Monday, July 31, 2006

A Departure to Fine Dining

We began this blog with the promise to write about a variety of things, not just politics. With 36 entries now posted, I see that reasons-and-opinions is in danger of becoming World Events from a Catholic Perspective by Morning’s Minion!

Well, time to restore order to this site. And what better issue to bring on board than dining out. Last Saturday I had a truly superlative dining experience at Thomas Keller’s per se (4 stars from Frank Bruni of NY Times, 3 stars from the Michelin Guide, No. 8 in the World’s 50-best list) in New York City.

per se is situated at the 5th floor of the Time Warner Centre. It’s a plush, brown-toned dining room with only 16 tables, with a commanding view of Central Park. (Although the view from the 35th floor bar of the Mandarin Oriental, where we had drinks before dinner, is far more amazing). It has been open for only two and a half years, but its popularity has soared and obtaining a reservation has become extremely difficult. My friend had enlisted his Amex concierge to secure the booking for us several months ago, and we were lucky that he delivered.

The three of us arrived promptly at 9:30, and were seated briefly at the very smart parlor, and offered champagne. A few minutes later we sat down for dinner. I will recall some of my strongest impressions of what transpired in the next few hours.

Having read a bit about Thomas Keller’s philosophy, I was not surprised, but nevertheless struck by the utter lack of pretension in the service. The servers, who were astonishingly well informed and appeared to be true food enthusiasts, were warm, unobtrusive, accommodating, courteous, and yet successful at maintaining the aura of seriousness and formality of the place. The sommelier did not lecture, rather engaged us. My two friends, who are connoisseurs of German and Austrian varietals, loved the conversation we had in picking the wines. We ended up getting one bottle my friends knew about (the white, Prager Riesling) and one they did not (the red, Schwarz Zweigelt). The sommelier steered us to the latter by meticulously and passionately describing the kind of notes we could be expecting from it. (Not being a wine connoisseur myself, I will refrain from commenting on them, except that the Schwarz was velvety, bold, and had strong hints of licorice.)

The menu was extensive. One chooses from one of three sets, with one being a vegetarian tasting menu (the NY Times review had raved about it); although we were encouraged to pick items from other menus if so interested. It was officially a nine course meal, but I counted being served a dozen times during the course of the evening!

The amuse bouche would bring a knowing smile to anyone who has read Keller’s book—it was his famous sesame cone filled with salmon tartare and crème fraîche. It was a sensational start to the evening, as with each tiny bite the deep taste of the fish enveloped my mouth, with its oily texture contrasted by the crispy cone and rich crème.

Salmon tartare with a crispy cracker is not exactly a revelation. Many places in DC serve variations of this dish. What singled out per se’s presentation was the flawless execution—from the quality of the fish to the just the right amount of sesame in the cone, from the fresh goodness of the crème to the hint of sea salt in each bite, one simply could not have done this better.

Just about everything that followed that evening reflected this general theme. Barring a course or two, nothing seemed to push the culinary boundary. This was as far as one can get from El Bulli or Mini Bar. Mr. Keller’s goal seems to be at once more modest and exulted. His aim, I feel, is to take the finest ingredients and then push their flavors even further simply yet brilliantly, eschewing complexity in presentation and tastes. Readers of his book know that this does not come easily; what seems simple on the plate goes through excruciating efforts underneath. That’s where the absolute mastery of Mr. Keller lies.

To me, the home run of the evening was the sabayon of tapioca with poached oysters. I normally only care for raw oyster, but here was an amazing exception. The dish worked because the oysters were slightly poached and thus had mellowed a tad bit. Its soft texture however remained, and it hung in balance somewhere in between the softer tapioca and the more aggressive caviar. A triumph of preparation, no less.

The fish course elicited some laughter, as Frank Bruni only last week made light of the ubiquity of Loup de Mer, more commonly known as Branzino or Mediterranean Sea Bass. (see article here). But given that I am doubtful of ever seeing a better balance between the crispy skin and moist flesh, set against the freshest peas and corn imaginable, I will let that issue pass.

And on and on it went. Combining duck with cherry is obvious, as is beef with potato and spinach. But when the execution is this good, it’s like you’re tasting a new dish. The Wagyu brisket, was just an inch cubed, but packed in more flavor than the sixteen ounces at a normal bbq.

The cheese course was breathtakingly good, and although I had eaten for several hours by then, I craved more of the Burrata (with tomato and basil and an amazing olive oil) once I was done. The amount was, of course, just right, as there was more to come. I absolutely don’t like coconut, but could get used to the sorbet served here. I could taste and smell a tropical island in that course.

Perhaps because I was with excellent friends who are also passionate about food, the long array of courses almost flew by. When we were done, it was past 2 AM; we had been there for over four and half hours! We were the last to leave the restaurant, but not once did anyone make us feel as though we were overstaying. In fact, after dinner, our waiter took us on a tour of the spotless kitchen. We even checked out the bakery, which was operating in full swing at that hour. The heady aroma, a mélange of sugar, butter, and chocolate, wafting out of the bakery was intoxicating. We also saw the plasma TV hooked live to the proceedings of the French Laundry. This allows, apparently, Mr. Keller to check the flow of plates in both restaurants simultaneously.

Ok, given the obscene amount one spends at a place like this, shouldn’t perfect service and execution be a minimum? Well, it ought to be, but often it isn’t. The pre-fix price at per se is only a fraction over most top-end restaurants in the U.S., but at least in my experience, it rises above them comfortably.

per se
Chef’s Tasting Menu, 7/29/2006

Canapé of Salmon Tartare
Black Sesame Cone, Crème Fraîche

Oysters and Pearls
Sabayon of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and Russian Sevruga Caviar

Salad of Mission figs
Sorrel leaves, Fig Gelée

Peach Melba
Moulard Duck Foie Gras, Peach Gelée, Golden Purslane, Melba Toast, and Puffed Caroline Rice

Crispy Skin Fillet of Loup de Mer
Haricots Verts, Vinaigrette Polonaise

Pan Roasted Atlantic Sea Scallop
Ragu of English Peas, Chanterelle Mushrooms, Corn Pudding

Sautéed Liberty Valley Duck Breast
Poached Cherries, Tokyo Turnips, Cherry-Duck Jus

Snake River Farm’s Calotte de Boeuf Grillée
48-Hour Braised Wagyu Brisket, Potato Gratin, Carrots, Wilted Spinach with Bordelaise Sauce

Heirloom tomatoes, Piccolo Basil and Armando Manni “Per Me” Extra Virgin Olive Oil 2003

Coconut Sorbet
Braised Pineapple, Macadamia Nougatine, Coconut Cream, and Hibiscus Nuage

Dark Chocolate Tarte and Yuzu
Lemongrass Ice Cream, Mango Pâte, Petite Mint


White: Prager Riesling Smaragd 1999
Red: Schwarz Zweigelt 2002 Neusiedlersee

George Bush: Beavis or Calvin?

Much play has been given to Bush's recent "Yo Blair" intervention when he expounded his wisdom and knowledge about the Middle East by claiming that everything would be just fine if Syria told Hezbollah to "stop this shit".

But let's wind the clock back to the beginning. To the first days of his presidency, when he had his first meeting on the Middle East. As recounted by Ron Suskind in his book, The Price of Loyalty, and quoted by Talking Points Memo:
"Just saw him that one time. We flew over the Palestinian camps," Bush said sourly. "Looked real bad down there. I don't see much we can do over there at this point. I think it's time to pull out of that situation." And that was it, according to [Paul] O'Neill and several other people in the room. The Arab-Israeli conflict was a mess, and the United States would disengage. The combatants would have to work it out on their own. [Colin] Powell said such a move might be hasty. He remarked on the violence on the West Bank and Gaza and on its roots. He stressed that a pullback by the United States would unleash Sharon and Israeli army. "The consequences of that could be dire," he said, "especially for the Palestinians."Bush shrugged. "Maybe that's the best way to get some things back in balance."Powell seemed startled. "Sometimes a show of strength by one side can really clarify things," Bush said.
Fast forward to today. After giving the green light to Israel to unleash carnage and destruction across Lebanon, culminating the in the Qana massacre, Bush now notes that the war represents a "moment of opportunity." Ex-Bush official Richard Haass thought otherwise:
"An opportunity?" Haass said with an incredulous tone. "Lord, spare me. I don't laugh a lot. That's the funniest thing I've heard in a long time. If this is an opportunity, what's Iraq? A once-in-a-lifetime chance?"
Sadly, Bush's outlook represents the ultimate fruits of a Calvinist approach to foreign policy, wherein the false doctrine of predestination means that the world can be neatly divided into the saved and the damned, between the good and the "evildoers".

Saturday, July 29, 2006

The True Face of Republicanism

This is both depressing and predictable. The House of Representatives agreed to consider a $2.10 increase in the minimum wage, raising it to a still-measly $7.25 over three years, the first hike in 10 years. The problem is that they insist on tying it to cuts in the estate tax, which really only benefits the super-rich. I guess they consider this a win-win situation. If the Democrats agree, the rich gain, while should the Democrats balk, they will be shamelessly accused of voting against a minimum wage increase. And, of course, the working poor will lose, and poverty rates will continue to rise (as they have every single year under Bush).

