Tuesday, February 27, 2007

what might have been

There's been a growing phenomenon of people looking back on a certain election in a way I've never experienced. Take this, for example, from Richard freakin' Cohen (c/o mcjoan at dKos):
There were so many reasons not to vote for him -- none, in retrospect, much good...

Gore would not have taken the United States to war in Iraq. He would have finished the job in Afghanistan -- it was al-Qaeda and its Taliban enablers who were responsible for the attacks on us on Sept. 11, 2001, not Saddam Hussein, no matter how vile he might have been. Gore would not have dealt with the Iranians and the North Koreans in such a juvenile fashion -- axis of evil, after all -- and all over the world, wherever you and I went, we would not detect such anger toward America. The last time I saw Gore was at a screening of his now-acclaimed movie, "An Inconvenient Truth." I wrote at the time that, on paper at least, he was the near-perfect Democratic presidential candidate -- right on the war, above all. This observation, hardly original with me, is being echoed elsewhere, and it would be impossible for Gore to ignore it. Jimmy Carter said Sunday on ABC's "This Week" that he thought Gore ought to run and had told Gore so insistently. "He almost told me the last time I called, 'Don't call me anymore,' " Carter said. What Gore told me was something similar: "I think there are other ways to serve."

And what about this, from an SNL opener several months ago?

It's weird: in both of these pieces (and countless other references to Al Gore in public and private discourse) there's an underlying sense of sadness, a national understanding that we, enticed by the siren songs of W's faux folksy everymanness and Nader's angry righteousness (or perhaps, self-righteousness), made a horrible mistake in 2000. It's not just that we allowed a vindictive, arrogant man-child to take the presidency (and inexplicably re-elected him with the first honest-to-God majority in 16 years) or that we allowed an election to be essentially subverted. We've seen buyer's remorse of that stripe before. People often joked about how Clinton should've lost, or Bush Sr., or Reagan, but the difference lies in looking at their opposition. In Clinton's lowest moments, people may have wished he'd lost, but there was no widescale gazing sadly at Bush Sr. and wishing he'd won. There were no masses pining for the return of Dukakis, or Mondale, or tellingly, John Kerry, even despite the admirable fight he's been waging in the Senate over a host of issues ever since his loss.

In what has to be a truly scary moment for the current resident and his fixation on his legacy, how "history will judge his presidency," the country is starting to openly wish it had elected Al Gore instead. Perhaps even scarier, above we have Richard Cohen, no flaming lefty, implying that he wishes it had been Al Gore at the helm on 9/11, steering our military policy. My guess is that most voters aren't there yet, but more and more people are coming around every day, and with Gore getting and Oscar and potentially a Nobel peace prize, and with influential media personalities openly pining for his candidacy in 2000 and hoping for the same in 2008, we could someday, perhaps before this administration is even over, see a poll indicating just such a sentiment.

Monday, February 26, 2007

the myth of the purple finger

Sez Josh Marshall:
Even among critics of the war, it's often accepted as granted that a key aim of this effort was democratization -- only that it was botched, like so much else, or that the aim of democracy, in a crunch, plays second fiddle to other priorities. Not true. The key architects of the policy don't believe in democracy or the rule of law. The whole invasion was based on contrary principles. And the aim can't be achieved because those anti-democratic principles are written into the DNA of the occupation, even as secondary figures have and continue to labor to build democracy in the country.

I've been wrestling with this graph all day, trying to figure out why it bugs me. On the surface, Marshall is right: the Bush Administration doesn't believe in the rule of law, as we've seen over and over again, and Cheney's and Bush's ideological adherence to democratic principles is in question as well (how can you have a democracy without the rule of law? without habeas corpus?). And yes, these tendencies have caused us all sorts of problems in Iraq, mainly in the form of fomenting distrust in us and the Iraqi government.

Nevertheless, my eyes keep getting drawn back to "a key aim of this effort was democratization" and its reference later as "the aim." I'm not accusing Marshall of this, by any means, but we would do well not to forget that the aim of this whole endeavor in Iraq is not democratization, but the discrediting and elimination of terrorism, specifically the terrorists that threaten us at home and our interests abroad. The democratization part was conceived of and remains merely as a means to that end. It's increasingly important as the occupation drags on to remember not only the order of our priorities there, but this crucial link in W's head between democratization and terrorism, a notion that I believe is truly dangerous, especially applied as cynically as it always is by human governments.

Back in the wonder years of the invasion, there arised a metaphor in the blogosphere (espoused principally, I believe, by Markos) called "the Myth of the Purple Finger." It was a play on the Iraqi elections and subsequent media manipulation by the Bush administration and their apologists, where they'd play, over and over again, videos and pictures of Iraqis during the election waving their fingers around celebrating the first (and second, and third...) votes in Lord knows how long (you may remember, their fingers were colored purple as proof that they had voted).

