Saturday, December 30, 2006

2006: Annus Horribilis

What a miserable year! I don’t say this lightly, but only after some reflection. It’s not just that on the political end the list of existing and exacerbating conflagrations seemed endless—Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea, Lebanon, Palestine, Sudan, Somalia, and Sri Lanka mark but not exhaust that list. Democratic processes did not improve, and indeed weakened, in a number of places—Russia, Thailand, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Egypt to name a few. Nothing really was done about global warming or oil dependency, the WTO process was paralyzed, Europe’s longstanding respect for diversity became suspect, the misguided, dangerous, and wasteful “war against terror” continued to confound and anger one-fifth of the world’s population, and, to really sum up the horribleness of 2006, worldwide arms spending went through the roof—a clear harbinger for worse things to come.

Yes, the Republicans lost control of the House and the Senate, ten presidential elections were held in Latin America in a decisive signal toward consolidation of the democratic process in that region, a group of poor countries received substantial debt relief, emerging Asian economies marched on, and, and I say this charitably, world markets came across as more capable of handling major shocks than conventionally perceived. On a net basis, however, bad things and bad news dominated the good during this sad, sad year.

It is not easy to be hopeful about 2007 either. In fact, it may well give 2006 a run for its money as America’s capricious focus (or the lack of it) on global issues here and there undermine further any international initiative to protect the global climate, reduce trade barriers, alleviate poverty, reduce nuclear proliferation, etc. While America struggles, it is hard to see anything else than more of the same: pockets of prosperity and promise here and there, grinding misery and violence and sheer hopelessness in many more places.

Yet, as the spread of the internet continues to complement globalization, and as the economic pull of emerging India and China become even stronger, one can dare to hope that it is not all doom and gloom. May be there is hope at the political end as well: could 2007 see a renewed attempt to bring the Israelis to ease up on their murderous occupation of the West Bank and the blockade on Gaza? May be, just may be, the U.S. will choose to bring Iran and Syria to the table to raise the hope for peace in Iraq. The burden for much of this is on the leadership of the Democrats, which I hope will focus on challenging the White House in getting things done, as opposed to fixating on the 2008 Presidential elections.

Also, in my narrow, personal sphere, as I see friends rejoice with their first-borns, bright eyed, enormously gifted nieces and nephews embrace higher education and work, and perhaps most importantly, reason and faith co-mingle without any contradiction in my father’s life, I see a ray of light. When Muhammad Yunus, the 2006 Nobel Peace Laureate, said audaciously that he envisions a future when people will visit museums to see what poverty used to be all about, he exemplified the capacity of the human mind to generate visions that can galvanize a generation. A world without challenge and disappointment is impossible, but as new spirits join this planet and new minds enter the world dynamic, may be we can all expect raindrops of good to shower on us in the new-year, giving us energy to move and look forward.

2007, here we come.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Who in 2008?

Now that the Democrats seem on the ascendancy, and seem poised to beat the Southern Party in the 2008 presidential election (barring a major change in circumstances), the question arises: who? Well, that's unclear, to say the least. I think that the number of candidates will increase as victory seems more likely (Mark Warner seems to be rethinking his decision not to run).

For me, though, it boils down to Clinton, Gore, or Obama. Sorry, I see Edwards as an empty suit, and I know nothing about Vilsack. Clark did not impress the first time around. And Kerry.. well, he's clearly the best candidate in his own mind!

Let's assume Gore won't step back in, and it's Clinton and Obama. I don't know who I would prefer. Clinton would be a technocrat's dream. We would be guaranteed good policies, and the lure of the 1990s is certainly appealing, especially after the last six disastrous years. Sound budgets. Free-ish trade. Economic growth that lifts all boats, not just the very rich. A welcoming approach to immigration. A respect for multilateralism. Possible health care reform. And a willingness to stand up to the abortion lobby, and fight to reduce abortion rates.

With Obama we would get.. what exactly? I don't know, but I like it anyway! Because Obama is the first politician since 1968 to capture the spirit of Bobby Kennedy. The soaring rhetoric. The charisma. The basic decency underpinned by strong religious values. The inclination to bring people together. After a long-term debasement of political culture, culminating in Bush, Obama soars above all others. But what would be actually do? He could easily be a failure, just as Bobby Kennedy could have been a failure.

So, who should it be? Solid policies (but boring and risk-averse) or idealism (but untested and risky?) I have no idea!

Monday, December 18, 2006

Murder in India

The Indian government claims that 10 million baby girls have been killed over the past 20 years, either before or immediately after birth, following the parents' preference for males. Some will undoubtedly claim that poverty comes into play, as parents need sons to provide for them in old age. But the statistics also show that killing baby girls is most pronounced among the highly educated, including the upmarket regions of New Delhi. For these people, a child is clearly a commodity to be accepted or thrown away based on personal preferences.

The situation in India (and indeed China) is staggering. By the 2001 census, the sex ratio was 933 girls to 1,000 boys India, and 798 girls to 1,000 boys in Punjab state. But where is the outcry? Who is speaking out for these girls' lives? The silence from the west is deafening. Because there is a dirty little secret: if you believe abortion is a "human right" and therefore something good, then you can have no problem whatsoever with what is taking place in India...

Message from Pope Benedict


Hee hee...

Friday, December 15, 2006

Oscar Romero on Torture

Oscar Romero was the archbishop of San Salvador, assassinated while saying Mass in 1980 by death squads angered by his public voice against poverty, social injustice, political killings, and torture in El Salvador at the time. He was also an incredibly eloquent speaker and writer. Here is something he had to say about torture:

"There is no dichotomy between man and God’s image.
Whoever tortures a human being,
whoever abuses a human being,
whoever outrages a human being,
abuses God’s image."

Are you listening George Bush and Dick Cheney? Are you listening Jimmy Akin and all those Catholics who try to provide some "moral space" to defend Bush's torture policies? And where is the voice of the American church in this time of trial? Its silence is almost shameful.

National Review Pinochet Fetish Continues....

I noted recently the insidious moral relativism of the National Review, whose defense of Pinochet seems to go something like this: sure, he did bad things, but he did wonders for the Chilean economy, and anyway, he's better than Castro. People with consistent views of these things (including those of us influenced by Catholic teaching, to which the National Review frequently pays lip service) will not lament when Castro dies. Just because a few nostalgic lefties still fawn over this fool is no license to defend other forms of evil.

Anyway, the Pinochet fetish at the National Review shows no signs of abating. Most recently, fetishist-in-chief Jonah Goldberg mused that what Iraq needs is a Pinochet. The logic? He's better than Castro. Surprise, surprise. Not that anyone is trying to export Castro from Havana to the desert... And anyway, an Iraqi Pinochet: wasn't that supposed to be Ahmed Chalabi?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Peace Pope

When Joseph Ratzinger chose the name Benedict XVI last year, he invoked the memory of his predecessor, Benedict XV, who tried in vain to broker peace between the various parties during the first world war. In the current pope's words: "Firstly, I remember Pope Benedict XV, that courageous prophet of peace, who guided the Church through turbulent times of war. In his footsteps I place my ministry in the service of reconciliation and harmony between peoples." Looking back, Benedict XV seems a voice of reason in a frenzied world, especially when he opposed the ruinous Versailles terms that fueled the rise of the Nazis.

The pope is following through with his promise, and is proving to be a major voice for peace in the world. In this light, his message for the World Day of Peace (January 1, 2007) is illuminating. In his own unique voice, Benedict ties peace to the dignity of the human person, and the entire depth and breadth of Catholic social teaching (not only the parts that suit a particular ideology, but the whole of it). In particular, he has strong words for those who would denigrate human rights in the context of dealing with terrorism. I wonder who he is talking about?

Let's go through it, step by step. Benedict begins by noting the inherent God-given human dignity that demands respect:
"As one created in the image of God, each individual human being has the dignity of a person; he or she is not just something, but someone, capable of self-knowledge, self-possession, free self-giving and entering into communion with others."
Note immediately that, in my recent posts on torture, the starting point is the same: torture is wrong because it violates this God-given human dignity, and treats a person as a mere object. Or as Benedict says in the current context, the duty to respect the dignity of every human being means that "the person can not be disposed of at will". Moreover, "those with greater political, technical, or economic power may not use that power to violate the rights of others who are less fortunate." This is paramount. Benedict claims that, above all, this calls for respecting life and religious freedom. Only then can there be a true and authentic peace.

