Saturday, April 19, 2008

When Sock Puppets Rule Our Media

[Cross-posted at Firedoglake.]

Everyone is already buzzing with early word of tomorrow’s New York Times report about the Pentagon sock puppets who have been posing as "military experts" on the nation’s national news and political-talk broadcasts:
To the public, these men are members of a familiar fraternity, presented tens of thousands of times on television and radio as “military analysts” whose long service has equipped them to give authoritative and unfettered judgments about the most pressing issues of the post-Sept. 11 world.

Hidden behind that appearance of objectivity, though, is a Pentagon information apparatus that has used those analysts in a campaign to generate favorable news coverage of the administration’s wartime performance, an examination by The New York Times has found.

The effort, which began with the buildup to the Iraq war and continues to this day, has sought to exploit ideological and military allegiances, and also a powerful financial dynamic: Most of the analysts have ties to military contractors vested in the very war policies they are asked to assess on air.
It’s a thorough and devastating portrait, and every word deserves reading, largely because it lays bare the machinations that went into selling the war to the public. Yet in some ways, none of this is particularly new for anyone with eyes and ears beforehand. Did anyone watch these guys perform on TV and not intuit immediately that they were in the tank for Rumsfeld and Co.?

A crystalline example of this came during what was known as "the Generals’ Revolt":
The full dimensions of this mutual embrace were perhaps never clearer than in April 2006, after several of Mr. Rumsfeld’s former generals — none of them network military analysts — went public with devastating critiques of his wartime performance. Some called for his resignation.

On Friday, April 14, with what came to be called the “Generals’ Revolt” dominating headlines, Mr. Rumsfeld instructed aides to summon military analysts to a meeting with him early the next week, records show. When an aide urged a short delay to “give our big guys on the West Coast a little more time to buy a ticket and get here,” Mr. Rumsfeld’s office insisted that “the boss” wanted the meeting fast “for impact on the current story.”

That same day, Pentagon officials helped two Fox analysts, General McInerney and General Vallely, write an opinion article for The Wall Street Journal defending Mr. Rumsfeld.

“Starting to write it now,” General Vallely wrote to the Pentagon that afternoon. “Any input for the article,” he added a little later, “will be much appreciated.” Mr. Rumsfeld’s office quickly forwarded talking points and statistics to rebut the notion of a spreading revolt.

“Vallely is going to use the numbers,” a Pentagon official reported that afternoon.

The standard secrecy notwithstanding, plans for this session leaked, producing a front-page story in The Times that Sunday. In damage-control mode, Pentagon officials scrambled to present the meeting as routine and directed that communications with analysts be kept “very formal,” records show. “This is very, very sensitive now,” a Pentagon official warned subordinates.

On Tuesday, April 18, some 17 analysts assembled at the Pentagon with Mr. Rumsfeld and General Pace, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

A transcript of that session, never before disclosed, shows a shared determination to marginalize war critics and revive public support for the war.

“I’m an old intel guy,” said one analyst. (The transcript omits speakers’ names.) “And I can sum all of this up, unfortunately, with one word. That is Psyops.
Now most people may hear that and they think, ‘Oh my God, they’re trying to brainwash.’ ”
“What are you, some kind of a nut?” Mr. Rumsfeld cut in, drawing laughter. “You don’t believe in the Constitution?”

There was little discussion about the actual criticism pouring forth from Mr. Rumsfeld’s former generals. Analysts argued that opposition to the war was rooted in perceptions fed by the news media, not reality. The administration’s overall war strategy, they counseled, was “brilliant” and “very successful.”
Of course, fairly early on in this conflict, there were in fact questions raised about whether the Pentagon was engaging in Psyops tactics, with the American public as the target; some of us even pondered the effects this program might have on democratic discourse.

But then, those concerns were either largely ignored or dismissed as paranoid alarmism. Now it’s clear that there were reasons for that. After all, the media were too busy giving airtime to "serious" folks.

Rick Perlstein
has more.

The Secret Lives of Saints

-- by Sara

For most watchers of the religious right, the definitive book on fundamentalist Mormonism has been Jon Krakauer's 2003 bestseller, Under the Banner of Heaven. That book centered on the murder of a woman, along with her child, who dared to defy her husband's involvement with that polygamous sect. It also introduced America to Warren Jeffs, long before he became a fugitive and eventually a convicted felon; and put Colorado City, AZ and Hildale, UT on America's cultural map.

A lot has gone down in the FLDS world in five years since the book came out -- and much of it has occurred in locations far afield from those dusty twin cities straddling a southwestern state line. The FLDS has dealt with the increased scrutiny by diffusing its 40,000 or so members (some counts put the number as high as 100,000) across North America. The sect has always been strategic in using state and national borders to shield both its money and any "persons of interest" in their midst, which is why they built compounds in British Columbia and Mexico as far back as the late 1940s.

