer's way of reading and using the constitution, which focuses on interpreting individual clauses in the light of the document's broad underlying purpose--namely, to foster democracy in both American government and American society--very reasonable.

By contrast, Scalia takes what he calls a "textualist" approach. He scoffs at any attempt to divine the Founders' "intent" or "purpose," considering this inherently subjective and therefore an open invitation to read into the constitution any damn thing we like. Per Scalia, the remedy is focus solely on what he calls "the meaning of the text."

This might be all right as a starting point. But unfortunately, Scalia seems to think that the "meaning" of the constitution is self-evident, since he never really defines it. And for me this gives away the whole game. As far as I can see, what Scalia is doing is pretending that the law's "meaning" is obvious so that he can make that "meaning" whatever he wants it to be in a specific instance. Which is where atrocities like Bush v. Gore come from.

(Scalia's book was published in 1997, prior to Bush v. Gore, so he had no opportunity in its pages to explain or justify how--for the purposes of deciding a single case and giving the presidency to George W. Bush--he and the other right-wing justices suddenly discovered an entirely new and unprecedented "meaning" in the fourteenth amendment. Talk about reading one's personal political views into the constitution! It's hard to see how anyone can ever again take so-called conservative jurisprudence seriously in the wake of that decision.)

So much for my broad-brush reaction to the books. But I was struck by the similarities between Scalia's textualist approach to the constitution and the literalist (mis)reading of the Bible by fundamentalist Christians. For Scalia, the constitution is a fount of inerrant governmental wisdom that is in continual danger of being polluted by liberals who are eager to use it to support their most sinister doctrines, from abortion rights to affirmative action. To keep from sliding down that slippery slope, we must cling fast to "the meaning of the text" as Scalia sees it, since that is the only bulwark between us and the chaos of individual subjectivity.

In the same way, the fundamentalist Christians I've known view the Bible as their sole bulwark against all the evils of modern society. They fear and abhor "liberal" (i.e. non-literalist) readings of the Biblical text because these allow people to "pick and choose" which religious doctrines they will take seriously and which they will discard. We must cling to the Word of God, the fundamentalists say, or else we'll find ourselves sliding down the slope that leads from gay rights to child pornography to devil-worship.

At bottom, both attitudes are driven by fear--the fear that, if we try to use our powers of reason to analyze, interpret, and make sense of the wisdom of the past, we will inevitably be betrayed by our human weaknesses and end up floundering in error and sin.

I understand this worry. Our individual powers of reason are indeed fallible, and we make lots of mistakes when we rely upon them. Unfortunately, there's no alternative to thinking for ourselves. (That's life for you.) The fact is that "meaning" is never as unitary and obvious a thing as the fundamentalists imagine. When we pretend it is, we inject our own biases into our sacred texts without even realizing it.

Hence such gross inconsistencies as Bush v. Gore. Or, on the religious side, the fact that virtually every fundamentalist Christian ignores dozens of rules laid out in Biblical books like Deuteronomy and Numbers while exalting others to the status of shibboleths. For example, Leviticus 19:19 says:
Ye shall keep my statutes. Thou shalt not let thy cattle gender with a diverse kind: thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed: neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woollen come upon thee.
About a page later, Leviticus 20:13 says:
If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.
Right-wing Christians are forever quoting the latter text, since it's one of the very few Bible verses that share their obsession with homosexuality. But they never quote the former text, because they have nothing personally against linen/woolen blended fabrics.

Now, it's possible to develop a theory as to why some Biblical proscriptions should be taken seriously today, almost three thousand years after they were first written down, while others can be safely ignored. But this would mean interpreting the broader meaning, purpose, or intent of the Bible--exercises of personal judgment that fundamentalists deplore. So they don't bother. Instead, they just cherry-pick texts they like and disregard others, falling victim to the very subjectivity they so greatly fear.

Of course, I'm not the first person to notice this parallel between Christian fundamentalism and constitutional textualism--in fact, Biblical scholar Jaroslav Pelikan has written a whole book about it. But it's interesting to note one more specific similarity between Scalia and the Biblical fundamentalists: Both insist on reading very different texts as if they contain exactly the same kinds of meaning.