He then gives examples of the widespread disrespect for life today, appealing almost to a consistent "seamless garment" approach that transcends political ideology and labels:
"We must denounce its widespread violation in our society: alongside the victims of armed conflicts, terrorism and the different forms of violence, there are the silent deaths caused by hunger, abortion, experimentation on human embryos and euthanasia. How can we fail to see in all this an attack on peace?"
When it comes to religious freedom, he speaks of the "difficulties that both Christians and the followers of other religions frequently encounter in publicly and freely professing their religious convictions." He notes that some states impose a single religion on all, while others do not persecute but instill a "systematic denigration of religious beliefs". It is clear what Benedict is talking about here. Following from his controversial Regensburg lecture, he is again referring to both Islam and secular western democracy. The former must, as a basic principle of natural law, grant religious freedom and reciprocity, while the latter must respect the voice of religion in the public sphere. Repeating an earlier theme, he notes that "war in God's name is never acceptable". Can't get much clearer than that.

Many on the right will be applauding the pope at this point. But what he says following this may make some of them a little uneasy. For he states bluntly that the "many unjust inequalities" in the world are at the "origin of the many tensions that threaten peace". In his words:

"Particularly insidious among these are, on the one hand, inequality in access to essential goods like food, water, shelter, health; on the other hand, there are persistent inequalities between men and women in the exercise of basic human rights."
He draws special attention to the condition of women in society, condemning the tendency in some places to treat women as objects, and "the mindset persisting in some cultures, where women are still firmly subordinated to the arbitrary decisions of men, with grave consequences for their personal dignity and for the exercise of their fundamental freedoms." He also embraces environmentalism, noting that "disregard for the environment always harms human coexistence" and condemning the "destruction of the environment, its improper or selfish use, and the violent hoarding of the earth's resources". A sharp rebuke to many in the western word, particularly in the United States, who scoff at proposals to curb energy consumption. But this is all part of the gospel of peace.

In the crux of his message, Benedict is clearly challenging those who believe war is the answer to terrorism and other threats to peace, and who are swift to downplay economic and environmental concerns. In other words, terrorism cannot be addressed in any meaningful way without looking at the underlying inequities and violations of human dignity (this is in no way to condone or at least turn a blind eye to terrorist acts-- a fault of many on the secular left). It is simply staggering that the coterie of Catholic intellectuals (Neuhaus, Novak, Weigel etc.) that defended Bush's war policies took so blinkered a view of Catholic social teaching. But Benedict presents it in full glory, liberated from the trappings of secular ideology.

The final section deals with human rights, international organizations, and international law. If the right did not like what they've seen so far, they will be appalled by this part! For Benedict notes immediately a tension between absolute human rights and a "relativistic conception of the person". He raises the following question: "Can we wonder that, faced with the “inconvenient” demands posed by one right or another, someone will come along to question it or determine that it should be set aside?" This, of course, raises the specter of the Bush administration's gutting of the Geneva Conventions and legitimizing torture. Benedict is very clear. The United Nations is charged with protecting human rights, and the 1948 Universal Declaration embodies those rights, which are "not simply on the decisions of the assembly that approved them, but on man's very nature and his inalienable dignity as a person created by God." Tell that the the partisans on the American right who detest the UN (the most popular book in Fundie-land, the Left Behind series, sees the Antichrist as the UN Secretary General!).

In possibly the most powerful section of the whole letter, Benedict addresses recent wars and "new forms of violence" including terrorism. In this context, he notes that these new forms of violence:

"demand that the international community reaffirm international humanitarian law, and apply it to all present-day situations of armed conflict, including those not currently provided for by international law. Moreover, the scourge of terrorism demands a profound reflection on the ethical limits restricting the use of modern methods of guaranteeing internal security."
This is pretty clear. Some Catholics and others (nearly all based in the United States, and supporters of Bush's wars) have been attempting to modify traditional just war teaching in the name of "asymmetrical warfare" when armies don't simply face other armies on the battlefield, but must deal with terrorists possibly armed with weapons of mass destruction. Pope Benedict provides an emphatic rejection of this cynical viewpoint. We should be re-affirming, not changing, international humanitarian law in such circumstances. The universal moral law holds. That means no looser standard for war. That means no torture, irrespective of circumstance.

The pope also laments the fact that international humanitarian law has not been respected in recent times, and he draws attention to the Lebanese war this past summer. He states that "the duty to protect and help innocent victims and to avoid involving the civilian population was largely ignored". But again, the war party in America was baying for blood given that the enemy comprised "terrorists". In hindsight, the pope was right, just like Benedict XV was right in his own time: Israel's foolish and immoral attacks have only emboldened the political position of Hezbollah, threatening Lebanese democracy. I noted this at the time. War is rarely the answer, legitimate in only very special circumstances. And when war breaks out, based on jingoism and a desire for vengeance, and devoid of sober analysis, it can so easily lead to terrible consequences. Versailles. Lebanon. Iraq. And here we are. Listen to Benedict this time, please!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Who's the Moral Relativist Now?

The National Review had a symposium on the death of Pinochet. They asked a number of "experts" to assess his legacy. Before we start, let us recall what Pinochet actually did. As noted by the Financial Times (hardly a partisan voice):
"Some 3,000 people had been killed or “disappeared” (a verb that became synonymous with Chile), tens of thousands were subjected to routine torture and still more were forced into exile."
Christopher Hitchens reminds us of "Operation Condor" a alliance of various intelligence agencies across Latin America with the aim of hunting down and killing political opponents all over the world. In one noteworthy case, Pinochet ordered the car bombing assassination of a Chilean dissident (Orlando Letelier) in rush-hour downtown Washington DC in 1976. And in his dotage, he showed no signs of repentance, refusing to provide any information about the "disappeared".

But none of this really matters to the National Review, that bastion of morality! Anthony Daniels (didn't he play C3PO?) admits to "brutality and hardship" but argues that he still brought prosperity, and anyway, "he hardly figured among the 20th century’s most prolific political killers." Talk about the soft bigotry of low expectations! Along similar lines, Roger Fontaine argues that, yes, human rights suffered, and even concedes that he was corrupt, but hey, he did good things for the economy. And Mario Loyola thinks that at least he was better than Castro. Ion Mihai Pacepa even asks God to bless him for saving Chile from communism!

Amazing. All kinds of consequentialist "ends justifies the means" reasoning. No wonder the National Review has few (if any) problems with torture. But the idea that they are on the vanguard of supporting "moral values" is a joke. This is about as "moral relativist" as it gets. As the National Review's Jonah Goldberg puts it himself:
"Right now, the Pinochet-hating left is talking about the manifest evil of the man in purely idealistic and universal terms. In other words, because it is always wrong to censor, to oppress, to torture etc. Pinochet must be condemned in absolute and unequivocal terms."
Well, yes, that's exactly what it means, Jonah. Welcome to the world of consistency.

Could Dick Cheney Get Any Worse?

The short answer is yes. Apparently, Cheney is warming to the idea of siding with the Shia and "crushing the Sunnis". When the New Republic hosted a recent debate on solutions to the Iraq debacle, I pointed to Kurth's idea as the most idiotic, the most short-sighted, and the most amoral of the lot. Why is it no surprise that this would tempt Dick Cheney?

Remember, Kurth is proposing foreign policy based on vengeance. And think of the practical implications. Yet again, the United States would bolster the position of Iran, the most dangerous country in the region, after allowing it attain nuclear weapons unopposed. This would also boost the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah alliance that could easily destroy the nascent Lebanese democracy. And let's not even get into the Christmas present of a lifetime that this would present to Al Qaeda, who would once more be seen as a defender of the Sunnis everywhere.

Update: Andrew Sullivan wonders if this is connected to the sudden resignation of Saudi ambassador Turki al-Faisal. It may be.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Bobby...

I saw this movie tonight. And unlike many critics, I liked it a lot. Basically, the movie tracks a bevy of characters in and around the Ambassador hotel on the day Bobby Kennedy won the primary, presaging his assassination that very night. In itself, this worked moderately well. But what gives the movie its power is the scene when Bobby is shot. Throughout the film, we are presented with snippets of the man and his message. As he lies on the floor of the hotel kitchen, surrounded by complete chaos, we hear some of his most soaring rhetoric. And what rhetoric it is. He talks about the futility of hatred and division. Of how violence is never the answer, no matter how tempting. Of how compassion must be our primary concern. And how we are all part of a community, connected to a greater whole. It was beautiful and poignant and uplifting. And then it dawned on me: the movie was presenting snapshots of the interconnected human community as it existed on that day and in that place in 1968, all brought together by the terrible events of that day, and thereby imbuing Bobby's words with a tragic dimension.

