Saturday, December 16, 2006
Part I: The Lurker Below
Part II: The Urge to Eliminate
Part III: Bringers of Light and Death
At the climax of Mel Gibson's new film Apocalypto -- currently the No. 1 film at the box office -- the main protagonist, a young Mayan named Jaguar Paw, is saved, at the end of a long chase through the jungle from a pack of Mayan warriors determined to kill him, by the arrival on the scene of a band of Spanish conquistadors, complete with Catholic priest in tow, whose presence gives him the distraction he needs to finally elude his pursuers.
It's a scene oddly reminiscent of the climax of Lord of the Flies, when the arrival of adult rescuers halts the bloodthirsty children's pursuit of their former leader. The clear implication is that the "civilized" adults from Europe have arrived to bring an end to the endless display of cruelty and savagery to which we've just been witness for most of the previous two hours.
This ending, in a film that is profoundly racist in its depiction of Mayan culture as relentlessly bloodthirsty and violent, is hardly lacking in irony. Because regardless of the brutality and viciousness of the Mayans at their worst -- and Gibson's depiction, for all of its faux authenticity (such as the strict use of Yucatec Mayan as the film's spoken language, even though none of actors cast in speaking parts was Mayan or knew the language), is almost crazily inaccurate as a cultural portrait -- they simply paled in comparison to what the Spanish, with the Catholic Church as their ideological wellspring, were about to inflict upon the Mesoamerican peoples as a whole. Nor could it hold a candle to what Europeans as a whole were to inflict upon Native American peoples over the next three centuries.
Traci Arden at Archaeology gives a rundown of just the immediate problems Apocalypto presents:
- Yes, Gibson includes the arrival of clearly Christian missionaries (these guys are too clean to be conquistadors) in the last five minutes of the story (in the real world the Spanish arrived 300 years after the last Maya city was abandoned). It is one of the few calm moments in an otherwise aggressively paced film. The message? The end is near and the savior has come. Gibson's efforts at authenticity of location and language might, for some viewers, mask his blatantly colonial message that the Maya needed saving because they were rotten at the core. Using the decline of Classic urbanism as his backdrop, Gibson communicates that there was absolutely nothing redeemable about Maya culture, especially elite culture which is depicted as a disgusting feast of blood and excess.
... Gibson replays, in glorious big-budget technicolor, an offensive and racist notion that Maya people were brutal to one another long before the arrival of Europeans and thus they deserve, in fact they needed, rescue.
Nearly everyone with a serious acquaintance with Mayan culture has found Apocalypto repellent and simply wrong in nearly every respect. Among these is Julia Guernsey, an assistant professor in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Texas who specializes in ancient Mayan art. She was interviewed by Austin360, and had this to say:
- And the ending with the arrival of the Spanish (conquistadors) underscored the film's message that this culture is doomed because of its own brutality. The implied message is that it's Christianity that saves these brutal savages. I think that's part of Gibson's agenda, sort of, "We got the Jews last time (in 'The Passion of the Christ'), now we'll get the Maya." And to highlight that point there's a lot of really offensive racial stereotyping. They're shown as these extremely barbaric people, when in fact, the Maya were a very sophisticated culture.
Likewise, Juan Santos at Fourth World observes that the film is built upon "the premise that the Mayan city states collapsed because they deserved to collapse, and that they deserved to be replaced by a 'superior' culture in the genocide known as the Conquest":
- "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within," is how Gibson puts it. In other words the Conquest was not genocide but a moral comeuppance; the civilization didn't fall, in the final analysis, from climate change or inadvertent soil depletion or even war -- it was conquered in god's wrath against the forces of evil. And Gibson's made sure you see the ancient Maya as a force of profound evil.
Indeed, you would be hard-pressed, upon seeing Gibson's depiction of urban Mayan life, to understand how such a rabble of gibbering savages could possibly have placed two stones atop each other, let alone built massive cities with astonishing beauty and precision. (Oddly enough, the protagonist forest dwellers seem not even to be aware of the existence of these cities, even though Mayan cities had been a major feature of the Yucatan human landscape for over a thousand years at the point at which the story is supposed to occur.) They resemble nothing so little as the cartoonish natives who occupy a similar cityscape in the original 1933 version of King Kong.
Depicting Mayan culture this way leads modern-day audiences to leap to conclusions such as that noted by Santos, from one of the film's defenders, who says that it
- [P]retty much precisely describes the whole point of the civilizations of such "noble savages" as the Mayans, if you ask us. There isn't one, there wasn't one, and there never will be one. Those bloodthirsty mongrels and many others before and after them were brutal, savage, cruel and entirely without redeeming qualities, and the best thing that ever happened to this planet was when they were wiped out, never to be heard of again.
In fact, we owe the Spanish Conquistadores an eternal debt of gratitude for having wiped that blood-curdlingly bestial, brutal blight upon humanity off the face of the planet because, had they not done it, we would have had to do so ourselves.
Bloodletting rituals, decapitations, and cenote sacrifices were inescapable factual features of Mayan civilization, as were the many wars that the various city-states engaged in, taking multiple slaves in the process. But focusing on these aspects tells us as much about Mayan culture as viewing European culture through the prism of -- Depicting the gore and violence as constant, everyday occurrences creates a false and distorted portrait of Mayan society, which, as Julia Guernsey says, was actually extraordinarily sophisticated, a culture whose achievements at their height -- particularly in the Classic Maya period (A.D. 250-950) -- in some regards surpassed that of contemporaneous Europeans.
Mayan culture featured a complex and fascinating cosmology. Their art was both sublime and beautiful. And their language -- which was so complex and unusual in structure that it only has been deciphered generally in the past 20 years or so, and is still not completely so -- produced a massive literature that included poetic, religious and philosophical works.
However, we only are able to obtain a slight glimpse of this body of work today because those Spanish "saviors," in the two centuries following their arrival, successfully eradicated, through forced burning, nearly the entirety of it. As Michael D. Coe observed in his 1987 book The Maya:
- "[O]ur knowledge of ancient Maya thought must represent only a tiny fraction of the whole picture, for of the thousands of books in which the full extent of their learning and ritual was recorded, only four have survived to modern times (as though all that posterity knew of ourselves were to be based upon three prayer books and 'Pilgrim's Progress')."
Their scientific and agricultural achievements were also substantial. Their astronomical observations in particular were extremely accurate; modern scientists note that their lunar and planetary charts are at least the equal of, if not superior to, those produced by any civilization working from the naked eye. And their astronomical achievements also played a role in their architecture; as David E. Stannard explains in American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World [p. 38]:
- ... [I]t is important at least to point out how little we still know of these people. Their involved writing system, combining elements of both phonetic and ideographic script, for example, appears to have been fully expressive of the most intricate and abstract thinking and has been compared favorably to Japanese, Sumerian, and Egyptian -- but it continues to defy complete translation.
Similarly, for many years the absence of a gridwork layout to streets, plazas, and buildings in Maya cities puzzled scholars. Right angles weren't where they logically should have been, buildings skewed off oddly and failed to line up in the expected cardinal directions; everything seemed to twist away from an otherwise northward presentation. Apparently, said some archaeologists, Maya builders were incompetent and couldn't construct simple right angles. Given the exquisite and precise alignment of every other aspect of Maya architecture, however, others thought this to be at best a hasty criticism. And now it is beginning to become evident that these seeming eccentricities of engineering had nothing to do with incompetence.
On the contrary, a complicated and original architectural pattern had always been present -- the same pattern, some began to notice, in city after city after city -- but its conceptual framework was so foreign to conventional Western perception and thought that it remained effectively invisible. Recently the "code," as it were, of Maya engineering and construction has begun to be deciphered, and the story it reveals is mind-boggling. So precise were the Maya calendrical measurements and astronomical observations -- and so central were these cosmic environmental calculations to their ritual and everyday lives -- that the Maya constructed their cities in such a way that everything lined up exactly with specific celestial movements and patterns, particularly as they concerned the appearance and disappearance of the planet Venus in the evening sky.
Yet to the invading Spanish -- informed by centuries of Christian doctrine which portrayed people who dwelt on what they considered the "fringes" of the world as subhuman savages, in direct contrast to their view of Europe as the center of enlightenment and civilization -- the chief question was whether these people were even human.
