Friday, October 26, 2007


It’s going to be Halloween soon. And in the spirit of the season, The Republican National Committee has introduced a fun little interactive page on their website called “Scariest Democrat.” On the opening page, a picture of each of the Democratic candidates for president is shown. Each is captured with a menacing (or goofy) expression on their face. Along side each such image, our friends at The GOP National Committee display the results of some sort of polling activity where they’ve actually been trying to gauge who is, in their terms, the scariest. Also there next to each candidate’s “scary” visage is an interactive link where you can “click here to read why” Biden, or Clinton, or Obama is “the scariest Democrat.”

When you do proceed to the next “layer” you don’t get a whole lot of specifics as to “why John Edwards is so scary” —or Hillary Clinton, or Barack Obama. The word “left” is used a lot. It would appear that all it takes to incite GOP fear and loathing is this word, or the word "liberal," or "progressive." America should recoil in horror because Joe Biden is “widely identified as a liberal!” Run for your lives! “John Edwards has staked out the clearest position on the left!” Tremble in fear, America, for Senator Chris Dodd “is proud of his Northeast Progressive background!”

Actual policy dispute with these labeled liberals isn’t actually made available. It doesn’t seem to be necessary. Dismissive tags will do.

The sources are quoted: Newsweek, NY Times, MSNBC, Tucker Carlson, etc. They even have one or two live links to the source name calling.

To complete the theme of the piece, this useful web based resource is displayed across the backdrop of a cartoon Halloween graveyard scene, complete with lightning flashes and the revolving sound loop of rolling thunder.

I realize that, on a certain level, this was meant to be taken in fun. But as I read the various elements of this web-based media piece, I couldn’t help but recall a host of examples where this fear and loathing theme has recurred in the political discourse of the past few years, and with a lot less tongue in cheek. On the national front, I thought of our fear mongering war culture. (Or is that a war mongering fear culture?) More locally —for now, I thought of Mitt Romney launching his presidential campaign with an actual explicit list of “bogeymen” in hand (“activist” judges, his “home” state of Massachusetts, the French, gays and, but of course, liberals and Democrats).

Yes, I was just getting ready to climb up on my soap box and decry the politics of fear, not just the fear of threats and challenges like poverty and security and peace, but also the fear to actively engage in informed discourse, the way “liberal” and “left” and “progressive” have been used as a terms to contain, label and dismiss valid debate.

I’d been to see Deval Patrick and Barack Obama speak at Boston Common only a few days ago and I was ready to take something from that experience. I was going to launch into an argument that we should premise our politics on what we hope for, rather than what we’re afraid of.

Then I got an email from the DSCC, The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. They wanted to let me know that I can go to their website and watch a video they refer to as their “Halloween Howler.” There you can see stock footage from old B-grade horror movies interspersed with attacks on “vulnerable” Republican senators facing re-election in 2008. All this, over a soundtrack of vintage horror movie brass section honking and campy heroine-in-distress screams. You can log on to the site and vote for your “Scariest Republican.”

Oh, well. So much for elevating the civic discourse.

I'm told that we are in that phase of the electoral process for the presidency where we must constantly discuss our politics in terms of warring sides, or opposing camps. Each party looks to its base for support, and over its shoulder at “enemies,” so as to energize those respective bases.

But anyone who is actively engaged in politics these days will tell you, we’re always in that phase.

The analysts of what is known as “real politics” tell us that the machine matters. Who can out-fundraise and ultimately outspend their opponent? That becomes the question. They tell us that the game of politics involves savvy demographic maneuvers, more than civil democratic debate (with or without the capital “D”). To this mindset, both of these “scary” new media campaigns could end up being really quite successful.

”Bogeymen,” indeed.

To my mind, we find ourselves engaged in something that is, at the same time, as brutal as a war and as silly as a game, something that is ultimately sad, bewildering and just plain destructive to our democracy.

I’d like to believe we can do better than this. All of us.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Dull Blade Of A Double Axe

Just a while back someone forwarded an email with a short opinion piece about Australian Prime Minister John Howard. The piece focused on some amount of controversy generated by remarks Howard had made in criticism of Islamic clerics, residing in Australia and advocating among their followers for the rule of Sharia law. Howard had pointed out that Australia was a secular state and that it's laws were made by Parliament. (OK...) Those who question that or suggest that "there are two laws governing people in Australia," that of the secular government and that of Sharia, those people "should consider leaving," Howard was quoted as saying.