Then again, remember a year ago, then when the poor of New Orleans were dying during the Bush-administration Katrina screw-up, the congressional Republicans were focused on: yes, you guessed it, the estate tax. Grover Norquist argued that the best way to help the Gulf region would be to cut the estate tax. I'm serious. Bill Frist kept thought repealing the estate tax was a more important priority than the unfolding tragedy in New Orleans. Senator Sessions was "looking for a corpse" in New Orleans, hoping that finding a dead rich person who had lost a business might help them in their estate tax repeal. They didn't find one. Surprise, surprise.

But what the Republicans are doing now is not a surprise. And Catholics like the people who came up with the nonsensical "five non-negotiables" are complicit, by their silence, in what is really a grave injustice. I'll conclude by quoting the Catechism (#2434):
"A just wage is the legitimate fruit of work. To refuse or withhold it can be a grave injustice.[220] In determining fair pay both the needs and the contributions of each person must be taken into account. Remuneration for work should guarantee man the opportunity to provide a dignified livelihood for himself and his family on the material, social, cultural and spiritual level, taking into account the role and the productivity of each, the state of the business, and the common good.' Agreement between the parties is not sufficient to justify morally the amount to be received in wages."
But, to the Bush's ideological fellow travelers, this is only "prudential judgment" and can safely be ignored.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Hezbollah and the IRA

Much of the justification for Israel's onslaught has centered on the use of "civilian hostages" by Hezbollah. By embedding themselves deeply in the civilian community, the argument goes, civilian casualties are inevitable, and entirely the fault of Hezbollah. But this misunderstands the relationship between Hezbollah and the Shia population. A close analogy would be the relationship between the IRA and the national populations of inner city Belfast (say, the Falls Road) in the 1970s and early 1980s. The IRA was a terrorist organization, and its acts were at least as immoral as Hizbollah's, in terms of targeting civilians. But they were also immensely popular in their own community, and replaced the state in terms of their own (thuggish) brand of law and order, and had a whole network of safe houses, arms dumps etc. Now, it would certainly be licit for the armed forces of the United Kingdom to try to stamp out the IRA. But would this justify bombing the Falls Road back to the stone age? Of course not! Not only would such an action would be a grave wrong, it would only serve to boost the popularity of the IRA among the disenchanted population. Sound familiar?

Who's The Biggest Flip-Flopper Of Them All?

If John McCain is the Republican nominee in 2008, I hope the media pounce on the flip-flop theme with a much zeal as they fell for the Kerry nonsense in 2004. Then again, that is at least partially dependent on the Democrats showing some spine (sadly lacking). As described by Kevin Drum, McCain first flip-flops on Jerry Falwell, then on torture, and now, on campaign finance reform. What's left, but the ghost of Bush?

Cowboy Mentality Backfires

Proof that the U.S. and Israeli positions on Lebanon are hugely counterproductive:

(1) Hassan Hasrallah's popularity skyrockets over the Middle East.

(2) Hizballah, treated as pathetic Syrian puppets a short while ago, is now wildly popular in Lebanon. They have 87 percent support. Even among Christians, support is 80 percent. Even worse for the future, "8 percent of Lebanese feel the US supports Lebanon, down from 38 percent in January."

How stupid can the Bush administration be? No, wait, don't answer that...

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Voting For Bush is Non-Negotiable! Yeah, Right!

As part of the plan to absorb the Catholic church into the Republican party, the Catholic Answers group came up with a list of 5 non-negotiable issues for Catholic voters. What are they? Abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, stem cell research, and human cloning. It defines them as the only "things on which there is only one acceptable "side" for a conscientious Catholic". OK, so what does that mean? Simple! "Find out where each candidate stands on each of these issues. Eliminate from consideration any candidate who is wrong on any of the five issues. Vote for one of the remaining candidates." Now this is interesting. Even though the group goes to great claims to claim that this is a non-partisan list, I think a 4-year old could see where this is going. In the words of E.J. Dionne:
"Not social justice. Not war and peace. Not the death penalty. The leaflet might as well have said that voting for President Bush was a non-negotiable position for Catholics".

"Republicans who broke with the Church on all manner of other questions related to poverty, social justice, war and peace, and the death penalty were left (so it seemed, anyway) undisturbed."

The problem is that these ideologues largely went unchallenged. And it still goes on today. When Cardinal Mahony discusses immigration in light of Catholic social theory, he is roundly mocked by the right. You see, it's not a non-negotiable issue! What this really means of course is that Republicans are given a free pass to basically ignore Catholic teachings that might inconvenience them.

And look at the list, for God's sake! I guess people can argue that the most important principle is the sacredness and dignity of life, which is why four of the five are on the list anyway. But even here, no mention of war? torture? the death penalty? Certainly torture should be on the list, given that there is absolutely no room for dissent on this issue among Catholics. But to even talk about this would embarrass Bush, of it stays off the list. More generally, what happened to the whole gamut of issues listed in Gaudium Et Spes #27 ?
"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."
No, these are absent from the list. And why is gay marriage there? A Catholic teaching sure, but it is surely not on par with culture of life issues as enunciated above!

Anyway, it turns out that it's a lot more complicated than the ideologues make out. I'll quote none other than the man who used to be called Cardinal Ratzinger. In a 2004 letter dealing with communion and pro-abortion candidates (an issue for another day!) Ratzinger wrote at the bottom:
N.B. A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy
to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidateÂ’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidateÂ’s stand in favour of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.
There you have it. What he is saying is that it is wrong to vote for somebody because they support abortion and euthanasia. But if you do not support these positions, it is still fine to vote for them for "proportionate reasons". Again, this is not hard to decipher. Take the following example: a candidate adopts a pro-life position, but refuses to back it up with measures to reduce the incidence of abortion. So you are pretty sure abortion rates will be unaffected by him being elected to office. He also supports an unjust war, torture, the death penalty, and social and economic policies that favor the rich (especially his donors and their friends), and refuses to environmental issues seriously. His opponent supports abortion, but takes the opposite opinion on the rest of the issues. Conclusion: it's a no-brainer, you can vote for the second person! See, that wasn't so hard...

McCarrick Slaps Weigel!

(**Warning: this may be too "insider Catholic" for some people's tastes!!**)

Conservative theologian George Weigel, who supported Bush's Iraq misadventures and dissents from Catholic teaching on the death penalty, recently wrote an article making snide remarks about Cardinal McCarrick's well-known penchant for "moderation". He went on to say "Then there are questions of doctrine.", and proceeded to quote an article describing various heterodox positions taken by three different Catholics. The good cardinal did not take this lying down, though, and issued a rebuttal, taking Weigel to task for seeming to equate these people with McCarrick. Said McCarrick:

"Sometimes, however, it truly is important to set the record straight in the face of half-truths or innuendos, lest the old axiom that silence presumes consent gives the impression that one has no reply, and the field is left to those who manipulate words into fanciful concepts with little relevance to the facts. "


...the column goes on to describe the positions of three Catholics from other nations - people I don’t know – as if their erroneous views were my own. That is, at the minimum, deceptive journalism, if not worse."

Ouch. More from dotCommonweal and Rocco Palmo. The interesting thing is that Weigel published in newspaper of the Archdiocese of Denver, led by Archbishop Chaput, who also leans conservative and who (some say) would have liked to replace McCarrick in Washington. Note, though, that the person who actually replaced McCarrick, Archbishop Wuerl of Pittsburgh, had previously chided some of his fellow bishops who denied communion to John Kerry in 2004 (a small handful) asserting that such a momentous decision like this should require a two-thirds majority. And McCarrick was at the forefront of refusing to politicize the eucharist. Then again, the George Weigels of the world seem inclined to turn the church into a subsidiary of the Republican party every chance they get. Not going to happen!

Bush Makes the World More Dangerous: is This Even in Doubt?

Nice essay from Michael Hirsh in Newsweek. He argues that Bush's cowboy approach to the "war on terror" has been an utter disaster. By equating Hamas and Hizbollah with Al Qaeda, and by equating Saddam with Bin Laden, the Bush administration has inflamed the middle east, boosted the position of Iran, and generally made the world a less safe place. He notes:
"And what began as a hunt for a relatively contained group of self-declared murderers like bin Laden became a feckless dragnet of tens of thousands of hapless Arab victims like the sons of the hostel owner in Samarra, the vast majority of whom had nothing to do with Al Qaeda or terror, just as Saddam had little to do with Al Qaeda, just as the Iraqi insurgency had little to do with Al Qaeda (at least at the start), just as Hizbullah has nothing to do with Al Qaeda. And as the war broadened beyond reason, and the world questioned the legitimacy of the enterprise, our friends dropped away. Worse, we have found ourselves making enemies in the Islamic world faster than we could round them up or kill them."

Dispensationalists Gone Wild!

I've been arguing that one of the reasons (not the only one, for sure) behind the U.S.'s rock-solid support for the Israeli assault on Lebanon is the bad theology that sees the victory of the Jewish state as auguring the return on Christ, and the "end times" scenario that accompanies it. You saw this in action this week, as fundamentalist preacher John Hagee and 3,500 of his fellow travelers gathered in Washington DC to support Israel.

