Saturday, December 19, 2009

Comity or comedy?

Senator Franken, Democrat of Minnesota, garnered a little attention this past week. First with this radical declaration: "We are entitled our own opinions. We are not entitled to our own facts." (Gee... I —like— that —dog-gone-it.) The junior senator was reacting to what he saw as just plain false assertions in the previous presentation of Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota. Thune had dragged out charts and graphs (complete with circles and arrows explaining) to lend validity to his claim that taxes kick in "1,800 days" ahead of any measurable benefits in the Health Care Bill now in debate on the Senate Floor. Franken countered with his plea for a common reality, if not common ground, with what he pointed out was the same advice he had been receiving from opponents to health care reform all year —read the bill.

There was a second exchange on the Senate floor worthy of some notice, as well. This came as the junior senator held the gavel and a certain senator from Connecticut spoke (a senator who has managed to game his bizarre standing as an Independent member of the Democratic caucus, Republican monolithic intransigence, and his own threats of filibuster into unheard of power over the entire senate body). The self anointed one was holding forth when he had come to the end of his allotted time and the junior senator presiding reminded him of the fact. With jowls aflutter at the very affront of being reminded, in his position of high (self) regard, that there were limits, the good senator from Connecticut said in senatorial parlance, 'yeah yeah kid wait a minute I'm almost done.' Senator Franken made it plain that there would be no "unanimous consent" to hearing more. "In my capacity of Senator from Minnesotta I object."

This little exchange sent the next senator slated to speak through the roof. Senator McCain of Arizona had never seen such a thing and he saw it as an affront to "the comity of the senate."

I guess I have to ask if there really is a comity to the senate, or if it isn't more comedy —when someone like Senator Lieberman can threaten to filibuster legislation that contains the very compromises, like an early Medicare buy-in, he was proposing himself only months ago —and when he then presumes his entitlement to the delicacies of decorous debate... isn't that comedy? When charts and graphs —and the falsehoods they depict— are trotted out onto the floor... just how much "comity" should we pretend there is? Or mightn't we be well served by a Senator who knows comedy when he sees it and is willing to call it out by name?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Horse sense or neigh-saying

I keep hearing complaints about what President Obama is doing to our Constitution —that he is a threat to that sacred document and all it stands for, all "we, the people" hold dear. This theme has become standard fare for t-shirt slogans, bumperstickers and banners —a core theme for the Obama-bashing brand. And with the Tea Bag Movement out hanging 'Don't Tread On Me' banners and reading what they would into "Common Sense" —we see this infraction, the President's supposed contempt for the Constitution, extrapolated into a more general charge that what Obama represents is a threat to the broader founding principles of this country.

When one ventures to ask just what particular action of our democratically elected president, in the exercise of his Constitutionally defined responsibilities, constitutes this criminal constitutional contempt —well, the answers are often somewhat sketchy. You might hear the word 'Communism' —or be reminded that our Founding Fathers hated paying taxes, too. The rare scholar will point to the Tenth Amendment.

Somehow, with all this torch and pitchfork rhetoric of founding principles and sacred documents, with that reverent posture towards an unread text, I am put in mind of one particular posting from the past —a posting on a barnyard wall. I am reminded of George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ —the Seven Laws, the pledges the animals all made to each other as they started on their idealistic adventure, how they posted them proudly at first, and how the actual words and their meanings came to be perversely changed, then forgotten —how the language itself ultimately faded, along with any memory of what once had been defined as common code and purpose.

Orwell's parable has long been understood as an allegorical comment on Communism and its sad descent from laudable ideal to tragic farce —a farce confounding the selfsame ideal. But I'm not sure the moral of that fable is entirely about the practical flaws in centralized planning or collectivized farming. I'd offer it is more an object lesson about cultural amnesia in any body politic, one we might take to heart.

Our Constitution is indeed a document about limiting government, but it also establishes that "we, the people" are that government, that we come together to form "that more perfect union." Our constitutional design is such that we might differ in debating the policies of that ongoing perfection. It is meant to enable, in civil civic terms, that difference among equals —with none of us more equal than any other.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Skinning the cat

The host/editor of a blog I participate in started a discussion recently, premised on arguable "Facts" and I tried to introduce something of this thread into the discussion there, but I've decided it really should be another entirely different discussion — as it's not about facts at all.

