David Horowitz busted again

Most people are by now aware of David Horowitz’s publicity-seeking gimmicks, where he runs around the country trying to scare everyone with lurid tales of left wing academics gone wild, abusing their power by terrorizing conservative students. As long-time readers of this blog know, I became part of this story when I wrote an op-ed piece that appeared in the March 4, 2005 issue of Plain Dealer about one such tale that I looked into and could not substantiate. This story was picked up by Media Matters and went national, and Horowitz supporters (and he has some supporters who seem to verge on the fanatical that seem almost cult-like) posted nasty comments, even threatening legal action against me, which was rather funny. I think Horowitz’s supporters are hoping I’d be eaten by bears, the fate of the children who made mock of the Prophet Elisha.

(For those of you not familiar with the Elisha story, you can read it in the Bible in 2 Kings, Chapter 2, verses 23 and 24. Elisha was on his way somewhere when “there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head.” You might think that merely being called “baldy” by little children is hardly something that would faze a prophet of god, but Elisha, showing the same kind of peevishness as Horowitz, gets mad, murderously so. “And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.” This act of horrific vengefulness against forty two little children for their childish insensitivity is attributed by the Bible to God, which should give pause (but won’t) to those who argue that the Bible is the source of all morality.)

As a result of my op-ed, the publication Inside Higher Ed investigated the charges I made and found that the facts of the story were far from what Horowitz had alleged. Horowitz acknowledged that he had not checked the facts of his story before making it public. For all the details of this somewhat bizarre episode, see my earlier posting The strange story of David Horowitz and the “Bush-as-war-criminal” essay.

You would think that after that episode, Horowitz would be careful to carefully check his stories in the future before going public. That would be the path taken by a prudent person. But you would be wrong. A recent article in Inside Higher Ed finds him being, if possible, even more cavalier with facts. (Thanks to commenter George for alerting me to this.)

On Tuesday, January 11, Horowitz testified at a Pennsylvania legislative committee in favor of his pet project, the so-called Academic Bill of Rights, and told another two stories of academic abuse. But as Inside Higher Ed editor Scott Jaschik writes:

David Horowitz, the conservative activist who has led the push for the hearings in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, admitted that he had no evidence to back up two of the stories he has told multiple times to back up his charges that political bias is rampant in higher education.

For example, Horowitz has said several times that a biology professor at Pennsylvania State University used a class session just before the 2004 election to show the Michael Moore documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, but he acknowledged Tuesday that he didn’t have any proof that this took place.

In a phone interview, Horowitz said that he had heard about the alleged incident from a legislative staffer and that there was no evidence to back up the claim.

The other example Horowitz was forced to back down on Tuesday is from the opposite end of the political spectrum. He has several times cited the example of a student in California who supports abortion rights and who said that he was punished with a low grade by a professor who opposed abortion. Asked about this example, Horowitz said that he had no evidence to back up the student’s claim.

In the interview, he said that he didn’t have the resources to look into all the complaints that he publicizes. “I can’t investigate every story,” he said.

Fair enough. None of us have the resources to investigate every story either. That is why one should only write and speak about the stories that one can investigate, or for which one has at least some documentation. Or, failing even that, to at the very least say that what you are saying is based on a rumor. Most people assume that people have some basis for whatever they say and one has to respect that trust and make it clear when one is merely guessing or passing along a rumor. What is inexcusable is to do what Horowitz did, and go round making wild charges and acting as if you have supporting evidence, all the while knowing that you do not have anything to back it up.

But Horowitz’s reasoning is so bizarre one has to really wonder as to the level of his contact with reality. Here’s his defense:

Horowitz noted that when he publicizes such stories, he does not print the names of the professors involved, and that he has stated many times that a professor involved in such an incident would be welcome to write a rebuttal that he would post on his Web site. “I have protected professors. I have not posted their names and pilloried them. My Web site is open to them,” he said.

So he publicizes stories of doubtful veracity about anonymous people and then expects those people to rebut them! And when no rebuttals appear, he assumes that the stories must be true?