From the Wall Street Journal:
"Standing on a stage bedecked with a huge Israeli flag, Mr. Hagee drew rapturous applause and shouts of "amen" as he hailed Israel for doing God's work in a "war of good versus evil." Calls for Israel to show restraint violate "God's foreign-policy statement" toward Jews, he said, citing a verse from the Old Testament that promises to "bless those who bless you" and curse "the one who curses you."
...Mr. Hagee is a leading figure in the so-called Christian-Zionist movement. This evangelical political philosophy is rooted in biblical prophecies and a belief that Israel's struggles signal a prelude to Armageddon. Its followers staunchly support the Bush administration's unequivocal backing of Israel in its current battle with Hezbollah in Lebanon."

The Catholic position, of course, is very different. The relevant Second Vatican Council document (Nostra Aetate) states: "Nevertheless, according to the apostle, because of their ancestors the Jews still remain very dear to God, whose gift and call are without regret." But this does not mean that the Jewish people are divinely entitled to a land grant-- that is seen as purely provisional and no longer in force. Of course, the secular state of Israel, and its citizens, and worthy of respect and protection, but it is not (as a territorial entity) favored by God above others.

Once you start going down the road of Hagee, you can get into very dangerous territory. In the Old Testament, you will find the notion of the herem, the curse of destruction, that ancient Israelites believed was mandated by God: this meant annihilating enemies completely. In city after city as the Israelites conquered Canaan, every single person (sometimes even the animals) were killed. Underlying this genocide was not only the idea of a divine land grant, but also the collective guilt of the enemy. Note that this bad theology has been applied elsewhere: just look at how America was seen by the Calvinists as the "Promised Land" and how these Old Testament passages affected their relations with the native Americans.

Back to Hagee. The article makes another interesting point:
"President Bush sent a message to the gathering praising Mr. Hagee and his supporters for "spreading the hope of God's love and the universal gift of freedom." The Israeli prime minister also sent words of thanks. Israel's ambassador, its former military chief and a host of U.S. political heavyweights, mostly Republican, attended."
So now we know, don't we, what really motivates Bush in this conflict? And it should scare the hell out of us all. And where will we go from here? Again, Hagee is quite clear about this:
"Mr. Hagee wrote in a recent book, "Jerusalem Countdown," which focuses on what he says is a coming nuclear showdown with Iran."

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Israel and Lebanon: One War or Two?

Middle-eastern expert Juan Cole argues that we must distinguish between the land war in southern Lebanon and what is happening to the country as a whole. His thesis that that limited incursions to root out Hezballoh terrorists might be justifiable, but the bombing on Lebanon is a grave injustice. Key quote:

"I haven't complained about the Israeli border war with Hezbollah. I'm not sure it is wise, and I don't know how many Israelis Hezbollah even killed in, say, the year 2005. Is it really worth it? But I don't deny that Hezbollah went too far when it shelled dozens of civilian towns and cities and killed over a dozen innocent civilians, even in reprisal for the Israeli bombing campaign. (You can't target civilians. That is a prosecutable crime.) That is a clear casus belli, and I'd like to see Nasrallah tried at the Hague for all those civilian deaths he ordered. The fighting at Maroun al-Ra's and Bint Jbeil was horrible on all sides, but it was understandable, even justifiable."
This is interesting. I think it is possible to argue that such an invasion is compatible with just war ad bellum. Of course, whether it is just in bello is another story, as there is ample evidence that Israel does not hold civilian life in high regard. But anyway, on the attack on Lebanon itself, Cole is scathing:

"...the Israelis have kidnapped the 3.8 million Lebanese and are holding them all for ranson, while breaking their legs from time to time to encourage prompt payment. The horrible thing is that the Lebanese could not do anything about Hezbollah if they wanted to. Their government is weak and divided (Hezbollah is in it, and the Bush administration and Ambassador Mark Feltman signed off on that!) Their new, green army only has 60,000 men, and a lot of them are Shiites who would not fight Hezbollah. Lebanon was a patient that needed to be nurtured carefully to health. Instead, it has been drafted and put into the middle of the worst fighting on the battlefield.Then there is this: ' Brigadier General Dan Halutz, the Israeli Chief of Staff, emphasised that the offensive . . . was open-ended. “Nothing is safe (in Lebanon), as simple as that,” he said. 'In other words, Halutz, who is also said to have threatened ten for one reprisals, is openly declaring that he will commit war crimes if he wants to. Nothing is safe? A Christian school in the northern village of Bsharri? A Druze old people's home in the Shouf mountains? A Sunni family out for a stroll in the northern port of Tripoli? He can murder all of them at will, Halutz says."

"Meanwhile, while Nancy was singing and Brazil was scoring, Halutz and Olmert
were putting the final touches on their long-planned bombing campaign. They would go up and hit Tripoli's port, a Sunni area. They would hit the port at Jounieh, the trendy Christian city near Beirut. They would hit Beirut's port and its new shiny airport. They would hit the milk factory, the telecom towers, the roads, the bridges, and some clinics and hospitals for good measure. They would hit the fuel depots. It would be a total war on the Lebanese civilian population, setting 800,000 out of 3.8 million out from their homes or the rubble of their former homes, forcing them to other cities as homeless refugees, or abroad to Syria or Cyprus. They would reduce al-Dahiyah al-Janubiyah, the teeming Shiite slum to the south, to rubble and stray bloody fingers, feet and noses. They would say that these were all military targets, but they liedHezbollahah is a political party with 14 MPs in parliament. It has political party offices, soup kitchens, clinics, in those Shiite slums. A lot of times it seems to be these that the Israelis hit. They lied and said that missiles were launched from Beirut, when they never were.Israel's present policy toward Lebanon, of striking at so many civilian targets as to hold the entire civilian population hostage, is unspeakable."
Although Cole does not use religious language, he is effectively accusing the Israelis of invoking the lex talionis on steroids, engaging in collective punishment, and using an end-justifies-the-means moral calculus. Grave evils all. And as for proportionality, well....

One more thing: whatever you think of Cole, he knows Lebanon, and he knows the region. Do you think Bubble Boy Bush (who, almost alone among world leaders, thinks a ceasefire would be a bad idea) could even locate Lebanon on a map?

Principle, Prudence, Poverty

As discussed in my post on abortion, many conservatives blithely dismiss church social teachings that inconveniently contradict the Republican agenda. They will tell you that while abortion is non-negotiable, a Catholic's response to matters of social and economic policy is one of prudential judgment around which honest people can differ. I argued that the time that this was often a convenient smokesceen to justify not only holding one's nose about Republican social and economic policies on the grounds that other issues were more important, but actively supporting them.

Take the simple example of poverty in the United States. Under Clinton, the poverty rate fell from 14.8 percent in 1992 to 11.3 percent in 2000. Under Bush, it bounced up to 12.7 percent again by 2004, increasing every single year. Now, it would be folly to give Clinton full credit for the economic boom (though he deserves a significant amount), and Bush, monumental failures notwithstanding, is not fully to blame for increasing poverty either. Still, there can be little doubt this his policies of tax cuts for the rich combined with cuts at the lower end played a major role.

The church, obviously, pays quite a lot of attention to poverty. From the Catechism: "God blesses those who come to the aid of the poor and rebukes those who turn away from them" (#2443); "Love for the poor is incompatible with immoderate love of riches or their selfish use" (#2445); "Hence, those who are oppressed by poverty are the object of a preferential love on the part of the Church..." (#2448).

How can we live up to these principles? Many, especially in the Christian Democratic tradition in Europe, favored the development of welfare states, which reduced the degree of poverty and inequality in society. But others have argued that an excessive welfare state leads to perverse incentives, culminating in high unemployment and a culture of dependency. Both positions are valid to hold in the Catholic tradition. What is not acceptable is simply to ignore the issue. So if one holds the second position, then one needs to propose solutions that would break the cycle of dependence, such as in-work benefits (such as an expansion of the earned income child credit), subsidized childcare, educational reform etc. I don't see many Republicans favoring these policies, or even having this debate. They will certainly talk loudly about the failures of the welfare state, but will not propose any viable solutions. Well, they might talk about the need for private charity to step up, and they might even quote some church teachings on subsidiarity. Fine, but this in no way the state a free pass to enact anti-poor policies. Oh yes, they might talk about how Republican policies actually help the poor. The problem with this is that the statistics speak for themselves. At the end of the day, "prudential judgment" entails fumbling with facts and experience, not embracing an ideology.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

More on the Disproportionate Response

Michael Byers from the Tablet weighs in on the issue. Key quotes:

"... self-defense must be exercised in a necessary and proportionate manner. Since there is no evidence implicating the Lebanese Government in Hezbollah's attacks, Israel should have restricted its air-strikes to Hezbollah targets. Instead, Israel bombed Beirut's international airport, striking at the heart of Lebanon's economy. It bombed roads, bridges, power and petrol stations, and imposed an air and sea blockade. It promised, in the words of the Israeli Army chief of staff, that "the clock will be turned back 20 years for the Lebanese people".

"Israel's reasoning must be questioned, since the destruction of infrastructure will actually make it more difficult for the Lebanese Government to exert control. The difficulty will only be exacerbated if - as has been reported - anger about Israel's disproportionate response causes support for Hezbollah to rise."

"Israel's actions indicate some disregard for the lives of innocents. ...Under the laws of war, civilians may be placed at risk only for reasons of military necessity. They must never be targeted to create political pressure, or for reasons of revenge."

