Friday, December 26, 2008

Make gentle the life...

Word came in a call from a dear friend of mine on the day after Christmas. With tears soaking through her voice, she told me she had heard that our friend, Michael had taken his own life.

I can't claim Michael Penney was the closest friend —if there is any sense in trying to gauge such closeness. I am sure there are people he had touched more often and perhaps more deeply. There are others he shared more of himself with. I really only know by hearsay much of the anguish he suffered, the long struggle of his life. I can only testify to the few times I met with him and the few times more I encountered him in written messages we exchanged back and forth.

The thing that always struck me about Michael was his calm and courage —his was a very particular kind, not the kind of courage that is some absence of fear or an ignorance of pain, his was the sort of courage that is so much more than that: the kind of courage that exists in the face of fear and pain.

As I think of it now I realize that it wasn't the Michael who lost out to life that I knew. It was the Michael who fought back, the one who challenged himself and others to "do something!" I came to know him through his involvements, his activism for peace, his interest in social justice and responsible environmentalism, through the rigorous conscience he tried to live by.

Whether we were standing in protest together or sharing our thoughts in conversation, whenever I encountered him it was that brave face he was wearing. He was speaking quietly and firmly of his belief in a more peaceable way we might share this planet with each other, or how we might protect this earth of ours as a legacy for future generations. I remember him on several nights, for all his basic shyness, guiding conversation for a film discussion group that we used to both participate in when he lived in Holliston. Whether it was "The Fog of War" we were discussing or "The Peril of Our Planet," his voice had the same pained yet bravely, patiently persisting music to it.

I remember most recently the messages we exchanged over an impassioned letter to the editor he had written. He wrote that he had —at least for a time— weathered the storm of our difficult economic times —"But what of those who had not?" he asked. "What of those less fortunate?"

He was pleased to see his letter published in the local paper. He was glad to have voiced his cares, and sorry that he had needed to.

The moment I heard of Michael's death, in my mind I heard the words Robert Kennedy offered as solace, as he informed a crowd of his supporters of the assassination of Martin Luther King. Kennedy spoke so gently then, but with such strength.

"Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of the world."

Before I even knew why, I heard those words. Even as I had just begun to sort through my anger with Michael, as I sorted through the questions I had for myself.

The passion to do right by this world, despair at the sight of all that is so wrong with it: these travel along the same paths within us, requiring of us such strength and such delicate care.

"Making gentle the life of this world" —that is how I will always remember Michael. That persisting music I heard in him.

That will survive so much longer than the pain.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Michael Penney's name to The National Alliance on Mental Illness, NAMI, P.O. Box 759155, Baltimore, MD 21275-9155. A memorial service for family and friends will take place at The Holliston Historical Society, 547 Washington St., Holliston, Jan. 3, 2009, at 2 p.m.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Hoping for Republicans

I've seen a few pieces on the future of the Republican party in the last couple of days —we have a thread on this blog speculating about their current state of "nightmare." There are those of a certain school of political thinking that look to the broad, two toned electoral map for answers; and to the many many demographical slices of the country's populace that can dragged onto the microscope slides of their expertise. That might seem like a path forward from the wreckage, but it seems to me like so much stitching together of broken eggshells.

I'd like to relate the discussion of a Republican future back to a more basic question —about conduct. I commented on one of the other threads here that if John McCain had conducted himself —and his campaign— differently —something like the way he spoke when he was offering his concession— the result of the campaign might have been very different. The McCain who was speaking Tuesday night respected his opponent, and simply differed with his thinking. It seemed that night, as he spoke, that at last he was capable of conducting a constructive and candid debate.

Isn't that really all we were asking for? What we deserved?

In some of the campaign post mortem discussion I've heard talk of Sarah Palin being the future of the GOP. A chill runs down my spine. Not because I differ with her policies (I don't know what they are —and I'm not sure she does, either) —but the future for the party she would seem to indicate would be one of even lower expectations as to the discussion itself, of an even broader, coarser and louder shouting match.

I tell you where I would like to see the future of the Republican party go. I'd like to see them in the role of a truly loyal —loyal opposition. Where the Obama administration seems ready to advance policy and the Congress seems ready to pass it —let's hear cogent and coherent critique —not obstructionism and name calling. Let's have a Republican approach to the debate premised on refining policy from a different, even passionately different, but respectful perspective.

Frankly, I think being relieved of their concern for holding together their coalition and its hold on power might actually allow the Republicans to find a better —more candid voice, a more constructive place in the national discussion.

The darkest moment of the past eight years, for me, came when Alberto Gonzales came before the Senate for approval of his nomination to the position of U.S. Attorney General. I remember Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, speaking so passionately about what wrongs this prospective Attorney General had done to the rule of law, the reputation of our country, and even the safety of our troops with his amoral lawyering on the subject of detainee abuse. As the Republican Senator spoke out on the subject I was truly heartened that someone was apparently recognizing that the country and certain of its principles were more important than party allegiance.

The next day Graham voted to approve Gonzales for his post.

I'd like to think that the days ahead might actually offer an opportunity to GOP leaders like Graham and McCain —and exiles like Lincoln Chafee and Christine Whitman. Maybe the convolutions of the party line can be altogether dispensed with for a while. And voices of clarity and conscience can contribute to a constructive political process.

Obama spoke the other night —and it wasn't the first time— of the need we have to move beyond the politics of always the next electoral contest. He spoke of our need to attend to the tasks at hand in a spirit of cooperation, of moving towards a practical and effective consensus. He pledged a place for dissenting views and valid criticism in the policy making of his administration.

It won't be his responsibility alone to live up to that promise.

Here's hoping.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The eyes have it

Every now and then some news comes down the line to remind us that this election we're dealing with is about more than our own petty political culture rivalries. We're reminded that the decision we make will have some impact on the world around us —yes, even the world beyond our borders. News of a U.N. fact finding tour reporting on evidence of systematic violence and repression perpetrated by Columbian security forces is one such reminder.

Some might argue that the human rights abuses of some Central American regime are not our concern. I can hear the word 'sovereignty' being invoked already. But to pretend the violence in Columbia does not concern us is quite simply to deny reality —and culpability. The security forces involved operate with our training and our tax dollar support.

This isn't an issue for partisan finger pointing. American support for the Columbian regime traces back through several administrations and any responsible discussion of the issue should involve a balanced appraisal of our engagement. It should involve candid debate.

We haven't had the debate on human rights policy I would have liked us to have in the presidential campaign. Both candidates made occasional reference to the issue, but the media lens was always focused elsewhere.

I can only recall one particular exchange, that during the very last debate (shown here) —for me one roll of the eyes told a great deal. Barack Obama was explaining that his opposition to a bill advancing Columbian trade status was premised in his concern about the repressive record of the Columbian regime. McCain wasn't prepared to refute Obama's reservations about the Columbian regime, not as they discussed trade policy. He wasn't willing to connect that dot. Instead, he was ready roll his eyes as if to comment that concern for human rights had no place in a discussion of trade policy —that to suggest as much was deridably absurd.

That roll of the eyes said a mouthful.

If we want to talk about this country as a moral leader in the world, as any sort of beacon of freedom, we are going to do so by actually exerting that leadership. Examining our trade policy in terms of human rights isn't protectionist or isolationist, as Senator McCain and Obama's critics have charged. It's actually just the opposite. It sees the notion of free trade as related to the notion of freedom —and dignity. Obama's comment, to me, indicated that he understood that connection.

And John McCain just rolled his eyes.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Bargain Bush meant

The Bush administration —remember them? With all the election's wrangling, it's easy to forget we actually still do have affairs of state to attend to. And it sure seems to me that there's a school of thought in the Bush White House that would really prefer it if we did forget about them —at least for the next little while.

It seems President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have reached an agreement governing American military forces in Iraq and there's been hardly a stirring of attention to the matter —at least not here. According to this report in, the particulars of the agreement and threats of a parliamentary veto are the hot topic of headlines and vocal debate in Baghdad. This side of the pond —not so much.

You see the the Iraqi Constitution contains provisions mandating parliamentary approval of binding agreements with foreign countries. Of course ours does, too —but you know how that goes.

President Bush argues that the form of agreement at hand with Iraq is in his right as commander-in-chief. It is merely a "status of forces agreement" like many before it, made by many presidents before him. But as Bruce Ackerman and Oona A. Hathaway point out in their piece for Slate, Bush's bargain "goes far beyond anything in these previous agreements...While American troops have been placed under foreign control in peacekeeping operations, this has occurred only under treaties approved by the Senate. No American president has ever before claimed the unilateral power to bargain away the military power of his successors."

