Monday, April 26, 2010

Civil Rights Fighter

“Get out. Out! Ok, thanks, nice knowing you, I got work to do.” Mikey Weinstein is huddled over his computer in his den, typing feverishly as he orders us away. His girls scurry out of his office and I follow close behind. We mill around in the living room of the Weinstein house, which sits at the foot of the Sandia Mountains in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
A minute passes. “Hey come here guys! Come look at this one. These motherfuckers!”
I trot back in on command, eager to get a glimpse into the inner workings of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. Mikey points at his screen. The latest email calls him a “Christian-hating, Muslim-loving, Jew bastard”. Not much different than a lot of the “criticism” that gets sent to the foundation.
“It’s no coincidence that most of these are the same”, Mikey comments. “These fundamentalist fuckers give the same talking points to all their people and they all just vomit them to me over email.” The message is rife with misspellings, poor grammar, and accusations of misuse of taxpayer dollars, despite the MRFF’s total funding through private donors. The facts never seem to constrain Weinstein’s critics.
Mikey chuckles, and then we all chuckle. And then a pause. “Ok you guys, really, that’s enough. Can’t you see I’m working here? Go on, get out, I’m busy”, Weinstein barks as he turns back to his computer screen.

While all this hate mail can be a great source of pleasure and amusement, we all know, even as we laugh, that it can’t be taken too lightly. Weinstein and his family have become accustomed to receiving death threats on a regular basis from “good Christians”. They’ve had their home vandalized on more than one occasion, prompting Weinstein to hire on security professionals. I got the chance to meet one of them-- a very serious Marine veteran who volunteered out of respect for the job Weinstein does to protect soldiers from religious coercion within the ranks. I would not want to fuck with him.
This process of calling us in and out of the office gets repeated several more times as Weinstein stumbles onto other gems of fundamentalist buffoonery and ignorance so astounding he feels compelled to share them with us. These sinister emails are a constant for the Weinsteins, but they’re really rolling in on this day. That’s actually a good thing—it means the MRFF has struck a nerve with its most recent victory.

The Pentagon acquiesced to Weinstein’s foundation and decided to pull Franklin Graham from a National Day of Prayer appearance at the Pentagon. The MRFF took action after receiving complaints from Muslim military personnel in the Pentagon, who felt more than a little betrayed that a man who called Islam an “evil” and “false” religion had been given an official invitation by the Pentagon to speak in the heart of the DOD. An official invitation to this fundamentalist hate-monger was a direct slap in the face to America’s Muslims, but that didn’t seem to concern the Pentagon brass. It did concern Mikey Weinstein.

In a letter to Robert Gates, the MRFF asserted,
“Given the heinously hurtful, bigoted, and very public continual statements of Mr. Graham against the entirety of the religion of Islam, and his position as the honorary chairman of the NDPTF, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation hereby demands that the Pentagon Chaplains Office immediately rescind its invitation to Mr. Graham…”
The rest of the letter is worth reading, as it details the toxic relationship between the Pentagon Chaplain’s office and the National Day of Prayer Task Force (a private organization headed by the wife of Jim Dobson, a man I’ve written about previously).

As a former Air Force officer I was shocked to hear that such a man had been invited to the Pentagon. Graham, who has repeatedly and publicly referred to the whole of Islam as “false, “evil”, “wicked”, and “violent”, also had this to say:
“I want them [Muslims] to know they don’t have to die in a car bomb, they don’t have to die in some kind of holy war to be accepted by God, but it’s through faith in Jesus Christ, and Christ alone…”

What a kind and generous Christian Graham is, offering the world’s Muslims an ultimatum to embrace Jesus Christ, as an alternative to the apparently ‘Islamic’ practice of blowing themselves up.

Even in my limited positions of authority as a company grade officer, I would have never dreamed of abusing that authority over my troops by telling them one religion or another was false. I have strong personal feelings regarding religion, but I keep them to myself in the workplace. Officers have a special responsibility to maintain unit cohesion by respecting their troops, and not endorsing one particular world-view over another. Telling your troops their religion is “evil” is harmful to the mission. And it’s also a dickheaded thing to do. Calling in an outside speaker to do this dirty work strikes me as a particularly chickenshit way of trying to shirk command responsibility.

Someone in the Army must have realized this as well, because when Weinstein came out swinging they backed down almost immediately. Like the Jesus Rifle case the MRFF took on recently, this was a clear violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Hell, even Bill O’Reilly could see that the Pentagon was out of bounds. In one of those fortunate coincidences that only seems to come by accident, this monumental victory for the Military Religious Freedom Foundation came just days before their annual Thomas Jefferson Awards were held.

The Thomas Jefferson awards are open to the public, and are intended to honor those who take up the job of protecting the United States Constitution by building the wall of separation between church and state. Through my friendship with his son, Curtis (his reason for starting the MRFF), I got to know Mikey Weinstein. I had the great pleasure of helping to prepare for the awards ceremony, and attending it (it says much about the humility of Weinstein, a man who has given much of his life to the MRFF, that he thanked me endlessly for my minor contributions to this event). The ceremony was opened by a very talented and beautiful singer/songwriter known simply as Celia, who was so inspired by the MRFF’s mission that she penned a song for the organization in one night. Thomas Jefferson honors went to journalist Jeff Sharlet, whose book, The Family, exposed a strange and cultish Christian organization operating at the very heart of power in Washington—for the last 70 years! I advise you to pick this book up, or at least watch one of Sharlet’s interviews on it-- you will see the very serious danger that creeping, covert Christian fundamentalism poses to our democracy. Due to some last minute medical concerns, Sharlet wasn’t able to make the awards ceremony, so it was accepted on his behalf by Elizabeth Sholes, a self-described “kind of ‘social justice’ Christian that Glenn Beck warned you about.” As the Director of Public Policy for the California Council of Churches, she represents over 6 million California Christians.

