Thursday, September 28, 2006

Rationalism and Voluntarism: What Went Wrong With Islam?

In all the furor over the pope's speech, which I discussed here and here (and my co-blogger Shadhu weighed in from a different perspective here), what often gets left behind is the lens through which Catholics and Muslims tend to see God. What I'm getting at is the difference between rationalism and voluntarism. Rationalists argue that God is reasonable, and even though the mind of God is vastly beyond our comprehension, the way we think is close enough to the way that God thinks to allow us to claim that God is an infinite and eternal intellect. In other words, God cannot act irrationally. Voluntarists, on the other hand, don't like this way of thinking. They believe that God should be conceived as pure will, not pure reason and intellect, on the grounds that God transcends all human ways of thinking about Him. The pope was trying to point out some problems with voluntarism, and to defend the melding of Greek philosophy and the biblical understanding of faith in God that underpins the rationalist approach. He notes that this approach means that God is not subject to reason which "might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness."

This is the crux of the issue. As Robert Reilly points out in his recent essay on the subject, there were voluntarist tensions in both Christianity and Islam. The pope himself criticized medieval Catholic theologian Duns Scotus for promoting voluntarism. But the temptation was a little stronger in Islam, owing it the nature of its revelation. Specifically, its belief that the word of God is encapsulated in a text, dictated to the prophet, lends itself naturally to voluntarism. Catholicism's approach to revelation is fundamentally different, seeing the Word of God as not a book, but a person (Jesus) who is also the wisdom and reason of God. In this context, the role of the Church is to preserve the memory of Christ, not appeal to a timeless text. But it is not so black and white. Catholics such as Duns Scotus flirted with voluntarism, while there was once a flourishing rationalist school in Islam that dominated its golden age. As Reilly notes, the Mu'tazilites believed God is reason and that God's laws are laws of nature, manifested in Sharia. And during this period, there was much mutually beneficial cross-fertilization between the Christian and Islamic civilizations. The most well known example is the debt Thomas Aquinas owes to prominent Muslim intellectuals such as Averroes and Avicenna.

But the Mu'tazilites lost prominence in the development of Islam. Reilly argues that the most influential Islamic thinker after Mohammed was Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111), who utterly rejected Greek philosophy. Al-Ghazali was a voluntarist, arguing that God is not bound by what we perceive as the rational order, and that "things do not act according to their own natures but only according to God's will at the moment." Reilly quotes a Jewish follower of al-Ghazali, Judah ha-Levi, noting that "I consider him to have attained the highest degree of perfection who is convinced of religious truths without having scrutinized them and reasoned over them." Taking this argument to the frightening extreme, Reilly concludes:

"Today's radical Muslims embrace the "unreasonableness" of faith in an unreasoning God and translate it into a politics of unlimited power. As God's instruments, they are channels for his omnipotence. Once the primacy of force is posited, terrorism becomes the next logical step to power, as it did in the 20th-century secular ideologies of power, Nazism and Marxism-Leninism. This is what led Osama bin Laden to embrace the astonishing statement of his spiritual godfather, Abdullah Azzam, which Osama quoted in the November 2001 video, released after 9/11: "Terrorism is an obligation in Allah's religion." This can only be true - that violence in spreading faith is an obligation - if, as Benedict XVI said in Regensburg, God is without reason."
Did the Islamic civilization suffer because a bankrupt voluntarism became the predominant philosophy and theology? And does this explain the sway that religious compulsion and violence holds over an significant minority of Muslims today, the very ones that were baying for the pope's blood after his speech? These are subtle concepts, easily misunderstood. This is brought out clearly in a recent New Republic essay by David Nirenberg, who criticizes the pope for saying that Catholicism is better than all other religions:

"The pope's "invitation" at Regensburg was not to a "dialogue of cultures" at all. What he was advocating was a kind of conversion, or at least a convergence
of all religions and cultures toward a logos that is explicitly characterized as
Catholic and European."
This completely misses the point. There is indeed a strong rationalist tradition in Islam, just as in Catholicism, despite very different views on the nature of revelation. It just has not come to the fore in a very long time. But it can be done. Christianity needed to wrestle with difficult texts in the bible, much as Muslims wrestle with the Qu'ran. For Catholics, the support provided in the Old Testament for the practice herem, the curse of destruction (basically genocide) is probably the most troublesome. Today, few Christians believe that God supports genocide, as this would contradict the logic of who God is. Muslims face similar challenges. A recent article in the New Yorker by George Packer gives some clues about how the Islamic community might deal with these issues, focusing on the teachings of Sudanese thinker Mahmoud Muhammad Taha. Taha distinguished between the harsh Medina verses and the more lofty Meccan verses in the Qu'ran, arguing that the former are only temporary, and will be abrogated in favor of the latter when Islam was ready. For his efforts, Taha was executed by the Sudanese authorities.

In sum, despite Nirenberg's best efforts to show otherwise, the pope is most definitely not calling for Muslims to convert to Catholicism. He is merely appealing to the Islamic community to recover what is best about itself. What exactly is wrong with that?

A Day of Infamy

The New York Times has a powerful editorial today, denouncing the provisions of the new "anti-terrorism" bill that Republicans are already using as a cheap and cynical electoral ploy. The Times lists the key flaws:

"Enemy Combatants: A dangerously broad definition of “illegal enemy combatant” in the bill could subject legal residents of the United States, as well as foreign citizens living in their own countries, to summary arrest and indefinite detention with no hope of appeal. The president could give the power to apply this label to anyone he wanted.
The Geneva Conventions: The bill would repudiate a half-century of international precedent by allowing Mr. Bush to decide on his own what abusive interrogation methods he considered permissible. And his decision could stay secret — there’s no requirement that this list be published.
Habeas Corpus: Detainees in U.S. military prisons would lose the basic right to challenge their imprisonment. These cases do not clog the courts, nor coddle terrorists. They simply give wrongly imprisoned people a chance to prove their innocence.
Judicial Review: The courts would have no power to review any aspect of this new system, except verdicts by military tribunals. The bill would limit appeals and bar legal actions based on the Geneva Conventions, directly or indirectly. All Mr. Bush would have to do to lock anyone up forever is to declare him an illegal combatant and not have a trial.
Coerced Evidence: Coerced evidence would be permissible if a judge considered it reliable — already a contradiction in terms — and relevant. Coercion is defined in a way that exempts anything done before the passage of the 2005 Detainee Treatment Act, and anything else Mr. Bush chooses.
Secret Evidence: American standards of justice prohibit evidence and testimony that is kept secret from the defendant, whether the accused is a corporate executive or a mass murderer. But the bill as redrafted by Mr. Cheney seems to weaken protections against such evidence.
Offenses: The definition of torture is unacceptably narrow, a virtual reprise of the deeply cynical memos the administration produced after 9/11. Rape and sexual assault are defined in a retrograde way that covers only forced or coerced activity, and not other forms of nonconsensual sex. The bill would effectively eliminate the
idea of rape as torture."
It's truly a sad day for human rights, a stain on the record of the United States. And why the eerie silence of Bush's pseudo-Christian backers?

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Catholic League Watch 3

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

In his latest unhinged tirade, Bill Donohue complains that the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay have more religious rights than Christians in the United States. I'm serious.

