Sunday, October 30, 2005

The Context of Lies

It is fitting that the indictment coming out of Patrick Fitzgerald’s two year investigation is about lies not the outing Valerie Plame Wilson -- a real metaphor for our times.  After all, the Iraq invasion, whose rationale her husband had questioned, was initiated on a lie.  But before we get too sanctimonious, let’s remember this wasn’t the first time that America has fallen victim to misinformation.  More than forty years ago, Lyndon Johnson manipulated Congress into endorsing his escalation of the Viet Nam conflict with the notorious Gulf of Tonkin lie.  And there is a real connection between the two.  Not that quagmire one that is so often talked about.  Viet Nam was a war that came out of intellectual ideology (at the time from Democrats) waged in a conceptual framework of the domino theory.  If Viet Nam would fall to the Communists so too would all of Asia (and perhaps ultimately the world).  The Wiz kids like McNamara and the Bundy brothers, intellects who were driven by this idea convinced Johnson (and Kennedy before him) of its absolute “truth.”  The mirror image is Iraq a war driven this time by Republican neocon intellectuals obsessed with the notion that bringing democracy there will have what amounts a domino effect in reverse for the unwashed masses in the despotic Middle East .  Beware of (self proclaimed) super smart people of any kind espousing absolute truths and of absolute truths altogether.

We have not been the same since Viet Nam.  The lies of Johnson begot the lies of Nixon which begot the truthful but hapless Carter presidency and so on.  Viet Nam didn’t simply demoralize and confuse the military it decimated the spirit of the country and I would argue until this day, the Democratic Party.  Viet Nam, albeit with the brief and flawed interruptions brought life to the Republican Party led by its modern high priest Ronald Reagan.  It also damaged liberalism (the L word) and strengthened conservatism.  Liberals, and make no mistake about it (wiggling notwithstanding) that means Democrats, are distinguished by certain social values and by placing a high premium on tolerance.  They see and in fact embrace diversity and multiple truths.  But most of all liberals, who are the children of the Depression and World War II, believe in government.  Viet Nam severely undermined that belief.  Government failed in a very big way and liberals, for the first time since FDR, became unsure of themselves. 

Demoralized and confused, vulnerable to criticism, liberals lost their passion something which they have failed to recapture.  That, more than anything else, is why Democrats lose so many elections.  It is passion and a real belief in self that makes for victory, which has brought Republicans to power more than the “ideas” claimed by neocons.  Victory also requires charismatic leadership and no one testifies more to that than Reagan.  You can’t pull the lever for a decent but disappointing (lesser of two evils) candidate and expect to win.  The Republican reaction to Viet Nam was just the opposite of the Democrats.  Government failed which was fine with them.  That doesn’t mean they were not behind that war (which they were) but that its aftermath fit right into their ideological disdain for government which they passionately want to make smaller and significantly less pervasive.  They look at Viet Nam, beat their breasts about patriotism and how Democrats let down the troops and the country, but mostly they say “we told you so.”  They don’t like government but do hunger for the power which permits them, at least theoretically, to dismantle it.  Katrina wasn’t simply the result of a dedicated vacationer in the White House (or in this instance out of it) but of a failed agency that had been gutted both of its professional leadership and its resources.  Less government also explains in part the muck up in Iraq (whether you are for or against that conflict).  Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and company conducted a slimmed down offensive using less troops than were recommended by the professionals, consistent (though they would vigorously deny it) with their smaller government ideology.

Who knows where the Libby thing will go and whether or not Karl Rove will join him.  Some of the pundits are already downplaying his impact by suggesting it was a one person corruption just like Abu Ghraib was an isolated rogue incident.  That myth, thanks to a silent opposition, flew so why shouldn’t this?  In a larger sense, the particular doesn’t much matter because these men are ultimately minor players, one a neocon ideologue and the second a political technocrat, albeit a talented one.  I stress the word “ultimately”.  Lies caught up with the Johnson administration, with Nixon and, while in a very different class, with Bill Clinton (victims Al Gore and the country) and I have every reason to believe they will again.  The challenge for many of us, liberals who have been disillusioned and thus functionally on the sidelines and for the few leaders who still remain in national or state office, is finally get back to our basics.  Government is a good thing.  It can and should be an instrument to make for a better society.  Lesser government with smaller funding for things that make a difference in people’s lives, perhaps most disastrously for education that will ultimately dictate whether or not we can remain competitive, may take this great power under.  I knew the Viet Nam war, the Viet Nam war was an enemy of mine, but it’s time to let it go and move on.  Fellow liberals, fellow Democrats get over it!  It’s been killing us and, if we let it fester one day longer, it may well kill the country.  That’s the message we should take from the lies in Washington.  It’s a call to arms not to make hay of Mr. Bush’s vulnerability, but to make haste on an agenda of renewal and to finally do so with passion not with compromise.

