Friday, September 28, 2007

Morning Links: Petraeus, Iran, and Belief

  • I wonder whether the new issue of The American Conservative will ignite the same kind of controversy with its "Sycophant Savior" article as the ad did:
    David Petraeus is a political general. Yet in presenting his recent assessment of the Iraq War and in describing the “way forward,” Petraeus demonstrated that he is a political general of the worst kind—one who indulges in the politics of accommodation that is Washington’s bread and butter but has thereby deferred a far more urgent political imperative, namely, bringing our military policies into harmony with our political purposes...

    Politically, it qualifies as a brilliant maneuver. The general’s relationships with official Washington remain intact. Yet he has broken faith with the soldiers he commands and the Army to which he has devoted his life. He has failed his country. History will not judge him kindly.

    Yowtch. I'm kidding, of course. There's no chance the media or the Senate responds to The American Conservative as they did to Because of liberal bias, you see.

  • Glenn Greenwald points to some "extraordinary reports about what appears to be the virtual refusal of senior military officials to permit a war with Iran."

  • Eliezer Yudowsky writes about belief and evidence and what it would take to convince him that 2 + 2 = 3.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Official Texas GOP Platform on Gays - No Kids Allowed

In pointing out the hypocrisy of Republican hawks who've suddenly become concerned for Iranian gays, Glenn Greenwald provides a link to the official 2006 State Republican Platform of Texas, highlighting these excerpts:
Homosexuality - We believe that the practice of sodomy tears at the fabric of society, contributes to the breakdown of the family unit, and leads to the spread of dangerous, communicable diseases. Homosexual behavior is contrary to the fundamental, unchanging truths that have been ordained by God, recognized by our country’s founders, and shared by the majority of Texans. Homosexuality must not be presented as an acceptable “alternative” lifestyle in our public education and policy, nor should “family” be redefined to include homosexual “couples.” We are opposed to any granting of special legal entitlements, recognition, or privileges including, but not limited to, marriage between persons of the same sex, custody of children by homosexuals, homosexual partner insurance or retirement benefits. We oppose any criminal or civil penalties against those who oppose homosexuality out of faith, conviction, or belief in traditional values.

Texas Sodomy Statutes - We oppose the legalization of sodomy. We demand that Congress exercise its authority granted by the U.S. Constitution to withhold jurisdiction from the federal courts from cases involving sodomy.

The official GOP platform in Texas is that gay people should not be allowed custody of their children. Before we bomb Iran because they hang gay people, maybe Mr. Bush should have a little talk with his colleagues back home. Taking children away from homosexual parents is not as bad as executing gays, but that's kind of like saying slavery isn't as bad as murder. One wonders how many Texas Republicans would in fact privately support gay executions, considering what they're willing to say in public.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

America, Where Some are More Equal than Others

Radley Balko has an ongoing series he calls "Scalia's New Professionalism" (after Scalia's idiotic opinion in Hudson v. Michigan) in which he points out grievous abuses of power or displays of ineptitude by law enforcement.

Balko's latest post in the series points to this disgusting site, which is a site for cops to name other cops who had the nerve to write them tickets simply because they were breaking the law. Can't tell for sure if it's real, but if it's a fake, it's a pretty elaborate one.

Here's the first story on the site:
On June 20, 2007, I was heading to Springfield, Illinois from Chicago on Interstate 55 (I-55) to give a training seminar on LAW ENFORCEMENT defensive tactics. As I am driving, I'm really not paying attention to where I am at or how fast I was going. I was pretty much keeping up with the cars in front of me and next to. Most of the time I had my cruise set at 77-79 in a 65. Up ahead, I saw a few state police units (4 or 5, when you you work in the city a bunch would be 15-20) with people pulled over. Being the cop that I am (and what we all should be), I slowed and then made sure none of them were in any danger or getting their ass kicked.

By his own admission, he was doing 77-79 in a 65 and "really not paying attention to where I am at or how fast I was going."
As I passed a state trooper, she kept her lights on and pulled back onto the highway and got behind me. I pulled over and had my license out when she approached. I figured that she saw the FOP badge on my plate (hopefully they'll show the picture). It's not something that any ordinary person can buy. They're numbered and you have to be the police to get one.

