Saturday, August 27, 2005

The overstated shrillness of the Democratic Party

Okay, I'd like to get provocative. And I'd like to do so by referring favourably, more or less, to a certain bow-tied conservative commentator. No, not Tucker Carlson, but George Will — to me, one of the more palatable right-wing pundits, an old-fashioned tory who often breaks from the ranks of the talking-point-spewing apologists for the Bush Administration and dares to write challenging critiques across partisan lines.


Just look at his column in Thursday's Washington Post, where he ripped apart extemism on both wings but more specifically argued that the Democratic Party has fallen under the spell and influence of its more left-wing elements, settling into "a shrillness unlike anything heard in living memory from a major tendency within a major party":

[The Republican Party] is showing signs of becoming an exhausted volcano. Regarding Iraq, it is mistaking truculent asperity and tiresome repetition for Churchillian wartime eloquence. Regarding domestic policy, intellectual anemia has given rise to behavioral patterns not easily distinguished from corruption, as with the energy and transportation bills. Yet the Democratic Party, which by now can hardly remember the far-distant past when it was a volcano not of molten rhetoric but of serious thought, seems preoccupied with the chafing around its neck. The chafing is caused by the leashes firmly gripped and impudently jerked by various groups such as that insist the party adopt hysteria as a policy by treating the Supreme Court nomination of John G. Roberts Jr. as a dire threat to liberty.

If Hillary Clinton has half the political sense her enthusiasts ascribe to her, she must be deeply anxious lest all her ongoing attempts to adopt moderation as her brand will be nullified by the increasing inclination of her party's base to succumb to siren songs sung by the likes of [Cindy] Sheehan. But, then, a rapidly growing portion of the base is not just succumbing to those songs, it is singing them.

Alright, I don't really agree with Will. Like so many on the right, he overemphasizes the influence of groups like MoveOn and loud-mouthed individuals like Michael Moore (n.b.: I liked F9/11 a great deal, but he is, you must admit, a loud-mouth). I mean, how is the left wing of the Democratic Party worse than the right wing of the Republican Party? Where's the Democratic Pat Robertson, Tom DeLay, or Grover Norquist? Where's the left's Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, or Sean Hannity? Ted Kennedy? Al Franken? Come on, get real.

The plight (and hope) of the Democratic Party has been on my mind in recent months, not least because even from Canada, with my love for America and my wishes to see it resurrected from the political depths to which it has recently plunged, I was heavily invested in the 2004 election. As were many other Canadians I know. But I firmly believe that the Democratic Party already has within it the seeds of its own resurrection to electoral success, and, indeed, a case can be made — a thoroughly convincing one — that the Democratic Party is doing much better than most people realize, including those in the media who seem to focus exclusively on national politics. As I put it back in June:

[T]he weaknesses of the Democratic Party have been wildly overplayed. Yes, Bush won two elections he shouldn't have, the Republicans now control both sides of Capitol Hill, and conservative appointees threaten to shift the entire federal judiciary to the right. But look at it this way: Bush barely won in 2000 — indeed, he may not have won, but that's another problem entirely. He only won because everything broke his way: Gore was a lousy candidate; Nader took important votes away from Gore in key swing states; Bush effectively campaigned as a compassionate conservative, blurring the differences between him and Gore; a relatively peaceful and prosperous country was willing to take a chance on Bush after eight years of Clinton; and, well, there was Florida. If Florida had gone the way it should have, or if Nader had taken himself off the ballot in certain states, or if Bush hadn't campaigned as such a moderate, then Gore would have won. Then Gore would have guided the country through 9/11 and Afghanistan, the Democrats likely would have done well in 2002, the U.S. likely wouldn't be in Iraq, and Republicans would be having this very same conversation about how to refashion themselves in the face of a significant Democratic majority. As it is, Bush won, then capitalized on 9/11 for partisan purposes, leading to a solid Republican showing in 2002.

Given all this — the memories of 9/11, the threat of terrorism (which Bush, as president, was able to manipulate to his own benefit), and the bully pulpit in a time of war, not to mention mass mobilization of evangelical voters — Bush barely won re-election last year. And although Kerry was a stronger candidate than Gore, he wasn't a great one and never quite managed to find his footing (too much nuance, not enough bluntness). It wasn't as close as 2000, but 2004 was hardly a rousing endorsement of a sitting president.

I suspect that the Republicans have already peaked (and not just because Bush's approval ratings are tanking). And that peak meant two narrow presidential elections, Congressional victories fueled by 9/11, terrorism, war, and gerrymandering, and Democratic successes at the state level. That's hardly the kind of dominance worthy of envy and emulation.

Democrats can surely do better, but I think it's important to keep their recent "troubles," not to mention their alleged extremism, in perspective.