But that strategy has gone into overdrive in the past decade, as governments have grown increasingly interested and the group's population has continued to explode (as tends to happen wherever women average seven to ten kids apiece). The compound at Eldorado is only one of these expansion efforts: others are afoot in Idaho, South Dakota, and suburban Las Vegas. Beware of Mormons claiming to build "hunting lodges for wealthy businessmen." That seems to be the usual cover story whenever they go land shopping.

One of the most perceptive and tenacious reporters covering these developments as been Daphne Bramham of the Vancouver Sun. (A collection of her reporting on the FLDS over the past several years can be found online here.) Bramham's focus has been on the remote 2500-member Bountiful compound just outside Creston, BC, which was founded in 1947 by Roy Blackmore and a group from one of Canada's largest historical Mormon settlements in Cardston, AB. Roy's son Winston Blackmore inherited the role of patriarch for the community until Warren Jeffs cheated him out of control in 2002.

Bramham's take on the story has been different -- and in some ways, both broader and deeper -- than Krakauer's. For one thing, she's spent a lot more time with the women of the community, and has become good friends with several of the better-known escapees like Debbie Palmer and Carole Jessup. That friendship gives her an insider's sensitivity to the emotional and social dynamics of these families -- the interior lives of the women as they deal with their husbands, their children, each other, and the outside world.

For another, while Krakauer's book focused tightly on Colorado City/Hildale, Bramham's northern perch gives her a much broader view of the far-flung geography of the FLDS nation -- and a much keener sense of the way the sect has used that geography to escape government interference to date.

Over the past four years, I've been fortunate to be able to follow the vagaries of the international FLDS through Bramham's articles in my local paper. And now I'm delighted to be able to recommend her new book, The Secret Lives of Saints, released in Canada just a few weeks ago -- barely ahead of the Texas raid. (Amazon will be filling US pre-orders starting in May.)

The book provides the best available backstory and context for anyone trying to make sense out of what's happening now in Eldorado. It also fills in the details of the past five years, picking up where Under the Banner of Heaven left off and bringing us up to date. Most importantly, it explains precisely why this group has been left to go on as it has for as long as it has -- even when local and state-level authorities were well aware that laws were being violated.

Ghosts in the Machine
The problem, as Bramham portrays it, comes down to one issue. Nobody -- not in Utah, nor Arizona, nor British Columbia -- has yet dared to challenge the FLDS on the basic legality of polygamy itself. Where prosecutions have succeeded, they've been on other charges: Brenda Lafferty's murder, Warren Jeffs' role in facilitating statutory rape, and the more general economic exploitation of the church's members. These efforts have done much to undermine the church's functioning (especially the latter one, which I'll get to in an upcoming post). But they've all been criminal and financial assaults that dance around the deepest question at the heart of this church's existence: Is polygamy acceptable in modern North American culture?

That's a debate that can be had all kinds of ways -- and will be had in the months ahead. (Bramham, personally, thinks the answer is a firm "no"). So it's striking to realize just how far out of their way prosecutors from BC to AZ have gone through the decades to avoid putting polygamy itself on trial. And the reasons for this have to do with the ghosts that seem to haunt the political machines everywhere the FLDS has sunk roots.

In BC, they've shied away because Canada's religious freedom laws have only been in place since 1982. They're still new enough that the country hasn't really had enough time to establish the conditions under which they shouldn't apply -- and prosecutors are terrified that if they bring a challenge, Canada's supreme court will rule all existing anti-polygamy laws unconsitutional. It's a Catch-22: there are laws on the books that nobody dares to enforce, because they're afraid that if they do, the courts will void those laws entirely. Which means, of course, that they might as well not exist at all.

Bramham points out, however, that the BC attorneys may be misreading the mood of the justices in Ottawa. Immigration Canada routinely rejects Muslim immigrants with plural wives. Ontario courts have also recently decided that allowing Muslims to deal with divorce using Sharia law is a violation of Muslim women's civil rights, thus establishing the principle that religious freedom does not apply when the religion in question is depriving people of their basic liberties. These two precedents suggest that Canada's Supreme Court might well rule that polygamy doesn't merit religious freedom protection -- and BC now has a new AG who seems a bit more inclined to push the issue.

Similar ghosts haunt both Utah and Arizona. In Arizona, the state government still cringes at the memory of the 1953 Short Creek raid -- an earlier attempt to disband the FLDS community that backfired badly on every politician involved. (The memory of Short Creek is everywhere in this story, and I'll come back to it later, too.) In Utah, prosecution is hobbled by the fact that many of the state officials involved are themselves descendants of polygamous Mormon pioneers. They want very much to get rid of the FLDS, which they regard as a PR blight on their faith, But at the same time, it feels much too much like they're prosecuting Grandpa and Grandma. The ghosts of their own ancestors stay their hand.