"It is more than ironic--it is perverse--to note that while Christians and Jews are battling for their religious rights, accused Muslim thugs in the Guantanamo Bay detention camps are having no problem getting their religious rights honored during Ramadan....The situation at the Cuban base is so absurd that one Army official says, 'The deference that was given to them [the detainees] under the guise of religion was unbelievable'...The old adage, 'What's Good for the Goose is Good for the Gander,' needs emendation: 'What's Good for Accused Muslim Thugs is Good for Unsuspected Christians and Jews' makes more sense these days."
Where do I even start with this? Notice the vitriolic tone, the absence of any modicum of Christian charity. Donohue is a perfect example of what I discussed before: how the "Coulterization of conservatism" has seeped into Catholic discourse. And of course, Donohue is not exactly up to speed with how the Catechism treats Islam. Nor is he aware that of the words of Pope Benedict expressing respect and esteem for Islam. Then again, Bush trumps Benedict any day for Donohue and his fellow travelers.

Is Donohue even aware of the fact that many (if not most) of the "Muslim Thugs" held in Guantanamo Bay are innocent of any crime? Does he care? As noted by Andrew Sullivan (pulling from National Journal), Rumseld lied when he said all prisoners were captured on a battlefield. In fact:

"*A high percentage, perhaps the majority, of the 500-odd men now held at Guantanamo were not captured on any battlefield, let alone on "the battlefield in Afghanistan" (as Bush asserted) while "trying to kill American forces" (as McClellan claimed).
* Fewer than 20 percent of the Guantanamo detainees, the best available evidence suggests, have ever been Qaeda members.
* Many scores, and perhaps hundreds, of the detainees were not even Taliban foot
soldiers, let alone Qaeda terrorists. They were innocent, wrongly seized noncombatants with no intention of joining the Qaeda campaign to murder Americans.
* The majority were not captured by U.S. forces but rather handed over by reward-seeking Pakistanis and Afghan warlords and by villagers of highly doubtful reliability."

Innocent men held in a prison without charge for five years. Tortured by the Bush administration. And now this same administration wants to legalize military tribunals held unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, where defendants have no right to see the evidence accusing them. Shame on Donohue. Shame.

Monday, September 25, 2006

One Ring to Rule Them All...

"I do not understand all this,' he [Boromir] said. 'Saruman is a traitor, but did he not have a glimpse of wisdom? Why do you speak of hiding and destroying? Why should we not think that the Great Ring has come into our hands to serve us in the very hour of need? Wielding it the Free Lords of the Free may surely defeat the enemy. That is what he most fears, I deem. The Men of Gondor are valiant, and they will never submit; but they may be beaten down. Valour needs first strength, and then a weapon. Let the ring be your weapon, if it has such power as you say. Take it and go forth to victory!"

"Alas, no," said Elrond. "We cannot use the Ruling Ring. That we now know too well. It belongs to Sauron and was made by him alone, and is altogether evil. Its strength, Boromir, is too great for anyone to wield at will, save only those who already have a great power of their own. But for them it holds and even deadlier peril. The very desire of it corrupts the heart. Consider Saruman. If any of the Wise should with this Ring overthrow the Lord of Mordor, using his own arts, he would then set himself on Sauron's throne, and yet another Dark Lord would appear. And that is another reason why the Ring should be destroyed: as long as it is in the world it will be a danger even to the Wise. For nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so. I fear to take the Ring to hide it. I will not take the Ring to wield it."

J.R.R. Tolkien

"I want to thank the members of the United States Senate for working with my administration to meet our top legislative priority, and that is a law that will help us crack the terror network and to save American lives. I had a single test for the pending legislation, and that's this: Would the CIA operators tell me whether they could go forward with the program, that is a program to question detainees to be able to get information to protect the American people. I'm pleased to say that this agreement preserves the most single -- most potent tool we have in protecting America and foiling terrorist attacks, and that is the CIA program to question the world's most dangerous terrorists and to get their secrets. "

George W. Bush

"Today, when the White House lawyers seem preoccupied with contriving a way to stem the flow of possible lawsuits from former detainees, I strongly recommend that they think about another flood of suits, from the men and women in your armed services or the CIA agents who have been or will be engaged in CID [cruel, inhumane or degrading] practices. Our rich experience in Russia has shown that many will become alcoholics or drug addicts, violent criminals or, at the very least, despotic and abusive fathers and mothers. If America's leaders want to hunt terrorists while transforming dictatorships into democracies, they must recognize that torture, which includes CID, has historically been an instrument of oppression -- not an instrument of investigation or of intelligence gathering. No country needs to invent how to "legalize" torture; the problem is rather how to stop it from happening. If it isn't stopped, torture will destroy your nation's important strategy to develop democracy in the Middle East. And if you cynically outsource torture to contractors and foreign agents, how can you possibly be surprised if an 18-year-old in the Middle East casts a jaundiced eye toward your reform efforts there?"

Vladimir Bukovsky, tortured by the Soviet Union.

Catholic League Watch II

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

This time: the attack on Bob Casey. Casey is a pro-life Democrat who (hopefully) will take Santorum's Pennsylvania Senate seat away from him next month. For the record, Santorum has been listed as one of the three most corrupt Senate members by the Center For Responsibility And Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group. So the Catholic League is in a bind. It wants Santorum reelected, because he is a Republican, but it can't say this in public. And Casey is pro-life, which takes away their most effective weapon. What to do, what to do? Aha! Attack Casey for taking money from, because this organization is not pro-life enough. Call it arms-length abortion support! And let that be a lesson to any other Democrat daring to use the abortion issue for electoral gain! But while we are on the subject of independent partisan groups, what about vicious lies promulgated by the Swift Boaters against Kerry and other Democrats? The tried-and-tested Rove technique? Isn't lying-- engaging in calumny, bearing false witness-- against Church teachings? Or is it the case only when Democrats do it?

The Stench of Evil from the National Review

The National Review is often lauded as the pre-eminent "intellectual" conservative magazine. Maybe that was true in the days of William F. Buckley, but not in these jaded times when the "Coulterization of conservatism" holds sway. But the National Review also claims to have a "Catholic" influence. But this magazine has now reached its nadir, taking a position that is arguably worse than its support for segregation in times past. For it has defended torture on "end-justifies-the-means" consequentialist grounds.

Of course, this is the very antithesis of Catholic reasoning which holds that it is never licit to deliberately engage in an objectively evil act to bring about some good, no matter how great this purported good will be. And attacks on human life and human dignity are evil acts. This underlies the standard Catholic opposition to abortion and "assisted suicide". But it goes far beyond that, although many on the right some unaware of it. For example, eminent Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe excoriated Harry Truman, branding him a war criminal for his complicity in the deaths at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This was the embodiment of pure consequentialist reasoning: better kill a lot of people now, and bring the war to a quick end, therefore saving untold lives in the future (especially more highly-valued American lives). This was an evil act in 1945, and it remains and evil act today. But we hear the same kind of reasoning employed by the Bushites in residence at the National Review editorial board, when they opine:

"Not only did the White House not fold, it got a good deal, one that will preserve the life-saving CIA-interrogation program.... In the end, the caterwauling of McCain & Co. over the administration’s supposed desire to reinterpret the Geneva Conventions may serve a useful function in public diplomacy. The whole world has now seen the administration supposedly bow to McCain’s desire to "preserve" our Geneva obligations, but the CIA program will continue anyway. That’s not such a bad outcome."
It even mentions the "apparent" exception of waterboarding on the list of approved torture (sorry, coercive interrogation) techniques, dubbing it "a controversial but highly effective technique." Columnist Rich Lowry goes further and claims that "waterboarding saved American lives". Many, especially those with expertise in these matters, claim that torture is counterproductive. While true, this is not really the point: even if these techniques saved millions of lives, they would still be wrong. The National Review disgusts me. It is formally endorsing the techniques refined by the Soviet gulags (hypothermia), the Japanese during World War II (waterboarding) and the Viet Cong (long-standing-- used against John McCain himself). Welcome to the world of moral relativism, the underlying philosophy of the Bushite universe.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Benedict and Iraq

As John Allen points out in his most recent column, many of the know-nothings in the Islamic world are accusing the pope of siding with Bush on Iraq and the middle east. There is a firm belief floating around that Benedict is trying to turn back the clock on John Paul's perceived openness to Islam and his anti-war positions. Nothing could be further from this truth. On this matter, there is no discontinuity between John Paul and Benedict. During the recent Lebanon war, as Allen reports, Benedict repeatedly called for an immediate ceasefire, and lobbying by the United States and Britain for more sympathy for Israel went unheeded.

