Thursday, June 29, 2006

America's Strength, cont'd

Some more wisdom from the pages of today's New York Times, this time from "ordinary" Americans--letters that appeared on the failure of the flag-burning amendment.

From Doug Tunnell, of Newberg, OR:
"That a flag-burning amendment could be successfully resurrected as an issue worthy of consideration by our elected representatives is sad enough.
"That it could capture the attention of politicians who idled as our government contrived a false case for an ill-conceived war that by some estimates has cost at least as many lives — American and Iraqi — as the United States lost in Vietnam is tragic.
"That it failed by just one vote is absurd."

From Greg Nichols, of Siasconset, MA:

"The flag is desecrated not through burning but through the erosion of constitutional liberties."

Alice DuBon, of Mahopac, NY, wrote:

"The flag stands, among other things, for the Bill of Rights. The idea of changing the Constitution in this way is in itself disrespectful to the flag.
"Where are the flag-waving 'patriots' when our flag is truly being disrespected — when it is left out in all kinds of weather and at all times of the night until it is little more than a rag?
"Where are they when people treat it as if it were mere decoration?
"A person who burns the flag at least pays it the respect of believing that it stands for the United States of America, rather than acting as if it were just another piece of cloth."

And, finally, a thoughtful opinion to the contrary, expressed by John Engelman, of Wilmington, DE:

"During the war in Vietnam, I attended protest demonstrations where the American flag was burned.
"I believe that sort of thing angered voters into electing hawks who prolonged the war effort.
"Burning the American flag contributes nothing of value to a political message.
"It alienates people whom dissidents should try to persuade. The legitimate function of political dissent is not self-expression; it is to change people's minds."


...reacting to the Supreme Court's decision on Guantanamo, Sen. Bill Frist (who likes to dissect cats) declared, "To keep America safe in the war on terror, I believe we should try terrorists only before military commissions, not in our civilian courts." If we know they are terrorists, Senator, maybe we don't need to try them at all. Or is that what you're driving at?

America's Strength

The true strength of the United States lies in the resiliency of our system of constitutional democracy and of our people.

Today, the Supreme Court declared that President Bush's order that prisoners at Guantanamo be tried--if they are to be tried at all--by military commissions is unconstitutional, at least without specific congressional authority. The court also decided that Congressional legislation last year did not deprive at least the prisoners who had already filed suit from access to the courts.

A couple of sidelights, courtesy of The New York Times:

"In the courtroom on Thursday morning, the chief justice sat silently in his center chair as Justice Stevens, sitting to his immediate right as the senior associate justice, read from the majority opinion. It made for a striking tableau on the final day of the first term of the Roberts court: the young chief justice, observing his work of just a year earlier taken apart point by point by the tenacious 86-year-old Justice Stevens, winner of a Bronze Star for his service as a Navy officer during World War II."

The Times article also quoted Lieut. Cmdr. Charles Swift, the military attorney assigned to the named plaintiff, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a Yemeni accused of being Osama bin Laden's chauffeur. Reporting on his client's reaction to the decision, Lieut. Cmdr. Swift said, ""I think he was awe-struck that the court would rule for him, and give a little man like him an equal chance. Where he's from, that is not true." We wonder if Hamdan is similarly awe-struck--as he should be--by the fact that an officer in the service of the nation determined to convict him would go to such lengths to defend his rights. For a link to a CNN interview with Lieut. Cmdr. Swift go here.

The Times was unequivocal in its view of the decision: "The decision was such a sweeping and categorical defeat for the Bush administration that it left human rights lawyers who have pressed this and other cases on behalf of Guantanamo detainees almost speechless with surprise and delight, using words like 'fantastic,' 'amazing,' 'remarkable.' Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a public interest law firm in New York that represents hundreds of detainees, said, 'It doesn't get any better.'"

A good day for the Constitution and all that it represents.

[Full disclosure: In his other life, your editor is counsel to two of the detainees at Guantanamo. He played no part in the case decided today.]

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Watch This One

James Webb, former Secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration left the Republican Party over W's handling of the war in Iraq. Now he's running against George F. Allen (we'll get to the "F" in a moment) for Allen's Senate seat. This is a race that could not only help decide whether the forces of darkness will lose control of the upper chamber of Congress, but also whether Allen--who's been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in '08--has a political future.

Maybe because he's a former Republican, Webb has adopted a take-no-prisoners style. His approach may also derive from personal experience: as a Marine platoon and company commander in Vietnam, he won the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts.