Strangely enough, from there the author of this piece went on to congratulate Howard for an earlier interview in which he directly contradicted this reminder to the clerics about a secular state. In past public comments Howard had said he was "sick and tired" of the "politically correct" notion of a multi-cultural Australia. The country was founded by Christian and White men and women who speak English, claimed Howard. (I guess the indigenous Aboriginal culture had become invisible to him) "Learn the language!" he was quoted as saying and "If God offends you, then I suggest you consider another part of the world as your new home, because God is part of our culture."

The piece concluded with these words from Australian Prime Minister John Howard; "This is our country, our land, and our lifestyle, and we will allow you every opportunity to enjoy all this. But once you are done complaining, whining, and griping about our flag, our pledge, our Christian beliefs, or our way of life, I highly encourage you take advantage of one other great Australian freedom, 'the right to leave'!"

Oh yes, and this coda, these words from the essay's anonymous author: "Maybe if we circulate this amongst ourselves, American citizens will find the backbone to start speaking and voicing the same truths."

The essay piece was anonymous. The email had been forwarded to me by someone, let's just say their political outlook is somewhat different from mine, with only this comment: "America needs a leader like this."

I know I've set up something of a straw man here, but really! America needs a leader like this?

The thinking is a little like a dull double bladed axe. It's a little like hitting yourself in the face with one. It takes a challenging question that confronts us as a nation, and as members of a larger democratic culture, and it turns it back on ourselves, as a tool to sever us (somewhat bluntly and brutally) into supposed camps.

The kind of extremists who advocate an absolute and extreme reading of Sharia, do so because they view democratic principles like an individual's civil liberties, or a culture of tolerance and pluralism, as decadent and morally compromised. They see their truth as an absolute and anything that questions or undermines it as simply an obstacle evil to be removed. I read this article and I found myself wondering whether the author rejected such thinking or embraced it.

I can't speak with any real expertise about Australian democracy (they lose me when they start pledging allegiance to their queen). But I do have an understanding (perhaps it's just my own) of American democracy. As I take it, central to that democracy, from its very founding, was a libertarian ideal that held that the state had no business anywhere between a human being and his or her god (or goddess, any such divinity). That's why we made it explicit in the earliest charter of this country that we would have no church of the state.

We considered and opted not to adopt an official language at about the same time (that's lucky too, a strong contender at the time was German, ümlaüt's and all).

I think it's fairly safe to say that a majority of those who put in place our Constitution and signed our Declaration of Independence were Christians. But they understood democracy as something more than plurality. And they saw the sacred as a concern for the individual conscience, not the consensus of a committee, no matter how large or well intentioned that committee might be. The individual conscience, with its own freely chosen concept of Creation, outside the coercive authority of government, even a democratic one: They saw this as the core truth in their understanding of freedom. In my estimation, they got that one right.

So what is a pluralist, tolerant, democratic society to do when one group within that society advocates an opposed way of thinking? It might feel good to pretend that the answer is easy and obvious, but that doesn't make it right.

If we're going to answer that question honestly, as Americans, if we're going to face that challenge to our principles (rather than surrender those principles), aren’t we supposed to figure out how to abide by a place for those differing beliefs? 'Tolerance' doesn't mean acquiescence, not to violence, not to oppression, not to hatred. But it does require faith and some amount of courage.

When I was a kid my father read a newspaper story to me about an ACLU lawyer, a Jew, who went to court defending the rights of a group of American neo-fascists to march in some small town parade. This group wore armbands with swastikas on them. That lawyer won that group their right to march in a parade and advocate their hateful ideas. He did so because of his own ideas, his very American, democratic ideals. That lawyer knew that those ideals were sometimes contradictory, and difficult, even dangerous. But they were what he believed in.

"Now, there's an American!" my dad said. As my father explained it, that particular American saw a far greater threat in actually abridging our freedoms, than in tolerating the free (albeit abhorrent) speech of a few ignorant bigots. I didn't always agree with my father, but in my estimation, he got that one right.

I don't think this a question about liberals versus conservatives. I think we do ourselves a disservice when we pretend it is. The dull blade of that double axe hits us square in the face. A pluralist, tolerant, democratic society isn't some "politically correct" notion at odds with our founding principles. It is actually one of those principles. We do allow for people to choose their own "higher" laws, within the more purposefully liberal and limited precepts of our government's laws. Catholic catechism, Kosher orthodoxy, Sharia, Buddhist practice: these all contain laws and disciplines worthy of respect and honor in the hearts of those who choose them as their faith. In the democratic spirit, these faiths find even greater meaning in the fact they are chosen, freely.