Ed Asner, star of the recent Disney movie Up, also received honors. Call me ignorant, but I was completely unaware that Asner, in addition to being a talented thespian, is also an inspiring and articulate social activist. He warned of the dangers that religious extremism, in all its forms, poses to democracy. Particularly insightful was his warning of the “religion of Americanism”, which inspires a zealous citizenry to blindly support all actions of the US government, regardless of the cost to others. His warning echoes Orwell’s warnings on the dangers of nationalism.

The music was graceful, the speakers moving, the food delicious, the booze free-flowing, and the two hundred attendees were diverse and erudite. Good times were had by all, and the fifth annual Thomas Jefferson Awards were a smashing success.
It wasn’t until the next day that I found out a man milling around the outside of the awards ceremony with a gun had been arrested (my thanks to the Albuquerque Police Department). I was more than a little taken aback when Weinstein relayed this news to me, in his usual matter-of-fact way.
“Yeah some guy was hanging around outside with a gun, so they arrested him. We’re waiting to hear more from the FBI.”
His way of dealing with such news was not what I would call nonchalant— Weinstein cares deeply for the safety of his family and supporters. Rather, he acts with the cool and detached manner of a person who has grown used to dealing with danger. Security concerns are a part of daily life for Weinstein and others associated with the MRFF, who refuse to be deterred from their mission. Mikey Weinstein is a man possessed with a purpose that is greater than any one person. A man who is doggedly and fearlessly carrying out the oath he took to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Like many other military personnel, I have looked on nervously as the wall of separation between church and state has been eroding within the military. I’ve seen commanders send emails to their troops coercing them to come to Officers Christian Fellowship meetings. As a cadet at the Air Force Academy I saw the administration endorse “The Passion of the Christ”, and I was not allowed to put “agnostic” on my first set of dog tags. The formation of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation was a welcome relief to myself, and the 17,500 other military personnel who came to them for help.

Some Christian military personnel scoff at Weinstein’s efforts. They think he is simply waging a one man war on Christianity, not knowing that 96% of Weinstein’s clients have been Christians (just not the “right kind” of Christian). Failing that, others feel his methods are too bold, his dialogue too brash, his manner too impolite. That’s fine. They can rest well knowing that if they are ever the subject of discrimination for their beliefs (or non-beliefs), and their chain of command fails them, Weinstein will jump to their aid like an attack dog, foaming at the mouth. He will fight, and he will bite, and he will not let go until his client receives justice.
People the world over owe a deep debt of gratitude to civil rights fighters like Mikey Weinstein. Men and women who have such an acute sense of justice that they simply cannot stand by while the little people get trampled— instead, as if by reflex, they will drain their bank accounts and brave daily threats to be a voice for the voiceless.

Click here to donate to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A New Beginning

All the posts you can find below are imports from my old blog, I've reposted them all with their original publishing date. With all the rage that is the current "tea party" movement these days, I thought it would be best to scrap the entire domain name. After all, in my writing I have always tried to avoid the hallmarks of the current tea party movement- lots of screaming and not much information. There are some qualities of American political discourse in general, and the tea party movement in particular that I find so absurd I'm not sure whether I should be laughing, or cowering fearfully. In this movement there is quite obviously a surplus of passion and outrage, coupled with a shortage of facts and evidence. Call me unfair, but I'm not inclined to give much credibility to anyone who can become outraged by a healthcare bill while remaining silent on a military budget that is ten times larger.
I'd like for American Commentary to be nearly the opposite of this circus mentality-- measured and careful thoughts, with level of passion directly proportional to the facts at hand. See here to if you care to know more about American Commentary's goals.
From this point forward all posts to this site will be American Commentary originals. Stay tuned...

Mark Sanford

July 26, 2009

So Mark Sanford, Republican governor of South Carolina, literally gets up and leaves town for a week to visit his Argentine mistress. An accomplished career politician is somehow compelled to completely abandon his post and the constituency who elected him to fly down to Argentina for a sex romp?! If nothing else, this episode is a testament to the beauty of Argentina’s women!
I already know the answer to this question but I’m going to ask it anyway. Can we be done with this superior moral stance that Republicans love to take when it comes to “sanctity” of the family? Time and time again we see Republicans get elected to office on a platform of family values, only to be embarrassed when they are caught in some sort of hypocritical scandal (at least this time the third party is a woman). And I understand that Democrats do this sort of thing too, but they spend a lot less time preaching (and attempting to legislate) morality.
And this all comes from a man who endorsed displaying the Ten Commandments in public schools?! Can’t we be done having these frauds tell us how to live? How to raise our children? And here’s the real question: do any of these people really believe in it all anyway?
For a man who loudly proclaims his “Christian” status, he sure has a funny interpretation of the 7th Commandment (or the 6th, depending on denomination). I don’t think these people really believe any of this Biblical nonsense. They’ve just figured out that they can use religion to herd enough sheep into one pen to win an election. If Mark Sanford really thought he was committing a sin that could relegate him to the depths of hell in the afterlife, I don’t think he would have carried on an adulterous affair, no matter how hot this Argentine woman is. Mark Sanford and his hypocritical ilk-- men like Larry Craig and Ted Haggard—are not really Christians, and I doubt they believe at all. The same goes for most people I’ve met who check the Christian box on surveys. Most don’t follow a path that remotely resembles anything Christian.
So please, politicians and commoners—can you all just quit pretending you believe in these fairy tales? Because I’ve seen how you all behave at the bars when your spouses aren’t around, and you don’t seem too worried about the “wrath of God”.


