Thursday, June 30, 2005

Hyperbole May Be Hazardous

Words are important. Especially today, when credibility is thin and sensitivity to hypocrisy is high. It was unfortunate when earlier this month, Anmesty International damaged its own credibility with an ill-advised hyperbole, calling Guantanamo a "new gulag". (A Soviet dissident provided an eloquent criticism, hat tip Finocchio.) Then, we had the now-infamous comment of Senator Durbin, trying to chide the Senate's sense of conscience to hold America to a high standard. Alas, even though his comments were perfectly reasonable, his hyperbole tripped the offense-sensitivity of many. Right-wing partisans drew immediate comparisons to the unfortunate statements of Senator Lott which lead to his stepping down as Senate Majority Leader (though these comparisons are inapt, as Bilious Young Fogey explains.) Observers may conclude that hyperbole and analogy have become hazardous, to be deployed with extreme consideration if at all.

With that background, it was especially interesting to read the recent spate of reflection on the gays/blacks analogy. For most of us in the gay community, it is very clear that the equal rights we seek (employment non-discrimination, equal access to marriage and military service) are a matter of Constitutional civil rights. This draws an inevitable comparison to blacks, the original model of civil rights struggle. I can see that sometimes the analogy works well, for instance, in looking at the claims made today about gay marriage and the claims made a few decades ago about "miscegenation". I can also see that sometimes the analogy doesn't work: blacks grow up knowing they are black, with no fear of being rejected by parents who are also black, and blacks can never hide or "pass" as being not black. But until just the other day, I hadn't appreciated how some black people might be strongly offended by the analogy. I was jolted to that realization by the comments of a friend on the recent Senate apology for not outlawing lynching sooner, when he wrote that "society's prevailing psychological and emotional lynching of homosexuals today is just as vicious and inhuman." While I certainly understand his feelings (and in fairness this comment is lifted out of a much larger, thoughtful and heartfelt email), this struck me as one of those out-of-bounds hyperboles. We homosexuals may experience alienation from our families, discrimination in jobs, and societal approbation that on occasion leads to suicide or violent attacks, but our experience does not sink to the level of slavery, Jim Crow, lynch mobs, and bodies swinging from trees. And when the analogy is put so baldly, I can see why it is not only inapt but offensive to some.

This is not to say that gays do not have legitimate civil rights grievances that bear some similarity to issues blacks have faced. But it is to acknowledge that the analogy is imperfect, and should not be stretched to the point of offense and loss of credibility. Andrew Sullivan and Jon Rowe have made arguments that rather than the "new blacks", gays are the "new Jews". Andrew notes the parallels to anti-Semitism, including ability to pass, fear out of all proportion to the size of the minority, and the alleged links (both actual and metaphorical) to the spread of disease. Jon Rowe cites Posner to note that an imperfect analogy to blacks by no means invalidates a claim to civil rights, the same claims having been made by a number of other groups. And before anyone jumps to offense at analogizing gays to Jews on account of the Holocaust, it should be noted that homosexuals were in the concentration camps too. No hyperbole foul there.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

BOOKS: The Tyranny of Printers

I just finished a fascinating history book, The Tyranny of Printers: Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic, by Jeffrey Pasley (a history prof at Univ of Missouri Columbia, and a former staff writer at the New Republic). The book traces the evolution from a relatively apolitical printing trade to a highly politicized press, from the founding of the republic up through the Jackson administration. While the book is a solid contribution to historical scholarship, it is written in a highly accessible style, providing plenty of context for those of us who have forgotten many of the details of high school US History class. But what makes the book most readable is Pasley's style of substantiating his general accounts of demographic and political trends with numerous engaging mini-biographies of specific printers, a colorful lot of characters, to illustrate his points. For me, the book also went beyond forgotten high school history to explain things I never knew about the development of party politics, about the "Federalists" (who stood for the opposite of what is called "federalism" today) and the "Republicans" (the precursor of the modern Democratic party). Given today's highly polarized political climate, it is especially interesting to read about the founding fathers' fears of party politics. In the earliest American elections, it was considered quite unseemly for a candidate to campaign or promote himself in any way. Thomas Jefferson was conflicted in his views of the press, working behind the scenes to encourage a pro-Republican press, while making every effort to personally disassociate himself from newspapers.

This book first came to my attention in the course of my family history research, as it turns out that my great-great-great-great-grandfather Charles Holt is one of the printers given biographical treatment in the book. Holt served as an example of printers who became politicized by the infamous Sedition Act under John Adams' presidency. He started publishing his newspaper intending to be neutral, printing all viewpoints, but quickly discovered that the Federalists who utterly dominated Connecticut would not countenance a newspaper that published any viewpoints other than their own. Just for publishing diverse views, he was labeled "a Jacobin, a Frenchman, a disorganizer, and one who would sell his country." (Sound familiar?) Frustrated in his attempts to be a neutral printer, he dug in, editorializing:
There are generally two sides to every subject. To the public opinion, in a free country, there ever will and should be. And it is the duty of an impartial printer to communicate to the public on both sides freely. But nine tenths of the newspapers in Connecticut are decidedly partial to one side, and keep the other totally out of sight. This is not fair.... The public may therefore rest assured that so long as my brethren in this state print on one side only, so long will I print on the other.
(In other words, Holt anticipated by a couple of centuries Rush Limbaugh's quip that "I am equal time.") Eventually, Holt was convicted under the Sedition Act, heavily fined, and jailed for six months. But as Pasley shows through Holt's example and many others, the Sedition Act, which criminalized criticism of the government, and which intended to stifle the much-feared evils of a politicized press, instead had the opposite effect. A whole generation of printers became more politicized than ever before, and The Sedition Act was not only repealed, but a newly energized explicitly Republican press put Thomas Jefferson into office.

It is amazing how timely and relevant some of the issues of 200 years ago seem, with parallels to today's politically divided climate. (Just as one example, I was struck by Pasley's comment on a trend in the wake of Jefferson's election: "there was a sudden awakening of libertarianism among some Federalists now that some of the weapons of state were in Republican hands." Not unlike our present-day Democrats who are rediscovering federalism, and our Republicans who think government should be small except when they're in control of it.) I also enjoyed getting to know the many colorful characters who illustrated this history book. I think anyone who enjoys politics and history will greatly enjoy this book.

