Archive for June, 2009

More than a rumble in Iran?

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

Maybe I’m getting old, but watching the protests in Iran sends me back. I’ve been thinking a lot about another explosion of protest in the face of a tyrannical government (and I see that I’m not alone in seeing the similarities).

It was 1989, and history seemed to be calling from Tiananmen Square. From our observation deck on the other side of the planet, many of us thought we could hear the world changing — the sounds of a new China being born.

We were wrong, of course. What we were actually hearing was the sound of the tanks rolling in. 

The Chinese government’s crackdown, unleashed in early June, found me in of all places a casino in Las Vegas. What had started as a business trip, a deposition in Los Angeles, had metamorphosed into a mini-vacation. My connecting flight home was through Vegas: single and footloose if not fancy-free in those days, I figured why not stay for a couple of days and score a small fortune at the craps table.

Dumb idea. I hated doing Vegas alone. With no one to run with, the glitz quickly turned pale. It didn’t help, of course, that the tables were running colder than a Minnesota nudist camp in February. Almost instantaneously I dropped the full $17.34 (give or take) I‘d set aside for gambling, leaving me with little to do but wander the Strip morosely.

Then the tanks rolled inside China — and suddenly I was spending my Vegas “getaway” glued to a hotel television, my petty grievances consigned to the dustbin. It would be hard for me to describe how much the atrocities that followed affected me, or for that matter why they affected me as much as they did. It was, after all, hardly a new transaction. For the 10,000th time in human history, humanity’s natural yearning for freedom (be it a yearning that often competes with other less noble impulses) was being crushed, at least for the moment, by brute force.

Yet what stood out was the yearning itself and the courage it inspired — that unforgettable image of the lone man standing in front of the advancing tanks.

I guess I was a sucker for that sort of thing back then.

So I wonder, which will win out this time in Iran, the yearning of much (though far from all) of the population for at least somewhat more personal and political freedom or the raw power that opposes it — the dream or the stick? Are we hearing the beginning of an earthquake of change, or just the rumbling of the crackdown to come?

Come what may, the eventual outcome is likely to disappoint Western eyes. The Mullahs remain extraordinarily powerful, and the current protests aren’t directly attacking that power (although such things can sometimes take on a life of their own). And let’s face facts: Mir Mirhossein Mousavi is no Thomas Jefferson. The real question, of course, is whether we’re seeing the seeds of something bigger — something that will grow in the years ahead.

That was the solace I found all those years ago, in Las Vegas, while thinking about the idealistic young people being crushed in China. It seemed to me that there was one certainty in what was happening, and it was that someday a monument would be built in Tiananmen Square honoring the memory of the protesters. The future, I believed, must surely belong to the yearnings.

It’s been 20-years and that day still seems far away in China. But I still believe.

And, yes, assuming the United States doesn’t stupidly play into the theocrats hands by bombing, I also believe that greater freedom lays ahead for the people of Iran, though the form it takes will meet their conception of freedom and not necessarily ours.

I guess I’m still a sucker for that sort of thing, even after all these years.

When democracy was young

Monday, June 15th, 2009

Does it strike anyone else as ironic that claims of wrongdoing in an Iranian election for a largely powerless office (the real power is in the Mullahs) is producing more unrest, by a factor of a whole big bunch, than did claims of wrongdoing here surrounding an election to the most powerful office in the world in 2000?

Only fools play with time bombs

Thursday, June 11th, 2009

The investigations have barely begun into the two now infamous recent tragedies involving right wing violence. Time will tell, but here is my best bet as to what they’ll ultimately conclude: both Scott Roeder, who killed Dr. George Tiller, and James Von Brunn, who opened fire at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, were acting alone. There were no grand conspiracies, no grassy knolls or magic bullets: just two pathetic losers, each nursing a grudge — or a pile of them — against the world.

Who needs a conspiracy when you have a human time bomb with a short fuse?

Roeder has been busy calling reporters from jail, something that’s no doubt deeply troubling to the victim’s family, though a gold mine for future prosecutors. He apparently boasted to one of these reporters that a veritable army of other right wing fanatics remains out there poised to strike, something that would suggest an ongoing conspiracy. Maybe so, but my guess is it’s just a lot of big talk from a small man.

But to doubt the likelihood that conspiracies were involved in these specific crimes, is not to question the existence of other wrongdoers. They’re out there alright, spewing poison on the sets of Fox News and preaching hate on right wing talk radio: the “intellectual” leaders of the far right may not have conspired with these two specific human time bombs — but they almost certainly helped inspire them to action. And try as they may, there’s no way they’re going to be able to beat that rap in the court of public opinion if the violence continues.