An aura of sadness and loss hangs over the movie, as we know the author of these majestic words is dead, and that his noble vision ends with him. I did not live through this era, as I was only born two years after Bobby's assassination. Would Kennedy have been a good president? There is no answer to this question. Perhaps his idealism would have hit cold hard reality, in Vietnam, in the coming global recession, in countless other challenges. But we will never know. All we know is that it all went downhill in America from that June night in 1968, culminating in the presidency George W. Bush, who in many ways is the anti-Kennedy. While Bobby spoke of bringing peace, Bush brought war. While Kennedy talked about compassion from heartfelt belief, Bush talked about compassion to earn votes and then chose instead to reward the wealthy and especially his cronies. While Bobby's rhetoric was noble and inspiring, Bush speaks in monosyllabic sound bites. And while Bobby was guided by his idealism, Bush offers only cynicism and petulence.

But this goes way beyond Bush. No public figure speaks like that anymore, with the possible exception of Barack Obama. Of course, Bobby's belief sprung from his heartfelt Catholic faith. He is a reminder of what Catholic public figures were like before the advent of people like Rick Santorum, Bill Donohue, George Weigel, and Deal Hudson. This was a time when Catholic politicians clung to the entire Catholic social theory, not only the parts favored by the Republican party, or evangelical allies.

So, go and watch this movie. Let Kennedy's words, uttered in 1968, offer meaning in the current climate in 2006. Shed a tear for what was lost. And hope for what may come.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Catholic League Watch 6

The Catholic League claims that its aim is to "safeguard both the religious freedom rights and the free speech rights of Catholics whenever and wherever they are threatened." But, in reality, it functions as a rather shrill organ of the Republican right, and little more. This is the sixth post in the series.

Who is Dennis Prager? Yet another Republican shill who claims to favor "Judeo-Christian values". Even though Bush appointed him to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, I'd never heard of him until a few days ago, when be made his debut by announcing that Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, must be sworn in on a bible, and that using a Qu'ran would "undermine American civilization" and be like using Hitler's Mein Kampf. What to say about this? For a start, parker is uniformed (an uninformed Bushite? you don't say!). It turns out that the swearing in ceremony involves neither bible nor Qu'ran nor Mein Kampf. Rather, the individuals simply raise their right hands and swear to uphold the constitution. Sometimes members use a bible for a ceremonial swearing in.

What has this to do with our old friend Bill Donohue? Well, as expected, he lost no time coming to the defense of his bigoted friend and displaying a shocking ignorance of the Catholic approach to religious freedom in the process. Here he is:
"The Bible is the constitutive source of the Judeo-Christian ethos upon which the U.S. was founded. The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution are products of Judeo-Christian civilization. As Prager said, Jews take their oath on the Bible, even though they do not believe in the New Testament. It's a matter of respect: it's a symbolic statement that pays due homage to our common heritage. Ergo, the same rule applies to everyone."
The problem with many on the so-called Christian right is that they hold a notion of American exceptionalism, the idea that America (more than any other country) is divinely ordained. This flaw is most often associated with evangelicals, and (not for the first time) Donohue seems to take his cue from here rather than the Catholic Church he purports to defend. For he needs to take a close look at Vatican II's Declaration on Religious Freedom. Right up front, it states:
"This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits."
And then there is this:
"The freedom or immunity from coercion in matters religious which is the endowment of persons as individuals is also to be recognized as their right when they act in community. "
And this:
"..government is to see to it that equality of citizens before the law, which is itself an element of the common good, is never violated, whether openly or covertly, for religious reasons. Nor is there to be discrimination among citizens."
Or this:
"The protection and promotion of the inviolable rights of man ranks among the essential duties of government. Therefore government is to assume the safeguard of the religious freedom of all its citizens, in an effective manner, by just laws and by other appropriate means."
And then there is this:
"Finally, government is to see to it that equality of citizens before the law, which is itself an element of the common good, is never violated, whether openly or covertly, for religious reasons. Nor is there to be discrimination among citizens."
Get the picture, Donohue?

Monday, December 04, 2006

"A Piece of Furniture"

While Jimmy Akin over at Catholic Answers tries to make Jack Bauer a model of virtue and morality, the horrible implications of the Bush administration's torture policy continue to manifest themselves. Today, both Deborah Sontag of the New York Times and Michael Isakoff of Newsweek address the issue of Jose Padilla, locked up without charge or access to a lawyer for three and a half years. The implication is that the treatment of Padilla-- complete isolation and sensory denial-- has made him mentally ill. His lawyers accuse the government of torture, including "sleep deprivation, extreme cold, injecting noxious fumes into his cell and giving him mind-altering drugs". It is alleged that he now suffers from post traumatic stress disorder, facial tics, and "bodily contortions". Or more technically: "neuropsychiatric effects of prolonged isolation." The one time they let him out for a dental visit, it featured "noise-blocking headphones over his ears and blacked-out goggles over his eyes." As one of his lawyers claimed, he was treated like a piece of furniture.

They've utterly broken the man's spirit. They have violated his God-given human dignity and treated him as a mere object, a means to an end. As noted in the post from last week, this is makes torture intrinsically evil in Catholic moral theology. To be sure, many will point out that (i) what happened to him could be justified in the event of a ticking bomb scenario; (ii) what happened was not really torture, as there was no severe pain. As for (i), the intent and circumstances make no difference when an act is intrinsically evil. As for (ii), only by the twisted logic of the Bush administration (which defines torture as "death, organ failure or the permanent impairment of a significant body function") would that exception be valid. But, as noted earlier, some Catholic apologists are creating space for this Bushite definition, arguing that torture is only torture when it entails "the disproportionate infliction of pain." As for the case of Padilla in particular, note that both Gaudium Et Spes and Veritatis Splendour condemn "physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit." There's really no debate, at least among those not motivated by the need to defend the Bush administration and the amorphous "war on terror."

By the despite the valiant attempts of a small number of Catholic bloggers, this issue is not receiving much traction in the religious sphere. Last month, Peter Steinfels tackled this topic in the New York Times with a column discussing a recent debate in Theology Today. Steinfels addresses the silence head-on:
"It [torture] is such a stain on personal and national character that nothing but appalling photographs could force it to the fore. No stack of equivocating documents can have such force. In a season of shameless attack ads, torture is still too shameful to be debated."
One of the religious contributors to the debate noted that the same was true for the religious sphere: "in my lifetime, I do not remember any major public question being so studiously ignored as this one.'' The appropriate questions are: why? and how will this be judged by future generations?

Friday, December 01, 2006

Bullshit!

If you read this blog, you will know that one of my pet gripes is the sorry state of journalism in the United States. Human interest, trivia, celebrity gossip, missing white girls, sports, weather.... that's pretty much it. And then there's Nancy Grace... let's not even go there!

But delving deeper, the Washington Post's Dan Froomkin ponders the particular problems of political journalism. He contends that the success of people like John Stewart and Stephen Colbert (and indeed his own column) is that they can detect and expose bullshit. Sounds, pretty basic, no? But mainstream journalists are always pushing a false equivalency between two different views, ascribing equal value to all sides, whether the truth or an outlandish claim. A group of Republicans tell lies about John Kerry's war record, with no factual basis, and yet the media treats both sides seriously. The overwhelming majority of scientists accept the premise of global warming, and yet the media will give equal airtime to some energy industry-funded crank. It goes on and on.

Of course, this tendency is of immense advantage to the modern Republican party, which has mastered the art of bullshit. A more sophisticated way of saying the same thing is that they have wholeheartedly embraced postmodernism and its denial of objective truth. It's funny, many conservatives gripe about the moral relativism on the other side, not realizing that its most cynical manifestation is found in their own backyard. One puzzling feature of this situation is the fact that most journalists are themselves political liberals, and yet go out of their way to treat the latest Republican "bullshit" seriously. Explanations abound, including the corporatization of the media, and an ethic underpinned by an extreme concept of balance. But I think there could be more to it. Perhaps journalists are also comfortable with the denial of objective truth, the worst aspect of contemporary liberalism inculcated by some of the best humanities departments. Hence they fall unwittingly into the Republican trap....

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

More Tortured Debate

The debate in Catholic circles over the use of torture is an interesting one, and I've touched on this before. If you dip into the debate (both Catholic and non-Catholic) you will see frequent references to "ticking bomb" scenarios and how torture may be necessary to save countless lives. Jack Bauer suddenly becomes the moral standard. But this is consequentialism, the idea that the end justifies the means, and can never be defended. It would be very wrong to torture somebody even if doing so would save a million lives. Likewise, Truman's decision to drop atomic bombs on two Japanese cities was an evil one, no matter how many lives were saved through an early end to the war.