Originalism and the Sedition Act: A Cautionary Note

It's hard for us in our time to even conceive of such a blatantly unconstitutional affront as the 1798 Sedition Act being passed by Congress. Apparently the legal view of the press was different then. As Jeff Pasley relates, in the early republic, truth was not a "complete defense" against libel as it is today, but instead a printer could be successfully sued for printing defamatory charges against someone even if they were true and especially if they were a leader in government or society. (The thinking was that the defamation was harmful to the good order of society.) While certainly Charles Holt and some of his contemporaries saw the Sedition Act as a constitutional affront (Holt was confident that the bill would not pass), this view was not shared by a majority in the Congress that passed it. (See my review of Jeff Pasley's book on early American newspaper politics.)

This should be a cautionary note for those who promote an "originalist" interpretation of the Constitution. For one thing, the "original" Americans, including the original drafters of the Constitution, were not all of one mind on the subject of whether criminalizing criticism of the government violated the freedom of the press. How can "original intent" be an arbiter of Constitutional interpretation if the original "intenders" were not all in agreement? Moreover, insofar as the original intent of the First Amendment might have accommodated such a repugnant restriction on a free press, it should be clear to us now that such original intent can in some cases be flat out wrong.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The Best Interests of the Children

The other week the West Virginia Supreme Court heard a custody case in which a young boy's mother was killed in a car accident, and the grandparents were fighting for custody against the deceased woman's lesbian partner. The two women had raised the child together from his birth 5 years ago. The initial family court hearing gave custody to the partner, as was the recommendation of the independent court-appointed advocate for the child, but an appellate court overturned it, saying that the partner had no standing to petition for custody. The Supreme Court, however, in a 3-2 decision, returned custody to the partner. The Court found this situation to be in the best interest of the child, which they cited as their primary concern. In the majority opinion, Justice Robin Davis wrote, "there unquestionably exists a relationship of significant duration between Tina [the partner] and [the boy] in which Tina has provided for the physical, psychological, financial and emotional needs of [the boy] and such that the child regards Tina as a parental figure in his life."

It is heartening to know that reasonable people will recognize a true family when they see one, and that keeping families together - whether gay or straight - is in the best interest of the children in the family. The fact that some judges felt compelled to separate the boy from his surviving parent for lack of legal standing only underscores the need to give legal recognition to such relationships. To oppose such recognition is to act against the best interests of the children in gay families.

Monday, June 27, 2005

You Have Struck a Rock

As the famous saying from the 1950s South African women's protest movement goes, "when you touch the women, you have struck a rock." This saying came to mind as two rock-strong women were in the recent news. Three years ago, Mukhtaran Bibi, a Pakistani villager, faced down the deplorable tradition of women being gang-raped as a punishment for the crimes of other family members. In her case, her brother had drawn the ire of the village elders, who ordered her gang-raped as punishment for the brother. Instead of rolling over and accepting this, as tradition dictated, she hauled her rapists along with the elders into court and had them convicted and jailed, and then used the compensation money to start a school in her village. Recently, this courageous woman had been intending to visit the US to tell her story (and raise more money for her charitable works), when President Musharraf, not wanting Pakistan to look bad, put her under house arrest and released her rapists from prison. Of course, President Musharraf had horrible advice on that one, and should be embarrassed not by Mukhtaran Bibi, but by his government's reaction to this situation. (Feel free to send email to President Musharraf and tell him what you think. Also email Condoleeza Rice, who has been expressing US disapproval through diplomatic channels. Hat tip to my friend Cathy on this one.)

Meanwhile, last week also saw the 60th birthday of Aung San Suk Kyi, the democratically elected Prime Minister of Myanmar, who has been under military confinement for most of the past 16 years, and has never been able to serve her elected office. Nonetheless, she has stayed in her country to serve as a beacon of democracy and leadership, at great personal cost. (She had some opportunities to leave, but knew she could never come back, so she chose to stay, despite not being able to see her children living in England and her husband who died in 1999, and who was not allowed to enter Myanmar.) People throughout the country quietly celebrated her birthday with symbols such as releasing 10 doves (to mark the number of years she's been imprisoned) and 61 ballons (to start her 61st year of life). (You can read more about Burma and support Aung San Suk Kyi here.)

These courageous women, along with others like them (the recent Nobel Peace laureates Shirin Ebadi of Iran and Wangari Maathai of Kenya come to mind). It's worth taking a moment to read their stories, and to thank God for rocks like them.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

FILM: Bewitched

On the spur of the moment, we caught Bewitched this weekend (very uncharacteristic of us to catch a just-released movie), and we were certainly charmed by it. Despite the unenthusiastic reviews we'd heard, we found it to be quite enjoyable. I loved the TV show as a kid, and the movie rewards fans of the TV show with getting to see most of the favorite characters, including Uncle Arthur, Aunt Clara, and even Gladys and Abner Kravitz. But instead of just trying to remake the TV show, writer-director Nora Ephron spins the old witch-tries-to-live-the-mortal-life story in a new way, by setting it in present-day Hollywood, and making a remake of the TV series a story within the story. The device works very well to give satisfying nods to the old series, while giving us a fresh witch-meets-mortal comedic love story, and poking fun at Hollywood along the way. The classic remake problem of never being able to live up to the original is circumvented by not trying to be the original. (Devotees of the genre will also appreciate the references to Bell, Book and Candle, the classic Jimmy Stewart / Kim Novak film that inspired the TV series.) Nicole Kidman could not have been more perfect at channeling Samantha. Will Ferrell was a bit over-the-top goofy in his acting at times, but it worked, since after all he was playing an over-the-top goofy actor. Michael Caine was excellent as Nicole Kidman's warlock father, appearing in the craziest places and ways, and Shirley MacLaine was brilliant as the diva actress who plays Endora. The whole movie is a bit goofy (as was the TV series), but it satisfied my nostalgia for the show and gave us some good laughs. Good summer fun!

Friday, June 24, 2005

Piracy: Old World and New

In Article 1, Section 8 of the US Constitution, where the powers of Congress are enumerated, there is included an obscure power to grant "letters of marque and reprisal". Letters of marque and reprisal are authorizations for private citizens to engage in acts of piracy against a foreign nation, transforming pirates into "privateers". In the 18th century, this was often used as a low-level act of hostility against an enemy nation, instead of (or as a supplement to) a full war. An 1856 treaty called the Declaration of Paris banned letters of marque and reprisal, which the United States has generally abided by, but has never actually been a signatory. The Confederate States of America did authorize some privateers.

I first learned about letters of marque and reprisal in researching my great-great-great-great-grandfather Captain William H. Dobbs of New York, who was nearly hung for piracy in Boston in 1756, but was instead given letters of marque by the British and encouraged to harrass the French during the French and Indian War. He gladly did so, and captured at least one French frigate near Haiti.

