Saturday, September 30, 2006

Sara's Sunday Rant

by Sara Robinson

Sunday's usually a slow blogging day here at Orcinus, so I thought I'd take a break from the usual topics and hold forth on something that's a little closer to home.

There was a lively and rather rancorous debate going on over at Alternet earlier this week over whether or not America should join the rest of the world's grown-up nations and provide single-payer health care to everyone. As usually happens, Canada got dragged into the fracas, shoved around by both sides as either an exemplar or a warning -- and, along the way, covered with the obfuscating dust of so many willful misconceptions that the truth is virtually unrecognizeable in the mess.

As a health-care-card-carrying Canadian resident and uninsured American citizen who regularly sees doctors on both sides of the border, I'm in a unique position to address the pros and cons of both systems first-hand. If the health-care debates are going to begin again in the US -- and it's way past high time they should -- then let's please start with actual facts, instead of ideological posturing, wishful thinking, hearsay, and random guessing about how things get done up here. Here are a few things y'all need to have the straight goods on before this goes any further.

1. Canada's health care system is "socialized medicine."
False. In socialized medical systems, the doctors work directly for the state. In Canada (and many other countries with universal care), doctors run their own private practices, just like they do in the US. The only difference is that there's one insurer: the provincial government.

This alone reduces the cost and increases the quality of care on about a dozen different fronts. Doctors don't have to charge extra fees to cover the salary of a full-time staffer to deal with several hundred different insurers, all of whom are bent on denying care whenever possible. In fact, most doctors get by quite nicely with just one office assistant, who cheefully handles the phones, mail, scheduling, patient reception, stocking, filing, and billing all by herself in the course of a standard workday.

Nor do Canadian docs spend half their days on the phone cajoling insurance company bean counters into doing the right thing by their patients. (When is one of those people going to be sued for practicing medicine without a license?) All the invoices go to one place; and the vast majority are simply paid -- quietly, quickly, and without hassle. There is no runaround. There are no fights. Appointments aren't interrupted by vexing phone calls. Care is seldom denied (because everybody knows the rules). They put the bills through online, get their checks on time, see their patients on schedule, and go home in time for dinner.

One unsurprising side effect of all this is that the doctors I see here tend to be more focused, more relaxed, more generous with their time, more up-to-date in their specialties, and overall much less distracted from the real work of doctoring. You don't really realize how much stress the American doctor-insurer fights put on the day-to-day quality of care until you see doctors who don't operate under that stress, because they never have to fight those battles at all. They seem to enjoy their jobs.

2. Government-run health care is inherently less efficient -- because governments themselves are inherently less efficient.
False. There is no logical way that a private system can be more efficient and pay eight-figure CEO compensation packages and still make a profit for shareholders. And, sure enough, the absurdity of this notion is borne out by every available real-world example in existence -- both within America, and abroad.

America's private-sector health care system spends two to three times more on administrative costs than the single-payer systems of Canada, France, Sweden, or any other nation with universal care. It's also considerably less efficient than the country's two largest state-funded systems, the VA and Medicare. If this be government inefficiency, let's make the most of it.

3. Wait times in Canada are horrendous.
True and False -- depending on which province you live in, and what's wrong with you. Canada's health care structure runs on federal guidelines that ensure uniform standards of care -- but are administrated as separate systems by the various provinces. Some provinces don't plan their facilities as well; in those, you can have waits. Some do better. As a general rule, the farther north you live, the harder it is to get to care, simply because the doctors and hospitals are concentrated in the south. But that's just as true in any rural county in the U.S.

You can hear the bitching about it no matter where you live, though. Even though the percentage of Canadians who'd consider giving up their beloved system consistently languishes in the single digits (when asked to name the Greatest Canadian in history two years ago, Canadians -- in a broad national consensus -- gave the honor to Tommy Douglas, the Prime Minister who set up the current system. And no, it had nothing to do with the fact that he was also Kiefer Sutherland's grandpa.), bellyaching about health care is still unofficially Canada's third national sport after curling and hockey. And for the country's newspapers, it's a prime watchdogging opportunity. Any little thing goes sideways at the local hospital, and it's on the front pages the next day. The American system might benefit from this kind of constant scrutiny: it's one of the things that keeps the quality high. But it also makes people think it's worse than it is.

Critics would also do well to remember that the American system is not exactly instant-on, either. When I lived in California, I had excellent insurance, and got my care through one of the best univeristy-based systems in the nation. Yet I routinely had to wait anywhere from six to twelve weeks to get in to see a specialist. Non-emergency surgical waits could be anywhere from four weeks to four months. After two years in the BC system, I'm finding the experience to be pretty much exactly comparable. My son got a needed ear surgery in four weeks; I'll get a knee repair in about four months. The notable exception is MRIs, which were easy in California, but can take many months to get here. Other than that, it's no bloody different.

Here's the way I keep it in perspective. In America, a lucky employee with gold-plated employer-based coverage may well get access to A-level care (though that level of coverage becoming rarer by the month, even among the professional classes). As the Alternet article makes clear, about 50 million under-insured Americans are barely scraping by with C or D-level care; and the nearly 50 million with no insurance at all get next to no care whatsoever. Worst of all: 18,000 Americans die every year due to lack of access to healthcare.

In Canada, everybody gets at least B-level care, pretty consistently across the board -- and, on occasion, quite a bit better than that. (I've got an appointment this week with a Canadian doctor who is one of the dozen or so worldwide leaders in his specialty. And Canada boasts at least four medical schools that are on par with the best American schools when it comes to both education and research.) You might not like those odds if you're one of the shrinking handful of Americans who's used to A-level care; but if that's not you, you'd be getting a much better deal in Canada. And (scare stories notwithstanding), it's extremely rare for a Canadian to die because he or she can't get access to care. It may happen -- but you'd hear the hollering all the way to Inuvik if was happening anything like 1800 times per year, let alone 18,000.

4. Canada's care plan only covers the basics. You're still on your own for any extras, including prescription drugs. And you still have to pay for it.
True -- but not as big an issue as you might think. The province does charge a small monthly premium -- ours is $108/month for the whole family -- for the basic coverage. The premium is waived for people on public assistance or disability.

"The basics" covered by this plan include 100% of all doctor's fees, ambulance fares, tests, and hospitalization charges -- in other words, the really big-ticket items that routinely drive American families into bankruptcy. It doesn't include medical equipment, drugs, physical therapy or chiropractic care, dental, vision, and so on; and if you want a private or semi-private room, that costs extra (though less than you'd pay for a room in a middling hotel). That other stuff does add up; but it's sure easier to afford if you're not paying for the big stuff, too. And, as every American knows by now, drugs aren't as expensive here, either.

Even at that, most families have some form of supplemental insurance that covers all these extras, which brings overall coverage to a level that meets or exceeds the coverage you'd get working for a large, well-insured company in the US. Top-quality add-on policies typically run in the ballpark of $75-100 per person in a family per month -- call it $300-400 for a family of four on an individual plan. On a group plan, it's cheap enough that even smaller employers can afford to offer these policies as a standard benefit (and will often take over payments on your monthly provincial premium as well). When you add this in, your average working Canadian has free coverage equal to the best policies now only offered at a few of America's largest corporations.

5. You have to wait forever to get a family doctor.
Sheesh. Somebody, somewhere, is getting paid a lot of money to make this stuff up. There are any number of first-rate GPs in our neighborhood who are taking new patients. And if you don't have a working relationship with one, but need to see a doctor now, there are 24-hour urgent care clinics in most neighborhoods that will usually get you in and out on the minor stuff in under an hour.

No doubt that it's harder if you live out in the territories. But that's just as true in the U.S. -- and in America, the government won't pay the airfare for rural folk to come down to the city for treatment like it does here.

6. Single-payer health care will make America less competitive.
False. I can't believe people still have the gall to argue this point, but apparently, they do. It's wrong for at least five good reasons.

First: it's no secret that public health care is making Canada a more attractive business environment for large manufacturers, who typically have very high insurance overhead. Toyota and GM have both moved plants to Canada in recent years, in large part to avoid the spiraling costs of insuring American workers. (Toyota also cited Canada's better-educated workers, but education is another rant for another Sunday.) This has been worked over in the press for a couple years -- and should be enough to put an end to this ridiculous assertion all on its own. But wait! There's more....

Second: Being relieved of insurance worries also makes individual citizens more competitive, too. How would your life choices change if you didn't have to worry about health care? Would you go back to school and get your PhD in lepidoptery? Start a blog -- or a business? Work part-time and travel? Tell your boss where he can stick it, and spend some time at home with your kids? Countries with universal coverage free up their citizens to take advantage of personal opportunities that, in the long run, stimulate the economy and create a more skilled, traveled, educated, and fulfilled workforce. Americans, on the other hand, routinely stay chained to jobs they hate -- and pass over chances to expand their horizons and their fortunes -- because they can't afford to jeopardize their health care coverage. The loss is to each of us individually, and to the long-term strength of the economy as a whole.