This is in line with what I wrote earlier. It's worth keeping in mind that "proportionate" is not simply a matter of adding up dead bodies on either side. Rather, the overall evils caused by the military response (not just civilian deaths, but also factors such as destroying the Lebanese economy, targeting the whole of Lebanon for the crimes of a militia that is not supported by the majority, weakening a nascent democracy, and giving a boost to to Hezbollah and its patrons in Syria and Iran) must be weighed against the good of ending terrorist attacks on Israeli citizens, including the future threat of Hezbollah. In the words of the Catechism (#2309): "The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition." It doesn't get much clearer than that.

Michael Walzer in the New Republic makes a valiant attempt to argue that the response may be proportional given that

"...Israel's goal is to prevent future raids, as well as to rescue the soldiers, so proportionality must be measured not only against what Hamas and Hezbollah have already done, but also against what they are (and what they say they are) trying to do."
He's right to take a broad comprehensive approach. But I still find it really hard to see how this is not disproportionate, given the scale of Israel's actions. Of course, as I noted before, most defender's of Israel's actions eschew traditional just war theory. The normally reasonable Jonathan Chait, again at the New Republic, said it bluntly:

"The real question, then, is not whether Israel's counteroffensive is disproportionate but whether it's working."
Hmm, end justifies the means, eh? This is why we need consistent principles of justice that are universal!

Monday, July 24, 2006

Historical religious antagonism—When will we get a grip?

Looking at the unfolding events in Lebanon, it is hard to escape the feeling of helplessness. The problems seem particularly intractable because of deep historical grievances of the antagonists. Israel continues to use its Holocaust card successfully with the Europeans and the Americans. The Arabs—Muslims and Christians—on the other hand have innumerable tales of injustice inflicted on them during the 20th century and now. I see a parallel between this conflict and the persisting Hindu-Muslim tension in India.

This tension took prominence during the BJP years in there, when even riots that took thousands of lives were justified or tolerated in the guise of historical grievances or wounds. Let’s also not forget similar arguments presented during the Serb-orchestrated genocide in Bosnia during the 1990s.

An influential apologist for the cause of Hindu grievances during the BJP years was Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul. His infamous quote, “Ayodhya is a sort of passion. Any passion is to be encouraged. Passion leads to creativity,” appeared to justify a pogrom by Hindu rightwing zealots that claimed numerous lives, on the grounds that Hindu India, long wounded by invasion, was at last flexing is muscle in a manner that was understandable and inevitable.

Naipaul’s thesis was refuted by one of my favorite authors: William Dalrymple. Read his excellent piece on this in the Guardian review here

I recently emailed this article to a group of friends that unleashed a lively debate:

RC wrote:

Thanks. The issue is a complex one. And while my limited travels in North India provided impressions consistent with some of Naipaul's observations--invasions are not accidental and are never for the benefit of the invaded, true today as well--history must have a firm empirical basis; otherwise, it becomes a convenient ideological platform.

SA wrote:

Beyond the rights and wrongs of Naipaul's thesis - whose dubious empirical foundations are laid bare here - surely it is somewhat irrelevant to how communal relations should be handled today.

Even if grave injustices were committed in the past (as they certainly were, but then, in which corner of the world is that not the case?) that is hardly justification for some sort of historical retribution in the current age. Naipaul's statement about Ayodhya being a kind of passion and justified because passion leads to creativity makes him sound like a brown-shirted thug.

JA wrote:

I am not sure I agree with you, SA.

Much of what we do today is influenced by whether we feel guilty of or victimized by our past. So much depends on what we consider to be our past and this is where things go hairy. Like Kurosawa's Roshomon, we see events differently. They are subjective views, but for the observer it is objective. And this is what matters, since our reactions and what we do today are based on that. The problem with Roshomon is that there may have been other observers of the event who were never asked to retell their story. For example, as my friend Diana Saco would point out, history books may have looked very different if they were written by women. The Subaltern Studies tried doing that but met with an untimely death. But even they have problems. Neeladri, who is a Subaltern, did not write the last para quoted in the article about Romila and Bipin's books. To be fair, he should have. Those books also provided only a particular reading of history. Of course that reading was somewhat closer to Neeladri's views than those by the BJP government. My point is that we all take sides. In fact, we have to take sides. And what side we take depends on our inherited and shared experiences.

But your point is well taken that history should not be a justification of what we do today, because we should be capable of rising above our own past. Otherwise we fall into the same deterministic trap of Marxist theory and fatalism.

Perhaps Saurav Ganguly got it right when, in responding to a question about India's miserable performance overseas, he remarked that he did not believe in history.

SA wrote:

I think we may agree more than we disagree, JA. We are all creatures of our past, real or imagined. But we needn't be its captives.

I guess what I was getting at is that the positive question of what actually happened in India's long and chequered history is conceptually distinct from the normative question of how we should order a just society today.

The manner in which we approach the positive question is inextricably influenced by our experiences both as individuals and as members of the various sub-groups to which we owe alleigance (family, flag, religion, class, etc.)

But one starting point for the normative question may be to say: look, anything that happened more than X years ago, whether proven or dubious, flattering or unflattering, shall not constitute any basis for adjudicating between communities today. We could christen this the Sleeping Dog rule.

I realize that there are some problems with this normative approach, in particular, where to draw the demarcating historical line (e.g. a just solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict would hinge crucially on the value of X). But in principle I believe it may the only way to escape what you call the deterministic trap.

MC wrote:

Interesting discussion- I suspect that much of what "men" do and feel today is influenced by how they perceive the past. Much of what women across the world do or would like to do is probably influenced by how they feel about the present. They don't need to look at history to know that they are victimized . Either the existing laws (which usually are dictated by tradition/history - couched under different headings) or the implementation of these laws define their lives and therefore probably influence what they do. Positioning yourself as a victim or otherwise - due to a particular reading of history is a luxury afforded to men. This is not to say that women don't participate in this pursuit - just that fewer numbers of women probably do so.

Since regardless of the culture or the history - their place in the sun was never assured - whether they were in Bijapur or Vijaynagar- how could any event have further victimized them (hmmm maybe the Brits weren't that bad). Nothing wrong with passion - it does fuel creativity (Naipaul is right about that). However, Ayodhya did not result in passion alone - it resulted in challenging the rule of law.

Regardless of what we feel about history (and of course history is usually manufactured - but who cares it's real to us) - it does not justify breaking rules(and buildings and killing people). If those who feel passion for "Ayodhya" want to build temples (or whatever the heck they want) - they can air their views, petition the state - ask the people who ran the mosque (the Wakf Board) for space - all without breaking laws.Saurav was right...

MC also sent this excellent article on Ayodhoya.

Does War Need UN Approval?

Many in the United States, including Catholics, have a kneejerk disdain for the United Nations. Typically, this is based on the fervent nationalism that underpins much of US political life, and this is rooted firmly in secular ideology. Hence John Kerry was widely mocked for his position that Bush should have dealt with the Iraq issue from a multilateral perspective, under the auspices of the UN.

Elsewhere, people see it differently, including in the Vatican. John Allen addressed this issue earlier in the year, when he talked about how refinements to just war teaching for the 21st century would be one of the principal major issues facing Pope Benedict XVI. He notes that many Catholic Americans-- such as Robert George, Fr. Richard John Neuhuas, George Weigel and Michael Novak-- tried (to various degrees) to argue that Bush's invasion of Iraq was in not line with just war teaching. See here for a summary of this work. Much of it revolves around the nature of modern terrorism. But the Vatican did not buy this line in the Iraqi context, largely because of concerns about "last resort" and "competent authority" (this refers to the UN).

But, in the words of John Allen:
"...Vatican diplomats, and to some extent Benedict XVI, size up the global situation differently than many American analysts. Especially key is the question of sovereignty, and the extent to which one can meaningfully speak of a global sovereignty invested in international organizations such as the United Nations. Does justice ad bellum in the 21st century require that the United Nations approve the use of force? A closely related issue is the rule of law, and the binding force of international law. Events may well compel the pope to clarify how the traditional principles of Just War analysis, or "humanitarian intervention," should be applied to new historical circumstances."

Dershowitz Deluded

Via Kevin Drum:

Alan Dershowitz is clearly one of those people who thinks just war principles are an inconvenience. In a recent article, he is trying to amend the definition of who is a civilian. Key quote:

"The Israeli army has given well-publicized notice to civilians to leave those areas of southern Lebanon that have been turned into war zones. Those who voluntarily remain behind have become complicit".
Then again, this is the man who defends the use of torture. This is what happend when you throw out the notion that there are universal principles of justice that bind everybody. Moral relativism, anyone?

Hooray for the USCCB!

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued an excellent statement on the Lebanese war, making many of the points I made in my last post.

Key quotes:
" Israel’s response has been in some instances militarily disproportionate and indiscriminate. In light of traditional Catholic teaching, massive counterattacks on civilian areas and infrastructure, blockades and other acts of war should not be supported. Punishment of entire peoples for the indefensible acts of militant armed factions contradicts traditional just war norms. A humanitarian crisis is growing in Gaza and Lebanon."

"Regarding Lebanon, the rocket attacks and the bombings of innocent civilians are morally indefensible. Unjustifiable and indiscriminate attacks, and excessive military responses, endanger innocent lives and undermine Lebanon’s struggle to free itself from outside domination and from serving once again as a bloody pawn in the broader Middle East conflict."