What's remarkable about Eldorado is that the Texas authorities have had no such qualms. For the first time in the 60-year history of the FLDS, a state government appears to be carefully building a case that polygamy (at least, as practiced within this community) is so harmful to the women and children involved that it does not deserve First Amendment religious freedom protections. It's hard to overstate how audacious and unprecendented this is: it's the very first time anywhere in the 60 years of the FLDS that anyone has dared to say this right out loud. But it's an effort whose time has clearly come -- and it's probably no coincidence that Texas was the state to finally take it on.

Don't Mess With Texas
In choosing Eldorado, Jeffs may have, at long last, picked the wrong place to hide. Texas doesn't harbor the ghosts of Mormon pioneers or FLDS martyrs. Any liberal Texan will tell you that the Lone Star State is not cursed, as BC is, with an overbroad sense of religious freedom. What does lurk in its memetic closet is the memory of Waco -- another closed, secretive, sexually abusive cult that was left to fester unattended too long, with horrific consequences. Many of the people who are dealing with the FLDS had enough of an up-close-and-personal view of the 1993 disaster with the Branch Davidians to know what they're dealing with here.

There's no shortage of people in the media trying to make this a debate about religious freedom, which is fair enough. But the question they're not asking -- and the one that is central to that debate, in my mind -- is how we can reasonably and justly incorporate America's historical ideas about religious freedom with what we know now about how to identify and chart the prognosis of dangerous cults. As I've written before, governments in both Canada and the US are well aware of the signs that indicate a community headed toward violence. The FLDS exhibits almost all of those signs. As a society, it's time to figure out where the line gets crossed, and when government intervention becomes justified.

In an upcoming post, I'll discuss the specific ways the FLDS is following that well-understood path -- and how current events could conspire to either pull them back from that fate, or push them farther toward it. In the meantime, go over and put in your pre-order for Daphne Bramham's The Secret Lives of Saints. It's essential for anyone seeking a broader context and a deeper understanding of the events of the past two weeks.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A Modest Proposal for the NBA

[Cross-posted at Firedoglake.]

When the NBA Board of Governors meets tomorrow to vote — as we know they will — to move the Sonics out of Seattle and on to Oklahoma City, I’d like to suggest they take another vote alongside it: Drop the names of the cities where your teams currently reside from the teams’ names. Adopt the system used by the Japanese: Just name them after the corporations that own them.

That way you could have teams like the Target Timberwolves and the Vulcan TrailBlazers and the Cablevision Knicks and, now, the Chesapeake Rustlers.

At least then it would be more honest. Fans then would know they are in fact rooting for the company that owns the team, not for their communities.

As it is, the NBA looks more and more like a bunch of slick-talking grifters who come to the little burgs and offer to sell them a fine bronze statue of the town’s founder but instead sell them a cheap thing made out of pot metal with the face melted off.

And that way, when owners want to pack up and leave, they can just go ahead and do so, no hard feelings. That’s what this vote is all about, after all: David Stern wants the owners to be able to move at will, especially if the local community isn’t all hot and bothered to ante up hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade their facilities only so that they can keep up with insane NBA salaries. And so the owners, being owners, of course will gladly approve this move.

The communities? Screw them. What have they done for us lately?

Now I’ll admit that I was one of those poor saps who fell for the NBA’s little grift for many years. Back when I was a kid growing up in the rural Northwest and you had to choose between California teams and the rest of the country for teams to root for — regardless of sport — the arrival of the Sonics in 1967 was a real godsend. Even in remote Idaho, they were the hometown team. I followed them in boxscores each day and was ecstatic when Bill Russell finally coached them into the playoffs in ’74-75; delirious when they nearly won the title in ’78, and out of my mind when they won it outright in ’79.

Since then, I’ve rooted for them every year, through thick and thin — mostly a lot of thin. After I moved to Seattle in ’89, I attended as many games as I could and covered a number of them for the newspapers where I worked. I was a season ticket holder from 1995 through 2006 and attended more games than I can count.

I’m a basketball nut
– tried hard to play it when I was young, and gym ratted a lot in my 20s, but I was never any good, and a knee injury in my early 30s ended my playing career, such as it was. But I love watching the game. In my mind, basketball players are the world’s finest athletes; and I loved watching the NBA because it was home to the world’s finest basketball players.

But most of all, I loved to root for the Sonics because they represented my community, and I mean the larger community of the Northwest. They were my hometown team and rooting for them was all about standing up and taking pride in the place you lived. Sports are kind of silly entertainments, but they’re also more; much of the larger cultural value of sports, especially as a kind of secular religion that everyone could coalesce around, lay in the way they were real repositories of the hopes and aspirations of their community.

Now over the years, especially as the season tickets mounted, there was a lot not to like. The gross commercialization at NBA games is just overwhelming, and you have to learn to shut out the constant bombardment if you’re there to enjoy the game.