Third: When families are bankrupted by medical bills, or impoverished when a working member is put out of commission because they can't afford proper care, or simply break down and fall apart under the stress of debt and illness, it's not long before the country's entire social fabric begins to show the wear and tear -- along with the sense of optimism and the common good required for a democracy to function. I've often been impressed by the very tangible sense of civic pride and shared effort my Canadian neighbors have in the fact that they're taking the best possible care of their own, regardless of status, age, or ethnicity. Every encounter with the medical system reminds them that they're all in this together. They wouldn't admit to being proud of their system -- they prefer to leave boastful expressions of pride to their southern neighbors -- but they are, and rightly so.

Part of what makes a country competitive is its own commitment to the common good. A medical system that routinely drives families into bankruptcy or divorce court is actively destroying, rather than adding to, the essential social capital that makes the whole society function.

Fourth: Decades of deferred medical care are starting to catch up with Americans. We're seeing it on many fronts: infant mortality, lifespan, cancer rates, heart disease rates, and increased diabetes. On most of the major markers of public health, America is nowhere near the top tier anymore. In a few areas, there are small former Communist countries doing better than we are. Any country that's spending more and getting less is neither efficient nor competitive. Business relies on healthy workers who aren't distracted by their own illness, or the illness of a family member. An uninsured, increasingly unhealthy workforce is in no position to compete on equal terms with a strong, healthy one that's getting the care it deserves.

Fifth: Our every-man-for-himself attitude toward health care is a national security threat on a par with unsecured ports. In Canada, people go see the doctor if they're sick for more than a day or two. It was this easy access to early treatment, along with the much tighter public health matrix that enables doctors to share information quickly, that allowed the country's health care system to detect the 2003 SARS epidemics in Toronto and Vancouver while they were still very localized, act within hours to stop them before the disease spread any further, and track down and treat exposed people before they got too sick to be helped. In both cases, the system worked flawlessly. The epidemic was stopped within days and quashed entirely in under a month, potentially saving of millions of lives.

In the U.S., that same epidemic might easily have gone unnoticed for critical days and weeks. If the first people to get sick were among the one-third of the country that doesn't have adequate insurance, they probably would have toughed it out a few extra days before finally dragging their half-dead carcasses into an ER somewhere. Not only would they be much farther along in the course of the disease -- greatly increasing their own mortality risk -- every one of them could have infected dozens or even hundreds of other people in the meantime, accelerating the spread of the epidemic. Worse: the underfunded public health system might have taken several days to piece together the whole picture of an epidemic; and perhaps another week or two might have passed before the right-wingers in charge (having thrown out the science-based management plans thoughtfully developed by the bureaucracy) cooked up some kind of half-assed ideology-driven decision about how to proceed. (It would, of course, involve spectacular amounts of lying.) By that point, tens of millions could have been infected, leading to a death toll that would make 9/11 and Katrina look like minor statistical blips.

Think about superbugs and the ongoing waves of immunological imports from the world's swamps and jungles. Think about terrorists with bioweapons. And then think again about the undeniable fact that every single underinsured American is a gaping hole in the safety net that protects us all from a catastrophic epidemic. This really is one of those cases in which none of us are safe as long as even one of us is left at risk. And from a purely economic standpoint: would you want to invest in a country where there was a significant risk that an epidemic or a bio-attack, managed by incompetent officials, might force you to shut down your business at a moment's notice?

7. This all sounds great -- but the taxes to cover it are just unaffordable.
False. On one hand, our annual Canadian tax bite runs about 10% higher than our U.S. taxes did. On the other, we're not paying out the equivalent of two new car payments every month to keep the family insured here. When you balance out the difference, we're actually money ahead.

And, frankly, it feels a whole lot better to know my taxes are taking care of my fellow Canadians than it does to have it buying bombs to drop on Iraqi towns, a fully-equipped CIA gulag, and Baghdad pizza deliveries via Halliburton. It's hard to become a worldwide empire when you're putting half your tax revenue into hospitals and doctors, as Canada does. Likewise, it's hard to insure your citizens when half your tax revenue is going to feed your war machine. In a very real sense, America has chosen to secure its oil supply at the cost of its own citizens' health. The more we spend on the former, the less we have for the latter. And our own relative health -- both physical and economic -- is starting to show the consequences of that choice. Ultimately, all these things are connected: by making ourselves energy independent, we might not only make ourselves more secure, we'll also finally be able to invest in the kind of health care that will make us truly competitive in the world community.

OK, that's my Sunday rant. Don't listen to the recycled 1993 Harry and Louise bullshit. The only part of that party line that's not a deliberate distortion is the part that's flat out not true. It is true that Canada's system is not the same as the U.S. system. It's designed to deliver a somewhat different product, to a population that has somewhat different expectations. But the end result is that the vast majority of people get the vast majority of what they need the vast majority of the time.

I look forward to a day when Americans can hold their heads just as high, and boast that their system can deliver that kind of reliable, consistent care, too. Unfortunately, until we start dealing with facts instead of fear, that day is only going to keep getting farther away.

Update -- Oh, and one more myth: If you buy Canadian drugs, they're not the same. Another falsehood, of course. They are exactly the same drugs, made by the same pharmcos, often in the same factories. Although they're sometimes dispensed a little differently, and there are weird wrinkles. My favorite one is that you cannot buy Aleve in Canada: naproxyn sodium is strictly Rx. On the other hand, Tylenol with codeine is strictly regulated in the U.S., but any pharmacist in Canada will sell you a bottle for the asking. Plan B is also OTC here: no Rx required, no doctor, no waiting, and no moralizing. (Abortion, on the other hand, varies wildly from province to province, generally getting more problematic the farther East (and more Catholic) you go.)

Here in BC, the province sponsors an independent research panel that advises doctors on which drugs in any class are actually most effective. This is great, because they can tell you if the new miracle drug is really worth the extra cost; or the old standby is still the better choice. Not only does this help keep costs down, it makes doctors much more skeptical and choosy in the face of drug reps. Science in the service of better care. Who'd believe it?

There's Always Dirt, Part MMMCLXXXIV

by Sara Robinson

I've often said that:

a) everything you need to take down a Republican leader will usually be found in the dirtpile in his own back yard;

b) the more authoritarian a right-winger is, the bigger the dirt pile, and the bigger the mess he's hiding in it; and

c) if you want directions to where the really juicy stuff is buried, just listen to the issues he rails on about the loudest and hardest.

Exhibit 573,892 in this series is Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL), who resigned yesterday after he was exposed for sending sexually explicit text messages to male Congressional pages. Foley was, of course, the chair of the House caucus on missing and exploited children; his greatest claims to Congressional fame were several bills passed to protect children from Internet pedophiles. (He unseats the previous Exhibit A, George Allen, who was hiding his Jewish ancestry behind a well-cultivated public image as a white racist. You can only shake your head....)

As predictably as a rooster will stand on a dungheap and crow the sun up, Foley stood tall on his own dirtpile, and boldly crowed to everyone what they'd find underneath his feet if they'd just start digging a little. Like roosters, right-wingers have done this since time began. As I pointed out in Tunnels and Bridges, Part I, it's their greatest weakness -- and the greatest gift they give us when it comes time to take them down. John Dean noted in Conservatives Without Conscience that most right-wing followers come equipped with highly fuctional guilt evaporators that neutralize all incoming criticism of their leaders. But even True Believers tend to flee screaming from leaders who are caught, as the old saying goes, with a live boy or a dead girl.

The fact that Denny Hastert evidently knew about Foley's fun-and-games for at least a year and did nothing -- a lapse of oversight which several bloggers have likened to the Catholic Church's epic denial of sexual abuse -- raises my curiosity about what might be found in Hastert's own dirtpile. A man who can repeatedly turn a blind eye to the sexual abuse of children under his care has obviously made some psychological accomodations that also demand our further attention.

We might also glean a lesson here about the right wing's continued insistence that male homosexuality automatically equals pedophilia. For progressives, accustomed to gay men who've been allowed to grow into a healthy adult sexuality, this assertion is simply preposterous. The gay men we know aren't like that at all. But if the gays that most Republicans are familiar with are people like Foley -- closeted souls still stunted and stuck in their own adolescence, and therefore seeking partners among their developmental "peers" -- they're simply reporting the pervsion that they're seeing with their own eyes. What they won't acknowledge is the role their own insistence on keeping the closet door locked down tight plays in creating that perversion in the first place.

Foley's district went for 54% for Bush in 2004, so this was a supremely safe Republican house seat. Though the GOP will name a replacement candidate within the week, it's too late now to add another name to the ballot; so voters in the booth will be presented with the choice between Foley, or Democrat Tim Mahoney. It's a nightmare situation for the Florida GOP.

