Sunday, March 28, 2010

Reaping What Was Sown

Well, it's done. The health reform bill is passed and signed. Even the 'sidecar' bill of tweaks to the Senate bill have been passed, following a brief Congressional two-step. So this long healthcare battle is over, right? Yes and no. The problem, you see, is that you can't spend the better part of a year telling people that America faces "Armageddon" from this "government takeover of healthcare" perpetrated by "Commu-Fasci-Socialists" that want to institute "Death Panels" to make grandma "shovel ready" and then walk away when the vote goes against you. Once you get all that fervor stirred up, it's difficult to shrug and move onto another topic.

The citizenry that the Republicans systematically turned rabid is still frothing and unsated. They now believe that it really was the end of our republic when the bill passed. They completely lost the subtext of the whole debate, which was that the GOP was intent on fighting, by any means necessary, every single initiative the Obama Administration proposed. This included misrepresentations and outright lies about the substance of the reform bills. They don't realize that it was mostly political theater or that the bill actually resembles previous Republican proposals for health reform. So why is this a problem? Well it started with spitting and assorted slurs directed at Democratic members of Congress as House members arrived for the final vote on health reform and continued with even GOP members of Congress yelling out comments in the House chamber, as if it was a middle school assembly.  Then came broken glass at Democratic offices around the country, quickly followed by an Alabama blogger who claimed some measure of credit for a brick thrown through the Democratic Committee's office in Rochester, NY. The brick had a note attached to it that quoted Barry Goldwater's famous statement: "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice." It's one of those statements that seems patriotic until you think on it, which I'm sure these fringe dwellers did not. I firmly believe that extremism of any kind is bad. Extremism is synonymous with zealotry and fanaticism and are the same words we use for Al-Qaida and other groups like them. Not the comparison I think I'd want to make.

But it's escalated from there. Congressional Democrats, in particular, are getting calls threatening violence and outright death threats. I heard a string of truly nasty messages left at the home of Representative Bart Stupak, appearing to focus on abortion. They called him 'baby killer' and the like, which is truly ironic considering that what finally got him on board with the House vote was an agreement by the President to put out an executive order that stated there would be no Federal funding for abortion. To clarify, there never was language in either the final House or Senate bills that would have allowed Federal funding for abortion, so it was always a manufactured issue. Yet here we have people calling Stupak and railing at him, in pretty graphic and violent terms, about an issue that was never a concern anyway. It illustrates quite well that the people behind these sorts of calls were getting all their info on the reform bill from Glenn Beck and GOP talking points. In another incident, a conservative blogger posted what he thought was a Democratic House member's home address online. Bad form in and of itself. But it turned out to be the address for the Congressman's brother and the family found that someone had cut the gas lines outside their house. Now I know that there are a lot of irrational people around and they will always be around. But having said that, there are individuals and groups who need to take some responsibility for the current state of things. And no, I'm not talking about the Democrats who voted for the bill.

But before you think I’ve gone irrationally partisan, I ask you to think back to the GOP rhetoric over the last year objectively. It was consistently laced with phrases like “government takeover” and “Death Panels”.  They continually used emotionally evocative terms like “socialist”, “communist” and "gulag", among many others. These were just the Republican members of Congress, mind you. Once you step outside the Capital building it went downhill even faster. Signs comparing health reform to Auschwitz and Nazi social policies. We saw images of the President of the United States portrayed as the sociopathic Joker from the last Batman movie and as Hitler. By the time the final vote arrived we had protesters with signs threatening armed violence if they didn’t get their way. Add that to the slurs, spitting and threats and you have a nasty situation. Now you can claim that the protesters were responsible for their own overzealous behavior, but that is only partly true. Republican politicians and pundits share responsibility because they not only encouraged this misguided and arguably irrational behavior but actually joined in throughout the year with many of these protests. Put simply, they took the reasonable concern of a minority segment of the American people and whipped them into a Mob, convinced that the nation’s very soul was at stake. The GOP and the various conservative pundits created this Mob to use against the President and the Democratic majority. At every turn the Becks and the Limbaughs of the conservative movement made wild, inflammatory and, more often than not, fabricated statements to keep the fury running as hot as possible. Even Congressional leaders like House Minority Leader Boehner and Senate Minority Leader McConnell continued the misinformation and emotional rhetoric. The problem comes now that the reform bill is passed and signed into law. Now what? At some point, after milking the movement of as many contributions as possible under the ridiculous banner of "Repeal & Replace", the GOP will want to move on to the next issue. But the Mob will still be there. Still looking for blood. They won't understand that it was all a big political game to their conservative representatives. And they won't understand when those same politicians stop talking about the "evil that was done to the Constitution".