Back in my college days I had a good friend, a house mate of mine for a while, who was a film major. Our friendship first took root in the rich soil of Freshman year commiseration. We each of us were wrestling hard to wrap our heads around the thinking, as it was being taught to us at the time, that underpinned the work we wanted to take up. For me it was listening to lectures on 'Deconstructivism' from an Architecture faculty that seemed to have not a single native English speaker. Dense theory is particularly hard to absorb when it's being delivered in a crowded hall with terrible acoustics by someone with the kind of accent Sid Ceasar used to imitate. For my friend, the would be filmmaker, the scourge was Semiotics, and the source of so much pain was the writing of the then most prominent theorist on the subject, Umberto Eco. My friend would mutter to himself and then to me about what he called 'semi-antics' —and postmodern meaning — signs and signifiers.

I'm not sure I ever fully grasped the importance of Semiotics to good film making, but at the time it sure was central to that particular school's curriculum, and my good friend did his damnedest to figure it out for himself —and to explain it to me. I remember he had this deck of flash cards. There was a card with the word "cat" ...and a picture of a cat ...and some circles and arrows. My friend used to try to point out how this card with the cat was hilarious ...if you thought about it.

It was a couple years later that Eco went mainstream, publishing "The Name of The Rose" —heck, they even made a movie of it. My sense from my friend at the time was that he was disappointed. By then he'd developed some command of the Italian academic's theories and now it was as if an artist he admired was selling out. Dylan hadn't yet begun to market lingerie.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Stolen Bases

The Grand Old Party is trying to put a brand new face on (and who could blame them). Towards that end they have unveiled a new feature on their party website called "Heroes" —and no, it doesn't claim that Republians are actually a secreted race of mutant superheroes careening through an unhinged space-time continuum and seeking the rescue of mankind's future.

Actually the implicit claims are a bit more off base.

The website page means to point to a number of noteworthy Republicans of bygone times —so as to celebrate a worthwhile legacy —and that's where the strangeness comes in. The feature highlights 16 historical figures that it counts as "Patriots: American Heroes & Famous Republicans" —and as you might expect you got your Eisenhower, your Reagan and Lincoln (even though the prevailing platform would seem to deplore that insidious invasive Federalism Old Abe represented) —but from there the list gets surprising. It goes on to include seven African-Americans, one Hispanic-American, and four women —and only one more white guy —Everett Dirkson.

Nobody who watched the last Republican National Convention would confuse the G.O.P. with the Rainbow Coalition. Minority participation set record lows. 36 of the 2,380 seated delegates at the 2008 RNC were Black. So perhaps it's a positive step, this new attempt at re-branding the party. It would be nice if the last vestiges of "The Southern Strategy" backlash against Civil Rights progress collapsed in on themselves and Republicans did indeed call on the "better angels" of their prouder history. But the whole of history isn't so easily put aside with a new marketing campaign. It just might be that history is most instructive when it's read in detail —not tokenized and glossed over.

That might actually involve coming to terms with what our "heroes" actually had to say. One such Hero—and supposed Republican Patriot— was Jackie Robinson, the ballplayer who broke the color barrier in baseball. His picture is up there on the website. A nice blurb points out that he campaigned for Nixon in 1960 and Nelson Rockefeller in 1964. What it does not choose to highlight was the way Robinson described his experiences at the nominating convention of '64, when his candidate lost out to Goldwater —and he saw first hand the seeds of a sad and more sordid Republican politics beginning to take root.

In his 2003 autobiography, "I Never Had It Made," Robinson writes: "Early in 1964 I wrote a Speaking Out piece for The Saturday Evening Post. A Barry Goldwater victory would insure that the GOP would be completely the white man's party. What happened at San Francisco when Senator Goldwater became the Republican standard-bearer confirmed my prediction.

I wasn't altogether caught off guard by the victory of the reactionary forces in the Republican party, but I was appalled by the tactics they used to stifle their liberal opposition," Robinson wrote of that year's G.O.P. gathering. "I was a special delegate to the convention through an arrangement made by the Rockefeller office. That convention was one of the most unforgettable and frightening experiences of my life. The hatred I saw was unique to me because it was hatred directed against a white man. It embodied a revulsion for all he stood for, including his enlightened attitude toward black people."

What he observed, Robinson said, gave him "a better understanding of how it must have felt to be a Jew in Hitler's Germany."

As Sam Stein writing for Huffpost points out, in his lifetime Robinson "went so far as to insist that he be called an independent, "since I've never identified myself with one party or another in politics." In 1968 he campaigned for Hubert Humphrey."

I don't mean to suggest Republicans are so wrong to list Jackie Robinson as a Hero —even as their Hero. I can believe Nelson Rockefeller —and even Richard Nixon— had done things to earn Robinson's support. When it comes to the history of Civil Rights advocacy that party does have some things to be proud of —and I know Democrats have their share of sad skeletons. But I do mean to ask that we all consider what the hero said —what he observed and shared before simply using him and some selective part of his story as an exculpating symbol.

