Archives for: July 2009
From the tragic and hopeful continuing story that has become Iran, we hear an echo from our own recent dementia. The Christian Science Monitor carries news that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President who was recently force fed to an unwilling electorate, is dealing with yet another controversy.
Obsessed with the unfounded conviction that the United States, or perhaps Great Britain - hard to know which, has been at the root of popular unrest in Iran, he pushed police, prison, and intelligence sources to uncover the secret plot no matter what means were necessary to accomplish the task.
Imprisonment without trial? No problem. Mistreatment in prison? If needed, sure. Individual "enhanced interrogation?" Whatever it took to get at the truth as he saw it. Iranian television has been the target. Airtime is soon to be filled with the desperate confessions of those captives who have finally reached the limits of human endurance.
His Head of Intelligence objected, and a heated exchange was followed by the dismissal of Gholam Hossein Mohsen Ezheie from his Intelligence post. Some conservatives find torture distasteful. A detention facility, famed for harsh methods, has been ordered closed, over Ahmadinejad's objections.
If this seems oddly familiar, it may be because it eerily parallels recent stories about the late lamented Bush-Cheney administration. The attitude of the Vice President toward his intelligence people was simple: I'll tell you what assessment to give to me. His approach to legal issues was identical: when I want your legal opinion, I'll give it to you. And the resultant treatment of captives was the logical culmination. When I want your information, I'll tell you what to say, then beat it out of you. There was reason for the madness.
The ruins of the Twin Towers smoldered. The dead had vanished in flame within the Pentagon. A madman sitting in a cave halfway around the world could not possibly have been responsible for such devastation. bin Laden was a comic book villain, not to be taken seriously. There had to have been state sponsorship. A lifetime of cold war experience reinforced the conclusion. The administration was trapped by the power of an idea.
All that was needed was evidence. Cheney was obsessed with validating his conviction that Iraq was behind the 9/11 attacks on America. That validation would come no matter what had to be done to get it. It was never about revealing plots of future attacks. It was about synthesizing corroboration.
Torture is useless in obtaining truthful information, but it is quite effective at forcing confession. It was true of Cheney then. It is true of Ahmadinejad now.
The current drama is singularly Iranian. The Obama administration treats it with wise caution. But we look to a brighter future when, healed, our nation regains the moral authority to lend our voice to the cause of human rights.
In Congressional Testimony:
It is my belief, based on a 27 year career as a Special Agent and interviews with hundreds of subjects in custodial settings, including members of al Qaeda, that the use of coercive interrogation techniques is not effective. The alternative approach, sometimes referred to as ‘rapport building’ is more effective, efficient and reliable.
Memories often seem tidier, crisper, and more comfortable than day to day reality. So it may be an aging liberal's daydream, but I do recall a time when conservatism seemed to have emerged from the George Wallace-Strom Thurmond axis into the rational bright light of Bill Buckley and company.
Buckley had his faults, to be sure. He had opposed civil rights for black folks because it was an imposition of federal force on states rights. He lost a famous televised dispute with the ever-slimy Gore Vidal, not because of Vidal's ability but rather because of Buckley's temper. In fairness, it is hard to recommend a purely cerebral reaction to a blood libel, and Vidal had seriously accused our hero of being a secret Nazi.
But Buckley had repented of his segregation-supporting sin. He single handedly destroyed the John Birch Society. And he eviscerated the frequent liberal guests on his weekly television show with polite finesse. He preferred to out-think, rather than out-shout, his liberal visitors.
Today's right-wing seems more attuned to racial resentment and conspiracy mongering than serious thought. It is not so much a deteriorating debilitation of once-attained heights, I think, than a reversion to more comfortable ground. Conservatives have always been suspicious of intellect. The election of George W. Bush brought this sad characteristic into full force. There was no serious attempt to present our President as a new millennial sage. A lack of visible intelligence was his link to common people.
Viral emails perform the heavy lifting in today's discourse. President Obama is visually presented as a half-naked witch doctor to conservative mirth. His legitimacy is challenged. He was secretly born in Africa, his Presidency a decades old plot. His skin color itself is not the paramount concern. But he is suspected of an intemperate empathy with what Pat Buchanan calls "America's pampered minorities." Obama is suspected of liking black people.