Now, Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin has jumped into the fray, and tries to define torture here, here, and here. What's interesting about Akin is that he is one of the guys behind the Catholic Answers voter guides, those of the infamous five non-negotiable principles. As I've noted many times, there is no clear reason why torture is excluded from this list, based on their own criteria: issues that "involve principles that never admit of exceptions and.... are currently being debated in U.S. politics." But, of course, adding torture which change the hue of the message, which, as it stands, is a subtle (or not-so-subtle) exhortation to vote Republican. Until now, Akin and Catholic Answers pretty much ignored torture, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it had become one of the defining issues of the Bush administration. So Akin's large-scale attempt to belatedly delve into the topic is of great interest.

Sadly, Akin disappoints. Starting off on the wrong path, he states the issue as follows: "The sin of torture consists in the disproportionate infliction of pain." He recognizes, validly, that inflicting pain can be sometimes be licit, such as to save a person's life, or even for the purpose of punishment (think of spanking a child). For Akin, the key is "disproportionate". If the alarm bells are ringing by now, it is for good reason. To quote Akin directly, "torture is intrinsically evil because it is the infliction of disproportionate pain on a subject." But what is "disproportionate"? For Akin, the action becomes disproportionate (and hence torture) if there is no other way to save lives. So, he argues that waterboarding is not torture "if it is being used in a ticking time bomb scenario and there is no other, less painful way to save lives."

This is flirting dangerously with consequentialism and proportionalism. Fortunately, a blogger named Zippy does all the heavy lifting and explains exactly how Akin goes astray. Appealing to John Paul II's Veritatis Splendour, Zippy notes that an intrinsically evil act is one that is evil in itself, and can never be justified by appealing to a host of good intentions. The act is evil in its object, independent of intent or circumstance. It cannot be justified by using a proportionate reason to do it, or as a proportionate response to some circumstance. As the late pope says: "circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act "subjectively" good or defensible as a choice."

Torture is listed as an example of something that is intrinsically evil in Veritatis Splendour. Why? Well, torture is intrinsically evil if since it violates the God given dignity and integrity (the intrinsic worth) of human beings. Or, as Zippy phrases it, "the intrinsic evil in torture would inhere in treating a human being as nothing but a means to some end: in exchanging his suffering for a fungible commodity." In other words, you are treating the person solely as the means to an end, here, the extraction of a confession or information, or even to exact retribution. Licit punishment never treats a person in such a manner. Zippy ties this to the other intrinsic evils listed in Veritatis Splendour (taken largely from Gaudium Et Spes), including "treating persons as nothing but property (slavery), treating persons as nothing but an impediment to some political goal (arbitrary deportation)... treating persons as nothing but objects to satisfy our lust for vengeance (torture as punishment), treating persons as nothing but machines to manufacture our products and maximize our profits (subhuman living conditions)". It all fits together, and, viewed through this lens, clarifies what John Paul was getting at in his encyclical, and shows quite clearly that torture is always intrinsically evil.

Now, Akin is an erudite guy, well-versed in theology and moral reasoning. Why would he make such an elementary error? Is it because of his political leanings? One thing is for sure: do not expect Catholic Answers to list torture as a non-negotiable principle any time soon.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Benedict to Turkey

I'm not a big fan of George Weigel. I think that his Catholicism is too influenced by his political ideology, as when he jumped through all kinds of hoops to try to defend Bush's Iraqi misadventures. But he has an article in Newsweek that provides essential background reading about the pope's impending trip to Turkey.

Weigel notes that the main purpose of the trip is to build bridges between the western Church and orthodoxy, as Benedict (the successor of Peter) visits Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I (the successor of Andrew). Instead, the media is focusing on Muslim opposition, pointing to demonstrations against Benedict in the wake of his Regensburg lecture. But while this is tangential to the main purpose of the visit, Weigel points to a subtle connection to the Regensburg speech: religious liberty for orthodox Christians in Turkey. To put it mildly, Turkey's treatment of this small community is shameful, and this should raise grave questions over Turkey's fitness for EU membership. Weigel documents the following injustices:

* "It is Turkish law, not the canons of the Orthodox Church, that determines who is eligible to be elected ecumenical patriarch, and Turkish law limits the pool of possible candidates to Turkish citizens living in Turkey."

* "The Turkish government closed the patriarchate's seminary, the Theological School of Halki, in 1971, and has refused, despite numerous requests, to reopen it."

* "Turkey will not grant the Ecumenical Patriarchate legal 'personality,' in defiance of the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, which defined the legal position of minorities in Turkey; this refusal to deal with the patriarchate as a legal "person" (as churches are regarded throughout the West) is, according to the patriarchate memo, 'a major source of many other problems'."

* "The Turkish government blocks work permits for non-Turkish citizens who wish to work at the Ecumenical Patriarchate."

* "The Ecumenical Patriarchate is not permitted to own property; thus it owns none of the churches under its religious jurisdiction."

* "Turkish authorities have also confiscated houses, apartment buildings, schools, monasteries and lands that were once owned by the Ecumenical Patriarchate; the state seized the patriarchate's 36 cemeteries, which are now the property of various legal subdivisions of the city of Istanbul; and, earlier this year, the state confiscated the boys' orphanage run by the patriarchate."

* "The Turkish government also determines who may teach in the elementary schools that serve the Orthodox community, and enforces a six-year "approval" process to control the flow of books to Orthodox school libraries."
This gets to the heart of the issue of religious liberty and reciprocity of treatment for other religion in predominantly Muslim countries (when will there be a church near Mecca to match the mosque overlooking the Vatican?). Turkey is about as secular as Muslim countries come, and these restrictions remain. If Benedict's visit manages to highlight the predicament of this ancient struggling community, then it will not have been in vain.

Iraq and Collective Guilt

The most recent issue of the New Republic is devoted to the Iraqi quagmire, and what to do next. A large number of contributors wrote short essays, expressing various points of view. Of course, there is no easy answer to this vexing question. The lessons we can learn relate to the past. In particular, the tendency of the Bush administration to take liberties with the truth and resort to the most cynical form of moral relativism is now bearing fruit, as Iraq has descended into a hellishly vicious civil war, and become the world's largest terrorist training camp. But what to do next? Who knows.

But of all the proposed solutions in TNR's forum, one really sticks in the gut. A contributor called James Kurth proposes to "crush the Sunnis". His plan is admirably simple: create a Kurdish state in the north, a Shia state in the south, and leave the Sunnis "subordinated so that they have no state at all". Yes, you read that correctly. Why? "The Sunni Arabs of Iraq have much to answer for...They compensated for their small base by employing especially brutal methods against their Kurdish and Shia neighbors." And the bottom line: "The losers, of course, would be the Sunni Arabs of Iraq, who would have to pay for the sins of the cruel regimes that represented them in the past and the cruel insurgents whom they support today."

This is a stunningly outrageous proposal on so many different levels. Notice the not-so-implicit accusation of collective guilt: all Sunnis must be punished because Saddam (and other bad guys) were Sunnis. Collective guilt is a feature of really bad theology, used notoriously to justify genocide in the past. Even putting aside the inherent immorality, think of the practical implications. Surely the entire postwar Palestinian experience is a cogent argument against leaving an entire people without a state? Doesn't the treaty of Versailles present an apt lesson about the dangers of foreign policy based on retribution?

One final note: the Vatican--from Benedict XV during the World War I down through Benedict XVI during the Lebanon war-- were indeed making these arguments. But the war party not only refused to listen, but never seemed to learn the lessons of the past. It still refuses, with Rumsfeldian obstinacy.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Whither Lebanon?

When this blog began during the summer, the war in Lebanon was top of the agenda. I argued then that the war was a big mistake, since the traditional just war tenet that "the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated" was violated by Israel. Why? I listed four conditions: bombing civilian areas, intentionally destroying the Lebanese economy and infrastructure, threatening the stability of a nascent democracy, and boosting the hand of Hezbollah.

Pay attention to the last point. At a time when the "rah-rah" brigade of the war party has long forgotten Lebanon, the worst fears are coming to fruition. Hezbollah resigned from the Lebanese government, with the firm intention of bringing it down completely. They are demanding a staggering one third of all cabinet positions, which would give them veto power. What is their main aim? To keep doing the will of the Syrians and cancel the investigation into the murder of Hariri. Lebanon stands, quite literally, at the brink, as the hopes of dreams of 2005 fade.