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Friday, August 26, 2005

Purveyors of doubt: Intelligent design, relativism, and the postmodern right

In my last post, I argued, via Christopher Hitchens, that now may be the time for those of us who defend the theory of evolution and who otherwise live in the real world to take on the claims of intelligent design and those right-wing leaders, like Bush and Frist, who propose that it be taught alongside evolution in the schools.

Now, I find that Noam Scheiber has published an excellent piece on intelligent design and relativism at The New Republic, drawing on Jonathan Rauch's 1993 book Kindly Inquisitors. So, as an addendum to my last post, let me quote from it, then add some additional commentary:

Rauch's book has held up remarkably well in the twelve years since it was published. This is particularly so in light of the current debate over intelligent design (ID)–the idea, popular on the right, that life is too complex to have resulted from random variation. Even President Bush has suggested, as the creation scientists (and multiculturalists) of the 1980s and 1990s did before him, that both sides of the supposed debate be treated as legitimate in public school curricula.

But there was one thing Rauch didn't anticipate. At the time, he suggested that, even though creationists had adopted the tactics of the academic left–the demand for equal time–they still believed in objective truths. They just didn't think all of these truths were discoverable by science. By contrast, today's IDers have gone further and adopted the epistemology of the left – the idea that ostensibly scientific truths may be relative...

Like all conservatives, of course, the IDers claim to decry relativism and to embrace absolutes. But, for them, the claim is logically incoherent in a way it wasn't when it came from their creationist predecessors. When a proposition is empirically false, as both creationism and ID (to the extent that it makes empirical claims) are, you're free to assert its truth; you just can't call it science. The creationists had no problem with this; they just rejected any science that contradicted the Bible. But the IDers aspire to scientific truth. Unfortunately, the only way to claim that something empirically false is scientifically true is to question science's capacity for sorting out truth from falsehood, the same way postmodernists do.

Conservatives were quick to point out the danger of this view in the '80s and '90s. They argued that a science that rejected the idea of truth was vulnerable to the most inane forms of intellectual hucksterism. And they were right. It's not hard to imagine scams like cold fusion or the Scientologist critique of psychiatric drugs gaining ground in a world where science's ability to identify knowledge has been undermined. (Among other monuments to postmodern thought was the idea that E=mc² might be a "sexed equation" that "privileges the speed of light over other speeds," as Belgian-French theorist Luce Irigaray once asserted.)

Americans don't like thinking of themselves as backward. As a result, the risk from science-rejecting creationists hasn't been particularly acute in recent decades. But most people don't have very strong views on the philosophy of science. If, unlike the postmodern left, the ID movement can enlist mainstream conservatives in questioning science's capacity to produce objective truth, then it's by no means clear the effort won't succeed. In that case, it will end up threatening a whole lot more than just evolution.

It's a spot-on assessment of what's happened to the right in recent years. Back when I was at Tufts, in the early-'90s, the enemy of Truth (as something other than power-based subjectivity) was clearly the multicultural left (or, to be fair, at least the most extreme elements of it). But such left-wing postmodernism has been in decline since that period of academic triumph. Now, the most pernicious postmodernism is clearly to be found on the right, once the bastion of objectivity (at times stubbornly so). The meddlesome purveyors of doubt are no longer the textual deconstructionists in humanities departments but the theocratic opponents of science.

Coming from a background in political philosophy, where I learned from the ancients to value reason and to pursue enlightenment (in Platonic terms, to get out of the cave), this is a troubling development the enormity of which has not yet been fully grasped. Whatever else we might think of the right, this is where its true impact may lie and where its ultimate revolution may come. (See my previous posts on this problem here and here.)

In the end, Scheiber is right: Intelligent design, and right-wing relativism more generally, could, if left unchallenged, threaten "a lot more than just evolution". It could threaten the whole idea of enlightenment, and hence the very core of America.

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Is it time to take on intelligent design?

As I mentioned recently (see here), Senator John McCain has come out in recent days in support of the teaching of (so-called) intelligent design alongside evolution in America's schools. In so doing, he has aligned himself with President Bush and (insert sarcasm here) no less an enlightened practitioner of modern medicine and defender of the scientific method than Senator Bill Frist — you know, the guy who "diagnosed" Terri Schiavo by videotape and then flip-flopped (over to the right side, thankfully) on stem-cell research.

Here's how Frist put it, as reported last week by AP: "I think today a pluralistic society should have access to a broad range of fact, of science, including faith… I think in a pluralistic society that is the fairest way to go about education and training people for the future." Bush himself argued (wrong choice of words, I realize) that including intelligent design in the science curriculum would help people "understand what the debate is about". In response, Howard Dean — doing what he should be doing (i.e., picking apart the opposition, not generalizing and name-calling) — declared that Bush is "anti-science".