In the news coverage of the Vietnamese Prime Minister visiting Microsoft last week, it was noted that software used in Vietnam was estimated to be 92% pirated, the highest rate of piracy in the world. It seems to me that countries such as Vietnam and China that have no intellectual property laws (or lax enforcement thereof) are effectively issuing letters of marque and reprisal to all their citizens who pirate software or entertainment content. Though trade reprisals and actions against private foreign actors are generally ill-advised for both sides, there would certainly be poetic justice in the US authorizing some privateers to go out and seize ships full of Vietnamese and Chinese goods.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

New World Order?

On Monday, the Prime Minister of Vietnam, Phan Van Khai, visited the United States, stopping first in Redmond, Washington, to meet with Bill Gates, before going on to Washington DC to meet with President Bush. Am I the only one who finds this remarkable? As far as I can recall, when the leader of one foreign country visits another foreign country, he visits the leader of the foreign country. And if he makes other stops in the country, he is escorted by the host country's leader. Can you imagine President Bush stopping to meet with Richard Branson on his way to Downing Street? In any case, I thought it was diplomatic protocol to meet with the most important person first. Yet while newspapers all reported Prime Minister Khai's visit to Microsoft, I didn't see or hear any articles that remarked on the extraordinary itinerary. Am I totally mixed up on diplomatic protocol and precedent? Or is everyone just acknowledging that Bill Gates is more important than President Bush?

Monday, June 20, 2005

FILM: Mysterious Skin

We saw Mysterious Skin on Saturday. Wow. This film was well made. It was also brutal and disturbing, and very hard to watch at times. Director Gregg Araki tackles a very touchy and little-explored film subject, that of sexually abused children. The film shows us two different boys, who both suffer a life-warping childhood experience, but whose emotional scars manifest in very different ways. Their story unfolds in layers, cutting between scenes of the young boys being molested and scenes of them as young adults trying to make sense of their lives. Araki's treatment is absolutely unflinching, keeping the camera steady on through scenes that most of us would not like to even think about let alone watch, and after seeing it you may feel abused. But that is the intention, to enable the audience to really get inside the head of an abused child, and that necessarily includes experiencing the abuse. I was left with a much more palpable appreciation of how someone could experience something so twisted and horrible that they completely suppress the memory of it. Araki's direction is amazing, especially considering how he must have actually filmed it, with much of the on-screen interaction being filmed between actors who were never actually together, but only spliced together in the editing room. (The making of this movie would certainly make an interesting story. As we watched the credits roll after the movie, I felt a surge of reaction to the unintended irony of seeing the AHA seal of assurance that no animals were harmed in the making of this film. Animals??? How about an assurance that no children were harmed in the making of this film!) There is no political correctness here, nor any heavy-handed point of view. Just a brutally honest look at a horror that too many children experience, along with a surprising story of two young men coming to grips with their past. If you can bear the assault of the graphic scenes, you will experience a remarkable story, as well as gain a deeper understanding of an incomprehensible experience. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet both put in amazing performances. This film is most definitely not for everybody, but selectively and advisedly I would recommend it.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Save Marriage and Textbooks at the Same Time!

Even though the California Assembly narrowly failed to pass a same-sex marriage equality bill, it seems that the measure is not dead yet. The group of six gay and lesbian lawmakers in Sacramento is planning to revive the bill by getting it passed in the Senate (where the chances are reckoned to be better) and bringing it back to the Assembly. This will require a parliamentary maneuver known as "gut-and-amend", whereby an existing bill that was already passed by the Assembly is "amended" to delete the contents of the original bill and replaced with the same-sex marriage equality bill. I expect that this would require one of the six lawmakers to sacrifice one of their own bills for the gut-and-amend. I can see a great opportunity here to do two good turns at once: let's hope Assemblymember Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles) offers to gut-and-amend her misguided bill to prohibit California schools from purchasing textbooks over 200 pages!

Selling Personal Accounts Using Crack Dealer Tactics

President Bush has said he'd like to get some good ideas on the table about Social Security reform. I guess getting good ideas on the table also means some bad ideas get put on the table as well. Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) suddenly seems to be getting some traction with his proposal to perform fiscal alchemy. Instead of putting excess Social Security tax revenue into the dubious "trust fund", he wants to use the surplus to create private accounts. He acknowledges that this will do absolutely nothing in regard to addressing the underlying structural problems in the system (which can only be solved by raising taxes, cutting benefits, or changing the retirement age). He also acknowledges that redirecting surplus Social Security funds will exacerbate general budget problems. In other words, just charge it on the national credit card, and worry about it later. He's pitching this not as a comprehensive solution, but just as a way to "gain momentum". Momentum toward what? Certainly not a solution. Momentum toward the impending fiscal crisis, more likely. Come 2017, Social Security will still start to fall short, but we'll have an even greater national debt load than we otherwise would have, and we'll have a constituency who will have enjoyed 12 years of personal accounts become angry that the gravy train has run out of steam and demanding that Congress "fix" it. This is basically crack-dealer marketing tactics: your first hit is free, but then you pay the price after you're addicted. The cynical view is that the government is dictating that everyone make forced contributions to an IRA-equivalent, while the national debt gets increased. Some conservatives will spin this as giving people back their own money, while "starving the beast". I'm glad that the President has committed himself to finding a solution to Social Security's ills, but this is no solution. Let's just pray that enough Senators have the sense to recognize a shell game when they see one.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Harmful Books and Misguided Lists

I'm late to the party on this topic, but I couldn't let The Ten Most Harmful Books pass without comment. Apparently a group of misguided conservatives at the national conservative weekly Human Events was nostalgic for the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (the official list of books banned by the Catholic church, discontinued in 1966 after four centuries) and thought they'd provide their own update. The very concept of such lists ought to raise hackles. Granted, nobody at Human Events is explicitly calling for books to be burned, but what do they suppose most people will do with such a list? Add it to their wish list? No doubt more than one copy of that issue will be waved in the air by some misguided irate parent at a PTA meeting, or used as fodder to berate the local librarian. We'll have to watch the American Library Association's 2005 list of most challenged books to see if Comte, Nietzsche, and Keynes can knock John Steinbeck, Maurice Sendak, and Mark Twain off the list.