Comes now the vote on the flag-burning amendment. Allen, seeing an opportunity to question the patriotism of a man who actually served in combat (see a pattern there, friends?), attacked Webb for opposing the amendment. At which point, Webb's strategist, Steve Jarding, commented dryly, "While Jim Webb and others of George Felix Allen Jr.'s generation were fighting for our freedoms and for our symbols of freedom in Vietnam, George Felix Allen Jr. was playing cowboy at a dude ranch in Nevada." (Allen apparently HATES his middle name.) Jarding also said, ""People who live in glass dude ranches should not question the patriotism of real soldiers who fought and bled for this country on a real battlefield."

This one promises to be a barn-burner. Webb is willing to wage the kind of campaign that many Democrats have despaired of seeing. He's backed by Mark Warner, who ended his one term as Virginia governor (governors of the State for Lovers are not allowed to succeed themselves) with immense popularity. Allen, who sports cowboy boots, should be in a strong position--Virginia has tended strongly Republican in national politics in recent decades, but I have a feeling that the Webb-Allen fight will come right down to the wire. Democrats need to pull out one or two of these races to re-take the Senate.

Another reason, if you need one, to contribute to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. If you'd prefer to contribute directly to Webb's campaign, or just to learn more about him, go here.

(Late note, the DSCC attacked Allen today for refusing to turn campaign contributions from Sam and Charles Wyly to a deserving charity. The Wyly brothers are under investigations for tax and securities fraud. Such paragons of virtue as Bill Frist (the man who likes to dissect cats) and John McCain have diverted Wyly contributions to charity.)


On Monday, President Bush said that it was "disgraceful" for The New York Times to have revealed government surveillance of international banking transactions through the SWIFT program (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Communications--don't ask me why that isn't SWIFC, except that SWIFT sounds better). Sen Jim Bunning of Kentucky called the disclosure treason and Peter King, Republican of New York and chair of the House Homeland Security Committee asked the Attorney-General to consider prosecuting The Times.


Turns out that government statements, including an executive order that W signed in 2001, have made no secret of efforts to track terrorist finances. As The Boston Globe reports, a former White House counter-terrorism official noted that there had been prior public references to the SWIFT program, and the American diplomat who oversaw efforts to track terrorists' financial transactions through the UN said that the surveillance was "common knowledge."

Once again, the administration and its congressional allies refuse to let truth get in the way of a good story.

(Interesting journalistic sidelight: Today's Times has a lead editorial on the controversy. It makes a passing reference to a UN report on surveilling terrorist finances, but none to The Globe's disclosures--even though The Times owns The Globe. The Times' editorial states that there is a "large wall" between the news and opinion parts of its operation (did it mean a high wall?); apparently, there's a wall between its publications as well.)

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Too Easy?

Rush Limbaugh caught with Viagra!

What's more embarrassing--that he was taken into custody, that he may have violated his plea deal with prosecutors, or that big, tough Rush needs the stuff?

A Classic!

Ned Lamont, who's running against Joe Lieberman for the Democratic nomination in Connecticut, is running this ad. Take a look--it's a classic.

I may have to give Lamont some money.

A Good Day

Today was a good day for civil liberties.

By a single vote, the Senate rejected the proposed amendment that would permit Congress to declare flag-burning a crime. Among the senators whose vote against the amendment might be seen as a surprise were Bennett, of Utah and McConnell, of Kentucky. (I'll assume that we should applaud their courage, but I wonder if there were factors other than idealism at work.) Maria Cantwell, Democrat of Washington who is a prime target of Republicans, deserves particular credit for voting no.

Also today, the FBI announced that it has abandoned its demand for the records of a library consortium in Connecticut. The victory was one of attrition--the courts have not ruled that the Patriot Act provision in question is unconstitutional--but in these perilous times for the bill of rights, even small triumphs are welcome.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Details, Details

The military has a term called "defeat in detail." That happens when a superior force is defeated by a smaller one that attacks each piece of the larger army (or navy, or air force) one by one. Washington used the tactic in crossing the Delaware to attack Trenton and then, a few days later, to throw back another British force at Trenton. Lee defeated union forces on several occasions by concentrating his troops against one part of the Northern army before it could join with the rest.

Of course, to be defeated in detail, the more powerful force has to assist its weaker opponent by dispersing itself; when Lee came up against Grant--one of the most underrated generals in history--he found that the Union forces not only remained concentrated and but used their superior numbers and power to pound his army to defeat.