Given that this is the same district that produced the notorious "Jews for Buchanan" in 2000, there's no telling what kind of electoral shenanigans will emerge from this. But if we wake up on November 8 to find that Mahoney is the winner, and that the Democrats have picked up exactly the required 15 House seats needed to take it back, we may be able to say that Rep. Foley's wayward (and creepy) text message disclosures of his preferred masturbatory techniques literally reversed the course of American government at a critical moment in our history. It's an irony worthy of a Greek tragedy.

The phrase "hoist on their own petard" was coined for these guys. Couldn't happen to a more deserving bunch. Really.

Update: The WaPo story on this mentions that Foley was one of the movers and shakers behind the various attempts to deny birthright citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants. In other words, a real darling of the Minutemen.

Wonder what they think of him today?

Friday, September 29, 2006

Michael Shea and Red State




[Michael Shea with interview subjects in Arkansas.]

I had lunch the other day with Michael Shea, the independent filmmaker whose first solo work, Red State, deserves a national audience. I describe it here. We got on nicely, since it seemed we both were operating from a similar wavelength.

Michael agreed to do a regular interview with me, so the next day, we talked by phone. Here's the result.

____

What I wanted to talk about, after watching the film, was the odyssey you underwent. When you describe it to people who haven't seen the film, or even those who have, how do you sum it up? How do you explain what you encountered en route during this trip?

I sometimes struggle with synthesizing it all into a few sentences. I guess that the best way I can put it is that I went out and came face to face with an emerging theocracy in America, an emerging theocratic worldview, based on certain people's conception of Christianity here.

But it's not just theocratic, it also ties into issues like race and white privilege. There was a lot of talk, I thought, about defending what we've got, that sort of thing.

Certainly, if I were to attempt to psychoanalyze my experience, I would say that there are a lot of people who don't like America changing to a multicultural society, and are afraid of where we're going as a country culturally, and want it to stop, want it to reverse to a simpler time. The '50s seem to be a big iconic time for them. They just want life to be how they feel it once was.

Sort of this mythical Golden Era that actually never existed, right?

Yeah, exactly. These people seem to long for this time that from my understanding never existed.

Or if it existed, it also had certain features that I don't think any of us would accept today, including all the racial prejudice. And yet that was kind of explicitly what at least one of your interviewees [Gladys Gill] seemed to long for.

Yeah, absolutely. There were people -- Gladys in particular -- who were longing for a time when white people could pretty much do what they wanted institutionally, and the other people -- women and minorities -- knew their place.

It seemed like there was a trajectory to the interviews too, where initially a lot of the interviews, except for Dennis Mansfield, were people who were reachable. As you say later in that clip from the radio show you were on, some of these people you can't help but be impressed by their dignity and decency, even when they're suckering for the whole morals/values schtick that conservatives have mastered.

The film and my experience definitely kind of illustrates that that has happened -- that people are being marketed their worldview. And they are almost using their decency against them, in a way. They are preying upon the notion of this golden time, and they're preying upon people's nostalgia and longing for that to get them to oppose other groups.

It seems like the key to that has been this propaganda mill has been pretty incessant out there in rural America for the last 15 years -- you know, Rush Limbaugh and all his wannabees. You kind of noted the effect on one of your interviewees -- someone who had voted Democratic for years but didn't like Democrats now because they were just too liberal, but couldn't say why thought so.

I felt like I was speaking with people who were, for lack of a better term, parroting the media they were consuming -- Rush Limbaugh, local conservative talk radio which is similar to him, Fox News -- that there is indeed a concerted effort, and it's very well organized and intricate and total, to convince these people to think they want, to respond the way that they want them to.

I mean, look at the gay marriage issue. In a time when American soldiers are dying in various places around the globe, I went out to talk to people about the state of the country and why they voted for whom they voted for, and most of them want to talk about gay marriage. Which couldn't possibly really affect their lives. But it's become the issue for them, and that was absolutely based on the marketing campaign that the administration and its media arm put forth.

They wrap themselves in this blanket of morality and value, but at their core they are deeply amoral. I think that's been revealed by the torture issue.

That was one of the main conflicts for me personally was that I was having trouble reconciling any notion of morality with many of the folks that I spoke with. While they were waving about this moral superiority, this moral high ground.

And then there were people at the other end of the spectrum, the people who were clearly theocratic authoritarians -- kind of glassy-eyed ideologues almost. Those people just seem to me impossible to reach.

One of the great contradictions of my experience was that I would be talking to people and having a great time with them, enjoying them as people -- when we were talking about a ball game or the weather or our trip or whatever. But when we'd move into the political arena, I often felt like I wasn't speaking to a human being anymore, I was listening to the recitation of the programming.

It looked in at least a moment there like -- I couldn't tell whether you were dumbfounded or upset, maybe both, with the fellow you interviewed at the giant cross memorial. The associate pastor.

I was actually upset. I'd been doing it for a long time at that point, and you know, I had just been hearing this hatred being put forth as faith, and I couldn't take it anymore. I was quite upset with that gentleman. He was advocating torture and saying that God would advocate that. Yeah, I was angry.

You talk about how people like that scare you, and I think that's true for a lot of people, that they would scare us.

It is scary. It's chilling. I think there's that phrase, "the dead eye" -- to be looking into someone's eyes and to see no humanity there, to see no compassion for others. It's scary. It freaked me out. I talk about that in the film, how I would be at times freaked out by these people, and how I struggled with that.

Because of the gay marriage issue, the film became kind of a gay rights film in a way, and that wasn't my intention. But for me the logic of the gay marriage issue is just so easy to digest that I couldn't believe that I couldn't have a conversation with folks and have them agree.

It seems like if you try to talk logic with these people, especially on an issue like gay marriage, they often just shut down. Logic and reason are no longer operative things.

It certainly isn't logic the way you or I would understand it. I'd guess you could, if you were being generous, a logic borne of their faith. But it certainly wasn't logic as I know it.

I guess the lingering question is: What next? Now that we have this kind of insight into the state of the nation, how should we act? What should we be doing?

I made the film without any knowledge of where it was going to end, and of where to go after. And in many ways, I still am in that place. I think it's truly for us to begin asking these questions. Calling things what they are and then trying to see what makes sense from there.

First of all, we have to recognize and repeat that there are people who arguably are in power in this country, and that they have been put in power by these people who are inclined to think theocratically. What are going to do about that?

Well, I guess what I would tell you is that my film, I hope it can have some impact on Republicans. And by Republicans I mean these people who were Republican before the theocrats took power, the people who were Republican for economic reasons. People who were Republican and might have been just fine with the Clinton economy. I think there is room to have these people, these Republicans, see the danger posed by the folks that they're sharing this party with. And I think we ought to do all that we can do to educate them on what their party has become.

I didn't think of Republicans as wrong dangerous 20, 30 years ago. I thought at that time I disagreed with them, but I don't know that they were necessarily dangerous to our way of life. I think the Republican Party has become dangerous to our way of life, and that we need to act as if that were the case.

It seems that what the film also did -- at least what I came away from it with -- was this sense you were also pointing to ways that we can find common ground with some of these people. I think when we speak from a moral center of our own, we do well -- and I think the torture issue is a perfect example of that. I think the reason that a lot of people don't vote Democrat now is that they don't believe we have a moral center.

I think that's absolutely right. I think that morality, and values, have not been heeded by the left, because we've bought into this language that make radical Christians the "values voters" -- as if we don't have values of our own. And I think that that kind of propaganda that uses language is something that the left has really been asleep about. In the way that the word "liberal" was demonized, that's an example of what has happened in many different areas, with many different words and phrases.

In the film, I proclaim that I am a liberal. And I'm proud of being a liberal. Liberals are responsible for nearly all the cultural growth that we've had. We need to take it back. We can't allow our values and our society to become marginalized just because of the propaganda being put forth by the other side.

Part of what I was looking for in my project was two kinds of understanding, like I said. While I don't feel I found a way to have the common ground with the Christianists, that doesn't mean there isn't possibility for common ground with some on the right. We need to find a way to peel away some of those votes, and then we can begin repairing the damage that's been done.
____

Michael's showing the film today in the Bay Area twice at Cafe lo Cubano.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Olbermann and the NY Post

Keith Olbermann weighs in on the callously irresponsible New York Post report about the letter Olbermann received at his home containing fake anthrax:
The Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper, The New York Post, may have just impeded an FBI investigation into terroristic threats.

I know this because I was a recipient.

The Bureau asked us not to report any of the details so that the person or persons responsible would not know any of the threats had been received by any of the targets -- and we of course complied.