The content of the Human Events list was a telling mix. They didn't particularly spell out the criteria for a "harmful" book (other than their time scope of the 19th and 20th century). If a "most harmful book" was one to which significant bad turns in the course of history could trace their influence, then few would argue with the top choices of The Communist Manifesto, Mein Kampf, and Mao's Red Book. Surprisingly missing were The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (inspired the Russian pogroms and continues to fan the flames of anti-Semitism) and Sayyib Qutb's Milestones (the Islamist militant primer). Arguably, the Quran and the Bible ought to be high on the list, if we're just considering sheer historic influence, regardless of the primary intentions of a book. Obviously, they weren't defining "harmful" as potential to cause actual harm, which would have to include The Anarchist Cookbook (a how-to manual for building bombs) and Final Exit (a how-to manual for suicide). (Per the Dec 2003 FBI directive, one might also include almanacs.) Instead, Human Events rounded out their list with a distinctly conservative view of "harm" that includes sexual liberation (blamed on Kinsey), feminism (blamed on Betty Friedan), modern education (Dewey), and big government economics (Keynes).

It should be obvious to most sensible people that the appropriate response to this is criticism, parody, and making sure to read all of the books on the list. As the great philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote in his classic work On Liberty:
"the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is
robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who
dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is
right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if
wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and
livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error."
But alas, On Liberty received an honorable mention on the list of harmful books. On the other hand, The Communist Manifesto may be one of the most harmful books in history, but it is less than 200 pages.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Gay Asian Republican Mayor

This afternoon, the lesbian and gay employees group at my employer (a large aerospace-defense contractor) sponsored a lunchtime talk with Mike Gin, who was just recently sworn in as mayor of Redondo Beach, after a somewhat contentious election. Gin is a gay Asian Republican ("he's practically his own minority group", as a local columnist quipped), and as unexpected as it is to find those three words together, try adding two more: elected official. Meeting Mike, it's easy to imagine him winning an election. He's studiously polite, humble, easy to talk with, forthright, pragmatic, and competent. He won the election the old-fashioned way: he walked the entire city, met as many residents as he could, listened to their issues, and campaigned on solving problems people cared about. And in Redondo Beach (an LA suburb of 65,000), what people were concerned about was development and land use, their police and fire departments, their schools and their parks, and the local businesses. Gin has been open but low-key about his sexual orientation during two terms on the city council, not wearing his sexuality on his sleeve, but also not sequestering his partner of 10-years at city events. He tells of one phone call with a woman who said "I'm a conservative Christian, and I don't approve of your lifestyle. But that's between you and God on judgment day. As far as this election goes, you're the most qualified candidate, and you're the one I want running my city." He said he had a number of similar calls and comments.

His conservative opponent tried to "play the gay card", but pragmatic Redondo residents weren't biting. One resident told of receiving a call from the opponent's campaign, who boasted of being in favor of "anti-gay measures". "Anti-gang measures?" the resident asked. "No, anti-gay measures," the campaigner replied. To which the bemused resident responded "What on earth does that have to do with this election?"

Partisan politics tried to rear its ugly head, as both Democratic and Republican party organizations got involved in the election. There were originally four candidates running, Gin being one of three Republicans. The Democratic party organization backed the lone Democrat, while the Republican party organization backed the most conservative Republican. Despite having both parties working against him, Gin had a clear plurality in the first election, although not an outright majority. Three recounts had to be held before it was determined that the conservative Republican was the runoff contender. A Republican party group tried to help their candidate by sending out a mailer highlighting campaign contributions Gin had received from out-of-state, with special attention called to the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund. If anything, this tactic backfired. In a local office, which is a real nuts-and-bolts job, partisan politics just doesn't play. As Gin says, there are no Democratic pot-holes or Republican storm-drains. There's just a pragmatic former engineer wanting to do a good job for his city. Who just happens to be a gay Asian Republican.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The Catholic Church Loses Its Balance

The Pope has long been a foe of marriage for gay men and lesbians, and his recent comments on the subject ("pseudo-matrimony between persons of the same sex" are "expressions of anarchic liberty") certainly provoked much irate response in the gay community. In a thoughtful piece in the National Catholic Reporter, John L. Allen Jr. puts this comment into perspective (hat tip: Andrew Sullivan). First, Allen correctly notes that this comment (along with much of his similar commentary) was not just about gay marriage. For this Pope, cohabitation and contraception are as evil as gay marriage. It's all part of a larger view about the peril of modern relativism. Allen sums it up here:
What the June 6 address reveals about this pontificate, however, cuts deeper
than a position on this or that issue; the pope clearly sees the struggles over
the family as ground zero of the broader fight to recover the concept of
objective truth in a highly subjective, relativized Western culture.
Philosophically, the Pope's thinking is not only fallible but fallacious. He implicitly posits a dilemma between complete moral relativism ("anarchic liberty") and total dogmatism (the latter being "objective truth" in his view, though more like moral totalitarianism from an outsider's view). The dilemma is a false one. A number of serious thinkers have tackled the problem of moral relativism and come up with other answers. One of my favorite Princeton professors, Jeffrey Stout, set up this issue in his first book, The Flight From Authority, dealing with the philosophical repercussions of the Reformation when the western world ceased to have a well-agreed central moral authority, and then tackled it directly in his later book, Ethics After Babel. Alasdair MacIntyre grapples with this in After Virtue. There are not easy answers to relativism, but without doubt there are other answers than the Pope's moral totalitarianism.

One dire fallout of the Pope's global war on relativism is that the Catholic tradition of reason, especially in the service of moral judgment, has become a casualty of the war. In traditional Catholic moral philosophy, you couldn't get far in any discussion without encountering the term "proportionality". In considering whether a war is just, one would weigh the unintended evils to be committed against the good to be achieved (and the evils to be averted). In considering whether to accept end-of-life medical treatment, one would weigh the likelihood and magnitude of benefits against the burdens and costs of treatment. There were no easy black-and-white rules, but only principles requiring reason to guide their application to each situation, scales to be balanced. Pope John Paul II maintained the formalism of proportionality in his moral pronouncements, but he always put his thumb on the scales. Death penalty: always wrong. Medical treatment: cannot be refused. With Pope Benedict XVI, his absolutism is unabashed, and he doesn't even bother with lip service to proportionality. He does give some lip service to reason, but in his view "reason" is not what anyone thinks, but is only whatever the Pope says it is. Worse, the Pope's asserted monopoly on "objective truth" philosophically entails that he be absolutist in his pronouncements in all areas of inquiry. On questions peripheral to doctrine, once thought to be fair for reasonable Catholics to disagree, there is no longer any room for disagreements. (Witness the respected Catholic writers and teachers that have been dismissed from their posts.) This is why I level the charge of moral totalitarianism: the Pope's philosophical position entails being total as well as absolute. It would seem that the Catholic church has completely lost its balance.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

