Friday, October 31, 2003

Iraq War Critics: Zbigniew Brzezinski

Zbigniew Brzezinski was President Carter's national security adviser and was considered a hardliner on relations with the Soviet Union, then and later.

But he is also one of the so-called "realist" school, which puts him at odds with much of the present foreign policy. He recently gave an excellent speech on US foreign policy. Here's a sample (my emphasis).

Since the tragedy of 9-11 which understandably shook and outraged everyone in this country, we have increasingly embraced at the highest official level [i.e., the President] what I think fairly can be called a paranoiac view of the world. Summarized in a phrase repeatedly used at the highest level, "he who is not with us is against us." ...

The second condition, troubling condition, which contributes in my view to the crisis of credibility and to the state of isolation in which the United States finds itself today is due in part because that skewed view of the world is intensified by a fear that periodically verges on panic that is in itself blind. ...

We have actually experienced in recent months a dramatic demonstration of an unprecedented intelligence failure, perhaps the most significant intelligence failure in the history of the United States [the WMD fiasco]. That failure was contributed to and was compensated for by extremist demagogy which emphasizes the worst case scenarios which stimulates fear, which induces a very simple dichotomic view of world reality.

... I do not believe that [the need for] serious debate is satisfied simply by a very abstract, vague and quasi-theological definition of the war on terrorism as the central preoccupation of the United States in today's world. That definition ... theologizes the challenge. It doesn't point directly at the problem. It talks about a broad phenomenon, terrorism, as the enemy overlooking the fact that terrorism is a technique for killing people. That doesn't tell us who the enemy is. It's as if we said that World War II was not against the Nazis but against blitzkrieg.

But I'm not sure that the return to "bipartisanship" on foreign policy like that of the Cold War era that Brzezinski recommends is likely to happen any time soon.

More on Zell Miller

The article to which I linked in the previous post didn't mention the Max Cleland incident. But Wyeth Wire has a somewhat longer text from David Worley that does mention Cleland:

I thought a genuine ex-Marine like you would see through the phony flyboy "made for television" carrier stunt, especially now that Bush is blaming the troops for mistakenly bragging about a "mission accomplished."

I thought you would remember that Bush opposed creating a Department of Homeland Security, until Karl Rove and polling told him he could shamelessly use the issue to question the patriotism of Senators like our friend Max Cleland, who, you'll remember, left three limbs on the battlefield in Vietnam.

Thursday, October 30, 2003

Senator Zell Miller, "Democratic" Bush Supporter

Georgia Democratic Senator Zell Miller (no relation!) may have worn out the patience of his party with his endorsement of George Bush's "re"-election as President. David Worley, former chairman of the Georgia Democratic Party, takes him to task pretty severely:

You know I have been a lifelong supporter of yours. I wrote my first campaign check to you when I was still in law school, admired you as you fought [notorious segregationist] Herman Talmadge, worked with you on Walter Mondale's presidential campaign and was never prouder to be a Georgia Democrat than when you gave the keynote address at the national convention that nominated Bill Clinton. ...

I thought the history professor in you would know that Republicans built their success in the South on appeals to race and that you would speak out as again this year, in Mississippi, Republicans campaign on the Confederate battle flag while Bush stands by approving yet silent. ...

Looks as if you're on you're way back home, Zell, back to the hateful rhetoric of the Lester Maddox days ... Too bad that's the final legacy you're leaving.

Worley doesn't mention something that makes Miller's endorsement of Bush even more disappointing: the vicious campaign the Georgia Republicans waged against his former Senate Democratic colleague Max Cleland in 2002. In Big Lies, Joe Conason reports on what happened to Cleland, a veteran and "Medal of Honor winner who returned from Vietnam without his legs and his right arm."

Such a sacrifice is no guarantee of respect from a right-wing opportunist, as Cleland discovered during his last campaign. The wheelchair-bound senator had to listen to Representative Saxby Chambliss, his Republican opponent, cast doubt on his dedication to his country, loudly attacking him "for breaking his oath to protect and defend the Constitution."

The blustering Chambliss had avoided service during Vietnam with four student deferments and a "football injury," but he explained that his own lack of service was "absolutely not an issue."

Apparently none of this was much of an issue for Zell Miller, either. Republican maverick John McCain, on the other hand, was so disgusted by Chambliss' campaign that he flirted with changing parties himself.

General Boykin's Fans

General Boykin's crusading comments were the focus of the Christian Science Monitor's "daily update" (their Weblog) for 10/30/03. I'm going to put some of the links here because they don't have a unique link to the day's blog. (That Weblog is consistently good, by the way, usually focusing on foreign policy issues.)

E.J. Dionne's column which got a lot of attention because he tried to understand why some conservative Christians would applaud Boykin's remarks. It's okay, although Dionne doesn't seem to understand that a person could be a religiously conservative Christian who believed that someone who doesn't "accept Jesus as Savior" is going to hell and still understand that having a religious zealot in charge of a key civilian office at the Pentagon isn't such a grand idea right now.

Robert Rutkowski pretends that Boykin is being criticized because he's a Christian and an American patriot, not for his bad judgment and his disturbing view of US foreign policy as being part of a supernatural mission.

J. Grant Swank, Jr. is fine with the Christian Warrior general's comments, because he thinks Muslims want to slaughter everyone who is not a Muslim. This piece brings to mind the old insult about conservatives who couldn't read without moving their lips.

David Gelerntner in the Weekly Standard gives a highbrow version of the argument that that Boykin is being criticized for being a Christian.

This piece from Agape Press gives a brief survey of Christian Right defenses of Boykin.

Mississippi Politics: Flying the (Confederate) Flag

Mississippi gained a lot of national attention for itself in 2001 when it had a statewide referendum devoted to one subject: whether the state should keep its state flag that prominently featured the Confederate battle flag or exchange it for another one as bland and forgettable as other states have. The voters chose the Confederate state flag by a large margin.

Now, Republican gubernatorial candidate Haley Barbour's campaign is using the Confederate state flag in the current campaign:

Two years after Mississippi voters decided to keep a Confederate battle emblem on the state flag, the Republican gubernatorial candidate is keeping the issue flying heading into next week's election. ...

[In additional to a TV spot on the flag theme] Barbour's campaign office in Yazoo City has also been distributing "Keep the Flag. Change the Governor" bumper stickers ahead of the Tuesday ballot.

Lloyd Gray has done a very good analysis of how this issue plays in Mississippi politics.

The fundamental underlying issue in the flag debate, of course, was race. Black Mississippians' concerns about a flag that incorporated a symbol used by white supremacist groups drove much of the momentum behind the push for a change. White backlash to what was perceived as a denial of heritage drove much of the resistance.

The improving yet fragile state of race relations in Mississippi underwent some severe strain during the period leading up to the April 2001 referendum, which included shouting matches at flag commission hearings around the state.

It's a disservice to resurrect those hostilities and divisions two and a half years later and attempt to exploit them for political benefit.

