Sunday, July 29, 2007

David Ignatius: Democracy Would Be Fine If We Could Just Ignore the People

In one of those WaPo op-eds that make me want to tear out my hair over the sheer dimwittedness of the mainstream media, David Ignatius today argues that the inevitable US withdrawal from Iraq will be managed effectively only if Democrats in Congress stop their partisan agitating and instead cooperate with the Bush administration on the planning process.

Thus Ignatius effectively ignores the three central facts of the entire situation, which are (1) that the Bush administration is not planning for a withdrawal from Iraq, (2) that the Bush administration has consistently mocked the very notion of "cooperating" with Democrats over anything, and (3) that, if not for partisan agitating by Democrats, the idea of withdrawal from Iraq wouldn't even be on the national agenda.

So much, so obvious. But I want to focus on a few sentences buried in the middle of Ignatius's article, in which he bemoans the underlying reason for America's travails in Iraq:

Future military planners will have to recognize that American democracy, in which political mandates must be renewed in two-year increments, makes us uniquely unsuited to fight protracted counterinsurgency wars. Petraeus likes to observe that it takes, on average, at least nine years to prevail in such a war. If that measure is correct, Petraeus must know there is little chance that a frustrated and angry American public will grant him enough time for success.
In context, Ignatius sounds positively regretful that Americans have so little stomach for "protracted counterinsurgency wars": "We go to war with the democracy we've got," he writes, "with all its intrinsic impatience." But my reaction is: Thank God!

The fact that Americans don't much care for the idea of being in the position of imperial occupiers, trying to impose order on the citizens of a distant country who don't want us there, is a very healthy sign. It means that most of us still have some memory, however faint, of the historic role America is supposed to play in the world: a model and promoter of independence, democracy, and self-rule, not the enforcer of military control over the dark-skinned hordes.

The instincts of the masses of people whom the Beltway elite scorn aren't always correct. But they tend, in the long run, to be rather sound. Which is one reason why I still favor free elections and the Constitution over rule by Yoo's "unitary executive" and Rove's "permanent Republican majority," from which God defend us.

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Saturday, July 28, 2007

Now Blogging the Triple Bottom Line

A year ago, Andy Savitz, a well-known expert on sustainable business, published a book on the subject that I helped him write. Titled The Triple Bottom Line, it explains how some of today's best-run companies are now managing with three performance standards in mind--an environmental bottom line and a social bottom line along with the traditional financial measures.

Now Andy and I are launching a new blog focused on current trends, events, and issues in the field of sustainable business. It's called The Triple Bottom Line blog, and you can check it out by clicking the link. We already have posts up about topics ranging from the Chinese food contamination scandal and the emerging Islamic concept of corporate social responsibility to the causes of today's record-high oil prices and Homer Simpson as the poster boy for the revival of the US nuclear power industry.

The blog is designed especially for business people who are trying to run their companies in responsible, sustainable fashion, but anyone interested in the environment, the rights of workers and consumers, and the impact of corporate policies on society might find it relevant as well. Take a look and let us know what you think.

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Friday, July 27, 2007

A Few Conservatives Grow Up . . . Better Late Than Never

As you may have heard, the rightwing blogosphere is up in arms over an article in The New Republic in which a US soldier in Iraq recounts cruel and vindictive actions he witnessed by other soldiers embroiled in that nightmarish warzone. Conservatives like Michelle Malkin are furiously (and so far unsuccessfully) trying to dig up dirt on the writer in an attempt to discredit him--because, after all, it's important to pretend that every single American soldier is a paragon of nobility, kindness, self-discipline, and mental stability, right?

As usual, Digby has one of the best comments on the whole affair:
Why are so many of these people [i.e. right-wing "defenders" of the troops] such children in these matters? Rod Dreyer read "All Quiet On The Western Front" a couple of weeks ago and was so moved that he actually felt compelled to write a column about it. (I did too. In the eighth grade--only I called it a book report.) I guess I thought everyone knew that war was a crazy, fucked up enterprise filled with great drama and boredom and courage and loss of humanity and that most of the simplistic mythic clap trap that society uses to compel young men into doing it was pretty much propaganda. Sure, it still has to be done sometimes and it takes great physical courage and commitment to throw yourself into the meat grinder, but that doesn't change the fact that it is, on many levels, a total debasement of your humanity. Like most things in life, it's complicated.