And that is exactly what his agreement with Prime Minister al-Maliki does!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

ACORN in a nutshell: tempest in a teapot

"We need to know the full extent of Senator Obama's relationship with ACORN, who is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy." – John McCain

I was frankly disappointed to see McCain resort to this topic in the debates the other night. I was hoping he would show some leadership on this one. In the previous week, he had shown himself capable of pushing back against some of the uglier reflexive demonizing in his campaign, but with ACORN he seems prepared to go with the flow, the flowing effluent.

As Suzanne Goldenberg of The Guardian points out, "The charges against ACORN have grown more pointed with McCain's slide in the opinion polls" —and there may be some sense that this kind of controversy will serve to stir his base and cast just a bit more doubt on Obama for some. This has already been a favorite topic of speculation for a certain species of speculators. Rush Limbaugh has a theory that Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers and ACORN have all been working together with Obama in a secret plot to hate this country and inflict their deliberate minority poverty on an unsuspecting nation.

As John McCain himself said the other night, every campaign has it's fringe elements.

But with McCain raising the "fabric of democracy" as an issue himself at the debate, and people like John Danforth, a former Senator and UN ambassador, speaking up about the prospect of "a tainted election" —as Goldenberg reports —the issue goes mainstream.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The choice in choosing

My sense of the selection of Sarah Palin as running mate for John McCain has always been that she is on the ticket, not for what she might say or do as Vice President or as a potential President, but for what she represents. Don't get me wrong, she deserves respect of a politic sort. She's shown an ability —or at least a lack of compunction— for attacks; and that is a familiar role for the VP on a ticket. Sarah Palin can openly muse about Obama's patriotism and the dark colorings of his past and John McCain can shrug and grin, as if to say, what a pistol —that gal, and still distance himself (somewhat) from the slinging.

But any number of candidates could have filled that role as designated attack dog for McCain. What made Sarah Palin the choice is what she, in all her tabloid storied glory, represents —what she is an emblem of when it comes to the social issue hot buttons, like God and guns, and like the question —of choice.

This past Saturday at a rally in Pennsylvania she chose to remind us of what she symbolizes:
"In times like these with wars and financial crisis, I know that it may be easy to forget even as deep and abiding a concern as the right to life, and it seems that our opponent kind of hopes you will forget that. He hopes that you won't notice how radical, absolutely radical his idea is on this, and his record is, until it's too late."

A CNN report on the rally appearance points out that "Palin has mostly avoided raising her opposition to abortion rights on the campaign trail since she was tapped as Sen. John McCain's running mate, a fact she readily acknowledged in her remarks." And, indeed, Palin might seem to have turned a leaf with these comments this past Saturday. Yet her attacks on Obama's "radicalism" aren't accompanied with any real clarity or contrast, any specifics as to what a McCain/Palin policy would be on abortion rights —or the lack thereof.

In Palin's infamous early interviews with Katy Couric she avowed her stance on choosing life over abortion, even in the case of rape or incest, but brushed aside the question of any real implication to criminalizing abortion. She would "counsel choosing life," she said when pressed —as if the role of government (and her potential place in it) weren't law and policy, but maternal advice. As is her wont, she simply did not answer when asked if this meant she advocated prison time for women seeking abortion or doctors providing them. She would "counsel choosing life," she repeated.

Even as she has now chosen to broach the subject more directly, Palin does not contrast specific proposals on abortion law. She only complains of what a vote for Barack Obama supposedly represents:

"A vote for Barack Obama is a vote for activist courts that will continue to smother the open and democratic debate that we deserve and that we need on this issue of life."

I have to ask, have we really been lacking debate on this subject?

Or is it candor we've been lacking?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

"Then they pull me back in!"

We all remember the line from 'The Godfather' (I guess it was one of the sequels and I honestly don't remember which one). It's one of those lines that enter the lexicon (like Play it again, Sam or The past is prologue). It was Al Pacino bemoaning his involuntary commitment to "the family." For all the horror and violence of his experience with them —and them with him— there was this strange and entirely irrevocable bond.

I'm reminded of Dick Cheney, somehow.

Maybe it was Sarah Palin's gosh gollee gee reconcilliation with the old guy that got me thinking. At the debate the other night she allowed as how she sure does like that "flexibility in there" that Cheney brought to the office (the same "flexibility" Joe Biden described as the most damaging disregard for the Constitution he's ever seen).

You might use the word "erratic" to describe the way McCain/Palin have handled themselves with regard to the current administration. McCain walked in (to the rescue) to the highly touted Bush bailout bill meeting a while back like he was visiting an imbecilic nephew on the matter of his depleted trust fund. Cheney's name was not mentioned once at the Republican National Convention —not once. There has been occasional reference to "blunders" of the current administration from both Palin and McCain, but thus far they have been kind enough not to name one —they've yet to name one, and when it comes to actual policy —well, you know how they say imitation is a form of flattery.

There's this love/hate thing going on. Nobody is really comfortable with the spooky uncle with the brass knuckles and the bag full of bloody rags in his closet. But still, when things get ugly —you gotta love him.

John McCain may publicly attack Obama for "voting for Dick Cheney's energy bill" —and he may, on occasion, lay some of the blame for the Iraq war's difficulties at the vice president's dooorstep, but let's just say there's some winking going on.

Consider this quote from an interview McCain gave author Stephen Hayes as he was preparing a book on Cheney. This was just over a year ago and McCain was asked whether he’d be interested in Cheney as a VP, or in some other administration role, McCain said: “I don’t know if I would want him as vice president. He and I have the same strengths. But to serve in other capacities? Hell, yeah.”

"Same strengths"?

"Hell, yeah"?

I guess the question becomes just who is giving whom an "offer they can't refuse"?

Barton Gellman, author of "Angler" —a study of the Cheney vice presidency— watched the debate between Biden and Palin and came away with this observation (which he shared in an article for

"Palin, by her own recent accounts, is more inclined than Biden to emulate the incumbent."

But there's hope, he also observes:

"But Palin is strictly an amateur by Cheney standards. The woman tried to use free e-mail services on the Web to circumvent Alaska's public records laws, as if no one would guess the identity of Letting her account get hacked was the inevitable newbie comeuppance. No one in Cheney's office would have dreamed of writing down some of the things the hackers found."

So I guess we can pin our hopes on a McCain/Palin administration where the abuse of power isn't carried off with nearly as much skill and accomplishment!

Unless of course they keep the old guy around as a coach.

"...Hell, yeah!"

Friday, October 3, 2008

Palin-drone and String Theory

“Well, our founding fathers were very wise there in allowing through the Constitution much flexibility there in the office of the vice president. And we will do what is best for the American people in tapping into that position and ushering in an agenda that is supportive and cooperative with the president’s agenda in that position. Yeah, so I do agree with him (Dick Cheney) that we have a lot of flexibility in there, and we’ll do what we have to do to administer very appropriately the plans that are needed for this nation.”

~Sarah Palin, vice presidential candidate
(and aspiring contortionist)

Perhaps years from now the quote above, from last night's debate, will be carved in stone and put on display in Washington, D.C. —I picture it somewhere along side the great reflecting pool between the Washington Monument and The Lincoln Memorial, shaded by a copse of trees, as a marker over the interred remains of the Constitution.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The pitfalls of common sense

It must be hard to stay on script, especially when you can't let common sense be your guide. Take for example the McCain/Palin campaign as it tries to make sense of its position on the the Taliban and al Qaeda and their activities in the Afghan and Pakistani border regions. To stay on message at the debate the other night Senator McCain had to keep rebuking Obama for his naive and unschooled approach to the problem.

About a year ago now, Obama was presented with a hypothetical question: If you had clear and actionable intelligence about the location of bin Laden or some other senior al Qaeda operative within Pakistan and Pakistan either couldn't or wouldn't act to take them out, or cooperate in doing so, would you act unilaterally?

His answer was —yes.

At the time, during the primary campaign, there was every effort to paint his answer as a gaffe, something only a dangerous neophyte would say. He was given opportunity to qualify, clarify, or rework his response.

No thanks, he said, I meant what I said.

Fast forward to the debate the other night and John McCain is still gnawing at the bone. Obama was irresponsible, naive and dangerous for saying such a thing.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

At the shore

At the shore

What this great gray being—
Here by the water it speaks without
cease or concern for who might or might not
be listening —whether this ocean voice is only the dream
music of a damaged child
or the the larger anthem of one race of angels —or another.