FILM: Sideways

Driving through the Santa Ynez Valley wine country over the weekend reminded me that I hadn't blogged about Sideways, which we'd heard much hype about, but hadn't seen until just the other week. My overall impression is that it was well done, but I don't think it rose to "Best Picture of the Year" worthiness. I'm not sure how much of it I'll remember many years from now, except possibly to laugh about the cultural influence it has had in attitudes about pinot noir and merlot. I thinking the acting was excellent. Paul Giamatti perfectly personified the neurotic author-poseur wine-snob, and Thomas Haden Church captured the immature actor on his bachelor party "final fling", while Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh were great as the two wine country women who the guys hook up with. The direction was impeccable, with Alexander Payne not only getting great performances out of his actors, but beautifully capturing the setting, the odd juxtaposition of beautiful central California oak-studded hillsides, cheap roadside motels, and the Danish kitsch of Solvang. Payne doesn't over-accentuate the kitsch (which as anyone who's read Susan Sontag's famous essay knows would puncture its delicate facade), but simply shows it and lets it speak for itself.

So where does this film fall short? That would be in this bizarre story, centered on two rather repulsive main characters, one of which has overslept, parked in a tow zone, told a few small lies to his best friend, and stolen money from his own mother all in the first ten minutes of the movie. And he's the better of the two. Perhaps I'm a bit old-fashioned that way, or perhaps it's my idealism, but I found the deep cynicism inherent in the story unpleasant to take. And what's with that ending? It was so non-sequitur. I can only imagine that the original story had Miles dump his novel in the trash just before slitting his wrists, but the Hollywood execs said no, no, no, we have to end it on a note of hope. Well here's what I hope: I hope that Maya slams the door in his face and avoids getting further mixed up with that loser poseur.

Perhaps what was most off-putting (even disturbing in the sort of way that sticks with me) was the notion that this movie might be a deeply cynical commentary on life in California. Is that the reality behind the California dream, where everyone is an actor and everyone's life is an act, a bunch of self-absorbed amoral people? When an outsider (think Woody Allen) ridicules California stereotypes, it's easy to laugh and shrug it off. But when one of our own becomes disillusioned (think Joan Didion), the cynicism of disillusionment can cut to the bone. This was definitely an inside job, by someone who's way too jaded for my tastes.

Michael Who?

Whatever. Enough said. (Way more than enough.)

Monday, June 13, 2005

Weekend Travelog: A Wedding in San Luis Obispo

This weekend, we traveled up to Shell Beach (just north of Pismo Beach, on the Central California coast) to attend my husband's cousin's wedding in San Luis Obispo. I procrastinated in booking a hotel, and it turned out to be the same weekend as Cal Poly SLO graduation, so every motel room in a 50-mile radius was booked. Karma was with us, however, as I was able to find an absolutely charming beach cottage for rent in nearby Shell Beach. We spent Friday night in the Laughing Buddha house, a sensuous feng-shui home filled with color and fabric and Zen ambience. Saturday, we moved just a few houses up the street to the Purple Moon house, a cute beach cottage all done in purples, blues, and a nautical theme. We had time in the morning before the wedding to take a walk on Shell Beach, a typical central California beach with pebbles, dramatic rock formations, and tide pools.

The wedding ceremony was at the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, one of California's beautiful and historic missions. It was a lovely setting, with the floral-decorated white walls, and the tall beamed ceiling. The beautiful bride was walked down the aisle by her father, a senior chief petty officer, in his Navy dress whites complete with sword. The handsome groom was accompanied by several groomsmen, including his sister, who dressed nattily in a tux like the rest of the groomsmen, though with a hint of feminine accent in dangly earrings and a bit of sparkle on her white shirt. The readings included the usual I Corinthians 13 for the New Testament, but an Old Testament reading from Tobit that I'd never heard before. The priest asked the couple to pray every night of their honeymoon that the love they felt for each other that night would be the smallest that it would ever be, and that it would only grow each day forward.

The reception was at the nearby Avila Beach resort, in a tent by the water. It was a beautiful sunny day, although it got a bit cold as evening came on. They had a nice sit-down dinner and dancing, and it was a great pleasure to see some of George's family I hadn't seen in a while, as well as to meet a number of cousins I hadn't met before (including the groom). George has a large extended family, and they are all good people. And it was great to see that the bride had lots of family and friends, and comes from a strong family. I think both coming from a good family and valuing their family as they do bodes well for this happy couple. There were some eloquent speeches from both sides, including a few emotional moments, as the groom's sister and father both got pretty choked up.

George's Mom and sister didn't have a place to stay and were tentatively going to drive back to Lodi, but we had room at our cozy cottage and talked them into staying. It was great to get to spend some more time with them. We had breakfast together the next day, and went for a walk around the beach town. After they took off, George took me to a secluded beach cove he'd been to before, a bit of a nudist spot, and like many of those, the kind you have to hike to get into. There was a neat cave along the way, and many cool rock formations in the cove, with a bunch of seals lounging on the rocks. (I love seals and sea lions -- they're so cute!) After hiking the main cove, we discovered that there was an even more secluded cove down another trail that required using a rope to rappel down the last 20 feet or so. We hung out there for a while, collecting pebbles and enjoying the sun.

On the drive home, we stopped in to visit the La Purisima Mission, which neither of us had seen. It is quite an impressive place. Unlike most of the missions, which are operating Catholic parishes, this one is a state park, and it is probably the most completely restored to its authentic form. They have the entire mission compound, including the various outlying buildings, and they have furnished it with period artifacts and replica furnishings. You really get a great sense of mission life. They even have a sampling of farm animals there, just as they would have had at the mission in 1820. It's quite interesting to visit and beautiful in its way.

We drove home along the backroads through Solvang and San Marcos Pass. It was very nostalgic driving down roads that I have known better on my bicycle in years past, having done the California AIDS Ride and several Solvang Century rides. I just need to make a mental note: do not drive home on Highway 101 on Sunday nights, it's just bad. But all in all, it was a wonderful weekend!