That new old Republican Party their website seeks to imply —the party that identifies with its better history —and moves beyond its lesser past— would be a welcome thing. But that won't come with pretty pictures and telling only part of the story. It might come of telling the whole of it —and learning.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Just last week the Supreme Court heard arguments on 'Hilary, The Movie' —or more accurately it reheard them, as the case had already come before the Court last Spring with one question and a fairly basic set of arguments —about whether the 90 minute film should be seen as —under McCain-Feingold, legally barred corporate "electioneering communication" —or constitutionally protected political speech. The film is in essence a diatribe and a familiar one, albeit a dated one. In it, in among a number of talking heads, Dick Morris opines that Hilary Clinton is "the closest thing we have in America to a European socialist." We all know he's gone on to reassess her place in the standings anyway. But be that as it may, the case as it first presented to the court was likely to be not a lot more than, well —a judgement call about the essential character of the subject material... not unlike the famous line about pornography —'electioneering' —the justices would (or should) know it when they saw it.

It's worth noting that the FEC had never ruled against the content of 'Hilary, The Movie' —in that regard they rightly have no jurisdiction—they ruled on the corporate enterprise that sought to buy into video on demand distrubution to the tune of $1.2 million —on the eve of an election. The FEC originally ruled that the film was no different from the kind of "electioneering communication" regulated under the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law —and a Federal Appeals Court agreed. It was the Supreme Court's call, in answering the final appeal of Citizens United, the film's producers, as to whether what quacked like an electioneering duck was in fact an electioneering duck. (—er, apologies to Mr. Morris)

But last Spring the court, especially its Conservative camp, pushed back against that narrower role (of its own jurisdiction) and asked that the case be reargued this Fall, with a much broader constitutional question at point: should the court even have that privilege of an opinion? Where is there constitutional license to bar and regulate political expression? —even corporate political expression?

Bans on corporate spending aren't exactly a newfangled thing and it's not like they haven't been challenged before. It was Teddy Roosevelt who first championed and finally signed law banning corporate spending on Federal elections in 1907 —after watching a flood of corporate funds put his predecessor, William McKinley in office. Needless to say that law has been vetted by a few corporate lawyers in the ensuing 100 years. McCain-Feingold might reach further and demand more, but it too has been upheld in previous decisions of the high court. Yet it seems that the same basic foundations that underpin both laws are matters at question in the court's current mind.

In the arguments of this past week we've been reminded, by the attorney advancing the appeal —and a couple of the judges hearing it, that corporations are citizens too. Justice Scalia held forth poetic on the many "single shareholder corporations. … The local hairdresser, the local auto repair shop, the local new car dealer" at one point —as if this had some meaning in the context of this case.

We wouldn't silence the local hairdresser now would we?

For all the talk of blind umpire justice we've heard over the past few months, it sure seems like there are some pretty obvious predispositions at work in the Roberts Court.

The hairdresser here is some cross between a Trojan Horse and a Judas Goat. There is nothing at issue in the case at hand or the long history behind it that abrogates a single shareholder's rights any further than the rights of a single citizen. It isn't even the aggrieved "documentarians" behind "Hilary, The Movie" that are at issue here anymore. Were that the case the court could have ruled in their favor at the earlier opportunity on the narrower question as first presented.

At the court's behest, the case has been expanded to become a contemplation on corporate liberty. Or to put it in more practically applied terms, the case has come down to one big loud question of cold hard corporate cash —plain and simple.

Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas are already on record wanting to overturn the case law on corporate campaign spending restraint. One can assume that these activist judges would like to see at least two more jurists join them. As this case first appeared there was some legitimate question as to the balance and fairness (if you'll excuse the expression) of the FEC's ruling on a very particular case. There were basic facts to be found about the particular appellants' rights in light of established law. But as things have transpired this is no longer a case about what can or should be said by whom and when in our politics.

It's about what can or can't be bought or sold.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

"...and he is us"
—finding the foe in our healthcare debate

There's a strange disconnect I sense in the lathered recriminations being thrown President Obama's way lately. We've been subjected to a whole lot of hollered rhetoric about how 'ObamaCare' represents an assault on all that is sacred in our country, and at the same time —sometimes even the same people will complain of a lacking specificity to this supposedly ominous plan. There is even the complaint that the president is leaving too much of it to be debated in Congress. Somehow we are supposed to jive the binocular vision —the terrible autocrat and the spineless democrat. Every now and then we even get to hear about how what the new administration truly represents is some form of assault upon our Constitution, upon our entire system of government, our system of values, etc.

