Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Stupid Christians Still Can’t Keep Their Hands Off My Government

February 28, 2006

The latest assault on the barrier between church and state is being mounted less than 500 yards from where I attend classes every day. The Georgia House recently passed HB 941 by a whopping 140 to 26, with the intent “to recognize America’s religious heritage” by plastering a quotation from a holy book on courthouse walls next to political documents. The bill proposes to sidestep the prohibitions against posting the Ten Commandments in public buildings by sticking them in with the Mayflower Compact and the Declaration of Independence. Theoretically, tacking on some vague claptrap about the educational intentions driving this pathetic attempt to ram the Christian god down the public throat will camouflage its blatant illegality. What’s worse, they expect you and me to pay for it when their pious crusade comes under attack.

I don’t mean they expect us to finance the manufacture and installation of the displays; that much is obvious from the fact that it’s in a public courthouse. No, in Section 2 of the very bill which enacts the displays, the legislature makes a provision requiring the Attorney General to “defend and bear the costs of defending any and all municipalities” that put up the document. Now why in god’s name (ha ha) would the legislature insert such a provision unless they knew damn well that what they’re doing is illegal? No reason to expect a flood of lawsuits if what you’re doing is okay, right?

The argument that the Ten Commandments is somehow a historical document like the Mayflower Compact or the Declaration of Independence is a sick joke in the first place. The latter two were generated by settlers and pioneers of America for political purposes, with the intent to draw together a community and provide the framework for a legal process. The Ten Commandments, on the other hand, were supposedly handed down from god to a wandering desert tribe thousands of years ago. Uh, and this is relevant to American law how?

The Code of Hammurabi from ancient Mesopotamia, the first written set of laws, would be more appropriate. It has religious overtones, granted, but it also prescribes punishments, methods of determining fact, rules for the behavior of the judiciary, and a host of other much more relevant regulations than “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” The judicial system set forth in the commandments? Well, presumably god will strike you with boils or something if you screw up.

The first four commandments don’t even relate to what we think of as ethical or legal behavior. First, there’s “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” This isn’t a social law, it’s religious law intended to enforce theistic purity. The second is a prohibition on idol worship, which serves the same purpose, and the third specifically calls the Christian deity “thy god.” What’s more insulting than walking into a public building and being told who “thy god” is? The final religious requirement is the most easily defended; we do have Sundays off from business and school, after all. When it’s all said and done, there are only three of the commandments that one can actually be charged with a crime for breaking!

Hell, if we’re going to equate the history of American law with the history of religious dogma, why not include some Catholic doctrines or Jewish kosher laws? Come to think of it, the Ten Commandments are in the Torah also; why all the talk in the accompanying statement about the Christian values of America when the exact same code is followed by another religion that also fled to America to escape persecution? To top it off, most of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence weren’t even Christians; they were deists! This is not only illegal, it’s bad history.

But the legislature thinks that by playing Hide the Button it’s going to get away with murder. The Supreme Court has backed Ten Commandments displays that place the document in a “historical context,” but the Georgian attempt to squeeze its religious agenda under that umbrella is pathetically transparent. It will pass, though, and us taxpayers, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, and atheist alike, will get stuck with the bill. So much for “we the people.”

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Why the ‘Culture War’ is a Bad Model for Discussion of American Politics

February 21, 2006

You hear it all the time in the media; I’m guilty of using it as a metaphor myself. There are two viewpoints available in social and political discussions, and they are engaged in a “Culture War.” Whichever side you pick, you are instantly locked in to a position on abortion, taxes, the War on Terror, private school vouchers, Social Security, civil rights, and a host of other controversial issues. The red state, blue state mentality frames the ongoing political discussion in America as a fight to the death between two mortal enemies, a battle that will end with the total victory of one side by achieving the other side’s total annihilation. This is bad.

Just a reminder: no issue in American politics is limited to two extremist, absolutist sides, and it’s all too easy to frame it that way for a knee-jerk reaction. Abortion, for instance, is not threatened with complete annihilation by the increasingly possible overturning of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court. Instead, the death of abortion as an extension of the Constitutional right to privacy means one simple thing: States get to choose whether abortion will be legal and how it may be regulated. I’m against that for a variety of reasons, not least among them my concern for any rollbacks of the Constitutional right to privacy when Uncle Sam is proving himself so well-informed already, but to hear the debate rage, it sounds like there are only two choices: Roe stays and everyone gets abortions or Roe gets overturned and no one does.