I still cannot confirm many of the specifics -- again in order to make the jobs of the FBI and the New York Police Department a little easier. But I find it necessary to respond to the genuinely shocking tone with which Murdoch's paper reported the event, and the string of factual errors they made either through negligence or a premeditated disregard for the truth.

Olbermann then goes on to eviscerate the Post's reporting, and concludes:
It's almost melodramatic to ask why the New York Post would choose the side of domestic terrorism, rather than choose the side of the FBI.

It's interesting too that Murdoch's paper was able to get a jump on this story so quickly -- nearly as quickly, as if they'd known it was coming.

Lastly, it's remarkable that this was actually printed by any newspaper, even in the current political climate, even in the wake of my editorial stance here, even with Rupert Murdoch's international reputation.

Actually, considering the ethical wasteland that Murdoch's media operations have made of journalism, it's probably not that remarkable at all.

After all, in a nation where torture is considered acceptable, why not encourage right-wing domestic terrorism? It'd help keep those libruls in line.

Well, it's encouraging to see that the FBI, at least, still takes these kinds of threats seriously. And to their good credit, even some right-wing bloggers -- notably Rick Moran, Hugh Hewitt, Patterico, and Ed Morrissey -- understand what's at stake here. I've criticized these bloggers many times in the past, and expect to do so in the future, but give them credit where it's due.

Enemy Combatants: Who Decides? Part II

Turns out the Republicans pushing this bill aren't too clear on the answer to this question, either. Over at Salon , Mark Benjamin and Walter Shapiro point out:

One way that rights will be eroded by the bill is through a change in the meaning of the legal term "enemy combatant." Current Pentagon regulations describe an enemy combatant as anyone who "engages in acts" against the United States. The new legislation would broaden that to also include anyone who "has purposely and materially supported hostilities" against America. And to add a further note of confusion, elsewhere in the bill an enemy combatant is defined in circular fashion as anyone so designated by a new Defense Department entity, the Combatant Status Review Tribunal.

Defending this accordion-like definition on the Senate floor, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham -- one of the three Senate Republicans who negotiated with the White House -- said, "I am firmly in the camp that when it comes to determining who an enemy of the United States is -- who has taken up arms and presents a threat to the nation -- that is not something that judges have been trained to do, nor should they be doing. That is something our military should do."

Many of the provisions of the legislation are so new or so murkily drafted that legal experts and human-rights advocates have not reached a consensus about their implications. There is considerable debate, for example, about whether the bill's treatment of the Geneva Conventions would permit the CIA to continue such notorious interrogation techniques as waterboarding. There also remains some question whether it might be permissible under the bill to declare an American citizen an "enemy combatant," thereby stripping him of any access to the courts. Graham and other Republican senators stoutly denied this possibility during Wednesday's debate.

Evidently, according to the memo Graham got, the military decides. But at what level? Privates in the field? Generals? Rumsfeld? The Decider-in-Chief?

None of this is comforting to those of us stuck in that post-1215 mindset.

--Sara Robinson

Enemy combatants: who decides

While Congress rushes to pass the torture bill, it's worth remembering just who gets to decide who is an enemy combatant:



Here's what former Solicitor General Ted Olson -- the architect of the Bush administration's executive power grab -- told the Washington Post back in 2002:
"At the end of the day in our constitutional system, someone will have to decide whether that [decision to designate someone an enemy combatant] is a right or just decision," Olson said. "Who will finally decide that? Will it be a judge, or will it be the president of the United States, elected by the people, specifically to perform that function, with the capacity to have the information at his disposal with the assistance of those who work for him?"

And what will be this all-knowing executive's criteria? Well, here's what else Olson said:
In a recent legal brief, Olson argued that the detention of people such as Hamdi or Padilla as enemy combatants is "critical to gathering intelligence in connection with the overall war effort."

Nor is there any requirement that the executive branch spell out its criteria for determining who qualifies as an enemy combatant, Olson argues.

"There won't be 10 rules that trigger this or 10 rules that end this," Olson said in the interview. "There will be judgments and instincts and evaluations and implementations that have to be made by the executive that are probably going to be different from day to day, depending on the circumstances."

In other words, it will be at George W. Bush's whim. With a little help, no doubt, from Karl Rove and Dick Cheney.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

How Torture Works





I decided that the best way to explain this was in a movie. Hope you enjoy.

[WARNING: Contains disturbing images.]

Olbermann and the terrorists

Oliver Willis notes that Keith Olbermann was the victim of an anthrax-style hoax this week:
The acerbic host of "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" was terrified when he opened a suspicious-looking letter with a California postmark and a batch of white powder poured out. A note inside warned Olbermann, who's a frequent critic of President Bush's policies, that it was payback for some of his on-air shtick.

Perhaps just as disturbingly, as Crooks and Liars points out, the New York Post item reporting this actually made fun of him for it. It first described him as an "MSNBC loudmouth," and then went on:
An NYPD HazMat unit rushed to Olbermann's pad on Central Park South, but preliminary tests indicated the substance was harmless soap powder. However, that wasn’t enough to satisfy Olbermann, who insisted on a checkup. He asked to be taken to St. Luke's Hospital, where doctors looked him over and sent him home. Whether they gave him a lollipop on the way out isn't known.

Just in case the folks at the Post have forgotten, what they're describing here -- sending threatening letters through the mail -- is a federal crime. Not only that, but fake-anthrax letters are widely recognized to be a form of terrorism, since they clearly "piggyback" off of the still-unsolved anthrax attacks of 2001.

Perhaps the most notorious of these was the case of Clayton Waagner, who sent fake anthrax letters to some 500 Planned Parenthood clinics. Of course, as Frederick Clarkson reported at the time, despite having been on the FBI's Top Ten Most Wanted List, the Justice Department wound up playing down the prosecution of Waagner, who was sentenced to 19 years in federal prison.

If the NY Post story is anything to judge by, we should expect more of the same here: the attack on Olbermann, at least in the media, will be treated as a "prank" or an "isolated incident." We'll see if anyone in law enforcement treats it seriously.

After all, this kind of case would remind everyone that the Bush administration's version of the "war on terror" is really just a political marketing campaign. And hey, if it happens to involve one of the administration's most effective critics, well, gosh, that's just too bad, isn't it?

UPDATE: Editor and Publisher has more.

A Red State of mind





[Some excerpts from Red State, courtesy of Jesus' General.]

So, just after the 2004 election, I had this great idea for doing something genuinely useful with Orcinus: Traveling to the Great American Interior, visting the Vast Red State Heartland, and talking to people there. Trying to get a sense of what it was that drove so many people out there not just to enthusiastically embrace the conservative movement and Republican rule, but to also so decisively reject liberalism and Democratic rule.

Well, due to a combination of the duties of stay-at-home fatherhood and my own inclination to procrastinate, I never embarked on the venture.

Fortunately, Michael Shea, a California-based filmmaker, also had the same idea -- and had the energy and drive enough to actually carry it out. The result is his remarkable film Red State, which records his odyssey through rural America, interviewing its denizens in the hope of coming to terms with why they vote as they do.

The biggest question, I think, most of us had after the 2004 election, was this: Why do people in rural states so readily support a president whose policies clearly harm them?

Why, when faced with the destruction of their communities at the hand of corporatists, resulting in an increasing gap between rural and urban wages and quality of life, do they consistently reward the politicians who coddle those corporations and exploit that gap?

Red State starts out exploring this question, but by the time you reach the end, most of us will be asking: What the hell is happening to this country?

There's a certain trajectory to Shea's odyssey. At first he encounters the rural folks who used to vote Democrat but haven't for years, because they've become too "liberal" -- but asked to explain what they mean, they can't. Shea hits the right note: "It sounded like he listened to Rush Limbaugh."

Exactly right. Limbaugh and his army of local imitators dominate the airwaves in rural America, and dominate the public discourse there as well, and their drumbeat message is ceaseless: Urban liberals hate people in the heartland, and want to destroy their way of life. And liberals, in their ignorance and arrogance, have done nothing to counter that message.

But as the film progresses, Shea travels deeper into the dark heart of the red states, and encounters finally the theocrats, the closet racists, the right-wing authoritarians and extremists who give this shift to the right its gravitational center. The people who want to remake America into their own lily-white vision of a "Christian nation" that never was.

Shea finds these people "scary," and I suspect that this is how a lot of people will react. My reaction, perhaps predictably, was somewhat different; after all, I've met and interviewed a lot of these people myself, and long ago ceased being scared by them. Instead, I've simply tried to bring them to the attention of the larger public, and I always thought it kind of odd to find my work frequently described as "scary." In gauging other people's reactions to these sequences in Red State, I can see a little better how that happens. Some of these people are scary.