Lloyd was the editor of the student paper at Millsaps College in Jackson (MS) when I was a student there, and I did a column for the paper. As I recall, Lloyd was always more diplomatic than I. I wouldn't have said, for instance, that their was anything subtleaboutthe "undercurrent of racial resentment" in Barbour's use of the race issue. But even if Lloyd shows an excess of Southern manners, his analysis is solid.

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Iraq War: Rapid Withdrawal Option

I've noticed that a number of analysts are saying things about the Iraq War along the lines of this: "one strategic aim of the Iraqi enemy is similar to the strategic aim of the North Vietnamese, during the Vietnam War: defeat the enemy by undercutting its political support back home."

Formulations like that imply that this goal is somehow unique. War is politics by other means, as the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously argued. Ultimately, the goal in any war is to convince the enemy to make a political decision favorable to one's own goals - whether that goal is a small piece of territory or unconditional surrender.

And I would also note that the more immediate aim of the Iraqi guerrillas is to demonstrate to Iraqis that the occupying power can't provide basic safety and security for Iraqis who cooperate/collaborate with the occupation authority.

There's also a lot of talk along the lines of "we're in Iraq now, and we can't just leave." It's usually put in terms of US "credibility" instead of our obligations as occupiers under international law.

But it's worth asking, why not? I don't think immediate withdrawal is a good option right now. But I seriously wonder what we're likely to gain by continuing the occupation. And whether it's right to keep our soldiers in combat for years when prospects for a good outcome are limited.

Because I think US credibility on our willingness to conquer and occupy Middle Eastern countries is much less important to our national security than credible airport screening. Or a credible computer system at the immigration service to flag foreign visitors who may be high terrorism risks.

Josh Marshall reports that there is considerable speculation among leading Democrats and Republicans that Bush and his political team may insist on an early troop withdrawal. Newt Gingrich was fretting publicly about that earlier this month.

If Bush and Karl Rove decide on that approach, they will have to find some half-credible way to call it a victory. But expect to see supportive arguments along the lines of those from Amitai Etzioni.

California Politics: Closing the $ Gap

The headline writer called it "Mississippification". But Alabama is the only other state Peter Schrag's column mentions.

Alabama, Mississippi, one of those Southern states. Yankees get confused about these things sometimes. :) You have to be patient with them.

Schrag's column is a good one. He talks about how the recently-defeated tax referendum in Alabama was actively supported by Bob Riley, the conservative Republican Governor. Riley was criticized by Grover Norquist, an antitax zealot who currently has a lot of influence on the national Republican Party. He said, "Every Republican governor who thinks of raising taxes next year will walk past Traitors Gate and see Bob Riley's head on a pike."

Schrag uses Alabama's story as a lead-in to talking about the possible option For Schwarzenegger of using a large bond issue in California to close the current state deficit, coupled with "some sort of tight cap that would allow state spending to increase by no more than population and the rate of inflation."

The fact that such a measure is being seriously discussed is another sign of how common the idea has become in California that we could find some magic formula to put government on auto-pilot and solve the state's problems that way.
Schrag's analysis in part, is that, even with a $20 billion bond issue:

However it's done, it would, in the absence of any significant revenue increase, drive the state's battered public services further toward the bottom. If Schwarzenegger, as promised, were really to protect spending for K-12 education (spending that even now is woefully unequal to the state's own standards) the failure to increase revenues would almost necessarily suck more out of higher education and health programs for the poor, whose budgets have already been severely cut, and, very possibly, support for local governments as well. ...

Which is to say that the possibility of making California's school resources commensurate with the high standards we've set, or increasing access to the state's colleges and universities for the hundreds of thousands of additional students who'll be seeking places, is almost nil.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Iraq War: Trent Lott Has a Suggestion

I intended not to post anything right now. But when I came across this quote from Mississippi's Senator Trent Lott at Billmon's blog, I couldn't resist.

Ole Trent, you may remember, used to be Republican majority leader in the Senate until recently. Finally, his long association with white supremacist groups like the White Citizens Council caught up with him, after one Freudian slip too many at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday bash. Like a lot of Mississippi politicians, he's a graduate of Ole Miss Law School and was a cheerleader for the football team.

This is the military advice he offered on Iraq (my emphasis):

"Honestly, it's a little tougher than I thought it was going to be," Lott said. In a sign of frustration, he offered an unorthodox military solution: "If we have to, we just mow the whole place down, see what happens. You're dealing with insane suicide bombers who are killing our people, and we need to be very aggressive in taking them out."

Billmon's comment was, "I never realized you could major in genocide at Ole Miss."

Ole Trent, by the way, managed to avoid serving in Vietnam. As Joe Conason observes in his new book Big Lies, "The flag-flapping, ultranationalist Republican [Lott] had not only avoided the draft with student deferments, he had spent the early years of the Vietnam conflict waving pompoms as a cheerleader at Ole Miss."

Maybe the Pentagon shouldn't rush to take advice on counterinsurgency from Ole Trent.

Chuckie Watch 14: Chuckie vs. the "Anti-Christians"

Sometimes it's entertaining to poke fun at Chuckie's rants, in a "shooting-fish-in-the-barrel" kind of way. Other times Chuckie's "angry white guys" schtick is just annoying.

His latest is called "Christian Soldiers" (my emphasis):

It cannot be denied and it cannot be ignored, there is at this very point in time a vicious and systematic attack on Christianity and all it pertains to.

I'm quite sure the A.C.L.U. would deny the fact that that is their intent and that they are involved in this effort up to their toupees but the Bible says to judge someone by their fruits and looks at the fruits of the A.C.L.U. which are so well documented that I won't even go into them.

Of course they are not the only ones who want to remove every vestige of God from public life in a nation whose fore bearers [sic] were believers and framed our federal papers to reflect it, but the point is this, it's happening brother and sisters. ...

Well folks, we've got worse than merchants in the temple these days, we've got lawyers with their anti-God, anti-American, anti-Christian mania and they want to inhibit our rights to spread the gospel and if we don't stand up and fight them tooth and nail they will win victory after victory until our religious rights are completely eroded away.

People with Chuckie's worldview often use "anti-Christian" to mean "Jewish."

His argument about the American Founders making a government based on religion is just historically wrong.

There are places in the world where Christians really are persecuted in serious ways, like China, Saudi Arabia and the Sudan. For people in the US to complain that obscure court cases about fine points of First Amendment law represent "a vicious and systematic attack" on the Christian religion is really kind of pitiful.

Monday, October 27, 2003

Iraq War: Looking at Course Changes

Dana Milbank of the Washington Post is one of the best political reporters on the White House right now. Unlike most of his colleagues, he's not afraid to point out nonsense, even though it's with careful journalistic phrasing. He shares a byline on this piece:

While Bush argued that the latest violence ... was vindication of the administration's approach [!!!], Pentagon officials conferred about how to prevent such attacks from foiling its plan to transfer power to Iraqi police and security forces.