Note what the proponents of intelligent design — here, the advocates of its inclusion alongside evolution and other scientific theories — are doing. They're arguing that all points of view, all possibilities, all claimants to the truth, even the most absurd, should be considered on an equal basis with one another. Since the truth itself is, it seems, largely indeterminate (except for ardent creationists, who must be willing to go along with intelligent design so as to sneak creationism back into the schools), various "truths" may be put on the table — and into the minds of our children. In short, they — right-wingers all — have become relativists.

What would Allan Bloom, the teacher of my teachers, say? For years, theorists and commentators like Bloom railed against what they saw as the encroaching nihilism brought to America by German and French philosophy, namely, by the followers of Heidegger. And, to a certain extent, they were right, which is why the right, the new Republican Party, has had such success winning the "values" votes. Blue-staters on the coasts and in the urban heartland may be quite comfortable with some of the softened aspects of postmodernism, such as value relativism and multiculturalism, but huge swaths of middle America object to what is seen as the political supplanting of their theistic and absolute values by the levelling of all values.

But this is precisely how intelligent design is being sold. Creationism won't work politically in diverse America, but intelligent design can be brought in as a substitute, as one value among many, as one possible answer to the fundamental questions of existence. Which is precisely why the rhetoric has changed (always look to the rhetoric, for therein lies the political truth). Frist refers to "a pluralistic society," that is, a society with different values, a society without one overarching truth (except, perhaps, the absence of any one overarching truth). And Bush calls for more "debate," as if our children, who would be subjected to this debate on the origins of life, need to consider all possible options before settling on, well, what? Do proponents/advocates of intelligent design hope that the teaching of their theory would be the thin end of the wedge that reasserts creationism? Or will there simply be endless debate? Or are we left with nothing more than infinite possible truths, with pluralism run amok? After all, as Sir Humphrey Appleby says in the great BBC comedy Yes, Prime Minister to the impressionable Bernard Woolley, "anything might be true". That, for now, seems to be where people like Frist are coming from.

In the end, I oppose the teaching of intelligent design alongside evolution. Science must allow for introspection and self-doubt — and the most of it does — but theories that have no basis in the scientific method have no place in science classes, especially where our children are concerned. But, then, I live in reality. If you don't, and you can't accept that some things are scientifically true and some things aren't, then you might as well tell your children, not to mention yourselves, that life is, say, The Truman Show, or a figment of Bill Gates's imagination, or "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing".

But here's an interesing suggestion: Over at Slate (see here) Christopher Hitchens — whom, these days, I am usually not one to quote with pleasure — argues that it might actually make sense to allow intelligent design to be taught alongside evolution in the schools, as long as evolution is taught alongside creationism in tax-exempt religious institutions. How could evolution — how could science — lose?

If we take the president up on his deceptively fair-minded idea of "teaching the argument," I think we could advance the ball a little further in other directions also. Houses of worship that do not provide space for leaflets and pamphlets favoring evolution (not necessarily Darwinism, which is only one of the theories of evolution and thus another proof of its scientific status) should be denied tax-exempt status and any access to public funding originating in the White House's "faith-based" initiative. Congress should restore its past practice of giving a copy of Thomas Jefferson's expurgated Bible—free of all incredible or supernatural claims—to each newly elected member. The same version of the Bible should be obligatory for study in all classes that affect to teach "divinity." No more Saudi Arabian money should be allowed to be spent in the United States on the opening of jihadist madrasas or the promulgation of a Wahhabi Quran that preaches hatred and contempt of other faiths and of atheism until the Saudi government permits the unmolested opening of Shiite and Sufi places of worship; Christian churches and Hindu temples of all denominations for its Philippine, Indian, and other helot classes; synagogues; and Thomas Paine Society libraries. No American taxpayers' money should be given to Israel unless it can be shown that it is not being used for the establishment of religion by Orthodox messianic settlements in the occupied territories and/or until the Israeli rabbinate recognizes Reform and Conservative Judaism as authentic.

He calls it "equal time," and he's got a point. Theories like intelligent design thrive in part (and perhaps mostly) because they're never subjected to rigorous scrutiny. They're so mind-bogglingly stupid, after all, that no serious person, and certainly no reputable scientist, would ever waste much time on them. But this just allows them to fester beneath the surface, acquiring popularity and momentum and eventually emerging, as intelligent design is now, to challenge our accepted (because discovered through the scientific method) truths.

So shall we tackle intelligent design? Shall we expose it for what it is? Yes? Well, then, let's find out what John McCain really thinks. I'm sure he's all for having a spirited debate on its merits.

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Why Bush is good for Liberal Canada

Let's turn to something Canadian. Or, more specifically, with how we Canadians view Americans — which is, as most of you may not know (unless you're following the Maher Arar case or are otherwise curiously interested in Canada), both one of our distinctive national pastimes and a major source of our sense of national identity (i.e., being Canadian means being not American, for better or for worse).