That was the subject of the famed Debate of Valladolid of 1550-51, in which a council of 14 Church leaders discussed how to deal with the natives of the New World. The Spanish colonists' view was proffered by Juan Gines de Sepulveda, whose arguments are indistinguishable from Mel Gibson's portraiture of the Maya:
- On the other hand, those who are dim-witted and mentally lazy, although they may be physically strong enough to fulfill all the necessary tasks, are by nature slaves. It is just and useful that it be this way. We even see it sanctioned in divine law itself, for it is written in the Book of Proverbs: "He who is stupid will serve the wise man." And so it is with the barbarous and inhumane peoples [the Indians] who have no civil life and peaceful customs. It will always be just and in conformity with natural law that such people submit to the rule of more cultured and humane princes' and nations. Thanks to their virtues and the practical wisdom of their laws, the latter can destroy barbarism and educate these [inferior] people to a more humane and virtuous life. And if the latter reject such rule, it can be imposed upon them by force of arms. Such a war will be just according to natural law. ...
Now compare these natural qualities of judgment, talent, magnanimity, temperance, humanity, and religion [of the Spanish] with those of these pitiful men [the Indians], in whom you will scarcely find any vestiges of humanness. These people possess neither science nor even an alphabet, nor do they preserve any monuments of their history except for some obscure and vague reminiscences depicted in certain paintings, nor do they have written laws, but barbarous institutions and customs. In regard to their virtues, how much restraint or gentleness are you to expect of men who are devoted to all kinds of intemperate acts and abominable lewdness, including the eating of human flesh? And you must realize that prior to the arrival of the Christians, they did not live in that peaceful kingdom of Saturn [the Golden Age] that the poets imagine, but on the contrary they made war against one another continually and fiercely, with such fury that victory was of no meaning if they did not satiate their monstrous hunger with the flesh of their enemies.
... What is more appropriate and beneficial for these barbarians than to become subject to the rule of those whose wisdom, virtue, and religion have converted them from barbarians into civilized men (insofar as they are capable of becoming so), from being torpid and licentious to becoming upright and moral, from being impious servants of the Devil to becoming believers in the true God?
The Council of Fourteen never officially rendered a verdict, though Stannard notes that "Sepulveda later claimed, and there is some reason to believe him, that in the end all but one of the Council supported his position that the Indians were indeed divinely created beasts of burden for their conquerors." This debate, as historians now acknowledge, was a critical moment in the development of European colonization, and the views that emerged from it proved critical not just for Spain but for Europe generally. Eventually, it grew into what we now call "Manifest Destiny" -- the belief that white Europeans were fated by the hand of God to bring enlightenment and civilization to the Americas.
The die for this worldview was cast with Christopher Columbus' first contact with the native peoples of Hispaniola in 1492, when the celebrated discoverer of the Americas took captive some twenty natives and kidnapped them for display upon his return to Spain; of these, only a half-dozen survived the trip, and only two were to live beyond six months. As Stannard notes [p. 204]:
- Even the most educated and cultured and high-minded among the voyagers on this second expedition wasted no time in expressing their contempt for the native people. [Michele de] Cuneo, for example, the Italian nobleman and apparent boyhood friend of Columbus, repeatedly referred to the natives as "beasts" because he could not discern that they had any religion, because they slept on mats on the ground rather than in beds, because "they eat when they are hungry," and because they made love openly "whenever they feel like it." This judgment comes, it will be recalled, from a man who took a fancy to a beautiful young native woman during this trip and, when she rebuffed his advances, thrashed with a rope, raped her, and then boasted of what he had done.
Cuneo's opinion of the natives was echoed by Dr. Diego Alvarez Chance, a physician on the voyage who was later singled out by the Crown for a special award in recognition of his humanitarianism. For various reasons, including his disapproval of the Indians' method of laying out their towns and the fact that they ate cooked iguana (which the Spanish themselves later came to regard as a delicacy), Dr. Chanca declared that the natives were barbarous and unintelligent creatures whose "degradation is greater than that of any beast in the world."
... It is by no means surprising, then, that in only the second printed chronicle from the New World (the first being Columbus's report to the Crown on his initial voyage), the Spanish nobleman Guillermo Coma of Aragon dwelt at great length and in minute detail on the allegedly "very dark and grim-visaged" cannibals of the Indies. "They customarily castrate their infant captives and boy slaves and fatten them like capons," was but one of his numerous imaginings. And with equal vividness and equal falsity he described the great quantities of gold that awaited the adventurous, who could gather nuggets almost like fruit from a tree. ...
Yet it was with visions such as these that a flood of opportunistic adventurers called the Conquistadors began trammeling the shores of the Americas in search of gold. And whenever they encountered these "dark-visaged" natives, they read to them the Requerimiento, by which the natives could swear fealty to the Spanish Crown. It concluded:
- If you do so, you will do well, and that which you are obliged to do to their Highnesses, and we in their name shall receive you in all love and charity, and shall leave you, your wives, and your children, and your lands, free without servitude, that you may do with them and with yourselves freely that which you like and think best, and they shall not compel you to turn Christians, unless you yourselves, when informed of the truth, should wish to be converted to our Holy Catholic Faith, as almost all the inhabitants of the rest of the islands have done. And, besides this, their Highnesses award you many privileges and exemptions and will grant you many benefits.
But, if you do not do this, and maliciously make delay in it, I certify to you that, with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their Highnesses; we shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their Highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey, and refuse to receive their lord, and resist and contradict him; and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault, and not that of their Highnesses, or ours, nor of these cavaliers who come with us. And that we have said this to you and made this Requisition, we request the notary here present to give us his testimony in writing, and we ask the rest who are present that they should be witnesses of this Requisition.
Stannard notes that in practice, "the Spanish usually did not wait for the Indians to reply to their demands. First the Indians were manacled; then, as it were, they were read their rights."
Perhaps more significantly, on his second voyage in 1494, Columbus arrived in the Americas carrying a disease -- now believed to be either bacillic dysentery or influenza carried by Canary Island pigs -- that proved to have lethal effect on the native population. As Stannard writes [pp. 68-69]:
- Whatever it was, in any case, the imported pathogen moved among the native peoples with a relentlessness that nothing ever had in all their history. "So many Indians died that they could not be counted," wrote Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo, adding that "all through the land the Indians lay dead everywhere. The stench was very great and pestiferous." And in the wake of the plague they had introduced, the Spanish soldiers followed, seeking gold from the natives, or information as to where to find it. They were troubled by the illness, and numbers of them died from it. But unlike the island natives the European invaders and their forebears had lived with epidemic pestilence for ages. Their lungs were damaged from it, their faces scarred with pocks, but accumulations of disease exposure allowed them now to weather much. So they carried infections with them everywhere they went -- burdensome, but rarely fatal, except to the natives they met.
... Wherever the marauding, diseased, and heavily armed Spanish forces went out on patrol, accompanied by ferocious armored dogs that had been trained to kill and disembowel, they preyed on the local communities -- already plague-enfeebled -- forcing them to supply food and women and slaves, and whatever else the soldiers might desire. ...
As horrific as the pestilence brought by Columbus may have been, it only foreshadowed the coming of the most horrific killer in the history of the Americas: smallpox. Though it first arrived in Hispaniola in 1518, the most significant outbreak was carried by the soldiers under the command of Hernan Cortes, who invaded Mexico in 1519 and brought it to the Aztecs during the Siege of Tenochtitlan, and left it behind after he was forced into retreat by his defeat on La Noche Triste in 1520.
Smallpox had immediately had a horrific effect on the native populace. Stannard writes [p. 77]:
- After being released among the Aztecs, wrote Cortes's secretary Francisco Lopez de Gomara, "it spread from one Indian to another, and they, being so numerous and eating and sleeping together, quickly infected the whole country. In most houses all the occupants died, for, since it was their custom to bathe as a cure for all diseases, they bathed for the smallpox and were struck down." Gomara continues:
- Those who did survive, having scratched themselves, were left in such a condition that they frightened the others with the many pits on their faces, hands, and bodies. And then came famine, not because of a want of bread, but of meal, for the women do nothing but grind maize between two stones and bake it. The women, then, fell sick of the smallpox, bread failed, and many died of hunger. The corpses stank so horribly that no one would bury them; the streets were filled with them; and it is even said that the officials, in order to remedy this situation, pulled down the houses to cover the corpses.