That’s a great journalistic innovation. Let me try it: I have heard that there is a professor in Ohio who forced a student to kneel on the ground and hit his head on the floor repeatedly, at the same time singing the Beach Boys hit song “Good Vibrations.” Okay, the story is on my website. If I don’t get any rebuttals, I’ll assume that it is true and will thus have a terrific scoop. See how easy it is?

But Horowitz has one last defense, the one that is always resorted to by those caught in such embarrassing retractions: that although the stories may be fake, they represent “deep” or “essential” truths.

Even if these examples aren’t correct, [Horowitz] said, they represent the reality of academic life. “Is there anybody out there who will say that professors don’t attack Bush in biology classrooms?” he said.

This was also the defense adopted by James Frey whose life story in his memoir A Million Little Pieces was revealed by the website The Smoking Gun to be to be filled with fabrications and falsehoods. In an interview with Larry King, Frey accepted that he had altered details of his life, but defended its “essential truth.”

It won’t work for Frey and it won’t work for Horowitz. If academic abuse is so rampant, then it should not be hard to find documented cases of it. You cannot make up stories, unless you are a writer of fiction and label it as such. To do so and claim it as reality is simply wrong.

Okay, all you Horowitz fans out there who prowl the internet seeking to defend your dear leader from people who question his veracity, it’s your turn. I have seriously dissed your leader again. Show your fealty to him. Let’s hear some more legal threats!

Or at least unleash the bears.

POST SCRIPT: Capote

I recently saw the film Capote and it was excellent. It was a fine portrayal of how author Truman Capote essentially sacrificed his soul in order to get the right ending for his groundbreaking “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood. It is a sobering reminder of what I read sometime ago, that writers will often be driven to sell even their grandmothers for the sake of their craft.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and the rest of the case were terrific. I have yet to see a performance by Hoffman that is not first-rate. Although he usually plays a supporting role in films, the first film I saw in which he had a major role was Flawless in which he plays a female impersonator lounge singer saving up for a sex-change operation who ends up having to give voice lessons to a hard-bitten, macho policeman played by Robert De Niro. There’s a film premise you are not likely to see every day. Although this film did not get much publicity, it is well worth seeing on video.

Philip Seymour Hoffman seems to be like John Cusack, having the ability to select scripts that are complex, interesting, and original.

The threat of terrorist attacks – 2

The recent release of an audiotape by Bin Laden offering a truce in the war may be used to kick off the election year season of ratcheting up the fear of terrorism.

In his message bin Laden points to attacks in other countries and promises a new attack on the US and explains the reason for not doing so earlier:

As for the delay in carrying out similar operations in America, this was not due to the failure to breach your security measures. Operations are in preparation, and you will see them on your own ground once the preparations are finished, God willing.

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The threat of terrorist attacks-1

I have posted in the past about how the current administration likes to keep the populace in a state of constant fear. Succeeding in that task, persuading them that each one of us is under imminent threat enables the administration to undertake the systematic dismantling of the hard-won rights and civil liberties that underly societies that are truly free. It also enables them to rally voters to their side. I argued that we should fight this fearmongering.

Some of you may have noticed, for example, that since the elections were over in November 2004, we have not seen any dramatic announcements of terrorist plots, changes in the color-coded alert system, etc. (Quick quiz: Do you know what the current color is? Do you even care?) But there will be congressional elections this year and I anticipate that there will be an increase in the reporting of vague threats against major cities as those campaigns get underway. The rising bellicosity about Iran seems to be the preamble.

I should emphasize that in making this assertion, I am not underestimating the threat of future terrorist attacks in the US and elsewhere. Sadly, I think that future terrorist attacks are not only highly likely, they are almost inevitable. The recent release of the bin Laden audiotape (more on this tomorrow) only confirms this pessimistic view. What I am arguing is that you cannot fight this kind of terrorism with bluster and attacks on countries like Iraq that, as needs constant repetition, had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks and nothing to do with al-Quaeda.