Friday, June 10, 2005

How To Confirm, and How Not To Confirm

On Thursday this week, the Senate approved three of President Bush's nominees. The biggest attention getter, Alabama former Attorney General William Pryor, had been nominated in Bush's previous term, but failed to overcome a filibuster, having only 53 and then 51 votes of support. The President waited until Congress recessed, and then used his controversial "recess appointment" power to put Pryor on the Appellate Court anyway, which would allow him to serve up to a year before requiring Congress's approval. Bush then renominated Pryor, whose confirmation was finally brought to the Senate floor this week as a result of the "filibuster deal". Pryor was confirmed with only 53 votes for and 45 against, with even some Republicans voting against him. Come on people. Is this really the way the Senate should be expressing its "consent"? President Bush should be ashamed of himself (though of course he won't be) for foisting through a nominee that does not have the whole-hearted support of the Senate.

(As a background issue, I don't know enough about Pryor's record to know whether he would be a good judge or not. I only know that as Alabama Attorney General, he acted on principle and likely against his own personal convictions in enforcing an order to remove Judge Roy Moore's obnoxious Ten Commandments display. In my book, this is much to Pryor's credit. Unfortunately, Pryor's confirmation stopped being about Pryor some time ago, as he became a symbolic pawn in a larger political game.)

Now compare and contrast. Two other appellate court judges were confirmed today. Richard Griffin was confirmed on a vote of 95-0 and David McKeague was confirmed on a vote of 96-0. Now that's consent, the way it ought to be. Was that so hard? Why couldn't President Bush have found another judge like Griffin or McKeague instead of wasting everyone's time being so obtuse about Pryor?

Lap Dogs Stepping Out

It has been often repeated that Prime Minister Tony Blair is merely President Bush's poodle, following him into Iraq as if on a leash. This unfair criticism of Blair should have been dispelled by this week's visit to Washington, where Blair was the one showing leadership on the issues of aid to Africa and global climate change. Unfortunately, the President isn't following where the Prime Minister is leading on those issues. While the President has demonstrated some amount of his own leadership on African aid (particularly around AIDS, albeit somewhat hamstrung by the demands of his conservative Christian base), his response on the issue of climate change continues to be benighted, hiding behind "scientific" uncertainty as an excuse for taking no action.

Meanwhile, Justice Clarence Thomas, who has been viewed by many as Justice Scalia's poodle, also stepped out this week. I believe Andrew Sullivan used the expression that Thomas "carries water for" Scalia, but I don't think that really captures it, since it has generally been Scalia who does the work of writing opinions, with Thomas being a "me too" concurrence. (Scalia's clerks probably have a Microsoft Word template with "Justice Scalia, with whom Justice Thomas joins, dissenting" already filled in.) However, in this week's Gonzales vs. Raich decision on medical marijuana, Scalia found himself oddly in agreement with all of the "liberal" judges (though he wrote a separate concurring opinion), while Thomas disagreed head on with Scalia, and meticulously addressed Scalia's argument in his own separate dissenting opinion. Ironically (or perhaps pointedly), Thomas' dissent reads like a typical Scalia dissent, thorough, and even peppered with acerbic comments (e.g., "If the majority is to be taken seriously, the Federal Government may now regulate quilting bees, clothes drives, and potluck suppers throughout the 50 States.").

Personally, I think Justice Thomas (as well as O'Connor and Rehnquist) are on the right side of this one. As Thomas writes, "If Congress can regulate this under the Commerce Clause, then it can regulate virtually anything--and the Federal Government is no longer one of limited and enumerated powers." In an interesting commentary, George Will observes that the usual labels of "liberal" and "conservative" or "judicial activism" and "judicial restraint" are particularly confounded by the court's split on Raich. It's interesting to see the philosophy come out in the various opinions. Justice Thomas is from the "originalist" school, and his opinion is primarily grounded in the meaning of the Commerce Clause, and the philosophical motivations of the Founders (e.g., that the federal government has only enumerated powers). Justice O'Connor's opinion is thoroughly grounded in precedent (and she had to jump through some legal hoops to explain why it was okay for Congress to regulate an Ohio farmer inconsuming his own home-grown wheat, but it was not okay for Congress to regulate a California patient in consuming her own home-grown pot). Justice Scalia argues that "The relevant question is simply whether the means chosen are 'reasonably adapted' to the attainment of a legitimate end". Indeed, one might suspect that the ends justifying the means is Scalia's true philosophy, and that he works backwards from his desired outcome to finding supporting argument, rather than working forward from principles to a conclusion. (So does that make him an "activist judge"?) In any event, Justice Thomas carries no one's water but his own this week.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

OPERA: Der Rosenkavalier

I'd heard from a couple of reliable sources that Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier was not to be missed, and they were absolutely right. I had the pleasure of seeing this opera last night, and it was sublime. The story is of an older noblewoman having an affair with a young noble lover, and how she gracefully resigns herself to the inevitability of losing him to a younger woman. (I couldn't help but think of The Graduate, but the Marschallin acts much more gracefully than Mrs. Robinson. A Litte Night Music was also called to mind.) This touching emotional drama is comedically balanced with a boorish older cousin who aims to marry the younger girl. Musically, Strauss is at his best with the emotional parts, which he wrote as a soprano-fest. With the young lover written as a soprano in a trouser role, all three sides of the triangle are sopranos, and in the third act the emotional and musical climax is a soprano trio. All three sopranos were exquisite, with Adrianne Pieczonka (whom we'd seen as Elsa in Lohengrin) singing the Marschallin, Elizabeth Futral (whom we'd seen as Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare) as the young Sophie, and Alice Coote (company debut) as Count Octavian. Bass Kurt Rydl (whom we also saw in Lohengrin, as King Henry) did a marvelous job singing and acting the boorish Baron von Lerchenau.

Los Angeles is blessed with a wealth of talented artists who make their home here, and the LA Opera has benefited from this rich local talent pool, having had opera sets designed by artists like David Hockney and operas directed by great Hollywood directors. This production of Der Rosenkavalier was directed by Maximilian Schell, and with remarkable set and costume design by artist Gottfried Helnwein. Taking the original sense of roccoco "over-the-top-ness" and recreating it in a thoroughly modern way, Helnwein designed fantastic costumes that were a Tim Burton-esque Mardi Gras carnival. The sets and costumes were washed in an evolving color theme, with Act I being done all in shades of blue (except the Baron who stood out in gold), Act II being done all in shades of gold (except the Baron in red), and then Act III being done all in shades of red (except the Marschallin in a luminous light blue). These changing shades blended in fanciful ways from the set to the costumes to the make-up on some (the royal servants in the first act looked like the Blue Man Group), and always in the color of the young Count's hair (blue, then gold, then red). As the Marschallin declares in the last act, it was "all a Viennese farce", and these fanciful design choices reinforce that theme delightfully. The farce is perfectly balanced with the emotion of the love triangle, beautifully acted under Schell's direction, and with Kent Nagano masterfully evoking Strauss's sublime music. As the young lovers turn to each other in the end, the Marschallin accepts that her time has passed, and that you can't hold on to life's beautiful experiences, you must accept their transient nature and let them go. Even after four and a half hours of this opera, the audience last night was reluctant to let it go, and gave a standing ovation with several curtain calls.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Gay Marriage Not News to LA Times

