Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Perhaps Congress needs a pep talk

Presidential power is always an interesting discussion. It isn’t merely the kind of talk we leave to high school civics or college government classes: we break it out every presidential election season. We test our candidates, kicking their proverbial tires to see where they stand on the institution, how they see themselves amongst our nation’s previous leaders, and to see what they have to say to us today. The role of the President of the United States of America is a unique position in the world—not because of its power—but in its requirements.

As I was getting ready for work today, I was watching this week’s Bill Moyers Journal (Thank God for DVR!) which had presidential power as its subject. The two guests, Charles Fried (former Solicitor General under Reagan and current Harvard professor) and Fritz Schwarz (member of the Church Commission that investigated Nixon) discussed the place of the presidency in terms of the Constitution in light of the Bush/Cheney Junta. What was really enlightening was the conversation they didn’t have, though Fried tried several times to start it: the president’s power as relative to the other branches.

If you take a quick glance at the Constitution, you can quickly see two important indicators of the U.S. government as intended by the framers: the three branches (Legislative, Executive, and Judicial) work together to make our government function and that the framers were more interested in describing the relationship of the branches to each other than to prescribe a list of duties and responsibilities for each. In fact, the government seems to resemble a highwire act or a three-way seesaw: when one branch exercises authority, it lowers the others, encouraging a response to bring it back into balance.

Fried was eager to discuss the relationship of presidential power to the Constitution by suggesting that the place of politics is the dance between where one branch over-extends its authority. For him, a president must ignore a Congress that has no Constitutional authority over his/her business in that particular arena. What he suggests is, not surprisingly, a relative libertarian view of politics: one has the power to do anything so long as it isn’t somebody else’s. This view favors the executive branch because one person controls the entire branch of government: the president’s decision stands, as opposed to majority building in the other branches (five, fifty-one, and two hundred eighteen). This grants it more freedom to act and respond. We love that behavior in figure-heads and despise it in despots.

But the Constitution is the basis for a government of controlled action, restrained by a process that encourages not only legalism, but liberty. Functioning slowly means that proper and respectful decisions are made with the greatest interest at heart. How often has following your impulses led you astray? Candy bars at the checkout counter are the least of our worries from an unhinged president!

The center of the discussion, however, revolves around that one word: relationship. As it stands, the federal government has broken itself down into these three steps: President demands action of Congress, Congress refuses, and the President acts anyway. Besides showing a blatant disregard for the entire system (and he dare call us unpatriotic!), he is daring the Congress to move. Congress, acting as a battered housewife who can’t bare to leave her homicidal drunk of a husband, has pared down its response to two things: cut funding or impeachment. Since they long ago took impeachment off of the table, they are operating with what they are now calling “the power of the purse”.

Not only is this a horrible image (purse, really? You couldn’t use ‘wallet’ or ‘pocketbook’?) that falls prey to the Republican frame of a cowboy president and his housewife named ‘The Congress’, but it suggests a relationship that is detached and separate from the government. It suggests that Congress isn’t a legislature, but a set of accountants that need only sign the checks. This isn’t the language of equals, but of servitude, submission, and abusiveness.*

[*I am not suggesting that purse=wife-beating, but that the frame of the Strict Father model, of which Bush is the poster boy, has an unsettling relationship with violence. The very image of the president as cowboy, ‘rustling up’ the terrorists and “smoking them out of their holes” relies on images of not only Wild West gunfights, but of military combat of an aggressor (the U.S.) against an enemy in hiding. This image is not a defensive posture, but a trumped up abuser.]

The power that Congress has collected is to totally strip the President of his/her ability to function. It can remove anything from the budget that they don’t want. They can tell the president where every penny is to go. And if the president ignores them? S/He can be fired. Former presidents are at their best when they compliment and smooth-talk. They tell Congress what it wants to hear. S/He flatters it by suggesting that it has lost weight and never looked so hot. Presidents are at their worst when they demean, reject, and abuse Congress—the closest element in our (small r) republican government to a democratic voice.

The U.S. Congress is the most potent and powerful body in the world. Its position on debt-relief, public health, trade, and environment not only affect the world, but directly change the world. This body is striking, ravishing, and its beauty is without peer. Fixing the U.S. requires fixing a Congress that is acting like minor leaguers. Congress, the President can only do what you let him.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Of what are you really afraid?