I, of course, have never been to war. But that doesn't mean that I have no knowledge of it. Human beings have been at it for some time now and they've left quite a record. Nothing that Private Beauchamp wrote in that piece [in The New Republic] had not been written before by some other soldier in some other war. (That doesn't excuse the behavior, of course, which hasn't been acceptable behavior for soldiers for centuries, if only because of the lack of discipline.) But if you have the habit of reading books you will have come across descriptions of war that make your hair stand on end and you will know that nobility and honor sometimes seem like quaint concepts from another life in such circumstances. It isn't shocking in the least that otherwise decent people could lose that decency during wartime and it certainly doesn't surprise you that those who already have a light grip on conscience (or sanity) would behave in ways that would make us recoil in horror in our everyday lives.
Like Digby, I am startled by the incredible naivete of right-wing war defenders. She and I are about the same age, so I guess we've had the innocence gradually knocked out of us over the past half-century. Still, you would think that people who hold themselves up as commentators on world affairs would read an occasional book and think about it.

For further evidence of how stunningly naive some right wingers are, consider the series of posts that Andrew Sullivan has been running, built around conservatives' confessions of the false beliefs they have gradually abandoned during the last four years of the Bush administration. It got started this way, with Sullivan citing a post by the same Rod Dreher (not Dreyer) that Digby mentioned:
Rod Dreher asks what certainties people have abandoned these past few years in Iraq. His list:

1. Having been absolutely certain that the war was the right thing to have done, and that we would prevail easily, I am no longer confident that I can discern when emotion is affecting my judgment unduly.

2. I no longer implicitly trust governmental institutions, including the military--neither in their honesty nor their competence.

3. I no longer believe the Republican Party is superior in foreign policy judgment to the Democrats.

4. I no longer have confidence in the ability of our military, or any military, to solve deep cultural and civilizational problems through force alone. I mean, I thought nothing could stand in the way of the strongest military fielded since the days of ancient Rome. No more.

5. I have a far greater appreciation for how rare and fragile liberal democracy is, and a corresponding revulsion at the American assumption that it's the natural state of mankind. Which is to say, the war has made me rethink my ideas about human nature, and I'm far more pessimistic now than I ever was.
Now, a couple of these beliefs are perhaps forgiveable, like #3. (I never shared it, but I can imagine a sensible defense of the notion that Republicans generally show better foreign policy judgment than Democrats.) But I find most of them amazing in their naivete.

Did Ron Dreyer--a newspaper columnist and published book author--actually believe that governmental institutions deserved his "implicit trust"? Then what the hell did he think all the checks and balances in the Constitution were there for?

Did he actually think that the military could "solve deep cultural and civilizational problems through force alone"? Doesn't merely stating this idea expose how shallow and implausible it is? How on earth can force alone reconcile groups that hate one another, produce justice, or create democracy?

Did he actually believe that liberal democracy "is the natural state of mankind"? Did he think that the earliest humans foraging for food on the Serengeti conducted free elections, jury trials, and parliamentary-style debates before going hunting for wildebeest?

And as for the very first item on his list: One of the most fundamental rules of intellectual honesty is to rigorously question one's most cherished beliefs--especially when they happen to reinforce one's emotional leanings. If you don't understand this and try your best to practice it, you have no way of knowing whether anything you think is valid.

I don't consider myself a particularly profound thinker, but I outgrew Dreher's simplistic beliefs around 1962, when I was nine years old.

Maybe our conservative pundits should consider learning a little something about the realities of life before offering the rest of us their wisdom about it--and especially before lecturing Democrats on how "naive" and "soft-headed" their ideas about foreign policy are.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

I'd Like To Be a Serious Thinker But I Can't Afford It

As a business-book writer and editor, and, I like to think, a reasonably literate person, I was intrigued by the topic of this New York Times article by publisher Harriet Rubin about the libraries of CEOs. And early in the article, I liked Rubin's comment, "Serious leaders who are serious readers build personal libraries dedicated to how to think, not how to compete." I've known some CEOs like that, and they are interesting people to meet and talk with.

