Friday, March 12, 2004

Rush Limbaugh is a Lying Liar

George W. Bush's campaign ads exploiting the victims of Sept. 11 demonstrated clearly that, when it comes to Bush's re-election, "nothing is out of bounds" for conservatives. This includes, of course, smearing not only his opponent, John Kerry, but anyone who dares speak up against Bush's appalling behavior. That in turn includes even the grieving families of the Sept. 11 dead.

Leading the charge, unsurprisingly, is the movement's leading propagandist and smear artist, Rush Limbaugh.

On Monday's Limbaugh program, the Most Dangerous Man in America followed up on a Friday rant against the families who had complained about the Bush ads, claiming that their organization had been funded by Theresa Heinz Kerry's foundation:
Here, for those of you that weren't here on Friday, this is the montage. I'm just going to play it one more time. This is two different women, and they appeared on four networks: CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, and NBC, and they each have three phrases that they use verbatim. And these were prepared. These were prepared by Democratic campaign consultants. In fact, these women sound like campaign consultants, not grieving family members, and I was reluctant to make this charge; it's the first thing that crossed my mind. As I say, we've now learned all the organizational effort that's going on behind this and these people are indeed aligned with the Democratic Party, and it's just? I do not know this kind of hatred; I don't know this kind of venom; I don't harbor it; I never have; I don't know what it's like to be governed by this kind of rage, and I don't know what life must be like when it is. I cannot relate. I cannot relate to being obsessed with rage and hatred. I can relate to being obsessed with love and infatuation, but I cannot relate to being obsessed with all this hatred. I just don't get it. It is unspeakable to me. It is dirty. It is wounding. I think this stuff is absolutely poison, the depths -- and Ted Kennedy on Friday goes to the Council on Foreign Relations and -- I got the story coming up -- makes all these wild accusations. John Kerry himself is becoming, if you ask me, a walking caricature of himself already. I think these people have no clue.

Limbaugh is, if nothing else, living proof that projection isn't just for movie theaters anymore. But he is above all a purveyor of crudely false information. Otherwise known as lies.

As Allan P. Duncan explained in detail in an piece, Limbaugh's characterization of the situation was flatly wrong in several respects. First, and perhaps most notably, the women whose voices he played on the program did not belong to the organization he was claiming was tied to Heinz-Kerry:
The transcript for the show had a link, Listen to Rush, so I clicked it and listened to the part of his show that the transcript covered. I discovered that Voice I belonged to Kristen Breitweiser and that Voice II belonged to Monica Gabrielle.

Kristen Breitweiser and Monica Gabrielle are both members of the Family Steering Committee for the 9-11 Commission and are not members of the group Limbaugh claims received funding from Teresa Heinz Kerry. That group, according to news reports that began hitting the wires on March 6th was September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.

Moreover, it turned out that not even Peaceful Tomorrows was connected to Heinz-Kerry as Limbaugh had claimed. The organization issued a release flatly denying the accusation:
September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows has never received funding from the Howard Heinz Endowment, the Vira I. Heinz Endowment, Teresa Heinz Kerry or John Kerry.

Peaceful Tomorrows has no connection with the Heinz or Kerry families through Tides Foundation, the Tides Center or any other entity.

Maxwell King of the Heinz Endowments replied to the allegations in the New York Post, where Limbaugh's version of things appears to have originated:
Your allegation ["(Mrs.) Kerry's Cash Connection," Editorial, March 9] that an organization called Peaceful Tomorrows has received funding from foundations directed by Teresa Heinz Kerry is flat-out wrong.

The allegation rests on a false assumption -- that Heinz Endowments funding of the Tides Center for projects in western Pennsylvania is "fungible," as you state in your editorial, and so can be redirected to other causes.

In fact, by legally binding contract, every penny of our support to Tides has been explicitly directed to specific projects in our region. It cannot legally be redirected and is the exact opposite of "fungible."

It should also be noted that Limbaugh asserts, without any factual basis, that "Democratic consultants" prepped the Family Steering Committee members who appeared on TV. According to the committee's recent statement, that too is simply false:
We have been accused of being tutored by a particular political party to make statements against the current administration. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are Americans who care about the future of this country. Our nonpartisan mission has always been clear: to find out how 9/11 happened so that nothing like it will ever happen again.