On Iraq, then-Cardinal Ratzinger was also crystal clear in his position, as the following collection of quotes makes clear:

"The United Nations is the [institution] that should make the final decision."

"It is necessary that the community of nations makes the decision, not a particular power."

"The fact that the United Nations is seeking the way to avoid war, seems to me to demonstrate with enough evidence that the damage would be greater than the values one hopes to save."

"It [the United Nations] is the instrument created after the war for the
coordination -- including moral -- of politics."

"The concept of a 'preventive war' does not appear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church."

"The Holy Father's [John Paul's] judgment is also convincing from the rational point of view: There were not sufficient reasons to unleash a war against Iraq. To say nothing of the fact that, given the new weapons that make possible destructions that go beyond the combatant groups, today we should be asking ourselves if it is still licit to admit the very existence of a "just war."
And finally:

"In this situation, certainly not." [asked if the Iraq war could be justified.]

John Paul, Benedict, one voice. Unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Democrats and Abortion

John T. McGreevy had an excellent article in Commonweal magazine, detailing the shifting patterns of Catholic support between the two major parties, focusing mainly on the enduring power of the abortion issue.

To begin, he makes the now-standard point that the Democrats are hemorrhaging Catholic votes owing to their ill-conceived fealty to the "fundamental right" to abortion laid down by Roe v. Wade. It was not always this way. Catholics once formed part of the core Democratic constituency, jump-started by Al Smith's failed 1928 presidential campaign, sealed by Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal (especially when he invoked an encyclical by Pope Pius XI on the economy), and completed by John Kennedy victory (when he received 78 percent of the Catholic vote). At that time, the Democratic party was more reliably anti-abortion than the Republicans, and even Ted Kennedy would exclaim in 1971 that "abortion on demand is not in accordance with the value which our civilization places on human life." Serious Catholics, including Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy, dominated the party.

Roe v. Wade changed everything. Given the power of incumbency, it took a while for this earthquake to finally shake through the system, rupturing the Democratic party. After the Democrats adopted a platform describing described abortion as a "fundamental human right" in 1984, leading luminaries like Geraldine Ferraro and Mario Cuomo were denounced from the pulpit by the plain-spoken Cardinal Archbishop of New York, John O'Connor. The nadir came when Governor Bob Casey of Pennsylvania was not allowed to speak at the Democratic Convention in 1992, owing to his staunch pro-life views. This was the turning point, and people still talk about this today.

This is where the Republicans stepped in. Along the line, something very interesting occurred, something that McGreevy regrettably brushes over in his essay. The evangelicals jumped on board with the pro-life cause. Until this point, abortion was essentially a Catholic issue and was seen as such. Evangelicals were more angry with forced racial integration, especially in the south. But Jerry Falwell and others seized the anti-abortion mantle, and used it to campaign for Ronald Reagan. McGreevy does not make this point, it is seems reasonable to conclude that the evangelical right (who would shortly become the backbone of the Republican party) used the abortion issue as a veil to garner Catholic support, and to hide their real agenda-- which included a retrograde approach to the role of women and race, a strong military in support of an American exceptionalist mission in the world, and a staunchly individualist economic policy lacking in social safety nets. In other words, they would play the seductive pro-life tune to seduce Catholics into becoming Calvinists.

This was a serious game, because Catholics were becoming the ultimate swing voters, and were increasingly inclined to embrace the Republican party. While Clinton won white Catholics by seven percentage points in 1996, Gore lost them by seven points in 2000, and Kerry (a Catholic himself!) by fourteen points in 2004. Sure, a lot of the latter was Bush scaring them hell out of people for cheap electoral gain, but the abortion issue also loomed large. It is certainly no accident that the last election boiled down to a state like Ohio, a state with a large Catholic population with a tendency to be queasy about abortion on demand. Kerry's equivocation did not help. William Galston believes that refusing to sign the partial birth abortion ban was Clinton's single biggest mistake in eight years, and I'm inclined to agree with him.

So there has been a Catholic shift toward the Republicans, but at what cost? Under Bush, this party has become synonymous with legalized torture, the death penalty, war as a first resort, rising poverty rates, rampant corruption, massive government debt, and disdain for the environment. But still, Republicans use abortion to trump these failures, a tried and tested tactic. In the process, McGreevy notes the emergence of a more shrill partisan divide, and what others have referred to as the "Coulterization of conservatism". Karl Rove in particular took this to a whole new dimension, adding gay marriage and an assortment of other "moral" issues to the toxic mix with which to poison Democrats.

Just look what happened in recent years. Many Catholics jumped on the band wagon, and stood side by side with the evangelicals, adopting the Republican rhetoric in its entirety. In fact, this marriage of convenience was partly a strategy developed by people like convert Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and Watergate criminal Charles Colson in the early 1990s (again, McGreevy doesn't get into this history). This explains the genesis of the adopting highly-partisan "voter guides" (apeing evangelical tactics), and the association of people like Neuhaus and William Donohue with the Republican right. As McGreevy notes:
"Trolling much of the Catholic press now means drowning in screeds... In retrospect, the 1996 imbroglio at Neuhaus's First Things over the judicial usurpation of politics marked a sectarian warning shot. (The magazine's editors warned that recent Supreme Court decisions on abortion, especially, meant that matters have reached or are reaching the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime.) More recent attacks by the neocons on the Jesuits, on those Catholics, including some bishops, who upheld traditional end-of-life teaching during the Terri Schiavo melodrama, and on the new archbishop of San Francisco as overly sympathetic to gays are only the most recent volleys."
Meanwhile, a tiny handful of bishops, and a not so tiny handful of loud and obnoxious lay commentators, demanded that John Kerry be banned from receiving communion. Rick Santorum blames "Boston liberals" rather than the actions of Cardinal Law for the sex abuse scandal. Worse still is the giddy embrace of Bush's Iraq war by many of the newly-empowered Catholic intellectuals (including Neuhaus, Michael Novak, and George Weigel), and their strange and eerie silence as Bush legitimizes torture based on consequentialist reasoning. But this is exactly the problem, given the evident disconnect between key aspects of the Republican agenda and Catholic teaching. This is what happens when you are seduced by the power of the One Ring...