July 26, 2009
Torture is a complicated subject, and I’m not going to pretend that it isn’t. In order to begin talking about torture it’s important to put the issue into context, and that means setting the historical record straight. The proclamations that the United States does not torture, or that we only started torturing during the Bush presidency are misleading at best. For a long time now the United States has been sending suspects to other countries to be tortured. We have tortured by proxy for some time. It’s also important to point out that even when the United States signed on to the international Torture Convention, they did so only after amending the US interpretation to allow for various kinds of psychological torture. Still, Bush crossed a significant line during his presidency when he legalized torture at the hands of our government.
So we find ourselves in a situation where we have deluded ourselves into thinking that we only lost our innocence during the Bush presidency, when in fact we haven’t had it for a long time. These facts, which somehow escape our “liberal media”, completely change the nature of this debate— and I find it quite disturbing that even when this argument was at its most shrill and frenzied in early 2009, it was being waged on false terms. How sad it is, that a large portion of the American population finds the practice deplorable, yet their tax dollars have been supporting it for longer than they know. And how much sadder, by the way, that such practices are much more likely to occur in the future because President Obama decided to tuck away the images that may have given the American people that visceral jolt they so desperately need.
Here’s where the argument is going to get complicated: If the United States has been willing to put funding towards researching and executing various kinds of torture, and if they’ve taken the risk of doing it secretly for so long, then it must be somewhat effective. I have no doubt that persistent psychological torture (combined with indefinite detention) could break some people down to the point where they will spill anything. So here we get to the effectiveness vs. morality argument—but allow me to digress a little before I broach that subject…
The issue of detainee torture in wartime that we are working through in the US is really a symptom of a larger problem we have. That is, the clashing of our national identity with covert government actions. While it’s hardly necessary to have a vote on every single national security initiative, some issues are large and far-reaching enough that the American people deserve to be made aware. When average Americans ask “why do they hate us?” it is because they are unaware of the ways in which their tax dollars are making an impact around the world. Arguably ignorance is the culprit but, but really, it’s quite difficult for even a shrewd and persistent person to gain a real sense of perspective in a world that’s constantly being “spun”. To make matters more complicated, we have instances of government officials carrying out secret programs that run contrary to American ideals. And the “blowback” affects all of us. Bush’s torture program is a perfect example—an incredibly controversial move was kept secret from the American public and we only found out about it years later. This “line crossing” was an issue that deserved public debate. Then, even if we did carry on with brutal interrogation techniques, we could at least be honest with who we were. But instead we find ourselves in yet another situation where we tout our values and lecture other nations on human rights, but we secretly violate fundamental human rights principles. I feel this hypocrisy is the worst possible image we can project.
So what do we do? We make up our minds about who we are. We decide what our rules of engagement will be with detainees in any war (publically), and we play by those rules. We could decide that we will engage in harsh interrogation techniques if the situation necessitates it, and we could do so in an open and frank manner. While this wouldn’t be my approach it is still preferable to doing it in secret. At least then the American people would have bought into it and we wouldn’t risk looking like frauds when the beans get spilled. But then we will have also lost a significant chunk of our moral standing. We cannot hope to convince other nations respect basic human rights if we drop our commitment to them when the going gets tough. Rather, the safest bet in this murky issue is to stick to an internationally respected standard, like the Geneva Conventions. And of course, we already had very specific rules on POW treatment that had been reached through serious, and mostly open, debate. The burden of proof should be on our government to show the American people why they think it’s necessary to deviate from international conventions on human rights issues. If torture is effective enough to warrant its use, then let’s roll out the evidence. But why all the secrets? If something is so threatening that we have to deviate from the Geneva Conventions, shouldn’t it be a public issue?
Even based on the available evidence we know that the “effectiveness” issue isn’t cut and dry either. Torture has the very inconvenient side effect of inducing false confessions. For a recent example just look to Iran, where the Ayatollah’s thugs are beating “confessions” out of protesters just so they will recant on television. This is, of course, a recent example, but it’s no anomaly. A quick study of history will show that torture has a well earned reputation for eliciting false confessions—this is why the tactic has long been a mainstay of despotic regimes. The excessive waterboarding of KSM happened at a very suspicious time: right before the invasion of Iraq. When I began looking in to this issue I suspected that KSM was waterboarded 183 times in that one month just to produce the false evidence used to build a case for the invasion. This argument broke down upon close examination of the time tables. The timing and the evidence suggests that harsh interrogation techniques were used against KSM with the express purpose of trying to find a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq, well after the wheels had been set in motion to go to war. The official date given for KSM’s capture is March 1, 2003 (though some say he may have been captured in Sept 2002). The US began its assault on March 18, 2003. During that month of March, KSM was waterboarded 183 times. The official dates suggest that information was obtained to justify the invasion—the Bush administration began making its case to the UN and to the American people back in 2002, and wartime preparations had begun long before March of 2003. The conclusion is almost more disturbing—they didn’t need a substantial link to convince Americans that Al Qaeda and Iraq were connected. The gears of war had been set in to motion without evidence of any real connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. The evidence suggests he was tortured for political purposes-- to extract a confession that would be useful as propaganda, to justify the invasion they’d already begun.
This entire torture affair is a big stinking turd. But we need to sort through it if we are ever going to have a chance to correct the historical record, and prevent this from happening again. I can only hope that the ACLU’s effort to initiate a comprehensive torture investigation works (that there would even be a debate over whether or not to initiate an investigation is reprehensible). In any case such an investigation can only be useful if it exposes all the torture related documentation, to include KSM’s March interrogation transcript, to the harsh light of day.