I don't know about the rest of you, but:

I couldn't believe that the Republican Party would sink this low, to exploit and capitalize on the misery and loss of families. But they did it. They found a way. In fact, they found some radio talk-show hosts -- and I'm going to say this -- they found some talk-show hosts who seem to have more concern over who the president of this country is than over the sanctity of the loss of other people's own family members, and who are willing to go on the air and lie about these people and smear their motives. It is beyond the pale that this could happen. It is beyond the pale, yet people cooperate with it, and so much more has been learned about this since.

They have literally been poisoned by their hate. They have been poisoned by their rage. It is unbelievable, the depths to which they will sink.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

He vants to rule the world

Look, we always knew Larry Klayman, the head of Judicial Watch and a leading figure in the impeachment drama, was a bit off the wall in his obsession about "getting" the Clintons. He represented in many ways the worst, most fanatical side of the GOP in that episode. (This was the guy who sued his own mother.)

Lately, David Corn has been reporting in The Nation about the likelihood that Klayman -- who is now running for the U.S. Senate in Florida -- is also crooked, rather nakedly violating campaign laws by soliciting a loan for a direct-mail house.

Corn also reveals that Klayman is not merely obsessive. He's genuinely nuts:
In an October 2 letter to Richard Scaife--written days after Klayman had lunch with him--Klayman referred to a loan idea. First he laid out his master plan. "As a senator," he wrote, "I will have considerable powers that I did not have at Judicial Watch, including the ability to investigate and prosecute in the Senate Hillary Clinton much like Richard Nixon did with the communist spy Alger Hiss.... if I am someday to run for president, I need the credentials to do so; being a senator will provide me with this. If not this year, Hillary Clinton obviously will run for the presidency in 2008. I plan to oppose her, God be willing." Then he made a pitch: "Dick, once again I need your help to achieve this goal. As explained, I left Judicial Watch without resources and must rely on direct mail to raise the monies to challenge my millionaire opponents. If you know of someone or some entity that can finance the direct mail firm, by providing a loan with an 18 percent return on investment, I would be most grateful." A Scaife spokesperson maintains that Scaife never received this letter. "He has not given one dime to Mr. Klayman's campaign," she adds, "and in fact he discouraged him from running."

That's it! By finally subduing the Evil Clinton invasion, Larry Klayman will become a national hero and a shoo-in for the presidency! What a brilliant strategy! Bwah hahahahahaha.

Sin and the law

One of the contentions we're hearing from the right these days against allowing gays to marry is that doing so forces Christians to accept homosexuality -- and thus it is gay-rights advocates, not proponents of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex unions, who are the aggressors in the "Culture War."

The other day in my comments, a fellow named Shawn McFarland offered an iteration of this argument:
For most Christians homosexuality is a sin that is tolerated, but to try to force Christains to accept that homosexual unions are somehow equivalent to marriage, is essentially forcing Christians to claim that homosexuality is not a sin.

The problem with the religious right's argument in this case is similar to its faulty logic in other areas as well, especially regarding abortion: It confuses what's sinful with what's illegal.

There is, of course, a real multitude sins elucidated in the Bible. Among them: Divorce. Usury. Breaking the Sabbath. Spiritual pride. Taking the Lord's name in vain.

Are any of these against the law? Not in America. The nation's economy wouldn't be able to function if usury -- the lending of money at an interest rate -- were outlawed.

It is one of the conceits of the religious right, of course, that American law is based on "Biblical law." (See the whole Roy Moore dustup.) But that's largely mythical. The body of American law is decidedly secular in nature, and is driven almost purely by logic and ethics, rather than religious morality.

This basic confusion on the part of fundamentalists leads them to believe that if the Bible forbids it, it oughta be against the law too.

Problem is, if that were to happen ... it wouldn't be America anymore. But then, they seem to know that.

It should be clear who's playing the aggressor here. Indeed, the whole "Culture War" -- just like "Class War" -- is largely an invention, and a strategy, of the right.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Divided Passions

It's becoming harder to pretend that it's "just a movie" anymore.

If forced to predict (something I'm not very keen on, to be honest) just what the real-world reaction to the radical Catholicism of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ would be, I'd have guessed that it wouldn't have resulted in anything concrete in the way of serious eruptions of anti-Semitism, not to mention hate crimes or other violence. As I said in my original review, the anti-Semitism in the film is not as overt or crude as what you might find in, say, Nazi propaganda. Its effect, I thought, would be more attitudinal -- as in cases like the one Atrios noted in the L.A. Times' letters. This effect was likely to contribute to a general atmosphere condoning violence, aimed more generally at liberals than at Jews specifically.