In yesterday's Globe and Mail, columnist Lawrence Martin (no relation to Prime Minister Paul Martin) argues that President Bush, whom he dubs a "[n]eanderthal for "his approach to international diplomacy" is — hold on to your hats! — good for Canada, or at least for Liberal Canada. Bear with me:

[T]here's another, antipodal perspective from which to look at Mr. Bush. Canadians can rank him as the worst U.S. president this country has ever known, and make a good case for doing so. Or they can look at the bright side. In many respects, you can argue that Mr. Bush has been a big plus for Canada. God's gift, even. As for our governing Grits, angered by the repudiation on trade, they shouldn't complain too loudly. The toxic Texan has been good for them, too.

How good? Let us count the ways.

For a country often insecure about its identity, who better than George Bush?

His time in office might well represent the longest defining moment that Canada has ever had. His simplistic warrior mentality, his treaty-breaking unilateralism and his rigid rightist mindset have all served to delineate the differences between this nation and the United States more graphically than any other president. In a sense, he has reforged the Canadian identity along classic Liberal lines.

For a country uneasy about unceasing continental integration and where it might end up, who better than this

The way his fabricated war in Iraq has gone, Ottawa's decision to say no has served to enhance Canada's reputation. Our multilateralism, as deficient as it may be, looks princely and inspired by comparison to the Bush administration's global-dominance muscle talk. Our rejection of his pro-nuclear policies on missile defence and India is surely progressive by comparison, as is our stand (tolerance versus intolerance) on gay rights and other social issues…

When Mr. Bush was first elected, conservative forces to the north, pushed on by the Black media empire, appeared to be in position to pose a challenge to the old Canadian ways. Thanks, in part, to the model put up by Mr. Bush, it isn't happening.

For the Liberal Party, which sees itself as the keeper of the Canadian tradition, who better than George Bush? Opposition Leader Stephen Harper, whose party is closer to the American way, can hardly mention the President's name. Meantime, Paul Martin, who took office with the reputation of a Bay Street Liberal, has been served well by the President.

Mr. Bush has had the effect of pushing the Prime Minister back into the moderate Chrétien wing of the party and diminishing any right-left Liberal split. One look at polls in Quebec and elsewhere on Bush Republicanism and Mr. Martin had no choice. Jean Chrétien can give thanks to Mr. Bush, too; he has given him a big legacy item — the decision on Iraq.

All in all, it's hard to discount the Bush value north of the border. Liberals at their annual caucus meeting in Regina this week should raise a glass to George. Maybe we all should. For all the foment, he's done us many a good deed.

Is Martin right? To a point, yes. Bush managed to bring together Europe's traditional rivals (minus Britain) in response to his irresponsible venture into Iraq. And now it seems increasingly that much of the rest of the world views America — America under Bush's leadership — as a threat to world peace.

And, to an extent, he has managed to bring together the disparate elements of Canadian liberalism (a general ideological consensus that spans the middle of our political spectrum, a bit to the left of the American center), loosely and often unhappily unified under the umbrella of the ruling Liberal Party, in opposition to anything that smacks of Americanism. This is one of the reasons why our Conservative Party, which should be the natural opposition party and a threat to alternate in government with the Liberals, is having so much difficulty securing traction anywhere outside its home base in the populist West (Alberta, parts of British Columbia) and, less so, in parts of the traditionalist Maritimes in the East (where even many old-fashioned Tories, once known as progressive conservatives, have gone Liberal). Electoral success in Canada requires a solid showing in central Canada (Ontario and Quebec), and here the Liberals continue to dominate.

Indeed, anything that even remotely resembles the Republican Party is, with Bush in the White House, doomed to fail, and so the Conservatives' attempt to blend economic neo-liberalism and social libertarianism with religious evangelicalism (which is politically unpopular, anyway) under a rival umbrella has gone nowhere. Prime Minister Martin's minority government, supported on key budget votes by the socialist New Democratic Party and on key social policy votes like same-sex marriage by both the NDP and the separatist Bloc Quebecois, has withstood the Conservative challenge this summer and should at least be able to continue in government past the next federal election, expected in February.

Of course, Canada remains bitterly divided in many respects, and Martin (the columnist) glosses over some of our most pressing problems. Separatism may be on the rise again in Quebec after a decade of dormancy. There is an astonishing fiscal imbalance among the provinces, with the wealthier ones (like Ontario) propping up the sagging economies in the poorer ones. Plus, I'm not so sure that Liberal hegemony is such a good thing. The Chretien-Martin Liberals have been in power, virtually uncontested, since 1993. It may have been a sound decision not to join Bush's "coalition of the willing," but there have been few Liberal accomplishments during the past 12 years. Same-sex marriage was a huge victory for Canadian liberalism, but in many other regards we're exactly where we were in 1993. Except that the Liberal Party has grown flagrantly arrogant and miserably corrupt, operating a powerful political machine at the expense of open democracy and focusing on its own stay in power rather than on guiding Canada through the challenges that confront it.