Jay Love (R)etarded

Apr 29, 2009

I’m pretty sure I’ve been consigned to some circle of hell by being forced to spend years of my life in Alabama. I know that sounds extreme, but I didn’t come to this conclusion on a whim. I’ve long suspected that I may be living in some sort of redneck twilight zone, but last week my suspicions were confirmed when I heard that the Alabama state legislature passed a resolution praising Miss California for her views on gay marriage and “opposite marriage”.
If you’ve been too busy leading a meaningful life to watch Fox News, I’ll give you the background on the “controversy”. At the most recent Miss USA the pageant contestants were asked questions during some portion of the contest—I’m guessing this portion is designed to show that they actually have a useable brain inside their overly-maintained little bodies, though I think this segment has traditionally shown just the opposite. Miss California was asked where she stood on gay marriage, and she stumbled and stuttered her way through an answer that was barely coherent—though I guess the important part here is that she opposed gay marriage.
When she only got second place in the pageant, she whined, claiming she lost for her views on gay marriage. Cue the media circus fuck-fest. Never mind that she looked so typically blonde and fake-tanned that she could’ve been a Barbie doll (seriously, there are girls like that every 10 feet in LA). Never mind that a fifth grader could have given an answer that was more grammatically correct and persuasively constructed. She’s being held up as a martyr by the religious right.
While I had plenty to say about this, I always felt that media outlets lowered themselves and lowered the level of intellectual debate in this country by giving incidents like this so much coverage. And I would have stayed out of this one, except that the state of Alabama decided to lower itself into this fracas.
Alabama’s Jay Love came up with the bright idea to pass a resolution praising a beauty pageant contestant from another state, just because… well I don’t really know. I mean, I know why he did it—many Republican types have figured out that they can win over voters with these “family values” publicity stunts instead of focusing on real issues. I’m just shocked he had the balls to drop so low and use state legislature time to pass an absolutely ineffectual resolution that accomplishes nothing except to make Alabama’s gay citizens feel even more disenfranchised. I can’t imagine it would be an easy thing to be gay in Alabama—having a state representative who goes way out of his way just to publicly remind you that he’s happy you don’t have the right to marry someone you love. He wasted time and energy in the state legislature to deliver a state-endorsed slap in the face to every homosexual in Alabama.
I would take this opportunity to rail against conservative intolerance, but that actually wouldn’t be fair because a real conservative would have never bothered with such a resolution. Real conservatives are traditionally opposed to frivolous lawmaking, and seek to maintain a government that is the least involved in the lives of citizens as is possible. For this reason a true conservative never would have spent time passing any sort of unnecessary legislation. And on that note, I should also mention that a true conservative would be against a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage because of the blatant infringement on states’ rights. But hey, look at the previous administration—most Republicans haven’t been conservative for quite some time.

Harder isn't Awlays Stronger

Feb 19, 2009
It looks like we may be in luck as Americans—the views which I am about to espouse, and the tactics that I will make appeals for appear to be in vogue with the new administration. That which I am arguing for can essentially be boiled down into one word: diplomacy. US foreign policy in the last decade was beginning to resemble the oft-cited parable of the man with a great big hammer (for a man with a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail). We have a great big military.—but not all of the problems in the world are nails. Most of the world’s problems do not have military solutions—not if you want a lasting solution. At best, the military may be a single tool, in an entire toolbox, but it’s important that the military aspect not be the dominant force in any plan. There are two reasons for my appeal, and only the first falls into the “hippie treehugger” category of a moral argument. The second is based pure efficacy.
The first is that modern warfare has become far more destructive in humanitarian regards than should be acceptable. The widespread use of explosives in any conflict renders it absolutely impossible to avoid killing innocent people in any fight. When precision munitions were introduced to the world decades ago many thought it would mean the end of staggering civilian body counts. While this may have been true to a minor degree the prediction as a whole can be considered false. One need only examine two of the most recent conflicts, where one of the warring parties possesses this superior smart bomb technology. Israel’s violent lashing out at Hamas in the Gaza territories claimed over 100 lives, or slightly less, depending on which source you believe (There’s plenty of dispute over the body count). Still, an estimated half of these casualties were civilians. Following the US invasion of Iraq (the US being the nation that pioneered precision munitions) nearly a million Iraqis have died. These numbers shouldn’t be ignored or shrugged off. Somewhere along the way it seems that civilian casualties became acceptable. They are not. An innocent person’s demise is tragic and wrong. It’s time for Americans to remember this. We cannot go into this new century as a superpower that acts with impunity and callous disregard for the innocent: we were supposed to be a beacon of freedom for the entire world. Thousands of dead children, killed by errant bombs, are the very antithesis of freedom and liberty.
We also must realize the moral obligation to treat people fairly where ever we exact our influence. The US has a legal jurisdiction in its own borders, but it carries its moral jurisdiction wherever it goes. We cannot forget about our principles just because we’re operating in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The next argument is purely practical, as it relates to our national security. We stand at a unique time in our world’s history. Due to a convergence of several factors, state sovereignty is weakening as governments lose more and more of their dominance over individuals. These factors are:
- the information age: people around the globe are becoming more and more connected, and sharing information in ways once thought impossible. Through the internet, young people are going to grow up in a world where their Chinese and Iranian brethren will not seem so different. In fact, the world will slowly awaken to a fact that was once only internalized by the well-travelled: all people are essentially the same. People will become less fractured by divisions of nationalism and race, and more bonds will develop based on ideals and common interests. Such a shift in human relations sounds promising, but let’s keep in mind that criminal pursuits have long united people from different cultures.
Along with the information age comes a brand new weapon that is relatively cheap, and can be wielded with awesome power by a single person: cyberattack. Many of the nation’s industries (banking comes to mind) have put their operations online to increase efficiency, but they risk being vulnerable to an attack by a single, talented person, or small organization.
The next threat is that of nuclear weaponry. At their advent nuclear weapons made the nation-state unquestionably strong. But Fifty years later, following a cold war, Russia and the United States have produced enough nuclear weapons to destroy the planet several times over. There’s a chance that one of these could (or did) make it out of Russia following the Soviet collapse. Add to that, many smaller nations are coming across the technology and capability to create their own nuclear weapons. This creates a situation where large nations are becoming increasingly vulnerable to radical groups with violent agendas. An organized group of violent ideologues could obtain a small nuclear weapon and smuggle it into a powerful nation. They might get this weapon from a sympathetic government. Or perhaps obtain it on the black market. The possibilities are plentiful in an environment where nuclear weapons have been overproduced. I’m hopeful that a robust intelligence initiative can keep the nuclear threat from ever becoming a real problem—but even if we reach a that point, the power of the individual will still have grown by a great measure.