And the officiating: a travesty. It became increasingly clear over the years that NBA officials were corrupt, but not in the usual way; they called games badly at times that were convenient most of all for the NBA, when it wanted certain marketable matchups in the playoffs. They were also corrupt in that they clearly made calls based on grudges they held, and their egos became the most dominating force on the court. The "superstar call" is a staple of modern NBA games. So when confirmation of the usual kind of corruption as well arrived in the person of Tim Donaghy — well, no one was exactly surprised.

But the officials were just symptomatic of the larger problem of the NBA game generally: team play — which is really where the beauty of the game emerges — has for years been sublimated to talent. Michael Jordan in effect ruined the NBA, so that now all that fans root for is that somehow their team can draft or somehow nab the league’s next great talent. Defense is an afterthought in the NBA, and the pick-and-roll is about as team-oriented as you get on offense. The college game — though its players are inferior — is far superior from the standpoint of the game itself.

Meanwhile, the salaries for that talent have gone through the roof, so that perfectly good basketball stadiums like Seattle’s Key Arena no longer can be profitable in today’s NBA, because revenue demands are so high that all NBA facilities require high-revenue-stream offerings.

This has all occurred on the watch of David Stern, whose every move has been about promoting the league’s superstar mentality and sublimating not just the teams but the communities themselves. NBA teams are no longer community assets — they’re marketing platforms for athletic superstars.

Now, there have been a number of team moves previously, but the history of those moves — from the Lakers’ departure from Minneapolis to the Grizzlies from Vancouver — has always involved teams that had only been in their communities for a relatively short length of time, had always had trouble drawing fans; the majority have taken place in the era of mass expansion.

The Sonics, in contrast, have been in Seattle for over 40 years. They’ve never had trouble drawing fans, even in down years. The only problem we’ve had has been with idiot owners making boneheads moves, like the time they fired George Karl because he chafed some front-office types. Or selling the team to con artists from Oklahoma.

But that matters not to the poobahs of the NBA. What matters is making the wealthy team owners wealthier and wealthier, along with their players. All that money has to come from somewhere, and if some of the suckers get tired of being played, well, there are always new ones to be found.

So of course Stern not only has no compunction about moving the Sonics to Oklahoma, he’s been content to bash Seattle and warn us that we’ll never get another team here for years and years.

Nevermind, of course,
that the new Sonics’ owners not only lied outrageously to the community when they bought the team. Well, it’s true that Clay Bennett put on an elaborate show to convince folks he had done his best to convince the politicians to finance a new stadium. Thing was, he wanted to move the stadium far south to Renton — where hardly anyone in Seattle would travel to see a Sonics game — near the worst traffic intersection in the state. And the bill was a mere $500 million, out of which Bennett and Friends were only, haltingly, willing to commit $100 million. The taxpayers were to pay the rest. It’s no wonder it died in the legislature.

But all that time, in turns out, Bennett was assuring his co-owners that "the game" had only begun, and that they could count on having the Sonics in Oklahoma City eventually — sooner if not later. Bennett was also lying through his teeth to Stern, who he was assuring all along that he was working in good faith to try to keep the team in Seattle.

And it probably tells us everything we need to know about the NBA that it didn’t bother Stern one iota. What’s a little lying among fellow thieves, after all?

So really, fellas, when you vote today to swap your presence in the nation’s 14th-largest media market for one in the 49th — we know, you just can’t help but shoot yourselves in the foot when there’s money to be made from it — go right on ahead. Because even longtime NBA fans in Seattle have been given a front-row view of your scam, and we’d probably just as soon be shut of it.

Sure, I know that in a few years NBA execs will start hinting that something can be done about getting a team back here. It’s too big a media market for them not to be in. But that will probably mean ripping the heart out of some other community, and frankly, having been there, most of us want nothing to do with that. Overexpansion has already made the NBA a joke, so please don’t bother us with the idea of putting an expansion team here.

No, I figure if you move, you’ll be gone for good. And ya know what? Don’t let the door hit ya on the way out.

Now, in the meantime, we will get our little revenge. When you lose your lawsuit to enable the Sonics to breach their contract with the City of Seattle two years early, as you almost certainly will, you’ll be stuck keeping the Sonics here through two more years. And as you may have already figured out, Seattleites are not so generally stupid as to give their money to people who intend to abscond with their team. The seats will be empty (Kevin Durant notwithstanding), and Clay Bennett and his pals will suffer.

I’m sure there’ll be offers to pay us off to escape those final two years. I say no way. Make them suffer. And not just out of spite, but because we really would have nothing to gain from taking their money.

After all, why would Seattle want to have anything to do with the NBA in the future? Why would we take yet another team in, just to have them turn around in seven years and begin demanding tax packages to underwrite their newest state-of-the-art money-sucking devices? Eh?