"The Myth of the Purple Finger" was a critique of the media hype that said that elections=progress even if they fail to create a government the people consider legitimate. There was a deeper fallacy at work, however: the myth, unwittingly at first, pointed straight at the idea, taken on faith by neoconservatives and classic liberals alike, that terrorism cannot persist in a free democracy, that democracy by its very existence deals a mortal wound to the morale and negative emotions necessary to engage in terrorist acts. One of the weirder aspects of national discourse in the run-up and early period of the war was hearing virtually identical arguments made in support of the war by, for instance, George W. Bush and Peter Beinart of The New Republic, showing a sort of intersection between the ideologies between these two normally-divergent groups.

This supposed power of democracy is, in the really-real world, non-existent. Democracy (especially the sectarian, exclusionary type that was the only outcome ever possible in Iraq) does not preclude terrorism any more than fabulous wealth precludes depression. If it did, we would have never had Timothy McVeigh or abortion clinic bombers, Germans would never have heard the names Bader-Meinhof, and has anyone ever heard of Northern Ireland? And how, then, do we explain all those supposed Islamist terror cells in the US and Europe that the same Bush administration keeps warning us about? All sorts of things can motivate people to resort to terrorism, usually related a tribe feeling excluded or oppressed, or related to some perceived moral imperative going unheeded by the current regime. Installing a democracy, however, does not automatically fix this problem, and as we're seeing in Iraq, can even make it worse.

The entire strategy for pacifying Iraq and alienating/eliminating the terrorists was based on this flawed logic, and thus, in respect to the core rationale for the invasion, whether or not Iraq achieved democratization is irrelevant. Even if the Bush Administration genuinely cared about democracy in the Middle East and achieved such in Iraq, there's no evidence that either international or domestic terrorism there would have disappeared.

Clusterf#%k 101

Sy Hersh has written a great article, available in the New Yorker (yes, that does mean it's long-- unlike The Economist, however, that also means it's worth it) on the web of relationships and power politics in the Middle East, focusing especially on Iran, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and the US. It's a complex situation for sure, but a narrative that emerges almost immediately is that the US lunged headlong into an impossible strategic situation in Iraq, propelling its longtime enemies (and those of its allies) to increased power. The same action virtually forced us to take opposite sides in Iraq (i.e., the Shiite allies of Iran and Syria) from those we take everywhere else (the Sunnis-- specifically the Saudi royal family), thus making the situation even worse for everyone in the region... except Iran, the one player we want to screw over all others.

Now our #2 ally in the Middle East and #1 financier, Saudi Arabia, openly threatens to side with those currently killing the most US troops if we dare to leave.

Heckuva job, Dubya!

Friday, February 23, 2007

Judgment and foresight

Why vote for people who got snookered when you can vote for someone who had it right at the time?

Barack Obama, 1 month after Congress' vote to authorize military force in Iraq:

(c/o Josh Marshall)

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

God, god, G-d

And one more thing about this religion stuff: often in the netroots you see the the name "god" spelled in all lower cases. When I see this, I get the exact feeling as when I hear W say "the Democrat party." Looks to me that, in both cases, the speaker wants to insult people so badly that they're willing to break with linguistic tradition to do so. The word "Democrat" is a noun; "Democratic" is an adjective. Thus "Democrat party" is grammatically wrong.

Similarly with the former example, however. One of the very few actual ironclad rules in the English language is that proper names are capitalized. Fucking always. If you name your dog "Dog," from that moment forward every time you refer to its name in writing, you capitalize it. Same with deities when the word "god" is used as the being's proper name: "God, my dog Dog worships me as if I were a god."

I don't get it: is not believing in a deity the excuse for this? It would be a pretty shoddy defense, unless you also don't capitalize santa claus or huck finn.

separating the sheep from the goats

Damn you people! I haven't been posting lately, obviously, but I can't stand this religious conversation in the blogosphere anymore, so I'm going to have to add my $.02 (since this is sort of a pet issue of mine).

In case you've missed it so far, Bill Donahue, wack-ass nutjob from the Catholic Alliance, threw a fit over Amanda Marcotte from Pandagon's posts about the Immaculate Conception and got her fired (sorry, "she resigned"). Then Atrios exploded the whole issue with a series of long (for Atrios) posts about the role of religious people in the Democratic party vis-a-vis the netroots, as in "Why do the netroots hate Christians so much?" etc. (see here on "people of faith", then on Romney's Mormonism, then on religious people as "the heart and soul" of the party, then fighting about it with Kleiman, then on Atrios' own perspective on religion generally, then on Mormonism vs. atheism). Then everyone linked to Atrios' points, as is the general practice, then Digby jumped in, then all the Kossack diarists started throwing pies at each other, then Kos jumped in, then Jim freakin' Wallis jumped in, then DLC guys like Ed Kilgore jumped in. Ed, by the way, links only to Atrios' front page, while most others don't link to him at all; really helpful, guys, thanks.