We must come to terms with our fallibility. The United States must accept that due to these converging trends, she will become more vulnerable. George Orwell wisely noted that that the power of the individual relative to the state is a function of the technology of the most prevalent weapons. With automatic firearms, mortars, rockets, grenades, and the internet (all easily obtainable/accessible), small organizations hold significant power. In this emerging environment, governments may find that they will need to appeal to take the popular conscience more seriously. While this presents new dangers it also presents promise. After all, the founding fathers firmly believed that governments existed to serve the people, not the other way around. Governments may feel a strong push to act more democratically—or at least to control their message better. As the number of angry and disgruntled people increases, the odds that some group or individual will succeed in making a catastrophic attack against a state or corporation will go up. Ruling with an iron fist may soon become a thing of the past. Governments will have much more trouble keeping their actions in the dark in the information age. Any wonton imprisoning or slaughtering of citizens by a despot could reach the ears of the entire world in 24 hours. Note that dictators have always made such concerted efforts to keep a lid on the press. Information is key, and always has been. All successful dictatorships have controlled the press, but the world is changing. Any government imposing unpopular rule in the upcoming century will need to grapple with a sprawling internet. China is taking great pains to censor the internet to their citizens, but this will likely prove a futile effort. (Still it’s a shame to see Google help them out.)
These global trends are making it easier for the weak to organize against the strong. As we move forward governments will need to be very careful to present the proper image to the world. Governments will find it increasingly difficult to influence any group of people without their consent, or at least their apathy.

The United States would be wise to see this and adopt the proper image. That is, we need to make ourselves indispensable to the world at large. When a typical person in the world (not just a US citizen) is asked what they think of the United States, they should associate our nation with positive qualities, and see us as a force for good in the world. The only way to really achieve this is truly embody these qualities. To go the opposite way, to respond stubbornly and stupidly with only brute force, disregarding the welfare of the weak, is to paint a big target over our nation. And for the cynics, I do not believe deception will work. To talk of freedom and liberty but act selfishly and aggressively is dangerous and transparent. A perfect example: after the US invaded and occupied Iraq, wreaking havoc upon its people and infrastructure, no one in his right mind believes we went there to help the Iraqi populace.
Every person in the world who loses a child, mother, friend, etc. to a U.S. bomb is a probable enemy of the United States. Every Iraqi child who watched their parents get executed as a result of the ethnic cleansing unleashed by the U.S. invasion is a potential terrorist who sees the United States of America as a great evil empire. These thousands of resentful people can easily connect on the internet (just as Al Qaeda does right now). They can travel with relative ease to meet one another. They can share ideas, and work with one another towards a common goal.

I make this appeal for a more diplomatic approach because I feel the idea is somewhat understated. The absolute necessity of utilizing our intelligence services to track down and confiscate weapons of mass destruction, and to monitor and track criminal threats around the world is the other prong in what should be a two-pronged approach. We could never hope to eliminate all threats by simply ‘being good’. But we can certainly reduce the number of people in the world who see the U.S.’s downfall as being in their interest, and this in turn will reduce the strain on our military and intelligence services in combating ideological enemies.

The Other Body Count

Dec 28, 2008
This story I’m presenting isn’t exactly news. That is, it’s not new information at all—though it may be very new to you. This information has been available to anyone curious enough to google it. And it has been out there for a number for years. This news is merely the answer to an obvious question: how many Iraqis have died as a direct result of the U.S. invasion, and occupation of Iraq that began in 2003? What’s the body count?
It’s a very straight forward metric, one that is measured in nearly every war, and yet it has failed get any serious attention from the supposedly “liberal” broadcast media. (And what a ridiculous notion that is, by the way, to ascribe the word “liberal” to an industry that practically played the roll of drummer boy in the US’s march to war in Iraq.)
Much attention is given to the sacrifices that American soldiers and their families have made in this war. And rightfully so. The most recent estimates put the U.S. death toll in the war over 4,000. That’s a lot of young men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice when their country called on them. But what of the Iraqis? What of the people who live in this country turned battleground? After all, if you remember the reasons the Bush administration gave the public for going to war in Iraq, one of the central justifications was that we should help the people of Iraq by freeing them from the clutches of a tyrant.
So how do we decide whether or not to go to war? The decision to go to war needs to be weighed thoughtfully, in the same manner any major action should be—projected costs versus benefits, attempting to factor in the elusive unknown. The death, carnage, and chaos that are inherent in a war would need to be factored in the “costs” column. And let us not forget that these things are exactly what war means- death, carnage, and chaos. By the thousands. So there better be a damned good little item in the “benefits” column to offset those ‘unpleasantries.’ Now, we are fortunate enough to have progressed to an era where territory and resource grabbing for the state are not viewed as justifiable reasons for waging a war, so the modern model goes more like this: costs of fighting a war vs. costs of not fighting a war.
So, since we are still a democracy, it stands to reason that all our citizens have not only a right, but a responsibility to be apprised of all the information about the current war that’s being financed with their tax dollars. Americans should know exactly what our war in Iraq has meant for the people who live there. The people we were supposed to be “helping”, if anyone believes that any more. So I’ll quit dancing here and just give it to you straight:

While different estimates vary, we can be certain that the number of Iraqis who have died in the Iraq War numbers in the hundreds of thousands.

That’s it. Plain and simple.

The lower estimates come in at over 100,000. High end estimates are over a million, with most median estimates hovering near 600,000. By now, reliable polling bodies confirm a number of around 1 million Iraqis dead as result of the invasion. Of course if I stuck to this number, reliable as it is, all the adorable pro-war advocates would quibble about margins of error and conflicting figures from different sources. So be it— the death toll is so absurdly high now I can make the same point with the low end estimates. The organization Iraq Body Count only tabulates confirmed noncombatant kills, and their figure for civilian deaths stands between 90,000 and 98,000 today.

90,000 dead civilians.