That’s just not how it works; instead, the idea is that the federal government just butts out, which in principle fits pretty well with my preference for free personal choice in areas of ethical controversy. Unfortunately, it also means the State government butts in, and that’s just as bad. Any government intrusion into so controversial and personal an ethical choice is risky at best; society is perfectly capable of resolving the problem without the paternal hand of Führer Bush. Being from a small town, I know there is a strong disincentive to have even a legal abortion when the people around one disapprove. Many in more accepting areas refuse on the basis of their own beliefs even when those around them think a child is a very bad idea. Each situation presents extremely hard and very private decisions that differ from those problems posed by the other, and if prevailing norms come to dictate more widely that the practice of abortion is unethical, we will know because its use will dwindle without the necessity of any government intervention. Let the People decide.

The issues of national security and personal rights have also been framed in a duel-to-the-death dichotomy. Either the President will personally read your e-mail with his morning coffee every day and probably tell your wife that you’re cheating on her with that hot little secretary at the office or the terrorists will be able to coordinate their attack plans in real-time using Yahoo! Messenger and you can expect your local elementary school to be nuked at the exact instant that the entire city of New York is obliterated. But the continuing barrage of legal argument from the administration over the NSA’s warrantless wiretaps is more than a government attempt to cover its own ass after breaking the law in conducting its investigation; it’s an underlying legal strategy of the entire Bush White House to claim extended Executive power, immunity from law on the basis of executive privileges, and a wide-ranging authority that is not only potent where Congress has not spoken but also louder than the voice of the People itself.

Richard A. Posner, a judge serving on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals who is famous for his economically focused opinions, has proposed a solution to the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping, and at first glance it looks reasonable. Allow the President to wiretap suspected terrorists as he likes, but refuse to allow any evidence so gathered to be used in prosecuting crimes unrelated to terrorism. It’s not perfect, but it’s a simple and at least partially effective solution to this problem. This looks like a good idea—if you’re caught up in the mindset of security versus civil liberties. The plan preserves your right to not be prosecuted for your private acts—as long as you’re not the one they’re looking for.

Even in defusing the public’s fears of being haled into court over their private phone calls, the rationale of such immunization requires an expansive reading of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed by Congress in the wake of 9/11. The absurdly broad reading the White House is trying to push proposes that the AUMF grants the President extra authority by putting him perpetually in his role as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces when dealing with terrorism, subject solely to internal review and authorized to do everything “necessary and proper” to bring the perpetrators to justice—including signals intelligence gathering like the NSA wiretaps. Thus it makes sense to exclude information unrelated to terrorism and the President still avoids the law.

Nixon famously said, “When the President does it, it’s not illegal.” Bush essentially argues, “When the Commander-in-Chief does it, it’s not illegal.” The plain language of the statutes themselves provide no basis for the argument, and something tells me that this exception was not imagined by Congress when they passed FISA or the AUMF, but now, in an attempt to exempt itself from charges of even having broken the law, the Bush regime is going so far as to suggest that the FISA regulations they are accused of violating may not be Constitutional themselves precisely because they limit Presidential power contrary to the theory of the Executive Branch that the Bushies advance.

And it’s such an easy issue to polarize! Ask anybody on the street whether she thinks the President ought to be able to simply ignore the law when it suits his purposes, and she will almost certainly say no. Ask her if the President ought to be able to bend the law to save lives and you can expect a yes. Ask if she supports broad authority for the office of the President at the expense of the power of the Congress and you get a much more interesting discussion. What could he do before and why doesn’t that work now? How broad an authority does he seek? How do we balance the two? Well, now there’s a whole universe of possibilities, and the applications are much more important.

And unfortunately, this isn’t what you hear in politics, and certainly not from the partisan hacks in the mainstream media. You hear “listening to your phone calls” from one side and “could blow up a school” from the other. Nobody reminds you that the man in office now will not stay there; even if you believe Bush is a good man who will steer the country well, remember that his successor could be much less careful with the broad powers you gave to the last guy. By forcing ordinary people to come down on one side of the “war” or the other, you shut down the discussion of the important issues; you stop people from thinking and encourage them only to fight. Not argue, fight. Everyone knows the underlying arguments for Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security and the “alternative” of nationalizing health care, so why bother arguing for anything else?

Noam Chomsky, a man with many strange ideas and a couple good ones, said of politics, "The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum - even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there's free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate."

