Saturday, February 11, 2006

This Can't Actually Be True, Can It?

Lindsay Beyerstein links to a story about a VA nurse being investigated for sedition. Her offense? She wrote a letter to the editor which included the following:
"I am furious with the tragically misplaced priorities and criminal negligence of this government," it began. "The Katrina tragedy in the U.S. shows that the emperor has no clothes!" She mentioned that she was "a VA nurse" working with returning vets. "The public has no sense of the additional devastating human and financial costs of post-traumatic stress disorder," she wrote, and she worried about the hundreds of thousands of additional cases that might result from Katrina and the Iraq War.

"Bush, Cheney, Chertoff, Brown, and Rice should be tried for criminal negligence," she wrote. "This country needs to get out of Iraq now and return to our original vision and priorities of caring for land and people and resources rather than killing for oil. . . . We need to wake up and get real here, and act forcefully to remove a government administration playing games of smoke and mirrors and vicious deceit."

Now, I should say that I disagree with the contents of this letter. But I damn well don't think the author should be charged with sedition. I'm not sure exactly which law "sedition" refers to, but I imagine it's in 18 U.S.C. 115, which deals with "treason, sedition, and subversive activities." Section 2388 of this part of U.S. code, which punishes
Whoever, when the United States is at war, willfully causes or attempts to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty, in the military or naval forces of the United States, or willfully obstructs the recruiting or enlistment service of the United States, to the injury of the service or the United States, or attempts to do so

with up to 20 years in jail, seems to be the most on point.

Being threatened with 20 years in prison for dissenting against government policies is absolutely appalling. And truly frightening. Fortunately, according to this article the ACLU of New Mexico is on the case, and I can't imagine that this investigation will go anywhere, given how incredibly blatantly it violates the constitution of the United States (and, as Rox Populi notes, probably the Hatch Act as well).

There is a growing climate in this country that dissent is intolerably, and potentially treasonous. It is a feeling that stems from the actions of our highest governmental officials, who have made their political careers by solely listening to their favored sycophants, and for whom the idea that their might be alternative, yet valid, perspectives is utterly foreign. We need to restore the idea that free speech, free press, and free petition are vital aspects of the American way, wartime or no. And it genuinely frightens me to see how those values get eroded more and more with each passing year.


A few recent posts have gotten me thinking about a word problem. Don't worry, not like math, actually a problem relating to words and phrases. There are some words out there whose common or contemporary meaning clashes with an older or literal meaning. I'm not talking about cases where the meaning has just changed over time, I'm talking about where there is actually the potential for bona fide conflict.

Specifically, I'm thinking of cases where the problem has real political or philosophical impacts. For example, when I premised my review of Prayers for the Assassin on its assault on liberalism, someone called me out and said that actually, American leftists aren't liberals--using the philosophical definition of classical liberalism as a guidepost. Now, I actually think most American liberals are more "liberal" than conservatives, but the point is that these terms are easily hijacked by really aggravating people who think they're making a clever point, despite the fact that none of us had any say in the development of our political lexicon. Similarly, David Bernstein has a post up about Juan Cole using the phrase "anti-Semitism" to refer to racism against Arabs, on the grounds that they're a "Semitic" people too. Of course he's technically right, and I'll grant that the choice of terminology used to refer to anti-Jewish sentiment was unfortunate, but seriously. Nearly everybody knows what "anti-Semitism" is meant to refer to in these contexts, and the use of it otherwise is simply distortive.

Are there any other words where these problems come up?


Happy Birthday to me! Not the blog, which will turn 2 in June, but myself, who turns 20 today!

So, yeah. Woot for me. And hope you all have nice days as well (I'm feeling generous).

Friday, February 10, 2006


So Yin Blog tells me that has a new feature called the "plog", I.E., a "personalized web log." According to Professor Yin, Plog gives "you short blog posts from authors that amazon thinks you like (based on past purchases)." Since I've been impressed by the efficacy of Amazon's general recommendation program, I think this feature has the potential to be pretty neat too (although I also have to agree with Yin as to the name--"plog?").

But the problem is, I can't find it. Is it up on their site somewhere, and I'm just missing it? Or is it still in the works, with no public release yet?