Laurence Tribe points out this flaw in Scalia's reasoning in his essay responding to Scalia in A Matter of Interpretation. As Tribe explains, Scalia treats every line of the constitution with basically equal literalism. For example, Article II specifies the qualifications for the presidency this way:
No person except a natural born citizen, or a citizen of the United States, at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that office who shall not have attained to the age of thirty five years, and been fourteen Years a resident within the United States.
Meanwhile, the first amendment defines several of our most basic freedoms like this:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Now it seems clear that these two texts are working on very different levels of abstraction. The former, as Tribe puts it, specifies "a quite definite architecture" of government, while the latter proclaims "open-ended principles." The former clause demands a straightforward, literal application, while the latter cries out for interpretation in the light of evolving cultural, political, and social conditions. To read both texts as if their meanings were equally narrow, definite, and unchanging seems perverse. But this, in effect, is what Scalia's textualism tries to do.

This is very similar to the mistake many Christian fundamentalists make in reading the Bible. They fail to recognize that some books of the Bible consist of history, some of theology, some of legal, social, and political teachings, some of poetry, some of fable, some of mystic visions, and some a blend of several genres. As far as they are concerned, it is all "the Word of God" whose truth is self-evident and therefore requires no theory or practice of interpretation. As a result, they read the Bible as if they have no idea what they're reading.

To cite the most egregious example, they read the opening books of Genesis, which present an ancient myth about the spiritual relationship between God and creation, as if they were a scientific text book. On that silly basis they've launched a legal and educational war against modern biology, geology, and astronomy. This is what you get when you think you can avoid "interpretation" and just cling thoughtlessly to "the plain truth."

Thoughtful reading, whether in political science or in religion, is hard work. It's about understanding the context of what you read, the purposes for which it was written, and the underlying intentions of its authors, and then (in the case of the Bible or the constitution) applying all that in the light of your understanding of our contemporary issues and needs. It's not about clinging to comfortable, unexamined assumptions in the hopes that this will save you from the dangers of thinking for yourself.

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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Acorns From a Feckless Bush

In the end, this WaPo column by Michael Kinsley comes out about where I do on the cultural and political significance of the Bush twins. But Kinsley sure opens his column with some shaky reasoning:
It is not the fault of Jenna or Barbara Bush that their father, the president, has gotten us into a war that he doesn't know how to get us out of. And, although you can blame parents for almost anything, George W. and Laura Bush are no longer responsible for the behavior of their twin daughters, who are in their mid-20s. Presidents, like the rest of us, don't get to choose their relatives. Remember Billy Carter?
Now hold on there, Michael. I certainly wouldn't hold anyone responsible, morally or socially, for the behavior of their siblings. That applies to Jimmy Carter and brother Billy, and to George W. Bush and brother Neil of savings-and-loan scandal fame (an example Kinsley mentions later in his column).

But kids are a very different matter--even if they have reached the ripe old age of the mid-twenties. George and Barbara may not be legally liable for the behavior of the twins. But it's not unfair to assume that the girls' lifestyle reflects the values, interests, and sense of responsibility (or lack thereof) they learned in their parents' home.

If Jenna and Barbara had turned out as paragons of intelligence, diligence, and generosity, I'd be inclined to regard that as evidence that "their mom and dad must have done something right." (That's what I find myself saying whenever the topic of Chelsea Clinton comes up.)

On the other hand, when officials at the US Embassy in Buenos Aires ask the Bush twins to leave the country to prevent international embarassment--well, I can't help wondering about what kind of parenting they got. (An embassy spokesman later denied the report. You can decide what you believe. In any case, this is scarcely the first time the twins' antics have caused eyes to roll.)

Everyone knows that high-quality parenting doesn't guarantee that kids will be wise and mature--and some kids turn out better than their upbringing would lead you to expect. But it's just not accurate to imply that there's no connection whatever, leaning on the old saw, "You don't get to choose your relatives." As is so often the case, one popular saying needs to be balanced with another: "The acorn doesn't fall far from the tree."