Once she got to my window, she took my license and told me that I was clocked by airspeed doing 84.9 miles per hour. That seemed a little high, but we know not to argue. She asked why the hurry. I told her I wasn't in a hurry and that I was en route to give a LAW ENFORCEMENT defensive tactics training seminar in Springfield. I actually gave her the business card of my contact at the Police Academy. The same academy that trains the state police! I then mentioned that I have been law enforcement for almost 15 years and would appreciate a break. She then told me that she couldn't do that because she was the "catch car". I then rattled off a couple names of who might be flying the plane that was above (Butler, Galvan). I worked with a couple during a DEA detail once and I KNOW they would give me the nod. That didn't even phase her. I then realized that I was getting a ticket. After stopping hundreds of cops on Lake Shore Drive, some state, I was getting a ticket. I have friends in state police districts 2, 5 and of course Chicago. This troop, Trpr Schroder #3512, from district 6 is the only officer to ever give me a ticket while I have been a police officer. Congrats to you.

Lovely. I wonder what kind of retaliation he is hoping for by singling her out by name.
I really didn't mind the ticket once I knew I was getting one. I've written thousands and is it really that bad?? The thing that bothers me is 1) she showed no respect for me. All the years I have worked, the different units I've been on, the shitheads that I have arrested didn't mean squat to her. I've given breaks before for people doing 19 miles over the limit. I have even let one go for doing 150+ on LSD. She didn't know this and that's the whole idea! She should have given me the break knowing that I go out there everyday and risk my life. I wouldn't have given her a ticket! 2) Now as a training instructor, she was is the danger zone. She wasn't paying any attention to what was going on. She was just writing the ticket. She looked to be well over retirement age and probably was just sticking around to get those few more percents on her pension. She didn't even see my duty weapon.. :( In plain view...

All I can say that when a district 6 troop gets a ticket, you can thank Trpr. Schroder. I hope this story gets out. Since I instruct with several training agencies, NEMRT, and the academies, I will use this as an example of how not to show professional courtesy. I wonder if I'll see anyone I know in traffic school (LOL).

UPDATE: Contacts within ISP tell us that they write even their own. How pathetic!!! I'm sure there are 12,000 or so officers from a "big city" that are itching to catch a ISP Trooper. Hope they only return the favor to district 6.

He let someone (presumably a fellow officer) go for doing 150+ mph on LSD and appears to think that this is not only standard procedure, but much better than writing up a fellow officer for something as petty as, you know, breaking the law and endangering the lives of civilians.

I can only hope that this site is a honeypot operation, where they are secretly logging entries from corrupted officers in order to do a massive, nation-wide housecleaning. Something tells me not to hold my breath.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

GOP Plays the Media and Dems Like a Fiddle

This is the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen.
The Senate voted Thursday to condemn an advertisement by the liberal anti-war group that accused the top military commander in Iraq of betrayal.

The 72-25 vote condemned the full-page ad that appeared in The New York Times last week as Gen. David Petraeus, the top military commander in Iraq, testified on Capitol Hill. The ad was headlined: "General Petraeus or General Betray Us? Cooking the books for the White House."

The ad became a life raft for the Republican party as the war debate kicked into high gear. With several Republicans opposed to President Bush's war strategy, GOP members were able to put aside their differences and rally around their disapproval of the ad.

Holy freaking hell. Here's what matters: whether or not the freaking surge is working. Here's what we're talking about: a newspaper ad by

There is no liberal media. If there were a liberal media, we'd be talking about, you know, how the surge isn't freaking working. The GAO says so. The National Intelligence Estimate says so. 90% of the Iraqi people say so. George Will says so. 70% of the American people say so. Virtually the only people left who don't say so report directly to George Bush.

Petraeus was given an impossible task and of course he's going to put the best possible spin on it. What's he going to say? "No, sir. The job's too hard? I can't do it?"

And it's not like he has an unimpeachable nonpartisan history of speaking the truth. Here's what he said in 2004 on Charlie Rose:
But what I would say is that there has been enormous progress just in the seven or eight months that we've actually been recruiting, training, equipping and employing Iraqi security forces. Huge progress.