Help appreciated.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

"Choose" Life

PG points me to the latest twist on the ubiquitous "Choose Life" license plates Southern states often offer as an option. Now, a South Carolina bill would offer the choice of a "Choose Death" license plate as well! Oh, hooray for even-handedness.
The bill is similar to many that have popped up in state legislatures over the past few years: it would have the Department of Motor Vehicles issue Choose Life license plates, with the fees collected therefrom going to Citizens for Life, and to issue Choose Death plates with funds going to the "Department of Mental Health to use for counseling post abortion trauma in females who have had abortions."

PG makes the clever riposte that she's all about "choosing life," but she objects to giving money to groups which are about eliminating the "choice" aspect of it. In fact, while I think she may be taking this whole thing a bit too seriously, I think she is on to something about what this reveals about the pro-life movement. For all the talk about how feminism turns women into liberal, witch-craft practicing lesbians, conservatives have (finally) come to terms with the fact that most Americans support the idea of women, you know, having rights and not being seen as the state as baby-making machines with no human agency. So in recent years, pro-life rhetoric has shifted to sound more "pro-woman." And while I feel that this has created openings to work with the pro-life movement on areas of mutual concern (like effective pre-natal care), I don't think that they've really morphed into a "pro-woman" movement that happens to disagree with mainstream feminism on what policies will help American women thrive. This isn't to say that their belief that women have human dignity isn't genuine, only that it's tangential--the key issue is still banning abortion, for which aiding women (to their eyes) is a welcome but wholly ancillary benefit. PG notes that the South Carolina bill only makes sense if the pro-life paradigm privileges ending abortion over concern for women:
The idea of sending revenue from the Choose Death plates -- in the unlikely event that anyone bought such a thing -- to the state mental health department for post-abortion trauma counseling is almost as stupid. Certainly some women are manipulated into having abortions and later feel terribly about them. But the time to help those women is before they have the abortions they'll regret, not to carry them around afterwards at abortion rallies as totems for the anti-legalization movement's belief that no woman really could want to terminate a pregnancy and they're actually helping women by taking that misleading option away. Most states mandate that abortion providers give counseling, which is wholly sensible when not attached to a requirement that there be a waiting period between in-person counseling and the abortion. Such state-forced waiting periods may put a heavier burden on women who have difficulty taking off from school or work, traveling to the provider, finding child or elder care, etc.

Of course, all of the ideas embedded in the South Carolina bill make sense from the long-term strategy of banning abortion, just not from the short-term perspective of actually helping women.

I often need to remind myself of this, as my big political weakness is that I love bridging divides between conflicting camps. But you got to remember that just because you can work together on some important issues doesn't mean they'll come around on their core. Know thy friends.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Popularity Contest

Countries rate how much they like each other (hat tips to Drum and Drezner). The United States is doing pretty poorly--but better than Iran! Actually, there is some good news in the report. We're doing well across the board in Africa, with every country giving us at least a plurality of positive sentiment. We also have high approvals in the Phillipenes, Poland, and (most hearteningly) Afghanistan. Even Saudia Arabia splits 38/38 on approval/disapproval.

Unfortunately, there is also a lot of bad news. The thing that outright scares me the most is that Iraqis have higher approvals for Iran (33/44) than they do for us (26/65). That's a sign something is going awry. Also, mitigating Afghanistan's high approvals for us is the fact that they seem to just be cheery people in general. Outside Russia (which is entirely understandable), no country gets lower than 45% approval ratings--Iran gets 47% approval, its highest in the world. And while beating Iran is a plus, we're more unpopular than any other country polled. Also, given that the most popular country is Japan (and "Europe" in general is polled even higher), what does that do to the claim that all these people hate us for our freedom? I mean, I know we have differences on a lot of issues with the Europeans and Japanese, but the fact remains that they are all quite liberal nations, all told, certainly far more so than, say, China or Russia.

One important area to watch is the relative popularity of China versus the US in Africa. China has really made a play to be the go-to superpower there, while the US still has a lot of good will due to its emergency assistance operations, lack of a colonial legacy, and generic position as beacon of democracy. The U.S. has the advantage in Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Ghana, while China is ahead in Congo and Senegal. One important thing to remember is that much of China's "support" in the region comes in the form of propping up local strongmen. The US has been known to do that too, of course, but for China it's rapidly approaching a policy. China has also been a key supporter of the Khartoum regime as it continues its grisly genocide, holding off international sanctions and intervention and placing more of the burden on the Africans themselves.

Lots to parse here, and I'm no expert. Still, interesting stuff.