Here it might be effortless to believe —heroic to doubt
at that being’s side —the enormous matter
such, that we need it to be
divine and with purpose —with meaning.

There are exhausted words in this language
of light —of aching and homage
—of the ocean sound and the seabird’s
soaring —loneliness.

Even as they are said and sorry —these words
—I know the same sad declination. I know the salt wind
I am fallen through and the incessent
heedless majesty —the terrible
empty and enormous matter
of the sea.

There at the shore and away
from blithe distraction
I confront this truth —perhaps.

Or I might well be merely entertaining
a question—

Here at the shore,
as two birds drift above me,
nearly motionless
in the misty air,
perhaps we only share
the empty mind —of God.


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Georgia's frontier justice

Clear good guys and bad guys are always nice to have. In the old b-movie westerns it was always comforting —you could tell them apart by the color of their cowboy hats and, as a result, you knew who to root for. As the six guns were drawn and the bullets started flying, you didn't have to mourn the death of the guys dressed in dark colors. When the good guys shot them the bad guys seemed to die obligingly —never evincing so much pain as to elicit sympathy —hardly even any blood.

Reality can be just a bit more challenging.

The situation in Georgia, for some it provides a new chapter in a similarly clear moral drama of good vs. evil. There is some thrill now that Sunday morning opinion shows can once again be animated with the same certainty enjoyed in those Saturday afternoon movies. Obama can be criticized for using "non-committal" language like "violence" to describe what was first happening, while McCain "more decisively" called it brutal Russian aggression. The current administration can outperform them both —in the names it calls.

There are of course some other colors behind the black and white imagery.

Russia pounds away at Georgia and the first perception is that of the 'Evil Empire' imposing its will upon a brave fledgling democracy. Look one layer beyond that and you find that Georgia itself had been trying to impose its will on the still smaller separatist region of South Ossetia. As Russia points to violence inflicted upon the region's civilians by Georgia and calls it "genocidal," Georgian leaders point to displaced Georgian refugees as those aggrieved by the separatists in past ethnic cleansings guided by Russian hands.

There is, of course, the temptation to use any complexity or moral ambiguity to the situation as reason for inaction. Who, indeed, wants to send their child to a war in the Caucuses? To defend what or who from who or what? Russia has tried to draw an equivalency between their "rescue" of the South Ossetians and advocacy for their autonomy with NATO and U.S. support for a separate Kosovo. Who can challenge that assertion? —Especially when it's backed up by the discharge of weaponry?

There is a difference though.

In Kosovo, the U.S. and NATO intervened to stop a violent crackdown on a separatist region, but then, working through the U.N., set about a careful process of stabilizing the region and seeing to a process of non-violent and uncoerced self determination for the Kosovars.

Perhaps that's the problem —not that there is a tangled history of conflict at issue in Georgia, but that the methods chosen to untangle things, by both Georgians and Russians, involve more violence than wisdom, more brutal force than basic compassion.

And what then are we supposed to do? Bring another six gun to the shoot out? Name call and cheer lead from behind a barrel? Or is there something useful we can build? —something for a better day beyond frontier justice?

There are those who deride the costly and dangerous tasks involved with "nation building" —who are impatient with the arduous international diplomacy involved with resolving regional and ethnic conflict. The mere thought of objective standards for international justice makes them shudder. They prefer the "simpler" task of siding the good against the bad or ugly.

Would that it was just that easy.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Back home: Oh sister, Oh brother,
I haven't any other

More than once on this blog I have used the forum, however public (and noticed?) it might be, to plug a book or an article that deserved attention. Allow me to do the same for the oral tradition. This is John Schindler's song

Back Home in America

World of the world shakers, home of the homemakers
Kings and queens in blue jeans,
Saints and sailors, junkies and jailers
The rich, the poor, the in-betweens
This is my neighborhood from Harlem to Hollywood

Oh, I thought I was all alone but I was back home in America
Oh, I thought I was all alone but I was back home in America

Poets and preachers, substitute teachers,
The bright, the best and all the rest
Maids and hairdressers, plumbers, professors,
The well-dressed, the dispossessed,
Oh sister, oh brother, I haven't any other.

I thought I was all alone then I was back home in America
Oh, I thought I was all alone but I was back home in America

So don't wave the flag for me. I don't need lessons on Liberty

I thought I was all alone but I was back home in America
I thought I was all alone but I was back home in America

Old ones and new ones, the red and the blue ones,
Sons of former Klansmen, daughters of former slaves,
The old and the new there, there was me, there was you there,
alone and afraid in the land of the brave.
I was sick at heart but now I'm healed
I saw a farmer weeping in his flooded field.

Oh, I thought I was all alone then I was back home in America
Oh, I thought I was all alone then I was back home in America
Oh, I thought I was all alone then I was back home in America

John Schindler and Deborah Rocha will be performing at the Amazing Things Arts Center in Framingham on August 16th. These are two truly amazing, truly independent artists (who happen to be friends of mine).

By the way, if you click on the link at the song's title you can give John's song a listen. The first time I ever heard him sing this was at a venue I used to host in Framingham. There weren't a whole lotta people in the room, but I know there was something like a healing going on for all of them. For me, too.

John is just an amazing artist : all unassuming and self-deprecating humor one minute (he deprecates everybody and everything else pretty effectively, too) —then before you know it you find he has your heart in his hands with one of his perfect depictions of imperfect beauty.

Both he and Deborah Rocha are outside the normal mold of a singer songwriter in these parts. I think it has something to do with their honesty —and the fact that they both play nylon stringed classical type guitars: Deborah in the mode of the Brazillian art/folk song tradition she's embraced and transformed into something very much her own: and John, with something of a cross between classical technique, folk fingerstyle and funky funky slap bass.

Anyway —give John a listen here and then go see them both in the flesh at their show on the 16th. The night is being billed as a "Night of Classical Guitar Abuse" —but believe me it will be a healing.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

From Hell

Samantha Power's "A Problem From Hell" was on my beach reading list this past week —I highly recommend it by the way. The book is a study of the American response to genocide through the 20th centrury, from Armenia to Rwanda, with some lengthy and in depth study of our initial inaction and ultimate reaction to the Serbian crimes in Bosnia and Kosovo. So it was a strange coincidence that the arrest of Radovan Karadzic was in the news just the day after we got back from vacation.

Frankly, I was surprised that the fellow had been at large all this time. Reports are he wasn't even working that hard at keeping himself hidden. Karadzic has finally been detained by Serb police. It was unclear in the reports I read yesterday whether he was on his way to the Hague or if he would face trial in Serbia.

I'm not a real fan of trying to score the relative magnitude of atrocities, but Karadzic certainly deserves a special place in history for the siege of Sarajevo and the "ethnic cleansing" programs his forces carried out in Bosnia. The systematic murder of 8,000 "draft age males" rounded up in the U.N. "safe city" of Srebinika may not have operated on the scale of Pol Pot's killing fields or Hitler's death camps, but that was not for want of inclination or ambition.

Has it really taken us that long to detain Karadzic? Did the international community really have to wait on the etiquette of a proper Serbian arrest of this criminal before seeing him brought to justice?

There may be arguments as to prudent policy and proper process that might explain the slow pace of justice in this case. I'd welcome them here.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Even as we still might be striving

The country comes round to its birthday again. There will be parades and fireworks, baseball, beer and backyard barbecue, images of eagles, red and white stripes, stars on a dark blue background.

With every birthday there comes the occasion for reflection. We might consider our history with pride for what is best in us, and even rue one or two failings. We might ask ourselves if we are old, or still very young.

Every birthday brings us back to our beginnings, and as I write this I find myself pondering that moment that we’ve chosen to identify as our birth, as our first national breath. It was the signing of a document. We don’t mark our beginning as the day of some decisive military victory, or the day some treaty finally recognized our existence. We mark it as the day we declared our independence, and the day we found some powerful language to define our meaning.

I think what makes that moment in our history, and our living understanding of that history, meaningful is something of the poetry in that document we signed 234 years ago. It is something of that poetry that establishes the moment of birth for our country as something more than the date some disaffected gentry signed a pact against taxes and unfair commerce, or made a call for better representation of their interests in government. Had the Declaration of Independence merely been such a listing of grievances and some carefully worded political resolution, I don’t think we would celebrate July 4th in the way we do today. But there is something powerful happening with those words “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” there is something still deeper as our founding promise is sealed with the pledge of our “lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” There is stirring music in that language, there is also something of substance to those words.