For some reason, it seems that gay marriage legislation isn't news to the LA Times. Last week, the California Assembly came close to passing a gay marriage bill, the first time that a gay marriage bill has made it to the floor of any state legislature. The Sacramento Bee gave it a full article, but in the LA Times, it was buried down in a brief mention in the 6th paragraph in an article about an ammo ID bill. It didn't even warrant a sub-head. Then, Switzerland, in a national referendum, approved a form of same-sex civil unions. (Thanks to Finocchio for pointing it out.) The Times had a brief mention of another referendum in the same election where the Swiss agreed to scrap passport checks with their European neighbors, but narry a mention of the civil unions referendum. What's the story with the non-coverage?


As part of a gourmet shop gift basket we'd received from a friend, we had a bag of real Italian polenta. We'd enjoyed polenta in restaurants, but had never tried making it at home. The first time I tried it, it turned out well, but took a lot longer than the package suggested, and boy was it a lot of work! It takes over an hour to cook, and needs stirring often, and toward the end, continually. (The European package instructions also require decoding from the metric. They seem to weigh dry ingredients rather than measure their volume. Do they all have little scales in their kitchens over there?) It's worth the effort though, it comes out very creamy and flavorful. I was in the mood for it tonight, so I got home early and set up for the long haul. This time, I decided to add some goat cheese with garlic and herbs to flavor the polenta, which turned out well. I was envisioning a thick tomato-ey ragout to accompany it. I sauteed onions, red pepper, and zucchini, then added tomatoes, mushrooms, green olives, cannelini beans, chestnut lima beans, and some tomato paste, seasoned with garlic, oregano, and basil. It worked deliciously! Now, I'm just wondering whether the "quick" polenta (not the fully pre-cooked) that I see in the store would turn out as well, cause most nights I just don't have 2 hours to get dinner ready. And my stirring arm is tired.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Getting Cloture

A deal is a deal. So it was today that 65 Senators voted for cloture to bring the confirmation of Janice Rogers Brown to the floor. I think the deal is a good thing. Not that I have any illusions that the underlying issue isn't merely postponed. (And of course what I would really like to see is a rule change so that a two-thirds majority is required for confirmation. Then give them all up-or-down votes and stop playing procedural games.) But I was encouraged to see that the filibuster was spared another day, and that at least some Senators are still capable of reaching a bipartisan agreement. (I don't know enough about Brown specifically to comment on her, but even if she is as bad as the Democrats make her out to be, such is the nature of compromises. When the tables were turned at the end of Clinton's term, The Republicans compromised with the Democrats and conceded a few extreme liberal appellate nominees.) What is interesting to me is the "inside-out" political dynamic going on particularly in the Senate. Often when two major parties are close to parity in votes, it is the extremists of either side who get to set some of the terms because every vote is crucial. But lately, it is the sensible centrists of both parties (and particularly the majority) who are the ones setting the terms. I suppose that's a consequence of heightened partisan polarization that those in the middle become the deal-makers. That can only be a good thing.

Where Have You Gone, Mrs. Robinson?

Heard the news today that Anne Bancroft passed away. She had an impressive career, making movies for over five decades. I hadn't realized that when she played the unforgettable Mrs. Robinson, she was only 6 years older than Dustin Hoffman. Also hadn't realized she was born Anna Maria Luisa Italiano -- who'd have guessed? I never saw what she considered one of her finer roles, Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker, which she played on both stage and screen. After Mrs. Robinson, I think my favorite role of hers was Mrs. Dinsmoor in Alfonso Cuaron's Great Expectations (with Ethan Hawke and Gwynneth Paltrow, a marvelous and underappreciated film).

Monday, June 06, 2005

Tony Awards

So like every self-respecting gay man in America, I watched the Tony Awards last night. What a great show! And it always leaves me wanting to hop on the next plane to New York and see a bunch of shows. I would love to see Cherry Jones in Doubt -- what a powerful stage presence. And I'd love to see Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. And the Spelling Bee looked quite amusing, and The Light in the Piazza looked charming. And of course Spamalot looks like a hoot. Yup, I could spend a week in New York seeing shows every night and be a happy boy. The awards show itself had some great moments. The very talented and handsome Hugh Jackman doing his "Gotta Dance" number was great. (His duet with Aretha Franklin, on the other hand, was a bit like pairing roast salmon with raspberry sherbet. They're both good, but they don't go well together.) Christina Applegate was a great sport to literally crawl up onto the stage after a "fall" taking a dance turn around a lamppost. Sara Ramirez made her way memorably to the stage, struggling to keep herself from falling out of or over her dress. But after seeing her Lady of the Lake number, I agree she was really good! I find that Tony acceptance speeches are much more professional, genuine, and mostly eloquent compared to the Oscars, and last night was no exception. Billy Crystal thanking his cast was a cute touch, as was Adriane Lenox, who isn't going to wash dishes anymore. And Dan Fogler's little tirade ("I won a Tony. With this hair!"), though the orchestra was needed to cut him off when he got carried away. The low point of the night was the CBS censor, who was heavy-handed with the mute button. Norbert Leo Butz was squelched for a lyric about culture coming out of his ass. And Chita Rivera got totally bleeped out when she accidentally started to eulogize Kander along with Ebb. One of the best parts of the Tony show is that they stage numbers from each of the Best Musical nominees, and all of them were great. (I only wish they would do the same for the non-musical plays. They do these too-quick video montages, half of the time without any sound. What's up with that?) And as my husband noted, there was no shortage of gay marriages on display, including Jerry Mitchell kissing his partner upon hearing he'd won (caught on the TV camera), and Edward Albee speaking of his recently deceased partner of 35 years. But then, that's old news to the theatre crowd. I can remember similar in Tony awards of over a decade ago. You gotta love the theatre!