And see this op-ed by former Reagan defense official Lawrence J. Korb:
On Sept. 26, 2004, about six weeks before the presidential election, in which the deteriorating situation in Iraq was an increasingly important issue, then Lt. Gen. Petraeus published a misleading commentary in the Washington Post. In that article, Petraeus, who was then in charge of training Iraqi security forces, spoke glowingly about the tangible progress that those forces were making under his tutelage. According to Petraeus, more than 200,000 Iraqis were performing a wide variety of security missions; training was on track and increasing in capacity; 45 Iraqi National Guard battalions and six regular Army battalions were conducting operations on a daily basis; and by the end of November 2004, six more regular Army battalions and six additional Intervention Force battalions would become operational.

Because Bush administration policy at that time was that "we will stand down when they stand up," this article, in effect, conveyed to the American electorate that the Iraqis were, indeed, standing up, and, therefore, there was light at the end of the tunnel for the Iraqi quagmire.

If Petraeus wrote on his own initiative, he was injecting himself improperly into a political campaign. If he was encouraged or even allowed to do this by his civilian superiors, he was allowing himself to be used for partisan political purposes.


Was Gen. William Westmoreland ever objective about the attrition strategy in Vietnam or Gen. Douglas MacArthur about the Chinese intervention in Korea?

Sure calling him "General Betray Us" is out of line. But how did that become the whole freaking story? What in the world were the Democrats thinking going along with this idiotic Senate condemnation? (Clinton and Dodd voted against it; Obama didn't vote.)

Was there a whole media firestorm when Ann Coulter wrote a book that basically called every liberal who ever lived a traitor? (The book was called Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism.) Did the Senate vote to condemn Sean Hannity's book Deliver Us from Evil : Defeating Terrorism, Despotism, and Liberalism?

What a freaking crock. Go to hell, media.

Republican Mayor Changes His Mind on Gay Marriage

A reader complained recently that my blog is full of bad news. Here's some good news:

Via Andrew Sullivan, a moving video.

Two years ago, I believed that civil unions were a fair alternative. Those beliefs, in my case, have since changed. The concept of a "separate but equal" institution is not something that I can support.

I acknowledge that not all members of our community will agree or perhaps even understand my decision today. All I can offer them is that I am trying to do what I believe is right.

I have close family members and friends who are members of the gay and lesbian community. These folks include my daughter Lisa and her partner, as well as members of my personal staff.

I want for them the same thing that we all want for our loved ones -- for each of them to find a mate whom they love deeply and who loves them back; someone with whom they can grow old together and share life's wondrous adventures.

And I want their relationships to be protected equally under the law. In the end, I could not look any of them in the face and tell them that their relationships -- their very lives -- were any less meaningful than the marriage that I share with my wife Rana.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Is the Surge Working?

Survey of Iraqis says... "NO."

Ezra Klein points to this BBC/ABC poll:
"The United States has increased the number of its forces in Baghdad and surrounding provinces in the past six months. Please tell me if you think this increase of forces has made it better, worse, or had no effect?"

Almost half of those polled want us to leave immediately, while the rest want us to remain for at least a little while:
"How long do you think US and other Coalition forces should remain in Iraq?"


The poll was conducted by D3 Systems and KA Research Ltd for the BBC, ABC News, and NHK of Japan. Some 2,112 Iraqis were questioned in more than 450 neighbourhoods across all the 18 provinces of Iraq between August 17 and August 24, 2007. The margin of error is + or - 2.5%.

Why go by survey data (or trust the GAO assessment or the intelligence assessments) when we can cherry-pick indicators that can kind of make the surge look like it's working, if we really squint? Or better yet, trust Gen Petraeus's attempt to put the best possible face on reality? Or that one blogger, who's in Iraq, and says things are all flowers and apple pie?

Auschwitz and the Banality of Evil

DovBear points to this disturbing article and slideshow in today's New York Times. Recently donated photographs reveal the Nazi officers of Auschwitz relaxing in their off time -- enjoying a sing-a-long, lighting a Christmas tree, smiling and looking completely carefree. They look like, as DB titled his post, "ordinary people."


  • XGH introduces us to biblical scholar and semi-Orthodox Jew James Kugel with a book review and an article.
  • The Friendly Atheist has a video of a creationist who literally does not know if the world is flat or not.
  • He also provides a link to a poll that shows 66% of Americans think that "Creationism, that is, the idea that God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years" is "Definitely true" or "Probably true."