What is really going on here? Where has this assault on democracy and the constitution actually taken place? What have we lost and where did we lose it? And is Obama the culprit who has taken off with it?

Sorry, but I think not. I offer as title of this post a fragment of the famous quote from that sage political philosopher —Pogo. "We have met the enemy and he is us.”

I would offer that the problem isn't with Obama —or if it is at all with him it is because he is indeed one of us. What has President Obama done with his advocacy for healthcare reform to confound our Constitution and our democratic way of life? Get elected? Set a policy agenda and encourage debate?

Some might argue that the debate has lacked the legitimacy of substance, that the lacking detail is the danger and that too much of the ultimate dealing and compromise will be conducted beyond our reach —legitimate concern. But is this the deliberate disingenuous doing of the administration? Or has the hollering spectacle come to fascinate us more than the policy supposedly at issue anyway?

One can't help but notice that the media lens of late holds the most of its focus upon the shouting matches rather than the discussions that happen. "TV loves a ruckus," Obama observed recently. That's not the fault of the media lens though, not in my book —it's the matter of where we are looking. The national disposition seems to be not towards attending to a candid debate, or what might be said. We are more inclined towards the smackdown theatrics of shouting debate down.

One well worn insult for those of us who support or respect the president is that we are 'Kool Aid Drinkers' and that our thinking is of the cult-of-personality species. We are worshipers of a false Messiah, et cetera. Actually I think that is something of a conceit. It's not what Obama is saying that bothers or scares. It's the things we can't quite seem to say to —or hear from—each other.

Maybe some of the sparks we are seeing fly come off of actually trying to have that discussion.

Take a look at the president actually asking for civil discussion and you might begin to hope such a thing is possible. Maybe it is, just as Pogo also said, that "we are faced with an insurmountable opportunity."

Saturday, August 8, 2009

A new old ghost

We've heard the arguments defending the newly self-installed regime in Honduras —that they were justified in ousting the democratically elected president at gunpoint —that it had been President Zelaya who was the real threat to law and order and democracy —what with his ballots and all. As proof positive it is pointed out that the Congress and the Courts had authorized the military to take action. And perhaps if you squint hard enough you can indeed blur the scene to fit the conjured image —of deliberate senators and sober justices calling upon dutiful soldiers to protect the nation.

But then open your eyes and you might regard another reality.

Today's New York Times featured a "Saturday Profile" —complete with a striking portrait—of the newly installed regime's "security advisor" and international media liaison, Billy Joya. The Times reporter observes "the smooth, elegant bearing of a leading man" in Mr. Joya. But look again —and read further and you find that Joya is considered "one of the most ruthless former operatives of an American-backed military unit, known as Battalion 316, responsible for kidnapping, torturing and murdering hundreds of people suspected of being leftists during the 1980s."

In 1989, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights determined that the Honduran military was responsible for systematic abuses against government opponents. Still, in the 27 years since this country returned to civilian rule, authorities say, Honduran courts have held only two military officials — Col. Juan Blas Salazar Mesa and Lt. Marco Tulio Regalado — accountable for human rights violations.

ONLY about a dozen other officers ever faced formal charges. And most of those cases, like Mr. Joya’s, remain unresolved by a judicial system that remains crippled by corruption.

...Edmundo Orellana, the former Honduran attorney general who was the first to try to prosecute human rights crimes, said it was “absurd” that Mr. Joya remained free.

“Billy Joya is proof that civilian rule has been a cruel hoax on the Honduran people,” Mr. Orellana said. “He shows that ignorance and complicity still reign inside our courts, especially when it comes to the armed forces.”

The Times article points out that it was only a matter of hours after the ouster of President Zelaya that Mr. Joya "made his reappearance on a popular evening talk show" in Honduras —apparently running on one of the media sources the new regime still allowed to broadcast. His purpose, he said,"was to defend the ouster and help calm a public that freed itself from military rule less than three decades ago."

But one has to wonder at the message from the new regime's new/old voice. There's the message in what was said. And there's the message in who was saying it. Somehow I doubt the different facets were lost on the Hondurans who heard. For some, I'm sure, it was comforting to hear —while for others it likely drew a shudder.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Zen and the art of constitution maintenance

Zen Buddhists use a meditative device called a kōan in their spiritual practice. What is the sound of one hand clapping? If a tree falls in the woods where there is no one to hear it —does it make a sound? We've all heard these. Essentially these kōans are paradoxical questions without one single objectively correct response. They are meant to enlighten in the asking —not the answer.

I am put in mind of these imponderables "inaccessible to rational understanding" as we've found ourselves discussing the Honduran "constitutional coup" here on this blog and as that conversation begins to develop around the country.