How’s that for collateral damage? Why don’t I see those “liberal” reporters on CNN discussing this incomprehensible figure? This is the sort of thing that happens when you stir up a hornets nest in a country you don’t understand. I’m having trouble seeing any outcome from this war that will justify the deaths of 90,000 noncombatants, or the likely 600,000 people altogether who have been banished from this earth by way of bullet, bomb, or mortar.
90,000 dead civilians and all our most respected news sources can manage to discuss is the number of American soldiers who have died. And Americans wonder why people call us insulated and self-centered.
When you censor out the true negative impacts of a war you are taking away people’s ability to do an adequate cost/benefit analysis of that war. When wars are always fought in some far away land, by some other people, and average citizens never have to see or hear anything unpleasant about it, then suddenly it doesn’t seem so bad. Suddenly war seems less like a last resort, and more like just another political tool. And when it doesn’t show up on their doorstep, then the American public loses sight of the true essence of war: the horror. The terror. The perversity, absurdity, and absolute injustice of thousands of human beings ripped to shreds in a war they didn’t want any part in.
That’s why these figures are important. Because when you sit around and really take some time to let the nature of this sink in, you realize the only possible justification for this brand of horror is to prevent more of the same.
Some people are starting to talk about this more in the blogosphere, but unfortunately most people haven’t yet been convinced of the value of independent reporting and commentary—they feel that if they watch CNN for 20 minutes a day they’ve fulfilled their obligation to stay informed. If the news doesn’t pop up in the mainstream broadcast media, most Americans will never know about it, and right now, for whatever reason, the major networks are giving the Iraqi death toll the silent treatment (by the way, when we start seeing pictures of dead bodies, and numbers of civilian deaths on CNN, then you can call them liberal).
I realize that in posting sentiments like those above, I run the risk of preaching to the choir. After all, if you believed that we went to Iraq to keep America safer, then you might find these numbers to be sad, but acceptable. Afterall, a number like 600,000 is kind of hard to comprehend. I can imagine many people neutralizing a figure like this with a toss-away phrase like, “well that’s war.”

If so, my question to you would be this:
Consider that Iraq had no WMD, and no part in the attacks of 9/11. What do we stand to gain from this war that would be worth the human sacrifice?
When would the death toll reach a number that would be unacceptable? When do the losses offset the gains? In essence, how many people have to die before it’s not worth it anymore?

1 million?
2 million?
The magic number must lie somewhere between 600,000 and 6 billion, since any war would cease to be worthwhile once we’ve killed everyone on the planet.
But still, many will find any Iraqi death toll to be acceptable for reasons that, I suspect, are all rooted in simple, age-old tribalism.
90,000 civilian deaths are tolerable as long as it’s happening to them, and not us.

Sarah Palin Might Just Make my Head Explode

Oct 29, 2008

I know I’m not going to be the first one to criticize Sarah Palin. I certainly won’t be the first to accuse her of being completely unfit for the office of the presidency. But I worry that the critical dialogue on Sarah Palin has degraded into a tone of cutesy teasing. The jokes on SNL and the Daily Show are funny, no doubt, but I fear that amidst all the light-hearted ribbing the severity of this situation has been dulled down. This woman is no joke. The prospect of giving Sarah Palin real power over this country, over you and me, is an incredibly dangerous one.
All the problems with Sarah Palin, the intellectual laziness, the small-town narcissism, the divisive rhetoric, the book-banning in libraries; these should be enough to dissuade an intelligent patriotic American– but I’m beginning to have my doubts. In the constant spin-world created by the media, with endless “analysis” injected into the popular conscience by so-called nameless “experts”, and with online poll after question-loaded poll, you begin to develop a certain sense of vertigo in respect to what the general population is actually buying into, and what they are calling bullshit on. Are significant portions of the American population actually getting behind Sarah Palin?
There are some signs that give me hope: I work in a military environment, and many of my colleagues are what you would consider right-of-center conservatives. And what I’ve heard from many of them are comments of concern that they don’t think Sarah Palin is “ready” for the all important job description of ‘leader of the free world’. Seeing conservative people point this out is encouraging, but these are conservatives of the military stripe: people who value competence and ability, and who have a fairly keen eye for bullshit. Weighing in on the other end of the scale are all the troublesome signs: namely, all the McCain/Palin bumper stickers and yard signs I’ve seen across Alabama, and Colorado where I recently visited.
While I know which campaign is making more sense, and speaking to the public more reasonably, I’m worried that large swaths of white blue-collar “folks” are really getting fired up by Sarah Palin’s insistence that somehow people from small towns in Bum-fuck, America are morally superior to the rest of the country. Why? Because they go to church every Sunday, and plaster American flag bumper stickers on the back of their Ford F-150’s? I don’t get it but apparently she has struck a vein out there. I suspect her appeal probably amounts to nothing more than giving very typical, underachieving, undereducated people the opportunity to act out on their bitterness and resentment—they have chips on their shoulders for all the “college-boys” who left their small towns and went on to earn more money and have more worldly influence than they did because they were too busy worrying about football and getting pregnant in high school. So when a woman comes along who speaks the language of Joe-Sixpack, (in sharp contrast to an Ivey League-educated racial outsider), they are more than willing to fall in line and march right behind her.
Over the last few months Americans have had the chance to “get to know” Sarah Palin and there are many, many incidents that should stamp out all her credibility and viability as a potential president (attempting to ban books in a public library should really be the end of any candidacy in a liberty loving-USA). I don’t have the time or energy to break all of these issues down, so I’m going to focus on her most recent interview with James Dobson of Focus on the Family.
I will not even attempt the charade of claming to be “fair and balanced”, as some other news organizations will claim, when it comes to my views on Focus on the Family. The organization has a long history of trying to shove its fundamentalist Christian beliefs on the rest of America by influencing legislation. Such a toxic mixture of church and state has always disturbed me, just as it disturbed such founding fathers as Thomas Jefferson. Sarah Palin is part of a modern movement that attempts to break down this wall of separation—a dangerous prospect for all Americans.