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Supporting Israel: the Wrong Reasons

In an earlier post (one of the first on this blog), I made the argument that the Israeli aggression against Lebanon cannot be seen as in line with just war theory, mainly due to the issue of proportionality. Now more than ever can we see how true this is, given the appalling destruction of southern Lebanon, the city of Tyre, and the southern suburbs of Beirut; with continued attacks on civilian centers and about half a million people displaced from their homes. And indeed, the United Nations envoy, Jan Egeland, called Israel's behavior a "disproportionate response" and a "violation of international humanitarian law".

And yet..... many in the United States (including the Bush administration) still professes support for everything Israel does. The following, I believe, are the main reasons for this (some of these themes were explored in greater detail in earlier posts).

First, Israeli exceptionalism. This comes in various hues. On one extreme, there are the dispensationalists-- fundamentalist "Christians" who believe Israeli strength against its neighbors will help bring about the second coming of Christ. It may sound crazy, but there are lots of people who believe this-- just look at the popularity of the Left Behind series. But while this is still probably a minority opinion overall, there are many who accept a weaker version of this theory, that the Jews have a divine right to the land of Israel, which means that their behavior cannot be judged by conventional standards. Even among the non-religious are many who believe Israel should be given a break, given the persistent anti-semitism of the past 2000 years, culminating in the holocaust.

Second, the terrorist factor. You will frequently hear people discuss how the tactics of terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas mean that a conventional response is useless. Since they don't play by the rules, they cannot be beaten by normal means. This group will sometimes argue that just war theory is a useless guide to the "global war on terror". Notice the similarity of these arguments to those in the Bush administration justifying torture.

Third, Niebuhrian realism. The protestant theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, argued that there are no universal principles of justice that transcend all national, religious, cultural, and ideological differences. He actually used the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to make his point, arguing that it is impossible to judge the relative claims of each side by appealing to morality. Niebuhr had a huge influence on Henry Kissinger. You can see where this is going. These principles have guided US foreign policy since the second world war at least (think of the all the nasty dictators supported during the cold war) and are essential to understanding the alliance with Israel.

As you can guess by now, I have problems with all three lines of reasoning. The Catholic position, in particular, rules out the following: (i) the lex talionis, the law of retribution, or a response designed with retribution in mind (which would justify a disproportionate response from the militarily stronger party); (ii) the notion of collective guilt (clearly at play here as Israel is punishing the entire country of Lebanon for the crimes of Hezbollah, even though the majority of non-Shia have little time for Hezbollah, but are unable to disarm them); (iii) consequentialist "end-justifies-the-means" reasoning (terrorism is not a license to violate the moral law); (iv) the idea that God's present relationship with Israel includes a title to real estate (Israel is a secular state, no more and no less than any other); (v) moral relativism (there are indeed such things as universal principles of justice binding on all peoples).

At the end of the day, the only legitimate way to judge the morality of a war is through the clear just war principles, and clearly, in the current case, the response is seems highly disproportionate and thus immoral.

Friday, July 21, 2006

CNN is a joke

Their main news headline right now is entitled: "Relief and Tears of Evacuated Family: The Esseily family from California escaped the horrors of Israel's campaign in Lebanon on board the USS Nashville."

I guess it's the war version of missing white girls...

What the U.S. Media won't Show

This link says more than anything I can write about the war crimes being committed by Israel at this very moment.

The Exploitation of Terry Schiavo

In recent years there has been a concerted effort on the part of some to align the Catholic church with the Republican party, having it follow the example of so many evangelicals. I've pointed out this takes place through a highly selective reading of the church's social teachings. And I will have a lot more to say about that in the future. But the absolute nadir of this attempt was the exploitation of the Terry Schiavo tragedy by the forces of the right. Sen. Mel Martinez wrote a memo salivating about the political opportunities this would present Republicans. Sen. Bill Frist, a doctor, engaged in a flawed TV diagnosis. Tom Delay threatened judges. George Bush took a break from his vacation, something he would not do when he received a little memo entitled "Bin Laden determined to strike the United States". He also talked about erring on the side of life, which is interesting given his record on war, torture, and the death penalty!

And talk about saturated media coverage. The Corner at National Review Online was all-Schiavo, all the time. Fox News resident clown Sean Hannity was camped out in Florida. It was an interesting time, given what was going on in Iraq and the unprecedented legalization of torture in the United States, but no, Terry Schiavo was the issue. And the worst part about it was the pervasive belief that this was a Catholic issue. Even today, peruse the Catholic blogosphere and you will see frequent references to the "murder" and "starvation" of Terry Schiavo.

We need to take a step back and figure out what went on. First and foremost, there was a profound (and willful?) misunderstanding of Catholic end of life teachings by many of the protagonists. Certainly, the church condemns euthanasia as a grave evil. As the Catechism (#2277) notes: "Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick, or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable. Thus an act or omission which, of itself of by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator." Pope John Paul II rightly referred to euthanasia as an integral component of the culture of death.

But it's complicated. Again, to the Catechism (#2278): "Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of "over-zealous" treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one's inability to impede it is merely accepted. The decisions should be made by the patient if he is competent and able or, if not, by those legally entitled to act for the patient, whose reasonable will and legitimate interests must always be respected. And #2279 says: "Even if death is thought imminent, the ordinary care owed to a sick person cannot be legitimately interrupted".

What does all of this mean? Well, ordinary means morally obligatory, and extraordinary means optional. Let's look more deeply at this issue, to the 1980 Declaration on Euthanasia, which states:

"Therefore one cannot impose on anyone the obligation to have recourse to a technique which is already in use but which carries a risk or is burdensome. Such a refusal is not the equivalent of suicide; on the contrary, it should be considered as an acceptance of the human condition, or a wish to avoid the application of a medical procedure disproportionate to the results that can be expected, or a desire not to impose excessive expense on the family or the community."
There is a long moral tradition suggesting that there is no moral obligation to undergo whatever it takes to prolong life. Way back in the 4th century, St. Basil wrote: "Whatever requires an undue amount of thought or trouble or involves a large expenditure or effort and causes our whole life to revolve, as it were, around solicitude for the flesh must be avoided by Christians."

The distinction between ordinary and extraordinary care was developed in the 16th century. As described with great clarity by Brother Daniel Sulmasy, intervention can be judged extraordinary and disproportionate if it is "too expensive, not likely to work, is associated with great suffering, or might save the patient's life at too great a psychological, spiritual, or interpersonal cost". St. Alphonsius Ligouri wrote that if sustaining life required eating rich food, that was not required. A friend of mine uses the example of St. Antoninus of Florence who told a man he was not morally obliged to have his leg amputated and live as a cripple, even if not doing so (the leg probably was gangrenous) would bring about his death. The same reasoning guided later moralists when it came to ventilators and feeding tubes. Indeed, the 16th century Dominican Francisco de Vitoria wrote: "I would say that if the depression of the spirit is so low and there is present such consternation in the appetitive power that only with the greatest of effort... can a sick man take food, right away that is reckoned a certain impossibility, and therefore he is excused". In 1957, Pope Pius XII made a similar argument relating to the use of ventilators.

One of the leading authorities in this area is Fr. John Paris S.J., a Jesuit bioethicist, who has written on this topic, relating how it played out in the United States over the past 50 or so years. See: "The Catholic Tradition and the Use of Nutrition and Fluids," by John J. Paris, S.J., in Birth, Suffering, and Death, edited by Kevin Wildes, 1992, Kluwer Academic Publishers. Here are some of the highlights:

Daniel Cronin's doctorate from the Gregorian in 1958 (he was later archbishop of Hartford, Mass.) noted that after a thorough review of over 50 moralists from Aquinas to the 1950s, "even natural means, such as taking of food and drink, can become optional if taking them requires great effort or if the hope of beneficial results (spes salutis) is not present".

Gerald Kelly S.J., possibly the leading moralist of his day stated in 1950 that "no remedy is obligatory unless it offers a reasonable hope of checking or cusing a disease". He also said ""I'm often asked whether you have to use IV feeding to sustain somebody who is in a terminal coma. Not only do I believe there is no obligation to do it, I believe that imposing those treatments on that class of patients is wrong. There is no benefit to the patient, there is great expense to the community, and there is enormous tension on the family."

Moralist Albert Moraczewski, O.P. noted "There appears to be no strict ethical obligation to provide nourishment by such technological interventions as intubation."
Fr. Robert McManus, asked to advise Biship Gelineau (Providence, Rhode Island) on a case involving a Catholic in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) for 2 years on the morality of removing life-sustaining nutrition and fluids, stated: "The medical treatments which are being provided the patient, even those which are supplying nutrition and hydration artificially, offer no reasonable hope of benefit to her. This lack of reasonable hope or benefit renders the artificially invasive medical treatments futile and thus extraordinary, and disproportionate and unduly burdensome. Moreover, the continuation of such medical treatments is causing a significant and precarious economic burden to [the patient's] family. It must be unambiguously clear that the primary intention of removing what has been competently judged to be extraordinary means of artificially prolonging the patient's natural life is to alleviate the burden and suffering of the patient and not to cause her death."
Indeed, church guidelines in the United States reflected these considerations. In 1987, the pro-life committee of the U.S. Catholic Conference declared that "laws dealing with medical treatment may have to take account of exceptional circumstances where even means of providing nourishment may be too ineffective of burdensome to be obligatory." The Texas bishops adopted official guidelines in 1990, noting that patients in a PVS can have such treatment withdrawn, and that this is "not abandoning the person. Rather, it is accepting the fact that the person has come to the end of his or her pilgrimage and should not be impeded from taking the final step."

