Filtered news 12/18

America, The Beautiful

God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

Who watches the watchman? A couple of years ago that President Bush had signed an executive order authorizing the Pentagon to conduct covert operations overseas. Why? Partly because he and Donald Rumsfeld no longer trusted the CIA, but also because CIA operations have to be authorized by the president and reported to the Senate and House intelligence committees. Pentagon operations can be done with no oversight at all. So how's that working out?

The spy missions are part of a highly classified program that officials say has better positioned the United States to track terrorist networks and capture or kill enemy operatives....But the initiative has also led to several embarrassing incidents for the United States, including a shootout in Paraguay and the exposure of a sensitive intelligence operation in East Africa, according to current and former officials familiar with the matter. And to date, the effort has not led to the capture of a significant terrorism suspect.

But not to worry: despite these "coordination problems," things are getting better. According to the CIA's new military liaison, "the agency and the Pentagon [are] developing a more rigorous system for screening proposed military intelligence operations." I wonder if that includes informing Congress?

Wealth matters, work does not $5.4 billion: The amount last year, a 6 percent raise from the previous year. See who the . What's in your wallet?

The face of our evil provides an in-depth review of the eye-opening documentary, The Corporation.

I know our military is stretched pretty thin, but can’t we spare just one extra ? Holocaust Deniers and Skeptics Gather in Iran

Screwing Mother Earth “The U.S. Forest Service no longer will give close environmental scrutiny to its long-term plans for America’s national forests and grasslands” or “.”

argues that the army inherited by the Bush administration was designed to be a force for true national defense, and not one to fight wars of offense for national liberation of other countries - and that it was specifically formed that way on purpose.

Sigh. It never ends. : "The Christian Right Goes Back To Bible Boot Camp." Focus on the Family goes on the road to share the "truth" with biblically illiterate Bible-believing Chiristians.

Thinking Outside the Brain For every individual engaged in the age-old struggle to reconcile naturalism and supernaturalism, struggle no more. Buddhist scholar B. Alan Wallace has a third way out of the circularity of philosophical quandaries, as he shares in a recent sit-down with Salon. The former Buddhist monk, who gave up a meditative life at the monastery for a Ph.D. from Stanford and a leadership position at the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, tells interviewer Steve Paulson of his dissatisfaction with the absolutism of both traditional religious followers and materialistic scientists.

Reporting Canada's Christian Right The shortcomings of a recent New York Times piece and asking the questions its reporter didn't.

Forgetting the Religion The Washington Post completely missed the religion part of a religion .

But we're supposed to care about what he has to say? — the consumers of blogs and sites like YouTube and MySpace — as its “Person of the Year.” On ABC’s This Week, conservative columnist George Will mocked Time’s choice and blogging generally. “It’s about narcissism,” Will said. “So much of what is done on the web is people getting on there and writing their diaries as though everyone ought to care about everyone’s inner turmoils. I mean, it’s extraordinary.” Will didn’t mention whether he believes writing columns for the Washington Post each week and appearing every Sunday on national television is a sign of “narcissism.”

provides a succinct list of issues and stands that concern a majority of Americans and that those in power need to keep in mind as they govern.

Feeling charitable? Consider this: We will bring clean drinking water to the poor in Mozambique via a next-generation water pump, the PlaypumpTM water system: a merry-go-round water pump powered by play with a decade of maintenance.

Big Brother watch Late laste week it was reported that the Defense Department had classified the number -- yeah, the number -- of attacks in Iraq. Over at TPMmuckraker, we're trying to find all the examples we can of the Bush Administration keeping once-public information sources from the public. We've gotten started, but boy, .

The meaning of "surge" I had just about been driven to distraction by the catch-word of the moment: "surge." As in, the President's "New Way Forward" in Iraq calls for a "surge" of additional troops. How can such a ridiculous euphemism makes its way into print past so many editors in one week's time? But Colin Powell made a today about what "surge" really means:

Before any decision to increase troops, "I'd want to have a clear understanding of what it is they're going for, how long they're going for. And let's be clear about something else. . . . There really are no additional troops. All we would be doing is keeping some of the troops who were there, there longer and escalating or accelerating the arrival of other troops. That's how you surge. And that surge cannot be sustained." The "active Army is about broken," Powell said. Even beyond Iraq, the Army and Marines have to "grow in size, in my military judgment," and Congress must provide significant additional funding to sustain them.