From the very first sentence, we define the American adventure as an episode “in the course of human events.” With those opening few words we state that the charter of this nation and its subsequent fate will be about more than one nation or its privileged people, but rather that these will be a comment on humanity itself. We go on to declare certain “self-evident” truths, and that in among these is the fundamental truth that all men are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights. These rights are not conferred by the state, or defined as the due privilege of some select group. They are not ratified by our Declaration of Independence, they are simply, and profoundly, acknowledged, in truth, to exist for everyone.

This Declaration of ours is not about what it means to be an an American. Rather, it is about what we take it to mean to be a human being.

Among those who signed this document on July 4, 1776 were men who owned slaves. There were plantation owners and plutocrats who surely fretted about the dangerous aspects of this democracy they were about to fashion. There would be compromise and contradiction from the start. There would be war upon war, even war upon ourselves. It would be nearly another 150 years before the great great granddaughters of those first signers would be guaranteed the right to vote in this democracy, nearly 190 years before those descended of slaves would finally lay claim to the same self-evident truth of civil rights. Skeptics might be right to call into question some of the lofty rhetoric we celebrate.

But what of that question? What of men who can articulate ideals beyond their own failings?

What if Thomas Jefferson and his fellow founding fathers had chosen more careful language that made a more exact accounting of our nation’s founding compromises and contradictions, of their own moral limitations? Would subsequent generations have taken up the challenge, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “to live out the true meaning of our creed”?

To acknowledge hypocrisies, even profound failings in our history, is not to discount the profound poetry of that creed, of what we hoped we could be of at our beginning, what we had the courage to profess as our dream, even as we failed to live up to that dream at the time, even as we might still be striving today.

So I’ll leave it at this: Birthdays are about beginnings and also about what follows. We might indulge in a little pride or harbor a few regrets as we consider the gifts we must live up to and the mistakes we must live down. Each new year gives us another chance to do a little of both.

Yes, I’ll leave it at that, America. A little of both... Oh yes, and happy birthday.

Friday, June 27, 2008

String theory and the OVP

I watched a documentary a while back with my family. The film very deliberately tried to blow one's mind with it's explorations of "String Theory" and the like. I'm not clever enough —at least not in the current space time continuum—to give you a useful or accurate synopsis of the theories discussed, but I do recall a discussion about the nature of light where it was observed that when you considered light as a particle, and examined it with that in mind, it behaved like a particle. But, quite amazingly, when you thought about it as a wave —sure 'nuff—it behaved like a wave.

I'm not sure I fully grasped the reasoning that led from these observations to the particulars of "String Theory" —but when I saw this I knew I just had to admit there really was something to this "subjective reality" business.

I pondered some and then suddenly realized —here was the physical (or maybe metaphysical) evidence to support Dick Cheney's concept of the Vice Presidency!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Wrong number?

The bill has passed the House vote and now it's on to the Senate. Here is what Senator Russ Fiengold said recently about the FISA reauthorization bill :

"The proposed FISA deal is not a compromise; it is a capitulation. The House and Senate should not be taking up this bill, which effectively guarantees immunity for telecom companies alleged to have participated in the President's illegal program, and which fails to protect the privacy of law-abiding Americans at home."

There are a number of others who have vowed to oppose the bill as well, any bill that provides immunity to the telecom companies that cooperated with the Bush administration's illegal spying program. A great many of the Senators and Congressman who have spoken out against this "compromise" are statesmen I respect —and I have to say that I agree in spirit with anything that at least tries to take a stand on the administration's abuse of the basic rights of American citizens and the Bush League's signature utter disregard of the law. Notably, Senator Barack Obama has pledged to oppose immunity for the telecom companies "so that we can seek full accountability for past offenses."

Here's my problem —I'm not sure this stand is in the right place or for the right reason.

The immunity at issue would preclude civil law suits against the telecom companies (giant deep pocketed companies, I know) —premised on their cooperation with the Bush administration's illegal program. Now mind you, I'm no big fan of corporate immunity, but I do have the sense to realize that when large corporate concerns are asked to settle their criminal debts to society with civil awards of millions and millions of dollars, it is their millions of captive customers who end up forking over those dollars —the tobacco settlement comes to mind. I have this suspicion that the circuitries of consumer telecommunications are such that customers like myself are the ones who will end paying for these potential law suits. All because my family and I like our broad band access.

Now, there's an irony.

There might be ways a well written law could limit corporate ability to share the pain and penalty with customers, but maybe that's beside the point. Maybe we shouldn't be trying to address an egregious constitutional crime perpetrated by the country's chief executive by merely providing for civil recourse —against accessories to the crime.

Read Feingold's quote again and you'll notice the key term —"the President's illegal program." When Senator Obama wants to seek "full accountability for past offenses" perhaps he should seek it at the culpable source.

President Bush and his administration willfully disregarded the law. And lied.

In the summer of 2002, even as the administration was well along in its illegal program, well along in its disregard of "cumbersome" FISA law, James A. Baker, the Justice Department's top lawyer on intelligence policy, testified before Congress that there was essentially no need to reform or even adjust FISA law. It was functioning as it was intended, Baker enthused. Congressional approval of the USA Patriot Act had allowed investigators "to use our expanded FISA tools more effectively to combat terrorist activities," he said.

Months later, NSA chief Michael Hayden would assure Congress that FISA law was being observed, going into great detail to explain "the legal protections the law provides." Then Congressman Porter Goss, who would go on to become the Director of the CIA, warmly observed after hearing Hayden's testimony, “I’m not sure everybody in this country understands just how many safeguards we have for American liberties. And I think it’s very important to underscore that.”

The President, himself would echoe those lies —even from the campaign trail— famously assuring his supporters that “nothin’" had changed. "Constitutional safeguards are in place," he proudly announced. "When “we’re talkin’ ‘bout monitoring al Qaeda we’re talkin’ ‘bout gettin’ a warrant!”

That's what he said.

The term that comes to mind is "lies and misdemeanors."

And our Congress would have us believe they are taking a stand by leaving the door open for civil suit against the telecom companies that cooperated?

Sorry, wrong number.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Where the law ends

This is a piece I wrote back in 2006, I thought I'd pull it out of the archives as the "compromise" reworking of FISA law is in the news these days.

“Where law ends, tyranny begins” ~William Pitt, 1770

By now most people familiar with the the Bush administration NSA spying controversy have heard the campaign quote. President Bush assures voters that “nothin’ has changed,” that Constitutional safeguards are in place. When “we’re talkin’ ‘bout monitoring al Qaeda we’re talkin’ ‘bout gettin’ a warrant!” On the campaign stump the president felt it was important to assure the people that their executive branch still honored the Constitution. That was the Spring of 2004. We now know, courtesy of the president’s own reluctant admissions, that he was lying. We know that early in the aftermath of September 11th the president authorized warrantless surveillance of Americans and that he has continued the practice throughout his presidency. We know that he continues the practice to this day. What he once denied, he now justifies.

The president and his administration now argue that the post 9/11 congressional resolution to use force and any “necessary” means to pursue al Qaeda granted him license to ignore standing federal law such as the Federal Intelligence Security Act and the Constitutional guarantees against unlawful search. We are assured that these searches are only against bad people doing bad things and that we can trust them on that. When confronted with the enabling provisions of FISA law they counter that the court process, though secret and historically permissive towards national security efforts, is still too cumbersome and inflexible. There are times this law is simply inconvenient.

Oddly this is not what a key Justice Department official claimed when he testified before Congress in July of 2002. At the time FISA law was being examined in light of the newly begun War On Terror. Republican Senator Mike DeWine had offered legislation to adjust requirements of FISA with regard to warrants. DeWine's proposal was to lower the "probable cause" standard to one of only "reasonable suspicion" for warrants involving foreigners in the country. James A. Baker, the Justice Department's top lawyer on intelligence policy testified that there was essentially no need to do so. FISA was functioning as it was intended. Baker enthused that congressional approval of the USA Patriot Act had allowed investigators "to use our expanded FISA tools more effectively to combat terrorist activities." To offer a paraphrase, his response was basicly “Thanks but no thanks, Senator. We’re good.”

There are two explanations for this response, the first being that Baker was uninformed and unaware of the ongoing extralegal spy program made necessary by “cumbersome and inflexible” FISA law. The second explanation is that he was aware and was instructed to lie.