After all of the years these far right entrepreneurs have been buying and selling hatred — anger and bigotry commercialized like so many tons of pork bellies — it’s finally turned around to bite them. As the old standby of science fiction stories goes, they’ve stirred forces beyond their control. And, as a result, the survival of their entire pathetic movement now lies in the balance.

I have to wonder: are they smart enough to see it?

Through their words, they’ve started a thousand time bombs ticking, two of which have just gone off. How many more explosions are still to come? And just how quickly will the American people turn on the keyboard warriors and political hacks who incite them? My guess is the blowback won’t take long — not if there’s more violence.

And then, of course, there is the ultimate nightmare in this story. We have the nation’s first African American president. That by itself would be enough to cause the Von Brunn’s of the nation to hate him. Add to that the long litany of right wing nonsense about Barack Obama being un-American, a terrorist, a secret Muslim, a socialist — and we have the perfect recipe to cause an unstable mind, a time bomb, to explode.

What if one of them were to get through? It would, of course, be one of the greatest tragedies in the country’s history — sending the nation and much of the world into mourning. But it would also be Armageddon for the conservative movement, turning the nation angrily against them for a generation.

Do they even see this? Do they understand how much they have on the line? And will they now finally dial back the hatred — if just a little, if just for a time?

If not for common decency and for the sake of their country, then out of self-interest, will they at long last stop: stop before someone else has to die.

The daily doom: the oceans are screwed edition

Tuesday, June 9th, 2009

To repeat myself, yet again: Does a day ever go by anymore without another terrifying revelation about global warming?

(McClatchy) Scientists: Global warming has already changed oceans

WASHINGTON — In Washington state, oysters in some areas haven’t reproduced for four years, and preliminary evidence suggests that the increasing acidity of the ocean could be the cause. In the Gulf of Mexico, falling oxygen levels in the water have forced shrimp to migrate elsewhere.

Though two marine-derived drugs, one for treating cancer and the other for pain control, are on the market and 25 others are under development, the fungus growing on seaweed, bacteria in deep sea mud and sea fans that could produce life-saving medicines are under assault from changing the ocean conditions.

And, yes, global warming is a big part of the reason. All of which is sort of odd, given that we all know that the whole global warming thing is really just a con Al Gore is running to make money. (Some right wingers actually believe this, morons.)

Obama and the agony of nuance

Tuesday, June 9th, 2009

In some ways it was easy being a Democrat back when George W. Bush was in the White House and Republicans ruled supreme in Congress — infuriating, disheartening, even frightening — but easy.

In this one small sense, Bush and the GOP were “kind” to Democrats: by being so dependably awful, so predictably incompetent and so habitually corrupt, they allowed us the illusion of a nuance-free political life. We were the anti-Bush, and damn proud of it. True, this made us a frequent target to our wise overlords in the major media: to them, we were the angry left, the Bush haters — a scattering of misfits whose diatribes fell well outside the conventions of “serious” political debate.

The only problem, of course, was that it turned out that we had been right all along: Bush and the GOP really did screw the pooch on almost everything they touched, something the American people realized much earlier than these illustrious leaders of the conventional media (assuming they’ve even figured it out as of today). So they started electing more Democrats — sweeping Democratic majorities into both houses of Congress in 2006.

And just like that, being a Democrat wasn’t quite so easy. Blaming Bush and Bush alone for all things bad in America was no longer defensible. Our party had some real power — even if the party’s leaders usually seemed too afraid to use it. As a result, many of us in the Democratic Party’s base found ourselves even more infuriated by the state of American politics than we had been before. And the nature of liberal Democratic discourse changed accordingly. Bush bashing continued, of course (it isn’t like he got any better), but it was joined by a healthy dose of  intraparty bashing of congressional Democrats for their unwillingness to fight.

Some of this was probably unfair, born of a naïveté over what’s possible within the arcane machinery of the federal government. This is especially true, of course, with the Senate — an institution that seems to have been constituted with one and only one goal in mind: being certain that absolutely nothing can ever get done. 

But if the Democratic base has at times been unfair to its elected leaders, those leaders themselves have often seemed inclined to do everything humanly possible to fan the flames. From refusing, again and again, to seriously fight Bush even on issues on which the public was lined up against him, to all too often adopting Republican talking points, to even openly parroting the media’s dismissal of “the angry left,” these politicians at times seemed to deliberately invite the scorn of the very people who do the most to get them elected.