It's all well and good to use public outrage to support your policies, but when you surrender all principle and common sense you create not a group of concerned citizens, but a mob of fanatics. A mob who are, in many cases, protesting about issues that don't even exist. Once you get to that level, the most extreme within that group will be the ones running it and guiding it. That's where you get scary people who cut people's gas lines or call their home to leave obscenity laced diatribes describing the horrible ways they wish this person will suffer and die. That's were you get militia-like groups of fringe dwellers who see nothing wrong with bringing weapons to political gatherings and making veiled threats of overthrowing the government. Even now, House Minority Leader Boehner and his fellow Republicans have only managed to make weak statements saying that violence is not good. No condemnations or calls for calm. In fact, he only mentioned that violence and threats are not appropriate after he made allowances for how upset everyone was about the bill's passage. Really? That's the best he could do? That's about as much of a condemnation as when a man flew his plane into the IRS building in TX, killing one and injuring many, and Representative Steve King babbled about how the IRS is a problem and he could understand how the guy might have been frustrated. Yeah, let's feel sympathy for the disturbed individual who thought flying his plane into an office building and killing someone was a good idea. What do you think Boehner and others will say if one of these individuals injures or kills someone out of, what he considers, justifiable anger? I suspect they'll set land speed records distancing themselves from it, even though they helped set the stage for it. When you are in a position of power and trust, there is a measure of responsibility that goes along with it. These people don't seem to realize that. Look, if you go camping and build a fire, but don't put it out properly and a few thousand acres of forest goes up in flames, you are held responsible. Words may seem benign, but they can be just as dangerous as a spark in a pile of leaves.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Fear: Keeping America Safe?

During the G.W. Bush Presidency, the master of fear was the Vice President. Dick Cheney seemed to thrive in his role as the Dark Lord of Fear. He would pop out occasionally in an interview and proceed to cast a pall over the proceedings. Never smiling and ever speaking of America under attack. Well, the batton has been passed to the next generation. While Cheney the elder is still occasionally darkening the media outlets with doom and unending scorn for the current Administration, his daughter Liz has eagerly taken over the task of keeping America cowering in the shadows.

She started by creating an organization called Keep America Safe (KAS), paired of course with a web site. The name itself hints strongly at the organization's real purpose. The name reminds me much of how now defunct East Germany used to call itself the German Democratic Republic. This was a nation that was anything but Democratic, much less a Republic, but it sounded a lot better than German Soviet Protectorate. My point is that you can name an organization or nation anything you want. There doesn't need to be any connection between terminology and reality. This is where we are with Keeping America Safe. Sounds all patriotic and noble, but the stands that this organization makes are often anything but. This is an organization that exists for one reason and it has nothing to do with keeping America safe. It exists as a mouthpiece of fear and to provide the most entrenched conservatives a steady, metronomic assault on the Obama Administration. Their Mission Statement starts out sounding reasonable.  "The mission of Keep America Safe is to provide information for concerned Americans about critical national security issues. Keep America Safe seeks to influence public policy by encouraging dialogue between American citizens and their elected representatives in order to produce legislation and executive action that enhances the national security of the United States." Which sounds great, but the next paragraph begins to tick off all the reasons America has to be scared of everything outside our front door.