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Pinky and the Brain

Not the kind of thing I'd generally post, but as a former Animaniacs fan I couldn't pass this one up:

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Greenspan Criticizes Bush, Praises Bill Clinton

Stating the obvious, but it's nice to hear a lifelong Republican with Greenspan's reputation say it:
Alan Greenspan, who served as Federal Reserve chairman for 18 years and was the leading Republican economist for the past three decades, levels unusually harsh criticism at President Bush and the Republican Party in his new book, arguing that Bush abandoned the central conservative principle of fiscal restraint.

While condemning Democrats, too, for rampant federal spending, he offers Bill Clinton an exemption. The former president emerges as the political hero of "The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World," Greenspan's 531-page memoir, which is being published Monday.

Greenspan, who had an eight-year alliance with Clinton and Democratic Treasury secretaries in the 1990s, praises Clinton's mind and his tough anti-deficit policies, calling the former president's 1993 economic plan "an act of political courage."

But he expresses deep disappointment with Bush. "My biggest frustration remained the president's unwillingness to wield his veto against out-of-control spending," Greenspan writes. "Not exercising the veto power became a hallmark of the Bush presidency. . . . To my mind, Bush's collaborate-don't-confront approach was a major mistake."

Greenspan accuses the Republicans who presided over the party's majority in the House until last year of being too eager to tolerate excessive federal spending in exchange for political opportunity. The Republicans, he says, deserved to lose control of the Senate and House in last year's elections. "The Republicans in Congress lost their way," Greenspan writes. "They swapped principle for power. They ended up with neither."

Read the rest.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Young Muslims Fight for the Right to Abandon Faith

A group of young Muslim apostates launches a campaign today, the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on America, to make it easier to renounce Islam.

The provocative move reflects a growing rift between traditionalists and a younger generation raised on a diet of Dutch tolerance.

The Committee for Ex-Muslims promises to campaign for freedom of religion but has already upset the Islamic and political Establishments for stirring tensions among the million-strong Muslim community in the Netherlands.

Ehsan Jami, the committee’s founder, who rejected Islam after the attack on the twin towers in 2001, has become the most talked-about public figure in the Netherlands. He has been forced into hiding after a series of death threats and a recent attack.

The threats are taken seriously after the murder in 2002 of Pim Fortuyn, an antiimmigration politician, and in 2004 of Theo Van Gogh, an antiIslam film-maker.

Speaking to The Times at a secret location before the committee’s launch today, the Labour Party councillor said that the movement would declare war on radical Islam. Similar organisations campaigning for reform of the religion have sprung up across Europe and representatives from Britain and Germany will join the launch in The Hague today.

“Sharia schools say that they will kill the ones who leave Islam. In the West people get threatened, thrown out of their family, beaten up,” Mr Jami said. “In Islam you are born Muslim. You do not even choose to be Muslim. We want that to change, so that people are free to choose who they want to be and what they want to believe in.”

Mr Jami, 22, who has abandoned his studies as his political career has taken off, denied that the choice of September 11 was deliberately provocative towards the Islamic Establishment. “We chose the date because we want to make a clear statement that we no longer tolerate the intolerence of Islam, the terrorist attacks,” he said.

“In 1965 the Church in Holland made a declaration that freedom of conscience is above hanging on to religion, so you can choose whether you are going to be a Christian or not. What we are seeking is the same thing for Islam.”

Mr Jami, who has compared the rise of radical Islam to the threat from Nazism in the 1930s, is receiving only lukewarm support from his party which traditionally relies upon Muslim votes. His outspoken attack on radical Islam has led to a prelaunch walk-out from fellow committee founder Loubna Berrada, who herself rejected Islam.

She said: “I don’t wish to confront Islam itself. I only want to spread the message that Muslims should be allowed to leave Islam behind without being threatened.”


Jannie Groen, a writer for De Volksrant newspaper, said: “[Among Muslims] he is getting the same reaction as Ayaan Hirsi Ali that he is too confrontational but you are seeing other former Muslims now coming forward. So he has been able to put this issue of apostasy on the agenda, even though they do not want to be in the same room as him and he has had to pay a price.”

Times Online
, via Reddit.