The epidemic seems to have lasted for about two months, during which time, and for months later, Cortes was reorganizing his defeated forces and marching on and burning smaller towns in the region. Once the disease dissipated -- having devastated the city's residents and killed off most of the Aztec leaders -- Cortes prepared to attack again.
The ensuing battle lasted for months, but Cortes eventually emerged victorious, thanks to a combination of tactics (he shut off the city's water supply) and the spread of the disease. But this was only the beginning. Endless waves of conquistadors now spread out through in Mexico, carrying with them the same brutal campaign of death: Pedro de Alvarado, Nuno Beltran de Guzman, Hernando de Soto, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, Francisco de Ibarra, Vasco Nunez de Balboa. These were only some of the leading names of the marauders who engaged in a relentless campaign of massacres throughout what is now Latin America. Stannard writes [pp. 82-83]:
- The gratuitous killing and outright sadism that the Spanish soldiers carried out on Hispaniola and in central Mexico was repeated in the long march to the south. Numerous reports, from numerous reporters, tell of Indians being led to the mines in columns, chained together at the neck, and decapitated if they faltered. Of children trapped and burned alive in their houses, or stabbed to death because they walked too slowly. Of the routine of cutting off of women's breasts, and of the tying of heavy gourds to their feet before tossing them to drown in lakes and lagoons. Of babied taken from their mothers' breasts, killed, and left as roadside markers. Of "stray" Indians dismembered and sent back to their villages with their chopped-off hands and noses strung around their necks. Of "pregnant and confined women, children, old men, as many as they could capture," thrown into pits in which stakes had been imbedded and "left stuck on the stakes, until the pits were filled." And much, much, more.
One favorite sport of the conquistadors was "dogging." Traveling as they did with packs of armored wolfhounds and mastiffs that were raised on a diet of human flesh and were trained to disembowelel Indians, the Spanish used the dogs to terrorize slaves and to entertain the troops. An entire book, Dogs of the Conquest, has been published recently, detailing the exploits of these animals as they accompanied their masters throughout the course of the Spanish depredations. "A properly fleshed dog," these authors say, "could pursue a 'savage' as zealously and effectively as a deer or a boar. ... To many of the conquerors, the Indian was merely another savage animal, and the dogs were trained to pursue and rip apart their human quarry with the same zest as they felt when hunting wild beasts."
... Just as the Spanish soldiers seem to have particularly enjoyed testing the sharpness of their yard-long rapier blades on the bodies of Indian children, so their dogs seemed to find the soft bodies of infants especially tasty, and thus the accounts of the invading conquistadors and the padres who traveled with them are filled with detailed descriptions of young Indian children routinely taken from their parents and fed to the hungry animals. ...
Of all the weapons the Spanish brought with them, these dogs epitomized the brazen cruelty with which they treated the native peoples, wrought by a worldview that held these human beings as being no more than beasts themselves.
This pattern -- weakening the populace with disease, then overpowering them with superior arms and an inhuman ruthlessness and brutality -- was repeated endlessly throughout Americas in the ensuing decades, first throughout Hispaniola and the Caribbean, then in Mexico itself, then in Central and South America. The Spanish conquest of the Yucatan and of Mexico were only the first steps in Spain's larger colonization program in the Americas. The result was the near-utter obliteration of the existing civilizations.
Stannard observes [pp. 94-95]:
- From the very beginning -- from at least that day in 1493 when a "very beautiful Carib woman" fought off the violent advances of Michele de Cuneo, before being thrashed with a rope and then raped by him -- the people of the Americas resisted. None did so more successfully than the Maya, who combined retreats into the deep jungle cover of the Yucatan Maya, who combined retreats into the deep jungle cover of the Yucatan lowlands -- where, as one historian puts it, the pursuing conquistadors "soon found themselves adrift in a green expanse of forest without food to eat, souls to convert, or labor to exploit" -- with relentless military counterattacks that finally led to temporary expulsion of the Spanish in 1638. And neither did any people resist with more symbolism than they Maya, who made a practice of destroying not only Spanish soldiers but whatever foreign things the Spanish had brought with them -- horses, cattle, cats, dogs, trees, and plants. In the end, however, the Maya too lost 95 of 100 of their people -- a price for resistance that most outsiders, if they know of it, can hardly hope to comprehend.
By the time the sixteenth century had ended perhaps 200,000 Spaniards had moved their lives to the Indies, to Mexico, to Central America, and points further to the south. In contrast, by that time, somewhere between 60,000,000 and 80,000,000 natives from those lands were dead. Even then, the carnage was not over.
In reality, it had only begun. North America's native people had only begun to feel the effects of their contacts with European settlers. And the eliminationist worldview of the Spanish was fully intact throughout most of Europe; indeed, the English expanded upon and perfected it as they settled the northern reaches of the Americas.
The twin infections -- rampaging disease and a malignant eliminationism -- were proceeding on due course in the rest of the New World.
Next: 'Nits Make Lice'
Yesterday, December 15th, was Bill of Rights Day, a celebration of the 215th anniversary of the signing of the first ten articles in the Bill of Rights. The holiday was instituted by no less than FDR himself--a noble but forgotten gesture from a man who could arguably be called America's Greatest President. And he declared the holiday just one week after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, just so that the nation could be clear about where national priorities lay during those uncertain times:
This day was signed into practice by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on December 15, 1941, one hundred and fifty years after the actual signing of the Bill of Rights by our forefathers. Ironically, he proclaimed the holiday just one week after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor initiating the United States' involvement in World War II where freedom issues were at the core of wartime dogma.
The mass internment of Japanese-Americans during this period, of course, rendered some of the "bill of rights" emphasis somewhat hollow. But it is nevertheless incredibly important to note the contrast in style and emphasis between two men, one of whom can easily be called one of the Greatest Presidents, the other of whom is easily the Worst President Ever. Just one week after a horrific attack on American soil, the Worst President Ever was pushing for the Patriot Act and the mass repeals of basic 1st, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 8th amendment rights; just one week after a similar attack on American soil, the Great President chose to enshrine those very rights in a national day of respect and remembrance. Both eras were marked by furious debates over emphases on freedom vs. national security; the contrast in actions by the Executive could not be more clear.
It is telling that we, as a nation and a culture, have chosen to place so much emphasis on Pearl Harbor Day--a day of grief and pain that admittedly launched us into one of the most critical and consequential wars in history--but have chosen to forget an event that truly defines us as a nation and was highlighted for specific emphasis by the very man who led us through those perilous and monumental times.
Today, that failure to honor this most fundamental imprint on our national character is a reminder of just how hollow those very guarantees and freedoms have become under this Worst of Administrations. Or perhaps it is a symptom of a nation gone astray--a canary in the coal mine of national jingoism and misplaced patriotism, where martial power is seen as a greater source of strength than is national character.
Either way, the unmarked passing of what should be a consecrated date should give us pause, and allows us an opportunity for reflection on what could have been--nay, on what should have been--our national legacy under the direction of a far worthier Presidency after the traumatic events of September the 11th.
A Worthier Presidency would have heeded the warnings in the first place, and probably prevented this long, dark nightmare before it even began.
A Worthier Presidency would have assembled a truly international Alliance, in memory of that great counter-authoritarian Alliance of 60 years ago, to rout and expunge the disease of Taliban and Al-Qaeda presence in Afghanistan with a just and mighty force.
A Worthier Presidency would have brought Justice upon Osama Bin Laden and his cohorts, rather than letting America's Most Wanted Murderer run free in the interests of conducting a war of Imperial fancy.
A Worthier Presidency would have honored the letter and and the spirit of the 1st Amendment; it would have tolerated with weary amusement the renewed calls from the Right Wing, rejoined from the days of Kosovo, to avoid mission creep in Afghanistan, to not get involved in nation-building, to bring the troops home immediately, and the howls from Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh over the deaths of one or two American soldiers for a "wag the dog" war--all in the interest of preservation of the 1st Amendment.
A Worthier Presidency would have maintained the guaranteed separation between Church and State, rejecting the Left Behind millennarian fervor which is the inevitable Igor to the Frankenstein of war in the Middle East.