Suddenly "surge" seems worth co-opting, as a euphemism for ephemeral last gasp.

Spatter-proof smocks One thing that's always confused me about the death penalty is the lengths its practitioners will go to so they (and John Q. Public) can pretend that it's anything other than the act of violence that it is. What exactly is an improvement over?

Angel Nieves Diaz, a career criminal executed for killing a Miami topless bar manager 27 years ago, was given a rare second dose of deadly chemicals as he took more than twice the usual time to succumb. Needles that were supposed to inject drugs into the 55-year-old man's veins were instead pushed all the way through the blood vessels into surrounding soft tissue. A medical examiner said he had chemical burns on both arms.

``It really sounds like he was tortured to death,'' said Jonathan Groner, associate professor of surgery at the Ohio State Medical School, a surgeon who opposes the death penalty and writes frequently about lethal injection. ``My impression is that it would cause an extreme amount of pain.''

Oh, right. :

Other death-penalty foes pointed to Diaz's execution as more proof that the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment, as they did after three executions went awry when Florida used the electric chair. During two executions in the 1990s, the heads of two condemned men caught fire, and in 2000, an inmate suffered a severe nosebleed while being put to death.

They used to call Florida's chair "Old Sparky," a bit of jailhouse humor that I'm sure everyone appreciated.

But the advantage to lethal injection, of course, is that it appears to be less brutal than it really is. When mishaps take place as they did in the Diaz execution, it peels back the veneer to reveal capital punishment's basic inhumanity. It's often put down as an accident or as in the case before a US District Court in California. But it's not. Execution is homicide, and necessarily horrible. What else are we to say about it? Masking it with sedatives and pseudo-medical procedures does little to conceal what's really happening: someone is losing their life, often in a great deal of pain and fear.

And this is what confuses me: why do we tap-dance around that? The death penalty is supposed to be the ultimate sanction, something to put dread into the heart of every hardened criminal. Why shouldn't it be brutal? Why not barbaric? Let's pull some people apart with wild horses, or disembowel them and stick their heads on pikes. I mean, come on. Let's stop pussy-footing around this. If you're going to kill somebody, why should you need to be nice about it? It's not like he's going to complain tomorrow.

Trust a to show me the error of my ways. Says Jeb:

But Bush said he saw no reason to stop using lethal injection. "All the people that are against the death penalty whenever there's a chance will call for suspending the death penalty," he said. "Each and every time that another appeal takes place, a family member of the person who was brutally murdered suffers again. So I think there needs to be sympathy for them as well."

Far be it from me to slag the survivors of a murder victim. They deserve all the compassion they can get. But this is typically Bushian monstrosity: can't we just knock off all this due process crap and ice some people? There's no thought here that , or that they themselves might deserve a better death than a dog at the local animal shelter.

And really, why should there be? The death penalty isn't about real people or real -- irrevokable -- consequences. At the end of the day, it's about making yourself feel good. The governor gets to feel like he's tough on crime, the families can remember their loved one and know that they took a real bite out of that bad guy's ass on their behalf. I don't see any room for justice or the imago dei there. Next time, let's just give Gov. Bush and the grieving families some lead pipes and let them go caveman. Don't worry, we'll give them spatter-proof smocks. Wouldn't want to be unprofessional, now would we?

What liberal media? CNN has taken to referring to Rick Warren as "America's Pastor." Well, they put quotes around it so maybe they just mean that someone somewhere has called him that.... That kind of thing from a major news network should be deeply hostile to people with or without faith. America does not have a pastor. America does not have a single religion. America does not have a single faith. America does not need CNN anointing a pope or choosing the county's religious leader.

SMU theologians tell Dubya to go to Hell The New York Daily News reported last month that President Bush and “his truest believers” are launching “their final campaign — .” Bush is attempting to raise $500 million to build a library and think tank at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, the alma mater of First Lady Laura Bush. “The more [money] you have, the more influence [on history] you can exert,” one adviser said. Much of the money will be used to build a “” institute:

The legacy-polishing centerpiece is an institute, which several Bush insiders called the Institute for Democracy. Patterned after Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Bush’s institute will hire conservative scholars and “give them money to write papers and books favorable to the President’s policies,” one Bush insider said.