I’m sure the folks in Oklahoma City will get to see that side of the NBA soon enough. Indeed, they just voted to pass a tax to pay for an improvement of their local stadium. Good on’ em. Enjoy it while you can.

In the meantime, I suspect that there will be other cities who wake up to your grift, fellas. Because there’s a whole city up here willing to tell everyone all about it. There will be other threats, and other removals for the insufficiently obsequious.

So just spare us the histrionics and change the way you name your teams. Name them after the companies you fellow represent. Or maybe you can even name them after yourselves. After all, hey, the NBA is where the egos come to play. Just quit conning people into thinking that these teams represent their communities. Because we know now that that’s just a scam.

Why We Boo

[Cross-posted at Firedoglake.]

It’s been building over the past couple of months, as we waded through endless cable talk shows about Obama’s "pastor problem" and his "bitter" remarks and Hillary’s Kosovo claims. Gradually, it’s become clear to just about everyone that the American media aren’t informing them or helping to sort through difficult issues in the course of this presidential campaign, and are instead focusing on the trivial, the silly, the truly insignificant, as though these kinds of effluvia constitute the reasons why we vote.

And we’ve had enough.

This trivialization of American political discourse reached a real nadir last night with ABC’s handling of the Democratic presidential debate. The gossipy, absurd nature of the questions in the first hour were so obvious that the audience reacted loudly — not to the candidates themselves, but to the questioners.

That booing you heard last night, ABC? It was for you.

Bad enough that the questions were trivial — even more notable was that it seemed as though they had been concocted by right-wing talk-show hosts, since they all were built out of right-wing talking points. And well, whaddya know?
Hannity asked George what kinds of questions they’ll be asking at the debate tomorrow and they discussed a few things. When Hannity asked about the first question below about Ayers and whether George had plans to ask such a question, George replied, "Well, I’m taking notes now Sean." It did actually sound like he was pausing to take notes.
There’s no small irony in Sean Hannity demanding to know about Obama’s supposed unsavory connections to people who once were radical terrorists. Sean Hannity, the onetime friend of Hal Turner.

Turner, you’ll recall, has made something of an ugly name for himself in recent years with his frequent calls for the assassination of various figures, including judges overseeing the cases of white supremacists and various members of Congress. Max Blumenthal has all the details. And of course, it’s always fun to watch Hannity lie and scramble for cover whenever Turner’s name gets brought up on his show.

But Hannity is only one of many serial prevaricators working the dark mines of TV broadcasting these days. Indeed, it’s become clear that they’re all just one big circle-jerk, handling tips from one another and passing them along like they were nectar from heaven itself.

The rest of us, however, have a decidedly different view of the proceedings. And until it improves, we’re going to keep booing.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Are FLDS women brainwashed?

The FLDS's first consecrated Mormon Temple at the YFZ Ranch in Eldorado, TX.
It was built by the order of Warren Jeffs, and consecrated by him
while he was a fugitive on the FBI's Most Wanted List.

-- by Sara

I've spent the day wrangling with a post (which will probably turn into several posts) about the FLDS raid in Eldorado, TX. Oddly, last week's events occured while I had my nose buried in the best new book on the subject of the FLDS since Jon Krakauer's bestselling Under the Banner of Heaven came out in 2003, so I've got a lot of fresh and deep perspective on the matter -- too much, in fact, to be wrestled down into one coherent post.

Over dinner, I'd just about decided that the only way to deal with the overload was to chip away at the story in short blats over the next few days, which will attempt to put some new context to these events. And then I got an e-mail from Pastor Dan Schultz of Street Prophets, containing ample proof of just how badly that context is needed now that the media talking heads are all holding forth on this story.

Dan pointed me to the second most inane thing ABC News has produced today (the first, of course, being Charlie Gibson's and George Stephanopoulos' performance at the Pennsylvania debates) -- an odd little story by Emily Friedman asking "experts" whether or not FLDS wives are "brainwashed."
Between hysterical sobs, the women of the Yearning for Zion Ranch in rural Texas tearily pleaded Monday for the return of their children from state custody, but at the mere turn of a phrase, those tears mysteriously, uniformly stopped.

When conversations with reporters shifted away from the 416 children in state custody toward touchier subjects surrounding the mysterious religious sect, the overflowing emotions were quickly replaced with blank stares and terse replies.

Clad in conservative prairie dresses, hair back in buns and tight braids, the women stuck to monotone, emotionless responses in declining to answer reporters' questions concerning allegations of plural marriages and sexual assault within the sect.

Asked whether 14- and 15-year-old girls get married on the compound, a tight-lipped woman who would only give her first name, Marilyn, gave what appeared to be a rehearsed response.

"We are talking about our children now," she said, shaking her head, unwilling to stray from the subject of her children.