A Worthier Presidency would have been content to call a war a war, to act like it was a war, and to treat it like a war. A Worthier Presidency would have called Prisoners taken during this war just that--"Prisoners of War"--and treated them as such according to the Geneva Conventions.
A Worthier Presidency would have conducted necessary surveillance on our enemies while honoring the 4th amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, and would never have considered conducting those searches without warrants based in probable cause.
A Worthier Presidency would never have considered holding suspects indefinitely for infamous crimes without their having been formally indicted by a grand jury. Indeed, a Worthier Presidency would have shut down Guantanamo entirely.
A Worthier Presidency would have understood that torture was never acceptable, and would have honored the 8th Amendment guarantees against cruel and unusual punishments.
A Worthier Presidency would never have suspended Habeas Corpus indefinitely, simply in order to provide itself legal justification for its previous crimes against country and Constitution.
A Worthier Presidency would never have violated the 9th Amendment to the Constitution through the use of Strict Constructionism, stating that the Executive could deny any rights it deemed threatening, simply because the Constitution didn't explicitly deny its right to do so.
Alas, we do not HAVE a worthy Presidency. We have instead a national disgrace, a painful embarrassment, a shame on our character and blot upon our dignity. We have a would-be Authoritarian Imperial Monarchy, without even the usual silver lining of strict order and heightened competence that usually comes associated with deficits of freedom.
Bill of Rights day, meanwhile, lies forgotten in the rubbish heap of history as we pass blithely from the militarism of Pearl Harbor Day to the consumerism of what is now the American way of celebrating Christmas, with scarcely a moment to breathe in between.
Today, those who honor what America truly stands are left to mourn our losses on what should be a day of national celebration.
As always, however, there is still hope. We have a new Democratic Congress, and with it the power to investigate and hold accountable in whatever way necessary and/or politically expedient those who have stained our national character by forcing these tragedies upon us. We have the power, if we hold our Democrats accountable as they hold the Republicans accountable, to regain the rights that we have lost.
And I hope that one day, perhaps next year, we can help make December 15th a day to remember joyfully once more--and perhaps even make of it a national holiday as FDR had himself envisioned. It would be a fine statement, and a fitting rejoinder to the depradations of the last twelve years.
Making Governments More Likely to Pursue WMD
Public Opposes Setting Goal of Regime Change in Problem Countries
U.S. Public Opinion In Line With Iraq Study Group’s Proposals
A Majority of Americans Reject Military Threats in Favor of Diplomacy with Iran
A majority of Americans believe that the way the United States has been using the threat of military force has diminished U.S. security.
Two out of three believe that countries around the world have grown more afraid that the United States will use force against them and the same number thinks this is bad for U.S. security, according to a WorldPublicOpinion.org poll. The public believes overwhelmingly that fear of the United States has increased “the likelihood that countries will try to acquire weapons of mass destruction.”
Large majorities also reject the idea that the United States’ military strength means it need not be concerned about international goodwill and they do not think that the U.S. government should announce that it seeks regime change in problem countries.
The poll included interviews with a nationwide sample of 1,326 Americans conducted Nov. 21-29. It was designed by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland in conjunction with the Stanley Foundation and fielded by Knowledge Networks.
Steven Kull, editor of WorldPublicOpinion.org., said Americans believed current policies had provoked fear abroad causing countries to react in ways that make the United States less secure. “Most Americans now believe that the recent thrust of U.S. foreign policy has backfired,” Kull said.
Fear of U.S. Military Force
Asked whether countries around the world have grown more afraid in recent years that the United States might use force against them, a majority of respondents (63%) say yes. The poll then asks respondents whether, if the leaders of some countries grow more afraid of the United States, this is good for U.S. security, because it makes foreign governments “more likely to refrain from doing things the U.S. does not want them to do,” or bad because it makes them “seek out new means of protecting themselves.”
By a two-to-one margin (63% to 33%), respondents say rising fear that the United States might use military force is bad because countries may do things that undermine U.S. security. Republicans differ on this issue, however, with 53 percent saying such fear is good and 45 percent saying it is bad. Most Democrats (76%) endorse the view that growing fears of the United States are harmful to U.S. security.
The poll also asks respondents whether, “if leaders of some countries grow more afraid” of an attack by the United States, this will tend to increase or decrease the likelihood that they will “try to acquire weapons of mass destruction.” A very large majority (80%) say that countries will become more likely to seek WMD.
American perceptions that some countries view the United States as a potential military threat appear to be correct, according to polls by the Pew Research Center. Publics in nine countries, seven of them predominantly Muslim, were asked how worried they were that the United States “could become a military threat to [their] own country someday.” In all cases except one, a majority said that they were very or somewhat worried, indicating that this was not simply a passing anxiety in response to the Iraq war.
In April-May 2005, these included the NATO ally Turkey (65%) as well as Morocco (96%), Indonesia (80%), Pakistan (71%), Jordan (67%) and Lebanon (59%). In May 2003, Russia (71%), and Nigeria (72%) also had majorities that were worried the United States could become a threat, as did Kuwait (53%), a country the United States defended after it was invaded by Iraq in 1990. In Morocco, only 46 percent had such fears in 2003, which jumped 50 points to 96 percent in 2005.
In the WPO survey, respondents overwhelmingly reject the idea that “goodwill is not really critical” for the United States because it is “so much stronger than all other countries” and because “trying to be popular can tie” the United States’ hands. Eight in ten (80%) disagree with this and instead endorsed the view that goodwill toward the United States was “important in order to obtain cooperation in dealing with threats to U.S. security” and because hostility could “lead people to actively work” against U.S. interests.
Dealing with Problem Countries
A large majority does not think the United States should announce it is pursuing regime change in problem countries, such as Iran.
Only 21 percent endorse the argument that the U.S. government should announce this goal “because it creates moral clarity and strengthens opposition to the government both inside and outside that country.” Seventy-two percent agree instead with the view that this is “a bad idea because it violates the principle of national sovereignty, and when countries feel threatened they are less cooperative and more likely to use dangerous means to protect themselves.” This includes eight in ten Democrats (78%) and seven in ten Republicans (67%).
Eight in ten also reject the policy of isolating, rather than talking to, problem countries. Only 16 percent endorse the view that it is better to “isolate them so as to pressure them to change their behavior” and only 13 percent back the argument that “talking to them gives them recognition and effectively rewards their bad behavior.”
Majorities instead agree with arguments in favor of talking to problem countries “because isolating them often provokes them to increase the behavior the US opposes” (82%) and “because communication increases the chance of finding a mutually agreeable solution” (84%).
Americans are divided about whether the United States should promise not to use force against problem countries such as Iran without some quid pro quo. Forty-five percent of respondents endorse the argument that the United States should be willing to make a commitment not to use force because refusing to do so increases the fear of a U.S. attack which often leads countries “to do things that are negative for U.S. security.” Forty-eight percent favor the view that the United States should keep open the threat of attack so as to “put pressure on these countries to change their behavior.”
Dealing with Terrorism
A large majority disagrees that terrorist groups should be dealt with solely through military action. Only 35 percent accept the argument that “the only way to counter the threat of terrorism is to find and destroy terrorists. It is naïve and pointless to try to understand their intentions or imagine that we can address any of their concerns.”
Sixty-one percent favor the alternative view that trying to destroy terrorists may not work because “if we are too heavy-handed, it just breeds more hostility and more terrorists. It is necessary to address the sources of the hostility in the larger societies that the terrorists come from.” But Republicans disagree with the majority on this issue: 55 percent favor the position that destroying terrorists is the only way to deal with them while 41 percent feel that such a policy may breed more terrorists. Most Democrats (76%) endorse the second view.
Seven in ten (71%) respondents agree with the argument that combating terrorism, though important, is not the only threat the United States faces and should not “overwhelm all other priorities.” Less than a third (27%) support the alternative position that the “threat of terrorism is the most important issue of our time, and we should be willing to do whatever it takes to fight it.”
Friday, December 15, 2006
Think Progress has the details.
More than three years ago, Donald Rumsfeld said that:
Well, we don't do body counts on other people.
But two days ago, George Bush declared:
Our commanders report that the enemy has also suffered. Offensive operations by Iraqi and coalition forces against terrorists and insurgents and death squad leaders have yielded positive results. In the months of October, November, and the first week of December, we have killed or captured nearly 5,900 of the enemy.