The United States now finds itself in peril of being defeated in detail, not by a single army but by opponents who have no common program beyond opposing America. Having entered Afghanistan (a justified conflict), we then skipped to divide our forces in the unnecessary and thoroughly dumb invasion of Iraq. Meanwhile, two nations who really do pose a threat to the interests of the United States, its friends and allies--North Korea and Iran--were given several years to go on their merry way toward developing nuclear weapons while the administration (bewitched by Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein) turned a blind eye. Now we are faced with challenges from both of those states, and there seems to be little (apart, perhaps, from what would be a monumentally ill-advised pre-emptive strike on North Korea's ballistic missile as it sits on its launching pad) that we can do to deflect their nuclear ambitions. (There are sign that the Iranians may be willing to discuss nuclear issues, but I fear that it will prove too late; the foolishness of the Bush administration and the irrationality of the people who control Iran are all too likely to prove a combustible mixture.)

As if that weren't enough, we also face antagonism from Hugo Chavez, the caudillo of Venezuela, who is using his country's wealth to give vent to Latin America's long pent-up anger at its northern overlord.

Not to mention the peaceful economic challenges posed by China, India, the European Union and other competitors in the global economy.

The threats posed in each of these theatres is different both in kind and seriousness, but their cumulative effect is clear. To put it simply, you don't hear much about the world's only superpower anymore. Instead, the United States often resembles the "pitiful, helpless giant" of 60's revolutionary mythology.

We might take a leaf out of the British playbook. If you study the history of the British Empire, you will perhaps be struck by the parsimoniousness of most of its ventures. The men in London (realizing how small the mother country really was) were sparing in their use of resources to preserve, much less expand, British influence. This was a constant source of frustration to the more boisterous elements of the establishment, but it was one of the secrets to British success.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Do You See A Pattern?

Demand for US manufactured goods fell in May, for the second month in a row. Except for February and March of this year, demand for so-called durable goods has shown little overall growth for the past year.

In 2005, CEOs earned 262 times the wage of an average worker. CEOs earned more in one day than the average worker earned in 52 weeks, according to the Economic Policy Institute. The real surprise is that the differential is only the second-highest on record.

The value of the minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, is the lowest that it has been in more than half a century--that is, since Eisenhower was President.

Yesterday, the Senate rejected a measure to increase the minimum wage, which has been $5.15 per hour since 1997. The House Appropriations Committee voted against attaching an increase in the minimum wages to an appropriation bill for the State, Justice and Commerce Departments. There has not been a floor vote on the minimum wage in the House since the last increase almost a decade ago.

As Paul Krugman pointed out this week, political partisanship and economic inequality have risen and fallen in lock-step for more than a century. Inequality today is at levels not seen since the robber barons of the turn of the Twentieth Century. And look at the state of our political debate. Krugman referred to a new book, Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches, by Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal. I haven't read it, but I plan to.

Repeating what I've said before: Republicans think that the American people are stupid.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Good Sense

One of the great advantages that democracies have over authoritarian, totalitarian or feudal states is the opportunity for ideas to come from a wide variety of sources, not just from some favored class, group or party. As an example, I offer the following, which is the text of an advertisement placed by the Institute for Socio Economic Studies on the op-ed page of today's New York Times. I do not suggest that all of the statements made are accurate or that the suggestions are entirely practical, but I think you will find the viewpoint refreshing.

How to Befriend the Muslim World

by Leonard Greene

Most Muslims are not terrorists, and the vast majority do not condone terrorism. They believe in the words of the Koran, "...whoever slays a is as though he slew all men; and whoever keeps it alive, it is as though he kept alive all men."

Bin Laden is a leader of the terrorists who say instead, "Death to the unbeliever!" He is an outcast from his own country, Saudi Arabia, and is reviled by his fellow Saudis.

Nevertheless, many Muslims who are not terrorists would kill Americans or condone such killings, simply because Americans have killed so many Muslims.

We should end our war in Iraq and use our army to save lives put at risk by natural disasters such as tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and hurricanes. Our armed forces are ideally suited for this purpose. They have the required manpower, equipment and organization.

A dialogue with the major Islam religious leader should result in an agreement that bin Laden must be taken in by the Muslim world for justice. He is an outcast, not a hero.