So depressing, so predictable. Where is the war party now? As always, never around to learn the lesson that violence engengers violence and evil. Too busy pushing for an attack on Iran, no doubt.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Perils of Gnosticism

I'm back! And no better way to herald my return than with a take down of the increasing-popular Gnostic approach to Christianity, evidenced by the recent furore over the Gospel of Judas and the staggering popularity of the Da Vinci Code. In what follows, I lean heavily on an excellent little book by N.T. Wright, Anglican Bishop of Durham, entitled Judas and the Gospel of Jesus: Have We Missed the Truth About Christianity?

First things first. What is Gnosticism? Well, Gnosticism is an alternative approach to Christianity, echoes of which have been with us since the earliest days of the Church. But its approach is by no means unique to Christianity. At its heart lies a Platonic metaphysical dualism that sees the world and all of creation as evil. Since creation is evil, it cannot have been created by a benevolent God. No, the creator is an evil God, a demiurge, often identified with the God of the Jews. Beyond all this lies a greater God, a good God. And here is the crux: within every human being lies a "spark of the divine" that is itching to be re-united with this greater God and escape the confines of the evil materialistic world. And how to escape? Escape comes through knowledge, gnosis, often hidden esoteric knowledge available only to a select few. In some variants of Gnosticism, a revealer from the true God is needed to come and point the way toward salvation, where salvation is defined as liberation from the material world.

And what of the gospel of Judas? It is simply an exercise in pure Gnosticism: Jesus needed to die to escape the evil materialistic world, and Judas was the only one with the gnosis to realize this. Hence he had to facilitate his death. The other apostles were basically morons, and Jesus laughed at them (astonishingly, this condescending mockery is used as evidence by Gnostic defenders that this Jesus is more human, with a sense of humor).

Now, if you want to believe this, fine, but it must be acknowledged that it has precious little to do with historic Christianity, and that to claim otherwise is simply wishful thinking. But this is what a small subset of (typically American) researchers are trying to do: to claim that Gnosticism was the true message of Christ, suppressed by a hierarchical church mainly concerned with its own political survival. Even a superficial knowledge of early Christianity should put a lie to these claims. The canonical gospels were written and circulated between 60-100 AD, whereas the Gnostic tracts are clearly second century creations at best. And far from trying to maintain their own political power, many of the Christian leaders at the time suffered terrible persecution and martyrdom, a fate not shared by their Gnostic compatriots.

For here is the rub: Gnosticism was merely an attempt to make Christianity compatible with the prevailing religious ethos of the time: a world full of esoteric and mystery cults that provided no threat whatsoever to the prevailing political authority. But Christianity was different, and perceived as a major threat. As Wright demonstrates with conviction, the dawning "Jesus movement" was based on a very Jewish notion of history, one which proclaimed the coming of a messiah who would make things right in the the world, as the "kingdom of God" arrived. But as anybody at the time would have recognized, there was aleady an established "good news" or "gospel" out there and his name was Caesar. The threat is clear. As Wright puts it, the goal of salvation is the "remaking of the good God-given created universe, and the resurrection of the body for those who have died, so that they can share in the world that has been put to rights." This challenges authority; Gnosticism does not.

But Gnosticism continues to tempt. Why? I'll get to that it a moment. But first, let's pull apart the notion that Gnosticism is superior to orthodox Christianity:

*First, real Gnosticism is fundamentally anti-semitic. Orthodox Christianity began as a Jewish sect, with definably Jewish characteristics and a Jewish eschatological outlook. Gnosticism sees the God of the Jews as evil, or at best stupid, thus casting a spear through the entire basis of Jewish faith.

*Second, Gnosticism is elitist. Whereas orthodox Christianity opened to door to everybody, only a select few were worthy enough to receive the necessary wisdom of the Gnostic cults.

*Third, Gnosticism is not a more "tolerant" religion. One of the most laughable treatises in the Da Vinci Code is that the Gnostic tracts viewed Jesus as human, and thus offered a less "dogmatic" message. But Gnosticism sees the created world as pure evil! For this reason, in many of the Gnostic tracts, Jesus is little more than a ghost (since the body is evil). In the Gospel of Judas, he is struggling to cast off his body. Despite it modern liberal fans, much of Gnosticism was ascetic in nature, loathing the flesh, and expressing disgust with all aspects of sexuality. As for women, Gnosticism most certainly did not offer any advantages-- in one famous Gnostic saying, Jesus claimed that he would "save" Mary Magdalene by turning her into a man! And of course, if the body is evil, then suicide can easily be justified....

Why is this approach to Christianity so popular? Is the message that Jesus essentially committed suicide because his body was evil really a more positive message that the traditional Christian one of forgiveness and renewal? No, something else is at stake here. In one of the most fascinating aspects of his book, Wright contends that Gnosticism strikes a chord in modern American life, especially American Protestantism (for this he relies on the work of people like Harold Bloom and Philip J. Lee).

How? First, the individualism appeals. Who needs doctrine when all that matters is the "spark of the divine" within me? Experience triumphs everything! Of course, individualism can morph quickly into narcissism. And most religious Americans think that, hey-presto, they are going straight to heaven when they die. Fundamentalists think that all they need do is say that Jesus is their personal savior (note "personal"- that individual thing again) and they are saved. This is more like reuniting the "spark of the divine" with God than anything underpinning historical Christianity. How many people claim to be "spiritual, but not religious"? Then there is the fixation on conspiracy theories and cover-ups, alongside the postmodern disdain for the notion of objective truth.

And there is a more sinister side. The dualism that underpins Gnosticism feeds the dualism that operates in much of recent American foreign policy, dividing the world into good and evil. Classic Gnostic elitism enters the picture too, in that America is seen as unique, specially blessed by God, and not constrained by the same rules and constraints as other countries. Hence Americans are rich because God made them rich and Americans can impose their will on the rest of the "unenlightened" world. And if creation is not fundamentally good and in need of renewal, then why should be it not exploited through violence and environmental degradation? I wonder how many liberal commentators, obsessed with the evils of Christian dogma, realize that much of what they despise is actually a bastardized form of their beloved Gnosticism, with little connection to the universal liberating message of Jesus the Christ, whose memory is preserved more accurately in the institutional church than elsewhere?

Finally, although Wright does not address it, it is important to note that many of the religions created in the United States and basically Gnostic in nature. Remember the suicide cult that thought they would end up on the spaceship? Mormonism holds that humans can one day be Gods, with their own planets! Just look at Scientology: it maintains that inside every person is a thetan, an alien creature yearning to escape, and that only a special secret knowledge will allow the person to understand and exploit this reality. This is nothing more than Gnosticism dressed up in cheap science fiction clothing, with, of course, the classic American refinement of uninhibited individualism approaching narcissism. This is what it boils down to then: Pope Benedict and Mother Teresa versus George Bush and Tom Cruise? Not such a hard decision...

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Light blogging....

Since I'll be in Europe for the next couple of weeks, blogging will be light, if it even happens. Never mind, my trusty co-bloggers will hold down the fort! Pity, though, with the mid-terms coming up...

I'll sign out with a parting thought: will somebody tell me where the so-called "liberal" media went? John Kerry tells a bad joke about Iraq, and CNN is all over him, with Karl Rove-like intensity. On the other hand, as Josh Marshall and other have pointed out, Bush says that voting for the Democrats is akin to voting for terrorism, and....you guessed, nothing from CNN. No wonder the United States ranks so low in press freedom. Wait, here comes Nancy Grace...

It gets worse. When some guy tried to ask George "Macaca" Allen some hard-hitting questions, Allen's thugs attacked him and threw him to the ground. But CNN tries to defend this behavior by saying the guy had a backpack on, so maybe they thought he was a terrorist. No joke.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Catholic League Watch 5

The Catholic League claims that its aim is to "safeguard both the religious freedom rights and the free speech rights of Catholics whenever and wherever they are threatened." But, in reality, it functions as a rather shrill organ of the Republican right, and little more. This is the fifth post in the series.

Donohue is at it again, bashing Democrats to shill for Republicans. The Pennsylvania Senate race must be giving him great pains, as the Democrat, Bob Casey, is pro-life. But that doesn't stop Donohue, who issued a press release today declaring that "Bob Casey is a fraud on abortion". All because Casey declared that he supported "initiatives which would reduce the number of abortions." I guess Donohue prefers partisan posturing to actually reducing abortion rates. He must be getting very desperate about losing Santorum. Think about it: this is the main issue that the Catholic League wants to talk about today, of all the races going on? Did you see Donohue make similar comments about Republicans and abortion? I think not.

Land of the Free (Media)? Not.