There is a less subtle mind that simply sees the events of the last weekend in June in Honduras as a military coup. Soldiers wearing ski-masks showed up one early morning, shot off their guns and dragged the president of the country away in his pajamas. The democratically elected president of Honduras was ushered out of office and out of the country at gunpoint.

Seems like a coup, sure enough.

The subsequent actions of the Honduran government and the newly installed replacement president might still give one to read the situation as obvious. The crackdown on the supporters of the ousted president who turned out to protest —the cracking of a few skulls, the arrest of quite a few of those protesters (and the journalists who were noticing) —shutdown of dissenting media outlets —even suspension of the constitution's core civil liberty protections. I know it seems like a coup —a plain old military coup.

But of course there are two sides to any question —and nothing is as simple as it seems. We are told, by the newly installed regime, that the military's actions were at the behest of the courts and the congress and that it was the president they deposed —President Zelaya— who was the threat to the country and its constitution (you know —the one they just gutted).

Zelaya sought to amend the constitution to allow himself to seek a second term in office —something expressly forbidden in the Honduran constitution. He had sought a non-binding plebiscite to demonstrate popular support for changing that provision and the congress and the courts had ruled that even that polling would be illegal.

And just so as to conclude all consideration of the question it is pointed out that this Zelaya was friendly with President Hugo Chavez of Venezuala... Enough said.

But here is where the inscrutable subtleties arrive. This Honduran Constitution we speak of, let us consider the art of its maintenance.

The government backed by the military (and vice versa) is correct to point out that the Honduran constitution expressly forbids amendment with regard to the president's term limits. In fact it is illegal to even "support" such a change —to support anyone who advocates such a thing—to even think about it.

Think about that.

Friday, July 3, 2009

July 4th

Independence Day. 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 233 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.

Friday, June 5, 2009

June 5th

“It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that
human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal,
or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against
injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each
other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those
ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls
of oppression and resistance.”

Robert F. Kennedy
Speaking to students in South Africa, 1966

Friday, May 8, 2009

Nuclear Non-Proliferation: Asking of our friends what we would demand of our enemies

U.S. diplomat, Rose Gottemoeller mentioned recently that the U.S. was committed to the idea of "universal adherence" to the International Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This shouldn't really come as a surprise to anyone. We are signatories to the treaty, as are 186 other countries. Nuclear non-proliferation, and even disarmament, has been consistently held U.S. policy for the past couple of generations. Every administration for the past forty years (even the last one) has signed some form of arms limitation treaty.

So why should the Assistant Secretary of State's comments be in the least bit controversial? Why would a treaty that aims to "prohibit the development or transfer of nuclear weapons or related technologies by and to non-weapon holding states" be questioned or challenged? Isn't "universal adherence" to that kind of treaty a pretty good idea? Isn't there a whole lot of trepidation just now over the possible "development of weapons by a non-weapon holding state" —what with Iran and its lack of adherence?

Problem is there are only four nations yet to sign the NPT: India, Israel, Pakistan and Cuba —three stalwart allies of the U.S. and and one stalwart enemy. And guess which three of the four are actually "packing."

As a matter of fact, Gottemoeller's comments came as she was addressing a meeting of signatories to the treaty who wanted to know why the U.S. had made accommodations with India (under the Bush administration) that in effect rewarded it for its non-compliance and non-cooperation over the years. "The United States has long supported universal adherence to the [NPT]. We have urged all states that have not yet joined that treaty to do so," she said. She explained that since its agreement with the U.S., India had made "real progress towards joining the non-proliferation regime."

Most would see this as a fairly rational, and validly strategic, approach to take towards nuclear diplomacy. The international community is confronted with just the behaviors the treaty is in place to confront. Strengthen the treaty and reward adherence —bring together the whole community of nations and more firmly establish the international conventions for acting against the spread of nuclear arms. Indeed, it is this treaty that is often cited as the premise for sanctions against what we like to refer to as the "rogue states" —those whose nuclear designs we would curb.

But in certain circles, rational strategic diplomacy —well, it's just not done.

According to the Jerusalem Post, Israeli nuclear expert Avner Cohen announced, in reaction to the U.S. diplomats remarks, that there is a "deep-seated Israeli anxiety" that Washington would link eliminating the Iranian nuclear threat —presumably as part of negotiations with Tehran —with Israel giving up its own capabilities —a notion completely unthinkable, though Israel officially has no nuclear arsenal.