Palin dropped several bombs during her interview that made my jaw drop. Even as I sit here now, listening to this interview I’m absolutely floored that these statements, so blatantly fusing religion and government, are being made by a person with a legitimate shot at the vice-presidency. Witness the following statements from Sarah Palin:

- In response to Mr. Dobson’s assertion that God’s intervention will be needed for her campaign: “It is that intercession that is so needed, and so greatly appreciated, And I can feel it too Dr. Dobson, I can feel the power of prayer, and that strength that is provided through our prayer warriors across this nation, and I so appreciate it”

- Regarding people praying for her campaign: “…that great reminder also when we hear along the world wide(?) that people are interceding for us and praying for us, it’s our reminder to do the same, to put this all in God’s hands, seek his perfect will for this nation and to, uh, of course seek his wisdom and guidance in putting this nation back on the right track”

- “Dr. Dobson you have been on the forefront of all of this good for so many years and your reward’s gonna be in heaven”

- Dr. Dobson: “We’re on the same team in that regard and I’m just trying to serve the Lord and listen to his voice”
Palin: “Yes”

- “John McCain is solidly there on those planks of that platform that builds the right agenda for America”

- “I have to have that faith that God’s gonna help us get that message out there.”

- “I’m gonna know at the end of the day putting this in God’s hands that the right thing will be done on Nov. 4th”

These are the rantings one would expect from a wild preacher—and if these utterances had come from such a source they could be passed off as typical fundamentalist rhetoric. But such statements are a disgrace for the office of the vice-presidency of the United States.

There were also a couple notable statements from Dobson:

“We’ve got millions of people praying for you and senator McCain”

“This Republican platform is the strongest pro-life pro-family document to come out of a political party even more so than the platforms during the campaigns of Ronald Reagan”

A sidenote: Dobson also expressed disappointment that Joe the Plumber has been under such media scrutiny— which seems funny when you consider that John McCain was the one who really put the spotlight on him.

Listen to the interview. While Palin isn’t without her trademark poorly constructed sentences, she does a much better job articulating herself than in the Katie Couric interviews. Many would probably say that this is simply a result of her getting more comfortable with the campaigning process, but I suspect there is a more likely and disturbing explanation. Sarah Palin feels much more comfortable talking at length about religious issues than she does talking about national security issues because she’s deeply committed to the former, and barely interested in the latter. Such intellectual apathy amounts to a bonafide national security risk for America should she step into the Oval Office. The general tone of the entire interview with Dobson is incredibly unsettling, but there is one sentence spoken by Sarah Palin that gives complete clarity to her vision of the vice presidency:
“…to put this all in God’s hands, seek His perfect will for this nation…”
This statement lays bare a shocking agenda. In sharp contrast to these words, true public servants should govern in accordance with tested political principles, and should enact legislation that protects the civil rights of all, while providing the most practical solutions for the most people. Sarah Palin has stated she will govern the country and enact legislation that falls in line with her fundamentalist Christian beliefs. Her decisions for all Americans will be made based on whatever her interpretation of “His perfect will” is, and not what the average American needs. Let us not forget that America is not a theocracy, like Iran. We are a democracy. A place that is supposed to provide a safe haven to all Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hundus, Shintoists, atheists, Buddhists, Mormons, Scientologists, religiously uninterested, etc.—the same kind of safe haven that was the goal of the pilgrims who landed on Plymouth Rock. Our leaders are supposed to lead with an eye to the needs of all Americans, serving the majority, while protecting the minority. They are not supposed to seek any religious deity’s supposed “will for this nation.”

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Great Neon Distraction

May 24, 2008

When you live in Las Vegas you don’t live in the same city that attracts millions of visitors each year. There is an entire city outside that one shiny little section of road called “The Strip” and, as cities go, it is a bit of a disappointment. For millions of visitors Las Vegas is a chance to get away from real life, real responsibilities, and (for the many who are conflicted over their personal philosophy of proper behavior) real-world morality. Many a tourist has had to learn the hard way that some things do NOT stay in Vegas. It’s a fantasy, a dreamworld, that can easily come crumbling down for drunken tourists who throw away their savings in the casinos and strip clubs, get arrested, get their ass kicked, or catch a nasty STD (herpes does not stay in Vegas). Still, it’s a good time, if you want to party hard and have money to burn (and this is essential- Vegas is expensive as hell now, for anyone who hasn’t been here in the last decade). I enjoyed myself immensely when I first moved to Las Vegas three years ago. I spent many a day in work, hung over, on three hours of sleep, trying to stumble my way through meetings. It is a place that is created for, and thrives on the concept of the one week visit. Living here is another thing entirely, if you were ever looking for any substance. The problem isn’t necessarily the locals- there are some honest and true cultural efforts going on beneath the surface here. Art festivals, beer festivals, and a university—but the Strip acts like a cancer, sapping most of the positive energy from the outer edges of the city. Countless efforts at pure, grassroots, non-corporate fun are subsumed by the great neon distraction in the middle of the city. The simple reality is, Las Vegas is not for the people who live here. The powers that be will always be more receptive to the enormous volume of cash dumped into the casinos by rich idiots, than to the measly income taxes paid by the actual residents of the city. And like any other cancer, the Tourist Vegas has managed to suck the life out of some of the most enjoyable parts of any city, most disappointingly, the major university that sits a few blocks from the Strip, UNLV.
I love college towns. I love unrestrained fun, created for its own end. I love the excess, the youth, the energy, the corruption of innocence, the cheap beer, the house parties, the rich democracy of ideas, the bold openness, and the diversity of the people. While no college town fulfills these ideals perfectly, I love these communities for what they are: an attempt at a better way of living. When I moved to Las Vegas I was looking forward to the casinos and mega-clubs and dumb girls, but I was really excited to live near a bustling college area. I assumed that I’d be spending a lot of time near UNLV, walking around with friends, going to parties, college bars, and meeting interesting people. One drive through the “college area” was enough to burst that bubble.