I wasn't able to write about 9/11 this morning for reasons I wasn't quite able to decipher. Then I read this piece by Ezra Klein:

I felt a bit conflicted about writing this post. What you want to do is remember an awful crime. What you end up doing is invoking a Republican talking point. That is all that remains of the term "9/11." As Gary Kamiya correctly points out, 9/11 need hardly be remembered: The President won't stop bringing it up. "President Bush used the attacks to justify his 2003 invasion of Iraq," writes Kamiya. "And he has been using 9/11 ever since to scare Americans into supporting his 'war on terror.' He has incessantly linked the words 'al-Qaida' and 'Iraq,' a Pavlovian device to make us whimper with fear at the mere idea of withdrawing. In a recent speech about Iraq, he mentioned al-Qaida 95 times. No matter that jihadists in Iraq are not the same group that attacked the U.S., or that their numbers and effectiveness have been greatly exaggerated. It's no surprise that Gen. David Petraeus' 'anxiously awaited' evaluation of the war is to be given on the 10th and 11th of September."

9/11 has been robbed of its significance. It no longer lights up the neurons recalling an American tragedy, but instead activates that understand political strategy. I hate them for that. So this isn't a 9/11 remembrance. We've never been allowed to forget 9/11. Not for an instant. What we have been allowed to forget is 2,974 individuals who perished in that attack, who didn't die because they wanted to invade Iraq or because they thought Republicans were insufficiently competitive in elections, but because they were murdered. Remember them.

I remember talking to my father on 9/11, shell-shocked by what I had seen, but also worried by what I feared was coming. "I hope Saddam isn't behind this." That's what I said, because I knew that if he was, that if the atrocity were the doing of a country rather than a stateless terrorist organization, there was going to be a real war.

I guess I wasn't cynical enough, because it didn't occur to me that our government would use 9/11 to go to war with Saddam even if he had nothing to do with 9/11. I didn't realize that they would use 9/11 to stifle dissent. I didn't realize that six years later, Rudy Giuliani, who did nothing on 9/11 but run around aimlessly, would shamelessly attempt to cash in on it by mentioning it every ten seconds during a run for president. (President!)

Have they no decency?

I also didn't know that six years after 9/11, six years after discovering that it was Osama bin Laden and not Saddam Hussein who orchestrated the attacks, that the hijackers were overwhelmingly Saudi and not Iraqi, that one third of all Americans and 40% of all Republicans would believe that Saddam Hussein was "personally involved" in the 9/11 attacks. (NY Times/CBS poll.)

Let us remember this tragedy for what it was, but also for what it was not. Let us stop allowing politicians to manipulate its memory for personal and political gain.

George Will: The Surge Has Failed

Conservative columnist George Will, A War Still Seeking a Mission:
Before Gen. David Petraeus's report, and to give it a context of optimism, the president visited Iraq's Anbar province to underscore the success of the surge in making some hitherto anarchic areas less so. More significant, however, was that the president did not visit Baghdad. This underscored the fact that the surge has failed, as measured by the president's and Petraeus's standards of success.


The purpose of the surge, they said, is to buy time -- "breathing space," the president says -- for Iraqi political reconciliation. Because progress toward that has been negligible, there is no satisfactory answer to this question: What is the U.S. military mission in Iraq?

Many of those who insist that the surge is a harbinger of U.S. victory in Iraq are making the same mistake they made in 1991 when they urged an advance on Baghdad, and in 2003 when they underestimated the challenge of building democracy there. The mistake is exaggerating the relevance of U.S. military power to achieve political progress in a society riven by ethnic and sectarian hatreds. America's military leaders, who are professional realists, do not make this mistake.


A democracy, wrote the diplomat and scholar George Kennan, "fights for the very reason that it was forced to go to war. It fights to punish the power that was rash enough and hostile enough to provoke it -- to teach that power a lesson it will not forget, to prevent the thing from happening again. Such a war must be carried to the bitter end." Which is why "unconditional surrender" was a natural U.S. goal in World War II and why Americans were so uncomfortable with three "wars of choice" since then -- in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq.

What "forced" America to go to war in 2003 -- the "gathering danger" of weapons of mass destruction -- was fictitious. That is one reason this war will not be fought, at least not by Americans, to the bitter end. The end of the war will, however, be bitter for Americans, partly because the president's decision to visit Iraq without visiting its capital confirmed the flimsiness of the fallback rationale for the war -- the creation of a unified, pluralist Iraq.