There's the rub, isn't it? That potential we would punish Iran for —a nuclear weapons capability sequestered from international scrutiny under a guise of sovereign privilege— has been practice for Israel for a very long time. Since the Nixon administration, U.S. policy has been tacit approval of Israel's civilian nuclear technology openly acknowledged —and it's nuclear weapons capacity deliberately vague.

Predictably, there are more on this side of the Atlantic than in Israel itself who have tried to amp Rose Gottemoeller's comment into some horrid betrayal of Israel our trusted and trusting ally. Saner heads in Israel have acknowledged that the call for universal adherence to the Non-Proliferation Treaty isn't a unilateral confrontation with their state. Rather it is an exhortation to all in the region. It is about signing the treaty and about abiding by it, too. It is a statement of U.S. support for the goal of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction. But most importantly, it is a statement made together with the understanding that "such goals can only be achieved," as Gottemoeller herself said, "in the context of progress toward a comprehensive peace in the Middle East and evidence that Iran is fully implementing and upholding the existing international agreements to which it is a party."

President Obama spoke in Prague recently about the goal of a world —not just a region— free of the threat of nuclear weapons and nuclear terror. He spoke of it as an American objective, but as a much larger one as well. We will have to lead by example in that effort if we truly wish to see it advance. Ours is the largest and most destructive arsenal in the world. But along with that leadership expected of us, we might also find ourselves having to ask of our friends what we would demand of our opponents.

I think that's how it works.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Not in our stars, but in ourselves

President Obama's handling of the issue of American torture has managed to offend and/or frustrate those to his Left and those to his Right. I'm thinking that might be some indication of an appropriate balance. He's gone to the CIA headquarters building itself to point out that he won't use the past practices as a premise for prosecuting operatives at the foot soldier level —the very people the now famous torture memos were directed at, as these were the people most often questioning and challenging the legal integrity of their orders in the first place. He has left the door open to investigating the more senior level decisions that set American torture practices in motion, even while offering that he would rather look forward than look back.

Still we are being asked to confront the facts. The memos have been released and soon the Pentagon will be releasing images (at the behest of the courts through an ACLU suit, not the administration's actions).

What good can come of this? —some might very reasonably ask.

I can't help but be reminded of another era in our history, the days of "The Red Scare" —McCarthyism, HUAC, The Cold War in its deepest shivering. As is the tendency with histories in general, that era has come to be something of a clearer and clearer morality lesson over time. Most all of us have come to identify with that guy who asked— "at long last, sir, have you no sense of decency?"

But at the time, things weren't nearly so black and white as the television —at that time, like this one, there were gray shadings of meaning. We were a nation gripped by fear —and there was very real reason for that fear. We did indeed confront an ideological and military enemy that openly spoke of one day burying us, or at least our way of life. As a country we would come to recognize the fear as another enemy itself (perhaps our most dangerous one). We would come to put aside some of the hysteria. But it took some reminding from courageous citizens for us to do so.

I borrow the title of this piece from another famous borrowing, from CBS newsman, Edward R. Murrow's use of the line from Shakespeare's 'Julius Caesar.' Murrow had chosen to confront McCarthy—when the 'Red Scare' hysteria was at its worst— from the broadcast newsroom, with an exposé on the senator's troubling and destructive methods. Few others in the media or government were willing to do so just then. Murrow concluded one pivotal broadcast with the Cassius line to Brutus about "our faults" being “not in our stars but in ourselves.”

More than McCarthy himself, what Murrow was really confronting was the political climate —namely that fear— McCarthy was so able to exploit.

That climate change didn't come with one dramatic confrontation. Yes, McCarthy was finally censured and some of his more egregious abuses were redressed, but we didn't turn away from the fear itself over night. And we didn’t turn in lockstep unison.

McCarthy fell from favor, but the more important change in thinking didn’t come with that. It was only over time we truly came to examine and learn from the mistakes —our mistakes.

That's why I am thinking Obama might be just about right in disappointing both sides on this current issue of American torture, in opening us up to some uncomfortable examination, but showing some deference in leading the charge of righteous indignation (and another kind of witch hunt). We might actually rebuild more with a calm and deliberate approach to the truth about Bush administration practices, and more importantly to the truth about ourselves.

Some worry we may have lost our innocence about torture in the last few years. I'm not sure that's right; and I am not sure that it matters. Innocence is something you lose and can never regain. Integrity is another matter. Even when integrity is lost or damaged you can never leave aside responsibility for it. President Obama has been taken to task by some for having referred to the Bush practices as "mistakes" rather than crimes. But I think I understand the thinking—and yes the leadership— involved in his careful language. "Crimes" are in the nature of accusation and we can separate ourselves from them with the use of the term. Mistakes we examine together.