I hate this fight because it pits a lot of people I otherwise deeply respect against each other on a subject heavily fraught with political, emotional, and philosophical baggage. But I do have opinions on this matter and I feel like I have a fair amount of "expertise" on it, being someone who encounters both sides of the debate on a virtually daily basis. Hopefully when this is all said and done, I will have at least helped some of you to untangle not only the conversation itself, but your own beliefs on the matter by tracing my own reactions.

First of all, the Pandagon thing. So here's what Amanda Marcotte, the proprietor of that establishment, said that got Donahue all riled up:
Q: What if Mary had taken Plan B after the Lord filled her with his hot, white, sticky Holy Spirit?

A: You’d have to justify your misogyny with another ancient mythology.

So, looking at that quote honestly, I want to side with Marcotte, and on the issue of the post (birth control), I think she's right about the Church's ridiculous stance. The Catholic Church's opposition to birth control has certainly, in my opinion, done more harm than good. But I can't; there's just no context in which the quote above isn't offensive. Much as I hate to say it, Donahue was right to be offended (not right to gloss over the substance of her post or right to try to get her fired, mind you).

And I noticed afterwards, reading posts by Atrios and Kos and Digby and Glenn Greenwald and John Aravosis, I realized that, as a practicing Christian, I've never been offended by any of them, even when they talk about religion from the standpoint of being agnostics or atheists or just pissed off at some religious group. And I think, on some level, maybe that's what has differentiated the "big blogs" from everyone else. Yes, Marcotte is a good writer, as are many bloggers, but perhaps too often they offhandedly offend some group and end up alienating lots of potential readers, whereas Atrios' "don't be an asshole needlessly" approach has helped him retain many of the people who visit his site, thus becoming regular readers. It's at least had an effect on the blogs I read; I've been turned off of more than one blogger because they make insulting generalizations about Christians, or religious people, or southerners, or Texans, or meat-eaters (yes, it can get that petty), or even conservatives (I'm not, but I have family and friends who are, so it still offends me). Eyerolling generalizations about people irritates the hell out of me and often demonstrates a huge flaw in one's thinking.

Interestingly, on this issue there was one notable exception: Tristero, who writes on Digby's blog and has offended my religious sensibilities on a number of occasions, totally nailed the issue with people attacking the people or politics they don't like by attacking religion:
To attack the religious beliefs of someone like Donohue is to completely miss your target. That's right, to mock Donohue's religion is tactically useless. Because his christianism, not his Catholicism, is the danger. And it is a very, very grave danger.

Stated another way, the argument is that Donohue's religious beliefs and practices are none of my, or anyone else's business other than those in his church. His political actions most certainly are, and they deserve our full, uninhibited, and completely withering contempt. As for his craven hiding behind the skirts of priests to deflect criticism, Donohue and his fellow christianists, whatever their denomination, deserve widespread denunciation from the larger Christian community.
There's something about religion informing politics that often historians are the only ones to really "get": it's usually the reverse of reality. Donahue uses his Catholicism to shield his anti-semitism and misogyny, and he views Catholicism through the prism of hate, but he doesn't need Catholicism for them. If he lost his faith tomorrow, he'd still be a bigot. Similarly, even as Christianity recedes from the European landscape, racism and anti-semitism persist; hyper-nationalist political parties in France and elsewhere are polling better than ever before. And there are plenty of secular misogynists in American society.

Moving on. I want to talk a little bit about Atrios. First of all, I would strongly suggest that you go back and read his posts that I linked to above. You'll find that Atrios is thoughtful, respectful but not "pc," and fair in his estimation of the role of religion in politics (for what it's worth, I'm of the opinon that he is quite possibly the single most insightful political observer in our entire national discourse; the fact that Atrios and Digby write on free, low-publicity little blogs while Joe Klein and David Brooks have columns in some of the nation's most prestigious news publications and Bill Kristol appears on marquee news shows on a weekly basis signifies more than perhaps anything else how decrepit and dysfunctional our current journalistic system is. Talk about "failing upward!").