The college area of town is a miserable stretch of road, about three blocks long. There are a couple bars, the dorms and campus are right across the street, and there are smokeshops, hookah bars, and bookstores: staples of a college community. But the crowds are missing. We’ve tried going down there on weekends, Thursdays, during the school year, during the summer—we’ve explored during every conceivable time that a party might be going on. Hell, we even went to a UNLV basketball team (and their basketball team is a big deal) and the scene is just not there. Never the wild carefree crowds of people in the street, stumbling around drunk, enjoying themselves, with that palpable visceral atmosphere that so many other college areas have. What happened?
One of the main contributing factors would have to be the fact that so many students are really just residents of the city. They live with their families and attend classes at UNLV. A nice girl I used to date out here did just that. She got her degree, but without ever being absorbed into the campus life. It was through her that I learned that many of the attendees of UNLV don’t actually live on campus. BOOOORING! There is a whole other kind of learning that comes from leaving home and actually going to college. Kids, don’t miss out on it!
And then there’s the idea that I touched on earlier, that the Strip sucks the crowd right off the campus. To test this theory I did what any intrepid investigative journalist would do, and decided to go out drinking and find a college student to interview. After a number of beers at a new pub I ran into a friend of a friend who I learned was a pre-dental student at UNLV. When I asked him where the college scene was, I quickly realized he had no idea what I was talking about. He recommended a few bars near the campus (the same two I’d already visited), but I quickly realized he had no frame of reference. He didn’t really know how much better things could be. He told me about a few new bars that are at the south end of the strip, no where near the college, and advised me to go there to meet “the college chicks.” But there’s my point again: new bars, nowhere near the college. Las Vegas had managed to suck them away into a bar that is, by normal standards, pretty decent, but its expensive as hell and trendy and shit. Way to go, Vegas.
Of course, I could just be confusing cause and effect here. It’s entirely possible that the mediocre college atmosphere exists because the student body simply never created it. After all, if Las Vegas is a magnet for visitors who are looking to play the part of materialistic, name-dropping, fame-whoring, shallow dullards, why should I assume the typical students attracted to the school would be any different?

The Nazi Card

May 17, 2008

President Bush had this to say on thoughts of diplomacy with Iran:

“Some seem to believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: ‘Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided.’ We have an obligation to call this what it is—the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.”

That’s right. It’s right up there in black and white. Bush played the Nazi Card. The Nazi Card is a little different from its more well-known cousin, the notorious Race Card. These, and all other “cards”, are really just cheap ploys the player uses in an attempt to weasel their way out of a real negotiation. In a battle of the minds, a panicked and besieged adversary may attempt to play a card.
Everyone knows about the race card. In fact, the current climate is such that the race card doesn’t actually get played the way it used to— if it does various media outlets will rip the player to shreds like a pack of wild dogs on a fresh kill. The version of the Race Card that’s currently in vogue is the one where an attacker gets to accuse a minority of playing the Race Card in an attempt to lambaste their credibility. Bill Clinton’s recent exploits spring to mind…
Playing the Race Card in its more traditional form though, summons forth ire from a variety of sources, and rightly so. The American public has recognized and branded this practice for what it is.
Still, most of the country has not woken up the brazen and widespread use of the Nazi Card. Frequently found in online discussion forums, the Nazi Card tends to get pulled by those who possess only a limited intellectual fortitude. Its use requires only a very basic and narrow working knowledge of history, and a close comfort with employing false analogies. And I think there needs to be a rule against it.
I understand that sometimes there actually is an apt analogy between modern day events and those that were taking place in Europe during the 1930’s and 40’s. But 90% of the time I hear someone pipe up with a comparison to these world events of yore, they’re just completely off-base.
Blogger Matt Eckel of Foreign Policy Watch puts it perfectly:Any benefits of Munich as an instructive historical precedent are now far outweighed by the analogy’s power as an intellectually lazy rhetorical cudgel that is too often used to bludgeon any diplomatic initiatives that are, well, diplomatic. Not every autocratic country is Nazi Germany. Not every foreign dictator we don’t like is Hitler. Not every threatening situation is most appropriately handled by eschewing diplomacy in favor of a “firm stance.” … Iran is not Nazi Germany. Though the Iranian regime is anti-democratic, and espouses values that are indeed antithetical to those of the liberal West, the notion that Iranian armies and proxies are poised to make a genocidal sweep across the Middle East is absurd. Even the Iranian nuclear threat, though serious, shows every sign of being able to be contained with an intelligent deterrence policy (should things come to that). Iran does not have a particularly impressive industrial base. Its infrastructure is mediocre, its economy is sclerotic (propped up only by high oil prices), and its regime is unpopular. Even the outrageous statements about Israel made by President Ahmadinejad should be taken with a grain of salt, remembering that the Iranian President is not the head of state, and that he is acutally at odds with much of Iran’s clerical leaders.Intellectual laziness. Exactly… Just say no to the Nazi Card. In fact, here’s some sound advice for anyone thinking about drawing a comparison between different sets of world events: think very hard about whether such a comparison stands up to any level of scrutiny. International happenings tend to be very complex—there are a lot of subtleties and variables at play. If you are trying to make a justification, or prediction for the future, most analogies aren’t going to take you very far. Iran isn’t Germany. They haven’t begun eating up all the countries around them, while the world sits idly by and hopes it will stop. That’s what appeasement was. The circumstances here are quite different. The end. Analogy argument FAIL. What makes this whole foreign policy debate even more delicious is a two year old video of John McCain explaining why it would be sensible to sit down and negotiate with Iran’s president. I agree sir! There are few things more satisfying than seeing politicians get owned by themselves. It’s at moments like this I thank my lucky stars for the internet revolution, and media blogs. Democracy owes a lot to these many and varied news sources. It’s a disappointing reality that we don’t usually see CNN breaking any of these stories…