That assessment, however, may have been wrong -- at least in terms of the timetable and the intensity of the attitudes. Hate crimes have already popped up their ugly visage, as well as various iterations of anti-Semitism in differing degrees.

Most of the activity of note so far has occurred in Denver. First there was the suburban pastor who, shortly after the film's opening, put up a letterboard sign outside his Lovingway United Pentecostal Church that read "Jews Killed The Lord Jesus." He said the sign was inspired by Gibson's film. After both Jews and Christians voiced their outrage, he put up a sign of apology.

But that was just the start. More recently, someone last Friday night vandalized a Denver synagogue by painting about 10 swastikas and other neo-Nazi symbols on it.
Ramon Saenz, a custodian for the synagogue, said he saw the Nazi symbols when he arrived at work about 8:30 a.m. Saturday.

Saenz said he checked the building for other damage but that everything seemed in order. Nothing was stolen, he said.

"There's a lot of crazy people in this world," he said. "I thought it might have something to do with the movie."

He referred to "The Passion of the Christ," released Feb. 25. Many Jewish and Christian religious leaders have expressed apprehension that anti-Semitism would result from the movie's portrayal of Jewish authorities and Jewish mobs involved in crucifying Jesus. The director, Mel Gibson, has denied being anti-Semitic.

Cohen also said the vandalism may have been sparked by the movie. "I do feel, after watching the film, that it sponsors the spirit of anti-Semitism," the rabbi said. "We need to be sensitive to images and stereotypes we portray."

On Sunday, about 300 people of various faiths showed up to assist in the cleanup effort. Some of the volunteers also pointed the finger of blame:
Elise Zakroff said she was sure the film inspired the graffiti.

"What Mel Gibson did is terrible," Zakroff said. "It is happening all over. We are tired of anti-Semitism. All we want is peace."

Nonetheless, the turnout was a good sign. A Jim Spencer column rather warmly describes the response as an effort to emphasize the "Not in Our Town" sentiments of the larger Denver community. It may seem to the undiscerning that such efforts are mostly "feelgood" measures to paper over the insidious nature of these acts, but this is in fact an important step for the community to take. Responding quietly or pretending it didn't happen -- which is often the response advocated by those who think such criminals feed on publicity, so why give them what they want? -- is always considered a signal of acquiescence and even tacit approval by the average bias criminal.

But it's apparent that, community-enhancement exercises notwithstanding, the situation is becoming volatile in Denver. Now someone else has vandalized the Lovingway Pentecostal church where the earlier controversy erupted by painting a pair of swastikas on a sign. Mind you, swastikas do not contain the same meaning for a fundamentalist Christian church as they do for a synagogue; nonetheless, it's hard clear that there was a retaliatory component to the vandalism. The threatening nature of both these attacks could signal that things are getting out of hand.

Is it fair to blame The Passion of the Christ for this? Perhaps not. There hasn't been enough of this kind of activity yet to certify a trend. But if it continues, and indeed manifests itself elsewhere, then it would be far more plausible to say the film has contributed concretely to the hardening of violent attitudes toward Jewish people.

A duet of essays by Mike Davis and Robert Jay Lifton at AlterNet tackle the two sides of why Gibson's film might inspire such changes. Davis' piece, "An Academy Award for Bigotry," details precisely the nasty nature of Gibson's stereotyping of the Jewish high priests and the rabble, which he believes may have been drawn visually from the notorious Nazi propaganada film Jud Suess:
To anyone who has ever seen Jud Suess (as I did in college), the most startling thing about Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ -- even more than its relentless, shockingly eroticized cruelty -- is its fidelity to the anti-Semitic conventions of Hitlerian cinema.

Indeed, the high priest Caiaphas and his colleagues are such exact, blatant replicas of Suess that I suspect they must be direct borrowings. Moreover, Passion is one of the most manipulative films ever made and, after two hours watching mobs howling in delight at Christ's suffering, it is no wonder that many devout American viewers, like their German predecessors, have left theaters muttering, "I hate the Jews."