Let’s take this a few months forward to October of 2002 and the Joint House And Senate Select Intelligence Committee investigating September 11th. Then and there NSA chief General Michael Hayden was questioned on NSA counterterrorism efforts as they relate to FISA law. Again, with the NSA spying program well underway “back at the office” Hayden assured congress that FISA law was being observed. He went so far as to carefully outline the changing legal standing of surveillance on hypothetical terrorists as they crossed over into U.S. territory. He clearly stated his understanding of “the protections...the law defines.” In response to Hayden’s narrative, Congressman Porter Goss, now the Director of the CIA, warmly observed “I’m not sure everybody in this country understands just how many safeguards we have for American liberties. And I think it’s very important to underscore that.”

It is less likely that General Hayden was uninformed and unaware of the ongoing NSA spy program in October 2002. It is much more likely that he was aware and was instructed to lie.

In it’s current defense of NSA spying the administration insists that its conduct has been carefully scrutinized from the outset by “the highest legal authorities.” By the president’s own account, Justice was well informed of the program in July of 2002 when James A. Baker was offering Congress his assessment of a healthy, functioning and effective marriage between FISA and The USA Patriot Act. Perhaps James A. Baker wasn’t actively lying himself. Perhaps he wasn’t aware of the NSA program as he offered testimony before Congress. What we have to conclude however is that the Bush Justice Department was lying institutionally. In effect the Congress was willfully misinformed by the Bush administration Justice Department. Answering to a United States Senate committee, they either sent someone strategicly uninformed, or they sent someone instructed to lie.

General Hayden’s subsequent opacity and misinformation before Congress might be excused as the loyalty of a soldier to his commander in chief. Unfortunately that commander in chief had put the general in a position where his loyalty opposed to the rule of law held and cherished by the American people.

That George Bush was lying on the campaign trail about domestic spying apparently hasn’t shocked anyone. Sadly that sort of thing has come to be expected of the Bush administration, even of political speech in general. There are those who would shrug and say “they all lie!” But there is something a bit more dangerous going on here. Because the lies we are confronting now aren’t the lies of an embarrassed politician trying to hide his flaws or wiggle out of a broken promise with parsed definitions of past statements. What we are looking at here is a White House where deceit has become a matter of public policy, where disinformation has become deliberate and systemic, where Congress and the American people are being played for the fool.

The president’s latest defense of his administration’s domestic spying is basic. It resorts to fear. We cannot afford to hold him accountable, he argues, “this program is so sensitive and so important that if information gets out to how we run it or how we operate it, it'll help the enemy."

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act came about in the aftermath of a Nixon presidency that had vividly demonstrated the danger of unchecked presidential authority. Under Nixon and, yes, and in a time of war, the rationale of national security had been used to justify executive branch abuses that ran from spying on peace activists all the way to the famous misadventures in The Watergate Hotel. FISA was designed to provide the necessary secrecy for national security surveillance while exacting a minimum of court scrutiny for approval as a check against abuse.

The Bush White House was extended an invitation to revisit and revise this law in light of the new reality of The War On Terror. It chose not to. It opted to quietly, in fact secretly, disregard the law instead.

It is worth noting that The Constitution and The Bill Of Rights also came about in times of violence and instability. Together they served to establish a system of government for this country with certain core principles meant to stand in peace and in peril just the same. The system of checks and balances established there in those cherished documents isn’t the set of rules for a trivial game that can be put aside at the convenience of any man or administration. They are most important to us in times of trial. Despite a trail of lies President Bush not only asks but presumes to insist that we trust him as he disregards inconvenient law.

Thomas Jefferson suggested a response a long time ago. “In questions of power... let no more be heard of confidence in men, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.”

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

McCain's Bargain: the handshakes are free

handshakes are free

John McCain got all indignant on Barack Obama the other day for his comments on the recent GI benefits bill. Obama challenged McCain's opposition to the bill and his reasoning that it was "too generous" to soldiers serving this country. He did so right there on the Senate floor.

The senator from Illinois said he "couldn't disagree more" with John McCain.

This was apparently way out of line in Senator McCain's book. He trotted out his most forceful indignance for a reply. "I will not accept from Senator Obama, who did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform, any lectures on my regard for those who did," he said in his response to Obama's Senate remarks. Apparently the conductor of the Straight Talk Express doesn't take to back talk.

And apparently the idea of debate with regard to policy is new to the Arizona senator now in his fourth term.

Does he really mean to suggest that Obama isn't in his right, or more like it, actually meeting his responsibilities, by advocating for a bill he supports, a bill that provides—yes— "generous" GI benefits?

McCain does get that idea about civilian leadership for this country and about the Senate as a place for civil civic debate, right? That is where you state your support for a bill and challenge those who oppose it, as a senator —right?

Obama responded to McCain's umbrage in comments to reporters on his campaign plane this past weekend.
"I've said before I respect John McCain's service to our country. But I think the notion that somehow I can't speak out on the behalf of veterans because of the fact I haven't served makes no sense whatsoever.''

It might be troubling to consider what John McCain's opposition to the GI benefits bill says of his attitude towards our soldiers. In my view what is most unsettling is what it says of his attitude towards the country they come from.

Friday, May 23, 2008

There Are Too Many

This piece was originally published
in the MetroWest Daily News on Memorial Day, 2006
at which time 2,606 American soldiers had died in Iraq.

Since that day another 1,474 soldiers have fallen.

This past Monday morning I drove my son to school as I often do. At that hour our conversation is seldom much more than pleasantries: favorite gags from last night’s episode of the Simpsons, small talk about the coming day’s school work and activities, maybe a peptalk about Algebra.This past Monday morning even the lightest of conversation was a little harder to carry off. Each telephone pole between home and my son’s school was marked with a sign bearing the name of a soldier. This coming weekend is Memorial Day and every year in my home town of Holliston these very simple shrines are put up along the major streets in town.

The name, the state that a soldier called home, the age that soldier was on the day he died, the flag of his country stapled to the pole —these are put in place as a tribute, as a memorial, as a reminder.

There isn’t a particular political point of view to these displays. These memorials have gone up twice a year, Memorial Day and Veterans Day, ever since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began. In the first year they stretched a few miles along the main route through town. By last year they had reached from one end of town to another and reached in several other directions along sidestreets and country roads. This year for the first time not every soldier will have his or her name displayed.

There are too many.

You read the ages and the names from these roadside signs and you imagine the faces and the families touched by tragedy. You think of the many parents, children, brothers, sisters, cousins, loved ones and best friends. You think of the waves of loss travelling out from each name. You try to imagine the pain you would feel as you count on one hand the difference in age between a dead young soldier from Texas and your own son riding in the seat beside you. You think of your mother’s own worry and prayer and your own brother’s brave pride as he readies himself for an overseas deployment with The National Guard. You think of every argument you’ve had against these on-going wars, of your rage at the way it seems some would prefer not to question or dwell upon the bloodshed. You think of the anger that has come to rise even from pleas for peace.

Your heart aches.

These memorial shrines are attached to telephone poles, generally, and as such they appear every thirty or forty feet along the side of the road. There is something solemn and fitting in this —even beautiful. There is something of the slow and persistent cadence of a procession brought to mind, even as you drive along on an empty errand or take your child to one appointment or another. That cadence enters your thoughts without your even knowing it. It enters your heart.

There is a slight incline along Hollis Street as you approach Holliston High School. And until you reach the crest of this slope you don’t see the school. Across from the front door of the building is an open pasture, only a couple of acres of grazing land. Along one side of the pasture there is a little side road where the kids who smoke all gather before school. This field is fenced off from the road by chickenwire strung between treated posts. These posts are spaced every six feet or so.

This past Monday morning every one of the posts along that pasture and across from the school was flying a flag in the wind. Every post bore a dead soldier’s name and age. As we came to the crest of the hill my son and I saw all those flags together.

That slow cadence of the other memorials changed to something more powerful and urgent and tragic.

We had been listening to a cd on the car stereo: Neil Young’s latest recording, a collection of protest music, some of it quite angry. There was a song playing just then that said something about “the flags of freedom flying.” That particular song was less angry. More simply it expressed a bewildered pain.