The shift to blank-faced denial was jarring in both its immediacy and consistency. Not a single one strayed from the script, an impressive display of solidarity, if a bit peculiar to the outsiders granted unprecedented access to the members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

To outsiders, everything about these people is strange — from the way they dress to the way they talk and especially the way they live. To the uninitiated, it may even appear that these women must be brainwashed to live within the confines of the isolated, controlled sect.

Questions about rumored child brides, teen pregnancies and men assigned multiple wives garnered stoic expressions and a relentless determination to defend the sect's lifestyle.

"Do you know the definition of Zion?" responded Marie, when asked by a reporter what life within the sect's gate is really like. "Heaven on Earth."

It's an extreme statement, and the women of the sect have begun to realize that their devotion to their lifestyle is unusual to those on the outside.

So, are these women just fanatically, independently religious, or are they victims of something more sinister, like mind control?....

Mental health professionals told that it may all depend on how you define brainwashing.

The piece goes on to interview several mental health professionals, who (except for one outlier) ome to the consensus that no, probably, these women aren't brainwashed -- just weirdly socialized. Brainwashing, after all, would require real coercion:
"Just because they are different doesn't mean they've been brainwashed," said H. Newton Malony, a senior professor of psychology at the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. "Brainwashing occurs when a person is physically incarcerated in order to believe something."

As far as we know, said Malony, these women and children — and even men, for that matter — have not been held against their will, but rather, have grown up in the sect and have become socialized to its customs.

"Are these woman just parroting strong pleasure or is this a strong religious conviction?" asked Malony. "I doubt it; they grew up in this [environment].

"This is just an example of a different culture," added Malony....

Nancy Ammerman, professor of the sociology of religion at Boston University and author of "Bible Believers: Fundamentalists in the Modern World," also discourages the labeling of the West Texas polygamists as victims of brainwashing.

"Brainwashing is actually extraordinarily rare," said Ammerman. "It implies that the person has literally lost the ability to think independently and to make choices.

"We really don't have any evidence that anything even vaguely resembling that is going on with this particular group or with most religious groups," Ammerman told

....Most of these experts sided with Maloney, who said, "It only becomes brainwashing when a person is physically held against their will."
The problem, as it so often is with the mainstream media, is that absolutely everybody involved with reporting or commenting on this story has been airlifted into it in the past few days. (You'd think somebody would have at least taken the time on the plane flight to skim Krakauer's book and get up to speed. You'd be wrong.) And this is just one example of the ways that ignorance of the backstory cheats the rest of us out of a real understanding of what's going on here.

Because, by the definition offered by these experts, the FLDS is very coercive indeed.

Almost every feature of these women's lives is determined by someone else. They do not choose what they wear, whom they live with, when and whom they marry, or when and with whom they have sex. From the day they're born, they can be reassigned at a moment's notice to another father or husband, another household, or another community. Most will have no educational choices (FLDS kids are taught in church-run schools, usually only through about tenth grade -- by which point they girls are usually married and pregnant). Everything they produce goes into a trust controlled by the patriarch: they do not even own their own labor. If they object to any of this, they're subject to losing access to the resources they need to raise their kids: they can be moved to a trailer with no heat, and given less food than more compliant wives, until they learn to "keep sweet."

At the very least, women who do decide to leave the sect leave without money, skills, or a friend in the world. Most of them have no choice but to leave large numbers of children behind -- children who are the property of the patriarch, and whom many of them will never see again. If a woman is even suspected of wanting to leave, she's likely to be sent away from her kids to another compound far yonder as punishment for her rebelliousness. For a woman who's been taught all her life that motherhood is her only destiny and has no real intimacy with her husband, being separated from her children this way is a sacrifice akin to death.

At the very worst, death is indeed what awaits them. The FLDS preaches "blood atonement" -- the right of the patriarchs to kill apostates who dare to defy them, usually by slitting their throats. And they've done it: Krakauer hung his entire book on the murder of Brenda Lafferty and her year-old daughter, who were both killed by her husband's brothers because Brenda rejected (and mocked) her husband's desire to take plural wives. (Warren Jeffs also liked to rouse people out of their beds in the middle of the night for dramatic mass meetings testing their readiness for the Final Judgment -- meetings that had dark shades of Jonestown.) Brenda is the only one known to have been killed, but others who've left report being threatened with the same fate.

So ABC's reporters blather on about how these women aren't really brainwashed, because that would require coercion and being held physically against their will. One hopes that if they understood that they're holding forth about a group that routinely controls women by threatening to take away their kids -- and tells them that God justifies the slaying of wayward brides and their babies -- they'd change their minds and admit that this isn't just another odd, quaint sect on the American religious scene. Without that information, though, everything else that's going on in Texas loses much of its context.