The reason for this dismal treatment of the party’s base by many of its elected leaders is actually not all that mysterious. The fact is that many Democratic officeholders just don’t like us. We’re annoying; constantly making demands on them they don’t want to hear. The fact we’re indispensible at election time doesn’t mean, after all, they have to find us palatable the rest of the time. And here’s a little secret: the Republicans in Congress hate their base too; they just do a better job of hiding it.

Still, most members of the Democratic base swallowed their hurt feelings and fought for the party in a big way in 2008, helping to usher in a Democratic landslide. By the time the dust had settled (a little dust is still hanging in Minnesota, of course) Barack Obama was president and the Democrats enjoyed huge margins in both houses of Congress.

Nirvana, right?

Well, maybe not so much. As the giddy days following Obama’s inauguration turned into weeks and then months, something strange started to happen: reality began to creep in. The first discordant sign came in the appointments President Obama was making — an extraordinarily “unchangish” bunch of Clinton-era pro-finance moderates, for the most part. But it didn’t stop there.

On a whole range of issues, from openness in government, to ending military commissions, to an economic incentive program that seemed much more geared toward pampering corporate America than protecting working people, to his pledge to end the don’t ask don’t tell policy, Obama has backpedaled, at least a little, from his campaign promises. Meanwhile, on issues where he continues to stand by those promises, as in his commitment to close the gulag at Guantanamo Bay, too often congressional Democrats have proven to be a problem.

It’s as though they’ve forgotten who won the election.

But it would be easy to take the point too far. Obama’s election has, in fact, brought positive progressive change in countless ways. The bombastic tone of American foreign policy of the Bush years is largely gone, replaced by a much more hopeful diplomatic approach. Science is back. Obama’s budget proposals have been extremely progressive, as even frequent critic Paul Krugman has agreed. Protecting the environment is once again a priority of the government, even if there have been disappointments along the way. Judge Sonia Sotomayor may not be the liberal’s dream candidate for the Supreme Court, but compared to the sort of person Bush or John McCain would have nominated she’s a godsend.

All of which, of course, leaves the Democratic Party’s base in what can perhaps best be described as the agony of nuance. Gone are the unambiguous days of the anti-Bush. It is now very clear that there are going to be times — too many, in fact — when liberals will have to oppose Obama. Fine. But those who would simply write the man off as “Bush lite” are missing the broader point. There is still much good that can happen and that is happening in the Obama presidency.

Universal health insurance (with a good public option), for example, would by itself constitute a progressive revolution.

Even as liberals lick their wounds over what we regard as Obama’s failings, the right wing attack machine is going into full gear. Most of their shots so far have been clunkers: but they won’t all be. The recent European election, with right wing and fringe parties blowing out the center-left parties, serves as a warning. These are dangerous times politically.

I said some time back that like it or not liberals have bet the farm on Barack Obama, and we have. If his presidency fails, he won’t be replaced in 2012 by a reincarnation of Paul Wellstone. More likely it will be by a Republican who will make Bush look like a moderate.

We picked Obama: and buyer’s remorse just isn’t an option.

Sure, liberals need to fight him when he’s wrong. But we also need to have his back when he’s right. Too much is on the line to do anything less.

Did Obama screw the left on Sotomayor?

Friday, June 5th, 2009

Are you starting to get nervous about Judge Sonia Sotomayor? A bit troubled, perhaps, that she may actually end up moving an already ultraconservative Supreme Court even (a little) more to the right?

I am.

Today’s Wall Street Journal, for example, brings another in a growing list of concerning reports on the nominee’s tendency to rule the “right” way in at least a number of contexts. According to the Journal, Sotomayor’s record in the area of criminal law appears to be to the right of Justice David Souter, the moderate she will be replacing.

And have you heard the one about how Judge Sotomayor has agreed with the most conservative members of her current court 95 percent of the time? Well, guess what? It’s true (though many of those cases were no doubt uncontroversial). As E.J. Dionne Jr. has noted:

Republicans would be foolish to fight the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court because she is the most conservative choice that President Obama could have made.

And while the far right’s loony brigades continue to raise hell about Judge Sotomayor’s supposed liberalism, the more thoughtful folks within the right wing’s massive political/legal complex are quietly hopeful. They see the very real potential that she might actually end up moving the Court’s center of gravity slightly to the right.