There is a myth out there about the liberal media. It's just that, a myth. In reality, the media in this country is craven before the monstrous Republican machine and dares not ask the kind of accountability questions that most western governments face on a day-to-day basis. Between false balance, Nancy Grace, and mindless celebrity gossip, the media has abrogated its public service responsibility, and the situation is only getting worse.

Case in point: the major group supporting press freedom in the world, Reporters Without Borders, has ranked the United States number 53 out of 168 in terms of press freedoms, right up there with Botswana, Croatia, and Tonga. Even places like Ghana, Serbia, and Panama do better. It is by the far the worst performance by a western industrial country, especially one that likes to dub itself the "leader of the free world".

No, in case you were in any doubt about the integrity of this ranking, look no further than the recent refusal by NBC to run ads for the upcoming Dixie Chicks documentary, on the grounds that it "disparaging to President Bush". Funnily enough, the documentary is about the Dixie Chicks being hounded, harassed, and blacklisted simply for criticizing Bush and the war party. What would Serbia do?

Dick Cheney Does His Best Jack Nicholson Impersonation

What does this exchange, when Cheney defends waterboarding, remind you of?
Cheney: And I think the terrorist threat, for example, with respect to our ability to interrogate high value detainees like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, that's been a very important tool that we've had to be able to secure the nation. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed provided us with enormously valuable information about how many there are, about how they plan, what their training processes are and so forth, we've learned a lot. We need to be able to continue that.

Question: Would you agree a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?

Cheney: It's a no-brainer for me...
How about this one, from A Few Good Men?

Jessep: Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who's gonna do it? You?! You, Lieutenant Weinberg?! I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: that Santiago's death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence,while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives! You don't want the truth because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall! You need me on that wall! We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it! I would rather you just said, "Thank you," and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand a post. Either way, I don't give a damn what you think you are entitled to!

Kaffee: Did you order the Code Red?


Jessep: I did the job I was sent to do--


Kaffee: Did you order the Code Red?!


Jessep: You're goddamn right I did.

Evil Begets Evil...

The fall-out from the torture scandal continues. An Al Qaeda operative, Iban al Shakh al Libbi, was sent to Egypt to be tortured. It turns out that one of the things he "confessed" to was a strong link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. In turn, this found its way to Dick Cheney's desk, and the rest is history. This is the same Cheney that recently defended the use of waterboarding, a favorite method of the Khmer Rouge, as a "no brainer".

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Catholic League Watch (Monster Catch-Up Edition)

The Catholic League claims that its aim is to "safeguard both the religious freedom rights and the free speech rights of Catholics whenever and wherever they are threatened." But, in reality, it functions as a rather shrill organ of the Republican right, and little more. I have doing some exposes recently, but most of the really good stuff is in the past. Thankfully, we have access to press statements since 1997, except for the ones Donohue actually withdrew.

Here, I want to look at the different ways the Catholic League has approached Republican and Democratic politicians. And yes, there is a big difference. I'm certainly sympathetic to some of Donohue's positions, including his hounding of Terry McAuliffe for listing Catholics for a Free Choice under the "Catholic" banner on the DNC website. And sure, Donohue did go after the blatant attempt by Hastert and House Republicans to deny a Catholic priest the position of Congressional chaplain. But these instances are few and far between.

More Republican Partisan than Catholic...

One thing Donohue likes to do his to hound Democratic politicians for anti-Catholicism, while letting Republicans off the hook. Sure, a lot of this is about abortion, but much is also about lesser issues on the moral radar, such as school vouchers. There is a lob of legitimate diversity of opinion on this matter, though you would not know it from Donohue. It's almost a "non-negotiable" for him, and he beats Democrats over the head with it constantly.

Another Donohue favorite is the "under God" in the pledge of allegiance. He even calls for the impeachment of judges who oppose it. How is this a particularly Catholic issue? It isn't. But Donohue is quite the constitutional scholar! To wit: "It should be unconstitutional for the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn an act of Congress unless it is a unanimous decision."

Donohue also thinks public display of the Ten Commandments is one of the pressing issues of our day. Interestingly, he attacked the ACLU for making the point that the Ten Commandments that the fundamentalists want displayed is not the Catholic version. He says that "it matters not a whit whether it is the Catholic, Protestant, to Jewish version". Really? One would think a so-called Catholic organization would be defending the Catholic version.

Donohue also likened the position of those who argue against tax cuts for the rich to "the greedy want to keep the money they've earned; those who want to take it from us are the altruists". What a remarkable statement about Catholic social teaching!

Donohue seems conflicted on the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. On the one hand, he notes (correctly) in 2006 that "reasonable people may disagree whether a constitutional amendment is the right remedy". Well, in 2004, he claimed that "President Bush did the right thing by supporting a constitutional amendment to ban marriage between two men or two women." and denounced Democrats who opposed it. Again, when in doubt, go with Bush.

The Iraq war created a dilemma for Donohue. The pope and the church opposed it, but Donohue stuck with his real magisterium, the Bush administration. First Donohue claimed, falsely, that Pope John Paul never said that there was "no legal or moral justification for the war". Second, he denounced those who "exploited" the pope's position while nor respecting "his teaching on all subjects". Of course, Donohue means only those teachings consistent with the Republican agenda. Interestingly, Donohue reserves his main ire for Catholic entities, like the National Catholic Reporter.

Of course, you will not see Donohue bashing politicians for supporting an unjust war or torture, not will be ever give credit for opposing the death penalty, or supporting policies to reduce poverty or extend healthcare. No, "prudential judgment" only works in one direction for Donohue. For any attempt by those on the political left to invoke religion is attacked by Donohue as more politics than religion. Ironic. He sneers that one of these "moderates" was one who counseled Bill Clinton after his "encounter with Monica Lewinsky". Gasp. Moreover, he devotes a huge amount of attention to defending Mel Gibson, who has left the Catholic church for his own kooky sect, even going as far as to dub him "Saint Mel".

Clinton and Gore

Where to begin? A recess appointment in 1999 was deemed "Clintonesque", and James Inhofe was lauded for standing up to this "abuse of congressional recess". No comment when Bush did it for John Bolton. Elsewhere Donohue makes reference to the "Kennedy clan's predilection for spinning the truth". Gore is constantly hounding for the nonsense about fundraising in a Buddhist temple, contrasting it with his opposition to school vouchers. Gore was also mercilessly attacked for some fundraiser at the Playboy mansion that Donohue dubbed the "Gorgy". Charming. And Hillary Clinton is denounced for befriending the Weinsteins. Still, this is all pretty tame stuff compared to what would come in the later years.

Bush and Kerry

John Kerry entered Donohue's imagination in 2004. Sure, a lot of what he talks about is Kerry's position on abortion. But there's a lot more. He repeats the "flip flop" canard from GOP talking points. He lambasts Kerry over his "refusal to answer questions regarding the annulment he sought of his first marriage". I don't recall him commenting on republican paragons of marital virtue like Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, and Henry Hyde. No, Kerry gets special treatment. Donohue also drags out the tired old Catholics for a Free Choice weblink, and tries to tar Kerry with this one too.

Special venom is reserved for Kerry's religious outreach people. He claimed that the resume of the first one (Mara Vanderslice) is "that of a person looking for a job working for Fidel Castro". Another outreach director (Brenda Peterson) is lambasted for opposing "under God" in the pledge of allegiance, as if this is an important issue. Funny, back in 1997, Donohue was bashing Clinton for not having a Catholic liaison. Contrast also his treatment of Kerry's religion advisers with his defense of Deal Hudson, Bush's liaison, that clearly crossed the line: after allegations that Hudson got a disturbed 18-year old student drunk and had sex with her, Donohue blamed the girl, decrying the allegations of a "drunken female he met in a bar." You see, the right can do not wrong, even when it comes to sexual sin.

When it comes to religion, Donohue's narrative is simple. Bush is religious, Kerry is a phony. So when Kerry talks about religion (such as when he stated the Catholic belief that both faith and good deeds are required for salvation) he is denounced as a hypocrite, and insincere. Donohue is disgusted by Kerry trying to defend his religiosity, asking "whether Kerry is playing politics with his religion". Seriously. To Kerry, "religion is an enigma". Donohue even feels the need to list friends of Kerry's who claim he is not religious.