Davis' conclusions roughly parallel mine as well:
In short, Passion is the medieval vision of a pogromist, amplified by Hollywood special effects and the cachet of celebrity. It is protected by a formidable wall of enthusiastic endorsements from the American religious right as well as by the tolerance of ordinary Gibson fans who just can't believe that their goofy, handsome hero is really such a grotesque reactionary.

Even more incisive, however, is Lifton's analysis, "Violent Purification." (I happen to be an admirer of Lifton's work, especially his previous contributions on the totalist mindset, as well as his book Superpower Syndrome, which for my money is the best and most insightful of the post-Sept. 11 predicament yet published. I posted previously about his condensation of the book into an article in The Nation.)

Lifton puts the film in its appropriate context as an expression of apocalyptic belief:
At issue is the purification not just of Jesus or even of the sins he carries for others, but of the whole world. And that larger world can be purified, the film tells us, only by sustained cruelty and murderous violence. One must destroy the world, or in this case Christ, its divine representative, to save it. That kind of vision of all-encompassing violence as a means of spiritual renewal finds structured expression in the Old Testament in the Book of Daniel and in the New Testament in the Book of Revelation.

Only in the twentieth century, however, could the apocalyptic mindset take on a more activist form as human beings acquired the actual means of purifying the world by destroying it and so could attempt just that, always claiming to be doing so in God's name. This was the mindset I encountered in the small but ambitious Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, which in 1995 produced and released chemical and biological weapons (having unsuccessfully attempted to acquire nuclear warheads) meant -- at least in the fevered fantasies of its guru Shoko Asahara -- to initiate World War III and thereby bring about a biblical Armageddon. For his sarin-gassing of the Tokyo subways, only last week he was sentenced to death by a Japanese court.

Lifton too identifies the problem as the extreme dualism that the film is really about:
The problem of The Passion of the Christ goes far beyond the individual psyche of Mel Gibson, or even questions of biblical interpretation. The crucifixion here becomes a vehicle for a contemporary mentality that is absolute and polarizing in its starkly violent vision of world purification -- a vision that fits well with an apocalyptic, all or nothing "war on terrorism." While many will be moved by this vision, there may also be a backlash of revulsion and a reasoned rejection of the zealotry and love of violence the film promotes.

My friend Jean Rosenfeld, the religious-studies researcher at UCLA with whom I correspond, described her viewing of the film recently in an e-mail:
A Jewish friend and I went to see the Gibson film together for mutual support. We both felt we had to see it in order to speak authentically if asked. A few notes on it that I have not seen mentioned elsewhere:

The scene between Claudia and Pilate re his "catch-22" about rebellion by Caiphas against him or rebellion by the Jesus movement against him -- and Rome's warning that his head is in the noose if there is a rebellion -- is all Gibson and no scripture or tradition that I am aware of. It amplifies the anti-Semitism, which I could easily draw a red line around in the film and identify as a theology expressly rejected at Vatican II.

The scourging of Jesus in the film is a tactic by Pilate to convince the Jews that he has been punished enough and to avoid sentencing him to crucifixion. Thus, it is carried out *before* Pilate confronts Caiphas and the crowd. In the gospels, the judgment of crucifixion is rendered *first* and the scourging takes place afterward. This out-of-sequence presentation of events serves only the purpose of amplifying the perfidy of the crowd and the priests.

The anti-Semitism in the film is not all "in the Gospels" and it is not incidental.

If one is Catholic, all the iconography, symbolism and midrash is perfectly clear. Gibson makes powerful films and there is a great deal about this film that is artistic. It could have been a great film, but it completely missed the point of Christianity, and it resurrected the perverse blood libel tradition of European Christianity that James Carroll has so expertly exposed.

Gibson leaned heavily on the Gospel According to John, which is a highly symbolic text. Reading this Gospel literally leads to anti-Semitic excesses. It is also the most mystical and pious of the gospels, presenting Jesus as a "theos aner" or "divine man," a recognized archetype in the Greco-Roman empire of the first-century. I once wrote an article on "the Jews" in the John's Gospel. The key is that one cannot take this account literally, which is exactly what retrograde Catholics like the Gibsons do. They are Catholic fundamentalists, which explains the appeal of the film to Protestant fundamentalists.

The key dialogue in the film is between Pilate and Jesus about truth/veritas. To the mainstream Catholic, truth is the message of love and forgiveness that Gibson has Jesus speak. But the message of the film cinematically is that certain agents cannot be forgiven, because they are "of Satan." Among these are the priests, the crowd, Judas and the bad thief. They remain unredeemed and consigned to Satan's realm. (BTW that is the point of the raven pecking out the eye of the bad thief; it is symbolic, not gratuitous violence, as the raven is a satanic icon and the thief was blind to the truth.)