Are body counts the new metric to measure success in Iraq? When asked that question during yesterday's White House press briefing, Tony Snow said:
-- what I can do is at least offer one possible reason why that's an important data point for Americans, which is there's a lot of concern about U.S. casualties and deaths, as there should be -- 103 deaths in October alone. And there is quite often the impression -- and I've talked about it up here, that our people aren't doing anything, they're just targets. And I think there's a certain amount of unease in the American public because they hear about deaths but they don't hear about what's going on. [...]
But it probably is worth at least giving a general impression of relative battlefield success...
This is a part of the new effort at the White House "to talk about both the good news and the bad news" out of Iraq. Of course this new measurement of success only serves to give yet another way to compare Iraq to Vietnam. Because in Vietnam, when we were:
Bogged down in atypical warfare with no tangible measure of progress, U.S. commanders in Vietnam used the body count to show the alleged destruction of enemy forces.
And don't forget that:
Gen. William C. Westmoreland, used an increasing body count to suggest that victory might be close at hand in 1967 and 1968. But the 1968 Tet offensive proved him wrong..."That is what set the stage for the 'credibility gap' when the Tet offensive broke out. It put the final lie to all these bogus representations."
The more things change...
After an immigration check in 1999 found undocumented workers on its payroll, Golden State promised to clean house. But when followup checks were made in 2004 and 2005, some of those same illegal workers were still on the job. In fact, U-S Attorney Carol Lam says as many as a third of the company's 750 workers may have been in the country illegally.
Golden State Fence built millions of dollars' worth of fencing around homes, offices, and military bases. Its president and one of its Southern California managers will pay fines totaling $300,000. The government is also recommending jail time for Melvin Kay and Michael McLaughlin, probably about six months.
It is exceptionally rare for those who employ illegal immigrants to face any kind of criminal prosecution, let alone jail time. Earlier this week, for example, immigration raids on six meat-packing plants netted almost 1,300 suspected illegal workers. But no charges were leveled against the company that runs the plants: Swift.
Golden State Fence's attorney, Richard Hirsch, admits his client broke the law. But he says the case proves that construction companies need a guest-worker program.
Thursday, December 14, 2006
The 9/11 Commission report called on Congress to overhaul the congressional intelligence system, but offered two options for achieving this goal (Pelosi chose the second):
For intelligence oversight, we propose two options: either a joint committee on the old model of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy or a single committee in each house combining authorizing and appropriating committees.
At a press conference today, Pelosi was asked why she had decided against “creating a joint House‑Senate intelligence body.” Pelosi explained that the 9/11 Commission had provided multiple options for intel reform, and “if they are giving you different alternatives, then implicit in that is that you can’t do them all.”
The right wing has now jumped on this quote, claiming it is evidence that Pelosi has abandoned her pledge to enact all of the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations.
Peter King (R-NY), the outgoing House Homeland Security Committee chairman, issued a statement claiming Pelosi had “admitted she won’t be able to enact all the 9/11 Commission recommendations,” and called it a “direct contradiction of statements Ms. Pelosi has made in the past.” Outgoing House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) referenced Pelosi’s quote and said he “appreciate[s] the candor she has demonstrated” with respect to her “promise of enacting all of the remaining unresolved recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.”
These claims are misleading and wrong. Pelosi’s intelligence proposal is in line with the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations. Already, 9/11 Commissioner Timothy Roemer has said Pelosi’s plan would “achieve the commission’s two major goals,” calling it “a major step forward.” House conservatives, meanwhile, refused to take such a step and earned a “D” for their efforts on intelligence reform from the commission.
Some of you may be aware of the recent immigration sweep by the federal government at meatpacking plants around the country over the last week. The ICE surrounded places of work, corralled the adults and took people into custody, reportedly including any number of legal immigrants who made the mistake of working while speaking primarily Spanish. Others reportedly were singled out according to their skin color. Now, according to Latina Lista, a number of children who are legal US citizens have been left by the federal government. . . orphaned by the raids, with both their parents having been taken into custody. So much for "family values," eh?
Here's what one student emailed Latina Lista to say:
I just have a question. The town I live in just had a raid today and when we were going home from school on the bus, they took us straight to an elementary school in the town and kept us there until a parent or legal guardian went to sign us out. I just want to know if they can do that. Can they take students from one school to another and keep us there until our parents go and sign us out? I don't think they can but I just wanted to ask someone that knew. I have been trying to find information on the people's rights during an immigration raid but I can't seem to find anything useful. Please contact me as soon as possible. Thank you so much for your time.
Latina Lista did some research and has some answers for this young woman, but I thought some legal eagles around here might be able to help a bit more. The raids reportedly were targeted at a complex identity theft operation, which provided any number of undocumented people with false papers so they could work. The exploitation of immigrant labor is a continuing abuse in this country driving the wages and working conditions of all American labor down, and the health and safety conditions under which these people work are typically abysmal.
I hope the AFL or some other labor union is getting involved here, but in the meantime, please help get the word out about the sundering of families by our government. These kids are very scared and very confused. We often use this as a joke line, by way of satire of the pearl clutching hypocrisy of the right wing, but this time it's no joke:
Who's taking care of the children?
Update: From the Des Moines Register: "Marshalltown, Ia. — A priest's and nun’s mission to find the mother of a nursing baby was thwarted today after they said officials from Camp Dodge would not let them inside to tell their story." (hat tip to OldCoastie in the comments)Update II: From the Denver Post: "Inside the meatpacking plant, 'there was a lady crying because she didn't have anybody else here,' Silva said. 'She asked my wife if she wanted to adopt her child. Then she was taken away.'" Why is this reminding me of the story about the DC radio host who punked his audience and got calls in support of armbands, tattoos and concentration camps for Muslims?
Lest anyone forget that eliminationist hatred is a global phenomenon, this week's Holocaust Denial conference in Iran is a vivid reminder of the ways this kind of vicious bigotry can spread to every corner of the globe.Indeed, according to the New York Times report, many of the same players who spread this poison here in the United States are showing up in Tehran this week:
The Foreign Ministry had said that 67 foreign researchers from 30 countries were scheduled to take part. Among those speaking on Monday were David Duke, the American white-supremacist politician and former Ku Klux Klan leader, and Georges Thiel, a French writer who has been prosecuted in France over his denials of the holocaust.
Duke's remarks were expected to assert that no gas chambers or extermination camps were built during the war, on the ground that killing Jews that way would have been much too bothersome and expensive when the Nazis could have used much simpler methods, according to an advance summary of his speech published by the institute.
"Depicting Jews as the overwhelming victims of the Holocaust gave the moral high ground to the Allies as victors of the war and allowed Jews to establish a state on the occupied land of Palestine," Duke's paper says, according to the summary.
Especially noteworthy was the fact that this wasn't merely a private convention, the kind where this material is commonly spewed. This was a government-sponsored affair entirely under the aegis of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:
The conference was being held at the behest of the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who likewise called the Holocaust a myth last year, and repeated a well-known slogan from the early days of the 1979 revolution in Iran: "Israel must be wiped off the map." He has spoken several times since then about a need to establish whether the Holocaust actually happened.
Most of the speakers at the conference on Monday praised Ahmadinejad's comments.
Anne Applebaum in Slate (whose strangely inane front-page head for the piece described Holocaust revisionism as "silly, but very scary") has a fairly accurate assessment of this:
Unfortunately, Iran is serious -- or at least Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is deadly serious. Holocaust denial is his personal passion, not just a way of taunting Israel, and it's based in his personal interpretation of history. Earlier this year, in a distinctly eerie open letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he lauded the great achievements of German culture and assaulted "the propaganda machinery after World War II that has been so colossal that [it] has caused some people to believe that they are the guilty party." Such views hearken back to the 1930s, when the then-Shah of Iran was an admirer of Hitler's notion of the "Aryan master race," to which Persians were meant to belong. Ahmadinejad himself counts as a mentor an early revolutionary who was heavily influenced by wartime Nazi propaganda. It shows.
... All of which is a roundabout way of saying that this particular brand of historical revisionism is no joke, and we shouldn't be tempted to treat it that way.