It seems quite clear: providing food and water can sometimes be seen as extraordinary and disproportionate measures, justifying removal of tubes. This is most assuredly not euthanasia. In particular, if the person is unconscious with no hope of recovery, and cannot feel pain, then removal is licit. It was quite clear that these conditions were met in Terry Schiavo, who was in a PVS. She was not interacting or communicating with anybody. The autopsy (sorry, Bill Frist) showed she had "massive and irreversible brain damage and was blind".

However, it gets even more complicated! Especially given recent advances in the quality of healthcare, many have argued that the provision of food and water should be considered ordinary care, and thus morally obligatory. The 2001 Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops reflects this tension, noting "there should be a presumption in favor of providing nutrition and hydration to all patients, including patients who require medically assisted nutrition and hydration, as long as this is of sufficient benefit to outweigh the burdens involved to the patient."

Pope John Paul II weighed in on this issue in May 2004. In an allocution at a conference, he argued that artificial nutrition and hydration were "in principle, ordinary and proportionate, and, as such, morally obligatory, insofar as and until it is seen to have attained its proper finality, which in the present case consists in providing nourishment to the patient and alleviation of his suffering."

First things first. As Brother Daniel Sulmasy notes, it is not the case that anything a pope sayss becomes instant dogma, as popes are "also bound by our common tradition". Br. Daniel explains that a group of Catholic scholars met in 2004 to discuss these issue in light of the pope's speech. First, they note, "in principle" does not mean without exception. All the pope is saying is that "for permanently unresponsive patients who are not not otherwise dying, tube feeding should be presumed to be ordinary and proportionate... unless its use would conflict with other grave responsibilities or would be overly burdensome, costly or otherwise complicated". This is not a radical departure from the past! Bro. Daniel believes that the intent of the pope's statement is that the case for withdrawing tubes from patients in a PVS is less than for other cases, such as those with diseases like terminal cancer, where tube feeding "will often result in great burden, no net benefit, and multiple complications". He urges caution when determining that feeding tubes are extraordinary in PVS patients, but does not rule it out. Note also the two conditions listed by the pope: providing nourishment, and alleviation of suffering. Terry Schiavo as not suffering, that much at least was clear.

This may be complicated, but for Catholics to keep talking about murder and death by starvation in the Schiavo case is really too much, and not quite consistent with a sound Catholic reading of the case. There is certainly nothing wrong with people arguing that Schiavo should have been kept alive through feeding tubes, and many here had the best of intentions. But it can also be argued the other way. Richard M. Doerflinger, vice president of the Pro-Life Secretariat of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was an opponent of ending Schiavo's feeding. But even he recognized that, at least before the pope's allocution, that there was enough of a debate that a Catholic could reasonably choose either position. How is this consistent with the venom directed against people like Fr. Paris, I wonder?

No, this was a tragedy that the Republicans tried to turn into a political issue to benefit them. In the process, they exploited and denigrated Catholic teaching. And a further irony: while governor of Texas, George Bush signed a law that allowed hospitals to discontinue life-sustaining medical care, including feeding tubes, in "futility cases". This was used against 6-month-old Sun Hudson who was taken off his ventilator, his parents' wishes to the contrary notwithstanding. Where was the outrage there, I wonder?

Note that I am not wading into the legal debate about what kind of verbal advance directive Terry Schiavo may nor may not have given her husband. If he lied, and his intention was to be simply to be rid of a burden, then this was gravely wrong.

As a final point, Pope John Paul II himself forswore a feeding tube and other life-sustaining treatments when his time came. He died with great dignity. As a true Christian, he did not believe that life was worth sustaining at all costs.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Pat Buchanan Makes Sense!

Yes, you heard right. See what he has to say about Lebanon. He asks:
"But where are the Christians? Why is Pope Benedict virtually alone among Christian leaders to have spoken out against what is being done to Lebanese Christians and Muslims?"
Good question. I think the ones of the American variety are dispensationalists, closet or open.

Addressing Abortion (Staying with Controversial Topics!)

There is no more vexing issue for a Catholic in the public domain than the abortion issue. Let's be blunt: the church regards abortion as a gravely immoral act, and this teaching will never change. As the Catechism (#2270) states: "From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person-- among which is the inviolable right of every innocent to life." Hence abortion can never be seen as a "good" or a "right".

That said, I have little affinity for what passes today as the pro-life movement. Many in this group seem to appropriate the pro-life position as an excuse to support (or ignore) a larger right-wing agenda which is not so compatible with Catholic teaching. They seem more concerned with using the issue as a stick against Democrats and liberal Republicans than with actually reducing the incidence of abortion.

First things first. Abortion is only one issue in the gospel of life that encompasses euthanasia, war, the death penalty, and even health care and poverty. The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin coined the term "seamless garment" to describe this consistent ethic of life. You can see where I am going with this. Not only does the pro-life right detest this approach, they also tend to vilify Cardinal Bernardin and any others to adopt a similar approach (think Cardinals Mahony and McCarrick). But these issues are all inter-related, and reflect a broad based respect for life and human dignity (see the quote from Gaudium Et Spes from the torture post from two days back). To be consistent therefore, one should not only oppose abortion and euthanasia, but also unjust war (and the last two popes deemed the Iraq war unjust), the death penalty, the lack of adequate healthcare, torture, and poverty.

But something is wrong here. Most of the ardent pro-lifers back Bush's foreign misadventures, worship the death penalty, have embraced torture, and couldn't give a damn about the 50 million lacking health insurance or the rising poverty rates under Bush. What's the story? What the right will tell you is that abortion is an intrinsic evil, and therefore non-negotiable, whereby the other issues involve prudential judgments around which honest Catholics can differ. And there is indeed a kernal of truth to this. But the right pushes it too far. Far too far. In this context, I refer to the excellent essay by Mark Sargent, entitled "The Coherence and Importance of Pro-Life Progessivism". He writes:

"The antithesis between principle (with respect to abortion) and prudence (with respect to everything else) is dramatically overstated. The question of how to deal legally and politically with the intrinsic evil of abortion is not just a matter of absolute principle. There are at least some prudential issues to be considered by both citizens and lawmakers as to how the moral evil of abortion is to be handled as a matter of law in a pluralistic democracy. The question of whether and how abortion should be criminalized in a society in which a majority of the people believe that it should be permissible in at least some circumstances is a grave one not capable of easy resolution. Equally grave is the more specific and essentially empirical question of whether overturning Roe v. Wade would in fact lead to criminalization of abortion in every state, and whether it would reduce the number of abortions at all. To what extent, furthermore, is a position that concentrates on preventing or limiting abortions of a particular type (such as partial birth abortion), or in as many circumstances as politically or legally possible, more prudent than universal criminalization? Can one not make the prudential determination that the best way to counter the moral evil of abortion is by reducing the number of abortions through transformations of culture and reduction of economic incentives to abort rather than through a legal rule widely perceived as illegitimate or unenforceable? These questions all suggest that the legal status of abortion is not purely a matter of principle, but also one of prudence."
And what of the other issues, the "prudential" issues?:

"Conversely, questions of just war, capital punishment, the amelioration of poverty and other social issues involve the principle of life in such a way that not all disagreements can be dismissed as merely prudential disagreements or arguments about means. Catholic or Christian values with respect to these problems are not infinitely elastic. Clearly, neither the Gospel nor Catholic social teaching provides exact prescriptions for resolving specific problems of tax policy, international trade or labor relations, are certainly the institutional Church defers to the judgment of the laity with respect to those questions. But there is a set of core values rooted in the Gospel that tilts the scales toward a view of these questions that cannot be easily assimilated into the capitalist world view of neo-conservative economic ideology. Indeed, those who would dismiss those aspects of Catholic social teaching that contemplate the possibility of state action for the common good, or to achieve greater solidarity with the poor, or to support subsidiary institutions threatened by unrestrained capitalism, may themselves be inspired more by secular libertarian ideology than the Gospel. Similarly, rejection of the Church's critiques of capital punishment and unjust wars may be more expressive of secular conservative or nationalist ideology than of religious conviction."
I think this gets it exactly right. For many on the right, donning the anti-abortion mantle is a convenient way of embracing a secular ideology that is often incompatible with church teaching. Some will argue that we need to swallow the entire Republican agenda because abortion is so important. But others, I'm sure, are perfectly comfortable with the entire Republican agenda. Just look at the comboxes of any major Catholic blog, and you will see all kinds of support for US militarism (even torture) and a disdain for "liberal" economic and social policies. And if you look carefully at the arguments, you will notice that they are not at all informed by Catholic social doctrine, but by various secular ideologies.

Ultimately, shouldn't the aim of the pro-life movement be to reduce the number of abortions? In that case, you would think they would hail Bill Clinton's remarkable achievements!! For the abortion rate (the number of abortions per 1000 women aged 15-44) achieved its largest decline under his presidency. Using data from the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the number of abortions fell from 1.6 million a year in 1990 (stable for the 1980s) to about 1.3 million by the end of the 1990s, leveling off since then. And from a high of around 30 percent in 1980, the abortion rate fell slowly to 25 percent by 1993, and again to almost 20 percent by the end of the 1990s. As Glen Stassen and Gary Krane have noted, two-thirds of women to have abortions cite "inability to afford a child" as the primary reason. So the garment is seamless after all.... social and economic factors matter.