And yet not all of them are, by any means. As Shea notes at the end of the film, he vacillates between being scared by his interview subjects and being impressed by their basic decency. And it's clear that the "Red State America" he uncovers is constituted of two populations -- decent, caring people for whom core values surmount their personal well-being, people who might be reachable through an alternative appeal to their values; and the authoritarians whose glassy eyes conceal a closeted extremism and lurking bigotry, the people who not only condone but legitimize torture, the people who are unreachable.

In the end, Red State leaves us to figure out where to go from there, from that nugget of understanding. It's a terrific way of getting a handle on what is happening to us; but like any good filmmaker, Shea respects his audience enough to let them think it through for themselves.

It's an unflinchingly honest film -- Shea's interviewing skills are rough at first, and he lets us see that; but by the end he hones in beautifully -- and accordingly, Red State should force us all to reassess a lot of our assumptions, both urban liberals as well as garden-variety conservatives. In these times of faux docudramas and endless propaganda, it's exactly what we need.

The General and Digby have more.

I interviewed Shea yesterday and will post the interview tomorrow.

P.S. If you're in the Bay Area, there will be a screening of the film Friday at Cafe lo Cubano, with Shea in attendance. We're still trying to find a screening opportunity in the Seattle area.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

You didn't need to be a futurist to see this one coming

You just needed not to be in denial about the true costs of the right wing's so-called "leadership."

-- Sara

Bring On The Angry Liberals

by Sara Robinson

(If you think you've seen this before, you have: I had this up briefly as a comment, but decided to expand on it, and move it to the main page.)

Two days after the Big Dog bit, the MSM is in full spin about how out-of-control and crazy he was. And Democrats everywhere are flinching and cowering under the onslaught of disapproval. "Yes, yes -- perhaps he did go a bit far. We're sooo sorry. It was wrong, and we won't even THINK of doing it again. Please, Mr. MSM, don't hurt us. We'll be good, we promise."

Pitiful.

The truth of the matter is that we are never, ever going to make our message or delivery perfect enough that it can't be butchered by the MSM. Ever. Whatever we do, it will always be wrong. That's their storyline, and they are sticking to it to the end. Anybody who thinks we're going to change that status quo by simply having better manners or eating more cocktail weenies with them is delusional. These people are not our friends.

The first step in dealing with this situation is acknowledging that cold and immutable reality, accepting it, and deciding how we're going to respond to it.

When it comes to the left, the mainstream media have exactly two all-purpose storylines going. We will always be portrayed as either spineless wussies, or angry loonies. The only choice we have here is to decide which one we're going to play to.

Given that choice, I'll go for angry loony every day of the week.

I'm old enough to remember that back in the 70s, it was the Republicans who were the media's angry loonies. They dealt with it by not giving a damn. Any publicity was good publicity, they figured -- at least they were getting coverage.

But, over time, they also got respect.

Part of it was that they got strategic about focusing that anger, and putting it to work. That's what the whole "liberal media" bogeyman was created for in the first place -- as a focal point for that rage, and a quick shorthand slogan that encapsulated their entire critique of how they were being misportrayed. They gathered the troops and raged against this bogeyman so hard and so often that, within a few years, news editors across the country had learned (through the most blatant kind of operant conditioning) to flinch at the mere echo of their voices, and think twice before writing ill of them. Derision had turned into fear had turned into respect.

At the same time, though -- the opinions of the editorial elite notwithstanding -- a far more important constituency getting the real message. The folks at home watched these "loonies" on their TVs, and could not fail to notice: These people had the strength of their convictions. They had boundaries, and a moral center. They looked like leaders. Ignorance had turned into admiration had turned into respect.

The full trajectory of this change took something more than five years, something less than ten. But it's at the core of how the MSM became the mouthpiece of the Republican party. (Yes, a parallel push to build their own media and control the boards of existing media played a big role, too. But this is what changed the scene on the front lines in newsrooms, and on the ground.) The GOP was not afraid to look crazy -- or to hold the media accountable for how they were portrayed -- because they had their eyes on a longer-term prize.

I say it's high time we borrow this strategy, and put it to work. Let go of the fear. Accept that they're gonna say what theyre gonna say. Stop apologizing for anything. And let's bring on the angry Democrats.

Of course they're going to paint Clinton as an out-of-control loony. Being who they are, they cannot do otherwise; only a pluperfect fool would expect them to. They're following the storyline, and we have no choice but to let them.

But we also need to trust, privately, the Chris Wallaces of the world have just been handed their first lesson about asking questions based on stupid, badly-researched premises -- even as we make damn sure that it won't be the last. Careless and ignorant media talking heads need to be getting their fingers singed this same way a couple times a week for the foreseeable future. If this be loonitude, let's make the most of it.

(Before long, they'll realize that angry liberals actually make for damned good TV. That's not a bad rep to have, either.)

We also need to trust that the audience saw what it saw. There's an emotional appeal to strength and truth in Clinton's performance that transcends spin, and redounds to our benefit over the long haul. We're entering an era when people have less and less patience with the pomo excesses of fuzzy freelance create-your-own-reality spinning. People who can muster up some good rightous indignation -- and back it up with a focused presentation of history and fact -- are looking pretty good right about now.

The GOP itself showed us how this is done. All we have to do now is follow the Big Dog, and go thou and do likewise.

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Big Dog Bites Back

by Sara Robinson

Well, Bill Clinton finally did what we've been waiting six long years for a Democrat (..any Democrat...) to do -- opened up a righteous big can of whupp-ass on the head of the MSM, and rub their faces in it, HARD. Hospital spokespeople state that Chris Wallace is still in guarded but stable condition, and is expected to recover in due time.

Over at Salon's War Room
(premium sub may be required), Glenn Greenwald puts this moment in a larger perspective:

The extent to which blatantly false propaganda can be casually disseminated in our political dialogue is genuinely jarring. Bush followers can make these blatantly false accusations and Chris Wallace can repeat them because they usually go unrebutted by a media that is too slothful and shallow to do the most basic research to determine if they were true. That is why Clinton's aggressive responses to Wallace were so welcome -- it is tragically rare to see anyone forcefully attacking the false propaganda that is the staple of our political debates.

It's tremendously important that Clinton argued back on the facts, and made them stick, even when Wallace kept trying to deflect him. But, in showing us his teeth -- and the white-hot fury that would no longer hold still for the bipartisan date-rape promised so long ago by Grover Norquist, and delivered daily ever since -- the Big Dog also took the whole country to school, and taught us a few things that we all need to remember going forward. Among the lessons:

1. We can debate Republicans on the merits -- but we should not let the facts alone carry the message. In a time of strong political passions, passion often carries the day.

Howard Dean got eviscerated in the media for using his outdoor voice, in large part because he was the first Democrat in anybody's memory who'd had the bad manners to do so. The rules he violated were clear, and had been in place for decades: Democrats weren't supposed to get emotional. Emotion is the GOP's gig -- and a huge reason for their success. If the Democrats started getting excited in public, they'll break up that useful stereotype of them as bland, soulless technocrats who don't love America -- and then where will the Republicans be? No, we can't be having that. So let's make sure Mr. Dean pays for his impropriety with his political life.

Well, Clinton put an end to that era yesterday. Let's hope we've seen the dawning of the new era of the passionate Democrat.

2. We can argue with terrifying force -- and still not yell.

Watching Clinton, I kept thinking: I would not want this man to be mad at me. Ever. He was intense, focused, so tightly sprung that he was almost coming out of his chair. He was in Wallace's space, jabbing him on the knee while accusing him and the rest of the media of gross unfairness and inaccuracy. His rage came out of the screen, a threat so large and looming that even very powerful people would not fail to pay attention.

And yet, through all of that, he never once raised his voice. There was plenty of energy -- but it was bound up in the lucid delivery of facts, and a dogged refusal to let go. He didn't waste it on digust, insult, hollering, or making wild gestures (beyond the poking). There was plenty of emotion -- but it was backed up to the hilt by reason, compassion, honesty, and intelligence. He stuck to the facts -- and made them stick.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is how liberals argue. There's the factual stuff we love. And there's the emotional heat many of our would-be constituents thrive on. But we do not compromise the purity of either the facts or the passion by wasting energy on yelling, screaming, name-calling, or personal threats. That's sandbox behavior -- and Americans are coming to realize that our times are too treacherous for politics to be left to the GOP's gang of kindergarten bullies. When the Democrats argue like grownups -- firmly and powerfully focusing our superior control of both ourselves and the facts -- we're telling the nation we can be trusted to handle the country's business in a grownup way.