Applebaum is right, of course. However, it has to be remembered that "this particular brand of historical revisionism" -- embodied by people like Duke and David Irving -- isn't relegated strictly to Holocaust denial.
Recall, if you will, that the same white nationalist faction that spreads this anti-Semitic hatred is engaged in revising history on a number of fronts. There are, for instance, revisionists who claim that slavery was a benign institution.
The phenomenon is not simply relegated to the American far right, however; it has in fact crept well into mainstream conservatism. Take, for instance, right-wing author Thomas Woods, whose chief thrust is that civil-rights advances in the 20th century were actually harmful for minorities.
More notoriously, there was Ann Coulter's attempt to rehabilitate McCarthyism in her book Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism by engaging in precisely the kind of historical distortion in which the Holocaust deniers engage -- eliding contradictory evidence, distorting and falsifying facts.
Applebaum actually addressed Coulter's work as sham history -- it made her want to "throw the book across the room" -- but treated it mostly as, well, a bad joke. She neglected to observe that the enterprise constituted precisely the kind of historical revisionism that she now recognizes as innately destructive. Even worse, she equates Coulter with Michael Moore:
Still, it isn't hard to imagine using the same methods to write the same book from precisely the opposite point of view, and indeed someone has already done it: Michael Moore, in Stupid White Men.
Yet Moore's methods -- for all their flaws, which are considerable -- are decidedly not the same as Coulter's (nor, for that matter, are Tammy Bruce's, whose work she also equates with Coulter's). At no point in Stupid White Men does Moore attempt to revise history or present an "alternative" version of history; accusing "pretty much everyone on the right of corruption and venality" is simply his perspective -- and Lord knows that, in distinct contrast to Coulter, not only did Moore have a substantial mound of hard factual evidence, the succeeding years have provided a veritable mountain of it to support his thesis.
Another noteworthy example of this brand of historical revisionism appearing in the guise of mainstream conservatism was Michelle Malkin's attempt to justify the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II -- a matter that, as far as I can tell, Applebaum never addressed. As I observed at the time, while Malkin's enterprise was not as profoundly vile in nature as, say, David Irving's, her methodology was remarkably similar:
In Defense of Internment ... employs a methodology very similar, if not identical, to the deniers: It fudges numbers, claiming, for instance, that the numbers of Nisei serving in the Japanese Army ranged "from 1,648 ... to as high as 7,000", a range that renders it almost meaningless, while omitting the fact that many of those Nisei were unfortunate students forcibly conscripted into service. It elides whole ranges of evidence and manipulates other pieces of evidence in a way that is clearly deceptive. It rationalizes the internment by raising the canard that because many of the Nisei were technically "dual citizens," their loyalty was suspect, thereby minimizing the impact of the incarceration for thousands of loyal citizens. It tries to place the decisions that drove the internment in a false "context" of supposed military concerns about an imminent invasion (though Malkin has since conceded that the military's only real concern was about spot raids similar to those that wracked the East Coast -- where German American citizens were not incarcerated -- as well). And it raises "fresh evidence" in the form of MAGIC encrypts, the significance of which has consistently been discarded by serious historians as minimal at best, for sound factual reasons.
As the Irving example suggests, this kind of approach to history -- in which facts are mere indulgent playthings to be manipulated and distorted at will, all in the service of "proving" a thesis -- is more than a mere exercise in pedantic polemicism. It inflicts real-world harm on the lives of ordinary people by minimizing the tragedies of those who actually lived through the events whose memory they abuse so blithely.
Worst of all, in doing so, they pave the way for these tragedies to repeat themselves. And that, really, is what makes Malkin, Irving, Gibson and their like truly reprehensible.
Historical revisionism is not only never a joke, it is positively an evil. Because history, in the end, is about preserving intact the memory of real human experience. Lies about those memories are intended to destroy them and, in the end, to destroy our sense of history.
Those who forget history, as Santayana put it, are condemned to repeat it. And those who destroy it are condemning the rest of us to the endless cycle of hatred and violence.
That is as true in America as it is in Iran.
UPDATE: Eric Muller has a personal take on the Tehran conference.
UPDATE II: Natasha at Pacific Views offers a broader perspective.
Maureen Dowd does a spectacular Queen Bee Kill today of both Clinton and Obama, basically calling her a sexless schlub and him a metrosexual cipher. With her usual original insight she notes that Clinton is a woman and Obama is black and then ends the piece with this darling little observation:
So there is a second question, perhaps one that will trump race and gender. It's about whether he's tough and she's human.
Told yah. Democrats are a bunch of bitches and girly-men --- the kewl kidz are sharpening their claws to do the GOP's dirty work for them again.
Via TPM, I see that Jeff Greenfield has responded to the blogosphere's exasperation athis story comparing Barack Obama and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's mode of dress. Just as his fellow entertainer Rush Limbaugh always does, he claims he was joking and that bloggers are hotheads, trying to feed their blog beast with silly stuff like this.
I figured there was no way on planet Earth that anyone could possibly take such a presentation at face value. I was wrong.
Nobody that I know of was suggesting that he meant it at "face value" which I guess would be that Obama and Ahmandinejad's similar mode of dress means that they have similar political views. What I criticized was the sub-text of such remarks and how these remarks are common right wing tools used to slander, demean and trivialize their opponents. The fact that Jeanne Moos also did a "funny" riff that day on Obama's middle name "Hussein" (that was far more revealing of people's bigotry than anything else) what you saw was this subtle theme emerging that implies both that Obama is superficial on the one hand (look at his GQ clothes!) and also somewhat exotic and foreign --- not to be trusted. Enough "jokes" like this and over time people will develop an uncomfortable feeling about Obama's "style" and his exotic name without even knowing that they have it or where it came from. That's how these subtle themes work.
Greenfield even mentions the Daily Howler as one of the critical bloggers --- the Daily Howler that wrote the book on the trivialization and character assasination of Al Gore with the very same shallow, schoolkid nonsense that Greenfield pulled on Obama, (which Greenfield implies are completely different things.) This thesis has been rigorously explored there and in the rest of the blogosphere and its conclusion is one of the reasons why the blogosphere has exploded. Far from being a little sideline we indulge in when we need some filler, it is one of the reasons we exist.
We have found, among many other things, that there is an obsession among the press corps with a very peculiar form of gender stereotypes which they affix to the political parties. This may be a function of what seems to be their terminal immaturity (and perhaps it has simply become reflex after all this time), but it is also part of a long term political strategy on the right to paint the Democrats as being odd, untrustworthy, hysterical, overly sensitive and soft --- what neanderthals think of as traditionally negative female characteristics. Not only does this narrative feed into these negative sereotypes, which benefits traditonal power structures in general, it feeds into a positive male leadership archetype, which has been appropriated by the Republican Party. It is what allowed a halfwit, manchild to be elected as a "grown-up" while the real adult was derided as some sort of Blanche DuBois character who had lost his grip on reality. The kewl kidz laughed and laughed while the rest of stood there dumbfounded and paralyzed at this bizarre interpretation of reality. We aren't paralyzed anymore.
Is it a sin, in and of itself, that Greenfield trivialized Barack Obama for his wardrobe and compared him to a holocaust denying psychopath? Not really. Is it a major goof for Jeanne Moos to simultaneously go out on the street and ask people if they think his "weird" middle name means that he can't be elected? Probably not.
But you'll have to excuse us hotheads for reacting strongly when we see these things because the last time the media decided to have "fun" and tell "jokes," this way, enough people believed them that it ended up changing the world in the most dramatic and violent way possible. We are in this mess today at least partly because these people failed to do their duty and approached their jobs as if it were a seventh grade slumber party instead of the serious business of the most powerful nation on earth.
I don't know what is wrong with them and their social construct that makes them so susceptible to this, or why they fail to see how this bias toward phony Republican machismo distorts political reporting, but it's a big problem for this country. Whatever their psychological or political motivations, we cannot take the chance that these narratives will go unchallenged again. Bad things happen. Wars. Torture. Dead people.
Somebody in this culture has got to be the sober, factual, reality based journalists and it only stands to reason that those who are trained and paid to be sober, factual, reality based journalists would fill that role. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are very good at political humor. (Even Dennis Miller is funnier than Greenfield.) The late night comics do a great job at skewering politicians. Leave them to it.