Nothing is a more limited spectrum than a dichotomy, and when identification with one side implies adherence to a host of doctrinaire positions, the possibility of results-oriented thought goes right out the window. What’s worse, some of the current issues have been so simplified and stripped of their significance by sensationalist political framing that the screaming matches aren’t even about the important questions. You can love your country, believe the War on Terror is a just and noble cause, and still be against broad powers for your President to overrule the will of the Congress. You can believe that equality for all means food and basic healthcare for all, support strict environmental regulations, and still believe in a powerful President to protect our nation from harm. Think for yourself. Just a reminder.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

White House Alters Scientific Documents at NASA to Reflect Administration Policy

February 14, 2006

The hottest new cronyism scandal from the Bush regime relates directly to a column I almost published a few weeks ago. Right at the end of January, a story broke about James Hansen, the physicist in charge of the space program’s efforts to model the Earth’s climate using supercomputers. Hansen, who is 63 and has been working at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for over thirty years, began sounding alarms about global warming (for which he is now famous) in the late eighties, and in 2004 he gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention criticizing the President’s energy policy. Needless to say, he made some enemies. I kept the story in the back of my mind to watch it develop, and now the truth is out.

Bush’s refusal to join the Kyoto Protocol looked hypocritical if our own agencies were issuing reports about the dire consequences of global warming, and the White House had apparently had enough of Hansen’s politically inconvenient complaints. Even before the election, Hansen began raising protests that the NASA administration was trying to censor his work. In early 2004, orders passed largely by word of mouth started filtering back from Washington to the various research divisions; all NASA labs were to emphasize the various elements of Bush’s “vision statement” in their earth science publications.

In December of 2004, one NASA scientist made some questionable claims in a press release for the Jet Propulsion Laboratories, but when his colleagues pressed him about the matter, he e-mailed the White House and admitted he had simply made something up to fulfill the new requirements. The NASA administration removed the quote from the release—but the Washington public affairs office ran the original version. White House pressure did not decrease.

The twist that makes this a story of Bush regime cronyism is George C. Deutsch, a presidential appointee at NASA and one of the first casualties of the purge initiated by the Times story. Not only had Deutsch garnered his post at the public affairs office in return for work in the “war room” during Bush’s reelection campaign, but it has recently come to light that he doesn’t even have the B.A. in journalism listed on his resume.

Deutsch had ordered, among other things, that press access to Hansen be restricted, and in October of 2005 he issued a memo requiring all mentions of the Big Bang be accompanied by the word “theory.” In his memo, Deutsch explained that the Big Bang is "not proven fact; it is opinion,” and that it was “not NASA's place, nor should it be to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator." Hansen was furious with this heavy-handed manipulation; the White House clamped down on him even harder.

At first, agency officials denied the charges that White House appointees had ordered an internal review of all Hansen’s work before it was published. Deputy assistant director of internal affairs Dean Acosta would say only that Hansen was subject to the same restrictions as other NASA employees who might be considered setters of administration policy. Hansen said the he intended to flatly ignore the increasing restrictions and was threatened, he says, with “dire consequences.”

Since the New York Times article on the story broke, several other NASA scientists and public affairs officers have come forward with reports of political appointees trying to control the flow of information from the Agency by delaying publication of certain items, making alterations, and using similar tactics to reinforce the White House’s political agenda. Michael D. Griffin, NASA’s head administrator, issued an e-mail to all 19,000 employees barely a week after the article was published, saying, "It is not the job of public-affairs officers to alter, filter or adjust engineering or scientific material produced by NASA's technical staff."

Now that the tide has shifted at NASA, we can hopefully expect these administration stoolies to be flushed from the space program’s bureaucracy, but this is symptomatic of a much, much larger problem. Warping scientific publications to reflect to worldview of the Republican party is a lie, and a lie to the American people is tantamount to treason because people can only make good choices when properly informed. The Bush regime has become a totalitarian threat to Americans (red and blue alike) and the entire world; they run the nation like a Gestapo state, obsessed with controlling and restricting the flow of information.

Unauthorized wiretaps, government alteration of scientific documents, legal maneuverings to make atrocity laws inapplicable to the head of the nation—these are tales one would expect from Soviet Russia, not modern America! Only in ignorance can one fail to be outraged, and bland public reaction to news like this is indicative of how successful the propaganda campaign has been so far. Bush is the new Nixon; I hope he falls much, much harder.