But there is hope. The Democrats are finally waking up to reality, and trying to unshackle the chains of Roe v. Wade. Pro-life Catholic politicians like Bob Casey Jr, Harry Reid, and Tim Kaine are once more coming to the fore. Democrats for Life counts Democratic congressional representatives as pro-life, with a lot of support for the 95-10 initiative (the plan to reduce abortions by 95 percent in 10 years). And they have an advantage over Republicans if they want to seriously engage on this issue, as they can point to the dominance of socio-economic factors that lead to abortions. McGreevy asks:

"How should we actually decrease the abortion rate, given that federal policies on access to abortion matter less than the socio-economic plight of women seeking abortions? How should we understand low abortion rates in Western Europe (where abortion is legal) and high rates in putatively Catholic Latin America (where it is not)?"
It should not be too hard to counter Republican gains on this issue, as I've blogged about before., especially since the largest decline in abortion rates took place under Bill Clinton. What's more, Democrats can appeal to the seamless garment of life issues. But continuing to swear fealty to Roe v. Wade and the "fundamental right" therein is a problem. After all, if something is a fundamental right, why would it be important to reduce it by 95 percent?

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Pope's Words and Other's Deeds

Even if we take Shadhu's point that Pope Benedict could have made his point in a more diplomatic way, the real story here is the response, not the actual words. Mass demonstrations. Riots. Burning effigies. Burning churches. Threats of violence, including to the life of the pope. The murder of a nun. A call by Turkish officials to have the pope arrested when he comes to Turkey.

Of course, the media, by its nature, will play up events like these, and ignore the many moderate Muslim voices out there. In this vein, I think the right response comes from a French Muslim leader (quoted by Amy Welborn):

"The rector of the Mosque of Aix in Marseilles Mohand Alili thinks his fellow Muslims are making too much of the Regensburg citation. 'The Muslim can't expect that the Pope is going to glorify them. All he did was what a Pope would do,' said Alili to France Info. 'Others have said similar things before....Moreover, he's not Muslim, never has been. He's the Pope. What do they want him to do? Why would he preach Islam over Christianity?' 'Benedict XVI,' he said, 'stands up for who he is. Now why can't Muslims say, 'All right, and this is who we are,' but there's no need to go into all the polemics.' 'Besides, I don't see why they should be taking it out on the Pope when they should have it out among themselves, among those who have discredited Islam. No, I don't see why I should be angry at the Pope.'"
If a Muslim leader had made a theological point about the inadequacy of Christianity, I would disagree with him, but I would not be surprised. In fact, I would expect them to say this, and to be blunt about it. Papering over honest differences does not make for a fruitful debate. The pope knows that. As his student Fr. Joseph Fessio S.J. writes:

"I would expect an intelligent and informed Muslim to consider me a blasphemer (because I introduce multiplicity into the one God) and an idolator (because I worship as God a man named Jesus). Should I be offended if he says so publicly? Should I not rather be offended if he conceals his position for the alleged purpose of fostering dialogue?"
The real issue here, then, is not what the pope said, or whether he intended to say it or not, or whether his language was precise or sloppy. The telling issue is rather the Muslim response, which all too often did not have the self-confidence of somebody like Mohand Alili of Marseilles. But this is just part of a broader trend. When you think about it, even the slightest hint of a critical approach to Islam can generate a violent reaction. We all know that the New York Times and other western outlets refused to publish the Danish Muhammad cartoons not out of genuine principle, but out of fear (it had no problem publishing images offensive to Christians, including the notorious Piss Christ). Christians face this kind of abuse every day, rarely even stopping to think about it. But Islam is treated differently. As Anne Applebaum notes in the Washington Post:

"Nothing the pope has ever said comes even close to matching the vitriol, extremism and hatred that pour out of the mouths of radical imams and fanatical clerics every day, all across Europe and the Muslim world, almost none of which ever provokes any Western response at all."
Applebaum thinks a tougher response is apposite, including from religious leaders. After all, Pope Benedict did (in this way) address the heart of the matter: violence justified by religion. We should not expect Muslims to convert to Christianity, and we should respect their religion, but we should also expect them to respect Christianity, and that respect extends to those that do choose to convert. Reciprocity. As knowledgeable Vaticanologist John Allen notes in the New York Times, Pope Benedict seems willing to address this very issue, and that when he calls for "frank and sincere dialogue", he means "dialogue with teeth". This is indeed the elephant in the middle of the room. While the Saudis funded the huge mosque in Rome, Christianity is a strictly underground phenomenon in Saudi Arabia. Even in Turkey, which seeks membership of the European Union, churches must be inconspicuous (you cannot know it's a church from the exterior), and public Christian worship is forbidden.

One final note: those across the Muslim world threatening the life of the pope seem to have forgotten his staunch opposition to the US invasion of Iraq, and the Israeli assault on Lebanon. Unlike many of his critics, Benedict has the virtue of consistency. Like his predecessor, he is a true man of peace. And the worst kind of violence is violence in the service of religion. As noted by the Catholic Peace Fellowship:
"Christ offers a way of nonviolent, sacrificial love of friends and enemies. Period. No wiggle room for building nukes, whether it is Muslim Iran or Christian America-or using violence to further principles."

Hitchens and the Reformation

His Pompousness weighs in on the Pope Benedict controversy. Remember, this is the man who bravely faced down Mother Teresa of Calcutta and he minions. In the present context, after mocking Christianity (and all religions) in a rather predictable manner, he concludes:
"It is often said--and was said by Ratzinger when he was an underling of the last Roman prelate--that Islam is not capable of a Reformation. We would not even have this word in our language if the Roman Catholic Church had been able to have its own way. Now its new reactionary leader has really "offended" the Muslim world, while simultaneously asking us to distrust the only reliable weapon--reason--that we possess in these dark times. A fine day's work, and one that we could well have done without."
Hitchens forgets that the reformation in western Europe was a reformation of doctrine, not a reformation of behavior. Because Luther and Calvin rejected the authority of the Bishop of Rome, they needed something else to underpin their version of Christianity. What they came up was sola scriptura-- the bible alone. This has never made much sense to me, since the Church was the very institution that put together the canon of sacred scripture in the first place. And the more you hear about the many "gospels", Gnostic manifestos, pseudouedo-Christian tracts that circulated during the first few centuries after the church was founded, the more difficult it is to latch onto sola scriptura without an understanding that the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, separated the wheat from the chaff. My point is that Islam operates very much in the sola scriptura domain: it's entire revelation is based on a text, dictated to the prophet. Pre-reformation Christianity (represented today by the Catholic and Orthodox churches) instead sees the word and wisdom and reason of God as a person, Jesus the Christ. The function of the church is to preserve the memory of Christ, and its sacred tradition and sacred scripture make up a "single sacred deposit of the word of God". The reformation totally changed the meaning of this, and added in the notion of predestination to boot. So in what sense should Islam have a reformation?

Getting back to Hitchens, isn't it a little ironic that this is the same man clambering to unleash all the military might of the west against "islamofascists", Iraq, and any other Muslim country he happens to be offended by? It says a lot about his hatred of Catholicism that he is willing to defend Islam in this present context. In fact, his unbalanced support for war as a first resort shows the perils of a philosophy that eschews the legitimacy of organized religion, and lauds a severe separation between faith and reason. And isn't this what Pope Benedict was talking about in the first place?