Now, SMU faculty, administrators, and staff are speaking out. In a December 16 letter to R. Gerald Turner, president of the Board of Trustees, members of SMU’s Perkins School of Theology have urged the board to “reconsider and to rescind SMU’s pursuit of the presidential library.”

We count ourselves among those who would regret to see SMU enshrine attitudes and actions widely deemed as ethically egregious: degradation of habeas corpus, outright denial of global warming, flagrant disregard for international treaties, alienation of long-term U.S. allies, environmental predation, shameful disrespect for gay persons and their rights, a pre-emptive war based on false and misleading premises, and a host of other erosions of respect for the global human community and for this good Earth on which our flourishing depends.

The letter concludes, “[T]hese violations are that best represents Southern Methodist University.”

Yes, but what about those schools we built? Iraq’s schools, “long touted by American officials as a success story,” increasingly are “caught in the crossfire of the country’s escalating civil war.” Across the country, “” as teachers tell of “students kidnapped on their way to school, mortar rounds landing on or near campuses and educators shot in front of children.”

This should blow your mind Though U.S. employees at Wal-Mart have been blocked from unionizing, “Wal-Mart’s China headquarters have ” after the state-sanctioned labor body successfully set up a union earlier this year.

Some Notes on Primary Season

1) Your favorite candidate is the only one who can win.

2) Your favorite candidate is the only one who will truly get behind a progressive agenda.

3) Other candidates are part of some nefarious conspiracy to destroy your candidate.

4) Supporters of other candidates are motivated by groupthink.

5) Supporters of other candidates are operating in bad faith and arguing dishonestly.

6) "Powerful" bloggers shouldn't be "biased."

7) Primary season is the silliest season of all.

Appalling . Note to self: next time you go to a casino, use someone else's money. Much more fun that way.

We're overrun with gay rightwing preachers! Ah, what we learn from the good folks at Don Wildmon’s “news” organ, AgapePress. According to a report in one of their roundups, Focus on the Anus’s head of pastoral counseling, H.B. London (who’s also handling Ted Haggard’s “restoration”), says what we all assumed — , smoking some pole.

For the second time in as many months, the founding pastor of a Colorado church has resigned over allegations of homosexual involvement. First it was prominent evangelical and mega-church leader Ted Haggard, who resigned after a male prostitute said they had had sex for years. Now, on Sunday, the founding pastor of Grace Chapel in Englewood told his congregation in a videotaped message that he had engaged in homosexual sex and was stepping down.

According to Associated Press, 54-year-old Paul Barnes, who has led Grace Chapel for 28 years, told his congregation that he has struggled with homosexuality since childhood and often “cried myself to sleep, begging God to take this away.”

Rev. H.B. London heads up the pastoral ministry of Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family. He says his staff gets hundreds of phone calls from pastors struggling with the kind of sins that caused the downfall of Haggard and Barnes. London explains that pastors fall into sin for three reasons: unresolved conflicts at home, a lack of accountability, and a lack of intimacy with God. He says that while pastors face unusual pressures, 97 percent of them “do not fail morally and do their best to live above reproach.”

I like that first reason — doesn’t it sound suspiciously like the wife isn’t doing “her job” in the sack? If the faith of these pastors (who are supposedly on the God Hotline) is so weak, how can they possibly lead, let alone demonize gay parishioners who aren’t tortured about their sexual orientation?

I know also that some folks are touchy about anything seeming to equate the black civil rights movement with the gay one. And no, gay people were not kidnapped from Gay Land and sold into slavery, nor lynched by the thousands. On the other hand, they do know something about housing discrimination, they do know job discrimination, they do know murder for the sin of existence, they do know the denial of civil rights and they do know what it is like to be used as scapegoat and bogeyman by demagogues and political opportunists.

The man gets it. columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. has been receiving gay-baiting letters from knuckle-dragging readers who can’t understand why he writes columns about gay issues. Alas, it’s the common theme we’ve seen many times here on the Blend.