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Size Does Matter

Apparently, size does matter, at least in education. Some who value the skill of writing prose were initially encouraged that the SAT was going to add an essay component to the traditional multiple choice English portion of the test. Unfortunately, it turns out that the SAT's new essay test rewards bad writing, with sheer length being a predictor of one's score. Factual accuracy, on the other hand, is explicitly not a criterion. In an article entitled "New SAT: Write Long, Badly, and Prosper", Les Perelman (director of the undergraduate writing program at MIT) reports on his experience as an SAT essay grader: "Longer essays consistently score higher. Shortly after the test was first administered in March, I looked at scored samples that were made public, including the set used to train graders. I discovered that I could guess an essay's prescribed score just by looking at its length - even from across a room." With the professional test preparation racket well-tuned to the actual (rather than intended) predictors of success in the SAT, the inevitable effect of the new SAT will be to train high school students to write badly. (Had Heisenberg contemplated college preparatory testing, he would have conceived his principle sooner.)

Meanwhile, the California Assembly has just decided that school textbooks are too long. Believing this crisis to be a matter requiring legal intervention, Assembly Bill 756 prohibits the state from purchasing textbooks greater than 200 pages in length. (Hat tip: Kip Esquire). (This astonishing embarassment, sad to say, was authored by my Assemblymember, Jackie Goldberg. She should have been trying to persuade a few more of her colleagues about gay marriage, rather than wasting time on this nonsense.) I'm just aghast. It calls to mind the scene in Amadeus when Mozart performs a new piece for the Emperor, and the imperial courtiers trying to sabotage Mozart criticize his perfect masterpiece saying "Too many notes.Yes, too many notes. There are only so many notes that the royal ear can hear." To which an infuriated Mozart wondered whether he should just chop off the end. Indeed, one Republican Assemblymember noted that if a teacher wanted to use the Bible, it would be truncated somewhere in the Old Testament. Kip notes that the Federalist Papers are also too long. For goodness sake, has Jackie Goldberg looked at the length of Harry Potter books, which elementary school kids are clamoring to read? Of course, the textbook publishers are already planning just to repackage material in multiple volumes (which will of course increase the cost). Not that the Assembly has any business micromanaging textbook selection at all, but this is extraordinarily ridiculous.

I guess it won't matter that we're training our children to write badly, carelessly, and excessively long. No one will have the attention span to read what they write.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Close But Not Yet

In an Assembly session on Thursday, closely watched by some of us but barely noticed by most, California came to the brink of being the first legislative body to enact gay marriage. AB 19, the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act, authored by Assemblymember Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and co-sponsored by Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez and 30 other Assemblymembers, achieved 37 ayes and 36 noes, but needed 41 votes to pass. Leno had introduced the bill last year and garnered initial support, but then withdrew the bill at the request of the Speaker, with the promise that it would be reintroduced this year with the Speaker's full support. The Speaker himself spoke up for the bill, as did many co-sponsors. Not a single Republican voted for the bill, and in the end, about a dozen Democrats either abstained or voted against it.

I am disappointed with the outcome, but not devastated. I am encouraged to see that we have progressed as far as we have. Even getting such a bill to the floor of the legislature, let alone getting that close to passage, would have been utterly inconceivable ten years ago. I think in another year or two, the bill could actually pass. Of course it won't be reintroduced for at least another year, and meantime two other horses take the lead in the race -- the marriage case working its way toward the California Supreme Court and the constitutional initiative being filed by the Christian Taliban. In a way, I'm a bit relieved because of the "backlash factor". Passage of a bill this year would have poured gasoline on the flames being fanned by the anti-marriage initiative proponents, who are hoping to ride the momentum of anti-Massachusetts sentiment that has helped constitutional amendments get passed in a dozen states so far. It is dismaying enough that Proposition 22 (a statute initiative preventing California from recognizing gay marriages performed elsewhere) passed so overwhelmingly only 5 years ago. And the Christian Taliban, emboldened by their victories in other states, have raised the stakes, so that their initiative not only prohibits gay marriage but would undo the domestic partnership legislation enacted a couple of years ago. This is not about forcing any church to perform marriages it doesn't believe in -- that has never been proposed by anyone. This is about a handful of Pharisees who wish to prevent me from visiting my husband if he is in the hospital. When the Massachusetts bomb dropped last year, someone ought to have cued up Betty Davis: "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy..." few years!

Meanwhile, thanks to our friends who phoned their assemblymembers in the last few days. Here are the ones we need to keep working on: Juan Arambula (D-Fresno), Joe Baca (D-Rialto), Barbara Matthews (D-Tracy), Nicole Parra (D-Hanford), Juan Vargas (D-San Diego). And all of the Republicans.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Reactions to the President's Speech

A few quick takes on President Bush's speech yesterday. He said that he had four priorities for Congress:

  1. The energy bill. On this, the President says all the right things -- need to reduce dependence on foreign energy sources, need to research and develop new energy sources, etc. I can't disagree with any of his words. The problem is the bill. Turns out the President's idea of new energy sources is drilling in the Arctic, coal power, and maybe corn-based ethanol. (Corn mega-farms are already unsustainable and environmentally damaging. Is it really such a great idea to divert our unquenchable thirst for energy to corn sources?)
  2. CAFTA. As the President explained it, the Central American nations are laying tarriffs on American imports, while America isn't tarriffing Central American imports, so we need to "level the playing field". Um, so he's saying that the Central American nations are ganging up on poor little USA, and we can't compete? Isn't that sort of like Tiger Woods playing golf with a bunch of amateurs, and insisting there should be no handicaps, so that the playing field is level?
  3. A balanced budget. "We're on track to eliminate the deficit by 2009." Incredible. The claim to be "on track" rests on a pile of incredible assumptions (like the annual "extraordinary" appropriations for the war, which magically don't count) and also depends on the expiry of the tax cuts. At the same time, the President wants to make the tax cuts permanent. Some would call this "disassembling" (see below).
  4. Social Security. The President takes credit for having moved the debate forward. He says he could have avoided the whole issue. And he says that three months ago everyone was insisting "there's no problem", and now most people acknowledge that there is a problem. That is true, and I give him credit.

I didn't catch all of the Q&A, but I recall one reporter asked him to respond to the Amnesty International report that accused America of creating a "new gulag" in Guantanamo. The President called this report absurd, and said that their only sources were former prisoners who hated America and who had been "trained to disassemble -- that means to tell lies". His denial is absurd (and not just because of his "folksy" word-mangling). The evidence of abuse, not just in Guantanamo but in interrogation facilities in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, is mounting. With regard to prisoner abuse (not to mention the "balanced budget"), the administration is doing some "disassembling" of its own.