We have all heard of Political Correctness.

According to Wikipedia, political correctness:

is a term used to describe language, ideas, policies, or behaviour seen as seeking to minimize offence to racial, cultural, or other identity groups. Conversely, the term politically incorrect is used to refer to language or ideas that may cause offense or that are unconstrained by orthodoxy.

The principle of political correctness (PC) is to encourage tolerance, openness, and sensitivity. It is a way of welcoming others. It’s being nice.

Many forces hate it. In principle, the Right-Wing hates it because of one simple reason: they are afraid of openness. They reject the principle out of hand. They argue that inclusive language excludes them. The rational brain begins to hurt over such a suggestion, but fundamentalists live in exclusion: it is their bread and butter. The implication, then, is that all liberalism, with its love of inclusion, is not only wrong, but it is forcefully wrong. Censoring hate, they suggest, is the worst kind of censorship. This distracts us from their position: censorship is good.

This breeding of an unnatural connection between the pursuit of compassion with fascism pushed the discussion into the mainstream, making it very popular to be anti-PC.

A while back, I heard a short essay on NPR in which the writer suggested that we haven’t seen political correctness in any real form in decades. It was a concept from the 60’s, not the 90’s. And besides, what is really wrong with being nice? What is wrong with encouraging politeness and concern for one’s neighbor? What is wrong with trying to figure out what another person wants to be called? Why struggle so vehemently on behalf of ignorance and intolerance? Why be the one fighting for the lazy and hateful that would rather use condescending hate-speech, with which they are already familiar, than use new and tolerant references?

The real answer is this: defamation.

In his article, “The Art of the Hissy Fit,” Digby articulates the primary tactic of the Republican Party and the Right-Wing Fringe alike: the hissy fit. Fake outrage and sanctimony with the particular interest in defamation and character assassination. He begins:

I first noticed the right's successful use of phony sanctimony and faux outrage back in the 90's when well-known conservative players like Gingrich and Livingston pretended to be offended at the president's extramarital affair and were repeatedly and tiresomely "upset" about fund-raising practices they all practiced themselves. The idea of these powerful and corrupt adulterers being personally upset by White House coffees and naughty sexual behavior was laughable.

They are “so good at [it],” he suggests, “they now rely on it as their first choice to control the political dialogue when it becomes uncomfortable and put the Democrats on the defensive whenever they are winning the day.” This tactic is more than mere mudslinging, however, it is a means of taking control. It is a form of Ritual Defamation or Humiliation that has domination and control as its main properties. Digby quotes Laird Wilcox in describing this concept:

Defamation is the destruction or attempted destruction of the reputation, status, character or standing in the community of a person or group of persons by unfair, wrongful, or malicious speech or publication. For the purposes of this essay, the central element is defamation in retaliation for the real or imagined attitudes, opinions or beliefs of the victim, with the intention of silencing or neutralizing his or her influence, and/or making an example of them so as to discourage similar independence and "insensitivity" or non-observance of taboos. It is different in nature and degree from simple criticism or disagreement in that it is aggressive, organized and skillfully applied, often by an organization or representative of a special interest group...

The suggestion that defamation—illegal in any arena but politics—should be an appropriate tactic in a politician’s arsenal is beyond ridiculous and in the most dangerous of territories

So what does this mean? It means our fundamentalist elements are using this tool to control and manipulate society. It the same way they take no issue with decrying political correctness for being exclusive in its inclusiveness while simultaneously censoring and rejecting openness and sensitivity, they are manipulating the political and intellectual realms with terrorist tactics of fear and intimidation. It isn’t the tactic of a civil society, but a schoolyard bully or fascist dictator, controlling the nature of the message.