3. The media cannot count on rolling over on supine Democrats any more.

The worst thing about being a journalist of my vintage is that the narrative arc of our careers has pretty much followed the career trajectory of Bob Woodward. We started out in the post-Watergate euphoria -- young and hungry, committed to our important role, true believers in Truth, Justice, and the American Way. And, over time, we watched ol' Bob and the rest of our peers sell out, cash in, suck up, and give away the franchise. As Glenn Greenwald says above, guys like Chris Wallace get paid more than the president -- but can't be bothered to spend five minutes with Google or Lexis-Nexis unearthing even a few shreds of background history that might put their stories into a larger, deeper context. Only rookies fresh out of college apparently bother themselves with actual research any more. The rank of a journalist is now measured by the degree to which they can get away with just making stuff up.

Corporate media is premised on the belief that consumers don't want that kind of analysis. It's not worth doing, because it doesn't sell airtime. And, conveniently, it also means they can say any damn fool thing about anybody, and nobody's ever going to go back and hold them accountable for it.

Yesterday, Clinton held Wallace and FOX News accountable. He said: This story has a real history, with real people doing things of real consequence. And, for once, I'm going to make you honor that. If you're not telling the whole tale -- all the way back to 1993 -- you're not doing your job. So I'm going to shame you in front of the whole country by doing it for you.

4. Fighting back does not cost us respect. It increases it -- especially when truth, honor, and American values are on the line.

Progressives aren't the only ones completely exasperated by the way Democrats meekly stand down at the merest growl or snarl from the GOP. Decades of shrinking back and saying "Nice doggy...nice doggy..." have not made the dog stop chewing our legs or eating our shorts. In fact, they've left us half-naked, and without a leg left to stand on.

The whole country has now noticed it -- and they're exasperated, too, wondering when we're going to start acting like real red-blooded Americans and start standing up for the merest basics of our own dignity. Most of us wouldn't trust an individual adult who willingly allowed others to impugn their motives, tell blatant lies about them, accept private abuse or public humiliation, or otherwise fail to defend their personal boundaries. And yet the Democratic party has done exactly that. It will not lift a finger to defend itself from decades of public GOP outrages; and yet, somehow, still thinks it can win the respect of the voters -- and with it, the right to lead the country.

In the past year or so, we've started to see the re-emergence of the Fighting Dem -- but Clinton's performance on Sunday was a breakthrough. Because of who he is, FOX couldn't reduce it to a few loony soundbites, or cut the interview short, or pretend it never happened. And so the country got to see what real liberal outrage can be -- elegant, adult, brilliant, furious, and compelling.

Let's not let this moment get by us. Let's watch the replay a few times, take careful notes, and make sure we learn the lessons. And the next time we're confronted with the braying hordes of GOP mutts, we could do a whole lot worse than take a minute, reflect on Sunday's takedown, ask ourselves: "What would the Big Dog do?" -- and do it.

Torture and Jesus

Digby posted this as a superb example of the way the torture issue can and should be framed:



Thanks to Tristero and Atrios, too.

Regarding the latter: I think his caveat regarding the "Jesus Warrior" types is important. But I also happen to believe they're in the distinct minority.

Yes, it's true that fundamentalism attracts all kinds of right-wing authoritarians. And frankly, there is no hope of reaching the hard core among them. But there are many, many of them who are not fully absorbed by it, whose humanity lies not too far under the surface. And I believe we can reach them.

One of my commenters put it this way:
I work for a Christian University, and I've been hearing a lot of talk about this torture business. I'm seeing a lot of solid red voters re-thinking their entire frame of reference because of this. At first, when I would ask them if secret prisons and torture were things a "Christian Nation" would be involved with, they'd put up a half-hearted fight, but as decent folk, really, they seem to be taking a closer look at their scripture.

The point is not to win them all over. The point is to make enough them think about it to give them pause.

And while we're at it, be sure to read Pastor Dan on this.

Torture: What Would Jesus Do?





I've been hearing a lot of talk that the recent capitulation on American torture policy has demoralized many in the Democratic rank and file. And understandably so; the Bush administration is plunging the nation into the moral abyss, and it seems that not only is there nothing we can do to stop them, but the people who are supposed to be fighting for us are self-evidently incompetent.

I think they're mistaken. Republicans, in their hubris, have just handed progressives a valuable gift, an opportunity to win hearts and minds beyond anything they've done in the past decade. Progressives just need to be smart enough to grab it.

The baseline problem with torture, after all, is that it is prima facie immoral, a violation not just of the Golden Rule and basic Christian precepts, but of nearly any system of ethics. Even the most hard-nosed rationalist will come to this conclusion (see, e.g., Kant's Categorical Imperative). It's an obvious one if you're a Christian.

All you have to present to any Christian, when it comes to torture, is their own favorite moral-guidepost aphorism: What Would Jesus Do?

To anyone familiar not just with Jesus' teachings but the story of his martyrdom -- including his torture at the hands of authorities -- the answer is crystal clear.

I just got done watching Michael Shea's remarkable documentary Red State (more about it soon) and was struck, once again (as was Shea) by the way rural voters sometimes talk like liberals about their real lives but, when it comes time to vote, they vote Republican, because they believe the GOP reflects their values.

These are the "Values Voters" that the conservative movement likes to claim as their own, of course. But in their arrogance, they have finally demonstrated in stark terms just how far afield from genuine heartland values -- especially those regarding basic human decency, as a reflection of Christian morality -- they in reality are.

Republicans, of course, want it to be a question of toughness: Are we willing to do "what it takes" to defeat terrorists?

But torture is not "toughness." It is in fact a sign of weakness -- particularly the moral kind.

It is, in the end, a moral issue, and one drawn in stark black and white. As the late Joan Fitzpatrick put it: The torturer is the enemy of mankind.

Does America want to become known around the world as the nation that tortures? Does America, which likes to think of itself as the "beacon of democracy" around the world, want to instead become known as "the enemy of mankind"?

This is a question that can be put to any American, regardless of their faith.

But for the Christians out there -- including those who insist we are a "Christian nation" -- the question can be put in much simpler terms: Given the chance, would Jesus attach the electrodes and pull the switch? Would he waterboard? Would he dangle them in chains and beat their feet? Would he stand by and watch while others do it in his name?

Of course, there are plenty of "Jesus warrior" types who might resist, insisting that Christ would never relent in the face of the enemies of his faith. But their rationalizations cannot help but be convoluted and thin, a tangle of twisted words that obscure the moral clarity that Jesus himself conveyed through every word of his teachings.

If we become a nation of torturers, we will have truly lost our souls, not to mention any moral standing we might have in the eyes of the world. And Jesus himself would be the first to tell us so.

Progressives who understand this should not hesitate to bring it up. When a Rovian Republican tries to smear them as "soft on terror," it's time to shoot back and portray them, simply, as the amoral monsters they have become.

I understand that progressives are reluctant to appeal to people's sense of morality because such appeals have been so readily used and abused by right-wing ideologues who have built an entire movement out of wrapping themselves in moral values. We also know that it's just so much wrapping, that at the core of their agenda is a crudely amoral, dog-eat-dog social Darwinism, a Machiavellian manipulativeness aimed solely at acquiring power.

Torture is the kind of issue that lets us strip that false dressing away. If we do not understand that, and seize the opportunity to establish just whose values we truly represent, then we probably deserve to descend into the abyss with the rest.

POSTSCRIPT: I was on David Goldstein's radio show on KIRO-AM last night discussing the torture issue. You can listen to it here.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Yes, You Can Talk To These People

And they'll listen and respond, too.

Especially when they realize, up close and personal, that they're getting the short end of the deal.

-- Sara

Serious about terror

Gee, now here's a surprise:
The war in Iraq has become a primary recruitment vehicle for violent Islamic extremists, motivating a new generation of potential terrorists around the world whose numbers may be increasing faster than the United States and its allies can reduce the threat, U.S. intelligence analysts have concluded.

A 30-page National Intelligence Estimate completed in April cites the "centrality" of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the insurgency that has followed, as the leading inspiration for new Islamic extremist networks and cells that are united by little more than an anti-Western agenda. It concludes that, rather than contributing to eventual victory in the global counterterrorism struggle, the situation in Iraq has worsened the U.S. position, according to officials familiar with the classified document.

You know, I'm not someone who likes to say "I told you so," but goddammit, I did. Repeatedly. And I was hardly alone. The same was being said at the highest levels of the "war on terror": Richard Clarke, after all, was warning the administration of this outcome before the invasion, and he was ignored. Like the rest of us.

As I noted later:

It is not only Richard Clarke, of course, who believes the nation has gotten seriously off track in the war on terrorism thanks to the Iraq Misadventure. That view, in fact, is held by nearly every serious authority on combating terrorism. Because they know what terrorism is really about.

But somehow, today, even among the so-called "liberal hawks" who are now blaming their misjudgment on the Bush administration's incompetence and their failure to foresee that. And certainly, Bush misfeasance is no small factor here.

But the fact remains that this outcome was not only foreseeable but explicitly foreseen, and those of us who were making this argument were dismissed before the war, and continue to be dismissed, as insufficiently "serious" about dealing with terrorism. That characterization has been part of a steady drumbeat painting liberals as "soft" on the issue, and we're still hearing it to this day.