Emphasis added.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Prisons Purging Books on Faith From Libraries

This is ridiculous:
Behind the walls of federal prisons nationwide, chaplains have been quietly carrying out a systematic purge of religious books and materials that were once available to prisoners in chapel libraries.

The chaplains were directed by the Bureau of Prisons to clear the shelves of any books, tapes, CDs and videos that are not on a list of approved resources. In some prisons, the chaplains have recently dismantled libraries that had thousands of texts collected over decades, bought by the prisons, or donated by churches and religious groups.

Some inmates are outraged. Two of them, a Christian and an Orthodox Jew, in a federal prison camp in upstate New York, filed a class-action lawsuit last month claiming the bureau’s actions violate their rights to the free exercise of religion as guaranteed by the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Traci Billingsley, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Prisons, said the agency was acting in response to a 2004 report by the Office of the Inspector General in the Justice Department. The report recommended steps that prisons should take, in light of the Sept. 11 attacks, to avoid becoming recruiting grounds for militant Islamic and other religious groups. The bureau, an agency of the Justice Department, defended its effort, which it calls the Standardized Chapel Library Project, as a way of barring access to materials that could, in its words, “discriminate, disparage, advocate violence or radicalize.”

Ms. Billingsley said, “We really wanted consistently available information for all religious groups to assure reliable teachings as determined by reliable subject experts.”

But prison chaplains, and groups that minister to prisoners, say that an administration that put stock in religion-based approaches to social problems has effectively blocked prisoners’ access to religious and spiritual materials — all in the name of preventing terrorism.


The Bureau of Prisons said it relied on experts to produce lists of up to 150 book titles and 150 multimedia resources for each of 20 religions or religious categories — everything from Bahaism to Yoruba. The lists will be expanded in October, and there will be occasional updates, Ms. Billingsley said. Prayer books and other worship materials are not affected by this process.

The lists are broad, but reveal eccentricities and omissions. There are nine titles by C. S. Lewis, for example, and none from the theologians Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth and Cardinal Avery Dulles, and the influential pastor Robert H. Schuller.


“Otisville had a very extensive library of Jewish religious books, many of them donated,” said David Zwiebel, executive vice president for government and public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox Jewish group. “It was decimated. Three-quarters of the Jewish books were taken off the shelves.”

Shockingly (not) there appear to be certain biases:
In some cases, the lists indicate their authors’ preferences. For example, more than 80 of the 120 titles on the list for Judaism are from the same Orthodox publishing house...

“There are some well-chosen things in here,” Professor Larsen said. “I’m particularly glad that Dietrich Bonhoeffer is there. If I was in prison I would want to read Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” But he continued, “There’s a lot about it that’s weird.” The lists “show a bias toward evangelical popularism and Calvinism,” he said, and lacked materials from early church fathers, liberal theologians and major Protestant denominations.

Because if there's one group of religious people who encourage violence, it's liberal theologians.

What were they thinking? How could it possibly be a good idea -- or remotely Constitutional -- for the government to decide which religious books are okay and which aren't? Anyway, if we're going to start removing religious books from prisons for condoning violence, wouldn't the Old Testament and the Quran have to be at the front of the line? Obviously, they can't remove those, so what's the point?

Hat tip to Marina Grace.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

What We're Up Against

The WorldNetDaily (also known as "WorldNutDaily" because they're really freaking nuts) bemoans the fact that "almost half of voters polled say they'd support a God-denier for president:"
In earlier eras, atheists were on the fringes of society, mistrusted by the mainstream. Those few who dared to publicly push their beliefs on society, like Madalyn Murray O'Hair, were widely regarded as malevolent kooks...

"How can this be happening?," you might wonder. "Hasn't America always been a Christian nation?"

No question about it. America was founded by Christians. Its very purpose for being was the furtherance of biblical Christianity, according to the Pilgrims and succeeding generations. The nation's school system was created for the express purpose of propagating the Christian faith. Almost all of the Founding Fathers who drafted and signed the Constitution were Christian believers. Even U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Josiah Brewer, in the high court's 1892 "Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States" decision, proclaimed what was then considered obvious to just about everyone: "This is a Christian nation."