Where does this leave us? Given their weakness and inconsistency on the issue, Democrats should stop ceding this issue to Republicans. They should stop seeing abortion as something good. Nobody is saying they should start throwing women in jail, but they should at least be pressing for an environment under which abortion rates are minimized. Nobody is saying they should push for total criminalization, but they should argue that the best abortion rate is zero. I believe that had John Kerry adopted such a position in 2004, he would have won. The abortion issue is killing the Democrats. Thankfully, many in the party--including Harry Reid and Hillary Clinton-- are beginning to see reason.

As for the pro-life movement, they need to get beyond the single issue of abortion. Strangely, when they do diversify, they pick the issues most aligned with the Republicans: euthanasia and stem cells. Or maybe it's not so strange. While I believe many are genuinely committed to the life of the unborn, I'm sure others are using it for politician gain. As the character of Thomas Becket declares in T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral: "the last temptation is the greatest treason, to do the right deed for the wrong reason." This is indeed, the issue.

The Thorny Issue of Gay Marriage (a Catholic Perspective)

On one hand, you have people arguing that the institution of marriage is between one man and one woman, is the basis of society, and can never change. On the other hand, there are those who argue that the exclusion of gay people from such a vital institution is a gravely unjust discrimination. What to do?

Well, let's start with the meaning of marriage, or should I say the various meanings of marriage. From a Catholic perspective, marriage is a sacrament, one of seven. The Catechism (#774) defines the sacraments as "signs and instruments by which the Holy Spirit spreads the grace of Christ the head throughout the Church which is his Body". Speaking directly to marriage (#1601):

"The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by is nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament."
This is a high standard! The sacrament is only valid if there is consent, defined as the "human act by which the partners mutually give themselves to each other" (#1627). There are many reasons why a marriage might be declared null and void. This means the marriage never existed.

Of course, the media gets its knickers in a knot every once in a while when a high-profile Catholic gets an annulment (think a Kennedy or Nicole Kidman). You will see all kinds of nonsense about how a callous church declared the marriage never existed, even after so many years, even with so many children etc etc. The confusion lies in the definition of marriage. The Catholic notion of the sacrament is very different from the concept of civil marriage. Civil marriage is basically a legal contract, which grants various rights and responsibilities to the spouses. The state regulates it to prohibit injustice (under-age marriage, polygamy etc.). But that is all. If the parties want out of the contract, they get a divorce, divide up the assets and walk away.

Note that Protestantism does not recognize marriage as a sacrament. So in a protestant country like the United States, the natural instinct is to see the state as the final arbiter of what makes a valid marriage. This feeds directly into the gay marriage debate. If you distinguish between the sacrament and the secular contract, the Catholic arguments against gay marriage become far weaker. The vast majority of secular marriages probably would not pass muster with the Church. In the most extreme care, think of Britney Spears's drunken 24-hour Las Vegas marriage. And yet this "marriage" came with all the rights and responsibilities of any secular marriage. My question is this: if the state can call this a marriage, what are the reasons for opposing a union between two people of the same-sex, who love each other, and who are involved in a serious monogamous relationship?

Note a belief in the immorality of homosexual acts is not necessarily a barrier to gay marriage. Again, using the law to enforce morality is more of a protestant than catholic tradition. The Catholic approach to more concerned with justice and the protection of the common good. Thomas Aquinas himself favored the legalization of prostitution, while he viewed the act itself as immoral. It therefore boils down to the prudential question of how it would affect the common good of society. In this regard, many (including Andrew Sullivan) have been arguing for a long time that gay marriage would actually strengthen the institution of marriage more generally. This is certainly a debate worth having.

In a sense, the Church has already tilted in this direction without explicitly acknowledging it, when it comes to civil unions. Recently, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington DC, in the context of a the debate surrounding the constitutional ban on gay marriage, noted that:

"It seems to me that we really have to continue to define marriage as we've defined marriage for thousands of years as a union between a man and a woman. Now, I think the legislation as it is proposed would not throw out the possibility of a civil union. And I think we can -- we can live with that if this is what -- if this is what the Constitution will provide for. But to say that you can take this concept of marriage, this word of marriage and use it in ways that it has never been used before, as far as I know, in the history of the world, I think that makes no sense."
McCarrick was thinking about legal rights such as hospital visitations. Although he doesn't say so explicitly, he is making a firm distinction between secular marriage rights and the sacrament. Of course, the usual right-wing Catholic McCarrick haters immediately jumped on this, proclaiming:

"More significant is what goes unmentioned, viz., that souls are imperiled by giving consent to a life of mortal sin -- something you'd have thought a Catholic might have an opinion about."
Of course, the subtlety of using the law for enforcing morality versus the common good is totally lost of them. And, of course, McCarrick's remarks were nothing new. Cardinal William Levada, when he was Archbishop of San Francisco brokered a compromise on civil unions with the city of San Francisco in 1996. All who did business with the city were required to provide domestic partnership benefits. Levada allowed church groups to comply, as long as the domestic partner could be anybody, not just a same-sex partner. Of course, the right was unimpressed, but Pope Benedict was not: upon his election, he appointed Levada to his old job (the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) and made him a cardinal.

To conclude, I would propose that Catholics envision a complete "divorce" between secular marriage and what the church recognizes-- valid sacraments and other bonded marriages. The sticking point seems to be on the word "marriage" which is why McCarrick and other can favor civil unions and at the same time support a constitutional ban on gay marriage. Given given the low civil standards, I'm not really sure that even holds up. I don't think it would be inconsistent with Catholic teaching. Of course, the church is never going to change its opinion of sacramental marriage, so Andrew Sullivan can forget about that one.

Of course, Republicans are using this (surprise, surprise) as a wedge issue to prove their "moral values" credentials. Are they really concerned with protecting the institution of marriage? If so, maybe they would be talking more about the huge rates of divorce and marital breakdown. In this regard, in the context of the recent debate, one Democrat, Rep. Lincoln Davis (D-Tenn.), exposed the hypocrisy brilliantly (source: Carpetbagger Report). He said:

"Marriage is for life, and this amendment needs to include that basic tenant. Therefore, Mr. Speaker, I think we should expand the scope of the amendment to outlaw divorce in this country. Going further Mr. Speaker, I believe in fidelity. Adultery is an evil that threatens the marriage and the heart of every marriage, which is commitment. How can we as a country allow adulterers to go unpunished and continue to make a mockery of marriage? Again by doing so, what lessons are we teaching our children about marriage? I certainly think that it shows we are not serious about protecting the institution and this is why I think the amendment should outlaw adultery and make it a felony.....We should also prevent those who commit adultery, or get a divorce, from running for office."

No, for the right, this is not protecting the institution of marriage from attack, but rather using the law to impose personal morality. And, at the end of the day, that is not a Catholic position.

Bush, Medicare, and Crony Capitalism

I've often thought that the only real philosophy that drives Bush, the one thing consistent about everything he does, is his zeal to reward his friends and cronies. No-bid Halliburton contracts, repeal of the estate tax, and even the infamous Medicare Part D prescription drug reform. This was supposed to be a cynical Rovian scheme to siphon the elderly from the Democratic camp, but even here, the lobbyists wrote the legislation to their benefit.

Jonathan Cohn, TNR's healthcare expert, has the goods: he quotes a study by Dean Baker at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, suggesting that a better designed program could have delivered the benefit and hundreds of billions of dollars less. And remember the Bushies threatened to fire the Medicare actuary when he had the audacity to come clean with the true cost of the benefit.

As Cohn points out, costs were driven up by: (i) the government's insistence that private insurers administer the benefit, who needed extra subsidies to serve the high-risk Medicare group (and of course, huge marketing and administrative expenses), and (ii) the ban on allowing the federal government use its leverage to negotiate lower drug prices (this is behind the cheaper Canadian drugs). But it's even worse than that, as noted by Milt Freudenheim in the NYT. The elderly poor who used to get drugs through Medicaid will now get them through Medicare. Medicaid prices are lower, as the states negotiate with the drug companies. But this group (6.5 million people) will now get their drugs through higher-priced Medicare which means... dah dah!.... a $2 billion subsidy for the pharmaceutical industry this year, at the expense of the taxpayer of course.

Welcome to crony capitalism, Bush-style. Suharto could not have designed it better.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

North Korea: Clinton 1, Bush 0

White House Press Secretary Tony Snow basically blamed the North Korean nuclear crisis on Clinton. He claimed that the Clinton policy of sending "flowers and chocolate" was a failure. The truth is almost exactly the opposite. Just look at the record from the past three administrations:
1. George H. W. Bush: one to two bombsÂ’ worth of plutonium
2. Bill Clinton: zero plutonium
3. George W. Bush: 4-6 nuclear weaponsÂ’ worth of plutonium
What's the story here? It's a long and complicated one, best told by Fred Kaplan in the May 2004 issue of the Washington Monthly. The jist of the story is as follows: in 1994, Clinton almost went to war with North Korea after he found out they were building a reprocessing facility near the Yongbon nuclear reactor that could be used to convert fuel rods in weapons-grade plutonium. Clinton played good cop, bad cop. He planned on sending 50,000 additional troops to South Korea, and was ready to strike Yongbon if needed. He declared that a move to begin reprocessing the fuel rods would be a "red line". At the same time, however, he sent Jimmy Carter (someone King Il Sung trusted) to negotiate, and they hammered out the Agreed Framework, under which North Korea would stay committed to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and let in IAEA inspectors. In return, the United States would provide two light-water nuclear reactors, and pledge not to invade North Korea. So far, so good. Disaster averted... with flowers and chocolate!