This organization and Liz Cheney don't want to discuss or debate policy, this is obvious. Need a good example? How about their recent ad attacking attorneys working in the Justice Department who dared to represent Guantanamo Bay detainees, actually calling one group of them the "Al-Qaeda 7"? Let me be clear, Liz Cheney and KAS are accusing federal lawyers who counseled or defended detainees of being terrorists themselves. I'm surprised the organization didn't collapse under the weight of the colossal irony of the accusation. Think about it. KAS and Cheney are saying that lawyers counseling accused criminals/terrorists are being disloyal to America. Think about that. One of the core pillars of the US Constitution is our Judicial system. And arguably the most important tenet of our Justice system is the right to be represented by counsel. Am I the only one who thinks this is insane? By KAS's definition a lawyer representing a murderer could be accused of being an accessory to murder. See where this line of reasoning spins off the tracks? As part of what can only be called a political witch hunt, Cheney led the charge to demand information on all DoJ lawyers who ever represented detainees, then proceeded to persecute them as if she were unmasking master spies. Cheney and KAS apparently see nothing wrong with implying disloyalty and defaming the characters of Federal attorneys whose only 'crime' was upholding the most sacred traditions of America's system of Justice. It would serve them right if these attorneys filed a law suit for libel. If I were them and had any legal grounds to do so, I'd sue them to the limits of the law for attacking my reputation simply to undermine the Attorney General and the DoJ.

Need another argument? How about John Adams, one of the foremost Founding Fathers and the second President of the United States? In 1770, a confrontation in Boston turned bloody and was quickly christened the 'Boston Massacre'. The eight British soldiers charged with murder, after being unable to find a lawyer willing to defend them, asked John Adams. Though he worried about the effect it might have on his reputation, he felt strongly that these men deserved to have competent legal representation. Six of the soldiers were eventually cleared of charges and two, who did fire into the crowd, were convicted of manslaughter. Adams did this because it was the right thing to do. And it was. In actual fact, the incident was far more of an out of control gathering colliding with with panicky soldiers than any kind of 'Massacre'. But without Adams they would very likely have all been convicted out of shear vengeance. Defense lawyers are often vilified, and I admit I've done it myself, but the truth is that without them America's legal system would be far more about Conviction than Justice.

The bottom line is that Liz Cheney, like her father before her, along with the Conservative luminaries involved in 'Keeping America Safe' aren't focused on keeping America safe at all. I won't go so far as to say they don't care, as I'm sure they do, at least on some abstract level.  But if the focus was on the actual act of keeping America safe they wouldn't be tearing into the Obama Administration's anti-terror effort with such gusto. Why? Because almost nothing has changed in this policy since it was being run by the Bush Administration!!!  Yes, they are moving to close the Guantanamo Bay gulag, but even Bush talked of doing this towards the end of his term, so it's not particularly radical. There is a lot of noise related to moving the Gitmo detainees somewhere within the states, but 99% of that is purely political with no basis in logical thought. And therein lies the problem! So much of the volume is not about discussion or debate. It's about political maneuvering to hurt the opposition party and try and lay the groundwork for the next election cycle. The exact sort of thing the Bush Administration and its supporters would have called "Disloyalty" and "Treason", exactly as they did whenever they were seriously chided about Administration policies at the time. I won't cross the line and use the word Treason the way they did, but you can make a strong argument that this sort of gamesmanship has completely crossed the line. The needs of the political parties should NEVER trump the needs of the country. Yet that is what Liz Cheney, KAS and others like them are doing. While they were merciless in their attacks on anyone who dared dissent during the previous Administration, these same people see absolutely no hypocrisy in being even more publicly vicious in attacking Obama. Am I the only one sickened by this? The only one who thinks this sort of blind opportunism reprehensible? These individuals and organizations are nothing but 'fair weather' patriots. They wrap themselves in the flag and speak with reverence of the Constitution when it's convenient, then toss them in the gutter when it's not. I have no idea how much of it is pure calculated avarice and how much is simply a huge blind spot in the way they see the world. But either way they are doing anything BUT Keeping America Safe.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

What's Wrong With Prayer?

Actually, there's nothing wrong with prayer, in and of itself. It's a very personal communion between a person and the supreme being(s) one believes in. No, I have no problem with prayer. However, I do have an issue with the seemingly overwhelming desire some people of faith have to proclaim their particular brand of religion to everyone around them.  I was listening to the radio on the way to work last week and heard a quick snippet of a story about a brouhaha in Forsyth County, NC.