Policy debate has taken a hit. The issue of the day is health care. Reform has been attacked on policy grounds. Cost, private enterprise, efficiency, and other issues have been debated. But as an actual bill slowly edges nearer to passage, these limp wristed considerations are shunted aside.
A thousand urban legends haunt us. People die unlikely but entertaining deaths in automobiles. The AIDS virus is passed along by stealth and sabotage. Gangs assassinate folks for flashing their headlights.
These are now joined by the latest GOP approach to health reform. It is all a plot to deny care to old people, or to kill them outright, depending on who is spinning the tale. Rush Limbaugh, World Net Daily, Representative Paul Broun, and a thousand others in and out of Congress are spreading the word. In a way, fear already has its final victory. Rationality has been abandoned. Such is the current state of contemporary conservative thought.
Planning Memo for Public Meetings:
Spread out in the hall and try to be in the front half. The objective is to put the Rep on the defensive with your questions and follow-up. The Rep should be made to feel that a majority, and if not, a significant portion of at least the audience, opposes the socialist agenda of Washington.
- - Bob MacGuffie, Conservative Activist (pdf), May 28, 2009
I was in my early twenties, working my way through college when I got my first job as a pollster. I interviewed folks on the street about fast food restaurants, what they liked and disliked about them. Later I interviewed folks in their homes. A stern elderly woman heading a local firm here in St. Louis trained me to adopt a carefully neutral tone. She was intolerant of any hint of methodological sloppiness. Bias was always a suspect, and she went to extraordinary lengths to find and eliminate it.
One weekend, a target area had been randomly chosen, using a chart of numbers. The member of the household was picked by number as well. This time it was to be the second oldest. The home was tucked away in a rural part of Missouri. A long winding road led to the front porch.
I explained to the surprised couple that I had been assigned to conduct a poll. The woman turned out to be interviewee. Her husband puttered about the house as I asked her my questions. I wrapped up, thanking her for her time, and he appeared with lemonade. They were eager to tell me pretty much everything about the world from their vantage point. A pent up energy propelled their urgent words. They finally had someone willing to listen.
Their message was one of alarm. They simply could not see why the danger to the country and the world was not clear to everyone. They spoke with a sort of breathlessness, sometimes alternating sentences with each other.
The Vietnam war was wrong because it was sapping our military strength. Soldiers should not be fighting on the other side of the world. They were needed to fight the communists right here in the United States. President Kennedy was a tragic hero. He had been a communist but had seen the error of his ways. He had turned American and so puppet masters had no choice but to do away with him. Loose threads were woven into bizarre tapestry.
The couple was unfailingly polite and, correctly taking my lack of comment as disagreement, took no offense. They were reluctant to see me go, and they waved goodbye from the front of their home as I left. The couple were crazed, but they weren't the Bull Connor Klan. They were downright upright.
I have thought of these strange folks from time to time. They were members of a fringe rightwing group, the John Birch Society. Their more recent spiritual descendants, the few who have crossed my path, are not nearly as friendly. The same dazed urgency marks their conversation. But they react to anything less than pure embrace of their elaborate theories with pursed lips and suspicious intolerance. With a black America-hating militant African in the White House, can Black helicopters be far behind?
The Birchers have gone, now. But others carry the torch with an aggressive, barely repressed violence. There is a meanness to these ideological children. Some are called Birthers, but a few seem like real sons of Birchers.
On President Eisenhower:
a conscious, dedicated agent of the Communist Conspiracy
- - Robert W. Welch, founder, John Birch Society
Pretty much everyone knows that birthers are ... how to put it ... insane. These folks have convinced themselves that Barack Obama is not really President by virtue of being an illegal immigrant. When you are so far to the right of the most extreme tip of conservatism that Ann Coulter objects, you have left the land of rational minds.
Birthers believe in a conspiracy involving two young parents, two grandparents, the national government of Kenya, the state government of Hawaii, a hospital in Nairobi, one in Honolulu, two newspapers, the McCain campaign, and a new born baby, all in 1961. The evidence they tout is the inability of anyone to get the original Obama birth certificate, since Hawaii went to a paperless recording system. The Republican governor says she has seen the original, but she is one of the conspirators. Birthers are the sort who believe the X-Files to be a series of documentaries. More than a whiff of racism accompanies the movement. Just how this African descendant has taken control of a white Christian nation is a mystery. "We want our country back" is a recurring refrain. Something is wrong, and a decades old conspiracy, no matter how unlikely, fits the moment.