Things began to heat up again toward the end of the Clinton administration. The light-water reactors never materialized. The North Koreans test fired a missile, and began to enrich uranium (with the help of Pakistan), not plutonium, and not covered by the agreement. Nothing was settled by the talks between Madeleine Albright and Kim Jong Il. And then Bush came on the stage.

Bush simply refused to negotiate with somebody he regarded as "evil". Kaplan is quite clear about the reasons:
"It is a pattern of wishful thinking, blinding moral outrage, willful ignorance of foreign cultures, a native faith in American triumphalism, a contempt for the messy compromises of democracy, and a knee-jerk refusal to do anything the way the Clinton administration did it."

In 2002, the US realized North Korea was enriching uranium. Staggeringly, they kept this secret for two weeks while the Senate debated going to war with Iraq. In response, Bush withdrew from the Agreed Framework, and did nothing else. Predictably, the North Koreans expelled the inspectors, and took out the fuel rods, taking them back to the reprocessing facility. This was Clinton's "red line" and Bush did, well, nothing. The North Koreans did indeed want to negotiate, looking for a similar deal to 1994, but the Busadministrationon refused to succumb to "blackmail". So they kept reprocessing the plutonium.

And so here we are, and Tony Snow has the audacity to blame Clinton...

It's Official: Bin Laden Supported Bush in 2004

Remember in the Fall of 2004, four days before the presidential election, Osama Bin Laden (who had been quiet for almost a year) issued a videotape. During his screed, he attacked Bush, and peppered his talk with references to Fahrenheit 9/11, Bush's stupidity, ties to big business etc. It was almost as if he'd been reading liberal websites from his hole in Pakistan. I remember thinking at the time that this seemed designed to help Bush, as Bin Laden anticipated the country would rally around him, especially since he, Bin Laden, was using some Democratic talking points. I feared the worst (and the worst happened....). Now we find out in Ron Suskind's new book, The One Percent Doctrine, that the Bin Laden unit inside the CIA thought exactly the same thing. You see, they knew that Bin Laden only spoke for strategic reasons, and that this time, he was trying to help Bush.

And why not? Bush had completely screwed up by letting him escape from Tora Bora. (I'm convinced that a president Gore would not have made such a blunder, chiefly because he would not have appointed an incompetent like Rumsfeld as his secretary of defense). And of course, Bush's actions in Iraq were turning out to be Al Qaeda's biggest recruiting aid. So why would Bin Laden not have backed Bush?

Of course, we could always get into a Princess Bride iocane powder scenario, whereby Bin Laden knew that his attacks on Bush looked suspiciously partisan, so that clearly be was backing Kerry. But he also knew that....oh, forget it, this gets too complicated.

Of course, Kerry has only himself to blame for ceding this issue to Bush. Only in the debates did he raise Tora Bora to great effect, but then it was too little, too late. He also should have done an ad about that famous press conference in which Bush claims he didn't really care about Bin Laden; for, if the tables had be turned, Kerry would have been crucified for saying something similar.

More Colbert...

You've all heard about Bubble Boy's off-the-cuff remarks to Tony Blair yesterday. Bottom line: he's the obnoxious boorish frat boy we always thought he was. But it turns out that Stephen Colbert also had an "unplugged" incident.... this is hilarious.

Christianity and modern Israel: good and bad theology

This is a follow-up to something I discussed yesterday, namely the reason for the deep-rooted support of Israel in the United States, particularly among Christians, which leads to a rather one-sided approach to the Middle East conflict. In this, it is at odds with the more prudent approach taken by the Vatican.

Yesterday, I noted that aspects of predestination play a role. But, among many, it goes deeper than that, and reflects the influence of dispensationalism in protestant theology. This arises from John Nelson Darby, founder of the Plymouth Brethren, and includes such bizarre beliefs as the rapture (all "believing" Christians will one day disappear into thin air and go to heaven!) prior to the second coming of Christ. Following the rapture, there is the period of tribulation and Armageddon, and which point Christ returns an establishes a 1000 year reign. Or something along those lines. Dispensationalists are also fond of looking to current events to predict these end times. If you think this is a quirky minority view, think again, and look to the 50 million copies of the "Left Behind" series sold. A poll from 2002 suggests that 59 percent of Americans believe these events will take place. It is noteworthy that the followers of Darby gained great influence in the US, but not elsewhere. This has immense implications for middle eastern policy, as one of the signs of Jesus's return is supposed to be when the Jews return to Israel. Hence fundamentalists are the leading supporters of Israel, especially those on the expansionist, Likud, wing. I think this, above all, explains the widespread tilt toward Israel in the United States.

This is bad theology. Good theology, on the other hand, would recognize that the Jewish people were the chosen people, the first to hear the word of God, and denounce all anti-semitism. The Catechism (#839) notes that "the Jewish faith, unlike other non-Christian religions, is already a response to God's revelation in the Old Covenant." They are our "elder brothers" as Pope John Paul II noted. But this does not mean we must support Israel, the state, for theological reasons. Nobody has a divine right to a piece of real estate, especially when others must be displaced from that land. But again, this kind of thinking is not alien to American protestants: John Withrop's famous (infamous?) "city on a hill" speech in 1630 laid claim to the territory of New England for the puritans, and claimed a covenant with God. The problem with divine mandates to land is that the existing inhabitants tend to suffer-- just look at what happened to the native Americans.

So, yes, defend the security and welfare of the Israeli people, but do not assume they have the mandate of heaven to live where they do.

Stephen Colbert is the man-- for many reasons!

I've been a huge fan of Colbert ever since his evisceration of Bush right in front of his nose. I was happy to learn that Colbert is actually a serious Catholic, who takes his faith seriously. And this comes through sometimes in strange ways, such as when he actually recited the entire Nicene creed on his show. The linked site also includes some quotes from interviews with Colbert whereby he talks about his faith, and how he was his daughter's first communion catechist. But this is the money quote:

"What is worthy of satire is the misuse of religion for destructive or political gains. That's totally different from the Word, the blood, the body and the Christ."
Satire is what Colbert does so well, and in the blowhard persona he adopts, he exposes the vanity, the shallowness, the bullying, and the hypocrisy of O'Reilly and his ilk. And one thing this group does is mis-use religion to advance their own agenda, most of which is not very compatible with Christianity. It is appropriate that a Catholic takes on this role, especially given the general ignorance in the media surrounding all things religious. Colbert knows what he is talking about!

Colbert's speech last May at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner took this up a notch. But exposing the truth through satire and irony was not popular with some people. The inimitable Rocco Palmo notes:
"Some people in this church really hate Stephen Colbert right now. Hate. Hate. Hate him. Why, you ask? Because he had the temerity to be candid before George Bush -who, so we're told, is the real head of the US church -- at the White House correspondents' dinner a few weeks back.Well, friends, some of you will be shocked to learn that Colbert is one of us. Really. (And that Bush isn't.) The Comedy Central host is said to be quite devout in his practice of the faith, kids in Catholic school, the whole shebang.And some of you are probably just losing your minds about that right about now."

But it wasn't just the Bush-adoring right that was not amused by Colbert's springtime antics. The media claimed he was rude, unfunny, and proceeded to ignore him. But, as James Wood in the New Republic pointed out, the point wasn't about being funny, it was about "being ironic, satirical, brutal". "Don't you get it?", he asks, "These issues are just too painful for humor." [the article entitled "MSM S&M", from the 5/22/06 issue, is hidden by a subscription wall.] Of course, the media did not like it when Colbert skewered them for their obsequiousness and cowardice in the dealings with the Bush administration. Colbert:
"Over the last five years, you people were so good--over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn't want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out."
(If you haven't already, read the entire transcript. Or better yet, watch the video clip. And then watch it again just looking at Bush's pissed-off look: how can somebody address the emperor in such manner?)

Yes, the media did not want to face up to how pathetic it has become. CNN has degenerated from global news to Nancy Grace. Fox News is part of the White House (Tony Snow's appointment made that official). And the main issue facing the world is not war in the Middle East or genocide in Darfur, but missing white girls and Angelina Jolie's baby. They completely missed the point that sarcasm and irony have been effective tools of the powerless since the days of Chaucer. I'll give the final word to James Wood-- he can say it better than I can:
"To anyone schooled in the Hogarthian brutalities of English journalism, U.S. newspapers have an astounding blandness and a sinister reverence for money, celebrity, and the simple authority of renown. Where is the daily political cartoon, or that hygienic invention of Grub Street, the Parliamentary sketch, in which you get to insult both sides of the aisle? What does it say of a newspaper that its most biting writers are those working in the style sections or reviewing films? It is no wonder that 54,000 people have written to His routine was a good, savage op-ed piece. But not in the MSM."