Bush may have done wonders for Canada, and it may serve our fragile sense of national identity to have such a visible "Other" in the Oval Office, something to identify against, but even he isn't enough to keep us together for long.

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Thursday, August 25, 2005

Blogging at The Carpetbagger Report

I just wanted to mention that I was invited to guest blog at The Carpetbagger Report today and tomorrow. I've already posted twice -- on Bush's impact on Canada and on intelligent design -- and I'll be posting more tonight and tomorrow. I'll cross-post everything here at The Reaction, but I encourage you to check out one of the truly best blogs in the blogosphere. Steve Benen writes consistently intelligent commentary on American politics from a determinedly liberal perspective, and it's an honour to be able to write for him during his brief absence. I also encourage you to check out the work of my two fellow guest bloggers, Zoe Kentucky of Demagogue and Thomas McKelvey Cleaver of That's Another Fine Mess -- all excellent work.

I'll also be writing additional posts here at The Reaction, as usual, so keep checking back for new stuff.

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President John McCain?

This isn't much of a surprise, but it looks like he's already on the pre-campaign trail, gearing up for a run at the White House in 2008:

U.S. Sen. John McCain knows why he wants to be president.

He isn't running for the job -- officially. That won't happen, if it happens at all, until after next year's midterm elections.

McCain, who turns 69 on Monday, said "there's no point" in formally announcing his candidacy until after the 2006 congressional elections.

But the Arizona Republican didn't skip a beat Tuesday when asked why he would want to run for the White House in 2008.

"Because we live in a time of great challenges," McCain said in an interview with Arizona Daily Star editors and

Chief among them is the war on terror, a "transcendent issue" likely to last for years, he said. But there is "a broad variety of domestic challenges" as well.

Sounding much like a candidate ticking off the priorities of his platform, McCain said they include immigration, Social Security, global warming, rising health-care costs and the "obscene" spending practices of Washington.

"My ego is sufficient to say that I think I have the background and experience to take on these challenges," he said.

True enough, perhaps, and I've always liked McCain a great deal. But may I mention that in recent days he has come out in support of the teaching of so-called intelligent design alongside evolution? And that's but one example of the ideological conservatism behind his cross-partisan cult of personality. Sure, he's a maverick -- and even, on some issues, a moderate -- but his conservative credentials are undeniable. Like him or not, at least understand him for what he is. His foreign- and military-policy experience is impressive, as is his personal history, but the substance is more important than the image, especially when we're talking about the presidency.

But, hey, at least he mentioned global warming.

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The decline and fall of The Governator

Joe Gandelman at TMV, once a supporter of Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaign to oust Gray Davis, looks at the collapse of the Hummer-driving, stogie-smoking governor of California. It ain't pretty, but, come on, is it really all that surprising? Some of us, if we may pat ourselves on the back, saw it coming way back when his star was just ascending to Sacramento.

The more populist they are, the harder they fall.

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The integrity of Bob Costas

Integrity seems to be in short supply in the TV news business, and especially in the cable-TV news business (with its hyped-up 24-hour news cycle and endless stream of sensationalism, but for once a major broadcaster has stood up for the integrity of his profession (not to mention his own) and said that enough is enough.

That major broadcaster is Bob Costas -- long one of my favourites, whether it's been the Olympics, baseball play-by-play, his own late-night show, or, well, pretty much anything he's ever done. Recently, Costas signed up at CNN to fill in for Larry King, the network's leading purveyor of sensationalism, on an occasional basis. According to the Times, however, he "resisted a request last Thursday to be the host of a King program devoted to interviewing guests about the already widely covered Natalee Holloway missing-person case in Aruba" (see here).

What's so significant about that? Well, how often do you hear a major broadcaster, someone of Costas's stature, say no? Such integrity may be found well behind the scenes, out of the glare of public scrutiny, but rarely does it emerge to address the sorry state of TV news. Here's how Costas put it: "Nothing had been spelled out about my being able to turn down certain topics, but it was implied." And here's how Jonathan Klein, CNN's president of domestic operations, put it: "It's important that we never have an anchor doing a story he does not believe in."

(Fair enough -- though Klein should reconsider the value (or, rather, the lack thereof) of keeping the atrocious Nancy Grace on CNN's Headline News and the banal and self-important Paula Zaun and the blatantly xenophobic Lou Dobbs on the main network. I can live with Wolf Blitzer's hot air, but I'm a big fan of the dynamic Anderson Cooper and the occasionally pretentious but generally intelligent Aaron Brown.)