My son was killed on United 93.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Scary Story

Thanks to Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly for pointing us to The Washington Post's review of Ron Suskind's new book, The One Percent Doctrine, which seems to be the newest must-read book. Suskind's title comes from Deadeye Dick Cheney's comment that if there were even a one-percent chance of terrorists getting hold of a nuclear weapon, the United States would have to treat that likelihood as if it were a certainty--a dictum that makes intelligence gathering and analysis virtually irrelevant to basic national policy, as well as providing a convenient justification for the kind of irresponsible adventurism to which the Bush administration will be forever connected.

One of the tales told in the apparently well-researched book (Suskind is a former Pulitzer Prize winner) concerns the capture of one Abu Zubaydah, whom no less an authority than George W. Bush described as "one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States." Except that he was nothing of the sort. To the extent that Zubaydah had any role in al Qaeda, he was a low-level logistics expediter. He was also certifiably crazy, as the review relates in some detail.

Was the capture of Zubaydah just another one of the numbing series of wildly overblown "successes" proclaimed by Bush and his surrogates? Not quite. In fact, it became a prime example of how sick the administration is. As the review of Suskind's book relates:

"Bush 'was fixated on how to get Zubaydah to tell us the truth,' Suskind writes, and he asked one briefer, 'Do some of these harsh methods really work?' Interrogators did their best to find out, Suskind reports. They strapped Abu Zubaydah to a water-board, which reproduces the agony of drowning. They threatened him with certain death. They withheld medication. They bombarded him with deafening noise and harsh lights, depriving him of sleep. Under that duress, he began to speak of plots of every variety -- against shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty. With each new tale, 'thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each . . . target.' And so, Suskind writes, 'the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered.'

Perhaps because I have been reading Philip Kerr's Berlin Noir trilogy, I see in this anecdote a parallel to the macabre "experiments" of Dr. Joseph Mengele and his cohorts, in which sadistic curiosity would lead to outrages in the name of some twisted science. If Suskind is accurate--and as far as I know the White House has not denied his account--Bush's interest in the effect of brutality led to Zubaydah's torture as that scrap of humanity was turned into a human guinea pig. (That would be a war-crime, no?) Then, to make matters worse--if that's possible--the administration got caught up in its own sick game and became imprisoned in the fantasy world that its excesses had helped create.

Are you scared yet, or merely sickened?

Welcome (?) Back

So your editor goes off to France for a co+uple of weeks and what happens? He comes back to find out that Rove isn't going to get indicted after all (yep, he blew that one), and the US House says we need to stay the course in Iraq. At least, the Red Sox are in first place.

Oh well, back to work....

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Au revoir, mais ce n'est pas adieu

Your editor is off for foreign shores. Specifically, he is bound for la belle France. He might check in remotely, but most likely he'll find better things to do with his time.

So, have a pleasant couple of weeks and look for The Old New Englander when he returns on June 20th.

A bientot.

Anniversaries of Freedom

The Bush administration has so cheapened and demeaned the idea of fighting for freedom (not to mention the word itself) that liberals have to restrain a well-earned cynicism when the idea is raised that freedom sometimes exacts a price in blood.

As it happens, today, June 4th, is the anniversary of two events that remind us of that sad fact. In 1989, government forces rolled into Tienanmen Square, quenching the brief flame that had seemed on its way to consume the authoritarian regime. Let us remember the brave people who stood up against the forces of repression, symbolized by that lone, anonymous man who blocked a column of tanks. Someday, let us hope, his spirit will rule China.

June 4th is also the anniversary of the Battle of Midway, in 1942. Midway, a battle too-little remembered, was America's Trafalgar and the turning point of the Pacific War. You can read a capsule account of the battle here, but a better course would steer you to your local library or bookseller to obtain a copy of Walter Lord's aptly-titled Incredible Victory. Midway is not only one of the nation's most important battles, but one of the most dramatic events in our history.

The next time you hear someone (maybe someone in the Oval Office, or someone trying to get there) speak easily of fighting for freedom, remember Tienanmen Square and Midway.

Bush Remains Popular!

The New York Times reports that the President's popularity rating is greater than 50 percent in exactly three states. Yes, three.

According to the Times, Bush's enthusiastic supporters:
are mostly clustered in places like Utah, Idaho and
Wyoming, the only three states where Mr. Bush's job approval rating is at or above 50 percent, and in smaller pockets in areas like the suburbs of Birmingham, Ala.; northwest Georgia; and the Florida Panhandle.

What is it that the Good Book says, "Pride goeth before the fall?"