We need to remember, Judge Sotomayor hasn’t — sadly — been picked to replace Antonin Scalia: no, she’ll be replacing Justice Souter, a very dependable vote for what has pathetically come to be known as the “liberal” side of this extraordinarily conservative Court. Make no mistake: in the real world, David Souter, a George H.W. Bush appointee, is no liberal. It’s only the extreme conservatism of the five justices (Kennedy slightly less so than the others) to his right that makes him seem “liberal” by comparison.

And a Democratic president has now nominated someone who may be to his right to replace him?

Jesus, what is wrong with the Democratic Party? How do we seem to always end up electing Democratic Presidents who just don’t get it when it comes to judicial appointments?

The Republicans have it figured out. Strike while the iron is hot is their mantra. When given the chance to make his appointments to the Supreme Court, Bush didn’t fool around: he bet the farm, nominating Roberts and Alito, two of the most conservative justices to serve on the Supreme Court in modern times. What, by comparison, did Bill Clinton give us? Stephen Breyer, an eminently qualified justice, to be sure, but one very much on the right side of the center/left continuum (Clinton’s other appointment to the Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, while to Breyer’s left, is also a moderate). And now it’s looking as though Obama has done the same thing.

So the rightward wobble of the Court will continue, with Republican presidents appointing flame throwing right wingers and Democratic presidents responding with tepid moderates.

Now, to be fair, no one can know for certain where Judge Sotomayor will end up ideologically once she’s on the Court. Being a justice of the High Court is very different from being an appeals court judge bound by the Supreme Court’s decisions. 

But one thing seems certain: given the chance to appoint a strong liberal voice to the Court, someone with a proven track record, Obama took a pass. And given that concern over the future of the Supreme Court is one of the biggest things that motivated Obama’s liberal supporters that’s sad — and more than a little troubling.

Crying wolf on Sotomayor

Thursday, June 4th, 2009

I’m beginning to think that today’s GOP may be so dumb that even the Democrats won’t be able to find a way to screw things up politically.

And let’s face it: that takes some supercharged level dumbness:

Dumb with a capital “D”
And that rhymes with “P”
And that stands for putz.  

The proof is in the Sotomayor pudding. It was obvious from the very beginning that Judge Sotomayor is anything but a wild-eyed liberal. She has a long judicial track record and it’s been consistently moderate. In truth, if anyone should be upset about the nomination it’s liberals (and some of us are, at least a little): sitting pretty, with a huge majority in the Senate, President Obama had the opportunity to strike a strong blow toward bringing a little ideological balance back to an extreme right wing court. Instead, he played it safe with a (perhaps) slightly left of center middle-of-the-roader.

The GOP leadership should have been dancing in the streets. This was as good an appointment (from an ideological standpoint) as they could have hoped for. The problem, of course, was that they had a nutty far right base to feed: so it was off to the races with an absurd attempt to paint Judge Sotomayor as a liberal extremist. And it’s just making them look silly. But like any addict (they’re addicted to their own talking points) they can’t stop themselves: today, for example, brings a report that the very same GOP senators who have been publicly claiming to be uncomfortable with the slander that’s being served up by Rush & Co. have actually been fanning the flames in private.

It may be time to call the GOP in for a full-scale intervention (although don’t count on me to help): you know, telling them they either have to agree to inpatient therapy or their microphones (and Viagra) will be taken away.

So, what do Republicans have to lose from this, their most recent lunacy? A lot, actually.

In discussing the risk Sotomayor poses to the GOP, the media has largely concentrated on the potential that Hispanic and female voters may be turned off. Fair enough: but there’s another, more insidious, danger lurking out there.

The right wing’s biggest blunder here may be in the way they’re crying wolf (as in the story of the boy who cries wolf). Not satisfied with ridiculously calling Judge Sotomayor a left wing radical, the Republicans are also defaming her by claiming she’s some sort of rabid judicial activist. None of it seems to be sticking: but none of it will soon be forgotten either.

So what happens the next time the GOP tries to run with the story line that something Obama is doing — or someone he’s appointing — is part of a far left agenda? You know, his ever present socialism. What, for example, will happen if his next Supreme Court nominee (he’ll almost certainly have more vacancies to fill) turns out to be someone solidly left of center and the Republicans try to make an issue of it?