I wouldn't push this point it not for the fact that Bush and the so-called conservative movement he leads love to lecture the rest of us about "family values" and "personal responsibility," and to sneer at the supposed moral laxity of Democrats and liberals. And when it comes to poor people, these conservatives have no hesitation about making people pay for the mistakes of their relatives--even to the point of evicting a grandmother from public housing in retaliation for her grandson's drug use.

Hypocrisy isn't the world's most grievous sin. But the more self-righteous and judgmental you are toward others, the bigger the target you make yourself for a justifiable backlash. So if George and Barbara find themselves getting skewered for the fecklessness of their daughters--hey, that seems like rough justice to me. It's life's way of telling them, "Stuff the lectures--get your own house in order instead."

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Time Flies When You're Having Fun

It's already the first anniversary of Carnival of the Liberals. Drop by and have a cupcake, why don't cha?
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Monday, December 04, 2006

An Unfair Hit on Democratic Bloggers

If you read the op-ed page in the Sunday New York Times--surely the best-read and most prestigious op-ed page in the country--you undoubtedly saw this piece by K. Daniel Glover exposing the shocking scandal of political bloggers serving as paid consultants for candidates. Interesting, practically all of the examples Glover cites happen to be Democrats--the merest coincidence, I'm sure.

My immediate reaction to the article--its oddly slanted selection of examples, its weirdly snarky-yet-asserting-nothing tone--was bafflement and suspicion. I've since been reading more about the piece and the controversy it created--including plenty of explanation and self-justification by Glover--and the more I learn, the worse the whole thing smells.

Immediately after reading Glover's article, I emailed him a message. Here it is, with some amplifications and corrections inserted:
Your original article [which had appeared on the MSNBC website and which Glover later revised for the Times] listed almost equal numbers of Democratic and Republican-paid bloggers. [The actual numbers were 10 Democrats and 7 Republicans.] The Times article of today lists only one Republican but many Democrats! [I missed one Republican; the Times article actually listed 11 Democrats and 2 Republicans.] What gives? Is this an attempt to make Democrats look "corrupt" because they have been paying bloggers for campaign help?
Here is Glover's reply, as it appeared on his website:

The Times wanted me to focus on people who had their own blogs and then went to work for campaigns. My original piece also included people who were paid to blog for campaigns or advise them on Internet strategy but who weren't independent bloggers beforehand. Most of those happened to be Republicans; most of the former happened to be Democrats.

With the exception of McCain hiring Pat Hynes (by choice) and Allen hiring Jon Henke (because of viral online events that spiraled out of control), I'm not aware of many Republican bloggers who worked for campaigns. Both Democrats and Republicans will acknowledge that Democrats have a clear advantage in the online realm at this point.

Furthermore, my article neither states nor implies that anyone, candidates or bloggers, is "corrupt" because of ties between the two. I don't believe that. Candidates have the right to pay for Internet advice, blogging, etc., and bloggers have a right to be paid for that work -- or to do it on a volunteer basis, if they so choose.

I do think it's interesting that some bloggers made a name for themselves by fighting the establishment and billing themselves as revolutionaries but at the same time are willing to work for campaigns. That, to me, is part of the establishment -- at least in a broad sense. And that is the point of my article.

I appreciate Glover's responding to me promptly. And to his credit, he links on his site to a lot of blogosphere commentary about his article, much of it harshly critical. (If you're interested, you can easily check these out, but for those of you who have lives you might want to just check out Micah Sifry's post, which does a good job of distilling most of the problems with Glover's article.)

None of this changes the crucial fact: Glover's piece is horribly disingenuous. It's obvious that when you fill almost an entire page of the Sunday New York Times with a chart that details how much money specific bloggers were paid by political campaigns they advised, and then quotes positive comments those bloggers wrote about the politicians they worked for, the innuendo is clear: The opinions of these people who pretend to be independent are actually for sale to the highest bidder.

It's no good to claim later, in response to a query, that you never meant to imply any corruption. The structure of the article and especially its accompanying chart makes the implication overwhelming.