And hopefully we learn.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A time for hope

Several times over the past few years I've found myself making reference to the situation in Northern Ireland as a hopeful example, an example of a seemingly intractable conflict turned towards the possibility of peace. For much of the past twelve years the rival parties have been actively engaged in talks and real progress has been made towards a lasting accord. Past histories of mutual grievance have been neither denied or exploited as an excuse to abandon the challenge of forging a durable peace. Past sins, while not forgotten, have been moved beyond, as yesterday's militants have worked to become today's mediators.

This past week saw something of a shadow pass over that hope. A group referring to itself "The Real I.R.A." attacked and murdered two British soldiers and later a policeman and laid claim to the crimes as acts of a renewed war and defiance. This splinter group and others like it had formed in the years since the The Good Friday accords —in reaction to the dreaded possibility of peace. Till now these "bold rebels" had mostly some property damage and a few failed efforts at murder to their credit. These three accomplished murders, for them, count as progress.

But Northern Ireland might still be a better example. And one worth contemplating. The reaction to these murders, that of the political leadership and, more importantly, the people of both supposed sides, has been one of unified disgust. Church leaders both Protestant and Catholic, British MP's and Sinn Fein leaders have all called the crimes out for what they were... crimes. And thousands of every political stripe imaginable have shown up in the streets of Belfast to say the same thing.

That there's something of the distance we've come, and the way we have —that the work won't be undone, that we won't go back, that's the hope.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Far too long

The International Criminal Court, or ICC passed down an indictment this past week; and for the first time ever it did so against a sitting head of state. President Bashir of Sudan is charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity and there is now a standing warrant for his arrest. The court considered but opted not to charge Bashir with the crime of Genocide, “not at this time” was the official circumspection.

The UN estimates that some 300,000 people have been killed and 2.7 million displaced over the past five years of conflict between Bashir’s government and rival rebel factions. Bashir has argued that these estimates are gross exaggerations and that the actions of his regime, and the mercenaries in its hire, were unavoidable consequences of civil strife within a sovereign state —perhaps an arguable supposition —up until his own actions bely the point.

Bashir’s immediate response to the indictment was to announce the eviction of more than a dozen global aid organizations serving the abused populace of the Darfur Region —the most desperately needy citizens of his “sovereign” state. It’s estimated that as many as 4.7 million in the area depend on these groups for survival. Closing down their efforts “could be absolutely disastrous,” said UNHCR spokesman Rupert Colville. “They do life-saving work in terms of providing food, clean water, healthcare. Thousands of people could die as a result of the decision.”

President Bashir is well aware of that fact. His sense of priority is on obvious display.

The situation is reminiscent of that scene in the old Bible story, that woman laying false claim to her right as a mother and willing to watch a child cut in half with a sword. Sadly, in Sudan that child has been balanced on the edge of a blade for far too long. His suffering has come to be a point of dialogue only —and only when it wouldn’t interfere with supposedly more immediate concerns.

Far too long.

President Bashir's actions demonstrate that he would sooner see the citizens under his "sovereignty" perish than answer to the ICC’s charges. Just as in that old story from Solomon's court, Bashir has shown the emptiness of his oft used claim, this supposed sovereignty of his. For just like parenthood, the term sovereignty is supposed to connote more of a responsibility to protect than the privilege to possess.

Some will complain that it is the ICC’s actions that have compelled this crisis. And if the world community fails to move with humane consensus against this despot and the privilege he has assumed to hostage the suffering of his own people, the crisis could indeed become a catastrophe. But looking back on that old story of Solomon’s, how many of us find fault with the judge?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

For Cryin' Out Loud

A word of caution to all you bloggers out there: as it turns out this practice of diverted discourse is seen as a danger in certain districts of our democracy. (How's that for alliteration?)

But seriously.

As Professor Dawn Johnsen of Indiana University, Obama's nominee to head up his Office of Legal Counsel, has come to learn, of all the sins and scary closet skeletons that can come to the surface in the vetting process for cabinet and staff, the one that seems to elicit the most bipartisan dismay is the illicit practice of ...blogging.

This week she appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to discuss her possible service. And the dark truth saw light. Senator Sessions, R-Ala., accused her of outright aid and comfort to "the other side" with her "blogging, advocating, and speeching (sic)."

(More on how we define "sides" in a moment).

If you would think the supposed liberals on the panel would come to her defense in this you would be wrong. "You have been an activist," gravely pronounced Senator Feinstein of California, as she quizzed Johnsen —on her preparedness to "give that up."

Advocacy, that was the new word for the old scarlet letter.