Here’s my best guess: people may laugh; people may yawn; or people may simply turn the television off the yakking face of Sen. Jeff Sessions and over to The Price is Right. But one thing most people will not do is to take the attacks seriously. They’ll have heard it all before.

So, yes, what the GOP is doing right now in attacking Judge Sotomayor isn’t just unfair: it’s absolutely and unequivocally dumb.

Dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb.

And to think these guys used to run the country.

Hating for the Lord — with gusto

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009

When, like me, you live in Wichita, Kansas, you’re “privileged” to see more than your fair share of antiabortion hatred. That’s not a slam on Wichita, anymore than it would be a slam on New York City to note that New Yorkers have experienced more than their share of terrorism. When George Tiller, long the ultimate lightning rode in the abortion wars, calls your city his home, it goes with the territory.

I met Dr. Tiller once — a meeting on a minor legal matter that lasted only about a half an hour. He struck me as a nice enough person — though perhaps a bit eccentric. But I suspect that if people had hounded me for 20-plus years, repeatedly vandalized my place of business and on one occasion actually shot me in both arms, if the worst personality trait I could be accused of at the end was a little eccentricity I’d figure I had done pretty well.

Of course, the people who hated George Tiller didn’t hate him for his personal characteristics. They hated him for what he did for a living — for his willingness to provide women with a medical procedure guaranteed to them under the United States Constitution. And they — the haters — were determined to stop that at any cost.

Worried about the political fallout that may be caused by their incitement to violence against Tiller, most of the radical antiabortionists who regularly attacked him are now claiming that they never hated the man (although give Randal Terry one for honesty, if nothing else). They just hated his actions. In fact, they tell us they’re praying for both him and his family. Damn nice of them, don’t you think?

Bunk. They hated him, alright. They hated him with gusto in the name of God. And what’s more, they hated anyone associated with him.

For a time, for example, my family attended services at College Hill United Methodist. The chief pastor at the time was a man named George Gardner. A remarkable and brilliant man, George also unquestionably had his flaws, as he himself was the first to admit. He was a marvelous showman, though in a more thoughtful and philosophical sense than that word usually implies. As a politically conservative physician friend of mine once said of George (who was a liberal in every sense of the word), “I don’t agree with a lot of what George says, but he’s the only minister who can keep me awake.”

Sure enough, few people ever fell asleep at a George Gardner service. His words, more philosophical really than theological, could make you think in ways you might not have otherwise: he had that hard to describe knack for inspiring people. George baptized both of my children and, even speaking as a crusty old lawyer who had his children in his forties, the services were deeply moving experiences.

George was controversial for a number of reasons, but, without a doubt, abortion was the granddaddy of them all. He believed in a woman’s right to choose — and he put those beliefs into action. For many years, he made himself available to meet the spiritual needs of women and their families seeking abortion services at Dr. Tiller’s clinic. Late in his career he became the official clinic chaplain.

I remember one Sunday in particular, when he shared a story with the congregation involving one of Dr. Tiller’s patients. It was a couple who, desperately wanting children, had gone through years of fertility treatment. Finally, the woman became pregnant. In one of life’s impossible to understand cruelties, however, the fetus turned out to have serious malformations — defects that were inconsistent with human life. Traveling half way across the country to one of the few places where late term abortion services are available, they had come to Wichita. The couple wanted to see a minister and the clinic called George.

All these years later, I don’t remember the precise point George was making in his sermon, but I know what stuck with me: the haunting story of the couple’s profound grief and the willingness of two people to help them: one a doctor and the other a minister. And because of that willingness both were passionately hated by antiabortion extremists.    

Eventually, George Gardner got into a controversy involving his personal life and left the church. With George gone, my family drifted away as well.

Sometime later, after a period when I’d been on the road a great deal, I became curious about “whatever happened to George.” So I Googled him, and it was then that I learned that he had died recently from complications related to a brain tumor.

The first Internet post I read on the subject, by the way, was from an antiabortion site and began with the joyful announcement that George Gardner was now burning in hell.

That’s the sort of hate we’re talking about here: the kind that doesn’t end even at the grave — a deep, burning and all-consuming loathing. A hatred that for the unbalanced few (a group that does not include the overwhelming majority of people who oppose abortion) will almost inevitably lead to acts of violence, like the recent assassination of Dr. George Tiller.

And it is that very hatred — and that very inevitability — that people like Bill O’Reilly, with their sensational and irresponsible attacks on people like Dr. Tiller, aid and abet every day in the media.

If there is such a thing as a sin, surely that must be one.