Until the mainstream press recognizes the extent of their laziness and gullibility --- or pay a price for their political bias --- we will keep reminding them and their audiences of their transgressions even if that makes us thin-skinned hotheads who are trying to fill blogposts. We all have our jobs to do.
Update: Kevin Drum responds to Greenfield too.
Wednesday, December 13, 2006
WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is clamping down on scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey, the latest agency subjected to controls on research that might go against official policy.
New rules require screening of all facts and interpretations by agency scientists who study everything from caribou mating to global warming. The rules apply to all scientific papers and other public documents, even minor reports or prepared talks, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
Top officials at the Interior Department's scientific arm say the rules only standardize what scientists must do to ensure the quality of their work and give a heads-up to the agency's public relations staff.
"This is not about stifling or suppressing our science, or politicizing our science in any way," Barbara Wainman, the agency's director of communications, said Wednesday. "I don't have approval authority. What it was designed to do is to improve our product flow."
Some agency scientists, who until now have felt free from any political interference, worry that the objectivity of their work could be compromised.
"I feel as though we've got someone looking over our shoulder at every damn thing we do. And to me that's a very scary thing. I worry that it borders on censorship," said Jim Estes, an internationally recognized marine biologist in the USGS field station at Santa Cruz, Calif.
"The explanation was that this was intended to ensure the highest possible quality research," said Estes, a researcher at the agency for more than 30 years. "But to me it feels like they're doing this to keep us under their thumbs. It seems like they're afraid of science. Our findings could be embarrassing to the administration."
The new requirements state that the USGS's communications office must be "alerted about information products containing high-visibility topics or topics of a policy-sensitive nature."
The agency's director, Mark Myers, and its communications office also must be told — prior to any submission for publication — "of findings or data that may be especially newsworthy, have an impact on government policy, or contradict previous public understanding to ensure that proper officials are notified and that communication strategies are developed."
Patrick Leahy, USGS's head of geology and its acting director until September, said Wednesday that the new procedures would improve scientists' accountability and "harmonize" the review process. He said they are intended to maintain scientists' neutrality.
"Our scientific staff is second to none," he said. "This notion of scientific gotcha is something we do not want to participate in. That does not mean to avoid contentious issues."
The changes amount to an overhaul of commonly accepted procedures for all scientists, not just those in government, based on anonymous peer reviews. In that process, scientists critique each other's findings to determine whether they deserve to be published.
From now on, USGS supervisors will demand to see the comments of outside peer reviewers' as well any exchanges between the scientists who are seeking to publish their findings and the reviewers.
The Bush administration, as well as the Clinton administration before it, has been criticized over scientific integrity issues. In 2002, the USGS was forced to reverse course after warning that oil and gas drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would harm the Porcupine caribou herd. One week later a new report followed, this time saying the caribou would not be affected.
Earlier this year, a USGS scientist poked holes in research that the Interior Department was using in an effort to remove from the endangered species list a tiny jumping mouse that inhabits grasslands coveted by developers in Colorado and Wyoming.
Federal criminal investigators are looking into allegations that USGS employees falsified documents between 1998 and 2000 on the the movement of water through the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump in Nevada. The USGS had validated the Energy Department's conclusions that water seepage was relatively slow, so radiation would be less likely to escape.
At the Environmental Protection Agency, scientists and advocacy groups alike are worried about closing libraries that contain tens of thousands of agency documents and research studies. "It now appears that EPA officials are dismantling what it likely one of our country's comprehensive and accessible collections of environmental materials," four Democrats who are in line to head House committees wrote EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson two weeks ago.
Democrats about to take control of Congress have investigations into reports by The New York Times and other news organizations that the Bush administration tried to censor government scientists researching global warming at NASA and the Commerce Department.
Not so long ago, that would not have been a very controversial statement, at least not within the confines of a Democratic blog. But with the publication of President Carter's book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, the former president has become anathema to some people who would normally be seen as on the same "liberal team."
However, the new book hasn't diminished my respect for Mr. Carter. It's only served to reinforce the idea that the former president possesses a great quantity of that property often found wanting in Washington D.C. and elsewhere -- courage.
This is very likely a foolish diary to write.
Whenever there is a diary that touches on Israel or Palestine, passionate supporters of either side fly in to man the ramparts and push back any assault from positions that are at least as entrenched as those surrounding abortion. Tossing yourself into the center of that kind of fight generally results in a lot of bruises (which thankfully in the case of posts here, are limited to bruises of the ego) and not a lot of progress. Should you feel so inclined, don't let me stop you (not that I could).
An example of the kind of nonsense that often clogs this debate can be found in the reasons that former Carter Center fellow, Kenneth Stein, gave for leaving.
In his book, Carter writes that the [UN] resolution says, "Israel must withdraw from occupied territories" it acquired by force during the Six-Day War in 1967 between Israel and Egypt, Jordan and Syria.
But the word "must" never appears in the actual U.N. resolution text.
Stein argued that each word in the resolution was carefully chosen and by inserting the word "must," Carter changed the implications of this key resolution.
For those who would like to join Mr. Stein in dancing on the head of that pin, the actual wording of resolution 242 calls for "Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict." Does it say "must?" No, but neither does it say "maybe." What other interpretation can be drawn by removing the word "must?" That the UN heartily desired that Israel might remove itself, but that Israel could do so or not as it saw fit? I think "must" is much closer to the intent.
I'll leave that fight to President Carter.
Instead, I'd like to back up a bit... about twenty-eight years, and launch a defense of President Carter himself. It has become a precept, even among liberals that, while Mr. Carter may be of admirable character and might have taken on laudable work after leaving the White House he was really "not a very good president." This is a position so cemented into the press that it seems a necessary addition to any story about Mr. Carter. It's so solidified, that it's certain to appear in any Daily Kos discussion in which the president's name appears.
I have a somewhat different view. Jimmy Carter took office at a time when faith in the government was at a spectacular low. Vietnam and Watergate had thrown a staggering combination at the United States, leaving a country united only in the sense of distrust for everything in Washington. Not only that, but he faced an economy that was in the throws of massive change, and an energy crisis that exacerbated every problem. Even the moon landings, which had served as one pure point of admiration and distraction through the increasingly gloomy years, were in the past.
Jimmy Carter took control of a nation more nearly broken than at any time since the Great Depression.
It's true enough that he faced no Great War or invasion, but in a sense that only made President Carter's task harder. There was no "9/11" around which to rally the nation, only a series of crises, from minor to major, that eroded feelings of well-being. It was the bumpy end to the post World War II "American Century," the messy transition from an industrial to post-industrial economy, the heavy shadow of corruption from both Watergate and other branches of the government, a collapse of faith in the military, and just a lot of people out of work, out of gas, and angry. Carter caught it all -- a perfecta of calamities.
On top of this, President Carter faced a Democratic congress that was so sure they deserved to be there but he did not, that they determined to push around the newcomer, stalling or fighting against his initiatives. They successfully frustrated the president, tsk-tsk'd over his naiveté to all the talking heads, and did their best to make him look foolish -- and in the process blocked the best chance at real economic reform and national health care since the end of the Truman administration.
What was Carter's real sin as a president? He told the truth. Seeing the growing problems of the American economy, he told us that we would have to tighten our belts and reduce government debt. Seeing the clear signs of where the energy crisis would take us both at home and internationally, he started a crash program to reduce our need for oil. Seeing what was going on in the Middle East, he worked tirelessly to -- if not mend all wounds -- at least establish dialog. Seeing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the hostage crisis in Iran, he told us that we could not solve these problems through a military invasion, but must learn to work to apply pressure through diplomatic means.
Where Carter failed was only in his belief that the public could discern fact from fiction and act like adults. 1980 presented as stark a choice as the public has faced in its history. One candidate told the voters they would have to reduce their spending, learn to live with less energy consumption, and learn to deal with a world that wasn't an American play toy. The other candidate told them they could spend their way out of debt, that the energy crisis was a fake, and that enough guns would solve any issue.
The result of spurning Carter was a massive increase in national debt, a military build up of forces of a type entirely inappropriate to the world situation, and a deadly increase in our dependence on imported oil -- which itself may be the biggest single determinant in everything that has happened since.