Costas may not be taking on the excesses of the cable-TV news business, as his modesty (enlivened by the occasional dose of justifiable self-righteousness) may only ever lead him to quieter acts of rebellion, but his "no" is as big as (and should be as influential as) Jon Stewart's notorious "dick" comment to Tucker Carlson on the since-axed Crossfire. Hopefully it isn't just a one-off. Hopefully Klein, who's trying to remodel his flagging network into a viable anti-Fox, will listen to the concerns of one of his newest yet most respected stars and focus on improving the quality of CNN's programming.

Don't count on it, however. As we all know, cable TV thrives on (and profits from) ratings-boosting sensationalism, whether it's the lame-brained Bill O'Reilly spewing his narrow-minded folkiness on Fox or even the shout-inducing Chris Matthews dumbing down political discourse on MSNBC.

And that's not about to change. Just watch Network.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Reaction to science: Abortion and pain

From the Times:

Taking on one of the most highly charged questions in the abortion debate, a team of doctors has concluded that fetuses probably cannot feel pain in the first six months of gestation and therefore do not need anesthesia during abortions.

Their report, being published today in The Journal of the American Medical Association, is based on a review of several hundred scientific papers, and it says that nerve connections in the brain are unlikely to have developed enough for the fetus to feel pain before 29 weeks.

The finding poses a direct challenge to proposed federal and state laws that would compel doctors to tell women having abortions at 20 weeks or later that their fetuses can feel pain and to offer them anesthesia specifically for the fetus.

About 1.3 million abortions a year are performed in the United States, 1.4 percent of them at 21 weeks or later.

It's an interesting story, however disturbing. I tend to be pro-choice, but I'm certainly not pro-abortion, especially when it comes to later-term procedures, and the fact that even, say, a five-month-old fetus doesn't feel pain doesn't make me feel any better about the procedure itself. But this story raises again the fundamental question of when life begins, not to mention the highly politicized question of when abortion becomes homicide. To me, these are still questions that both sides of the debate need to consider more fully than they do at present.

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Pat Robertson is a dangerous idiot

I'd prefer not to resort to ad hominem attacks like the one above, but there's no other way around it here. As some of you may know by now, televangelist extraordinaire Pat Robertson has called for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez:

Pat Robertson, the conservative Christian broadcaster, has attracted attention over the years for lambasting feminists, "activist" judges, the United Nations and Disneyland.

Now Mr. Robertson has set off an international firestorm by saying on his television show that the United States should kill the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, a leftist whose country has the largest oil reserves outside the Middle East.

"If he thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it," Mr. Robertson said Monday on his show, "The 700 Club." "It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war. And I don't think any oil shipments will stop."

An idiot? Yes. A dangerous one? Yes again. Robertson may not have much in the way of direct political power, but he continues to be an extremely influential voice on the evangelical right -- a voice with its own TV show -- and that makes him quite powerful, indirectly. But who knew that this leader of the evangelical right would go so far as to broadcast a call for the assassination of a world leader -- and all for the sake of oil? Is he just out of his mind, or is this what certain elements on the evangelical right have become?

Can we have some outrage, please? I mean, can you imagine how the right would have responded had some left-wing fanatic said much the same thing? To be sure, the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department have all disavowed Robertson's comments, the first two quite lamely, but what is needed here is some serious condemnation.

UPDATE: My friend Grace Miao, author of Flighty Child, has two excellent posts on the Robertson idiocy here and here. Her mood has, understandably, gone from disgust to rage.

UPDATE II (8/25/05): Joe Gandelman reviews the Robertson comment/denial/apology here.

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Abstinence and segregation: Gimme some o' that ol'-time morality!

Two fascinating stories -- each, in its own way, highly troubling -- via Lindsay Beyerstein at Majikthise, with a good deal of my own commentary:

1) See here (from the Post): "The Bush administration yesterday suspended a federal grant to the Silver Ring Thing abstinence program, saying it appears to use tax money for religious activities." Just what is the SRT program, you ask? Well, "[t]eenage graduates of the program sign a covenant 'before God Almighty' to remain virgins and earn a silver ring inscribed with a Bible passage reminding them to 'keep clear of sexual sin.' Many of its events are held at churches. In filings with the Internal Revenue Service, the organization describes its mission as 'evangelistic ministry' with an emphasis on 'evangelistic crusade planning.' You know, the words "evangelistic," "crusade," and "planning" are disturbing enough on their own. Put them together and you've got some serious trouble. (Sorry, I just don't think religion should be a crusade, let alone an evangelical one, let even further alone a planned evangelical one.) Especially when federal funds are involved to support it.