Iraq War fans outside the Administration are also offering their ideas. This article in the conservative Weekly Standard, co-authored by people from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) - both influential conservative groups associated with a hawkish stand on Iraq - actually has some good observations about the current dilemma and the need for a shift to a counterinsurgency approach.

But they don't seem ready to give up wishful thinking yet, saying of their approach (my emphasis):

Rather than reducing the U.S. presence, it might require putting an even greater American face on the war in those places. That could mean that, in the short term, the Pentagon might have to put on hold its plans to reduce the number of troops in Iraq to lessen the burden on the Army. The Marine Corps also might need to send fresh units back into Iraq.

Ironically, they cite Andrew Krepinevich's book The Army and Vietnam approvingly as "part of the counterinsurgency canon." But compare their article to the one by Krepinevich that I discussed in earlier posts to the excerpt I just quoted from their article. His approach is not so Pollyanish in tone as theirs about the force commitment that would likely be required.

Military analysts say that to match the soldiers-to-population ration that NATO had in Kosovo would require about 600,000 troops, or four times what the "coalition" has there now.

Taking Responsibility in Direct Democracy

California and Alabama have something important in common that had dramatic expression in both states this year. California in a recall election ousted a Governor re-elected by a majority less than a year ago. Alabama turned down a referendum that would have allowed the state government to avoid slashing state services due to the recession.

Michael Marshall of the Mobile Register had a comment on the kind of "direct democracy" that winds up crippling representative democracy that applies equally well to California:

In Alabama, we are a dysfunctional democracy. We have forgotten what it feels like to be a republic, the revolutionary concept of government that our Founding Fathers had in mind for us.

Like all other states in the union, we elect senators and representatives and send them to our state capital and our nation's capital to make decisions for us. It is our responsibility to choose these delegates wisely.

"There's no accountability! I'm not gonna send another nickel to Montgomery [the state capital] that isn't earmarked! The idiots up there will just squander it!"

How many times in the last couple of months have you heard some variation of that theme?

But who sent those idiots to Montgomery? Us idiots.

Marshall points out, "Alabama earmarks about 92 percent of its tax revenue; most states earmark less than half." California's earmarked spending is more in the 70% range.

His observation is right. The problem with trying to do state budgets by statewide popular votes is that everyone would prefer to dictate spending, everyone would prefer to pay less taxes and no one wants to take responsibility for actually matching up the revenues to the expenses.

Where Is the Christian Soldier (General Boykin) Marching?

General "my-God-is-bigger-than-your-God" Boykin came to mind when I came across this passage in historian Richard Hofstadter's 1965 book The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Hofstadter was looking at the (politically but not necessarily clinically) paranoid worldview behind conspiracy theories of history.

As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, the quality needed is not a willingness to compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Nothing but complete victory will do. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated - if not from the world, at least from the theater of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for unqualified victories leads to the formulation of hopelessly demanding and unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid's frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same sense of powerlessness with which he bagan, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.

Since General Boykin claims that the real enemy in the "war on terrorism" is Satan, and claims that God has revealed the forces of Satanic darkness to him in a photograph (just like in the supermarket tabloids!), this description probably fits him pretty well. How did somebody with ideas that koo-koo get into such a responsbile position. Oh, well, then there's John Ashcroft ...

Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Consitution has some thoughts about the Christian General.

Iraq War: Blogging the War

Daily Kos was rated the one of the best blogs on the Iraq War (the best, as I recall) back during the conventional phase (remember "Mission Accomplished"?) by Forbes magazine, not an ideological soul mate to Kos. He's still on the job. Referring to Bush's repetition of the theme that attacks in Iraq show that the guerrillas are "desperate", he says:

Funny, I remember the same kind of b.s. when I was growing up in El Salvador, with the nation descending into chaos as the government insisted that wave after wave of attacks simply proved the enemy's "desperation".

Fact is, this new wave of violence has demonstrated the Iraq resistance can attack at will, wherever and whenever it wants. It demonstrates it has good intelligence on the ground (if suffering from a bit of a time lag), able to target top US leaders wherever they may be.

It demonstrates that the resistance has some measure of popular support, as it stages spectacular attacks with near impunity. And it demonstrates that the US is nowhere near establishing security in the nation, and that in fact things are spiraling out of control.

Billmon has several good posts on the latest: here (the "desperate" meme) and here ("good news in Iraq" PR hokum) and here (an "how clueless are they?" piece).

Steve Gilliard, whose individual posts can't be linked directly, also has good observations ("Is Iraq Lost?" 10/26/03):

It's clear that most Iraqis want peace and stability. Most don't trust the resistance groups. But there is enough support for them so that they can operate with impunity. Someone sets up a freaking rocket launcher in a public park and no one sees this?

His "The Ramadan Offensive" (10/27/03) is also worth checking out.

The Today in Iraq/War News blog also generally has good links and (usually very brief) commentary. It uses Bush's infamous phrase "Bring 'em on" to report on attacks on our soldiers. What could Bush have possibly been thinking when he said that?


Sunday, October 26, 2003

Iraq War: Signs of the Times

Attack Is a Media Coup for Iraq Resistance, Experts Say

Sometimes a single line says it all:

Most worrisome for the coalition is that there is no easy way out of the violence.

That pretty much sums it up, doesn't it?


California Politics: Schwarznegger Goes to Washington

Gov.-elect Schwarzenegger is enjoying a pre-inauguration honeymoon in the press and with other political leaders. But it's unlikely to last long. He's coming to power as an insurgent, and the real problems he faces will be hard to avoid.

He's taking a trip to Washington this week, where his celebrity status will likely give him good press coverage. But he has an $8 billion budget deficit to close. And one of his key campaign promises was to roll back a car license fee increase that could add another $4 billion to the deficit if he succeeds. Somebody's ox is going to get gored in the process.

California's Congressional delegation is already pressing him on issues like financial privacy laws, forest protection, federal funding formulas, water projects, auto emissions and energy issues - including renegotiation of the long-term contracts Davis used to stabilize the energy crisis.

Schwarzenegger also faces a real political dilemma over his promise to rescind the undocumented workers drivers license law Davis recently signed. Latino activist groups and Democratic legislators are expressing a willingness to amend it to add features like mandatory criminal record checks. But if Schwarzenegger winds up carrying out his threat to back an initiative to accomplish the repeal, he could be in a political bind.

California voters may be in another anti-immigrant mood right now. So an immigrant-bashing initiative might win. But it will remind both Latino voters and non-Latino moderates of the reasons they've been leaning Democractic in recent elections. Columnist Carlos Ramos notes:

Those who stand to be the beneficiaries of these licenses are the same undocumented workers who provide maintenance for the gardens, who cook or clean tables in restaurants, who polish the floors of the great office buildings at night, or those who clean the houses and take care of the children of much of the middle class that Schwarzenegger intends to please when he says he is opposed to [this] law.

