Saturday, August 27, 2005

Pagan Values

One of the little annoyances surrounding the great big annoyance of November 2, 2004, was all the media chatter over the exit polling that purported to show that “values voters” had gone overwhelmingly for Bush. The implication that Kerry voters somehow lacked concern for “values” was, of course, enthusiastically received on the Right, where people had been saying this for years anyway; on the Left, it occasioned no small amount of breast-beating over the Democratic Party’s need to “reclaim God”, as though religious values were the only ones worth having.

Yale biblical studies professor Wayne Meeks, in his study of the morality in the early Christian Church, points out that early Christians were, in moral terms, largely indistinguishable from the pagans among whom they lived, and that in fact the differences among various Christian groups were at least as great as the differences between Christians and pagans. The only areas where the Christian moralists really differed from their pagan counterparts were in their definition of religious offenses (i.e., “idolatry” tended to replace “desecration” or the like) and the fact that “perhaps in general references to sexual misdeeds are more common on the Christian lists [of vices] than in the ordinary ones.”

Today’s Christian Right presents us with a slightly different picture: though the emphasis on sexual misdeeds is still there, it’s not as a supplement to such basic moral values as love and compassion, but instead of them. Case in point: Tom Coburn (R-OK), who rode the 2004 values tide to a seat in the U.S. Senate. Coburn, an obstetrician who styles himself a rakish “Dr. Tom” on his web site, has an obsessive concern with sexual behavior that in the past has revealed itself in some very strange ways:

  • He objected to a network telecast of Schindler’s List on the ground that it would “encourage irresponsible sexual behavior”.
  • He has claimed that lesbianism is “so rampant in the some of the schools in southeast Oklahoma that they’ll only let one girl go to the bathroom”.
  • He has called for the death penalty for abortion providers.
Now the New York Times reports that Coburn may have been involved in the cutoff of U.S. funding for programs to slow the spread of AIDS in Central America. Lotería is a bingo-like game that teaches prostitutes, many of whom are illiterate, about the dangers of HIV and the use of condoms; Noches Vives distributes condoms in bars and brothels. Shortly after Dr. Tom wrote to President Bush demanding that the U.S. cease its support for these programs, the U. S. Agency for International Development did just that.

Coburn’s rationale? USAID shouldn’t be “misus[ing] funds to organize and sponsor parties and dance contests to exploit victims of the sex trade.” Instead, apparently, it should save its money and let the prostitutes—and their clientele—die. For that’s the only real alternative: the U. S. couldn’t stamp out the world’s oldest profession even if it tried, and Coburn (to the best of my knowledge) isn’t proposing to spend a single American dollar in the attempt. Without condoms, prostitutes will inevitably catch and spread HIV. And, many of them, die.

So this Senator with a 100-percent rating from the Christian Coalition is essentially proposing to rescue victims of the sex trade by making them victims of disease and death. Apparently he finds the thought of a prostitute being spared, through condom use, to continue her sexual misbehavior more distressing than the thought of her dying from AIDS.

If this is Christian morality, I’ll take the good, old-fashioned pagan values, thank you.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Let us die to make men . . . muzzled?

Thomas Cadmus, National Commander of the American Legion, declaring at the Legion's national convention in Honolulu that his comrades in arms did not, in fact, die to make us free:

The American Legion will stand against anyone and any group that would demoralize our troops, or worse, endanger their lives by encouraging terrorists to continue their cowardly attacks against freedom-loving peoples . . .

Public protests against the war here at home while our young men and women are in harm's way on the other side of the globe only provide aid and comfort to our enemies.
What "public protests"? Rallies? TV interviews? Letters to the Editor? Blogs?

This is just sad. Terribly sad.

Via Atrios

A Monkey's Uncle

Today's nominee for stupidest thing ever said on television: this, perpetrated by Larry King on Tuesday's Larry King Live:

All right, hold on. Dr. Forrest, your concept of how can you out-and-out turn down creationism, since if evolution is true, why are there still monkeys?
Today's nominee for saddest fact about the American education system: there are people around who consider this a serious argument. I saw one such in a blog comment thread yesterday:

Though it may hurt your eyes to read it, evolution is also an unproven theory . . . . It really is as simple as, "If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?"
To demonstrate the utter idiocy of these comments, let's try out some equivalents:

  1. If my ancestors came from Europe, why are there still Europeans?
  2. If humans evolved, why are there kumquats?
The first is evident nonsense because, of course, the various migrations of Europeans to North America didn't involve every European. Some stayed behind, and their descendants persisted in being European. Likewise, evolution of a new species needn't involve every descendant of the original population. If the population is physically divided for some reason, one group may evolve into a new species while the other remains relatively unchanged. This is known as the allopatric ("other homeland") model of speciation, and it (or the more inclusive reproductive isolation, which also encompasses non-geographic means of separation) is the primary mechanism of speciation invoked by modern evolutionary theory. The idea is even older than that, however, since Darwin himself discussed the allopatric diversification of Galápagos finches in The Origin of Species.