Unfortunately, Rubin followed up with this sentence: "Ken Lopez, a bookseller in Hadley, Mass., says it is impossible to put together a serious library on almost any subject for less than several hundred thousand dollars."

Wha--? Not only does this make no sense whatever, but it is totally contradictory to the actual concept of literacy in the post-Gutenberg era. The beauty of books is that they are mass produced. What's more, the greatest works of literature--the classics of centuries past--are mostly available in multiple cheap editions. So anyone who is actually serious about learning "how to think" can assemble a collection of literally priceless instruction for a few hundred dollars, simply by scouring used book stores for old paperback copies of Aristotle, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Mill, The Federalist Papers, Darwin, etc. etc.

Of course, as I read on, it became clear that what Rubin was writing about was not what one might call "working libraries" amassed by people who actually read and think but rather collections of rare books assembled for their investment value--which explains the remark about having to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on the stuff. Rubin goes on to illustrate:
Students of power should take note that C.E.O.'s are starting to collect books on climate change and global warming, not Al Gore's tomes but books from the 15th century about the weather, Egyptian droughts, even replicas of Sumerian tablets recording extraordinary changes in climate, according to John Windle, the owner of John Windle Antiquarian Booksellers in San Francisco.

Darwin's "Origin of Species" was priced at a few thousand dollars in the 1950s. "Then DNA became the scientific rage," said Mr. Windle. "Now copies are selling for $250,000. But the desire to own a piece of Darwin's mind is coming to an end. I have a customer who collects diaries of people of no importance at all. The entries say, 'It was 63 degrees and raining this morning.' Once the big boys amass libraries of weather patterns, everyone will want these works."
Well, it's certainly good to know that America's most powerful business leaders are finally grappling with global warming as a serious intellectual issue! And I'm sure those fifteenth-century weather treatises and Sumerian tablets shed a lot of light on the kind of carbon-emissions policies corporations ought to be developing. Having your consultant buy a medieval manuscript at Sotheby's is so much more practical and useful than reading one of those icky "tomes" by Al Gore, which any doofus can pick up in a bookstore for twenty bucks!

Obviously, there's nothing wrong with CEOs or other wealthy people collecting rare books. It's just as harmless as collecting duck decoys, Amish quilts, Impressionist paintings, or Greek vases. But it's mere vanity to dress the habit up in pretentious intellectual garb as if it reflects some sort of profundity, and this unfortunate article is another sad example of the Times's penchant for devoting its pages to stroking the egos of the rich and powerful.

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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Pew Survey: Voters Rethinking Their Hatred For Experience?

Check out the graph in this New York Times article summarizing findings from a Pew Research Center poll about Americans' attitudes toward various traits among politicians.

The Times story focuses on the religious aspects of the poll: Will evangelical Christians vote for someone who has been divorced? Can they tolerate a Mormon? Whom would they toss into boiling tar first, an atheist candidate or a Muslim? etc. etc. But I am intrigued--and encouraged--by a poll item the Times doesn't even mention. When voters were asked whether they would be more or less likely to support a candidate who was "a long-time Washington politician," fifteen percent said "less likely," forty-five percent said it would make no difference, and fully thirty-five percent said "more likely." This after three solid decades during which Republican candidates and pundits have tried their damnedest to make "long-time Washington politician" into an insult roughly equivalent to--well, to "atheist Muslim," I guess.

Maybe this is a sign that the sheer addle-pated incompetence of the Bush administration is finally starting to sour voters on the inane "conservative" notion that installing leaders who pride themselves on their ignorance about and hostility toward government will somehow improve the operation of government.

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

How Confusion and Cynicism Help Bolster Conservatism

This article about public attitudes toward global warming does a lot to illustrate how much easier it is to play defense than offense when it comes to changing social attitudes. Here are the key grafs:
The survey [by British bank HSBC]shows that in many Western European countries where green messages are ubiquitous, there are, paradoxically, the fewest people who say climate change is among their biggest concerns.