There's a whole lot more depth and nuance to this story, and I'll try to get at some of it over the next several days. But let's start with the premise that almost nothing you're hearing in the mainstream media about this group can or should be taken at face value. Stand by for more.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

How to Kill an Army

-- by Sara

It's Tuesday, which means I've committed my weekly act of bloggage over at Blog for Our Future.

This week, I picked at John McCain's refusal to back Jim Webb on his attempt to update the GI Bill. McCain says he's against it because paying for our troops' college educations would create retention problems -- he thinks it's a bad idea to give people an incentive to leave the service and get on with their lives. (Of course, not offering college benefits presents other retention problems; ask any recruiter.)

I point out that this logic, extended and put up against some other current trends (like the declining quality of new recruits -- when you're issuing conduct waivers for felons, druggies, racists, and gang members, the bottom of the barrel is well in sight), takes us to some very ugly and dark places if it becomes enshrined in policy. It's a new vision of our relationship to the troops that abrogates all the old bargains great nations have always made with their soldiers. And it's a debt we owe that we default on at our own peril.

Eliminationism at the New York Times

-- by Dave

There's something deeply wrong with our public discourse when a reviewer like Niall Ferguson can pen a piece at the New York Times Book Review that contains, almost glibly, language like this:

The terrorists are at once parasitical on, and at the same time hostile toward, the globalized economy, the Internet and the technological revolution in military affairs. Just as the plagues in the 14th century were unintended consequences of increased trade and urbanization, so terrorism is a negative externality of our borderless world.

The difference, of course, is one of intent. The rats that transported the lethal fleas that transported the lethal enterobacteria Yersinia pestis did not mean to devastate the populations of Eurasia and Africa. The Black Death was a natural disaster. Al Qaeda is different. Its members seek to undermine the market-state by turning its own technological achievements against it in a protracted worldwide war, the ultimate goal of which is to create a Sharia-based “terror-state” in the form of a new caliphate.

I know, of course, that we're talking about the Enemy: terrorists. But it doesn't take a Dalai Lama to recognize that this kind of dehumanization is part of what brought us to this pass in the first place. And it only takes a historian to point out where it is likely to take us.

This is, in fact, classic eliminationist rhetoric: speech designed not merely to dehumanize and demonize other human beings, but to create the conditions for, and ultimately provide permission for, the actual elimination of those elements from society. As Kalkaino points out, Ferguson's description of Middle Eastern terrorists is nearly indistinguishable from from Nazi prewar propaganda about the "filthy Jewish vermin."

Monday, April 14, 2008

Blowing the dog whistle

-- by Dave

We've been saying all along that Barack Obama's candidacy is going to bring out the ugliest face of the Republican Party before long.

But today's Republicans know that they can't engage in the open race-baiting of the Strom Thurmond era without endangering their party's image as "inclusive" -- an image intended not so much to appeal to minorities but to moderate voters repelled by overt racism. So they talk in a lot of code about "preserving white culture" and other well-worn tropes, often hinting and nudging at the old race-baiting vocabulary (such as the time Karl Rove talked about that "trash-talking" and "lazy" Obama fellow).

It's called "dog whistle politics," and Republicans -- including John McCain -- are its past and present masters.

So it's kind of funny that everyone's pretending that the most noteworthy recent example of it -- from Rep. Geoff Davis, a Republican from Kentucky -- is no big deal (at least, so far, it seems to be getting a pass from the media). Davis told an audience at a Republican fund-raiser:

"I'm going to tell you something: That boy's finger does not need to be on the button," Davis said. "He could not make a decision in that simulation that related to a nuclear threat to this country."

Wheeeewit!! Here boy!! C'mere an' get some good ole red meat! And of course [shpittoo], nobody hearing someone call a grown black man "boy" would have any cause to think it meant anything racist, right? [Wink nudge wink]

Davis himself was quick to disclaim that there was any subtext intended:

But Davis campaign spokesman said Davis misspoke and was not directing a racist statement at Obama but instead calling into question his qualifications for office.

"He simply misspoke," said Jeremy Hughes, Davis' campaign spokesman.

This is, to put it kindly, unadulterated horseshit. We all know that Davis was giving voice to a certain set of racial attitudes, and that he did it as part of a talk before a banquet audience indicates it was clearly intentional. And no one but the most blinkered and gullible Republican (though there are plenty of those, it's true) should be willing to buy it.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Tortured news judgment

-- by Dave

You may have noticed that the blogosphere is abuzz with the ABC reportage revearling, as Marcy puts it, "what we already knew: the torture was approved--in excruciating detail--by the most senior members of the Bush Administration." And as Eli points out, this flies in the face of everything the Bush administration was telling the public at the time.

They were lying to us. And it tells us just how degraded our public discourse has become both at the hands of the conservative movement, embodied in the Bush administration, and of the mainstream media -- particularly the Village Idiots -- that this apparently is no big deal.