Of course, Larry King may be excused for not having learned about evolutionary theory (modern or otherwise) in school, since his school days date back to the post-"Monkey Trial", pre-Sputnik period when evolution of any kind was largely absent from science textbooks:

Publishers all across the nation took alarm from the Scopes trial and began a very efficient purge of Darwin from high school texts. [Garry Wills, Under God: Religion and American Politics]
But here he is hosting a discussion of evolution and Intelligent Design on national television. Couldn't he have done some background reading?

Or, more to the point, couldn't he have done some thinking? If there's any logic to the "why are there still monkeys" question at all, it's that evolution can't increase the number of species in the world. Otherwise the obvious response is "first a new species of monkeys arose, and then this species evolved into humans". So both King and the blogger are committed to the proposition that evolution is falsified not only by the coexistence of monkeys and humans, but also by the existence of multiple monkey species, or of multiple species of any type of animal, or indeed by the existence of more than one living species on the whole planet.

So, if humans evolved, why are there kumquats? Hmm?

Anyone who claims to find this a serious objection to evolutionary theory has forfeited any right to be taken seriously. It really is that simple.

via Atrios

Sunday, August 14, 2005

We the People, All By Ourselves

In its July 2005 issue, The American Muslim magazine published an article in which Dr. Robert D. Crane endorsed what he called a "traditionalist" approach to the foundation of law. He described this approach as "rooted in the self-evident truth that neither the individual person nor the collective of humankind is the ultimate sovereign in the universe, and in the corollary conviction that, without an objective right and wrong as the basis for law, cosmos must become chaos." As a concrete manifestation of the traditionalist approach, the article suggested the following language for the preamble to the Iraqi constitution currently under construction:

The ultimate sovereignty of the Divine Creator and Sustainer bestows inalienable rights in the individual person. All other levels of sovereignty derive from and are subordinate to that of the human person. This inalienable sovereignty of the person confers on every man, woman, and child basic responsibilities to respect and advance universal justice in the form of inalienable human rights for all others.
This morning on NPR's Morning Edition, Jonathan Morrow of the U.S. Institute for Peace, who has served as a constitutional adviser in Iraq, quoted from "an earlier draft" as follows:

We, the representatives of the Iraqi people, through the will of God and through the free will of the Iraqi people, announce that we have completed the constitution for the purpose of achieving the following aims: the installation of justice on a strong basis in order to guarantee the rights of all people and citizens without fear or prejudice by applying the principle of the rule of law, to guarantee fundamental freedoms . . .
Unlike Crane's text, the language quoted by Morrow bears a passing resemblance to the familiar language of the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. However, as different as Crane's and Morrow's texts are, they share a feature that the U.S. Constitution lacks: God.

The Roy Moores, Pat Robertsons and James Dobsons of the world want us to believe that the United States was founded on Biblical principles as a Christian Nation. They should observe how easy it would have been for the Framers to slip in a supernatural reference—if not the elaborate theoretical foundation of Crane's suggested text, then at least a clause acknowledging the Divine Will, as in the draft Morrow cited.

Instead, they gave us a document that's resolutely Godless. The Preamble is a case in point: the only agents it mentions are We the People, acting on our own authority. As John Adams wrote of the 13 original state governments, the U.S. Constitution is "founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretence of miracle or mystery".
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
This can't be an oversight.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Here I Am

Okay, Bill, here I am.

Last week on The O'Reilly Factor you promised you'll be investigating ACLU donors in the coming weeks because "[n]o organization in America enables terrorism as much as the ACLU, period."

Why not start with me?

I had never given much thought to the ACLU before September 11, 2001. Yes, the organization's commitment to free speech for all was laudable, and their willingness to protect the rights even of pariah groups like Nazis and NAMBLA remarkable. But I was happy to let them do their job without my active involvement. After all, the threats they battled didn't really threaten me, did they?

Then I noticed some unsettling signs in the aftermath of 9/11. First came the USA PATRIOT Act, with provisions expanding the government's power to seize financial records and other information while reducing or even eliminating judicial oversight. Then the news that the Justice Department had authorized eavesdropping on previously sacrosanct attorney-client conversations. Then the Executive Order in which President Bush claimed the right, essentially at whim, to hold non-citizens in detention and potentially subject them, with no possibility of appeal, to a death sentence determined by a mere two-thirds vote of a military tribunal.

Was I the only person who remembered junior-high civics? Separation of Powers? Checks and Balances? The notion that the police could obtain a warrant to search and seize my records on the basis, not that there was probable cause I had committed a crime, but simply that the search was "relevant" to a terrorism investigation—and that, furthermore, it would be a crime even to reveal that such a search had taken place—seemed wrong somehow. Un-American. So did the idea that any one man, no matter how well placed, could arrogate to himself the power of determining who was to be tried and how they were to be punished. Was this the "government of laws, and not of men" that John Adams had written about? Had the Founding Fathers labored in vain?