Today, however, many Americans are infatuated with outright, full-bore atheism. In fact, Dawkins, the Oxford scientist who wrote "The God Delusion," is even selling young people "Scarlet Letter" tee-shirts with a giant "A" – for "atheist" – on his website (and bumper stickers too). Somehow, atheism – just like homosexuality, which used to be considered shameful and something to hide – is now becoming hip, sophisticated, enlightened, even a badge of honor.

Via Ed Brayton.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Death, Marriage, and Orthodox Judaism

Abandoning Eden is having a bit of a hard time dealing with her father's religiosity following his mother's death. This reminded me of some of the frustrations I've felt over the years regarding deaths and other lifecycle events in the Orthodox community.

Once, I attended a funeral of one of the most loving, cheerful, generous, and entertaining men I'd ever known. Even as he got older and less well, at a time of life when many people become cranky and irritable, he went out of his way to make people smile. One of his children got married when he was quite elderly and having trouble moving, but the way he got out there on the dance floor and put on a show for the kallah (bride) and crowd was something I'll never forget.

During the eulogies at his funeral, I was dismayed to hear nothing about his kindness, good cheer, or overwhelming generosity. All of the speeches were about how religious he was and how devoted to learning Torah. Those things were also true about him, but they didn't reflect what he was like as a human being and I was sad to know that what had been to me his most unique and affecting qualities were not even related to the enormous crowd that attended.

When my paternal grandfather was gravely ill, there were some tough decisions to make regarding his end-of-life care. Instead of coming together as a family and deciding what we thought was best, my father started calling around to find an available rabbi to tell him what halakha (Orthodox law) demanded in this situation. This may indeed have been what my grandfather would have wanted, so I cannot criticize my father's actions, but it felt inappropriate somehow to entrust the most personal of decisions to a man who was a stranger to us, who based his advice on an impersonal interpretation of halakha. This was before I had realized that I was an atheist and I clearly remember thinking, "This is too important to start worrying about halakha stuff." I think that was the first time I realized that I was no longer an Orthodox Jew on the inside.

Even some of the traditional Jewish gestures that had the potential to be meaningful were robbed of their authenticity by the focus on the letter of the law. For example, while I can clearly see the meaning and importance of a symbolic action like the rending of clothes, the fact that the mourners donned old suits, carefully ripping them according to specific instructions, made the action formulaic rather than moving or cathartic.

I found the practice of sitting shiva itself to be profound and psychologically helpful to the mourners. They were forced to face their grief and they were surrounded by people who loved them for an entire week. The adherence to formula raised its head here only when people were leaving, when all repeated the same sentence, rather than using their own words: Ha-Makom y'nachem et'chem b'toch sha'ar aveilei Tzion v'Yerushalayim. May God console you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

That was my father's shiva experience, but it isn't everyone's. A family friend was a convert, who was unable to sit shiva when his father died because his father was not Jewish. Others lost family members a day or two before a Jewish holiday, which cuts the shiva period short, sometimes to less than a day. These, too, I think, are example of the focus on formula taking away from meaningfulness.

At some weddings, too, I've been disappointed in the importance given to the religious over the personal. At one wedding of a dear friend, I wouldn't have even known whose wedding it was if I'd walked in off the street. My friend the groom walked down the aisle (having fasted all day) with unspeakable solemnity, reciting tehillim (psalms) under his breath. The Rabbi sped through the ketubah (marriage contract) in Hebrew, a few distant relatives I'd never met before gave religious speeches in English and Yiddish (a language few in the crowd understood) and the brachot (blessings) were muttered under the chupah with no explanation or elaboration given to the attendees, as is usually done in less right-wing services.

There were few if any smiles and no genuine joy that I could detect during the ceremony. Part of this was no doubt due to the fact that the groom and bride had not known each other very long, as is customary in more right-wing Orthodox circles. It appeared that they were painstakingly engaging in some religious activity wholly unrelated to notions of love and the joining of lives.

During the reception, there was separate seating and dancing for men and women. I could tell that many of the dancers were having fun, but they did not seem to be participants in the wedding of a close friend so much as random yeshiva boys out having a good time.