Gay issues simply aren’t on many straight folks’ radar — .

The most concise answer I can give is cribbed from what a white kid said 40 or so years ago, as white college students were risking their lives to travel South and register black people to vote. Somebody asked why. He said he acted from an understanding that his freedom was bound up with the freedom of every other man.

You have to wonder if it’s a sign of the ego-centric times we’re living in that if there’s no obvious benefit to the non-oppressed group, too many simply tune out. It wasn’t always the case when it came to issues of civil equality.

People generally seem to have lost the ability (or, perhaps, motivation) to walk in another’s shoes — it generally requires a personal connection to an issue for it to hold any significance. Take Darth Cheney for example. Pitt points out that this otherwise socially conservative pol is able to have a blind spot of tolerance that accommodates his lesbian daughter — it’s likely that he wouldn’t hold a supportive position on any aspect of her rights without that personal, loving connection.

It is a fine thing to love your daughter. I would argue, however, that it is also a fine thing and in some ways, a finer thing, to love your neighbor’s daughter, no matter her sexual orientation, religion, race, creed or economic status — and to want her freedom as eagerly as you want your own.

You could extend this observation to the issue of homophobia in the religious black community. For those who have endured the sting of racism to deny civil equality to gays for some of the same reasons whites oppressed blacks reveals a lot about the character — and short memories — of these people. Pitts’s words ring true:

It seems to me if I abhor intolerance, discrimination and hatred when they affect people who look like me, I must also abhor them when they affect people who do not. For that matter, I must abhor them even when they benefit me. Otherwise, what I claim as moral authority is really just self-interest in disguise.

As long as black gays and lesbians remain in the closet to their fellow parishioners, families and co-workers, they allow the bigots in their community (and in the pulpit) a pass — those who would demonize them can continue believing that gays are “the other,” the boogeyman, or, the simply ridiculous statement that homosexuality is a “white man’s disease.”

Journamalism I wanted to highlight what I think is a pretty good example of how the current obedience to the odd conventions of modern journalism creates some really crappy writing. So, in the middle of the article about the , we get this:

A spokeswoman for the Pentagon’s detention operations in Iraq, First Lt. Lea Ann Fracasso, said in written answers to questions that the men had been “treated fair and humanely,” and that there was no record of either man complaining about their treatment.

Now, the reporter lets this comment stand without any response. The smart reader, of course, will note its Kafkaesque absurdity. They didn't have access to attorneys. They were placed in solitary confinement. They were in cold cells, with fluorescent lights left on all night. And First Lt. Lea Ann Fracasso is suggesting she checked with the Complaints Department, and found nothing, so there's nothing to see here. Overall it's an excellent well-reported story, and the smart reader who reads all the way through will understand what an absurd statement this is. Still, later today, if Rush Limbaugh decides to talk about this story he'll say "But they guy didn't even complain!!!"

Our stain for generations to come It's sad and horrible, but there's something laugh out-loud funny about the headline . You heard that right, it's no more Mr. Nice Indefinite Detention Without Trial in Gitmo. "They’re all terrorists; they're all enemy combatants,” says the facility's commander, Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr, though, as the article points out, many of the detainees have, in fact, been cleared for release. Your chilling Orwellian line of the day is "Guantánamo’s focus was shifting from interrogations to the long-term detention of men who, for the most part, would never be charged with any crime." Yes, yes. The long-term detention of men who will never be charged with a crime and who there's no intelligence value in questioning. They're just going to be detained. Forever, apparently. And now it's time for a tougher line. Conservative hero Augusto Pinochet, unless I'm mistaken, just went in for extra-judicial killing when he decided he was through with torturing someone, so perhaps this is progress?


American guards arrived at the man’s cell periodically over the next several days, shackled his hands and feet, blindfolded him and took him to a padded room for interrogation, the detainee said. After an hour or two, he was returned to his cell, fatigued but unable to sleep.

The fluorescent lights in his cell were never turned off, he said. At most hours, heavy metal or country music blared in the corridor. He said he was rousted at random times without explanation and made to stand in his cell. Even lying down, he said, he was kept from covering his face to block out the light, noise and cold. And when he was released after 97 days he was exhausted, depressed and scared.