As usual, Digby puts it best:
There was a time when the Village clucked and screeched about "defiling the white house" with an extra marital affair or hosting fund raising coffees. I would say this leaves a far greater stain on that institution than any sexual act could ever do. They did this in your name, Americans.

The vice president, national security advisor and members of the president's cabinet sat around the white house "choreographing" the torture and the president approved it. I have to say that even in my most vivid imaginings about this torture scheme it didn't occur to me that the highest levels of the cabinet were personally involved (except Cheney and Rumsfeld, of course) much less that we would reach a point where the president of the United States would shrug his shoulders and say he approved. I assumed they were all vaguely knowledgeable, some more than others, but that they would have done everything in their power to keep their own fingerprints off of it. But no. It sounds as though they were eagerly involved, they all signed off unanimously and thought nothing of it.

And most of all, as she later points out:
This news was buried in a Friday news dump, but even so you would think news organizations would highlight this amazing story on the front page of their web site and mention it in their newscasts. Who would have ever thought you'd have a president casually say something like this?

He was willing to say it because he knows full well by now that the Washington press corps, fearful of being accused of insufficient patriotism, won't call him on it -- won't make it what, in a world in which traditional news judgment held sway, should be the one of the most pressing and discussed issues on the lips of the Beltway poobahs. Instead we get phony controversies, whipped up by right-wing talkers but fully embraced by every mainstream media outlet, like the Obama "pastor problem" and -- oooh! look! -- this week we'll all talk about how Obama dissed the rural folk!

Pfheh. Pardon me while I fwow up.

This is has been an increasing problem with the mainstream media for the past decade and more, and it's been acute since 9/11 -- the abject willingness to play propaganda organ for the right-wing Wurlitzer is not only one of the main reasons we invaded Iraq in the first damned place, it's also a large part of the reason we're enmeshed in such a quagmire there even today. It was obvious to a handful of dirty hippie bloggers back in 2003 that the Bush administration had neither any occupation strategy nor any exit strategy in place when we invaded, but you would be hard-pressed to find any mainstream pundits who thought that such shortsighted planning might be a long-term problem.

And of course, it's why we now stand alone in the world as the one supposedly "First World" nation that condones, and sponsors, the use of torture on detainees. The likelihood in fact that the Bush administration was in the process of committing war crimes was raised as early as March 2003, before the invasion of Iraq. It came front and center briefly during the uproar over Abu Ghraib -- at which time, as we noted here, there was plenty of evidence that the support for torture came from high up the chain of command.

Recall that at the time, Human Rights Watch insisted:
The promised U.S. investigation into the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners should not stop with the lower-level soldiers who were immediately involved, Human Rights Watch said today. The United States should also investigate the superiors of these soldiers to see whether they ordered or knowingly tolerated these abuses.

Yet in fact, what happened was that the media largely swallowed the administration's line:
U.S. President George W. Bush claimed the acts were in no way indicative of normal or acceptable practices in the United States Army.

The public denunciation of torture of prisoners by the president and other US officials contradicted the fact that Vice President Dick Cheney and his allies, according to more than two dozen current and former officials, created a distinction between forbidden "torture" and the use of "cruel, inhuman or degrading" methods of questioning which they advanced as permissible. The vice president's office played a central role in eliminating limits on coercion in U.S. custody, commissioning and defending legal opinions that the Bush administration later described as the initiatives, months later, of lower-ranking officials. The Geneva Convention, which has been ratified by the U.S. and is therefore the law of the land, is explicit and categorical in banning torture, the use of "violence," "cruel treatment" or "humiliating and degrading treatment" against a detainee "at any time and in any place whatsoever." The War Crimes Act of 1996 made any grave breach of those restrictions a U.S. felony.

Initially, the media responded with some vigor -- several major outlets, notably the New York Times, called for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation. Nonetheless, Rumsfeld remained -- in no small part because the rest of the media, particularly the broadcast crowd, stayed largely mum or "neutral."

Of course, then there was Rush Limbaugh:
"This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation and we're going to ruin people's lives over it and we're going to hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really hammer them because they had a good time. You know, these people are being fired at every day. I'm talking about people having a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional release? You ever heard of emotional release?"

In the end, no one beyond the low-level soldiers involved in the actual abuse suffered any kind of serious consequences. So much for going up the chain of command.

The matter gradually receded from public view, especially as the debate over torture was increasingly polluted by 24-inspired terrorist fantasies, culminating in Antonin Scalia's bizarre disquisition defending torture under such scenario.

And of course, the media yawned.

Meanwhile, talking about angry, discontented rural Americans with guns -- you know, like the Minutemen you find Lou Dobbs plumping every other week or so -- somehow ranks as the most important issue in the news.

Do any of these people know what the hell news judgment is supposed to be? If not, why are they running the news?