It turned out that other people noticed too, and not all of them on what you would call the "loony left". Bob Barr, the conservative ex-Senator from Georgia who had voted for the PATRIOT Act while in Congress although he disagreed with some of its provisions, joined the ACLU "to work on informational and data privacy issues."

Barr . . . said that real problems with government anti-terror efforts exist, uppermost of which is the huge amount of authority federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies have to gather personal information on people who have nothing to do with criminal activities.
William Safire, no bleeding heart, went so far as to label the Executive Order a seizure of "Dictatorial Power" and the proposed military tribunals "kangaroo courts" which

can conceal evidence by citing national security, make up its own rules, find a defendant guilty even if a third of the officers disagree, and execute the alien with no review by any civilian court.

No longer does the judicial branch and an independent jury stand between the government and the accused. In lieu of those checks and balances central to our legal system, non-citizens face an executive that is now investigator, prosecutor, judge, jury and jailer or executioner. In an Orwellian twist, Bush's order calls this Soviet-style abomination "a full and fair trial."
You see, Bill, I grew up believing, I think like most Americans, that America's founding principles were essentially right. The powers of government justly derive from the consent of the people, but the people's liberty must at the same time be protected against the misuse of government power. Thus there really is a need for checks and balances between the branches of government. There really is a need for due process of law before any person is deprived of life or liberty. There really is a need to protect minority rights against the claims of an inflamed majority.

So I joined the ACLU. No one else was in a position to mount an effective legal challenge to the post 9/11 excesses of George Bush and John Ashcroft. If I wanted to live in the America I had grown up believing in, I needed the ACLU to help make it happen.

If anything, events since then have shown how right I was. Although the Justice Department claims that some of the PATRIOT Act's most worrisome provisions have not been used (yet), Congress is now working not only to make them permanent but to expand them.

The military tribunals at Guantánamo Bay seem to be every bit as bad as Safire predicted. Earlier this year, legal analyst Andrew Cohen described one case where a detainee had to respond to charges of associating with a known al Qaeda operative without knowing the details of the charge, including the alleged associate's name. That particular piece of information was classified. Cohen commented,

Fifty years after Joe McCarthy, and 70 years after the Soviet-style trials that inspired George Orwell, the Star Chamber is back, Cuban-style, in the name of protecting freedom and liberty. This is what we are fighting for?
Finally, the outrages at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay were a direct outgrowth of the decision to deny Geneva Convention protections to U.S. prisoners, which in turn depended partly on the Justice Department argument, approved by Alberto Gonzales when he was White House Counsel, that the President is above the law. You claim that the ACLU's attempts to publicize the abuse of detainees in U.S. custody will aid terrorist recruitment, but surely Al Jazeera and other foreign news organizations have already broadcast the stories of mistreatment told by released prisoners. What the ACLU is doing is bringing this behavior to the attention of Americans, whose refusal to countenance what's being done in their name is the only hope for putting a stop to it. Can it hurt America's prestige in the world to be seen actually living up to our rhetoric?

The fact is, Bill, that the terrorists can kill some number of us, can destroy trains and planes and buildings, but they can't touch the legacy of America's Founders or threaten our 216-year history of Constitutionally-protected civil liberties. They can't force us to abandon our deepest principles. Only our own government can do that, and it seems to be trying.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Tuez-les tous!

Someday I will figure out how Bill O'Reilly finds the strength to look in the mirror every morning.

This is the man, after all, who is so concerned for Christianity's place in our culture that last December he repeatedly trumpeted the charge that Christmas was "under siege" by "media forces of darkness" and "secular progressives [wishing to] destroy religion in the public arena". O'Reilly has shown a special regard for Christianity's founder, even at one point suggesting that Jesus wept over media criticism of O'Reilly. Further, his odd description of Christmas as "a federal holiday based on the philosopher Jesus" suggests at least that O'Reilly attaches as much importance to Jesus' teachings as to his salvific mission.

What can we know about Jesus' "philosophy"? In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus summarized his moral teaching this way:

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.[Mt. 22:37-40]
There is no shortage of evidence for how Jesus interpreted the "love thy neighbor" dictum. Most famous, of course, is the parable of the Good Samaritan [Lk. 10: 30-37], explaining what it is to be a neighbor; then there's the injunction to return good for evil [Lk. 6:32-35], to forgive not seven times but seventy times seven [Mt. 18:22]. And this:

Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. [Mt. 25: 34-40]
Now we know that Bill O'Reilly may cry out Jesus' name, but he doesn't really take his words seriously. Visit prisoners? Nah. Kill them:

People slaughtering civilians . . . I don’t give them any protection. I don’t feel sorry for them. In fact, I probably would have ordered their execution if I had the power.
The 9/11 slaughterers of civilians are all already dead, and bin Laden and Zarqawi are beyond our reach. The people who are left are the ones we have in places like Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and Bagram AFB. As Think Progress points out, the vast majority of Guantánamo detainees have never been charged with any crime. Indeed, some have been released after the military determined that they pose no threat. The Red Cross has been told that between 70 and 90 percent of detainees in Iraq are eventually found innocent and released. These detainees include children as young as 11.