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Not Kosher

Your editor was raised in a kosher home. Keeping kosher was less a religious observance than a custom designed mainly, I think, to please my father's parents. (My mother's father was a socialist who owned rental real estate and bought his wife a fur coat. "Only in America," as they used to say. He had no taste for religion.)

The myth that kosher meat is necessarily better than mass-produced non-kosher meat was shattered a few years ago. Now the Forward, the New York newspaper, originally published only in Yiddish and still with a Yiddish edition, reveals that at least one kosher meatpacker treats its workers in ways reminiscent of the villains in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.

According to the Forward's story, the workers at the AgriProcessor's plant in Postville, Iowa--the nation's largest kosher packer--are ground down, endangered by poor working conditions and grossly underpaid. A drive to unionize the plant recently failed; in all probability, the mostly-Hispanic workforce caved in to the bare-knuckled tactics so typical of American workplaces these days.

A sad, but not unusual story? Perhaps, but the owner of AgriProcessors, one Aaron Rubashkin (his brand is Aaron's Best), bears a special responsibility. As a kosher packer, his business is inextricably bound with Judaism, and the poor treatment he gives his workers--most of whom are Catholic, apparently--reflects poorly on Jews even if it does not spark outright anti-Semitism. (It would not be hard to think of several anti-Semitic stereotypes that Rubashkin seems to fit.)

I have never been a very devout Jew, but there is one line from the Passover Haggadah, the story of the Israelites' enslavement in Egypt and of the Exodus, that I think of often. During the service that precedes the Passover meal, the congregation says, "This is for what the Lord did for me, when I went out of the land of Egypt." For me--not for my ancestors, but for me. When I--not my ancestors, but I, myself--went out of the land of Egypt. Each Jew is supposed to feel as if he, himself, was freed with Moses.

It is that attitude--honed, no doubt by additional centuries among the downtrodden and dispossessed--that explains the historic Jewish commitment to social justice.

Like all peoples, Jews proclaim themselves the chosen people (although, like Tevye, we might say, "Couldn't you choose someone else next time?), but if we are chosen it is not because Jews are better than others, but because we should be better.

That's what makes a story like the Forward's especially disheartening. Jews who abuse their workers, engage in racism or otherwise give vent to mankind's worst impulses are not merely betraying their own better natures, but demeaning, perhaps even endangering, an entire people. Some of our worst enemies are Jews.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Another Town Heard From (and a brush with media stardom)

On Tuesday night, May 29th, the Town Meeting of Brookline, Massachusetts voted by a 2-1 margin to endorse a resolution calling for the impeachment of President Bush. (For those who don't know Brookline, it is the home town of two famous Mikes, Dukakis and Wallace.)

Your editor was personally involved in this. Although not a member of the town meeting (an elected position in this town of 56,000 people), he wrote and circulated the petition, and spoke to the meeting on its behalf. The actual vote was 104-52.

You can read the resolution here.

The vote was symbolic and the resolution aimed at attracting public attention. Interestingly, The Boston Globe, which is owned by The New York Times did not cover the story until two days after the vote (your editor sent a release about the vote to the Globe, the Times and AP the morning after it took place.) The Boston Herald, a tabloid that is generally aligned with the administration, at least more so than the Globe, ran a story in advance, and another reporting the vote on the morning after. The Globe's story became a follow-up piece.

Take a look at the Herald's morning-after story. It does get the essential facts right--that the vote was held and that it was 2-1. Beyond that it's acquaintance with facts is glancing at best, and it's written like the editorials in college newspapers. (Was I repeating the "embittered claims of the left" that Bush lies and that he picks and chooses which laws to obey, or was I merely stating facts? You decide.) Still, the Herald made sure that word of the vote got all the way to the White House, by calling and asking for a comment. Way to go!

(The Herald even ran an actual editorial on the subject today, keeping it alive for another day. Apparently, they haven't heard that there's no such thing as bad publicity.)

The Globe story displayed the spurious balance (after all, the Town Meeting vote was 2-1, and Bush did get only about a quarter of the town's vote in 2004) that has become the bane of so much mainstream "journalism." (At least the Globe did interview your editor.)

Your editor found the episode--which history will surely little note nor long remember--instructive. First, he was reminded that media "stardom" (calls for some interviews, appearances on a couple of call-in shows, one of which featured a few callers labeling him a traitor) is more trouble than it's worth. Also, from the email and nasty phone calls he's received from a few loonies, it looks like at least some people who support Bush are getting nervous.