Thursday, October 27, 2005


The chilling statement by the new President of Iran calling for Israel’s being wiped off the map has been rightly denounced by Western leaders including the Russian Foreign Minister who just happened to be Jerusalem at the time.  We Jews have heard this kind of rhetoric before and what followed was the slaughter of 6 Million, including some in my own family.  To be sure the sentiments expressed by its President are not new to Iran which, beyond anti-Israel statements has been a long term financial and “spiritual” supporter of the most radical and violent opponents of Israel.  Suicide bombers photos are plastered on billboards as heroes.

The question is when are the leaders of all our wonderful Arab and Muslim allies going to speak out and denounce the Iranian President’s statement.  What about the recently “re-elected” President of Egypt a country with whom Israel has signed a peace treaty or the seemingly progressive King of Jordan or George Bush’s hand holding buddy the new king Saudi Arabia or the General-President of Pakistan?  But their silence is only a symptom of a much greater and more pervasive problem.  We live in a world where either out of fear or perhaps an absence of their own moral compass people who claim to be leaders, especially in the mainstream (whatever that is) sit by while extremists take center stage and use the microphone for unchallenged vitriol and misinformation.

I listened with frustration tonight to a joint interview with Republican Senator Brownback and Democratic Senator Richard Durbin.  They were talking about Harriet Miers and Brownback kept on saying the American people had given George Bush a mandate to select a rightist ideologue (my translation of his somewhat less specific words) for the vacant seat on the Supreme Court.  He repeated over and over again that the majority of Americans not only wanted but were demanding that.  Not once did Durbin challenge this claimed majority, not once did he demand accuracy.  And so we’re governed by lies and our world is the captive of whoever can yell then the loudest.  What has happened to our collective sense of decency, to our sense of responsibility?  I’m still waiting for the religious community to really speak out on Abu Ghraib and to denounce torture done under the pretext that we’re fighting terrorists and the ends do justify the means.  I’m waiting to really hear a contrary religious voice – I mean really hear it – on issues like the right to choose or to die.  I’m waiting for someone not merely to say that Pat Robertson (or his like) is out of line, but that he doesn’t speak for evangelical religion much less for any kind of religion.

Sure the President of Iran’s statements were shocking and despicable.  But consider the source.  The audible silence of those who claim to be the good guys or the whimper that claims to be a voice usually virtually whispered in places where they are least likely to be heard – the “between the two of us, but you know I can’t say that in public – that’s what really hurts.  And that’s what likely will do us all in.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Stage Set

I arrived home late last evening after the annual 24 hours of Yom Kippur fasting broken by a lovely dinner with family.  I guess by reflex I flicked on the TV which happened to be tuned to C-Span.  I must confess that what was before my eyes looked so surreal that it made me wonder if the food deprivation had affected by brain.  Alas, it had not.  There was the President of the United States standing standing stiffly before a lectern facing what seemed like a large picture frame in which was the image of 10 uniformed military personnel stacked up in three rows like cardboard props.  It was purported to be a spontaneous “video conference” between the commander-in-chief and his troops on the ground in Iraq.  Among the assembled were a token woman and a token Iraqi soldier.  Isn’t this a great country?

George Bush and his handlers have made these stage sets their signature.  The same people who brought us embedded war correspondents, love to use “ordinary citizens” and if at all possible people in uniform as live scenery behind the great leader.  The granddaddy of all such stage sets was the famous Mission Accomplished aircraft carrier landing.  But there was something particularly disturbing about this performance.  And performance it was.  One didn’t have to be a genus to detect how stilted were the responses from this or that service person to the President’s self serving statement/questions.  The inelegance of W’s prose continues to make one want to cry or scream – painful!  The Pentagon has admitted staging the event including reviewing the questions and who would answer them.  They didn’t say that the answers were rehearsed, but then I hadn’t spent the day at services either.