Win or lose on the initiative, the results are not likely to be pretty for Schwarzenegger.

Chuckie Watch 13: Chuckie's Drowning in the Dark Side

CHARLIE DANIELS - country singer, self-proclaimed Christian (over and over and over again) and Regnery Press rightwing political writer - spent one completely forgettable column rambling about baseball. Now he's trying to take a whack at as many of his favorite targets as he can in his regular Soapbox space: The Silly Tip Of The Iceberg.

None of this ecumenical, love-your-neighbor, defend-the-poor nonsense for Chuckie's version of Christianity. To judge by this latest pronouncement, Chuckie don't like: Jews who complain about anti-Semitism; Al Sharpton; Jesse Jackson; blacks who complain about racism; illegal immigrants; American Latinos who defend the rights of illegal immigrants; abortion; paying taxes to support the country he claims to love so much; accountants; criminal defendents having rights; people who want a separation of church and state; the ACLU; spending tax money on schools; and, African-American cocaine dealers.

Yeah, that Chuckie's just oozing with Christian love, I tell you.

He also apparently thinks that Protestant evangelist Billy Graham is Jewish. (!?!)

Maybe Chuckie should call one of his contacts at Regnery Press and ask if they can recommend someone to edit his Soapbox pieces for him.

Joe Hough on the Prophetic Tradition (Pt. 3 of 3)

(Cont. from Part 2) I've talked in other posts about a grim sort of ecumenical cooperation between the Christian Right and ultraconservative Israelis in opposing any practical efforts for peace in the Middle East. When a dispute is not just over a border or a political arrangement but over the Divine Will of the Almighty, compromise may appear to be a sin in itself.

The Christian Right's position in that situation is a perversion of the prophetic tradition. Hough's perspective is that Christians in particular need to recover more of their prophetic heritage. The Hasidic scholar Abraham Heschel in The Prophets defined the Hebrew prohets this way:

The prophet is a man who feels fiercely. God has thrust a burden upon his soul, and he is bowed and stunned at man's fierce greed. Frightful is the agony of man; no human voice can convey its full terror. Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profaned riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet's words.

The good news for Hough's argument is that God and the prophets are taking the side of the poor. I've seen it argued that the understanding of "justice" in the Hebrew Bible implied not some sort of abstract legal equity but more specifically the notion of defending the poor.

The more mixed news is that the prophets understood themselves to be speaking not just for the poor, but for God. Elijah wasn't interested in any ecumenical understanding with the Phoenician queen Jezebel and her priests of Baal and Asherah. That prophetic legacy is more problematic in today's world.

The religious basis for ecumenical efforts is closely related to the sentiments behind the prophets' concern for the poor. It's the idea that God cares for all of humanity and that his followers should show a concern for others that reflects that understanding. There will always be the General Boykins and Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons who try to channel religious faith into hatred and fanaticism. But we can hope that it is possible to save our religions from them.

Joe Hough on the Prophetic Tradition (Pt. 2 of 3)

(Cont. from Part 1) "Ecumenism" is the idea of promoting unity between various religions. It's almost an inherently self-contradictory idea, because the distinctiveness of each religion implies an exclusion of the other religions' ideas. If Christians are right about the nature of God as a Trinity, for instance, then the Jewish and Muslim would certainly seem to be wrong.

Still, the attempts to reach some kind of common ground among religions are very important, even though the emotive power of religion among the wealthy nations of the world is decreasing over time. Yes, it is decreasing, despite blips in the trend and despite the Protestant evangelists who perpetually find unmistakable signs of the world turning to God.

James Carroll gives a good summary of the need for ecumenical efforts in an article criticizing the fanatical and foolish Christian General Boykin:

The ethical dilemma facing all religions today, but perhaps especially religions of revelation [i.e., the three "Abrahamic" or "monotheistic" faiths], is laid bare here: How to affirm one's own faith without denigrating the faith of others? The problem can seem unsolvable if religion is understood as inherently dialectic - reality defined as oppositions between earth and heaven, the natural and the supernatural, knowledge and revelation, atheism and theism, secularism and faith, evil and good. If the religious imagination is necessarily structured on such polarities, then religion is inevitably a source of conflict, contempt, violence. My faith is true, yours is idolatry. My God is bigger than your god. My God is a warrior, and so am I.

Yet there are also kinds of ecumenical cooperation that go in a very different direction that Hough or Carroll might like. The US under the influence of the Christian Right has joined with the Vatican and with Muslim nations like Iran and Libya to oppose international family-planning efforts, due to a mixture of concerns aobut abortion, birth control and the empowerment of women. (Cont. in Part 3)

Joe Hough on the Prophetic Tradition (Pt. 1 of 3)

John Scalzi at By the Way has called our attention to an interview by Bill Moyers with Joe Hough of the Union Theological Seminary. (Abe Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address notwithstanding, I can't do a comment on this in only one post. Sorry.)

Joe Hough says:

Well, my perception, Bill is that there is a definite intentional move on the part of the political leadership in this country. In the direction that I think is not at all compatible with the prophetic tradition in Islam, Christianity or Judaism. And that is the obligation on the part of people who believe in God to care for the least and the poorest. That central teaching, that sacred code, I think is very well summed up in Proverbs where the writer of Proverbs says, "Those who oppress the needy insult their maker." ...

And I think that it would be a wonderful thing if we could stand together these three great Abrahamic traditions, and say, "Look, we do not countenance this sort of thing. It is not only unfair, it is immoral on the basis of our religious traditions, and we believe it's an insult to God."

His suggestion is that Christians, Jews and Muslims use the issue of economic inequality as an ecumenical rallying point of protest against current government policies. Not only would it be the right thing to do, it would help followers of the three religions come to understand each other better.

Hough certainly won't get any argument from me that economic inequality is a huge problem, and one that gets worse all the time. That's true in the United States, and it's true on a global scale in the relations of the wealthier nations to the poorer. Bill Gates' personal assets were said at one point in the last few years to equal that of the less affluent 50% f the US population. That's inequality. And it has very practical consequences for the society as a whole.

On the issue of the three "Abrahamic" religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) coming to understand each other better as one result of that, I think it's a real possibility. (Cont. in Part 2.)

Saturday, October 25, 2003

Iraq War: Good News from Iraq - But Not All Good

Deputy Defense and leading Iraq hawk Secretary Paul Wolfowitz got a Potemkin Village tour of the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, in the Kurdish-dominated part of the country:

In the run-up to the Iraq war, U.S. officials often fantasized about being welcomed as liberators in a post-Saddam Hussein era.  

A key U.S. architect of the conflict got a taste of that on Saturday when he walked the bustling streets of Kirkuk with an army patrol, drawing a friendly crowd, handshakes and hugs.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz [who does not speak Arabic - BM] went from shop to shop, past hanging meat carcasses and live chickens in cages, asking citizens if life had improved since Saddam was ousted and if Kurds and Arabs in the Kurdish stronghold were getting along. ...