I'll leave alone the problematic issue of abstinence at the moment. But, in brief: There's nothing wrong with abstinence, I suppose, and in fact I have no problem with it being encouraged as an alternative to sexual activity among those who aren't ready for it. But the problem with abstinence teaching, especially from a religious perspective, is that it keeps those who are subjected to it in a state of abject ignorance when it comes to human sexuality. Self-control is important, I admit, but self-denial, the denial of the sexual component of human nature learned (or imposed) through moralistic education (if not brainwashing and fear-mongering) is, needless to say, a problem, not least because it stunts human growth and cuts off a person's appreciation of the richness and complexity of his or her own humanity -- and because it leads to both individual and collective suppression of the sexual, and thus, call me a Freudian here, to dysfunction on a massive scale.

I realize that I'm looking at abstinence purely as a secularist and that many religious believers would disagree with me. For me, abstinence makes sense because sexual activity can lead to such problems as teenage pregnancy, abortion, and the spread of STDs. For them, presumably, abstinence makes sense because religious belief -- or, rather, leading a religiously moral life -- requires the control of the natural for the sake of the divine -- or, rather, for the sake of the individual soul in the service of the divine. I say, Well, sexuality is natural, and it can feel really great, but be careful, you might get pregnant, or you might catch a disease, so why not hold off until you're a little older and better prepared to deal with things? They say, Thou shalt not fornicate! How do you argue with that? You don't. You just hope that young people are brought up properly and are taught to respect and appreciate their sexuality, the full spectrum of their sexuality, and learn the unabridged truth about human sexuality more generally. If not, they'll remain children, oppressed by a religious faith that keeps them chained in their own little caves, staring at the shadowy images of manipulated idols flickering on the walls in front of them, until nature ends up getting the better of them, dysfunction and all.

2) See here (from U.S. Newswire): "A lawsuit filed today alleges that Tyson Foods Inc. is responsible for maintaining a segregated bathroom and break room, reminiscent of the Jim Crow era, in its Ashland, Ala. chicken processing plant. Twelve African-American employees filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, alleging that a 'Whites Only' sign and a padlock denied them access to a bathroom in the Ashland plant. The complaint states that numerous white employees had keys to the bathroom that were not provided to African-American workers. The African-American employees' complaint also alleges that, after they complained about the segregated bathroom, the plant manager told them that the bathroom had been locked because they were 'dirty' and announced the closing of the break room."

What year is this again? 2005, you say? Well, not down in 'Bama, where, as we've seen before, castration is seen as a legitimate form of punishment and a state lawmaker has recently tabled stridently anti-gay legislation. Abstinence is one thing, but this? Out-and-out segregation at the facility of a fairly major corporation? I know there are I-told-you-so cynics out there who think that all this civil-rights-era liberalism is a something of a sham and that racism of this kind has never really gone away, just underground, but, honestly, I do think America's come a long, long way and has sincerely (if not completely) dealt with its noxious past. This case down in the heart of Dixie may not come as a complete surprise -- racism persists, obviously, on many fronts -- but at least we've reached a point where it can be responded to with indignation, and even with amazement, as it may be the exception rather than the rule.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Iraq is NOT America

The Bush Administration, ever desperate to spin Iraq to its advantage, continues to turn to a strained analogy to explain why things aren't going as smoothly as planned... No, check that. There was no planning. That was the problem. Let's say... as smoothly as hoped, or anticipated, or stupidly predicted (by Cheney, Wolfowitz, et al.).

The anology is simple: Baghdad circa 2005 is the same, pretty much, as Philadelphia circa 1787. The Iraqis are having trouble writing a constitution? Hey, things were tough back then, too. There's a tough insurgency to repel? Hey, America had its share of violence, too. This whole damned nation-building thing is taking too long? Hey, it took 11 years for the American colonies to move from the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution.

Here's how Fred Kaplan put it in a recent column at Slate, which explains just why Iraq isn't America: "When things go particularly badly in Iraq—anarchy, insurgency, and now the delays in crafting a constitution—President George W. Bush and his top aides point reassuringly to the turbulence surrounding our own Founding Fathers' exertions to forge a republic." As things continue to go badly, expect more of the same.

Is Iraq like America? Iraq would be so lucky.


In his latest column, Kaplan examines the work-in-progress Iraqi constitution and finds it wanting: "[I]t's hard to see how [it] could serve either as a document that unifies the new Iraqi nation or as a clear guide to governance."

Some of it is, admittedly, quite "noble". For example: "Article 7 forbids racism, terrorism, and ethnic cleansing. Article 35 guarantees 'human freedom and dignity.' Article 36 guarantees freedom of expression and freedom of the press." All good.

But "[t]he constitution (or at least the part that has been released) says nothing about how the country is to be governed." "Nor does the document lay out the powers of parliament, the precise division of powers between the central and regional governments, or the existence of a branch that interprets the law." All not-so-good.