What's odd is the fact that there is little doubt of Professor Johnsen's preparedness to actually serve the OLC. Yes, she has offered critical opinion that was deliberate and direct on the past practices of the office, in opinion forums and in popular publications. But she also led a rigorous effort to offer the bipartisan perspective of a number of former OLC lawyers on the subject of "Principles To Guide the Office of Legal Counsel."

Hmmm, informed advocacy... based on "principles."

Dahlia Lithwick sums up the situation well in her piece for The problem with Johnsen: "She has spoken out clearly! She has criticized openly! She has used language like "outrage" and "torture" to describe outrages and torture. Curiously enough, nobody on the committee disagrees with these legal conclusions today. They're just mainly bothered that she said them aloud."

I know the notion of change with the new administration is popular to lampoon, especially on this blog. But I for one am hopeful that this notion of "sides" —even both sides— being offended at the sound of principled Americans speaking their mind, this notion of labeling candid earnest discourse "radical" as a way to simply avoid it —that these might become outmoded tactics. There is a better possibility

Of course, this isn't something Obama can deliver. That's up to us. But with Dawn Johnsen's nomination it seems like there may be something better allowed for. Even out loud.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

We, even we here, hold the power...

"Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves." That is how Abraham Lincoln described the situation: Winter in Washington, December of 1862. The nation was at war with itself, and that war went poorly. The confrontation with history we faced, the task at hand our president insisted we take up, was freedom for the country's slaves. "The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation," he reminded. Evading history was no longer possible, he said as he also reminded, "We... even we here, hold the power, and bear the responsibility."

In honor of the day let me recommend a book: "Best American History Essays on Lincoln" edited by Sean Wilentz. What I found interesting in the first few essays collected there is the fact that the occasional open challenge to the mythic proportion of the man, like the ones we might encounter reading the work of historians today, isn't exactly a new phenomena. Some of the pieces Wilentz collected date to the 1940's and 1960's and in those essays there is displayed a hearty willingness to parse through and challenge Lincoln's record, to see him as less godlike and to come to terms with him as a man, both flawed and heroic... as a savvy politician, as well as an inspired statesman.

For all Lincoln has always been a personal hero of mine, I don't mind him coming down off a worshipped pedestal, recognizing his accomplishments as those of a man and not a saint. He was forced to make difficult decisions and uncomfortable compromises as he led the nation through a terrible conflict. And not every decision he made was impeccable. Though he came to be known as The Great Emancipator, he was at first a cautious pragmatic, bent on an incremental remedy to the scourge of slavery. The war was well over a year old that day in December, when Lincoln called for us to finally "disenthrall ourselves" and unequivocally name our purpose. There were shadings of gray to this story, his and our journey to that confrontation with history.

I particularly like the quote, attributed to Wendell Phillips, that I came across in Wilentz's book. Phillips, an avid activist for Emancipation, had long advocated for the slaves, to the point of frustration with Lincoln's cautious incremental approach, his many attempts at conciliation and compromise. Phillips observed in retrospect, that if Lincoln "grew" into an abolitionist, "it's because we watered him."

I like that.

And I can't help but think there is a civic lesson in that comment. It is the same valid notion I sense in the reasoning of campaign phrases like "Yes, we can" and "Together, we can." All that civic engagement community organizing rhetoric that is ultimately to remind us that our system of government isn't about its politicians, or even its statesmen. It's about

It's the idea that, while we are right to honor our heroes, as we do we should also be mindful of our own place in the progress of our country, the place of people like us, the place of advocates and avid citizens in our history... those who reminded our greatest leaders of what was behind them and where they ought to be headed.

It's that idea of government "of and by the people."

It was true more than a centrury and a half ago. It's true now. Even in this age of the popular torch and pitchfork, where "big government" is supposed to be best burned down, there is something to that idea of wanting to see it grow... working to see it grow, in accomplishment if not in size. We are supposed to challenge our government and its leaders, but not to merely confound them or simply entertain ourselves with the contrary, but to see them and to see our own country step forward, and yes... grow, even through painful change... even "in spite of ourselves" at times.

So anyway, in honor of Abe Lincoln, and those of his time who either had his back or were on it, here's to the day... and bring out your watering cans.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

A thousand words

The old saying goes that a picture is worth a thousand words. And I know it's true.

One thing that I have made a daily a practice of over the past few years is to visit the Magnum Today's Pictures feature on the website. There is a level of meaning involved with simply seeing something. I had some experience of that with these images of Afghani school girls. Right there is all the argument one could ever offer on behalf of these children —right there on their faces.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

What you and I know

"But you and I know that this war will not have any real victors and that, once it is over, we shall still have to go on living together forever on the same soil." ~Albert Camus