The answers -- in Kirkuk and at other stops on a carefully orchestrated whirlwind trip to Iraq -- largely buttressed Wolfowitz's belief that the war was a necessary gamble and that critics who accused the Bush administration of exaggerating the reasons for the conflict and the difficult aftermath were wrong.

But the news for Wolfowitz was not all good:

Rockets Hit Baghdad Hotel Where Wolfowitz Staying

Anti-American guerrillas blasted the Baghdad hotel where U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was staying with a barrage of rockets on Sunday, but the No. 2 Pentagon official survived unharmed, U.S. officials said. ... 

Wolfowitz, a major force behind the United States invading Iraq, was led away by security forces and appeared composed after descending a stairwell past thickening smoke and blood stains, witnesses said.

Most senior US officials and members of Congress, by the way, are not allowed to stay overnight in Iraq. They are flown back to Kuwaitinstead.

How Will They Remember Us?

A friend of mine in Mississippi was once reflecting on how the things people think are the most important about themselves may not be at all how people remember them after they're gone. As in, "Ole Hank, he never was much good. But he sure did love dogs!"

That occurred me today as I saw this article about a 29-year-old California man, Army Sgt. Michael Hancock, who was killed in Mosul, Iraq. It wasn't anything about the politics of the story that struck me. In his last message home, he was repeating the official view of the war. And the article doesn't give many details about how he died.

Instead, it focuses on those he left behind. His widow, Jeannie, has four children (10, 9, 7 and 3). The younger two are Michael's, the older two his stepchildren. This made me think of the painfully ironic description of a character in Herman Melville's The Confidence Man: "in the case of the poor widow, chastisement was tempered with mercy; for, though she was left penniless, she was not left childless."

But what Jeannie recalled for the reporter was how she first met Michael, when he was riding his bicycle and she almost hit him with her car. They later bonded over a cup of coffee, which he didn't really drink much before he met her. Later, when he was separated from her on deployments, he drank coffee to remind himself of her.

His father remembered him this way: "He loved people, he loved Jesus and he loved to ride a bike."

I saw a TV movie years ago, with Robert Mitchum as a World War II American flyer who returned to visit England years later. In the predictable plot, his old British girlfriend had a daughter by him that he never knew about. The daughter is a committed peace activist who has trouble warming to her father. At one point, he's standing with her looking at the graves of soldiers, and trots out the ponderous old clichee of wondering how many Miltons and Homers died there and what they might have contributed to the world.

His daughter responds testily with something like, "Do you really think that's what their wives and parents and children cared about?"

Iraq War News

I've gone almost a week without posting anything about the current news from the Iraq War. So I'll make up for part of that by posting a few of the more interesting stories I came across this past week.

My man Rummy did a memo that got a lot of attention. The pundits are all speculating on exactly what it means and who leaked it. But it sure paints a different picture than the official happy talk about Iraq. (Heavy sarcasm on the "my man" bit.)

Seymour Hersh did an analysis of pre-war intelligence problems. This is the kind of article us poli-sci geeks love, because it talks about how process affects outcome. (I recommend Hersh with some reservations; his 1997 book The Dark Side of Camelot drew a lot of criticism for his use of stories that most historians would not have credited.)

Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post reports on discussions among Iraqi intellectuals about the country's future. Shadid is one of the few Western reporters in Iraq that speaks fluent Arabic. His stories are always worth reading.

Iraq War fans have been telling us endlessly about the schools, schools, lots of schools, that the occupation forces are building in Iraq. Juan Cole reports, "The Iraqi interim Interior Ministry announced that is has hired 1000 school guards to prevent the kidnapping of children and the holding of them for ransom. Lack of security has discouraged some families from sending children to school, especially girls."

The Independent quotes a representative of the Iraqi Governing Council pitching for money at the Madrid Conference by telling them that "more than two-thirds of Iraqis depend on food rations, less than half have access to clean drinking water and one in five children under the age of five is malnourished. Health conditions are deteriorating with maternal mortality quadrupuling and diseases such as malaria returning to Iraq."

Human Rights Watch evaluates the Iraq situation: Hearts and Minds.


Real Life Vs. Fantasy

I'm not going to be blogging all the time about crime reports from local papers. But I was struck today by a particular contrast. Today's San Francisco Chronicle carried an article about a police shooting in San Jose, which is the source of some bitter contention within the community.

I don't know enough to even have an opinion about the dispute. But what stood out to me was the description of the police officer's reaction to shooting another human being. Keep in mind that police are trained on a continuing basis when they have to shoot and when not, and that they have a very elaborate support network to put such incidents into perspective. 

Seconds after shooting a 25-year-old woman to death, San Jose police Officer Chad Marshall stood wide-eyed with fear and sadness, still gripping his smoking pistol as the woman's wailing sons clutched at his legs, a fellow officer testified Friday.

Cau Bich Tran lay on her back in the cramped kitchen of her apartment, slowly shifting her head and limbs and gasping for breath, police Officer Christopher Hardin told a Santa Clara County grand jury.

Hardin was walking up to Tran's duplex when the single shot rang out the night of July 13. He ran inside and saw Marshall, his eyes "very large. He looked sad and scared at the same time.''

Tran's children were "screaming and clutching onto the officer's legs,'' Hardin said.

Marshall, a four-year veteran, stood there for several minutes, gun dangling from his hand, Hardin testified. Finally, he said, "I asked him to go ahead and put that (gun) away, because he still seemed traumatized by what happened."

Compare that to the comment of the blowhard neighbor who spouted off to the Jackson newspaper after the fatal shooting of a burglar in his neighborhood:

"If they come up on me, I will shoot every bullet in there. I would have done the same thing if I would have gotten to my gun. Something's got to be done about this crime. It ain't just Jackson. It's national.''

The real thing doesn't look, feel, sound or smell like the comic-book bluster from macho loudmouths blowing hot air.

Friday, October 24, 2003

What Is Going On Here?

Apparently I wasn't the only one who took particular notice of the shooting of the Jackson burglar I mentioned a few days ago. The Jackson (MS) Clarion-Ledger today has an article making it sound like arming to blow burglars away is becoming the fad of the moment in Jackson: Break-ins prompt some in city to take up arms. (Journalistic hype exists, so take it with a big grain of salt.)

At least this article has a wider range of observations on the advisability of relying on private armaments to protect against burglars:

Jackson State University criminologist Jimmy Bell ... said he considers the two [recent] fatal shootings of burglars isolated incidents of people reacting out of fear.

"I don't think it is going to give burglars a reason to think twice, because burglars aren't organized enough to anticipate which house might have the potential to fight back with the use of firearms," Bell said. "Burglars are going to randomly pick homes they feel are the easiest target to them, which usually is an unoccupied house. Sometimes, they guess wrong."