Atrios is right on a point with which I've only slowly been reconciling myself, and he's largely the only one saying it:
I tend to try to have a "don't be an asshole needlessly" attitude when it comes to dealing with religious beliefs that no one is trying to impose on me, but there's no requirement for people to share that attitude. Beliefs cloaked in religion shouldn't be granted automatic immunity from scrutiny, and nor should the sometimes powerful institutions run by people, not angels or saints, around which the various religions are organized. While genuine bigotry exists against people of various faiths which is the equivalent to the kind of bigotry which exists against gays or African-Americans (involving unfair symbols or stereotyping rooted in historic oppression, assigning unshared beliefs to an entire group, etc...), mocking or having contempt for actual religious beliefs isn't by any reasonable definition "bigotry." It's simply heated disagreement, and as with disagreements about politics, or sports, or whatever, sometimes people who disagree with each other use mockery and insults in their discourse. Religious people may think that their beliefs about religion are on a different level than these things, but, you know, I don't really agree with that.

And that's the basic issue. We disagree about things. We don't all share a belief in God, or the supernatural, or the spiritual plane, or whatever. Those who believe in these things don't agree on the details. There are a tremendous variety of belief systems in this country and across the world. The tendency to divide people into "faith" and "non-faith" has, as I wrote, obscured these differences, but the fact is that disagreement within "communities of faith" is no different than disagreement between religious and non-religious people. While I think there are those who genuinely believe in a "many paths to God" kind of worldview (and I have no opinion on whether that's theologically sound within the Christian or any other tradition), plenty of people don't actually share that worldview. They believe "other" beliefs are wacky, or stupid, or nuts, or contemptible, or immoral, or likely to lead to eternal damnation, etc.
Having religion is fine and having your religion inform your politics (a la rightwingers, and even progressives like Wallis) is fine. But when you do that you essentially make your religion a political philosophy, which is also fine, but that means it's open to criticism and even ridicule just like any other political philosophy. For religious people to take fringe and dangerous views, as they do on birth control, abortion (remember, many American religious fundamentalists also support terrorism-- in the form of abortion clinic bombers), Israel, or global warming, associate those views with their religion and then take offense that anyone would dare criticize their "religious views" is a pretty dirty political trick that, to everyone else, reeks of moral cowardice and hypocrisy.

For religious people to claim "persecution" based on this tactic is similarly hypocritical. There are entire radio and television stations dedicated to damning agnostics and atheists to Hell, street preachers screaming at them as they go to work and unwind at any of the nation's party districts, and mainstream politicians like Mitt Romney talking openly about how only "people of faith" should be leading this country. Secularists are tacitly banned from the elected office: aside from one Muslim and a handful of Jews, pretty much the entire elected government of every state is composed of Christians. And remind me again how many avowed non-Christians have been president?

This is why I'm bothered with the neologism "people of faith." Besides the Atriotic argument that different religious belief systems are, in fact, quite different, both in means and in the goals themselves, this term is similar in tactic to "pro-life" and "pro-choice": it's designed to bring a particular group together by alienating another group. It's triangulation. In the latter examples, it's understood that the others are "anti-life" or "anti-choice," which in most cases is simply bullshit, while in the former case, it's meant to bring together Catholics and Evangelicals and Jews by isolating agnostics and atheists.

Alienating non-believers is something of which Jim Wallis, whom I otherwise love, is one of the biggest offenders (no pun intended). His constant sneering at "the secular Left" besmirches what are often otherwise valid points (read his post linked above and you'll see what I mean). Yes, it's true that the left and the Democratic party often have trouble dealing with religious people and, in particular, pointing out the religious motivators for liberal or Democratic viewpoints, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it's because they hate religion or don't think it's a valid philosophy. In the case of his skirmish with Kos above, it seems like he wants so much to maintain balance by shitting on the "secular Left" and the Christian Right equally that he attributes to Kos an opinion he quite simply doesn't have and didn't exhibit at any point: namely, that religion can't be the prime motivator for a good Democrat's political views. All Kos said was that religion's only one of many possible motivators, and Kos is exactly right.

So now, unfortunately, I have a problem, and you may have picked it out en route to this paragraph. How can I say Donahue was right to be offended by Marcotte, and then agree with people saying that, when you have dangerous/fringe political views, you can't hide behind your religion and call foul when someone turns their guns on it? This is the part where my opinion is still in motion, but to me it turns on Atrios' "don't be an asshole needlessly."
Keep firing, assholes!
Marcotte failed in her jab at the anti-birth control crowd because, in bombing Donahue's car, she sprayed a lot of undeserving people with shrapnel. Cue Tristero and his point that attacking one's religion is sloppy rhetorical targetting. Atrios is still right that it's not morally wrong to attack someone's philosophical/theological underpinning for political views, but you have to be precise about it and aim for the part that really is objectionable and that doesn't alienate vast tracts of the American people that you really don't want alienated. If we're talking about a basic religious tenet shared by the vast majority of the populace, in all likelihood the tactic will prove ineffective and quite possibly counterproductive, as your attacks may well hit lots of bystanders and even allies.