Furthermore, and more fundamentally, "[t]he charter is vague to the point of vacuousness in its most basic proclamations," as when, in Article 2, it states that no law may contravene "Islamic law," "the principles of democracy," or "the rights and basic liberties enumerated in this constitution". Uh-huh. And how is that exactly? How is "Islamic law" understood? What, specifically, are "the principles of democracy"? And, more to the point, aren't Islamic law and liberalism somewhat contradictory? Or, at least, isn't there an enormous tension between them?

These are serious questions. Shouldn't they be answered in a serious way?

Anyway, check it out. Kaplan's column is a must-read as we await the legal founding of the new Iraq.

No, President Bush, Iraq is no America. You should know better than to make that ridiculous analogy. And you should have a better strategy for dealing with and responding to the nation-building process that you started.

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Sunday, August 21, 2005

Iraq is like Vietnam

So -- for what it's worth -- says Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, one of the leading foreign-policy minds in Congress (see here).

That may or may not be true, but what to do? As I've said recently, I do not support the withdrawal of troops (i.e., essentially giving up), since any such Vietnam-style evacuation, any such symbol of American defeat, could plunge Iraq into instantaneous and likely long-term chaos. However, it's clear that the Bush Administration has no idea what it's doing in Iraq and is shifting its rhetoric in preparation for the handover of responsibility to Iraqis (whether they like it, or are prepared for it, or not) and for a large-scale withdrawal sooner rather than later, perhaps before the 2006 mid-terms.

A stategy to win would be nice, but who has one?

Iraq may be like Vietnam, but that doesn't mean it is Vietnam. Or have we already predetermined a Vietnam-like outcome?

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Intelligent design, unintelligent Frist

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who "diagnosed" Terri Schiavo by videotape and later flip-flopped on stem-cell research, has defended the teaching of so-called "intelligent design" alongside evolution. Donklephant has the story, and the links, here.

Two questions:

1) What does Frist's continuing inanity (stem-cell flip-flop notwithstanding) say about Harvard Medical School? Is he, a graduate of that illustrious institution, just an anomaly?

2) How does "intelligent design" account for Frist himself? How is he, one of America's leading political figures, a product of some omniscient prime mover? While we're at it, how is he even a product of Darwinian evolution?

Answers to any and all of the above would be much appreciated.

(See here for a good article on the evolution/ID debate. Needless to say, I side with the Darwinians on this one, though I acknowledge that the theory of evolution doesn't provide all the answers -- it's a scientific theory, after all, not some convenient belief dreamed up as a euphemism for creationism!)

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From Gaza to peace? Israel, the Palestinians, and the acceptance of responsibility

Everything by Elie Wiesel is worth reading -- especially his novels Night, Dawn, and The Forgotten -- and his latest piece in the Times, on "the dispossessed" in Gaza, is no exception.

Honestly, I'm not sure how sympathetic I am to the settlers (or, rather, the former settlers). Given the extremism of their attachment to occupied, spoil-of-war land that has only been theirs for 38 years (although, admittedly, the issue of historical ownership in that part of the world is a rather complex one), I find that I don't have much in the way of sympathy at all.

But Wiesel is right to point out that "[s]uccessive governments, from the left and the right, encouraged them to settle there. In the eyes of their families, they were pioneers, whose idealism was to be celebrated." Indeed, despite a few extreme examples of "offensive and undignified" behaviour -- and, let's face it, our media tend to focus on those examples at the expense of a more objective assessment of the evacuation -- "the majority have responded in a dignified way: with tears". And, really, could we have expected anything else from people who have been forced to leave their homes, however violently the land was acquired 38 years ago? Would we all be so good as to respond just with tears?

This line in Wiesel's piece struck me: "I know only that in my opinion, what is missing from the chapter now closing is a collective gesture that ought to be made, but that hasn't been made, by the Palestinians." Is he not right? Much of the focus is on Israel, and more specifically on the Israeli settlers and the Israeli government that is behind the evacuation. But what of the Palestinians themselves? As Israel pushes ahead with the evacuation of occupied land, essentially ripping its own people from their homes, rightly or wrongly, are the Palestinians themselves doing enough for the sake of peace?

Israel has made its mistakes, to be sure, and I'm certainly not unqualifiedly pro-Israel myself, but it does seem to me that most of the blame for the Israeli-Palestinian problem has been unduly heaped on Israel (especially by a post-national Europe that seems uncomfortable with Israel's unapologetic assertion of nationhood), with the Palestinians turned largely into victims of unjust Israeli aggression and oppression. There's more than enough blame to go around, however, and the Palestinians -- and especially their leadership and more extremist elements -- deserve their fair share, too.

Wiesel is right: "Gaza... is but one chapter in a book that must ultimately be about peace." But both sides need to take responsibility and to work hard for peace. Unfortunately, it seems that one side is doing much more than the other.

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