As a reward for being right about the debt, right about oil, and right about the need for changing our approach to international affairs, Carter gets tarred as a "good man but poor president" by Democrats, and faces the charge of anti-Americanism from the right. In the meantime, Ronald Reagan -- who built the debt to staggering proportions, reintroduced every form of corruption to the White House, and assured that oil would dominate our interests for the foreseeable future, is lauded as a national hero.
The truth is, I don't worry about how any of the current controversy is affecting President Carter. For having the guts to face again and again the discrepancy between our words and deeds, Carter has been called everything from a fool to a traitor. But as a cadet at the US Naval Academy, Jimmy Carter set a goal as near to impossible for any man to achieve as hiking to the moon. He would do his best. Always do his best in every situation. When he measures himself against a yardstick like that, what does it matter what the right or the media have to say? Jimmy Carter will get by, whether he is loved by the pundits or not.
But I do worry about us as Democrats. I worry what it means that we should constantly allow a man who has given his life over to the ideals of honesty, decency, and hard work to be constantly derided. The Republicans took on the elevation of Ronald Reagan as a kind of public works project, laboring decades to erase the real man and build the myth that's worshiped today in the public square. Why are we so reticent in pushing forward a man who is everything Reagan claimed to be. And intelligent. And thoughtful. And who, yes, turned his post-presidential career into a continuation of his own good work rather than taking it as an opportunity to line his pocket with lucrative speaking engagements.
Jimmy Carter is my personal hero. There's no man I would rather meet. No one's opinion I would rather seek. No person whose approval I would rather earn. And there's no US president who has done more for the resolution of issues around the world through the means of peaceful negotiation and fair elections -- both things now sadly in short supply both at home and abroad.
To see Democrats not only dismissing Mr. Carter as a "failed president" and climbing aboard the bandwagon to batter the man for once again asking us to step up to a difficult truth isn't just disappointing, it's shameful.
Helene Cooper with Hassan Fattah of the NYT has the scoop that Saudi King Abdullah told US VP Dick Cheney two weeks ago that if the US withdrew precipitately from Iraq, the kingdom would have little choice but to support the Sunni Arab guerrillas. The Saudi government had pledged to the US not to do so as long as US troops were in Iraq. But it is alleged that Saudi oil millionaires privately already send money to the guerrillas. Saudis, as Wahhabi Muslims, belong to a sect that is to the right of Sunnism. But the Wahhabi tradition dislikes Shiites and in any Sunni-Shiite struggle, the Wahhabis will come in on the Sunni side.
This item is no surprise, of course, and I have brought up this likelihood a number of times myself. What is remarkable is that it is being stated by the Saudi leadership and published in the press. The Saudis are usually circumspect. If they are leaking this sort of thing, their hair must be on fire with anxiety.
Cooper also reports the abrupt and mysterious resignation of Saudi Ambassador to the US Turki al-Faisal after only 22 months in Washington. Prince Turki has been an effective diplomat and has done a lot of outreach work, addressing ordinary American audiences (a style very unlike that of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, his long-serving predecessor). Prince Turki is the only Saudi official I know of publicly to espouse Gandhian principles of non-violence for the Palestinian cause. I met him more than once and was impressed by his humanity and acumen. I'm sorry to see him leave Washington. There are rumors that he is leaving to become foreign minister of the kingdom. If that were the case, I should have thought the promotion would be announced along with his resignation, which he called a "retirement." The way this is being handled looks more to me as though he lost some big policy fight with the establishment in Riyadh. But we shall see.
The Saudis are usually important to the formulation of US policy in the Middle East. W. is now rudderless, with Rumsfeld gone and Cheney neutered by the November elections. Prince Turki's departure in addition to hysteria about a regional guerrilla war in Iraq on the part of the Saudi King are an element of instability in White House policy-making that we could have done without.
Meanwhile, a de facto Israeli-Saudi alliance appears to be building against Iran and the Shiites. Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz is now saying that the 2002 Beirut peace plan put forward by then crown prince--now King--Abdullah of Saudi Arabia must be the basis for going forward with an Arab-Israeli peace process. Abdullah got the Arab League to offer Israel full recognition and political and economic relations if only they'd go back to the 1967 borders and recognize a Palestinian state.
At the time, then prime minister Ariel Sharon dismissed Abdullah's plan rather rudely. But now Israel has been bloodied by a Lebanon war that it lost on points to Hizbullah despite its clear military superiority. Bashar al-Asad of Syria pointed out that every generation of Arabs hates the Israelis more than its predecessors. Iran is emerging as a new hegemon in the eastern stretches of the Middle East.
Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Olmert hoped that the Lebanon War of last August would finish off Hizbullah. Instead, Hizbullah put up a respectable resistance to the Israeli military. Now, Hizbullah and its Christian allies loyal to Michel Aoun have staged enormous daily protests aimed at bringing down the reform government of Fuad Seniora, and they may even succeed. Hizbullah is allied with Syria, which is allied with Iran.
While Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel are unified states in this new alliance, their de facto allies in Lebanon and Iraq include the bloc of Saad al-Hariri in the Lebanese parliament and the Kurds and Sunni Arabs in Iraq.
Iran gets support from Syria and Shiite Iraq and from Hizbullah in Lebanon.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh went to Tehran recently and got pledges of $120 mn. in aid. Haniyeh while there pledged never to recognize Israel. Iran has Shiite clients in Iraq now, and is reaching into the Levant with its patronage for Hizbullah and Hamas.
Iran's farce of a "conference" on the Holocaust is a way of underlining its government's complete rejection of a two state solution and of a Zionist state in the Middle East. Iran's leaders support a maximalist Hamas vision of a fundamentalist Muslim Palestinian state in all of historical Palestine, which requires the dissolution of the Israeli state. Since Israelis tend to justify their state project with reference to the Holocaust, the Ahmadinejad faction in Iran is replying with Holocaust denial as a counter to this argument. Note that other prominent Iranians, such as former President Mohammad Khatami, accept the Holocaust and have lambasted Ahmadinejad for questioning it.
So Israel is up against determined enemies on its borders, which it has not been able to crush militarily, and which are political clients of Iran. Iran does not pose a conventional military threat to Israel, but Tehran is able to put pressure on it through support of asymmetrical operations, which it hopes can make the Israeli state collapse in the same way that the Soviet state collapsed. The Israeli leadership believes that Iran is trying to get a nuclear weapon, even though there is no good evidence for an Iranian nuclear weapon program (as opposed to a civilian nuclear research program).
I have been told that the Israeli leadership is extremely anxious about Iran becoming a nuclear power, and sullen about the outcome of the Lebanon war. They are further demoralized by the Baker-Hamilton Commission report, which calls for US talks with Iran. The Israeli leaders interpret this passage as a surrender by Washington to Iran's nuclear ambitions, and are preparing for the possibility that they might have to take on Iran themselves. This extreme anxiety about a nuclear Iran (which is at least 10 years away even if it is trying, according to the US National Intelligence Estimate) may have driven Olmert to make his gaffe of openly admitting that Israel has weapons of mass destruction. That gaffe has resulted in calls for his resignation. For one thing, in strict US law, it should result in sanctions by Congress. Olmert, battered by the outcome of the Lebanon War, and now accused of having loose lips of the sort that got Mordechai Vanunu an 18-year prison sentence, is desperate for a political breakthrough of the sort that might come from a realignment of Middle East politics.
Saudi Arabia is equally frantic about the possibility of a nuclear Iran, and is moreover apoplectic that the US delivered Baghdad into the hands of Iraqi Shiite fundamentalists allied with Iran. Saudi Arabia fears Hizbullah in Lebanon as an Iranian cat's paw in the Arab world. The Khomeinists of Iran and south Lebanon believe that Islam is incompatible with monarchy (Khomeini said, "there are no kings in Islam.")
Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and (de facto) the 14 March Bloc in Lebanon are ranged against Iran, Shiite Iraq, Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas. Neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia can openly admit to the tacit alliance for fear of anger from their own publics because of objectionable parties to it. But this is how things are shaking out.
Now the Saudis are openly saying that this new Cold War in the region could turn hot. If you don't own a bicycle, I'd buy one, because a regional war of the sort Saudi Arabia said it feared would potentially cut off 20 percent of the world's petroleum.