But it doesn't mention the collateral risks of having loaded weapons available in the house, e.g., kids can get ahold of them. Also, you have to question how prepared for burglary someone is who spouts to a newspaper reporter that he keeps weapons in the house. Guns are a prime target for burglars, because they're easy to fence, they bring a decent price on the black market and the serial numbers can be filed off. Blabbing to the local paper that you keep guns in the house is like taking out an ad to say ROB ME.

The paper has also run an editorial asking why a repeat offender like the burglar killed this week was out of jail, especially since he'd been busted again just last week.

Here's a clue: keeping government budgets cut to the bone means you don't have a lot of money being spent on "frivolous gubment programs" like, say, cops and jails and parole systems. Relying on homeowner vigilantism to combat burglary is not a form of "privatization" that's likely to benefit most Mississippians.

CROP Circle

I want to point out the Web link for the Circle for Research on Proportionality (CROP). This is a particularly interesting group of thinkers who could be considered part of the intellectual school of Ivan Illich.

Illich was an Austrian-born priest and Christian philosopher whose influence extends from the home-school movement to alternative medicine to urban architecture to Christian theology. Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown provides a glimpse of Ilich in his obituary tribute to him:

Among the serious thinkers I have had the privilege to meet, Ivan Illich alone embodied in his personal life as well as in his work, a radical distancing from the imperatives of modern society. From Deschooling Society (1971) to In the Vineyard of the Text (1993), he bore witness to the destructive power of modern institutions that "create needs faster than they can create satisfaction, and in the process of trying to meet the needs they generate, they consume the earth."

Ivan Illich was the rarest of human beings: erudite, yet possessed of aliveness and sensitivity. He savored the ordinary pleasures of life even as he cheerfully embraced its inevitable suffering. Steeped in an authentic Catholic tradition, he observed with detachment and as a pilgrim the unforgiving allure of science and progress. With acute clarity and a sense of humor, he undermined, in all that he wrote, the uncontested certitudes of modern society.

In his last visit to Oakland, he invited the local archbishop to discuss matters of Catholic theology that greatly troubled him. Before he died, Illich wanted to engage ecclesiastical representatives in a conversation about corruption in the early church and the evolution-as he saw it--of Christian charity from a personal act to planned institutional services. This he called the corruption of the best becoming the worst- Corruptio optimi quae est pessima . His interlocutors arrived at my loft and were ushered into the library. Illich spoke at length, summoning up his vast store of Church history. He tried one subject, then another, but the bishop and his clerical assistants seemed nonplussed, even uncomfortable. Soon the conversation was over and our guests excused themselves and left. I am sure they were wondering what in the world Illich was getting at.

Thursday, October 23, 2003

A Religious Criticism of the Christian-Warrior General

The liberal Protestant magazine Sojourners has an message to General "my-God's-bigger-than-your-God" Boykin by Jim Wallis on its Web site:

General, I think the hymn "Onward Christian Soldiers" must have been written just for you. I'm sure your superiors have already given you a lesson in politics and public relations. And I've heard you have toned down your opinions and said you didn't mean to offend anyone. Whether you keep your job is a political question, the outcome of which we will know soon enough.

But I want to raise some different issues: biblical theology, bad teaching, and church discipline. General, your theology bears no resemblance to biblical teaching. You utterly confuse the body of Christ with the American nation. The kingdom of God doesn't endorse the principalities and powers of nation-states, armies, and the ideologies of empire; but rather calls them all into question. You even miss the third verse of "Onward Christian Soldiers," which reminds us, "Crowns and thrones may perish, Kingdoms rise and wane, But the Church of Jesus, constant will remain." And let's not misinterpret the famous first verse, "Onward Christian soldiers marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before." The cross, General, not the Special Forces.

The AOL Journal windmills of my mind has some comments on politics and exotic religious ideas here and here. (She's listening to Nanci Griffith, too, always a nice thing to do.)

The Sojourners Web site also has a brief article called The Hungry Spirit: Damnation Will Not Be Televised, which has some interesting tidbits in it. I especially like her little confession, involving one of the all-time great TV shows:

Almost everything I know about hell's eschatological aspects I learned from watching UPN's now-defunct series Buffy the Vampire Slayer - sort of an interactive "Divine Comedy."

Buffy was more theologically sophisticated than General Boykin, that's for sure.

Andrew Jackson, States Rights and the South (Pt. 3 of 3)

(Cont. from Part 2) No wonder old Jackson Democrats during the war used to grumble that if the General were still around, the slaveowners would never have dared to try seceding.

And no wonder the Lost Cause crowd doesn't like to recall great Southerners like Andy Jackson very often. That part of their "heritage" they would prefer not to remember, much less "honor."

But there was another major North-South controversy during Jackson's Presidency, one in which the vote in Congress was even more clear-cut than on the Nullification Controversy. That was the Indian Removal Act of 1830, in which slavery figured as a very minor issue, if at all.

Yet the silence about this Act from the Lost Cause crowd is deafening, even though it involved a North-South sectional controversy and national power vs. state rights, and slavery was not an issue. Wouldn't this be a perfect example for the Lost Cause argument that the Civil War was a sectional controversy over state rights, and slavery had nothing to do with it?

Well, it would. Except for one little catch. In this case, it was the Southerners, both in Congress and the Presidency, who were pressing for the use of national power to remove Indian tribes from lands coveted by the American whites. And they were willing to override states rights to achieve it. While that wasn't a central argument in the debate, Northern opponents of the bill mocked the Southerners for their willingness to overlook states rights when it was a measure they favored.

Over the following 30 years, there would be other occasions when the Slave Power would be willing to sacrifice the principle of states rights for the preservation of their "sacred institutions of slavery and white supremacy." And for "Southern honor," of course - though not a brand Old Hickory would have recognized as such.

See: Full text of 1832 Proclamation to the People of South Carolina

Andrew Jackson, States Rights and the South (Pt. 2 of 3)

(Cont. from Part 1) The South Carolina radicals certainly realized that the issue could come to a head over slavery. It had already come up in the slavery controversy settled by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. In 1831, the Nat Turner Rebellion had scared the Slave Power into a near frenzy. And that same year, free farmers from western Virginia forced the legislature to begin what became the last serious free debate about abolishing slavery in the states that eventually joined the Confederacy. (The debate was not "free" to slaves, of course.) The Slave Power felt increasingly on the defensive.

John C. Calhoun, Old Hickory's main opponent on the nullification issue, anonymously authored a pamphlet called The South Carolina Exposition which the defiant South Carolina legislature published. In it, Calhoun argued that the tariff controverysy was merely the occasion for demanding the right of nullification. The real issue was defending the "peculiar institution of the Southern States," i.e., slavery.

Jackson later said from his deathbed that he regretted that he hadn't hanged Calhoun for treason over the nullification incident. "My country would have sustained me in the act, and his fate would have been a warning to traitors in all time to come." (And you think political rhetoric today is harsh!) And Jackson was a Southern political leader who saw the issue of secession as being something other than a purely sectional issue. What Jackson the Southern President said in his proclamation to the people of South Carolina in December, 1832, was:

Those who told you that you might peaceably prevent [the] execution [of the laws] deceived you; they could not have been deceived themselves. They know that a forcible opposition could alone prevent the execution of the laws, and they know that such opposition must be repelled. The object is disunion. But be not deceived by names. Disunion by armed force is treason. Are you really ready to incur its guilt?