Make no mistake, I have attended Orthodox weddings that were full of joy and love and Orthodox funerals that were meaningful and heartfelt. It's not that Orthodox ceremonies necessarily miss the point, but that in some of the more right-leaning ones, so much attention is paid to the elaborate rituals and assuring that everything is done perfectly according to halakha that the big picture is almost completely lost.

At least that's how it seems to me.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

On the Consequences of Withdrawing from Iraq

It's become a popular argument among those who are against withdrawal that pulling our troops out of Iraq would lead to a bloodbath. It's a good argument in that it appeals to the compassion of those who are advocating withdrawal for mostly compassionate reasons, but it's a bad argument because it misses the point.

Mark Kleiman sums it up well:

More Iraqis will probably die of violence just after a U.S. withdrawal than are dying violently now. That will hand the pro-war forces a rhetorical "I told you so." Anyone who can blame what happened in Cambodia on U.S. doves is clearly shameless enough to blame the civil war in Iraq on the people who opposed the invasion rather than those who carried it out and then bungled the occupation.

But that's not a good enough reason to hang around, unless at some point it stops being true: that six months, or a year, or two years, or five years from now we would be able to withdraw and not have civil war and massacre follow. If we're spending blood and treasure only to postpone a catastrophe we can't prevent, the "humanitarian" argument against a fairly rapid withdrawal collapses.

Unless we are making progress towards an Iraqi government capable of preventing a civil war -- and it appears that we are not -- then there will be a civil war and probably ethnic cleansing whenever we leave. The question then is not whether leaving will lead to a bloodbath, but whether staying is simply putting off the inevitable -- but at immense cost to us, militarily, politically, and fiscally.

That a bloodbath would eventually follow the removal of Saddam Hussein has always been obvious. Dick Cheney himself said so in the 1990s and those who opposed this war from the beginning said it in 2002. To blame the inevitable on the people who have been right all along is disgraceful.

Unfortunately, this looks like it's playing out exactly as I predicted at the end of last year:
The administration will smear anyone who suggests we might have to cut our losses and leave. (The dreaded "cut and run.") They'll do so right until there is absolutely no other option. Then it will be an unplanned, "chaotic bugout with huge, avoidable losses of men and materiel." Then they'll blame the Democrats.

If they're responsible, we can minimize the damage we do by leaving. We can set a timetable and do our best to prepare the Iraqi army. We can take other diplomatic and military options to make our inevitable withdrawal less harmful. But they're not responsible. They're going to wait and wait and soldiers are going to keep dying until finally the truth is absolutely undeniable, and then they'll bug out in an awful mess and blame the Democrats.

If the right is so concerned about the results of our withdrawal, the time to start planning for it is right freaking now. We should be talking about the way to withdraw with the least possible damage to Iraq, but instead the Bush administration is forcing us to continue arguing about whether the damn surge is working.

Before the invasion, the administration failed to plan adequately for the occupation and reconstruction. Now they are failing to plan for the inevitable withdrawal. And you just know they're going to blame the results on the Democrats.

What chutzpah.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Jim McGreevey about Larry Craig

Former Democratic Governor Jim McGreevey, who was forced to admit to having a homosexual affair with a subordinate and later resign, has an interesting opinion piece in the Washington Post today, calling for understanding and compassion for the recently disgraced Republican Senator Larry Craig. He also relates his story of growing up gay and ashamed, and his journey to finally coming out and living honestly, post-scandal.

It's also the first time I've seen someone admit that he specifically took anti-gay stances in order to appear more straight:
Despite being a moderately liberal governor, my stance on marriage was: "between a man and a woman." The position, in my mind, created a tension with the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender community that affirmed my bona fides as a "straight." Only after the crisis that resulted in my resignation, when public opinion no longer mattered, did I realize the importance and legitimacy of same-sex marriage.

He remains religious but has apparently come to a new understanding:
If being gay is, as I believe, a natural gift of the creator, what choice does a gay person have in being gay? If we condemn sin in an equal manner, so be it. But what if our condemnation tells to members of the next generation that they are to be shamed, repudiated and vilified inequitably for being gay?

I pray that the tide of American history continues to sweep toward the inevitable expansion of freedom that recognizes the worth and dignity of every individual -- and that mine is the last generation that is required to choose between affairs of the heart and elected office.