That makes the biases in Glover's article all the more infuriating, especially (1) the editorial shift from an almost-balanced list of Democrats and Republicans to a list practically devoid of Republicans and (2) Glover's failure to acknowledge a crucial fact that only came out in his on-line reponse to Sifry's challenge--that the only paid bloggers he knows of who failed to disclose their professional affiliations in an open, timely, public fashion were Republicans.

It's the casual readers, of course, who will be most seriously misled by Glover. Ninety percent of the people who read Glover's column in the Times will lack detailed knowledge of the blogosphere and won't spend time researching the facts behind his slanted presentation. They will come away with one powerful impression: "Wow, those liberal bloggers are sure a bunch of hypocrites, aren't they?" An impression that even the article's title serves to reinforce: "New on the Web: Politics as Usual."

The effect of the piece is to severely impugn the credibility of the blogosphere, and especially of its liberal side. It may or may not have been Glover's intention to create that impression. (His own site is devoted to news about the blogosphere, and I wouldn't think that smearing the world he lives to cover makes a lot of sense as a career move for Glover.) But it sure looks as if somebody had that goal in mind--if not Glover, then perhaps the editor at the Times who helped shape the article and its accompanying chart.

My guess: Danny Glover is being used by somebody with his own agenda.

One other point. Somebody should tell Glover that "praiseworthy" doesn't mean "containing praise." A blogger's positive comment about Jim Webb or Hillary Clinton is not a "praiseworthy post" about them. I'm frankly more stunned that an elementary usage blooper like that would make it to the Times op-ed page than I am about the bias and deception I'm focusing on here. I mean, slanting an article to unfairly sling mud at a whole class of writers is one thing--but committing a gaffe that must have E.B. White spinning in his grave is quite another.

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Friday, December 01, 2006

A Few Thoughts

Just some small observations from Paris....

1) For a while I have been intrigued by a store I pass on my evening dog walks. The sign has an American flag on it; the name of the store appears to be Nixon; and apparently the "nouvelle collection" is in. What could this store possibly sell? Corruption American-style, updated for the Bush era? And who's buying?

I finally passed it again during the day, when I could look in the window and see...piles of jeans. This makes sense. I guess.

2) I did a little house cleaning the other day and came across some American coins, which had been in my pocket when I got off the plane. I was delighted to find that the coins looked so strange to me! They're all so thin and light, and the quarter is so big! So after 20+ years of handling American money, it only takes two months for it to seem alien.

3) It is amazing how important facial expressions become when one only marginally understands the language being spoken. And, more interesting, how much more I notice minute changes in facial expressions that I don't think I even registered before. When I am out walking the dog, I get asked for directions fairly often, which makes sense. Today someone driving a van stopped to ask me for a street; I didn't understand what he was saying, so he repeated himself, and then in the tiny time lapse between him repeating his question and me understanding what he was asking, I could see by his facial expression that he was about to give up and ask someone else. I am happy to say that I both knew where the street was and was able to tell him.

4) Finally, walking the dog is an interesting experience here. People look at us very intently, and I am not sure why. Often, someone passing will take a long look at him, and then look at me in what seems like a strange way. These often feel like dirty looks, although that might be a cultural thing. Is it because of the prong collar he wears, which may look cruel but is actually much more humane than the choke collar, causes Leo no pain, and is the only way I can control him (he weighs 90 pounds) when he sees another dog and starts lunging and barking? Is it because people are sick of the dog mess all over the streets here and therefore a little bit hostile toward people walking their dogs?

Speaking of the mess, it is interesting to see how people react to me picking up after the dog, something I have never seen anyone else do here. Again with the strange, intent stares. Once I saw a whole group of people in a restaurant looking out at me. On another occasion someone drove by, turned around, drove by again, and stopped his motorcycle to thank me for picking up after the dog. But, in general, people look at me like an alien, which I find strange because 1) the law here requires that you pick up after the dog, and the fines for not doing it are really high-- something like 400 euros and 2) you'd think people would appreciate that I don't leave the mess lying around and that their facial expressions would register this positive feeling-- but they don't.
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