Gibson's presentation of the Jews skirts the theology of Christian Identity a little too closely for my comfort. The only good Jews are those that become Christians. As for the Romans, well, I suspect that Gibson was told by biblical scholars he consulted that Pilate was a brutal ruler who executed Jesus for sedition (a Roman, not a Jewish, crime), but I also suspect that he deliberately did not listen to them.

... My friend and I were grateful for all the discussion about the film beforehand, because it prepared us for the excessive violence. A sign at the box office warned against taking children to see it.

The film's divisiveness, at least, is spreading to some perhaps unexpected quarters as well, as Jim Lobe reports:
'The Passion' Incites New Divisions Among Neo-Cons

'The Passion', which could become the biggest grossing movie of 2004 and the surely the biggest ever with subtitles -- the actors speak in Aramaic and Latin -- appears to have pushed some very influential neo-conservatives over the edge.

Thus, 'Washington Post' columnist Charles Krauthammer this weekend denounced the movie as a ''blood libel'' against the Jews that challenges the Catholic Church's official doctrine that the Jews should not be held responsible for the crucifixion and constitutes a ''singular act of interreligious aggression''.

... While many neo-conservatives probably would have ignored 'The Passion' had it been directed exclusively to the small, traditionalist, pre-Vatican II Catholic constituency of the kind that Gibson and his far more outspoken father hail from, the fact that he marketed it aggressively to Christian fundamentalists through their churches and Christian Right leaders like Robertson -- with whom the neo-cons have aligned themselves -- threatens to raise new questions about their political judgment, particularly among U.S. Jews, most of whom have remained liberal.

The distinctly negative turn that neo-conservative reviews of 'The Passion' have taken since its release suggest that a process of rethinking may already be underway within its ranks.

Sounds like the legend of the snake devouring its own tale.

[Thanks to Warbaby in comments for the AlterNet link.]

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Prioritizing our 'problems'

When David Brooks writes the following:
The flap over Gibson's movie reminds us that religion can be a dangerous thing. It can be coarsened into gore and bloodshed and used to foment hatred. But we're not living in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Our general problem is not that we're too dogmatic. Our more common problems come from the other end of the continuum. Americans in the 21st century are more likely to be divorced from any sense of a creedal order, ignorant of the moral traditions that have come down to us through the ages and detached from the sense that we all owe obligations to a higher authority.

You have to wonder what world Brooks lives in.

Of course, Brooks need look only a short distance from the New York Times Building -- to the rubble of Ground Zero -- for evidence that dogmatic religious zealotry is more than just dangerous, it constitutes a major problem for modern American society.

Of course, you could also find that same kind of zealotry in play back in April 1995 in Oklahoma City. Eric Rudolph's rampage was only one of many such acts of domestic terrorism inspired by dogmatic religiosity.

Now, granted, these are not what one would call "common" problems. But given the toll in bloodshed, lives, and torn social fabric, one certainly could conclude they constitute a far more "pressing" problem.

There's a certain validity to Brooks' point: There's nothing really admirable about mushy-mindedness in any aspect of our collective thinking, and Gibran-esque religiosity certainly fits that description.

However, I have yet to have observed anyone committing acts of violence or other forms of criminality after becoming a devotee of Deepak Chopra. No one has blown up any government offices after reading Mitch Albom. There haven't been any attacks on Jewish day-centers from readers of Scott Peck.

The same cannot be said of dogmatic, right-wing Christians who have been told that killing abortion doctors is morally justified by any number of fundamentalist "thinkers," or that putting abortion clinics to the torch is God's work.

The difference between most mushy pseudo-religionists like Albom and religious dogmatists like Mel Gibson is fairly simple: the former blur lines and make leaps of logic that inspire a lazy and thoughtless "spirituality," while the latter insist on a Manichean dualism that inspires a judgemental and divisive religiosity.

And that extreme dualism lies at the root of such "common" problems as racism, anti-Semitism, conspiracism, and especially terrorism, both domestic and international. It is also, ultimately, the driving force that gives rise to totalitarianism.

By comparison, mushy-headed Mitch Albomists look positively appealing.