Torture is a Traditional Value

John McCain's principled stand against the Bush administration's attempts to gut Geneva Convention protections and legalize torture has earned him much scorn from the right. After selling out recently on numerous issues, it's nice to see McCain has a core of basic decency. It's also nice to see a significant number of Republicans have not been ensnared by the One Ring. But one of McCain's attackers is none other than Louis Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition. It seems that, to these people, torture is indeed a traditional value, given the response:
"We encourage all of our supporters and affiliated churches to contact their elected representatives and let them know we support President Bush's efforts to update our methods of interrogating terrorist detainees in order to provide greater protection for our troops and the innocent."
That's right, we want churches to lobby for torture. This is the clearest symbol yet of the depravity, hypocrisy, and moral bankruptcy of much that passes for the pseudo-Christian right. I've blogged a fair amount about the torture issue before. For Catholics at least, the issue is non-negotiable, and I think it is time to quote once again from the Second Vatican Council document Gaudium Et Spes (the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World) on this issue:

"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."
So, in terms of crimes against the gospel of life, torture is right up there after murder, genocide, and abortion. Tell that to Louis Sheldon. For that matter, tell that to the self-appointed guardians of what Catholics are and are not supposed to treat as non-negotiable for voting purposes (for more about this, see the post I wrote here). You can find the latest incarnation of this group here, and here is their "voter guide", which outlines their five non-negotiable issues: abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, stem cell research, and human cloning. No torture. Why? Because that would conveniently violate the subtle pretext: vote Republican. This "guide" says it selected the five issues because they "involve principles that never admit of exceptions and because they are currently being debated in U.S. politics". Sounds to me like torture qualifies on both counts, and yet not a single word. Are these people really much better than Louis Sheldon?

Update: Andrew Sullivan draws attention to the words of the National Review's Kathryn Jean Lopez, who expresses scorn for the fact that Mike DeWine is supporting McCain's anti-torture stance. Ah, yes, Kathryn Jean Lopez. This was the women who, upon Cardinal Ratzinger's election to the papacy, pronounced that "The Holy Spirit, it would seem, endorses orthodoxy", obviously casting aspersions on some others in the Conclave (a standard tactic among the Catholic right). Memo to Lopez: the Holy Spirit does NOT endorse torture.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Peter King: the Virtue of Consistency

Alex Massie, over at TNR's The Plank, notes that Congressman Peter King's full-throated defense of Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld torture was actually consistent with his past positions.

Says King:
"I just think John McCain is wrong on this. If we capture bin Laden tomorrow and we have to hold his head under water to find out when the next attack is going to happen, we ought to be able to do it."
Pretty blunt. Not if you know King's past. As Massie notes, King was the IRA terrorist group's biggest defender in Congress for years, defending a group that routinely resorted to mass murder, execution, drug-dealing, extortion, and bank robbing. To King, they were "the legitimate voice of occupied Ireland."

At least King is consistently morally repugnant. How a person responds to the Bush torture policy says a lot about their character.

George W. Soprano

We always knew that the Bush administration was like the mafia-- the code of omerta, the mysterious backtracking the day after a prominant critic goes public, concern with maximizing the profits of its "business partners", and, of course, keeping everything in the family. On the latter front, Rajiv Chandrasekaran penned a nice article in the Washington Post detailing the how the administration chose people to spearhead the reconstruction of Iraq. Bottom line: experts out, hacks in. The key question interviewees were asked was whether they voted for Bush and whether they supported his "war on terror".

Some of the results? A 24-year old with no finance background was put in charge of the stock exchange-- with disastrous consequences. And: "The daughter of a prominent neoconservative commentator and a recent graduate from an evangelical university for home-schooled children were tapped to manage Iraq's $13 billion budget, even though they didn't have a background in accounting." And, in what seems particularly criminal, a health expert was replaced with a hack to to oversee the rehabilitation of Iraq's health care system. His main concern was trying to end the system of free health care in Iraq, and limiting the drugs that could be covered. The result? "Baghdad's hospitals were as decrepit as the day the Americans arrived." And who can forget Bernie Kerik's, Guiliani's protege, and former New York City's police commissioner. He was supposed to rebuild the Iraq police. The problem was, he shared Bush's disdain for details and actual policy work. Instead, he went out on night missions, gave speeches to the media, and slept during the day.

Chadrasekaran emphasizes the bubble-like mentality within which these hacks operated. The had no conception that Iraq was any way different from suburban America. The most telling quote was when one of them claimed to be there not for the Iraqi people, but for the Dear Leader (that would be George W. Bush). And that kind of sums it all up.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Ratzinger’s Blunder

As one can see below, MM has launched a spirited and nuanced defense of the now infamous speech by Benedict XVI. I share MM’s view that there is value in discussing the link between faith and reason, as well as having candid dialogues between cultures and religions. I am however surprised by his dogged defense of the entirety of the speech. While granting that the speech had some valid arguments, I am not surprised that it has been undermined by a terribly ill-timed quotation, and MM, and other pious Catholics like him, should not shy away from recognizing that.

Does the Vatican not have PR staff and speech reviewers? Could they not come up with a more neutral reference than the one that was used? Given how inflamed religious tensions are these days around the world, the last thing we need is the Church digging up old, highly inflammatory, quotations from the age of religious wars (regardless of the caveats applied). More pertinently, for Mr. Ratzinger to talk about conversion by the sword and not refer to his own religion’s track record is disingenuous to say the least.

I am also disappointed by the statement of regret that has been released, which reads like the product of a modern spin machine. The pope did not express regret over his poor choice of quotation per se; rather he (or his people) regretted that some Muslims may have been offended by what he had to say! To me, this sounds like “I know I am right, I am just sad that you think I am wrong, and I regret that you are offended by what I had to say (although I know I am right).” When one makes a visible mistake, one needs to show contrition, not give out smart sound bites.

Again, I do not disagree with the need to have discussions on faith and reason; in fact, I find such discussions intellectually intriguing and stimulating. What I find condemnation-worthy is the pope’s demonstrated lack of sensitivity in making his arguments. He is a world figure, and he needs to be much more careful in pushing his thinking. Otherwise he risks undermining the very dialogue he is trying to foster. Most importantly, now that we have a bit of a loose cannon in the Vatican, the bureaucracy there ought to reinforce the speech review process before Mr. Benedict hits the podium again.

In Defense of Pope Benedict

Pope Benedict XVI is being roundly attacked for being insensitive to Islam. Where does one begin with this? Well, how about with what the pope actually said, in his Regensburg lecture. He was arguing, in standard Christian fashion, that there is no disconnect between faith and reason. In fact, like science, authentic Christianity seeks obedience to the truth. But divorcing the two can be dangerous:

"As we see from the disturbing pathologies of religion and reason which necessarily erupt when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it.. Attempts to construct an ethic from the rules of evolution or from psychology and sociology, end up being simply inadequate."
And only if we realize that faith and reason should be not sundered can we entertain a true dialogue of cultures and religions. In this, Benedict's primary audience was the western Europe, and its dominant post-Enlightenment secular humanism. But in the course of the discussion, he quoted a debate between Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the topic of faith and reason. This is what Benedict said:

"The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: "There is no compulsion in religion". According to the experts, this is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur'an, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the "Book" and the "infidels", he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached". The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. "God", he says, "is not pleased by blood - and not acting reasonably is contrary to God's nature."
The pope was making a simple point. Compulsion and violence in religion is incompatible with reason and hence is incompatible with God. In the words of the new Secretary of State, Cardinal Bertone, he was calling for "a clear and radical rejection of the religious motivation for violence, from whatever side it may come". Before proceeding further, however, I need to clarify one thing: despite conceptions to the contrary, the Catholic Church is most assuredly not anti-Islamic. In fact, it describes Islam in rather favorable terms: "The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims.." (Catechism of the Catholic Church #841).