In supposedly green-minded Britain and Germany, terrorism and children's futures outrank climate change. Only 22 percent of British respondents and 26 percent of Germans identified climate change as among their top concerns, while only 19 percent of Britons and 25 percent of Germans said they were making a significant effort to help reduce climate change through their lifestyles.

Those polled Britons and Germans, HSBC said, are "skeptical pessimists." They are downbeat about finding a solution to climate change and suspicious of companies exploiting the issue for financial gain and governments using it to raise taxes.

The attitude of young Europeans aged 18-24 is most striking. Some don't even accept the science underlying climate change.
Now, I'm not that concerned about the fact that only a fifth to a quarter of Europeans say they are making "a significant effort" to change their lifestyles because of environmental concerns. Actually I think that's pretty high, and probably a lot higher than the figure you would have gotten ten years ago. (I suppose it's also higher than the percentage of people who are actually changing their lives in a significant way, but that's how polling works.)

However, I think the description of younger Europeans as being both "skeptical" and "pessimistic" is fascinating. Note what this means: Those polled either don't believe that global warming is really happening, or believe that nothing can be done to stop it--or both.

Now this is obviously a tad self-contradictory . . . one might even say absurdly illogical. But that makes no difference to the business interests and the hard-right ideologues who want to prevent serious action on the environment. They like it when people exhibit this sort of confusion, because it encourages them to throw up their hands and accept paralysis. And no matter which of the two contradictory messages people end up absorbing, the do-nothing gang wins!

It's an interesting playing field we compete on. The progressives must craft a compelling, consistent, convincing narrative that will change the way people think, feel, and behave, while the reactionaries are under no such obligation. All they need to do is sow enough seeds of doubt to get people to give up on social concerns and switch their TVs back to sports or "American Idol."

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

David Brooks Plumbs the Surprising Profundity of George Bush

As usual, there's a serious logical disconnect in David Brooks's latest column. This one deals with what Brooks calls, with excessive charity, "Bush's theory of history." According to Brooks, the reason President Bush appears upbeat, self-confident, and untroubled about Iraq at a time when even his staunchest allies feel depressed and hopeless, is because he "remains energized by the power of the presidency":
Some presidents complain about the limits of the office. But Bush, despite all the setbacks, retains a capacious view of the job and its possibilities.

Conservatives are supposed to distrust government, but Bush clearly loves the presidency. Or to be more precise, he loves leadership. He's convinced leaders have the power to change societies. Even in a place as chaotic as Iraq, good leadership makes all the difference.
Brooks contrasts this philosophy with Tolstoy's view of history, in which leaders are driven by events rather than vice versa.

It's easy to see why Brooks picked this topic for a column. It's good fodder for a contrarian view of Bush and Iraq (Maybe things are going to work out after all! And it's all because Bush has a "theory"!). And with the reference to Tolstoy, it even has a veneer of intellectual profundity, something we know Brooks cherishes.

But think about this for a minute. If Bush seriously has a "theory of history" in which the role of great leaders is preeminent, then wouldn't the specific decisions made by leaders matter? Wouldn't a president committed to this theory take his own role extremely seriously? Wouldn't he want to study history, economics, military science, sociology, politics, and other relevant topics with the utmost seriousness, as opposed to simply relying on his gut and assuming it will all work out?

Thus, a moment's reflection reveals that, if Bush has a theory about what drives history, it is centered on the baseless conviction that his wishes embody God's will--which explains why he doesn't have to do his homework (just as he didn't back in college and B-school). And Bush's cheerfulness reflects his confidence that the disasters we see around us are mere temporary glitches in the working-out of the divine plan--which explains why he never has to listen to anyone who disagrees with him.

In short, the Bush way of leadership is less a "theory" than a set of assumptions that conveniently encourage him to do whatever he wants without feeling any responsibility for the dire consequences. And Brooks's exegesis of this "theory" is less a coherent analysis than a bit of flattery designed to ensure that the columnist stays on the White House invitation list. By which measure I'm sure it will prove successful.