Monday, March 08, 2004

Seen and heard

Busy day today, but here's some good reading:

Allen Brill has an op-ed in today's Charlotte Observer that he reproduced at The Right Christians that everyone should read:

Sexual Mores and the Bible
The conservative proponents of biblical sexual standards better hope that no one examines the texts they rely upon too closely for many of the Bible's ideas about sexual morality are quite alien to our own. Biblical sexual mores were centered around two concerns: preserving the property rights and honor of men with respect to the women in the household; and avoiding tebel, the improper mixing, that could threaten the order that God had imposed upon chaos.

The status of women and children in biblical times throughout the Ancient Near East was little above that of chattel. In Judges 19, the old Ephraimite man could offer his virgin daughter to satisfy gang rapists without even asking for her consent. Sexual behavior was prohibited only when it interfered with another male's property rights or honor. "Adultery" was defined as sleeping with another's wife. Sexual relations with prostitutes was not prohibited. Sleeping with a step-mother, mother-in-law or daughter-in-law was punishable by death. On the other hand, there was no explicit prohibition against a father having sex with his daughter. "Rape" was sleeping with a unmarried woman without her father's permission. If she was betrothed to another man, the victim died along with the rapist unless she "cried out" in protest. If she was not betrothed, her father received a bride-price for her from the rapist and she had to marry the man.

The laws against homosexuality and bestiality that are found in chapters 18 and 20 of Leviticus derive from the taboo against tebel rather than a concern for male property rights. Sexual acts between males--there is no biblical prohibition against lesbian sex--or sexual interaction between humans and animals constituted an "improper mixing" could lead to cosmic collapse just as mixing two kinds of crops in a field or two kinds of material in clothing.

What is missing in the biblical regulation of sexuality that we now consider of utmost importance? Consent, particularly consent on the part of women and children.

Also, welcome to the blogosphere another Table Talk alum, Julius Civitatus, who is already off to a roaring start with his JuliusBlog. Be sure to check out his excellent review of The Passion of the Christ.

Meanwhile, on the lighter side of the same topic, there's this:
The Passion of the Christ: Blooper Reel

Paul Ford is a very funny guy.

And Keith Berry points out that, when it was a Democrat making use of images of victims in the "war on terror" -- namely, Dennis Kucinich's shots of body bags coming home from Iraq -- the right could barely contain itself.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

Just wondering

I see that Republicans are rushing to defend the Bush campaign's use of footage from Sept. 11 in television ads by arguing that it's only natural to display dead bodies from a national tragedy in a campaign ad. The latest is Rudy Giuliani, who seems to have gotten this week's talking points down pat:
I think if you asked a question, "Is September 11, 2001, a legitimate area for the president to point out?" He was facing challenges. You got to go back to the ad. The ad is challenges facing George W. Bush. Well, if you left out September 11, 2001, I think people would be asking, "Why is he leaving it out?" That was probably the biggest challenge that he's faced. Those of us who support him think he did a terrific job in getting the country through it. You know, other people on the other side have taken shots at him for not doing as good a job. So it's kind of unrealistic to think you're not going to have that as part of the political debate.

Of course, no one is exactly suggesting that Sept. 11 be off the table in terms of the national debate. The question in this case is why Mr. Bush is so crassly manipulating a national tragedy in the service of partisan politics. It's not whether he refers to 9/11; it's how he refers to it.

But Giuliani's point raises the question of what might have happened had a Democrat run such an ad in the wake of a similar "challenge."

Does anyone, for instance, remember all those Clinton campaign ads with footage from Oklahoma City?

[Eric Muller at Is That Legal? weighs in with a similar point, delivered graphically. And while we're at it, gotta wonder how many FDR '44 campaign posters featured Pearl Harbor.]

Just remember what we observed last Sept. 11: "Nothing is out of bounds for them."

Comments deluxe

I finally upgraded my comments feature so that folks don't have to file so many short posts. The new limit is 3,000 characters (much longer than the old 1,000-character limit). Hope you enjoy.

Drive responsibly, of course. I also have increased new powers.

The press: Still missing on AWOL

It seems apparent that, to the press corps at least, the questions about George W. Bush's military record have been at least mollified if not answered. Problem is, nothing has been answered.