Detainee 200343 was among thousands of people who have been held and released by the American military in Iraq, and his account of his ordeal has provided one of the few detailed views of the Pentagon’s detention operations since the abuse scandals at Abu Ghraib. Yet in many respects his case is unusual.

The detainee was Donald Vance, a 29-year-old Navy veteran from Chicago who went to Iraq as a security contractor. He wound up as a whistle-blower, passing information to the F.B.I. about suspicious activities at the Iraqi security firm where he worked, including what he said was possible illegal weapons trading.

But when American soldiers raided the company at his urging, Mr. Vance and another American who worked there were detained as suspects by the military, which was unaware that Mr. Vance was an informer, according to officials and military documents.

The non-war on Christmas gets new life Tt looks like . That or they think their readers have, because the headline is “An Atheist Can Believe in Christmas,” as if that was news. Well, except the thing that tripped me up is the “believe” part. How can someone disbelieve in Christmas? It’s right there on the calendar. If you show up to work on December 25th, no one else will be there. The relentless Christmas carols and holiday decorations for the month prior invade your every waking moment. The evidence that Christmas exists is overwhelming, and since a lot of those atheist sorts are kind of fond of evidence-based conclusions, they’re going to believe in Christmas. To deny the existence of Christmas, you’d probably have to be a religious nut whose religion teaches you that there is no Christmas and so you go out there denying the massive amounts of evidence in the favor of Christmas and deny that it exists on faith. You know, like creationists do.

Pastor Dan updates us on the Misery Synod A few weeks ago, I mentioned a local controversy over religious symbols in the hospital chapel. A group of conservative Christians, led by a pastor in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, want to take the symbols out of the chapel, not being willing to share sacred space with representations of the Jewish and Muslim faiths. The chaplain of the hospital -- a Catholic nun -- asked Richard Sklba, Bishop of the Milwaukee Archdiocese, for his thoughts on the matter. He e-mailed her a response:

...The issues related to interreligious relationships in our contemporary world are neuralgic but terribly important as we seek new ways to live together in a shrinking world. It was important for the ministers to raise again the question of religious symbols in the Hospital chapel, even though the ministerial group had given very serious consideration to the question in earlier stages of the chapel's planning.

Our respective concepts of God may indeed be different, even though there can be only One God, as the Prophet Isaiah affirms so repeatedly throughout his writings. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are united in the worship of One God and, as monotheistic traditions, deserve a unique and deeply interrelated place in history. Our respective experience of that One God, and the ways in which we describe our respective faiths, do differ, but we have an enormous amount in common among of [sic] the great religious traditions of the world, including the great Patriarch Abraham.

In a sense we are like children of the same parents. Just as siblings may have different experiences of their human parents...due to place in the spectrum of children, the relative age of their parents and the growing wisdom of parent in dealing with children...and therefore may have "different parents" in one sense, so there is a sense in which our differing experiences of the One and Same God may vary. As I see it, we should be able to live together without violation of either truth or charity. We must speak of that reality without giving offense. Paul encourages that unity when writing to the Corinthians (I Cor 8:4ff), as long as the weak are cared for. In this matter, I do not think our faithful are among those listed by Paul as "weak."

The solution of removing all religious symbols from the chapel room poses a great risk, namely that the space could quickly (especially since it is unmonitored on a regular basis) devolve into just another waiting room, and then into a place for smoking and chatting with anxious friends and relatives. My preferred solution would be to retain the current three symbols, and to invite those who pray to do so in their own fashion. This seems to be what happened when Pope Benedict XVI, so strong in conviction about his own distinctive Christian faith, acknowledged the visit to the famous Blue Mosque to have been "a moment of prayer," even when turning toward Mecca with his Moslem host.

One of the pastors in our group explained that the Missouri Synod folks wouldn't buy this since they feel that anyone who cannot affirm the divinity of Jesus must worship a different God than theirs. A couple of others thought it would preclude any kind of conversation with the "other side," and saw this controversy as a moment to establish a faithful connection with other Christians. I signed on to it, as did the majority of people. Then I indicated to Sister that, with all due respect, I didn't want to allow the Missouri Synod to hijack another Bible study. Pastors just never know when to quit.


December 19, 2006 - 7:55am