And Bush? Well, the Bush love-fest is something else. Bush is lauded constantly for his interest in faith-based initiatives. Donohue actually entitled a 2003 press release "Is Bush too Holy to be President?" and claim that his opponents "put words in his mouth and then denounce him for saying what he never said." In 2004, he comes out with the fantastic statement that "most observers, regardless of their political bent, agree that President George W. Bush seems at home with his Christianity". And after Bush's 2004 victory, Donohue proclaimed that "most Americans appreciate and admire President George W. Bush for his strong religious convictions". Elsewhere Donohue quotes approvingly Bob Woodward's claim that Bush "prayed for the strength to do the Lord's will" before the Iraq war. He says that Bush turned to God for wisdom. Clearly Bush didn't listen to God, but that's another story. Donohue also presented a number of anti-Bush quotes as evidence that "we need to build more asylums".

Forgiving Republicans and Hounding Democrats

With Donohue, Democrats can't really win, nor can Republicans really lose. Examples are legion:

* Way back in 1997, Donohue defended Ralph Reed from charges of anti-Catholicism. You see, he "provided a blurb: for a book he wasn't familiar with. The real problem is the "eagerness of Reed's critics to exploit this incident for political purposes."

*During the 2000 election, the Catholic League was light on Bush for appearing at Bob Jones university, and accused John McCain of "demagoguery" and of playing the "politics of fear" for raising Bob Jones's anti-catholic and racist background. When Bush apologized, Donohue claimed that this settled the issue, and talked about Christian forgiveness. People who kept raising the issue were engaging in a "smear tactic" for "political profit".

* Donohue seems to be defending Bob Jones backers a lot. When John Ashcroft received an honorary degree, and was criticized, Donohue leapt to his defense, calling it "much ado about nothing" and declaring that Ashcroft was right to attack his opponent for raising the issue. And in a classic Donohue twist, he turns the table and declares that those accusing Ashcroft of anti-Catholicism are the real Catholic bashers.

*In 2004, he also lets one of the swiftboaters of John Kerry off the hook for harmless anti-Catholic remarks that he apologized for (no mention of the sin of calumny).

*More recently, in 2006, Kenneth Blackwell, the Republican candidate for governor of Ohio (seriously behind in the polls) was accused of anti-Catholicism because he is "co-authoring a book with someone who once made anti-Catholic quips." Blackwell, says Donohue, "deserves an immediate apology from those who slandered him."

* After launching a huge assault on the DNC for the Catholics for a Free Choice link, they finally caved. What was Donohue's reaction? "We will not congratulate the DNC for doing the right thing... this victory is oh, so sweet." No, nothing about Christian forgiveness here, just partisan childishness.

* When confronted with the anti-Catholic statements of some of the evangelicals at the "Justice Sunday" rally, where some even branded Catholicism a false religion, Donohue thought it was no big deal. His excuse? That's that's what they believe, and "I'm prepared to join hands in the culture war". Of course, Donohue's tried and tested response to to attack the attackers; in this case, he says it is "fat-cat, left-wing bigots like George Soros who concern us" whereas "Dobson is our friend."

* In response to a critique of Harriet Miers for believing in biblical inerrancy and salvation by faith alone, Donohue implicitly defends these non-Catholic claims by saying that the real intent of the critique is "Look out, this dame is dangerous."

* And after years of denouncing Democrats for refusing to march in the St. Patrick's Day parade, what is Donohue's response when Hillary Clinton does so in 2006? Gratitude? Forget it. He decision is "grounded in politics and deceit".

The Fruits of the Bush Administration

Manfred Nowak, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, is frustrated. Whenever he criticizes the treatment of detainess in various countries, one standard response is increasingly thrown in his face: we are only doing what the United States is doing. Yes, evil acts like torture have a way of fostering other evils in many ways, predictable and unpredictable. Bush is wearing the One Ring...

Monday, October 23, 2006

Theology and Torture

As noted many time, torture was condemned explicitly the the Second Vatican Council. In particular, Gaudium Et Spes says:

"The varieties of crime are numerous: all offenses against life itself, such as murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and willful suicide; all violations of the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture, undue psychological pressures; all offenses against human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children, degrading working conditions where people are treated as mere tools for profit rather than free and responsible persons: all these and the like are criminal: they poison civilization; and they debase the perpetrators more than the victims and militate against the honor of the creator."
In his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendour, Pope John Paul II went even further, defining torture (and other things on this list) as intrinsically evil (intrinsece malum), namely "acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object." These acts "do not allow for any legitimate exception. They do not leave room, in any morally acceptable way, for the "creativity" of any contrary determination whatsoever." Moreover "circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act "subjectively" good or defensible as a choice."

Pretty strong words. Some have quibbled with this, however. They note that the Church has not always condemned torture, and anyway, how could John Paul raise a group of issues that the Council called "shameful" to the status of "intrinsically evil"? The latter issue has been dealt with by Cardinal Avery Dulles, in the context of slavery (he didn't address torture directly). But Dulles disputed the overall notion that John Paul had somehow changed church teachings. Appealing to Jacques Maritain, he argues that:

"Radical forms of slavery that deprive human beings of all personal rights are never morally permissible, but more or less forms of subjegation and servitude will always accompany the human condition. The elimination of slavery, possible in our time, corresponds to a natural dynamism of the human spirit toward freedom and personal responsibility. The goal of full and uninhibited freedom, however, is an eschatological ideal never fully attainable within history."
In other words, no core doctrine has been altered or reversed. As Dulles puts it: "The formulation of revealed truth develops through the discernment of new truths that are formally implicit in the apostolic deposit." What about torture? Although Dulles does not address it directly, the same argument would hold. Torture is intrinsically evil if and when it violates the God given dignity and integrity (the intrinsic worth) of human beings. Now, even though this cannot be defined precisely, the old pornography "I'll know it when I see it" standard holds.

But what about the Church's behavior in the past? Didn't it condone torture, and even proscribe rules for use during the Inquisition? Well, we need to make some clear distinctions. For a start, the evil of torture was explictly recognized as far back as 866, by Pope Nicholas I. Still, the Church failed to speak out more often than not, and was often complicit in torture. But it is not so simple. Using the same logic as Dulles, Michael Liccione argues:

"The Church has not changed her doctrine; she has developed it by better understanding and making more explicit the logical consequences of truths she has always professed. Accordingly, she has put the particular sin of torture behind her."

Zippy Catholic makes the following distinction:
"There is a fundamental difference, though, between a doctrinal teaching and a juridical decision. When Church administrators (including the Pope) make juridical decisions, they are not exercising the teaching office of the Magisterium."
Think of it this way: the unchanged teaching of the Church was that torture was licit, if doing so would serve the common good. Liccione notes:
"But the Church's development of doctrine has it that the torture and execution of people for their religious beliefs is a violation of their consciences, which is intrinsically evil inasmuch as it violates one of the most basic of human rights.... That is what the Western-European wars of religion and the rise of popular government taught the Church even though should it have been obvious much earlier than that... Even though [this notion] is a remote application of moral principles pertaining to the depositum fidei, it is not itself such a principle and in fact relies, like geocentrism, on an empirically mistaken belief to get where it goes from such principles."
Therefore, according to Catholic theology, torture is indeed intrinsically evil, and admits of no exceptions, and the seeming discontinuity is not of a nature that should cast doubt on the veracity of this teaching.

The Theology of Voting Guides

More and more are jumping into the fray. Bishop Sheridan of Colorado Springs declared that Catholics who "vote for politicians in favor of abortion rights, stem-cell research, euthanasia or gay marriage may not receive Communion until they recant and repent in the confessional." Hmm. Maybe so much close proximity to James Dobson and his ilk caused the good bishop's brain to go a little squishy.

Of course, this is nonsense. I discussed the voting guide issues in great detail here. The crux of the argument is that voting for a candidate is not the same thing as voting for the act itself, and can be justified under certain circumstances. In one of the most cogent analyses of the issue, Christopher Decker sets out the arguments in a pair of papers, Moral Theology for the Voting Booth and Voting and "Non-Negotiable" Issues. Decker applies the well-known principle of double effect from Catholic moral theology. In a nutshell, an act that may lead to foreseeable evil consequences can be morally licit if three conditions hold: (i) the act in itself is not evil; (ii) the evil effect is not intended as a means or an end; (iii) the good attained is proportionate to the evil arising from the act. It typically boils down to the third condition. Decker argues that, in judging this condition, a number of further factors come into play, including: would the candidate have the power advance this particular policy? Would the candidate be effective in causing the policy to be enacted? And, if the policy is enacted, would it be effective in achieving its ends? Finally, the relative gravity of the good and evil effects must be taken into account. Nothing here is certain, and the person must act in the realm of probability, which of course allows for prudential judgment.