That's what patriotic American Southerners thought of secession - in 1832 and in 1861. (Cont. in Part 3)

Andrew Jackson, States Rights and the South (Pt. 1 of 3)

Since I've been posting about antebellum Southern politics, I can't pass up the chance to work in some Andrew Jackson content here.

The pro-Confederate view of history, also known as the Lost Cause ideology, insists that slavery was not the cause of the Civil War. Instead, in that view, the war was fought primarily over the issue of states rights. One of the main set-pieces in this argument is the Nullification Controversy of 1831-32, during Old Hickory's first Administration.

Briefly, the federal Tariff of 1828 was extremely unpopular in South Carolina. Many South Carolina leaders threatened to "nullify" the tariff, arguing that a state could impose its authority to block the implementation of a federal law it rejected. The dispute escalated to a point where a military confrontation threatened. Through the compromise efforts of Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, President Jackson secured from Congress both a reduction of the disputed tariffs and a Force Bill expressly authorizing him to use military force to put down state defiance of the federal law.

Lost Cause advocates love to point to this as a key event leading to the secession of 1861, though it occurred three decades earlier. In the Lost Cause view, this was an instance where the Southern states were grouped against a sectional bloc of Northern states, the latter using national power in the form of Jackson and the Force Act to impose an unconstitutional law on a state. And the issue here was a sectional one focused on tariffs, not slavery.

So the argument goes. But it has several obvious problems. Why does one need to go back 30 years before secession for such an example? Because every other major North-South confrontation from 1833 to 1860 had slavery as an explicit issue. Why does the Lost Cause dogma prefer to gloss over the fact that Jackson was a Southerner and a slaveowner and his movement was primarily based in the South? Because those facts are reminders that the controversy was not at all exclusively a North-vs.-South sectional issue.

Also, it's a matter of some serious dispute among real historians - not just a phony pseudohistorical issue made up by ideologues - as to whether the Nullification Controversy was really primarily about tariffs. (Cont. in Part 2)

California Politcs: Schwarzenegger Starts Showing His Hand

Gov.-elect Schwarzenegger made a media-conscious visit to the State Capitol Wednesday, announcing plans to call a special session of the legislature next month and announcing former Chevron lobbyist Patricia Clarey as his new chief of staff, a very key position. He indicated that he intends to use the special session to deal with workers' compensation reform (workers comp insurance expenses for business has gone up significantly) and to try to repeal the law allowing undocumented workers to get drivers licenses.

It seems he struck a confrontational stance:

If lawmakers don't agree with him on the driver's license law, he told them he'd actively support a proposed initiative that would ask voters to repeal the measure. ...

With powerful state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton -- a supporter of the driver's license bill -- sitting next to him, the Republican governor-elect said he had no hesitation about trying to undo legislation the Democratic-controlled Legislature approved with fanfare just weeks ago.

"We are looking at the total picture," Schwarzenegger said. "There's many, many different things that I want to change, that I will propose ... Budgets, to workers' compensation reform, the driver's licenses. There's endless amount of things. This whole package. And we go to work. That's what it's all about."

I'm not sure threatening the Democractic legislature with initiative battles on his first formal visit was the best way to start off. And a statewide vote on immigrants drivers licenses, with the new (immigrant) Governor taking an anti-immigrant position would get the Schwarzenegger administration started on an ugly note.

Clarey, the new chief of staff, worked for the Reagan and Bush I administrations and for former Republican Governor Pete Wilson. Her most recent job was overseeing lobbying activities on behalf of Health Net, a large HMO. Some observers seemed to damn Clarey with faint praise. Some described her as willing to work round the clock, which probably means, "she's an undisciplined workaholic."  Democrats described her as "bright and straightforward," which probably means, "she's arrogant and rude." Time will tell.

California Politics: Oakland Bans Wal-Mart Super-Grocery Stores

The City of Oakland has just passed an ordinance on a 7-to-1 City Council vote aimed at banning Wal-Mart mega-grocery stores. It doesn't ban regular Wal-Mart stores or discount warehouses of the CostCo type.

Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, issued the predictable complaints about interfering with competition and hurting the consumer. An attorney with a union favoring the ordinance gave some of the thinking behind the ban: "Mainly what these things do is cannibalize sales from existing retailers [and] sap the vitality out of neighborhood commercial districts."

Columnist Ruth Rosen elaborates:

Wal-Mart ... has already pushed some two dozen national supermarket chains into bankruptcy during the last 10 years by paying poverty-level wages, offering unaffordable health benefits and underselling other big box stores by importing goods made by cheap foreign labor. The average Wal-Mart grocery worker earns $8.50 an hour, which results in a below poverty-level annual income of $14,000. By contrast, a union worker at a supermarket earns $17 an hour, plus health benefits, which allows working families to share a slice of the American Dream and keeps taxpayers from picking up the tab for their health care.

There's no indication in any of the reporting I've seen that Mayor Jerry Brown played an active role in the decision. But my guess is he favored the ordinance, because it represents the kind of focused, community-oriented approach to urban development he favors.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

A Burglar Meets His End

Today's Jackson (MS) Clarion-Ledger carries a story today entitled, "Homeowner kills intruder." This is a classic situation you hear about in endless hypotheticals, but rarely ever see an actual news article about it happening. Christopher Stiff, 31, broke into the home of 53-year-old Tommy Christian, who shot him. Stiff died at the hospital.

But after reading the story, I kept wondering about it. For one thing, it says that it's the second fatal shooting of a burglar within the last couple of months in Jackson. The police apparently saw both of them as justifiable self-defense, which based on the facts in the article, they were. The relevant provisions of Mississippi law are cited. A Jackson police official said of the Christian-Stiff case, "You have the right to protect yourself and your property."

Yet there are several questions that occur to me that are not answered in the article. (Christian and his attorney refused the reporter's request for comment.) Was the intruder armed? Was he on drugs at the time? (He was busted lasted week on "drug charges".) Did the shooter and the burglar know each other? Did the shooter have any previous history of violence or a police record? Were the entry wounds on the burglar's front or back? What time of day did the shooting take place? What were the races of the shooter and the burglar? Were other people in the house? Were there witnesses?

The article says the burglar was shot twice, once in the leg and once in the abdomen. For the person defending against an intruder, shooting for the abdomen makes sense, because the defender can't assume he's going to have more than one shot. But what's with the leg wound? If he was wounded in the leg, why shoot him in the abdomen? And vice versa?