We turned into the parking lot and I dropped off my son like I’ve done a hundred times before. There was a part of me that was glad every kid showing up to school that day was going to see those flags, every teacher, and every parent dropping off their teenaged child. That part of me wanted to explain something to my son before he headed off to classes. It wanted to define what we saw and say what it meant. It wanted to have an answer to the question “what then are we to do?” But that part of me couldn’t come up with words just then. We hardly said a thing to each other as he climbed out of the car and walked away.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words and that might be right. This Monday morning I sensed what an image can say once it has entered deep inside you, what the image of all those flags and all those names can say, something much more profound than a thousand words of argument or anger. Something like a simple prayer for peace.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Small steps on small arms

Business is business. That's the saying and that must have been the thinking as the ship with 77 tons of weapons and ammunition left port in China. Rocket launchers, automatic weapons and grenades, belts and belts of ammo —all bound for Zimbabwe. Business is business after all and Zimbabwe is simply a trusted trading partner for the People's Republic of China. The shipment of small arms and ammunition was both "prudent and responsible" as a transaction according to the Chinese government official asked to comment recently. You see there was some question, some concern as to how these arms would be used out there among the international community.

Not in China though.

So what if the massive shipment of weapons was being supplied to a nation that wasn't at war or confronting any real security threat from a neighboring country? So what if the the guns set sail even as the government of Robert Mugabe "prepared" for national elections —as it had a long history of "preparing"—with brutal crackdowns on opposition political parties?

Business is business.

The arms sale deal was concluded in January. The shipment left China in March, and at first, as the the guns and ammo arrived in South Africa, the government there seemed to agree —that business was indeed business. Defense Secretary January Masilela commented that there was nothing irregular about the "transaction between two sovereign nations." There was no basis in international law for South Africa to interfere.

Everything fitted into an elegant sequence. The Zimbabwe elections were "prepared" for and even as the results "remained pending" the weapons were on their way.

Then something strange happened. The guns were set to arrive in the port of Durban in South Africa and though the government found no basis for action to bar the shipment, the dock workers had. They found a moral basis for just such an action. Aware of the tensions surrounding the Zimbabwe elections, responding to the call of dissident clergy and political activists throughout the region, dock workers of SATAWU, The South African Transport and Allied Workers Union announced that they would not unload the shipment of weapons bound for Robert Mugabe and his repressive regime. The arms would have to enter the continent through some other port. The ship would simply have to turn around. Ultimately the South African government came round to share this stance. The government of Zambia followed suit and announced that the shipment would not enter the African continent through their ports either.

The result: If the People's Republic of China must conduct its business with the Republic of Zimbabwe, they're going to have to fly the weapons in. They might end up costing a little more this way.

Oh, well —business is business.

There is something heartening about this story. The way activists and dock workers were able to find a means to act in solidarity with democratic reformers in a neighboring country. The way they advanced a truly international vision of human rights even while their governments, at least at first, failed to do the same. That's the half full part of the story's cup.

There's also an empty half.

This month a 28 nation panel will reconvene to review a proposed international treaty to regulate the trade of small arms. This is an agreement that has been in the excruciating process of drafting and negotiation for years. The agreement as it was most recently shaped and voted upon in 2006 would have barred China from concluding such an arms sale to such a country as Zimbabwe with such an extensively documented record of human rights abuses. Their continued "business" with Sudan as it represses and abuses Darfur would be facing sanction as well. The responsibilities of third party nations acting as go betweens for transport or to circumvent U.N. embargo actions would have been addressed through the treaty. South Africa would have had not only a basis but an obligation to "interfere" in the transaction.

The treaty sought to advance a fairly simple principle, one that has informed the efforts to control nuclear arms and weapons of mass destruction for quite some time, the notion that governments must take responsibility for all the weapons they sell.

In 2006 there was real momentum behind the effort to enact a meaningful international agreement. At a specially convened U.N. conference the International Action Network on Small Arms, Oxfam and Amnesty International joined in proposing the Global Principles for Small Arms Sales. The United Kingdom advanced proposals in keeping with the Global Principles and 11 different African nations signed on. Mikhail Kalashnikov, the Russian designer of the gun that bears his name, forwarded a statement to the U.N. conference expressing his concern at the widespread use of small weapons such as his AK rifle and voicing support for efforts at control.

But in the end the 2006 conference concluded with only a resolve to continue talking —another conference in January of this year, again this month and again in November, and perhaps a report to the U.N. sometime before the end of the year. There was one key player in the trade of international arms who managed to derail all talk of a binding treaty. Even the U.N. resolution, supported by more than 150 nations, that only called for more negotiation on a potential agreement was opposed by that one nation —the United States.

"We don't see any need for treaties or agreements coming out of this." —so said the U.S. Ambassador at the time, John Bolton.

$4 billion dollars a year is spent in the global trade of small arms. Estimates are that about $1 billion of that is comprised of the illegal trade that arms brutal and repressive paramilitaries around the globe, that arms the militias in Somalia and marauders in Darfur, that arms the Taliban, al-Qaeda and insurgency forces throughout Iraq, that arms Robert Mugabe's henchman army as it punishes democracy in Zimbabwe. Still the Bush administration informs the American public and the entire world community that there is "no need for treaties or agreements."

This action —or should I say "non-action"?— won John Bolton and the Bush administration some applause from groups like The National Rifle Association —“on principle.” There are those who don't want to see “treaties or agreements” that could give rise to restrictive policies that might curb private ownership rights anywhere around the world —there are those who argue that privately born small arms serve to protect human rights. This is how a private citizenry opposes a repressive regime after all.

That's the theory anyway.

The fact that just the opposite is the case in Robert Mugabe's Zimabawe, just the opposite in the deserts of Darfur, and in the shooting galleries of Baghdad —that might confound the theory with a sorry dose of reality, with the very plain connection between blood on the streets and the smoking barrel of a gun.

The two halves of the cup, one full, one empty. For those with their blind ideological theories and those who would see guns for a despot as mere commerce, there is the answer of those like the dock workers of Durban and those who have worked tirelessly for years to curb the flow of guns into troubled regions.

There's a quote that comes to mind. It was Dwight Eisenhower who said it.
"I like to believe that people in the long run are going to do more to promote peace than our governments. Indeed, I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it."

Maybe that’s the hopeful half of this story —a South African government that got out of the way and ultimately followed the lead of its people. With new meetings scheduled this month and again this November, with the task at hand once again of forging a meaningful small arms trade treaty, we just might have that chance here at home —to get our own government out of our way —there may be just that chance.

Monday, April 28, 2008

How about a "good argument"?

Just a while ago, on the comment thread of some posting on his blog Holmes & Co., opinion columnist and editor, Rick Holmes voiced his frustration with the seemingly relentless demographic analysis that has been brought to bear on the Democratic primary contest between Obama and Clinton.
There’s something demeaning and disrespectful in all the demographic slicing and dicing perpetrated by the consultants, pollsters and media analysts. “Why can’t Obama connect with white working-class Pennsylvanians?” “Why can’t he “close the deal” with older white women?” We don’t hear it as often, but similar questions could be aimed at Clinton: “Why doesn’t she appeal to young people and African-Americans and folks with graduate degrees?” These questions always have an undertone of racism and sexism that —even if it’s true about some voters— is insulting to this voter.

I have to say I share in that frustration. White voters, black voters, old and young, male or female, college educated and not. Every contest result thus far has been dragged onto the table and vivisected for "voting tendencies." It's sorely tempting to point a finger at one side as they have tried to read more meaning into one contest result over another. Maybe that's where this will end up—the whole race might end up being about the race as some demographic dry run —it's not like I can control it, but I guess I'd like to nudge discussion in a different direction.

I remember arguing with my dad about politics once (actually we did it a lot). To take the use of understatement to a ridiculous extreme, let's just say my dad was no fan of Bill Clinton's. The only thing that could get him more riled than talk about Bill and Hillary was talk about Ross Perot. Let's say he wasn't a fan of Perot's populist protectionism either. In the particular argument I'm remembering my dad had returned to this theme. We were on the phone and he was on the subject of Perot. He'd run through his usual critique, but then he went on to fulminate on just how much Perot really bugged him —how only an idiot —a complete moron —only a fool could have been swayed by Perot's blathering pseudo-folksy talk —and those silly diagrams! Only a complete and utter moron!

In this one particular discussion I recall I chose a Socratic approach. I asked my dad why this upset him so much —this "moronic appeal" of Perot's.

Well —isn't that obvious?, he said, Perot stole his votes from George H. W. Bush! Obviously his message was an appeal to Bush voters more than Clinton voters! He corrupted the results. He gave the election to Clinton!

Maybe you can guess my response.

So you're telling me, Dad, that without Perot messing things up, Bush would have taken the Complete and Utter Moron vote?