George W. Bush’s polls continue to slide (38% approval as of yesterday), but there is no doubt that our troops on the ground, the individuals fighting his elective war, probably would poll in the very high 90%, very high.  Americans, regardless of their point of view, support and worry about our precious young people in uniform.  A premise of the President’s show was that by not supporting him, we don’t support them which is utter and nonsense and he knows it.  What is so disturbing, not as disturbing as to sending them into battle on a lie, but in its own way just as criminal is using these people for his own political purposes.  These are military in uniform essentially (yes, sir Mr. President) forced to put on a show, thinly veiled as supportive of the Iraq vote tomorrow, but clearly aimed at polishing Bush’s tarnished image.  It is a manipulation of the worst kind.  True to form, the one young lady officer, was selected so that she could tell the President she witnessed his greatness in New York on 911.  He remembered her, of course – and I didn’t attend services on Yom Kippur.  Aren’t you getting a little sick of hearing the slogan 9/11 come up in every utterance of this administration?  Oh yes, “make sure you get your flu shot this year, we’ve learned on 9/11 how important that is” or “Harriet is prepared for lifetime service on the Supreme Court because she was at the White House on 9/11”.  Ugh.

The days ahead should be interesting.  One can’t but hope that the Iraqis will make progress in establishing their own, really their own, government.  Would that one could be optimistic that this landmark will bring any more of a solution or peace than did the last dozen watershed "this will do it" events.  Mr. Fitzgerald may have some things to say, this time about stage set directors rather than reporters.  Who knows, but for the moment I haven’t recovered from late night TV.  I should have gone right to sleep.

Wednesday, October 5, 2005

When Religion Matters

Before Alfred E. Smith, the popular governor of New York, was nominated for President in 1928 his defeat some months later was almost a forgone conclusion.  He was a Roman Catholic.  By 1960 Americans felt differently, though the election that year was a real squeaker.  In fact, Jack Kennedy would never have made it to the White House had he not convinced the public that the Pope would not dictate his decisions much less would his personal faith.  In these days of hyped religiosity these old concerns may seem quaint.  In fact, it would probably be more difficult for an avowed atheist or even agnostic to be elected than someone overtly devout.  Neither a Thomas Paine nor a Thomas Jefferson would likely make it out of the starting gate.

I for one find all this mixing of politics and religion these days a most disturbing phenomenon.  I left the rabbinate in the late 1960s in part because I thought politics (which I was considering entering at the time) and religion didn’t mix.  The idea that either executive or legislative decisions are made based upon the religious convictions of any one or even group of public officials runs contrary to the idea of a pluralistic society and a secular state bound by a “wall of separation”.  At the same time, we have a very powerful tool for keeping excess in check – the ballot box.  I may not like George Bush's or other social conservative’s opposition to Choice or their attempt to intervene in the Terry Schiavo case, but their power is defined by a relatively short term two to six years.  They can be voted out of office (or in the President’s case be subject to term limits).

The same cannot be said of the federal courts and specifically the Supreme Court.  There religion matters because appointments are for a life.  This is not to suggest that people with strong religious beliefs should be disqualified from service, no matter what that religion may be.  But when an individual's faith, which by definition is unlikely to represent a universal point of view, impacts specific decision making it constitutes a real problem.  We know very little about Harriet Miers but two things that have emerged in the last days are troubling.  The first is that, as part of her mid-life embrace of Christ as interpreted by the Evangelical Valley View Christian Church, she specifically opted for active involvement in its anti-abortion mission.  Since she is purported not to do things lightly, that’s significant.  The second, is that Mr. Bush, one of the few people who claim to really know her, has characterized Ms. Miers as someone who doesn’t change her mind.  Wow.  Does that mean that she isn’t a person who grows, who can reconsider something when faced with new information or, most importantly, whose born-again faith might color her decisions?  If the court should decide that the right of choice is not guaranteed by a religiously neutral reading of the constitution that would be very disturbing.  If that decision were made because this possible Justice thought it contrary to her concept of God and the mandates of her particular faith it would be frightening.

Perhaps the appointment of Harriet Miers is the moment when this critical issue will finally come to a head.  The conerned rumblings of doctrinaire conservatives in the last few days, unless they are actually a smoke screen aimed to tricking moderates into voting for her, could be the catalyst for such a discussion.  We’ll have to see, but if you don’t think religion matters when it comes to the Court, you might want to consider changing your mind even if Ms. Miers never does.