None of this tells us much. Zanies will be with us always. What is remarkable is the inability of Republican officeholders to put the birthers at arms length. A few national figures are close enough to the ragged edge to contemplate the birthers with something other than barely suppressed laughter. Resolutions are advanced. Debates are encouraged.
Lest we go too far in our mirth at these poor souls, we should consider the larger picture. Republican office holders are captives of a shrinking fringe. The GOP problem seems to be structural and permanent. As the party grows more radically conservative, moderates are driven away. Conservatives wave goodbye with their fists. As moderates leave, extremists have less to moderate them. This drives away those conservatives who veer dangerously close to sanity. This puts Republican officeholders who possess any sanity at electoral risk. If they back away from the crazies, they lose in primaries. If they don't back away, they lose in general elections. Those running in the most conservative parts of the country are safe for the moment, but their party is becoming only regionally successful.
The engine at the core of this process is technology. The wide variety of message sources provided by cable programming and internet sites allow conservatives to avoid the agonizing self-examination that election loss once forced on losing political parties.
The nation drifts mildly to the left, and the trend is exaggerated by conservative diaspora. Health care, economic reform, and new safeguards for investors and consumers are time-limited opportunities. Demonstrations of governing ability may extend the opportunity. Fortunately, Democrats are blessed with a transparently capable space alien as President.
Barack Obama has yet to have to prove he's a citizen.
It is the nightmare scenario played out in the restless dreams of anxious parents of minority children. It is the subject of coming of age dialogue in homes across America. Stand up against injustice wherever you encounter it. With one exception. It will always be an exception. You don't confront an abusive police officer during an incident. Ever.
Our family had the conversation a few years ago. Our young men are twins. They are talented beyond what anyone once could have hoped, but their personalities have diverged remarkably. One is so cool he can border the icy. The other has a strength of character that we could envision developing into a confrontational bent. We feared for both. What if either was pulled over by a bigoted bully, or by an excellent police officer having a very bad day?
And so we had the same discussion as many other families. Times change, and so does culture. Police culture is no exception. But there still exists for police a dichotomy between rules and rules of the road. Casual brutality may have diminished, but brutality has not disappeared. A stranger with deadly authority may become your friend, but be cautious about betting your life on it. Always, always defuse any provocative encounter. Pursue complaints at a later, calmer, official time. Make sure blood never hits the street. We have lost too many young folks already.
What does not reach more general popular consciousness is that the advice is cautionary. It is a matter of survival, not of principle. Principle has little to do with street justice, and everything to do with civic responsibility. Principle should be about individual rights, including freedom of speech. The eruption of what had been barely repressed outrage on the part of some white folks has been experienced by black professionals since time began. What do you call a black man with a PhD? Radio callers know that answer.
We know little about what actually happened at the Gates home in Cambridge. We have unofficial media accounts of a citizen and an officer. It is a public relations disaster for the citizen who comes off as a pompous jerk, especially when contrasted with the earnest diligence of the friendly officer. One columnist speculates that an indignant bigotry was exhibited by the home owner. How dare you suspect me of being that type of black man!
The official account carries none of the friendly personality of the white officer or the disdainful hauteur of the black homeowner. It carries only one side and that side is definitive. According to the official report, police were simply doing their job right up until an officer invited the outraged homeowner outside, then arrested him for disorderly conduct. Appearances are not everything, and details may never be known. Gates does appear to have been a class conscious boor.
But police abused their authority. Being an annoying, disagreeable old man is a constitutionally protected right.
...forgive your enemies;
nothing annoys them so much
- - Oscar Wilde
Gays are dangerous, to themselves, to each other, to us.
For homosexuals who died of something other than AIDS, the median age of death was 42
If AIDS was the cause of death, the median age was 39
Heart attacks, cancer, and liver failure were exceptionally common
- Only 2% survive to old age
A study, quoted by Dr. Frank Joseph, backs up those statistics. The effects are worldwide. Research cited by the Australian Family Association was why the Festival of Light Australia opposed extending gays rights still further.