Prototypical for the sudden disappearance of the AWOL story from the radar screen was Tim Russert's handling of it on Meet the Press the other week, when he said:
The president has now released all his military records. General [sic] Calhoun, who was in Alabama, said he observed him coming to duty on weekends in Alabama. Should the Democrats withdraw the charge of AWOL towards George W. Bush?

This was, of course, a fairly typical softballs-for-Republicans performance from Russert. As the folks at Spinsanity remarked on this obfuscation of the matter shortly afterward:
... [A]s Russert should know, the evidence shows that Calhoun's claims appear to contradict those of the White House. As the Houston Chronicle pointed out, Calhoun claimed to have seen Bush a number of times in summer and fall 1972, but records released by the White House do not credit Bush for service until late October.

What very few people in the press have remarked on so far is the fact that the White House's release of Bush's "complete" records in reality has some substantial gaps in it that do not answer any of the serious questions raised so far. This is especially the case regarding Bush's failure to take a flight physical in 1972, which has never been adequately explained.

As fascinating as the questions about Bush's records might be -- even as it becomes increasingly clear that Bush has been grossly misleading the voters about those records -- the most disturbing aspect of all this has been the behavior of the press in its handling of the story.

This has, in fact, been true from the get-go. Reporters dropped or ignored the story in 1994 and again, especially, in 2000, and for no apparent reason other than that the story didn't fit the scripts that dominated the storylines at the time. The script in 2000, you may recall, was that Bush was a "straight shooter" while Gore "made stuff up."

The press simply has failed to delve past the Bush team's consistent obfuscation of the records issue. That has resulted in the story's persistent half-life, floating around the periphery of news coverage, staying alive almost purely because of its steady circulation on the Internet -- and then erupting, almost bizarrely, for about a week's worth of feeding frenzy after Democrats finally decided to put the card on the table. And then, just as suddenly, the story drops off the screen -- even though the White House's response has been just as devoid of any kind of serious explanation of the questions raised as before.

This up-and-down kind of coverage clearly reveals a dysfunction in the nation's press, as Mimi Swartz recently outlined in the New York Times:
In Search of the President's Missing Years

Over the past few weeks, President Bush has responded to recurring questions about his National Guard service by saying that the subject is old and tiresome. According to Mr. Bush, reporters conducted a thorough investigation of his time in the Texas National Guard when he ran against Ann Richards for governor in 1994, and again when he ran against Al Gore in 2000. The complete Guard records, the president told Tim Russert on "Meet the Press," were "scoured."

This came as news to me, as I lived in and reported from Texas during those times and feel that questions about the story -- Mr. Bush's life story -- linger 10 years after his first political victory. Why they linger is a more complicated question, one that has as much to do with the press as it does with the president.

What the AWOL case demonstrates is the extent to which the nation's press has developed a real vulnerability to manipulation by propaganda -- one that has always existed, but which has come to dominate media behavior under the weight of simultaneous changes in the industry and the ideological playing field.

On the one hand, media conglomeration has rendered the bulk of the nation's news organizations essentially bottom line-oriented organizations with only a passing glance at their role in protecting the public interest. Investigative and consumer-oriented journalism, both of which are expensive, time-consuming and not always rewarding -- and both of which have the decided disadvantage of frequently embarrassing the business friends and associates of ownership, as well as potential or even current advertisers -- have always been the first to go in cutbacks, and such work is now a rarity in most newsrooms. Meanwhile, political reporters are increasingly forced to rely on press releases and canned statements, and many simply lack either the time or ambition to pursue stories that aren't handed to them. Real ombudsmen, at the same time, have become rarities as well.

At the same time that the nation's newsrooms have been gutted, they have fallen under attacks from the "Mighty Wurlitzer" -- the right-wing media attack machine that on the one hand attacks mainstream news organizations for "liberal bias" merely for publishing non-conservative viewpoints, while themselves engaging in the crassest kind of bias and spin that distorts reality and fabricates false "facts."

The culture in most newsrooms now has created a de facto conservative bias, simply because no one wants to counter the popular memes emanating from the Wurlitzer, since to do so runs the risk of being suspected of "liberal bias."

So when Team Bush decides to stonewall on their candidate's military records, no one has much incentive to push harder. Only a few reporters challenge the Team's fairly obvious fabrications: Do you recall, for instance, anyone asking Ari Fleischer or Dan Bartlett about the brazenly false first explanation for the missed flight physical (which was that Bush's personal physician wasn't available -- even though all such physicals must, in fact, be administered by an Air Force flight surgeon)?