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Saturday, July 07, 2007

Anglican Schism--A Brave Act of Conscience? No, A Property Grab

If you're not an Episcopalian--or even if you are, but haven't been closely following the controversy over right-wing attempts to create a schism within the church--it can be dangerous to read the New York Times coverage of the ongoing story. For anyone not very familiar with the actual issues and events, the Times version of what is happening can be very misleading.

Consider, for example, today's story about Trinity Church in Bristol, Connecticut. It's one of the ultra-conservative parishes that objects to the ordination of homosexuals and is therefore trying to break away from the main body of the church. The leaders of Trinity Church have declared that they no longer recognize the authority of the Episcopal Church (their rector, Donald Helmandollar, has even said, "I'm ashamed to be an Episcopalian"). They now claim membership in a fledgling organization of extreme conservatives that calls itself the Convocation of Anglicans in North America.

In response, the diocese of Connecticut has deposed Father Helmandollar and ordered the church's lay leaders (wardens and vestry) to return control of the church property to the diocese. However, officials of the diocese say they are still hoping to negotiate some kind of settlement, a claim that seems to be supported by the fact that a parish directory on the Episcopal Church's official website still lists Donald Hermandollar as the rector of the parish.

The leaders of Trinity Church are vowing defiance. Their lawyer, Howard M. Wood III, is quoted in the Times as saying that "any interference with the property rights of Trinity Church Society will be met with a claim of trespass."

At bottom, this is a battle over the legal title to church property--is it properly held by the individual parish or by the church as a whole? So far, courts have sided with the Episcopal Church, not with the right-wing dissidents. But based on today's article in the Times, you could easily get the impression that this is actually a story about the ruthless suppression of free speech by a church hierarchy that will not tolerate dissent.

The headline reads, "Parish Falls Out of Step, and Favor, With Diocese," as if the problem is that Trinity Church refuses to march in lockstep with the decreed wisdom of the diocese and therefore is being ostracized. And in the third paragraph, the article sums up the dispute like this:

Last month, Connecticut's Episcopal bishop, Andrew D. Smith, defrocked the Rev. Donald L. Helmandollar and ordered the congregation's lay leaders "to vacate the property of Trinity Church, Bristol, and release every claim on the assets of this parish by July 8, 2007." The parishioners had objected to the church's position regarding homosexuals in the clergy.

Now, hold on a minute. Episcopalians can "object to the church's position" on anything they like and never run afoul of diocesan authorities. Within the Episcopal Church we argue about doctrine and practice all the time. We're Americans, that is what we do. No one ever questions our right to do that, let alone asks us to vacate the church premises.

On the other hand, if a group of people want to leave the Episcopal Church (or any other denomination) and start their own church, they're perfectly free to do so. People do this all the time. They buy a building, hire a minister, hang a sign out front, and they're in business.

The real issue, of course, is that Trinity Church wants to abandon the Episcopal Church and take ownership of church property with them. Their right to claim the property is the issue the lawyers are wrestling over--not their right to "object to" church teaching, as the Times implies.

Imagine if Donald Helmandollar managed a local Wal-Mart and decided, for some reason good or bad, that he disagreed with certain policies of the parent company. Now imagine if Helmandollar were to announce, "I'm ashamed to work for Wal-Mart" and to declare that, henceforth, he would no longer be affiliated with Wal-Mart but instead would launch a new store chain (call it "Angl0-Mart"). And then imagine that Helmandollar claimed the store building, the merchandise, the parking lot, and all the equipment as Anglo-Mart property.

Is there any doubt that Wal-Mart would take umbrage (to put it mildly)? Would it be viewed as unduly harsh if Wal-Mart's lawyers sent a stern letter to Mr. Helmandollar ordering him to cease and desist? And would the Times portray the dispute as an issue of Helmandollar's freedom of conscience?

Maybe the Times has fallen prey to the temptation to portray a disagreement between a small handful of dissident parishes and a large, national church organization in simplistic, David-and-Goliath terms. It's an easy spin to put on the story. But it's factually wrong, and lends an air of heroic martyrdom to a collection of homophobes who deserve no such thing.

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Friday, July 06, 2007

"America Needed That Picture," and Larry Doby Provided It

Sixty years ago yesterday, Larry Doby made his debut with the Cleveland Indians, the first African-American in the American League. Here's a great piece by Jerry Izenberg, an old-time sportswriter and a long-time friend of Doby, about his struggles for acceptance, which were in some ways worse than what Jackie Robinson had to endure.