But why did the pope even reference Islam in this context? This was no accident. Benedict was indeed making a point, issuing an intellectual and theological challenge. In the words of popular Catholic blogger Amy Welborn:

"He said, if you want to bring it all down to Islam, that in Islamic texts, there are passages that forbid compulsion in religion, but that historically, Islam has used violence to force conversions. This, the Pope said, leads to a conclusion about the image of God borne of holding these two realities as one: that God is not bound by his own Word. Such a belief would leave one beyond/outside of reason, for this God would then be totally unknowable."
To raise this argument to a more theological level, let me quote Daniel Larison:

"The crucial difference is that for Christianity, as expressed through the categories of Greek language and Hellenistic philosophy, God is His own Word, which is Reason (Logos), Who is His co-essential Son and eternally One with Him from before the ages, whereas AllahÂ’s word is the eternal QurÂ’an, which has no obvious or necessary relationship to reason, and which he could nonetheless repudiate at any time if he so chose. Put more dramatically, Christians believe that God gave His own Reason for our sakes that we might become like Him, while Muslims believe that they ought to obey and submit to the will of Allah even if he were to command them to do the most unreasonable things."
This is a beautiful summary of a key aspect of Catholic faith, the notion that the Word or Wisdom of God became human, so that humanity could become one with God. Or, as blogger Mark Shea puts it:

"For Christians, the Logos is the Word of Wisdom by which God spoke the universe into being. For this reason, nature cannot be the enemy of faith because the same God who created nature also entered that nature when the Word became flesh in Christ."
With this in mind, can we say the pope was attacking Islam? No, he was raising an issue for debate, issuing a challenge to the Islamic community, wondering how they saw the relationship between faith and reason in the specific context of compulsion in religion. How are these tensions and contradictions reconciled in a religion that denies the incarnation and the resurrection? As pointed out by Egyptian Jesuit Fr. Samir Khalil, the verse the pope quoted from the Qu'ran was a positive one, one that denied compulsion in religion. He did not quote those verses that call for killing those guilty of al-fitnah (sedition). What the pope proposed was that violence goes against Reason and God, the source of Reason. We know where this comes from in Christianity; where does it come from in Islam? This is the question the pope was dared to raise, even if in a rather roundabout and indirect manner.

Modern Islam certainly needs to address these issues. Just look at the frenzied reaction to the pope's remarks across the Islamic world (how many have actually read this speech?). There's something quite ironic about violence, or threats of violence, in response to a belief that the pope was calling them violent. As with the Danish cartoons fiasco, we need to stand up to this kneejerk reactionary nonsense. And how should we do this? How about the Bush way, with talk of "islamofascists" and the axis of evil? Frankly, I prefer the pope's way, a gentle intellectual prodding: what does your tradition say about faith and reason and how they come together on the issue of violence and religious compulsion? After all, as Fr. Khalil points out, there was once a golden age of learning in Islam, where religion and rationality co-existed easily. As happened with Catholicism, Islam needs to address modernity, taking what is good, discarding what is bad, but always remaining open to reason. And religious compulsion is a key part of it.

If he looks out, Pope Benedict can see a mosque in the hills overlooking the Vatican. When will we see a church overlooking Mecca? And why is even asking such a question out of bounds?

This Film Is Not Rated

This is the title of an excellent documentary that I saw last night. It is a devastating attack on the movie ratings system put in place by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) since the 1960s. The main point of controversy is over how the top-secret ratings board distinguishes between two classes of adult-themed movies: R and NC-17. The documentary argues convincingly that the NC-17 rating is given exlcusively for sexual content, especially it it seems too real (such as between a committed monogamous couple), or involves anything remotely homosexual. On the other hand, the most obscene violence will be merely slapped with a R rating. In one particularly egregious case, the director of American Psycho, was granted an NC-17 rating. Now, anybody who has seen that movie will remember some really disturbing violence, as the protagonist brutally murders women after sex. The director thought this was the problem (one particularly horrible scene involved a chainsaw). Not at all. It was the sex scenes themselves that incensed the raters.

A key theme in the movie is that the ratings system discriminates against independent movies. Big studios are often treated with kid gloves and told where to cut (often only a few seconds here and there), while independents are given no such guidance. An independent that treats sex in a serious manner is penalized; a big studio that has a body count in the hundreds and blood oozing off the screen gets a free pass. Another thing: the movie raters are completely anonymous (the movie actually tracks them down). Nobody knows who there are. We do know they have close relations with the big studios, which makes a mockery of the claim that anonymity is needed to protect the raters from undue influence.

No, the whole ratings system is designed to rake in big bucks for the movie studios, who have a vested interest in selling violence to teenage boys. To justify this, they censor any realistic portrayal of sex. And this is supposed to be healthy. It's not, it's sick. But it fits neatly with the priorities of the Christian right in the United States. Yes, sexual sin is all that matters, while violence is nothing to worry about. Kind of explains their differing reactions to Clinton and Bush, doesn't it?

Five Reasons for Invading Iraq

Yes, in all the ink spilled over the past few years, five potential motivations behind the Bushite invasion of Iraq stand out (I will exclude factors as being played for a complete fool by the Iranian agent Chalabi).

1. Weapons of mass destruction. No.

2. Saddam had links to Al Qaeda. An even greater no.

3. Promotion of democracy. Forget it, a desperate last-minute ploy.

4. To be a lesson to countries in a post 9/11 world: this is what happens if you cross the United States. I think this was indeed a major factor for both Bush and Cheney, and many on the right still laud this tactic, and point to the fact that Libya gave up its weapons program in the aftermath (ignoring the fact, of course, that Gadaffi was looking for a way out for more than ten years). But I think we can safely say that this was also a failure, creating unprecedented hatred for the United States in the world, and providing a fertile breeding ground for a new generation of bitter terrorists.

5. The flypaper theory-- America fights them there, so it's not necessary to fight them here. Ron Suskind claims that Bush was a big believer in this tactic, in the hope that Iraq would become a quagmire that would bring all the terrorists in the world out of the wordwork. There are a couple of problems with this of course. First, it assumes that the number of terrorists in the world is static, and will not multiply precisely in response to Bush's actions. Second, think about the morality of this for a moment. Bush is basically happy to destroy a whole country simply to create a convenient battleground.

In sum, think about the implications of these motivations in the context of just war theory. The first two, the ones with some case for justifying war were the very reasons that turned out to be false, and encased in a blanket of lies. The last two, in contrast, are deeply immoral reasons for going to war-- and it seems like these were the two motivations that most guided our illustrious Christian president George W. Bush, and his henchman from the dark side, Dick Cheney.

Predicting the Future, Regretting the Past

John Kerry, who seems to think that he actually has a chance at the 2008 nomination, addressed the Swift Boaters, claiming that:

"I'm prepared to kick their ass from one end of America to the other."

Meanwhile, fast forward to some time after the midterm elections, and listen to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi:

"Next time, we will run ads saying that George Bush let Bin Laden escape. Next time."

Yeah, some things never change. If Gore had been president on 9/11, and Bin Laden was still frolicking around Pakistan, what do you think the Republicans would be saying?