The most recent use of this: Graeme Frost, the 12 year-old who spoke on behalf of the Democrat’s expansion of the SCHIP—the children’s health program—by $35 billion, which is just a fraction of the Iraq budget. Overlooking the fact that Graeme and his sister were in a car accident, spent months in the hospital, that one of his vocal chords is permanently paralyzed and that he was able to be here today only because of SCHIP, Republicans and their fundamentalist talking heads went on an unsuffarable character assassination campaign, quoting each other—not sources—and pushing lies as truths. The effect was to muddy the waters and give safe harbor for enough Republicans to vote against the overthrow of a presidential veto. What it really means? The most craven, destructive (and dare I say, evil?) tactics witnessed in modern politics are being used to prevent the expansion of health care for children. They don’t want to cover those families that don’t get health care from work and can’t afford to pay $20,000 or more per year for it. And what about those places where health care is offered, but every doctor and hospital is ‘out-of-coverage’? Instead of arguing about the merits of the bill, and instead of doing what the minority party usually does, they went after a kid.

Next time you here a derisive comment about political correctness, ask them “of what are you really afraid?”

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Neoconservativism and Deification

We know that the Iraq Conflict was predicated on false intelligence. What we ignore is the neoconservative attitude toward illegal military invasion: international market and civil supremacy. It is the exercising of the tremendous military advantage that the U.S. has over the globe. It is the display of intense and incredible might. They suggested that we would go into Iraq, be worshiped as a deity*, and our other enemies would cower in fear of our awesome power. It is the savior/messiah-complex writ large.

[*The ‘welcome us with open arms’ line of reasoning was intended to evoke memories of post-WWII liberations of concentration camps and Nazi occupied France. We were supposed to imagine the U.S. soldiers being given flowers freshly picked and pies freshly baked. We were to imagine the bowing down and the awestruck faces of the Iraqi people.]

So what happens? We’re clearly nobody’s messiah. Our ‘saving’ of the Iraqi people has been proven to be about greed and strategic international military position. It is also more about jump-starting the domestic economy in the U.S. than it was about jump-starting democracy in Iraq. It is not only an utter failure, but it is evoking the potentially greatest disaster: it is creating instability out of stability.

And what of that vaunted military might? Check this out.

soldiers say one of the enemy's weapons has blown their confidence more than all the others. So called EFPs, or Explosively Formed Penetrators, have become the weapon du jour among the Shi'ite fighters. The devices cap a tube or pipe full of explosives with a solid copper disk that, due to the force and heat of the blast, transforms itself into an armor-piercing slug. EFPs can destroy Humvees and disable even the Abrams tank.

For a fraction of the cost of one of our tanks, Humvees, or missiles, the Iraqi rebels are able to destroy any of our practical assets. If anyone in the world still believes in the awesome might of the U.S. military and its superiority over the world, it is because they are delusional—and therefore not worthy of our trust.

So here it is. The neo-cons’ rationalizations for war have proven to be universally wrong, and worse, intentionally misrepresented. Their behavior in maintaining the failed strategy is motivated by self-interest and personal gain, not out of strategic advantage. The attitude with which they brought this conflict to us and continue to argue for it is not blind optimism but an irrational messiah-complex for themselves and the inexcusably outdated belief in manifest destiny. To spell it out even more plainly, the neo-cons are, at best, lying, greedy, delusional, egotistical cowards who show no diplomatic or strategic planning skill, rational judgment, or foresight. In fact, the most important aspects of leadership are beyond lacking in these individuals—they are the Barney Fifes of politics. We have let them have free reign to bumble our foreign and domestic policies. We have let their pundits and think tanks, such as the American Enterprise Institute, the Project for the New American Century, and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. feed us improbable and ridiculous excuses for bad policies. We have allowed the likes of frequent Daily Show guest, William Kristol, former Bush administration officials Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney speak from credible authority and a position of respect. Unfortunately, their policies prove they deserve neither.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The fifth element

In a column in today's New York Times, Frank Rich highlights not the stakes in Iraq, but the missing element.

In his article titled "Americans have become 'Good Germans'," Rich explores the issue from two directions. Like most of us, the blame for Iraq must be hoisted on the Bush administration for their lies and high crimes and misdemeanors. Secondly, Congress and the Media did a craptastic job of holding the president accountable for both proof of war and then defense of war. But then there's us. We didn't do anything either. We didn't listen to those media outlets that discouraged war. We didn't listen to our Congresspersons (such as Russ Feingold) that objected. Worse, however, is that the vast majority of Americans have been on the Stop-Bush train since 2005; and yet...nothing. We've done nothing.