Apparently several years ago the county Board of Commissioners began to invite ministers to lead a brief prayer or invocation to 'solemnize' the proceedings. Well, not too long afterward someone attending one of these meetings apparently wasn't thrilled about the invocation of Jesus at a county government meeting.  The ACLU was contacted and legal hijinks ensued. Recently a Federal judge ruled that sectarian prayer be abolished during these meetings. You can imagine how this ruling was greeted by the theologically inclined in Forsyth county.

As I mentioned earlier, prayer is a uniquely personal choice. Not to put to fine a point on it, but one person's solemn invocation is another's act of heresy. What I am most amazed about is that between those who are in favor and those who are not, nobody seems to have considered the blindingly simple solution. A moment of silence. Those who want to pray can do so, silently to themselves. Those who don't can just take this bit of quiet time to clear their mind of the day's events, take a few deep breaths and focus on the coming meeting. Problem solved! This allows any Catholic, Protestant, Jew or Wiccan to pray as they feel is correct and allows those who don't to sit quietly and prepare for the proceedings.

Unfortunately I doubt this common sense solution would ever really solve the issue. Not because it doesn't allow for maximum inclusion with zero exclusion, but because the pro prayer individuals involved will take it as some sort of affront that they can't have a big, overt mass prayer. As if it's their right to subject a captive audience to a Christian worship service. They won't even have considered, before this issue arose, that some people might not want to hear about their version of faith. That those present might not care or may even find it offensive in some way. Proponents will see even my simple proposal as some sort of muffler on their religious freedom. This is, of course, absurd. All that's being muffled is their ability to push their form of faith on every single person present at a secular gathering.

I fully admit that I have issues with those who are particularly vocal about their own religious ideas. I'm not talking about a belief that comes up in conversation, because it can be enlightening to hear various points of view. I'm referring to the invasive evangelical style where a person of faith feels compelled to bring Jesus into every conversation. Or even more irritating, when someone decides to try and save the poor, misguided 'nonbeliever'. There seems to be this idea that freedom of religion grants those of faith, Christians especially,  carte blanche to shoe-horn overt prayer into all sorts of venues. Usually in a very vocal and intrusive manner. This seems normal and correct to them, of course, because they are very open about it and they can't quite embrace the fact that not everyone thinks of God in the same way.  It's a huge blind spot in their thinking. Some denominations seem to even feel it's a duty of some kind to 'save' the unbelievers among them by making a big sales pitch for God. I doubt many of the faith-full ever really stop to ponder how everyone else feels about this. In America, and I'm sure other places as well, there is this assumption that 'everyone' is a Christian. This assumption is blindingly false. We are most certainly not all Christian. Not to mention that some of us have zero interest in being a passive audience to someone else's beliefs. This doesn't mean I expect all signs of faith removed and hidden. It doesn't mean that I am enraged by a pre meal prayer. That would be stupid. What I do object to is the assumption of 'rightness' about squeezing Jesus or God into other's lives.

As I see it, the place for group prayer services is in a Church, Synagogue, Mosque or other house of worship as well as private gatherings composed of those of like faith. Or even one or a few in a quiet moment in the park. There is no place for it in a public, secular gathering and even less in a governmental setting like a local council meeting. These occasions bring groups of people together whose reason for attending is anything but religious. I know many will rise to the bait and point out that prayers are lead in the houses of Congress. So what? Doesn't make it right. This is a traditional holdover from a time when most everyone in a governmental position of power in the US was either a flavor of Christian or a very quiet atheist or agnostic. I suspect that down the road a bit, this bit of tradition will fall away as it's challenged by those members who don't fit into that 'Christian' mold.

The bottom line is that religion in general and prayer specifically is like a private conversation with your deity, and as such, I don't need or want to listen in. I also don't think it's polite to make a big show of your particular form of faith to a captive, and in more than a few cases, uninterested audience. There's also a level of arrogance involved in the assumption that everyone wants to pray to Jesus at the drop of a hat. Remember that old saying about not talking about religion or politics in mixed company? Company doesn't get any more mixed than a public meeting in America! Then there's my favorite phrase, separation of church and state. This certainly applies to a local government setting like this. Lets all just keep in mind that we live in a nation that's made up of all sorts of beliefs, and we'll all get along much better if we play our Faith a little closer to the vest.