Silence on the phone...

OK, you got me.

I guess I bring up this story for a couple of reasons. One is that my dad hardly ever admitted when I "got him" so I've been gloating about that particular instance ever since, about fourteen years now. The other is to point to the danger of letting the political debate devolve into discussions of demographics and electability —and the projected voting tendencies of arbitrarily defined groups.

There's a few things I learned from my father —before I started proving how much smarter than him I was. He used to love "a good argument" —the kind of discussion where you stated your case and defended your principles and where you heard the other side too. In those "good arguments" —even when neither side convinced the other of anything—you learned something. You refined your own thinking and you maybe found some respect for the other point of view. (That hardly ever came up when we argued about Clinton —I don't think those were our "good arguments" — but that's a whole other post). My dad and I agreed that that "good argument" was an ideal worth holding and sharing, that it just might be the heart of our country's democracy.

My dad also taught me a couple of things about what is currently being discussed as "elitism" —how the integrity of a "good argument" just might be the best defense against it. My dad was an engineer and, in his line of work, he used to tell me, he could as easily find himself working all morning with a back hoe operator and all afternoon with a college president. He told me how he had encountered fools in board rooms and wise men on the construction site, and vice versa. And he'd found them all out with a willingness for a "good argument."

That willingness wasn't always necessarily born of an open mindedness, per se —or even what you would call tolerance. Sometimes it was quite the opposite —but it was never patronizing. It was a willingness to challenge and confront differences with conviction and candor.

As I think of it now I realize that this was probably why he admitted that I "got him" that night on the phone those years ago. He'd stopped defending his own thinking and he'd started second guessing the thinking of others. He had strayed from the argument of why he thought he was right and he'd wandered into wondering how his side might have won. By his own standards, he had lost that particular argument with his son and he knew it.

The funny thing was I could tell that in some small way it pleased him that he had.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

What our war makes possible, the next

President Bush concludes his latest speech on the war in Iraq with this comment.
"The day will come when Iraq is a capable partner of the United States. The day will come when Iraq is a stable democracy that helps fight our common enemies and promote our common interests in the Middle East. And when that day arrives, you'll (our troops) come home with pride in your success, and the gratitude of your whole nation. God bless you."

"...fight our common enemies and promote our common interests in the Middle East."

With this the administration's intentions become just a bit more obvious. And that clarity is chilling.

Notice the subtle shift in describing our intentions. Iraq just became something distinct from "The War On Terror" to this extent: It can now be openly conceived of as a beachhead for the next adventure against "our common enemies" in the Mideast. We are no longer merely or specifically securing Iraq as a democracy, nor even limiting the mission to neutralizing any perceived threat from al-Qaeda in Iraq. We haven't even made peace for Iraq a part of our new definition of success. Our mission will be accomplished in Iraq only when that country stands aligned to fight against our "common" enemies.

The task now is focus upon distinguishing that enemy and defining Iraq as opposed to that enemy and in common with us.

Towards that end the President tells us that he has instructed Ambassador Crocker to tour the Middle East on his way back to Baghdad. In much the same way Vice President Cheney did recently, and in exact opposition to bipartisan recommendations of the Iraq Study Group (remember them?), the ambassador will be speaking to everyone in the region —except Iran and Syria (the two largest directly bordering nations).

Monday, March 31, 2008

Barack Obama, American fundamentalist

I think I've discovered something about Barack Obama and I'm ready to share this discovery with the rest of you. It's not a secret exactly. It's really obvious when you actually listen to the things he says. I know you're not supposed to do that without proper inoculation first, but I have and I've come away from the experience with this observation, an observation that I hereby share: Barack Obama is a fundamentalist, an American fundamentalist.

I'd had my suspicions along these lines for a while, now. That speech from 2004 Democratic Convention, that disturbing way he described being an American more vividly than he described being a Democrat, his books and his campaign and the speeches he has given along the way —they all have this habit of examining America, it's history and documented ideals, for enduring meaning.

Two recent examples: his speech on race and his speech on the economy.

Friday, March 28, 2008

The next casualty

It was Aeschylus who said it. "Truth is the first casualty in war."

America's War (Slate's Fred Kaplan refers to "them" as the "wars") in Iraq has borne out the observation with one after another vivid tragedy. The dead, the squandered wealth and degraded reputation, these were all begun, and have since ensued on the strength of fallacy. Figment weapons of mass destruction and concocted theories of conspiracy with al-Qaeda terrorists. The grim prospect of a mushroom cloud should we fail to act on an imminent threat. Those were the founding lies. We don't torture, this is about democracy, we're not building in a permanent presence, etc. The legacy continues.

And as the casualties mount in these wars, the next war comes out of the blur and into focus.

Vice president Dick Cheney's recent interview with ABC’s Martha Raddatz already yielded up the quote, "So?" —which managed to elicit just enough indignation to further entrench both sides in our national debate on the war in Iraq. But under the dust thrown up over that arrogance is the chilling evidence of another. Speaking on the subject of Iran in the same interview, Cheney simply brushed aside the factual matter of the U.S.'s own recent National Intelligence Estimate.

“Obviously, they’re also heavily involved in trying to develop nuclear weapons enrichment, the enrichment of uranium to weapons-grade levels.”

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Only a game

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick's proposal for casino gambling went down in flames, we all know. And for those who like to view politics as a "contact sport" the proposal has to be seen as going under the 'L' column. Come to think of it, I'm not sure anyone is looking at this as anything other than another contest that the Governor failed.

A game, you might say.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Five years in Iraq: only to remain

“The president and I, and your fellow citizens, want nothing more than to have you and all of your comrades return home safely at the end of this tour of duty. We're going to do everything we can to make that happen.” That’s Vice President Cheney speaking to American troops in Iraq, just this week.

Vice President Cheney toured Baghdad to mark the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion. In comments he made to the press, he called that invasion and the subsequent occupation, now entering its sixth year, “a difficult, challenging, but nonetheless successful endeavor." In those same comments he remarked upon the “phenomenal” improvements to security that had been achieved by the “troop surge” which is now more than a year old.


At about the same time the Vice President made that comment, in the holy city of Karbala, a suicide bomber killed 40 and wounded more than 60 more in a crowd gathered near a sacred Shiite shrine. At about the same time he said we shouldn’t be “so eager" to draw down troops in Iraq, two U.S. servicemen were killed by a roadside bomb as they travelled north of the capital city of Baghdad.

As of the anniversary date of the original U.S. invasion nearly 4,000 American soldiers have lost their lives in Iraq. More than 300 from other coalition force nations have died there as well. The most conservative estimates place the Iraqi death toll at over 90,000 with more than 90% of those being civilian deaths.Current estimates place the financial cost of the war to date at approximately one half trillion dollars. That’s $500,000,000,000.00...”Phenomenal.”

Some might recall that the original invasion of Iraq was premised on the immediate and pressing need to disarm Saddam Hussein, who was said to possess dangerous weapons of mass destruction and an inclination and capacity to use them. It’s nearly five years since we learned that no such weapons, no such capacity existed.

Others might remember that in the build up to the war we were told time and again of Hussein’s involvement with al-Qaeda and the September 11th terrorists. Perhaps, it is in deference to the anniversary of that particular illusion that the Pentagon announced, as Cheney toured Baghdad’s Green Zone, that it would not publicly distribute a report, the product of an exhaustive study, that has once again found no such connection between Hussein and al-Qaeda ever existed.

Still others might remember when the mission was first redefined, when we were told that our purpose in Iraq was to establish a free and democratic country for its citizens —that only pessimists and quibblers would complain about the white lie false premise for such a good war, one that removed a brutal tyrant and won freedom for an oppressed people. We had ushered in a “watershed moment in the story of freedom,” as President Bush described it—Iraqi elections, that's what this war was about. That was December 2005. Perhaps some still remember the purple fingertips.

That was more than two years ago. There was reason to believe our troops would come home back then. Americans wanted them home, polls at the time said so plainly. Iraqis wanted them to leave, polls said this plainly as well. If this war had indeed become something about democracy and freedom, it would surely have to be over soon.

But we all know that’s not how it played out in the ensuing year. As violence began to spiral and the sharp lines of sectarian rivalry only sharpened, our troops became more and more the beat cops on a street where nobody spoke their language. As we had armed and equipped Iraq’s army and police we began to hear reports of those same forces becoming party to the most atrocious aspects of the conflict. We started using words like civil war —and what was painfully unclear was what side of that war we were on. There were those in this country and in Iraq who argued that the American presence only served to galvanize radical and violent action, to provide a scapegoat for some, a target for others, and political cover for everyone involved.