Yet again, I will take the default abortion example. Take as a given that the voter who supports a pro-abortion candidate does not share that person's views on abortion. Nonetheless, voting for that person is perfectly licit as long as the third condition of the principle of double effect holds. What factors come into play? Will voting for a candidate have any impact on the abortion rate? What if this particular elected office holds little power to influence abortion legislation? For example, it could be a candidate for some local government position. Even if national office, would this person actually be in a position to affect the abortion rate? In the United States, the "right" to abortion derives from the Supreme Court. Plus, the pro-abortion candidate may well support a bevy of economic and healthcare policies that actually reduce the rate of abortion. Remember the evidence from the Clinton administration. And if abortion was made illegal, would this actually reduce the abortion rate? Evidence from Latin America suggests not. As for relative gravity, consider 655,000 dead Iraqis versus no change in the abortion rate.

(Any reader who would like a copy of Decker's essays should e-mail me, and I will forward them-- with the permission of the author of course).

Bishop Sheridan and the Catholic Answers crowd appear not to have thought these things through very carefully. Then again, if their goal is simply to dress a partisan Republican agenda in the mantle of Catholic moral theology, they have done a fine job obfuscating the issues. It's high time to rip that mantle from them, and show the world that the emperor has no clothes. I already mentioned the effects of Bush's war set against no change in abortion rates. But, as those on the right will point out, the conditions surrounding a just war are imbued with prudential judgment. Indeed they are. No, I want to pick an easier example. Torture is instrinsically evil, and can never be licit, just like abortion. So voting for a candidate that supports torture leads to exactly the same moral reasoning as the case of abortion. But remember that one of the conditions of the theory of double effect is that the evil act be not intended. How many Catholics support Bush's "coercive interrogation techniques"? How many are indifferent to it? And getting to the third factor, how does the relative gravity of voting for a person who legalizes torture play out against voting for a pro-abortion candidate who would not have made the slightest difference to abortion numbers? Time to re-assess 2004 for the right-winger moralists, perhaps?

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Cartoonists and Ideology

A great cartoonist or the greatEST cartoonist? In a long, fawning profile in the generally avoidable Washington Post Magazine, humorist Gene Weingarten dubs him “America's greatest living satirist, mentioned in the same breath as Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce.” He also describes Trudeau as missing his stride in the Clinton years, only to regain it once fellow Yalie GWB took over. Trudeau is undeniably one of the best reads in the comic pages--page 3 of the Style section of the Post—with Candorville coming close as a thoughtful and funny strip that is developing quite well. Why is it that liberal cartoonists are funnier than the conservative ones?

For one, it may just be my biases (but then again, there are plenty of “liberal” comic strips I find insufferable, Non Sequitur’s occasional rambling detours into liberal musings being a prominent example). But then again, I have found it hard to find a single conservative comic strip that even merits a regular read.

Let’s take two of the most prominent ones:

One of the early ones was Mallard Fillmore, a strip about a conservative journalist who happens to be a duck. During the Clinton years, the cartoonist Bruce Tinsley, picked up every canard he could find and put it in his strip. As the Wikipedia entry for the strip notes, even in the post-2001 period, the strip has mocked Clinton more than Bush. A recent hilarious strip (September 2, 2006) in its entirety: “Liberal… n. someone who is certain that Mel Gibson is Anti-Semitic… and the United Nations isn’t.”

A more recent strip, Prickly City, consisting of a libertarian girl and a coyote, treads the same path. In early February 2005, the Chicago Tribune pulled the strip one day for an ad hominem attack on Teddy Kennedy (see this for another, tamer attack…). And its sterling respect for democratic rights right before the 2004 elections here. Blog Shrubville tracks Scott Stantis’ comic adventures.

No need to devote any space to Johnny Hart’s insane “conservative” and fundamentalist viewpoints in his comic B.C.. Just check out his strips the week of October 9, 2006, and see what you think.

I am willing to be educated—are there any good right-wing comic strips around? [And I don’t mean editorial cartoons, as there are plenty of good ones around; Daryl Cagle does a pretty good job of compiling them.] And if not, why not?

Friday, October 20, 2006

From Bombay

From Bombay

I am traveling through Bombay, and can’t help share a few observations. This teeming, bustling city, despite its bad traffic, pollution (although it is nothing compared to Hong Kong or Beijing), and other not-yet-a-middle-income-country constraints, is a study in the addictive energy of an emerging power. Everywhere one sees signs of growth—more jobs being advertised, more malls being built, more cars on the road, more opportunities and excitements bubbling away—one can even feel it in the air (literally tonight, as the night sky is lit with the fireworks of the Diwali festival). The newspapers are replete with stories about salaries climbing higher, new mega building projects (mostly private) on the cards, and about societal tensions that invariably come with dizzying growth. What an intoxicating time to be in this part of the world!

Another sign of India’s growing stature is one that is at once interesting and foreboding. Even 10-15 years ago a visitor from the West to South Asia would be invariably faced with numerous questions about life in the First World, with eager, wide eyed students wanting tips for going to the Europe or the U.S. for higher education. No ones asks such questions anymore; there are plenty of opportunities at home, and hence why bother look Westward when everything that matters is going on here. This is by all means a good development, but unfortunately this has also come with an increasingly inward looking mentality. Indians, emboldened by their economic might, seem to care only about themselves. The daily newspapers that run 40-50 pages seldom devote more than a couple of pages to world affairs. Sitting here, Iraq is a paragraph, North Korea is a footnote, and the plights of those in Darfur or West Bank are simply invisible. Instead, Indians chew on their domestic issues (admittedly, there are many, many of those). The TV channels debate malfeasance of Indian politicians (Abrahamoff and Folley, who are they??), Indian terrorism (should the guilty in the Parliament attack case be hanged?), and Indian clash of cultures (caste questions continue to bedevil politics and society; Islamic law’s role in the jurisprudence is increasingly debated). Questions like what’s happening to the Republicans and Bush, what’s in store for Blair and Brown, are distant, irrelevant, and unfashionable.

I am happy that Indians are busy with themselves, but I fear that India is not preparing well to fit in its increasingly larger boots. By considering outside developments unimportant, India risks becoming a more insensitive neighbor, a shy player in world affairs, a people not willing to learn from others and not interested in helping others, and at its worst—an arrogant bully aware of its weight but uncaring of its impact. When I see A 50-page daily paper devote not a single inch to developments in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, or Nepal (all four neighboring countries had newsworthy items today), or for that matter hardly any coverage of East Asia or the Middle-East, I worry about India’s sense of its neighborhood. When I see 80 channels on the Indian cable TV lineup, a dozen of which are news-related, and still can’t find out after three hours of viewing what happened in Sudan, Gaza, Afghanistan, Iran, or Ecuador today, I feel a bit uncomfortable. As Indians earn more, enjoy more, and gain power to influence more, I want them to open their eyes to the world around them, not only as market places where they can make a buck (they have already been doing that), but as societies and cultures which they can help, as well as learn and benefit from.

P.S. One place Indians remain worldly is sports. I can’t think of any other place in the world where one can watch as much live cricket, tennis, Formula One, NFL, NBA, European and Premier League Soccer as in India. Just got back from a lovely evening at the Cricket Club on India where Sri Lanka handily beat New Zealand. Now if I could only find out what’s happening at the political front in either countries!

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Democrats Religion Problem, Again

The always-excellent Amy Sullivan discusses liberal attitudes to the revelations of David Kuo (former second-in-command at the White House Faith-Based Office), who noted that the Bushites were taking their evangelical backers for a ride. It's a devastating expose, showing that the religious language employed by the regime is a fraud, a cynical charade, an afterthought. Perfect ammunition for the GOP's liberal critics, right? Wrong. As Sullivan points put, the mantra that Bush is trying to implement a theocracy is so ingrained among the left, they are unwilling to change their perspective, not only in the face of evidence to the contrary, but evidence that they can actually use against the administration to garner support. Sullivan concludes:

"In fact, the real revelation of Kuo's book is not that the Bushies don't care about evangelicals; it's that liberals are too wedded to their views to capitalize on it."
and

"If it turns out instead to be a political sham that produced only 1 percent of the new funds it promised for faith-based organizations, liberals need rethink their theocracy-phobia."
Liberals were all over tell-alls from Paul O'Neill, Ron Suskind, and Bob Woodward. Just not David Kuo. The major liberal blogs pretty much ignored the story. And, when the topic did come up, liberal commentators tend to mock and insult the evangelicals. This should be a golden moment for the Democrats. As shown in a recent poll, the Republicans have lost a 29-percentage point advantage among frequent church-goers in recent months. Shouldn't the Democrats be trying to capitalize on this? Or are they glued to their own prejudices with all the zeal of a Bush, a Cheney, or a Rumsfeld?