The National Physicians Center for Family Resources, the Family Research Council, the International Healing Foundation, the National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, and others quote nearly identical studies. One was mentioned at the signing ceremony in 2005, when Texas Governor Rick Perry put into effect that state's Defense of Marriage law. They all show gay sex is a veritable breeding ground for disease.
They all carry summary wording so strikingly similar as to defy coincidence. In fact, there is no coincidence. Scratch the surface and you find the studies are not studies (plural), they are all one study. Anti-Gay activist Paul Cameron conducted it. His work consisted of counting the obituaries published in a gay magazine, multiplying the numbers out, then comparing them to national surveys about life expectancy for the general population. That was the study. Cameron conducts such work for a living. His day job is leading the biblically fundamentalist Family Research Council.
He uses the work of others, credible scientists, but he so misquotes and distorts them that some have filed formal protests. He has been expelled from the American Psychological Association and the Nebraska Psychological Association for ethical lapses in his less than rigorous research. The American Sociological Association formally spoke out against his methods, followed by the Canadian Psychological Association.
So why do various religious offshoots with scientific sounding names keep using his work? Why are these slurs so often repeated in Fellowship Hall?
It is difficult to overstate the lack of ethics that often characterizes the desperate effort of true believers to win the next round in their own holy war. They follow God's Commandments from Exodus, but with a few adjustments. It is now okay to bear false witness in the service of our Lord.
I'm a Child of God Not a Choice
- - Gay Pride Slogan
Nuggets of internet gold:
- Tim McGaha at Tim's Thoughtful Spot writes prose, but it reads like very good poetry, about the moon landing 40 years ago. Good science. Good words.
Every now and then I like to lean out my window, look up and smile for a satellite picture.
- - Steven Wright
It isn't their fault. Gaming the system is how business people earn their daily bread. The bottom line is ... well ... the bottom line. And it is that incentive, not evil intent, that turns perfectly nice insurance executives into vampires, roaming through the night, fresh blood foaming on their quivering jowls.
The free market is organized on enlightened self interest. It takes a whole lot of self interest and not a lot of enlightenment to make it work. A dairy farmer sells his eggs. The local market, through middlemen, buys and pays for them. If he doesn't deliver he doesn't get his money. If the market doesn't pay, they don't get the eggs. One side or the other might, in theory, take what they can and run, but the most they will get is a very small profit, a whole lot of trouble, and no more business from that source.
It's ever so friendly. The myth that it is built on trust is harmless and good feelings are a form of non-monetary compensation. In reality, it is all built on immediate, incremental, reward. Businesses depend on money, but what is more important is the ongoing flow. If they cheat you blatantly, they get a little of your money, a lot of your anger, and the flow ends for good.
Some businesses don't work that way. The wholesale side of illegal drug dealing depends on a series of large scores, especially when business is done with strangers. The incentive is simple: if you cheat me I will kill you. But there are powerful counter incentives. The prospect of ripping you off, giving nothing in return, increases profit by a quantum level.
The insurance industry is structured more like the drug deal than the local grocer. They take your money for years. If you experience small claims, they pay happily. They want your business to continue. But insurance companies are haunted by the potential of way, way huge outlays. If you get super sick, the cycle of mythical trust is interrupted. The medical costs become a greater consideration than your petty little monthly premium. Lose you as a customer? Good riddance. And take your hospital bed with you!
There are incentives toward honesty. State regulation moderates any ripoff. We shouldn't discount good will and street cred. It is harder to convince you that you're in good hands if word gets around that those good hands are tightfisted at benefit time. So, like any free market consideration, costs are weighed. Does a corporation want to pay out millions to ensure the recovery of your very sick child for public good will? How about keeping state regulators off their back? As Al Smith used to say, let's look at the facts.
75% of the folks who are impoverished by medical bills were insured. "My father told me businessmen are sons-of-bitches," JFK privately remarked when battling Big Steel. They can't help it. Those yellow eyed sharp clawed night dwellers, blood dripping from their fangs, were made - not hatched.
Anyone for a public option? Maybe as an alternative?