Monday, September 11, 2006

Catholic League Watch

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

Latest example: commenting on the defamatory allegations contained in ABC-Disney's 9/11 "crapumentary", the League notes:
"The letter sent to Robert Iger, president and CEO of The Walt Disney Company, by the senate Democratic leadership shows contempt for the First Amendment: they are not registering a complaint—they are demanding that the film be cancelled."
That's right. Nothing here about defending Catholics, lots about bashing Democrats (all for taking a principled stance against a tissue of lies that even conservatives have defended). What happened to standing up for the truth?

Image is Everything

We live in a culture that mocks the notion of objective truth. We have an administration that sneers at the "reality-based community" and sells its own "virtual reality" as fact. Image is everything, truth is nothing. Nowhere is this clearer than with the myth surrounding Bush's performance after 9/11. Luckily, as the X-Files used to tell us, the truth is out there. One truth-bearer is TNR's Jonathan Chait, who wrote an excellent column in the LA Times, pondering the fact that Bush intends to fight the upcoming elections (yet again) on his performance in the war on terror. But there's only one problem-- he let the architect of 9/11 slip away. Chait:

"It's worth briefly refreshing our memories as to why Bin Laden and his closest friends are hiding out in Pakistan. In 2002, we had them surrounded near Tora Bora in Afghanistan, but Gen. Tommy Franks, the former head of U.S. Central Command, persuaded our commander-in-chief to rely on poorly equipped, ill-trained Afghan mercenaries of dubious loyalty, rather than U.S. soldiers, to finish the job (Apparently the operating theory was, if you can't trust mercenaries, who can you trust?). Shockingly, as Peter Bergen reported in 2004 in the Atlantic Monthly, Bin Laden paid off the mercenaries, who let him escape to Pakistan. And now the Pakistanis, who were at least nominally trying to hunt him down, have thrown in the towel."
A recent Washington Post article paints an even more damning picture. Noting that the Bin Laden trail has been cold for at least two years now, the authors (Dana Priest and Ann Scott Tyson) discuss the events following the Tora Bora blunder:

"Only two months later [March 2002] , Bush decided to pull out most of the special operations troops and their CIA counterparts in the paramilitary division that were leading the hunt for bin Laden in Afghanistan to prepare for war in Iraq, said Flynt L. Leverett, then an expert on the Middle East at the National Security Council.
"I was appalled when I learned about it," said Leverett, who has become an outspoken critic of the administration's counterterrorism policy. "I don't know of anyone who thought it was a good idea. It's very likely that bin Laden would be dead or in American custody if we hadn't done that.""
This shouldn't really be a surprise, given that Bush claimed he didn't really care about Bin Laden, and anyway, was itching to kick Saddam Hussein's ass all over the Middle East. Presidential attention deficit disorder guides foriegn policy. But Chait ponders the idea of Bush running on one of his biggest failures:

"In related news, the Bush administration has decided to stake the 2006 elections on Bush's record of fighting terrorism. It sounds like a joke, but it isn't. He let our worst enemies escape; he is on the verge of creating a terrorist haven in Iraq where none existed before; and this is the issue he picks to highlight. Why not run on his record of evacuating New Orleans? Maybe Bill Clinton can run on his record of chastity!"
The explanation, of course, lies not so much in reality, as in image. And the media is all too happy to play along with this carefully-scripted (and false) storyline: Showtime runs a fawning tribute showing Bush ordering Cheney around and issuing challenges to terrorists (in real life, he was too caught up in reading My Pet Goat and flying from one air force base to another like a headless chicken-- or goat-- to do such a thing). And more recently, ABC-Disney broadcast a "crapumentary" blaming everything on the Clinton administration (going against experts like Richard Clarke and the 9/11 Commission).

For in the moral relativistic universe of the GOP and the Bushites, there is no objective truth. Bush is the great leader because they say he is, and because the media confirms it. Image is everything.

Friday, September 08, 2006

The Real Reason Bush Invaded Iraq

WMDs? No. Ties to Al Qaeda? Not a chance. No, Bush simply destested Saddam Hussein (from his famous "gut") and felt affronted that he was thumbing his nose at the United States. From the new book HUBRIS: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War by David Corn and Michael Isikoff:
"President Bush was driven by a visceral hatred of Saddam Hussein, which he privately demonstrated in expletive-laden tirades against the Iraqi dictator. In May 2002--months before he asked Congress for authority to attack Saddam-Bush bluntly revealed his ultimate game plan in a candid moment with two aides. When told that reporter Helen Thomas was questioning the need to oust Saddam by force, Bush snapped: "Did you tell her I intend to kick his sorry mother fucking ass all over the Mideast?" In a meeting with congressional leaders, the President angrily thrust his middle finger inches in front of the face of Senator Tom Daschle to illustrate Saddam's attitude toward the United States."

Yes, this is what drives foreign policy, the temper tantrums of an adolescent president. Tell me again, isn't this man supposed to be a Christian? Or is that just for show too?

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Liar-in-Chief, Torturer-in-Chief

So, Bush gives a speech denying that his administration tortures people, but defending that non-existent torture at the same time. Yes, such is the post-modernist abrogation of all objective truth that we have come to expect from the Bush administration. He claimed:
"The United States does not torture. It's against our laws, and it's against our values. I have not authorized it -- and I will not authorize it."
Lie. I've blogged about this before. But wait, there is nuance, you see. There is no torture, but there are certain procedures. Bush actually then defends the use of these procedures on Abu Zubaydah, a captured Al Qaeda terrorist:

"We knew that Zubaydah had more information that could save innocent lives, but he stopped talking. As his questioning proceeded, it became clear that he had received training on how to resist interrogation. And so the CIA used an alternative set of procedures. These procedures were designed to be safe, to comply with our laws, our Constitution, and our treaty obligations. The Department of Justice reviewed the authorized methods extensively and determined them to be lawful. I cannot describe the specific methods used--I think you understand why--if I did, it would help the terrorists learn how to resist questioning, and to keep information from us that we need to prevent new attacks on our country. But I can say the procedures were tough, and they were safe, and lawful, and necessary."
As Andrew Sullivan notes, the secrecy is a joke. Every dog on the street knows what these procedures are. Bush just doesn't want to talk about them in polite company. He doesn't want to speak about how he has violated basic moral principles. Just look at the language he uses: "safe, and lawful, and necessary". Doesn't that sound like the way certain politicians justify their support for abortion-on-demand? Isn't it performing the same kind of equivocation, the same kind of end-justifies-the-means consequentialist reasoning? And isn't it the same kind of arms-length distancing that refuses to even discuss, let alone admit to, the objective moral evil in question?

Well, let's pull back the curtain. ABC News mentions six procedures in particular:

"The first -- the attention grab, involving the rough shaking of a prisoner. Second -- the attention slap, an open-handed slap to the face.Third -- belly slap, meant to cause temporary pain, but no internal injuries. Fourth -- long-term standing and sleep deprivation, 40 hours at least, described as the most effective technique. Fifth -- the cold room. Prisoners left naked in cells kept in the 50s and frequently doused with cold water. The CIA sources say the sixth, and harshest, technique was called "water boarding," in which a prisoner's face was covered withcellophane, and water is poured over it -- meant to trigger an unbearable gag reflex."
According to Bush, none of this constitutes torture. Well, as Andrew Sullivan points out, the United Nations declaration (to which the United States is a signatory) defines torture as follows:
"[A]ny act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession ... when such pain or suffering is inflicted at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity."
Or how about going back to basics, to the great Second Vatican Council document Gaudium Et Spes (the Pastoral Constitution on the Church inthe Modern World), which condemns in no uncertain terms:
"all violations of the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture, undue psychological pressures."
But no, let the Orwellian double-speak proceed: these are procedures that are safe, legal, and necessary. Torture is something only bad people do. Incidentally, the Bushites should be told that the condemnation of torture occurs in the same sentence as the condemnation of abortion in Gaudium Et Spes. But consistency is probably too much to expect from a group that uses the gospel for narrow political ends.