Well, as I said at the time:
Just in case the prowar right wasn't paying attention the first time around, let's reiterate: The mass of opposition to the war had nothing to do with whether we would win. Opposition was always about what kind of nation we are -- and what we will become -- as we combat terrorism.

... The real danger the Bush Doctrine represents -- of inspiring a fresh round, perhaps even generations, of even more lethal terrorism -- has hardly subsided with the fall of Baghdad.

The gloating of the jingoes may drown out those fears for a day or two. But they will return.

Indeed they have.

Now who, exactly, is "serious" about terrorism, and has been all along?

And when, exactly, will these great Beltway minds actually listen to what we have to say?

Digby and Glenn Greenwald have more.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Handmaidens to torture





Much is being said about Democrats' abysmal failure in stopping the White House's plans to proceed with torturing people suspected of being terrorists, and for good reason. As Digby (in a typically definitive take) points out, the supposed forces of liberalism have simply been rolled by the machinations of the Bush administration.

But equally abysmal has been the performance of the press in making clear to the American public just what is going on here -- from the get-go. Indeed, for the most part, the press has looked the other way, burying stories that should have been atop their front pages, and treating what should have been monstrous scandals as simply politics-as-usual.

It began, in reality, back in 2002, with the abuse of prisoners in Afghanistan. Eric Umansky in Columbia Journalism Review has an in-depth look at how the story was handled by the press, particularly the New York Times, which broke the story -- and then buried it:
Gall filed a story, on February 5, 2003, about the deaths of Dilawar and another detainee. It sat for a month, finally appearing two weeks before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. "I very rarely have to wait long for a story to run," says Gall. "If it's an investigation, occasionally as long as a week."

Gall's story, it turns out, had been at the center of an editorial fight. Her piece was "the real deal. It referred to a homicide. Detainees had been killed in custody. I mean, you can't get much clearer than that," remembers Roger Cohen, then the Times's foreign editor. "I pitched it, I don't know, four times at page-one meetings, with increasing urgency and frustration. I laid awake at night over this story. And I don't fully understand to this day what happened. It was a really scarring thing. My single greatest frustration as foreign editor was my inability to get that story on page one."

Doug Frantz, then the Times's investigative editor and now the managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, says Howell Raines, then the Times's top editor, and his underlings "insisted that it was improbable; it was just hard to get their mind around. They told Roger to send Carlotta out for more reporting, which she did. Then Roger came back and pitched the story repeatedly. It's very unusual for an editor to continue to push a story after the powers that be make it clear they’re not interested. Roger, to his credit, pushed." (Howell Raines declined requests for comment.)

"Compare Judy Miller's WMD stories to Carlotta's story," says Frantz. "On a scale of one to ten, Carlotta's story was nailed down to ten. And if it had run on the front page, it would have sent a strong signal not just to the Bush administration but to other news organizations."

Instead, the story ran on page fourteen under the headline "U.S.Military Investigating Death of Afghan in Custody." (It later became clear that the investigation began only as a result of Gall's digging.)

I raised the issue back in March of 2003 when the buried Times report first was published. I quoted University of Washington law professor Joan Fitzpatrick (who, tragically, died in an apparent suicide two months later), a widely respected expert in international humanitarian law.

Fitzpatrick, in fact, sent a letter to the Times:
The "interrogation" techniques described in "U.S. Military Investigating Death of Afghan in Custody" (March 4, 2003, A14) violate basic norms of international humanitarian law. The Geneva Conventions require humane treatment of all prisoners, whether POWs or "unlawful combatants," and regardless of the nature of the conflict. All acts of violence or intimidation, outrages upon personal dignity, and humiliating and degrading treatment are strictly forbidden. Does the Department of Defense argue that chaining naked prisoners to the ceiling, in freezing weather, and kicking them to keep them awake for days on end, are practices consistent with the Geneva Conventions? Is the DOD prepared to tolerate this treatment of American POWs in the Iraq war?

These practices also violate human rights treaties to which the United States is a party, specifically the prohibitions on torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. The United States may not transfer Al Qaeda suspects to other states to facilitate their torture; that too is a violation. Moreover, there is no state on earth "that does not have legal restrictions against torture" ("Questioning of Accused Expected to Be Human, Legal and Aggressive", March 4, 2003, A13). The prohibition on torture is a peremptory norm of customary international law binding on all nations. The torturer is the enemy of all mankind.

If President Bush has commanded these practices, he has committed serious international crimes and crimes against the laws of the United States that are impeachable offenses. Congress must investigate immediately.

Secretary Rumsfeld last Friday again revealed his complete ignorance of the laws of war by suggesting that Iraqi POWs could be tried before military commissions. They may be tried only by court martial, under rules identical to those applicable to U.S. forces. As Bush and Rumsfeld are poised to launch a major war in Iraq, the world stands appalled by their utter disregard for the most fundamental norms of humanity in wartime. Heaven help our "enemies" and our own soldiers.

The Times, of course, never ran her letter.

And when the abuses at Abu Ghraib were revealed, the press utterly failed to examine just how far up the chain of command these abuses originated -- even though there was a trail of evidence leading right up to the top. Certainly there are indications that not just Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, but also former Solicitor General Ted Olson, the White House's legal advocate, were directly involved.

What happened instead was that the press, as a general rule, looked the other way and swallowed whole the administration spin that the problem was consigned to a "few bad apples. As Umansky goes on to explain:
But just as sweeping attacks against "the media" are too reductive, so too are plaudits. And when the record on torture coverage is examined in detail, an ambiguous picture emerges: in the post-9/11 days, some reporters offered detailed accusations and reports of abuse and torture, only to be met with skepticism by their own editors. Stories were buried, played down, or ignored -- a reluctance that is much diminished but still bubbles up with regard to the culpability of policymakers.

So now we are faced, as Marty Lederman has detailed at Balkinization, with the prospect of becoming the first nation to allow violations of the Geneva Conventions:
It only takes 30 seconds or so to see that the Senators have capitulated entirely, that the U.S. will hereafter violate the Geneva Conventions by engaging in Cold Cell, Long Time Standing, etc., and that there will be very little pretense about it. In addition to the elimination of habeas rights in section 6, the bill would delegate to the President the authority to interpret "the meaning and application of the Geneva Conventions" "for the United States," except that the bill itself would define certain "grave breaches" of Common Article 3 to be war crimes.

... And then, for good measure -- and this is perhaps the worst part of the bill, for purposes going far beyond the questions of torture and interrogation -- section 7 would preclude courts altogether from ever interpreting the Geneva Conventions -- any part of them -- by providing that "no person may invoke the Geneva Conventions or any protocols thereto in any habeas or civil action or proceeding to which the United States, or a current or former officer, employee, member of the Armed Forces, or other agent of the United States, is a party as a source of rights, in any court of the United States or its States or territories."

Now, too late, the press is starting to recognize the moral abyss into which the Bush administration is leading the nation. The Washington Post editorial today says:
Mr. Bush wanted Congress to formally approve these practices and to declare them consistent with the Geneva Conventions. It will not. But it will not stop him either, if the legislation is passed in the form agreed on yesterday. Mr. Bush will go down in history for his embrace of torture and bear responsibility for the enormous damage that has caused.

And then there was the New York Times editorial today:
The deal does next to nothing to stop the president from reinterpreting the Geneva Conventions. While the White House agreed to a list of "grave breaches" of the conventions that could be prosecuted as war crimes, it stipulated that the president could decide on his own what actions might be a lesser breach of the Geneva Conventions and what interrogation techniques he considered permissible. It's not clear how much the public will ultimately learn about those decisions.

Why not? Well, for answers, we can look to the "nation's paper of record" and its fellow lapdogs in the nation's press.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Freaking out at the Moonie Times




[George W. Bush greets staff and management from the Washington Times at the White House in January 2005. Francis Coombs is at his immediate left.]

Max Blumenthal has been producing a nonstop series of must-read reports in the past year, mostly for The Nation, including his recent expose of the Path to 9/11 miscreants.

Now he's topped it with a stunning inside account of the bigots and fools who run the Washington Times, including the welcome news that their bumbling ways have brought the paper's management to the brink of termination:
A nasty succession battle is now heating up at the paper, punctuated by allegations of racism, sexism and unprofessional conduct, that has implications far beyond its fractious newsroom. According to several reliable inside sources, Preston Moon, the youngest son of Korean Unification Church leader and Times financier Sun Myung Moon, has initiated a search committee to find a replacement for editor in chief Wesley Pruden--a replacement who is not Pruden's handpicked successor, managing editor Francis Coombs.