In truth, many of us have written about the war, talked with friends, and even marched in demonstrations throughout the country. We have spoken to our Senators and Representatives. We have even e-mailed the president directly. We are expressing outrage, but we aren't collecting our voices and speaking as one. We aren't making the war end. We aren't stopping the Bush agenda of torture and deception. We are too comfortable.

Rich suggests that "With the war's entire weight falling on a small voluntary force, amounting to less than 1 percent of the population, the rest of us were free to look the other way at whatever went down in Iraq." But it isn't about who is fighting and who is dying, it is that sense of urgency that is missing. I don't need to go to Iraq to know it's wrong. I don't need my cousin in Iraq to pray daily that the war will end today. But we so often depend on that sense of contact to create that urgency that inspires us to act. In a lecture a couple years ago given in Canada, the Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong discussed his first encounter with homosexuality in the church: he was a new bishop, making a visit to one of his congregations. It was in the days in which the bishop stayed in the rectory as the guest of the congregation's rector. As Bp. Spong was looking around, he got the feeling that two people lived in the house. As he was concerned about the rector having a girlfriend that stayed over without the vestry's tacit approval, he made what Bp. Spong considered perhaps the biggest mistake of his entire ministry: he asked the man if anyone else lived here. The rector said "yes"--another man. Bp. Spong was then forced to do something about it. This was in the 1960s and they were only beginning to explore the science of homosexuality. Soon after, he was convinced of the scientific validity of homosexuality and its theological implications. However, this was too late to return the priest to his position. He had ruined the man's life.

What leaped out at me as I heard this story was the impact of the personal experience--and our facing our own issues of morality and conscience--which encourages us to do extraordinary things. By having fewer soldiers in Iraq than is necessary and supplementing them with unrestricted mercenaries (Blackwater USA and others) ostracizes us from that feeling; from those emotions. Sending more soldiers to die brutal deaths or to come back severely and permanently wounded should never be seen as the opportunity for greater understanding, but it is that thing in which we ordinarily depend to build our sense of outrage. We have been waiting for that moment and nothing has happened.

But this is our mistake. Our patient waiting. Our genial behavior that amounts to "Please Sir, may have another?". Our hoping that electing different Congresspersons will suddenly change the behavior of a powermad president. Our resistance in throwing insults back at the Right-Wing fringe whose most tame insult is to call us unpatriotic and responsible for the deaths of our soldiers for 'aiding the enemy'. Our watching. And when we feel that raising fire that starts in the belly ascend toward our heart and lungs, we push it right back down to where it started. We are too nice. We are too polite. We don't resort to those base tactics of the fringe. But in allowing these atrocities to continue, we are those "Good Germans", ignoring the destruction that happens in front of us.

We need to let the fire out. We need to organize. We need to do something right now. We can't wait for the next president, because our future is in danger today. An Iraq war veteran named Paul Rieckhoff, as quoted by Rich, outlines the potential calamity of the Iraqi civil war, not in splitting the country in thirds or in continued presence of U.S. troops, but in the event of the sudden departure of our employed mercenaries. Rich, with quotes by Rieckhoff suggests that:
should Baghdad implode, our contractors, not having to answer to the military chain of command, can simply "drop their guns and go home." Vulnerable American troops could be deserted by those "who deliver their bullets and beans."
The stability of our military presence is based on corporations that are overpaid and held entirely unaccountable.

This is the fire. And this is the future. We must end this war now.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Democracy: it was fun while it lasted

Several months ago, the U.S. military began arming Sunni insurgents that they had originally attacked because they now claim to be on our side. The Daily Show showed a funny chart showing how our enemy's enemy's enemy's enemy becomes our friend--regardless of whether or not they remain our enemy. In the end it proved that Al-Qaeda, the first enemy on the chart, is also our friend (by being our enemy's enemy's enemy's enemy). Our shifting allegiances and loyalties have led to an interesting development: we are no longer interested in democracy in Iraq.

The basic principle is that the Ba'athists were our original opponents as they were Saddam Hussein's military. They were nearly universally Sunni. This meant that our major opponents were Sunnis. The Shiites liked us for all of three seconds because Saddam prevented this ultra-conservative group (the Shiites) from practicing Islamic Law. Shiites then began attacking U.S. occupiers and Sunni insurgents. At the same time, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) had been aligned with Sunni militias, but many of the Sunni groups are now disavowing their relationship with AQI. These groups, many composed of ex-Ba'athists, are now receiving large shipments of guns from the U.S. to go after the Shiites and AQI. Confused yet?