Then, when the Democrats finally decide to raise it as an issue, the press erupts in a mass feeding frenzy as they realize that the gaps in Bush's records really haven't been adequately explained. But the frenzy, like most such phenomena, is all fizz and little substance; most reporters, with only a shallow understanding of the facts of the case, miss the key element (the physical) and focus on red herrings (whether Bush actually served in Alabama). When two Guard vets suddenly pop up with stories corroborating Bush's presence in Alabama -- even though their dates don't match up with those supplied by the White House, and in fact assert he was present in Alabama when the record is quite clear he wasn't -- the pack suddenly decides that the questions have been answered, even though in reality nothing has been answered definitively at all. And the story goes away.

This is simply an abysmal job on the part of the press, and suggests the way that the right-wing Wurlitzer functions to suppress serious investigative work about the Bush administration, mainly by intimidating reporters inclined to do such work. On one hand, it endlessly intimates that such questions are part of an enduring "liberal bias," while at the same time endlessly repeating the White House's dodges.

It doesn't take much imagination to know how the Wurliter -- and the press -- would have reacted had these kinds of questions been raised about, say, Al Gore or John Kerry, both of whom served honorably in Vietnam. It would have been a nonstop circus of conjecture (it would have been "irresponsible" not to speculate, of course) and accusation, all with the purpose of impugning the Democrat's character. House and Senate investigations would have been called.

And the press would have gladly played along, almost eagerly manipulated. Makes for good cable ratings, dontcha know.

What the case demonstrates most clearly, though, is that when journalists fall down on the job now, regular citizens -- empowered by this new medium of mass information dissemination -- are more than capable of doing their work for them.

Think about the way the AWOL story stayed alive: By the work of a handful of regular citizens, non-journalists, who doggedly kept filing FOIA requests and publishing their results on the Web. Chief among these is Marty Heldt, the Iowa farmer whose Web site remains one of the significant repositories for Bush's records. The Iowa press, of course, has steadfastly ignored his contributions, even though he has been interviewed by everyone from CBS to CNN. However, the paper in Davenport finally decided to profile him recently:
Area man key source on Bush's Guard record

Think about how Marty describes the way he got involved:
Heldt does not seem to mind his anonymity. What he says he did mind was the little attention the issue got four years ago when Bush was running for president. "This was an amazing story. I thought, 'Why isn?t anybody talking about it?' " Heldt said in a recent interview.

Mimi Swartz, at least, holds out some hope that, now that the story is in play, it will not fade entirely from view (and indeed, there is some likelihood that James Moore's book, due out this summer, will contain some fresh revelations):
In some ways, then, the president is right: questions about his military service have been raised every time he's run for office. But it's also true that the story still seems woefully incomplete and that there have been clear inconsistencies in the answers Mr. Bush and his associates have given about his time in the Guard. (Mr. Bush's associates said that he didn't take his 1972 military physical because his doctor in Houston was unavailable and that he lost his flight status because the plane he was training on was phased out -- statements that have been shown to be debatable at best.) It's also disconcerting that each election cycle comes with a new set of "complete" documents.

Perhaps 2004 will be the year that details of George W. Bush's time in the National Guard -- indeed, his life in the early 1970's -- finally get filled in. This time around, there are certain factors that might put added pressure on reporters, editors and news organizations to complete the story. After all, the questions about Mr. Bush's service are being raised while we are at war and while the president is facing a genuine war hero as a potential opponent. Maybe this year, 10 years after Mr. Bush's first political victory, the lingering questions will finally disappear.

The story might finally be resolved, but the issue of the way the press has been manipulated throughout this episode will not. As long as journalists are willing to let themselves be propaganda conduits, putty in the hands of Machiavellian conservatives, instead of acting as independent reporters of fact, it will remain.

There is simply no counterpart for the Mighty Wurlitzer on the left, though there has been talk about creating a left-wing counterpart to the right-wing talk radio and television presence. I remain skeptical that simply imitating the tactics will be adequate -- and believe that alternative strategies, such as building an entirely different communications infrastructure based on the Internet, hold much greater promise in terms of countering the right.

But the people opposed to the conservative movement's agenda and its ruthlessness in enacting it have at least one thing going for them. They have, for the most part, the facts on their side. That in itself won't ensure victory, but it is a good place to start.

As for the press ... well, it's nearly impossible to even know where to start.