So the question is, when O'Reilly says he would already have ordered executions, when and of whom? Would these executions have come before mid-July, when 27 prisoners were released from Guantánamo Bay? Or before September, 2004, when 11 Afghan prisoners were let go? Or even earlier, before three teenagers (ages 13 to 15) were released in January, 2004? How many of these people does he wish he'd had killed?

Perhaps it's not as odd as it seems that a devotee of "the philosopher Jesus" should be willing to indiscriminately put hundreds of people to death, the innocent and the guilty alike. After all, it was Arnaud Amaury, Abbot of Citeaux and papal legate during the Albigensian Crusade, who is said to have issued the famous command "Tuez-les tous; Dieu reconnaîtra les siens" (Kill them all; God will know his own).

But in this day and age, it just looks like rank hypocrisy.

Found at Eschaton

Focusing on the Inessential

Robert Novak's August 1 column was the subject yesterday of a New York Times story by Anne E. Kornblut. I don't think I've ever seen a piece of journalism so resolutely focused on the inessential.

Novak's column mentions the fact that Joseph Wilson's entry in Who's Who in America identifies his wife by her maiden name, Valerie Plame. Kornblut seems to think that this is a suggestion from Novak "that the scrutiny that has focused on which of his sources provided him the name might have been misplaced, and that he might well have figured it out by himself." Nonsense. This is a suggestion from Novak that he knows what Who's Who says about Wilson's wife. But we already knew this. As Kornblut points out, he cited the same fact in a column back in October of 2003.

In neither of these instances did Novak imply that he got Plame's name from Who's Who. In the October, 2003 column, he merely used the Who's Who entry to deflect blame from himself for publishing a name that was "no secret":
Republican activist Clifford May wrote Monday, in National Review Online, that he had been told of her identity by a non-government source before my column appeared and that it was common knowledge. Her name, Valerie Plame, was no secret either, appearing in Wilson's "Who's Who in America" entry.

The August 1 column mentions Who's Who only to ridicule ex-CIA spokesman Bill Harlow's statement that he asked Novak not to use Plame's name. As Novak rightly says, once he had written that it was Wilson's wife who suggested his trip to Niger, withholding her name would be pointless:
[Ex-CIA spokesman Bill Harlow] told the Post reporters he had "warned" me that if I "did write about it her name should not be revealed." That is meaningless. Once it was determined that Wilson's wife suggested the mission, she could be identified as "Valerie Plame" by reading her husband's entry in "Who's Who in America."
In fact, the Kornblut article is a thorough misreading of the August 1 column. There is nothing in it to suggest that Novak didn't get Plame's name directly from one of his sources. And, more important, there is nothing in it to suggest that Novak is even addressing the question of where he got the name. His issue is rather with Bill Harlow's grand jury testimony to the effect that Novak published his original column even after Harlow told him it was factually incorrect and that Plame's name should not be revealed.

It is likely that Novak is correct about the first of these points: Harlow seems to have claimed that Novak wrote, incorrectly, that Plame "authorized" Wilson's trip to Niger, while in fact Novak only wrote that Plame "suggested" sending Wilson.

On the second point, however, it's hard to credit Novak's logic. He appears to suggest that Harlow had no problem with Novak's revealing that Joe Wilson's wife worked for the CIA on Weapons of Mass Destruction, but instead objected only to his revealing her name. This is simply impossible to believe, especially if Wilson's wife's name was as easy to discover as Novak himself says it was. Surely Harlow's only logical objection would have been to the publication of information sufficient to reveal her identity, whether or not this information included her name. And surely Novak must realize this.

Novak claims that "I never would have written those sentences if . . .anybody . . . from the agency had told me that Valerie Plame Wilson's disclosure would endanger herself or anybody." However, he does quote Harlow as having told him that "exposure of [Plame's] name might cause 'difficulties.' " Even if Harlow stopped short of the word "danger", Novak must certainly have realized what kind of "difficulties" might follow from the exposure of a CIA agent, and must have known that identifying a CIA agent as "Joseph Wilson's wife" was as good as naming her. If he did not, his basic competence is in question; if he did, his morality is.

The same considerations, of course, apply to whoever gave Novak the story in the first place, whether or not the words "Valerie Plame" were part of the package.