There is a delicate balance here, one that is constantly challenged, one that gives rise to contentious debate. It is difficult, dangerous and gray at times. That is democracy.

Personally, I still have faith in the ideals of freedom and democracy, in social justice, human dignity. And I think our strongest weapon against ideological hatred, intolerance and violence is our capacity to maintain the integrity of those ideals. When we try to circumscribe those ideals and define them in limited terms, as the cultural property of one race or creed, we end up the ones doing them damage.

With that double axe in hand, we had best be careful. I guess that's all I'm asking.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Remarkable Enterprise

The Associated Press reports that our new Defense Secretary Robert Gates is really quite bothered. The Chinese just closed a deal with the Iraqi government for $100 million worth of military equipment. According to Iraqi President Jalal Talibani, he simply had to purchase the weaponry in question from the Chinese because American manufacturers weren't delivering product in a timely way. The Iraqi National Police needed munitions and they needed them now.

At this news, the Pentagon voiced some appropriate concerns. Foreign arms flowing into Iraq, even to the government's military and police, might be "harder to track" and just might fall into the hands of insurgents. Of course, at the Pentagon, they know that of which they speak, having themselves "misplaced" approximately 190,000 AK-47 rifles somewhere in Iraq over just the past little while.

Just imagine where those Chinese guns could end up!

But actually Secretary Gates said rather confidently that he is "not worried." He claims he's not all that bothered that Iraq is turning to the Chinese for weapons. He can still cite that the US has already delivered on about $600 million worth of product. There's somewhere between $2 billion and $3 billion more on order. Business is good.

But it could always be better.

"This is an issue that we have to look into and see what we can do in the United States to be more responsive and be able to react more quickly to the requests of our friends," the Secretary said. According to the Defense Department, it generally takes us about five months to deliver our product to the (excuse the term) "marketplace" once we receive a detailed order. But we are working to improve upon that. Gates points out that we've opened up offices in Baghdad for "military sales." With improved customer service, the US hopes to "get (customer) requirements more quickly and get them processed more quickly." We can all rest assured the The Pentagon and The Defense Security Cooperation Agency have been working on this problem for quite some time.

It's maybe a little strange, the way Secretary Gates uses the word "friends."

He might have consulted his star general before making his marketing and sales analysis. It might have been worth noting that our recently reported "successes" in Anbar province involved the US directly arming local Sunni tribal elements. According to General Petraeus, these former insurgents and Ba'athists were able to turn on al Qaeda with our support and drive “the enemy” from the region.

Remember? It was on the news.

At the same time, these Sunni tribesmen were also able to assume local control of Anbar province, in direct opposition to the militant Shia factions operating from within, yes... The Iraqi National Police. (Yes, that's right, the same folks who were looking for quick turnaround on their weoponry needs.)

I am reminded that one of the great "think tank" sources for rationale for this war was (and continues to be) "The American Enterprise Institute." We are, after all, supposedly in Iraq to "defend" the principles of "American freedom and democratic capitalism." When you analyze this war in terms of marketing and sales, in terms of a bottom dollar bottom line, I suppose one can conceive of it as an enterprise, one beset by challenges, but ultimately, as our vice-president once said, "a remarkable success."

I am also reminded of a conversation I once had with another American, a businessman in fact, and an immigrant from Iran. We were talking about the way our country is perceived, around the Arab world, in Iraq and Iran. There was that question, why are we so resented? Think back to 1980's, he said. While Donald Rumsfeld was hugging Saddam Husssein at photo ops and offering support to the Iraqi military, Colonel Oliver North, from his White House basement office, was trading arms with Iran. Sit with that a while, he said, a war of ten years, that took a million lives. And we were arming both sides.

Sit with that a while.

A war conceived of as an enterprise can indeed be really quite remarkable. Today we arm Sunnis, whose allegiance was once to the regime we obliterated. We do this so as to hold in check the Shia who, it seems only yesterday we were liberating. We fund and arm both the central government and separatist factions. And our Secretary of Defense concerns himself with lost business opportunities.

Viewed through such a lens, the casualties, Iraqi combatants and civilians alike, our own soldiers, all become nothing more than the cost of doing business.



sadly, I'm not making any of this up... read the ap story