Unlike Robinson, Doby felt rejected by many of his own teammates and even his manager Lou Boudreau. For example, when he was sent to play first base one day--never having played at that position a day in his life--no one on the Indians would lend him a first baseman's mitt; the club's traveling secretary had to go to the opposition dugout to beg for the loan of a glove.

Ultimately, of course, Doby's talent broke down the resistance. When he hit the home run that provided the winning margin in game four of the 1948 World Series (the last series won by Cleveland to this day), he and winning pitcher Steve Gromek spontaneously embraced. The resulting photo delighted some Americans and shocked others. Years later, Doby recalled:
"That picture ran in every paper in the country--a guy who happened to be white and a guy who happened to be black embracing. It ran on front pages all over the country. America needed that picture and I'm so glad I could play a part in giving it to her."
Having played second fiddle to Jackie Robinson in the tale of baseball's integration, Larry Doby later became the second black manager in the major leagues when he was named to lead the Chicago White Sox in 1978. (Frank Robinson had managed the Indians in 1975.) Doby was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans' Committee in 1998, just five years before his death at the age of 79, an often-overlooked American hero.

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Thursday, July 05, 2007

Mary-Jo Changes Car, Car Changes Mary-Jo

Mary-Jo has been driving her new Prius for a little more than a week now, and she loves it. It's comfortable, it's peppy, it has a stereo system with nine speakers, and best of all it's red (Mary-Jo has always wanted a red car). And of course it sends the world a message about Mary-Jo's environmental awarness. (One of Mary-Jo's colleagues at work, on hearing that she'd bought a Prius, asked her, "You're socially conscious?" I think the note of surprise in the question is faintly insulting, but Mary-Jo seems to be okay with it so who am I to complain?)

What neither of us anticipated, however, is how the Prius has changed Mary-Jo's driving habits. As you may know, the car's dashboard features a touch-sensitive screen that displays various kinds of information and can be used to control the sound system, the air conditioning, etc. Mary-Jo normally keeps the screen set to show fuel economy, and the effect is quite fascinating. The display shows the current mileage you are getting (ranging from less than ten miles per gallon to a maximum of a hundred), the mileage you've achieved in five-minute travel increments, and your average mileage over any period you want--the current trip, the last week, whatever.

As a result, driving becomes a kind of video game: How far can I get the current mileage bar to extend? How high can I get my mileage rating for this trip? Can I beat my score from my last trip? And Mary-Jo is clearly driving differently. Her foot on the gas is much lighter, she avoids fuel-draining accelerations and needless braking, and she uses cruise control on long straight stretches of highway.

These are significant changes for a woman who used to get antsy when stuck behind a slow vehicle. Now instead of changing lanes she smiles serenely as her speed drifts down toward 50 mph and her mileage bar stretches up above 50 mpg.

For me, this is a fascinating case study in how technology, which of course is shaped by humans, in turn shapes the humans who use it. I asked Mary-Jo why she has changed her philosophy of driving--after all, it's not as though she ever worried much about saving money on gas in the past. She replied, "Because now I can see how much gas I'm using."

Exactly. As the old business management saw has it, "You get what you measure." Simply providing the technology to make our behavior transparent--in this case, our energy-consumption behavior--can have an enormous impact on that behavior, even in the absence of any new or special incentives. As a society, we need to look for other opportunities to apply this insight to encouraging healthful, socially beneficially behaviors.

I knew for sure that Mary-Jo had been transformed when we heard the story about how Al Gore's son was arrested for allegedly speeding in a Prius, which was found to contain marijuana and four kinds of prescription drugs for which Gore had no presception. Mary-Jo's only response was to remark, with a sniff, "Hmm! At 100 miles per hour he couldn't have been getting very good mileage!"

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Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Still Beautiful?

Last Sunday, in honor of Independence Day, we concluded our church service by singing the old patriotic hymn "America." You know the words:
O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for heroes proved In liberating strife.
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
I'm a sentimental guy and I admit that even under normal circumstances I have always found it hard to sing this song without being moved. Now, unfortunately, I can barely get through it. In today's America, the tone of wistful idealism in the lyrics has become tragic.