But Pruden and Coombs, evidently, don't intend to go down quietly:
Pruden and Coombs have stonewalled Preston Moon's investigation and threatened to hold a public news conference, during which they would denounce "the crazy Moonies" and claim that Preston Moon and his father are pressuring them to inject pro-Unification Church propaganda into the paper's coverage, according to a senior newsroom staffer. Times president Douglas D.M. Joo is backing Coombs and Pruden to the bitter end. Joo is a business rival of Preston Moon who, the senior staffer says, would be stripped of his post at the Times and redeployed to Korea if Pruden and Coombs go down. "This is a cancer that goes all the way to the top," the senior staffer said of the paper's tolerance of bigotry. "And if you don't root out the cancer, it will kill you. If this ever got out to the mainstream press, we would be finished as a paper."

Particularly damning is Blumenthal's portrait of Coombs, who has been the paper's driving force in ginning up the debate over immigration and promoting (indeed, practically creating) the Minutemen. Coombs' racial animus is portrayed in stark detail, including this little anecdote:
Countering the "feel-good perspective" on race appears to be Coombs's passion. George Archibald told me that when he showed Coombs a photo of his nephew's African-American girlfriend, Coombs "went off like a rocket about interracial marriage and how terrible it was. He actually used the phrase 'the niggerfication of America.' He said, 'Not in my lifetime. If my daughter went out with a black, I would cut her throat.'"

Then there's Coombs' protege, the execrable Robert Stacy McCain (purportedly a social acquaintance of former National Socialist Movement leader Bill White). Another revealing detail:
But McCain's views on race are well-known among his colleagues. In August 2002, according to Archibald, during a discussion in the newsroom about civil rights, McCain defended slavery as "good for the blacks and good for property owners." "We were just appalled," Archibald said. "He is just a complete animalistic racist."

Oh, and then there's the rampant sexism and misogyny. But that's part of the usual right-wing package, isn't it?

Anyway, go read it all.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Webs of Evil, Webs of Light

by Sara Robinson
Onnesha Roychoudhuri's remarkable Tracking The Torture Taxi at Truthdig is the kind of reporting that, in better years, used to appear on the front pages of the country's best newsmagazines. The story is an interview with Trevor Paglen, an expert in secret military bases, and A.C. Thompson of the S.F. Weekly, whose recent book, "Tracking the Torture Taxi," follows their two-year quest to confirm the details of the American gulag built by the CIA and its contractors throughout the world.

The article alone is a hell of a read (which means that I'm going to have to go get the damn book now, and find time to read it). The most striking thing about this story -- apart from the way it blows the lid off America's secret prison network -- is the vast open-source network that Paglen and Thompson assembled in order to bring this most secret of operations into the light. It's a pure act of 21st-century participatory journalism. Here's Roychoudhuri's description:

When U.S. civilian airplanes were spotted in late 2002 taking trips to and from Andrews Air Force Base, and making stops in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, journalists and plane-spotters wondered what was going on. It soon became clear that these planes were part of the largest covert operation since the Cold War era.

Called extraordinary rendition, the practice involves CIA officials or contractors kidnapping people and sending them to secret prisons around the world where they are held and often tortured, either at the hands of the host-country's government or by CIA personnel themselves.

On Sept. 6, after a long period of official no-comments, President Bush acknowledged the program's existence. But the extent of its operations has yet to be publicly disclosed.

How extensive is it? Trevor Paglen, an expert in clandestine military installations, and A.C. Thompson, an award-winning journalist for S.F. Weekly, spent months tracking the CIA flights and the businesses behind them. What they found was a startlingly broad network of planes (including the Gulfstream jet belonging to Boston Red Sox co-owner Phillip Morse), shell companies, and secret prisons around the world. Perhaps the most disturbing revelation of their new book "Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA's Rendition Flights" is the collusion of everyday Americans in this massive CIA program. From family lawyers who bolster the shell companies, to an entire town in Smithfield, N.C., that hosts CIA planes and pilots, "Torture Taxi" is the story of the broad reach of extraordinary rendition, and, as Hannah Arendt coined the phrase, the banality of evil.


The story that unfolds from there is a case study in the enormous power of shared information networks. Paglen, who is part of a group at Berkeley researching military programs, hooked up with the community of planespotting hobbyists around the world. "At some point," Paglen tells Roychoudhuri, "this hobbyist community became aware that there were these civilian planes flying around, acting as if they were working in military black programs. These people started tracking the planes and repeatedly seeing them in places like Libya and Guantanamo Bay. It became pretty clear that this was a CIA thing and that these were planes that were involved in the extraordinary rendition program." When Dana Priest's coverage of America's secret prison network broke late last year, it provided the larger context in which Paglen's questions began to make sense.

Joining forces with Thompson, who supplied expertise in corporate research, the two were able to not only re-create the vast network of "torture taxis" operated by the CIA; they also discovered the various corporate shells and phony companies (some of them formed by entirely fictitious people) that gave this virtual airline its official cover, and protected it from oversight. Technology plays a huge role in this story, too: at one point, they located the infamous Salt Pit torture facility in Kabul using Google Earth and a rough description of the base's layout from someone who'd been confined there.

This isn't just an astonishing story, as shattering in its way as the stories that led to Frank Church's congressional investigation of the CIA in the mid-70s (which, in turn, gave us FISA and the rest of it). It's also a harbinger of what journalism might look like in the future -- trained researchers working in tandem with vast networks of amateurs, gathering information on a global scale and working together to discern meaningful patterns that tell the story.

But there's a ghastly flipside to this as well. As Roychoudhuri observes, "Torture Taxi" is also a tale of how these same networks can also conspire to increase the banality quotient of the evils committed.

As Thompson started pursuing the dummy corporations that were giving cover to these operations, one of the striking things he found was that the lawyers involved weren't the usual suspects. Rather than firms with known CIA or DC connections, they were usually small law offices run in rural towns by one or two lawyers:

The kind of people we're talking about are Dean Plakias in Dedham, Mass., outside of Boston. He is not a high-profile guy. He's a family lawyer with a small practice and how he ended up in this world is still a mystery. This is an American story, a neighborhood story. When we started looking at all the front companies the CIA had erected, we realized our neighbors were helping the CIA set up these structures. These are family lawyers in suburban Massachusetts and Reno, Nevada. People in our communities are doing dirty work for the CIA. This is not just people being snatched up from one faraway country and taken to a country that's even farther away.?

And, he goes on to say, these folks usually have the tacit support of their communities.

We went to Nevada, Massachusetts and New York to track down the front companies. We went to Beale Air force base in Northern California to track U2 spy planes. We went to Smithfield, N.C, which is home to the airfields that many of these airplanes fly out of. Then we went to Kabul and Gardez, Afghanistan.

But the two most interesting places were the rural town of Smithfield and Kinston down the road, where there's another airstrip that a company called Aero Contractors uses. Aero is the company that flies many of these missions for the CIA. We went there and talked to a pilot who had worked for Aero about exactly what they did and how the program worked. There's nothing random about the CIA using this rural area in North Carolina. If you wanted to shut up a secret operation, this is where you would do it. It's a god, guns, and guts area.

What you start to figure out by spending time in Smithfield is that a lot of people know about the company and have at least an inkling of what goes on at the airport. Most don't want to talk about it and don't take a critical view of it. Folks we met there framed the debate within this religious discourse. The activists that we talked to were god-fearing devout Christians who felt like this was not what they signed up for as religious people, that it violates the religious tenets they adhere to. Interestingly, folks on the other side of the debate seem to be coming from a similar place, but just coming to a different conclusion. The subject of whether or not torture was permitted by the Bible was discussed in church there - and many congregants believed it was.

Thompson's partner, Paglen, puts the acquiescence into a larger context. "It's this small town with this open secret that nobody wants to talk about. It shows what's going on culturally. When a country starts doing things like torturing and disappearing people, it's not just a policy question, it's also a cultural question."

When we kick around visions of what a coming fascist America might look like, we sometimes imagine brownshirt anti-immigration thuggery, domestic terrorism committed by anti-choice zealots, and book-burning barbecues hosted by raging fundamentalists. But Thompson and Paglen's research seems to document the fact that we already have more than the required number of Good Germans - the staid rural burghers who quietly acknowledge the torture flights taking off from their local airports with the same combination of benign righteousness and willful denial that allowed the citizens of small towns in eastern Germany and Poland to wipe the dust of the crematoriums off their windowsills and go on about their everyday lives.

The worldwide web gives people like Thompson and Paglen access to the vast network of facts required to unravel the story of the gulag. That same web also connects people and churches in the most rural parts of America into vast consensus networks that enable them to justify their quiet, active support of that gulag, and perpetuate the treasonous evil it represents. As Paglen says: how we use this power is a cultural question that goes to the heart of who we are. It's a question that also offers us a glimpse into the best and the worst of what America's next world order might be.