When discussing these techniques, an obvious question is how the United States would react if its troops were on the receiving end of such foul treatment? Jack Balkin performs a little thought experiment:

"It was terrible news. Several of our American soldiers were apprehended by terrorists and interrogated for hours on end. Al Qaeda operatives slapped them repeatedly in the face and the stomach to cause pain, then they shook them violently over and over again to disorient them. Then, after softening them up, they deprived the Americans of sleep and forced them to stand for over 40 hours at a time...Then, for those who had not already cracked, Al Qaeda stripped the Americans naked, put them in cold rooms kept at around 50 degrees and repeatedly doused them with cold water. A few American soldiers wouldn't crack even under this treatment. For them Al Qaeda had a special technique: They strapped the Americans to a horizontal board with their heads tilted downward slightly. Then they covered the American soldiers' faces with cellophane and continuously poured water over them to make the Americans think they were drowning. This technique caused an unbearable gag reflex....

As soon as the White House found out about the interrogations, they were outraged at the abuse and mistreatment of American soldiers. They immediately protested in all the diplomatic and military channels they could think of. Eventually they got a
response: These techniques were not torture. Al Qaeda insisted that it does not believe in torture and does not practice torture. That was just American propaganda. Rather, these techniques were an "alternative set of procedures" that were "designed to be safe," complied with the Geneva Conventions, and were far less painful than the American infidels deserved."
Bush's lies in this speech do not end here. As Ron Suskind documents in The One Percent Doctrine, Zubaydah was mentally handicapped. His captured diaries displayed clear split personality and mental illness. In Suskind's words, "the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered." And when he was tortured, he blathered about everything. Shopping malls. Banks. Supermarkets. Water systems. Nuclear plants of course. And apartment buildings. Remember all the bogus alerts in 2002? This was the genesis of them!

But Bush has been lying about Zubaydah for a long time. Suskind notes that he was gloating over the capture of Al Qaeda's number three, the "chief of operations" in 2002. Of course, it detracted attention from the fact that his incompetence let Al Qaeda's number one and number two escape, but that's another story. In reality, Zubaydah was nowhere close to being number three, being merely a low ranked "travel agent.. the guy who booked your flights". And the lying continues today. Spencer Ackerman notes that Bush's speech also claimed that his special procedures allowed the authorities to identify another al- Qaeda operative, Ramzi bin al Shibh. But this is ridiculous, another clear lie, as the identity of bin Al Shibh was widely known before Zubaydah's capture. So different lies, different times, but lies all the same.

Interestingly, Suskind notes that Zubaydah did indeed give up the real name of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. But here's what Bush won't tell you: it happened after the torture ended. A skilled interrogator exploited the al Qaeda operative belief in predestination, and quoted freely from the Koran to convince Zubaydah that his pre-ordained purpose was to give names to his captors! So, I guess that means good old-fashioned interrogation techniques work just fine, and that torture is not necessary after all. There's no need to sell your soul. Tell that to the Bush administration.

If Iran, Then Why Iraq?

Mark Kleiman asks the obvious question: if Iran is the real enemy, wasn't the invasion of Iraq a colossal mistake? After it, it has, in his words:

"1. Strengthened the lunatic anti-American party in Iran and weakened what had been very substantial pro-U.S. sentiment there;
2. Eliminated Iran's most potent regional adversary;
3. Gave Iran substantial power in Iraq through its influence over the Shi'a there;
4. Made U.S. forces in Iraq virtual hostages to the threat that Iranian-influenced Shi'a leaders could call for jihad against the foreign occupiers."
This was completely obvious at the time. It really makes me wonder is these people do any independent thinking for themselves, or just nod and agree with the Dear Leader's brilliant pronouncements.

Then again, why should we worry about who's in and who's out in the global war on terror, when we are ruled by such a great man? In the words of Powerline's John Hinderaker:
"But up close, he is a great communicator, in a way that, in my opinion, Ronald Reagan was not. He was by turns instructive, persuasive, and funny. His persona is very much that of the big brother. Above all, he was impassioned. I have never seen a politician speak so evidently from the heart, about big issues--freedom, most of all.... He is, of course, miles above his mean-spirited liberal critics. More than that, he clearly derives real joy from the opportunity to serve as President and to participate in the great pageant of American history."

So, don't worry, Bush cannot err, and everything he says somehow makes sense in the larger scheme of things. Even the trip to Mars...

And the Parsees Shall Inherit the Earth!

Michael Ledeen is a key member of the Bushite war party, issuing lofty pronouncements on who should be bombed next from his perch at the American Enterprise Institute. As well as being an expert in terrorism, his blurb claims he has "written on leadership and the use of power". Ledeen is somewhat single minded, believing that Iran is the root of all evil in the world. It used to be Iraq, but Ledeen seems to have forgotten all about that one. Yes, as another card-carrying Bushite, Ledeen adheres more to ideology than the reality-based community. A big backer of criminal Ahmad Chalabi, Ledeen actually claimed that he would not have run into Tehran's arms if the American government had been nicer to him. But Ledeen's ability to go beyond the standard Bushite tunnel vision and think outside the box is what really makes him unique. In fact, Ledeen should be credited for being the first person who bring our attention to the Venezuela office of the Iranian global terror network, with all its dastardly plans.

Of course, Ledeen flirts regularly with the dark side. He is on record as arguing that terrorists should be killed, not captured, on the battlefield. He was practically salivating when Israel invaded Lebanon and offered his sage advice: "Faster, please".

But now Ledeen has outdone himself. He has long claimed that the Iranian regime is on the verge of collapse, and that a little support from the United States for student protestors would do the trick. (Haven't we heard this before? Oh, never mind). But he now claims that Iran is on the verge of a huge Zoroastrian revival, and that Islam is dying. I'm not joking. Next step: invading US troops will be welcomed with flowers and fire ceremonies.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

This Generation’s Thurgood Marshall?

There was a glowing profile of Neal Katyal today on NPR. Katyal was the lead counsel in the recently concluded landmark case Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the system set up by the Bush administration to try accused war criminals at Guantanamo Bay was invalid. You can read about the case here and here. An example of Katyal’s lucid writing style can be found here.

I find the outcome of the case, as well as the Katyal story, inspiring. The case exemplifies the American justice system at work. Conscientious lawyers, through their strong belief in the rule of law, invest substantial time, talent, and energy into the legal process to fight a long, and ultimately winning, battle against huge odds to uphold what all should hold dear—respect for the constitution and international law. The Katyal profile—a bright, young offspring of Indian immigrants rising to the top of American legal echelon—is the classic American success story. With so much bad news dominating the airwaves these days, it is comforting to see that things do work out time to time.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Off to Seattle!

Back next week. Shadhu and Kitab will watch the shop in my absence!