"Crown thy good with brotherhood": The idea is that, of the many blessings we as Americans might enjoy, the greatest--the crown of all--would be brotherhood. Not wealth, not might, not fame, but brotherhood. How many Americans today feel this way? Judging by our actions, not many.

"Heroes proved in liberating strife/Who more than self their country loved/And mercy more than life": Imagine, we once revered heroes who loved mercy more than life itself. Whereas today we elect to the highest offices swaggering cowards who tell us that, to protect our lives, we must treat anyone we deem an enemy with utter mercilessness.

"Thine alabaster cities gleam/Undimmed by human tears": Our cities gleam, all right. But who still dreams the dream of a civilization free of human suffering? The dream today is of cities where the toughest thrive and rest survive, if at all, merely to serve them.

In a country where flags and eagles and the rhetoric of patriotism are more dominant than ever, how sad that Katharine Lee Bates's vision of a humane America hangs in tatters.

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Sunday, July 01, 2007

George Will Condemns Excessive Litigation . . . By the Wrong People, That Is

In the post immediately below, I wrote about the weird and, I think, fallacious notion that allowing corporate price-fixing will somehow reduce the complexities of antitrust law and make the world a little less litigious. Now, in today's WaPo, George Will makes a similarly flawed argument in regard to the Joseph Frederick case.

Frederick, you'll recall, was the Juneau student who got in trouble for hoisting a "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" banner at a school assembly. Will cheers this week's Supreme Court decision, which held that the school administrators did not violate Frederick's free speech rights when they punished him for his banner.

There are arguments to be made on both sides. But there's no logic behind Will's claim that the problem behind the Frederick case lies in the fact that expanding human rights leads to "proliferation of litigation." Here's how Will summarizes the point, in his typical scolding tone:
Somewhere, a teenager with an abnormal interest in the court and a normal zest for mischief might be thinking: Cool idea, Justice Stevens--I'll create a banner to test whether banning "Wine Sips 4 Jesus" would infringe my religious freedom. Endless distinctions can--actually, must--be drawn once a subject becomes a matter of constitutional litigation.
Apparently Will believes that one of society's big problems is the fact that the courts are clogged with countless unnecessary freedom-of-speech cases being brought by pushy teenagers.

But how would Will combat this terrible trend? I suppose it is true that litigation over the limits of free speech could be eliminated if the concept of free speech were abandoned altogether. A judge would simply say, "Free speech? What is this free speech you speak of?" before throwing out the complaint and heading out to the golf course for the afternoon.

But I don't really imagine that this is what George Will has in mind. In fact, it's easy to prove that Will can be a zealous defender of litigation on behalf of free speech, as long as the right sort of plaintiff is involved. Just three days ago, Will wrote a column celebrating a successful lawsuit over free speech rights brought by a "right-to-life" group.

You don't suppose Will's wildly disparate attitudes toward these two lawsuits have anything to do with the nature of the views whose expression is being challenged, do you?

Look, it's obvious that virtually every right granted under the Constitution will have some logical and legal limits. Those limits are defined primarily through litigation. Shifting how a right is defined--for example, narrowing freedom of speech to exclude a high school student's banner, or broadening it to include an advocacy ad by an anti-abortion group--doesn't necessarily increase or decrease the amount of litigation you can expect. It just changes the specific focus of that litigation.

I doubt that Will is actually confused about this. He's simply using a disingenuous argument about excessive litigation in order to defend a judicial outcome he happens to like.

There's an old saw that contains more than a little truth: When someone involved in a financial dispute claims, "It's not about the money," you can be sure it's all about the money. In much the same way, when a conservative claims he's not concerned about the outcome in a court case but just wants to streamline the process, you can be sure it's all about the outcome.

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"Infused with entrepreneurial spirit and the excitement of a worthy challenge."--Publishers Weekly

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What do GE, Pepsi, and Toyota know that Exxon, Wal-Mart, and Hershey don't?  It's sustainability . . . the business secret of the twenty-first century.

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