Where this gets interesting is that the Sunnis were Saddam's people. The Shiites most closely align themselves with Iran. A fascist or totalitarian government in Iraq that would be like Saudi Arabia is suddenly preferable to a democratic state that would naturally align with Iran. There's a certain point where we say: "it took you long enough!"

Strangely, the most democratic and free nation in the region, whose political and social interests most mimic our own, is actually Iran. When did geo-politics turn into a Scooby-Doo parallel universe?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

File Under "Does He Really Mean It?"

Erik Prince, CEO, founder, and sole owner of Blackwater, was given an interesting endorsement the other day.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), said recently that Prince "is on his way to being an American hero just like Ollie North was".

Ollie, a hero? Really? Hasn't Ollie North been sent to the dustbin of American public opinion for his place in the coverup of the Iran-Contra scandal? Isn't he the one that should have been in prison?

If I were Erik, I suppose I'd like at least one member of Congress defending me, but I don't think I'd accept that kind of recommendation...

Considering the source, however, Prince might think it's a compliment...

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Mega-Lie and Wrong Perspectives

A wise person reminded me about perspective. When you are hurt, wounded, and bitter, the way you look at the world will be from a pained perspective. To have a clear vision of the world, we must lift that veil of pain.

So it was when the U.S. felt pain in 2001. We had been hurt before over the previous decade: domestic terrorism in the Oklahoma City bombing, teenage murder in the Columbine shootings, and a Presidential impeachment trial left us tired and gunshy. We had just dealt with the most controversial election in history, dealt with an unprecedented Supreme Court intervention, deciding the election. We were hoping that the conservative candidate that promised to be ‘compassionate’ would become a president of reconciliation and healing. We all know that we got something else.

On September 11th, the president seized the opening to perpetrate the mega-lie. As Larry Beinhart suggests in the opening chapter of Fog Facts, our response to terrorism that day was criminally out of proportion. We should have considered the perpetrators criminals and brought their networks to justice. Instead, we had militarism and called it an act of war. As Richard Behan suggests:

Other nations have suffered criminal acts of terrorism, but there is no precedent for conflating the terrorists with the states that harbor them, declaring a "war" and seeking with military force to overthrow a sovereign government. Victimized nations have always relied successfully on international law enforcement and police action to bring terrorists to justice.

What both of these writers expose for us is our failure to maintain proper perspective. People were hurting. People were impressionable. We failed to watch out for the wolves.

We trust our criminal justice system. We trust our law enforcement officers to bring criminals to justice. We trust our legal counselors to thoughtfully try cases in court. We believe that wrong-doing will be punished. We have faith that this system works. The alternative is something truly horrifying.

Some other countries wield their military arms with such cavalier and indiscrimination as our president, but we call them militias and juntas. When a leader exercises unchecked and dictatorial powers in the way our president does, we call them regimes. These words have such spite in them that you can feel in your bones the distrust and righteous anger we ordinarily keep in check. The danger is in ignoring a word’s definition while abiding by its emotional evocations.

Terrorism is a perfect example of this. It is clear that the word does not mean Muslim, cabal, or religious extremism. The word refers to a type of violence intended to frighten a group of people. Those guilty of terrorism are common, petty criminals and should be considered such. To blow it all out of proportion and call it an act of war; to declare war against a nation harboring those criminals; to declare international law invalid; to act so recklessly is obscene, not careful; to drive a nation to war is inhumane, not protective; to be so obsessed with killing is pathological, not just.

Perhaps it is time to put things into their more accurate perspective: the president is a monster. He is dangerous, reckless, and soulless. His sense of Christian vocation is a badge, not a ministry. He is a petty bully beating up the smaller kids on the playground. Sometimes the only thing you can do with a bully is to expel him.

NOTE: if you want to read an excellent article about all of this and more, including the mega-lie, check out Richard Behan's article for Alternet here. He places the pretenses for war into the overarching smokescreen of the War on Terror.