Megasynagogues and Megachurches

In defending the "megachurch", Christine Hurt draws an interesting parallel to Jewish Community Centers:
JCCs around the country have been doing the same things as megachurches for a really long time. Here, under one roof, let's put all the activities of life so that people can come and stay and be with their village. Our youngest goes to preschool at the JCC, I work out there, the kids swim there and take art classes, I go to Mom's Night Out, and the list is endless. After some remodeling is done, there will be a Starbuck's and a manicurist. If we weren't moving, I might quit my job and just hang out at the JCC all day. That's the point.

I can do her one better--my actual synagogue is currently housed in our local JCC (long story involving a breakaway from our old congregation). So we really do encompass the whole nine yards inside one building, just like a "real" mega-church (though we're much, much smaller).

That all being said, I think that much of the megachurch critique centers around a fear of southern church radicalism, not really anything about breaking down "communities" (though that may serve as a good fig leaf). Though most northern liberals, I think, harbor a latent mistrust of southern religiosity in general (buttressed by the anti-gay and anti-liberal mentalities associated with them), I think most also feel that pluralism is a check--with many churches and pastors to choose from, people will be exposed to different messages and perspectives that will create a more heterogeneous community. Combining everything into one megachurch also means eliminating many of those voices and centering the entire religious message around one uber-pastor (and perhaps a few of his associate preachers). All the articles I've read about megachurches include at least something about how the pastor is in many ways like a politician with various constituencies he has to manage. One of those constituencies (and, I'd wager, normally a quite powerful one) is the radical religious right. And my guess is that this group would thus wield a disproportionate amount of power in determining the church's message on issues of political importance--gays, poverty, war, abortion, et al.

What The...?

Now, I'm from suburban Maryland, so I may not be the best judge of "folksy." But I reckon I'll wager this ain't it:
"My job is to herd these Republicans," [Tennessee Republican Senator Bill] Frist says. "And if I have too many frogs jumping out of the wheelbarrow as I'm moving down the field, it means I've gotta be putting people back in."

Umm...sure Bill. Whatever that meant.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Not a Prayer

I just received this email from Ken Vernon, the person who originally gave me my advance copy of "Prayers for the Assassin." Having alerted him to my review, he wrote back:
Thanks for posting your review. I am glad you enjoyed the book! Don't forget to check out the accompanying sites...


Ummm...clearly he didn't read the review. Let's pull some quotes:
[T]he book depends on several wildly implausible leaps to get us from a largely secular democracy to a near-totalitarian Muslim theocracy...intellectually insulting to anybody else with a political pulse....almost no set of reasonable assumptions one could make in which Ferrigno's scenario would play out....all the plausibility of a drug-induced hallucination....If you're going to relax with mindless fiction, try to avoid the ones which suck out your soul in the process.

So yeah--I really "enjoyed" the book. Oh well.

Amusing moment for me though.

UPDATE: Meanwhile, it appears my review has been reviewed. To the negative. There's a few things I could say in response, but I'm going to restrain myself to two quickies. Number one, I don't think it's fair to hold me responsible for the fact that "liberalism" means different things in American politics versus philosophy. Yes, I know it makes for great "we're the real liberals!" moments, but really, cut me some slack here. I didn't create our lexicon, I just use it. Of course, I disagree that the American political liberal scene stands in opposition to philosophical liberalism (gay marriage, anyone?), but that's a debate for another time.

But my real big, big beef is why "moderate" Muslims are always portrayed as only the diet version of fanatics. My reviewer isn't the only one who's done this, but I think it's fair to say that the whole point of the book is to show that even moderate Muslims are really, really, scary. To be a moderate Muslim apparently means supporting theocracy without street beatings. But why isn't the model here the actual American Muslim community, which is remarkably sanguine about all those liberal values which are supposedly an anathema even to the moderates? I haven't seen Detriot go up in flames yet over the Mohammed cartoons. Sure, the CAIR came out with that idiotic statement saying that freedom of expression doesn't extend to offending religions, but that doesn't make them any more extreme than the Vatican. At the end of the day, I think that we should take people at face value. If American Muslims are managing to integrate their faith with liberal values, we should assume it's geniune. If American liberals say that they want equal rights for homosexuals, we should likewise assume it's geniune. Islam is currently beset by a plague of radicalism, but I think it is empirically wrong to assume, as this book does, that this is the result of an ontological flaw in the religion.