It was seeing this that the American people began to react more forcefully and negatively towards the war. Perhaps, we had opted not to change horses midstream in 2004 —in 2006 we began to appreciate that the horse was drifting down river. Congress began to debate in earnest about ways to pursue an end to this war —even though our president still spoke glowingly of the achievements and shrugged over a few “challenges” —even though Vice President Cheney opined that, on the whole, what we had in Iraq was “a remarkable success.” Debate in the Congress began to address the notion of linking U.S. support for Iraq to progress on political conciliation. In November of that year Democrats took both houses of Congress on the stength of disaffection with the war. Later the Iraq Study Group released its bipartisan plan for a new approach featuring regional diplomacy and —yes— a steady and certain withdrawal of American forces. In Iraq’s own legislature there was call for a timetable for U.S. withdrawal.

But in the world view of President George W. Bush and Vice President Richard B. Cheney, you can’t go letting the public and their opinions interfere in a war for democracy and freedom. The administration took the Iraq Study Group Report and the apparent message of a newly elected Democratic Congressional majority and they thanked us all for our input ...and set about the exact opposite in terms of policy.

Of course, President Bush didn’t present it to us as such. The president introduced us to a new term, “the surge” —30,000 more American soldiers on Iraqi soil. The “surge” was offered in response to those other notions such as the ISG’s proposals. As a “surge” it was to be, by definition, a temporary thing, only so long as necessary to allow the Iraqi government and rival factions to achieve a sustainable peace and a reasonable civil order.

It was well over a year ago that the president outlined his plan, the method and the goals. We would “provide space” and Iraq would reform and reconcile —they would “progress” politically. He outlined eighteen separate benchmarks for this progress, ranging from constitutional and civil rights reform, to local elections and secularization of the country’s internal security.

“America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced." That’s what the President said, well over a year ago.

Early this year the Center for American Progress released a study of Iraq’s performance on these benchmarks. There was really no surprise in it. Just as General Patreus said last Summer as he testified before Congress —and just as the Government Accountability Office reported last Fall, the CAP report observed that while some of the military and security objectives have seen progress —statistical declines in violence for example, virtually none of the social and political objectives set out for Iraqi leadership have seen any progress at all. A draft of some legislation on oil revenue sharing has moved somewhat forward through their legislature.

So, here we are, about to embark on the sixth year of our “difficult, challenging, but nonetheless successful endeavor," as Vice President Cheney describes it. Here we are trying to understand what that endeavor is exactly. We have been given a number of different working definitions these past five years: remove a threat, depose a dictator, safeguard a democracy, allow it space... then progress. As Vice President Cheney flies home, and our troops do not, and the previously stated benchmarks of progress seem all but forgotten, as another day’s statistically acceptable amount of blood is washed from the street, it seems the “surge” —first introduced as a means to an end—has become the end in itself. Our purpose in Iraq has become —only to remain.

One of the stops on Vice President Cheney’s anniversary tour of Baghdad was a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki and U.S. General David Patreus. No doubt one of the things they discussed was progress on the negotiations for a “status of forces agreement” allowing for the continued presence of U.S. troops in Iraq for years to come. Both sides have stated their ambition to conclude this agreement this Summer—it's important that they do, before elections in the Fall: October in Iraq, November here at home.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Laughter from the rose garden

Last November President Bush signed a "declaration of principles" with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, an agreement that established the framework for a future more defined and formal "bilateral relationship" for the U.S. and Iraq. He signed something 'very much like an agreement' to provide for a long term (or perhaps permanent) U.S. military presence in Iraq. The “U.S.-Iraq Declaration of Principles for Friendship and Cooperation” it was called.

What he signed was a treaty.

The president did not refer to this agreement as a treaty, however. By the terms of the U.S. Constitution, treaties require the approval of Congress.

The document our president signed essentially outlined the method by which a U.S. occupation force, the troops and equipment, the military bases, could all remain and be re-conceived of as aspects of "a normalized bilateral relationship" with Iraq. While the document left room for negotiation, it established certain central parameters. As the U.N. authorization for the "Coalition of The Willing" comes to a close late in 2008, U.S. troops will remain “to provide security assurances to the Iraqi Government.” They will remain to "deter any external aggression," Prime Minister al-Maliki explained in a statement at the time. They could be used to address any "internal" problems for a "democratic Iraq" as well, he said.

There was something in there about "preferential treatment" for future U.S. investment in the Iraqi economy. This might involve oil.

As he announced the signing, Prime Minister al-Maliki was careful not to refer to this "declaration of principles" as a treaty — just like President Bush. You see, the Iraqi Constitution requires that treaties and binding international agreements be ratified by a two thirds majority of their legislative council.

There was scant attention for this agreement—excuse me—I mean 'declaration'— as it was signed back in November. Perhaps a few more noticed when the President attached one of his famous signing statements to a defense appropriations bill earlier this year. The bill contained language barring the administration from using the funds to establish permanent bases in Iraq. Such language, Bush explained as he cashed the check and signed the bill, could not be construed as a limit on his presidential powers as commander-in-chief. Bush argued that his military powers were not limited to his own tactical and strategic control of the armed forces (at times at odds with the wishes of Congress and the American people), but that he could also commit that military to engagement beyond his own term of command.

Now, I know executing a "declaration of principles" that entails a long term, open ended (perhaps permamnent) commitment of troops in exchange for "preferential treatment" for investments sure sounds like a treaty—or at least like an agreement. But the American President and the Iraqi Prime Minister assure us this isn't so.

The Bush administration has apparently put some real "hard work" into the negotiations with the al-Maliki government since November. The Washington Post report of March 6th relates how "U.S. officials are traveling to Baghdad this week with drafts of two documents — a status-of-forces agreement and a separate “strategic framework” — that they expect to sign with the Iraqi government by the end of July."

Certain members of Congress have apparently questioned President Bush's assumption of unregulated power (positing that this might be their role in our government) and have asked to actually see these agreements. Some have gone so far as to opine that these agreements require their oversight and approval before they are signed. They argue that when something looks like a treaty and functions like a treaty ... it's a treaty. And there's this matter of the Constitution.

You'll never guess how the Bush League responded.

The Bush administration's Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey T. Bergner responded to Congressional demands that the administration submit the newest agreement documents (you know —treaties) for their approval, by saying that all the Congressional approval needed for these agreements was already in place —by virtue of the measures passed in the weeks following September 11th and the 2002 authorization for the use of force against Saddam Hussein.

That's right, folks. The same authorization that the administration used as its premise for dispensing with Habeus Corpus and The First Ammendment, that justified circumventing FISA and a host of other laws, now disposes of Congressional authority over international treaty.

In a letter to Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.) —one of those meddlesome Congressmen— Assistant Secretary of State Bergner pointed to the language in the post 9/11 legislation granting the President powers “to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States" as all the granted authority necessary to draft and execute these agreements without further Congressional involvement. He added further that "Congress expressly authorized the use of force to ‘defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq’”in 2002.

Maybe just to rub it in, Bergner pointed out that “Congress has repeatedly provided funding for the Iraq war.”

And so, as the imbecile monarch in 'Amadeus' observed, "There it is!"

With a six year old resolution, passed to express our common resolve in the face of terrorism, and another from five years ago that was meant to empower action against an impending immediate threat from Iraq —with these the administration gleans an understanding of unfettered authority for itself and obsolescence for the Constitutional concept of Congressional oversight.

It doesn't matter that members of Congress, time and again, have pointed out that these resolutions were never intended to relinquish all Constitutional authority—no—responsibility for Congressional oversight of the President, his administration and their actions. No, it doesn't matter what Congress or the country intended with their actions. What matters, says George W. Bush, is what he can take them to mean.

Change of scene...

As the terse message arrives for those bothersome Congressional meddlers, the president meets in the White House Rose Garden with the man he feels "is a president" —a man "who will bring determination" to the course he has set out for this country in Iraq. John McCain has offered "fifty, a hundred, maybe a thousand years" of such determination. "He's a president," Mr. Bush observes.

And if the American people and Congress don't happen to agree when that quadrennial "accountability moment" we call an election comes along —what with the agreements George Bush has committed us to, the hole he's gone and dug and the bases he's gone and built —heck, it really doesn't matter.

I think I hear laughter.