Maybe I've just watched too many episodes of Law and Order. But I just wonder if the facts in this case are quite as clear-cut as the article gives us to believe. One of Christian's neighbors responded more like a character on television than someone who was thinking about a killing just having occurred in the neighborhood, "If they come up on me, I will shoot every bullet in there. I would have done the same thing if I would have gotten to my gun. Something's got to be done about this crime. Itain't just Jackson. It's national.''

California Politics: What Will Schwarzenegger Do?

Schwarzenegger has so far given few signals about how he will proceed when he takes office. One of his campaign issues was to oppose the new law allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain state driver's licenses. This is a bellweather issue for many Latino voters. Since California agribusiness is completely dependent on illegal immigrants, I'd sure feel safer knowing the ones driving met minimal qualifications.

Schwarzenegger may also wind up bringing the structural crisis in state government closer to a head by trying to "go to the people" via referenda. Using referenda as a bludgeon against the Democratic Legislature could provoke the kind of confrontation that would put constitutional reform on the public agenda.  Peter Schrag writes:

[T]here's a good chance that if the Legislature drags its feet on Schwarzenegger's reform program, he'll become the ringmaster for a wave of ballot measures all his own: a new measure imposing spending limits on the state budget and one shifting control of the decennial redistricting of Assembly, Senate and congressional seats from the Legislature to some kind of independent commission.

Schwarzenegger has already said that, if necessary, he wouldn't hesitate to go over the heads of the Legislature and directly to the voters. ...

[H]owever charmed some futurists are by the notion of some sort of instant electronic democracy, where people vote constantly on every conceivable question, the world is too complex, the need for expertise, deliberation and compromise too great, for good government to survive such a system.

Democracy may be in danger from domination by money, political venality and systemic dysfunction, but it's in at least as much danger from solutions that quick-fixers have tried to impose. Representative democracy needs restoration, not replacement.

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

California Politics: Jerry Brown, Crime and Creativity

Via Cheese Louise, I came across this article by Chip Johnson on Jerry Brown, former California Governor, current Oakland Mayor and (likely) future candidate for state Attorney General. Johnson quotes Jerry as making a pretty general expression of goodwill about Schwarzenegger, encouraging him to take a moderate approach to governance. Based on what Jerry has said earlier about the recall, I would think he's saying that he regards the result as a significant expression of voter discontent, possibly even one of those rare "democratic moments."

It's interesting, though, that Johnson seems surprised that Jerry as Oakland Mayor has "promoted economic development and hammered away at the city's crime problem and it's long-standing link to parole and probation department failures." Jerry has always been hard for political reporters to understand, relying as they do on the conventional wisdom of the moment. Jerry's a hardline pro-labor liberal, just as he's always been. But "conventional" is normally not a useful word to describe him.

It's kind of a Zen thing, living in the moment. If your "moment" is being the mayor, you concentrate on mayor stuff, like development and crime. Jerry has also made a big effort to promote the arts and bring residential units to downtown Oakland, a perspective many mayors sadly lack.

I really have to chuckle though over Johnson's comment that Jerry has a "new law-and-order stance." News flash: he's always been known for his strong anti-crime stance, from his election to California Secretary of State on an anti-corruption theme and throughout his governorship. He focused on getting violent offenders off the streets and keeping them in jail, especially during their late teens and early 20s, when the potencial for repeat offenses is highest.

Twenty years ago, Neal Pierce and Jerry Hagstrom wrote in The Book of America that "it became Brown's lot" to "forge the gap between the old America and the new frontiers of high technology and social thinking." They said, "for years he was unquestionably the most creative thinking public official in the nation."

I wouldn't hesitate to say that's still true.

California Politics: Crisis in the System

Gov. Schwarzenegger will soon have to propose practical solutions to the state's budget crunch, which will involve some combination of revenue increases, spending cuts and borrowing. But California has also reached a crisis point in its system of state government - an increasingly unworkable combination of pseudo-direct democracy, restricted representative democracy and creeping crony capitalism.

The recall and initiative/referendum systems have crippled California government. We now have a hodge-podge of spending mandates, restricted funds, tax limitations, spending limits and various exemptions from the spending limits, so that the legislature actually has discretion over only 30-35% of state spending. Term limits expel the most experienced and knowledgeable legislators after a few years, with a resultant increase in dependence on the knowledge and experience of lobbyists. A legislative "supermajority" (two-thirds) is required to approve an annual budget, giving a minority enormous power to hold the process hostage. Local communities are severely restricted in their ability to raise revenue for local needs.

And now people can't even count on an election's results lasting a full year, much less a full four-year term. How can you have real responsibility in a system like this?

Columnist Peter Schrag is one of the most perceptive observers of California politics and government. He reminds us that "direct democracy" is open to the same sort of domination and manipulation by moneyed interests that normal candidate elections are:

The initiative experience has taught well-funded interest groups and individuals with deep pockets that the $2 million it usually costs to get something on the ballot may be the best and cheapest way to make your influence felt. And it created what became known as the "initiative industrial complex," the burgeoning profession of campaign consultants, pollsters, commercial petition circulators, media experets and direct-mail operatives who manage the state's new politics.

He also notes that "the same instruments of direct democracy" that gave Schwarzenegger his shot in Sacramento "have also combined with other constitutional restrictions to make virtually every California problem more difficult for him to solve."

Monday, October 20, 2003

Venezuela, Mississippi and Blogs

Yikes! Columbia's military claims they just destroyed two Venezuelan planes that were transporting arms to anti-government guerillas in Columbia. (I saw this only on an AP item on AOL.) The US has had its fingers in the Columbian situation for a long time. And the Bush Administration has been unfriendly, to say the least, to the regime of President Hugo Chávez in oil-rich Venezuela. Columbia and the US claim that Venezuela isn't going enough to help fight the guerrillas along the border.

I don't know a lot of details about this. But I hope Bush & Co aren't intending to get involved in more "regime change" in Venezuela. We've got more than enough of that on our hands in Afghanistan and Iraq!

On another subject, I've come across a Mississippi/Tennessee-based political blog that has some good commentary and lots of useful links relative to the issues I've touched on in the current Governor's race there. It's called Signifying Nothing (a famous phrase for Faulkner fans).

Nick Confessore is thinking about The Meaning of Blogs. He says, "The fun of reading blogs is to watch smart, well-informed people chew over, interpret and re-interpret they've read in the paper or elsewhere. But if you got rid of the 'old' print media, what would bloggers blog about?"

I think he's on the mark there. Some blogs, like Josh Marshall's Talking Points or Calpundit, do publish original interviews or journalistic reporting. But mostly, the news-oriented blogs channel, comment on, and spread the word about the work of the professional journalists.

They are filling a portion of the gaping hole left by the market failures of corporate-dominated media by rescuing some stories (famously, Trent Lott's birthday tribute to the now-departed Strom Thurmond) from the oblivion of the back pages. And in the digital age, the flood of information we get requires both more critical thinking and new filtering devices. Blogs do both, by making a wealth of freewheeling commentary available immediately, and by helping people focus in on news stories that are important to them.

They're also a good hobby.