Terrorists seek to frighten ordinary people. They do that by hitting ‘soft’ targets (places where people just congregate, without any special military or political or economic significance that warrant extra security) as dramatically as possible, so as to frighten people into thinking that they are not safe anywhere.

What complicates matters for anyone planning such a major attack and can deter them, just like for any ordinary criminal, is how to escape undetected after the act has been committed. It is this that largely restricts the options and opportunities for criminals to create a dramatic and deadly event.

But once a group has crossed a threshold and feels its grievances to be strong enough to be able to recruit people for suicide missions, and that soft targets of civilian populations are worthy targets, then the biggest deterrent against attacks is gone, and society is utterly vulnerable. Once people don’t mind, and even seek, dying for a cause, you have little defense against them and one’s safety options become highly limited.

This happened in Sri Lanka with the Tamil Tigers. Once the sense of grievance among the Tamils was high enough that the Tigers could recruit members for suicide missions, they were able to attack targets, even highly guarded ones, with impunity. They were able to kill high ranking politicians and military figures, even the Prime Minister of India Rajiv Gandhi, as well as high profile targets like the parliament, the Central Bank, and the main airport. And the Tigers were patient, another important weapon in their arsenal. As one can imagine, after all these attacks, there was a tight wall of security around the President of Sri Lanka. But the Tigers patiently planned and waited for years while one of their cadres established an innocent identity that enabled him to get close to President Premadasa and one day he exploded a device that killed him and the President, among others.

It strikes me that what is going on with al-Quaeda is similar. The sense of grievance among their members is huge enough that they seem to have no trouble recruiting people for suicide missions. This is especially so since they have the added incentive (that the Tigers do not use) of claiming that god is on their side and approves of their actions. The US attack on Iraq also seems to have become one of their best recruiting messages, enabling them to convince their followers that the US has evil designs on the entire Middle East and the Muslim world and its resources. They seem to be also very patient. And they are not hesitant to attack ‘soft’ targets if need be.

If I think that an attack is almost inevitable, why am I saying we should not live in a state of fear? Because the threat is random, and should be placed in the context of other random threats and we should respond accordingly. For example, I know with certainty that large numbers of people will die in car crashes this next year, many of them due to no fault of their own. It will be just a random event. I know with certainty that many people will die in other kinds of accidents or be murdered. Many people will die due to hurricanes and earthquakes. And again it will be due to no fault of their own. Another random event.

Any one of those people who die in such random events could be me. In fact, the probability that I will die due to one of these causes is much greater than that due to a terrorist attack. And they will all be random. So why should I live in fear of a terrorist attack more than these other things? It does not make any rational sense.

The administration argument that we should be willing to give up all rule of law and to effectively declare Presidential actions to be above the law is going to be successful in the court of public opinion only insofar as we are driven to a state of almost panic-like fear about death by terrorism. It may be true that by creating an almost police-like state where anyone can be arrested, detained indefinitely, tortured, and even killed without recourse to law we might marginally improve the chances of avoiding a terrorist attack. Is that a deal we want to make? At least shouldn’t we have a say in whether such a deal is made?

All of us make trade-offs involving risks, costs, and benefits. For example, we are told that eating certain foods, avoiding others, getting lots of exercise, stopping smoking, and doing a whole host of other things may increase our lifespans. But there is no guarantee. We are instead talking about very small changes in probabilities and we all decide which ones are worth doing and which ones are too onerous and take the fun out of life.

Extra safety can almost always be obtained, but often at an extreme price. How much are we willing to pay? Some people (Jonah Goldberg and his ilk come to mind) are willing to let other people pay the high price to increase their sense of safety, but I am assuming that most of us have not sunk to that level. (This cartoon by August J. Pollack captures the Goldberg mindset exactly. Pollack follows it up with a survey sent to Bush supporters asking them how far they are willing to go in their support for Bush.)

This does not mean that I think we can do nothing about terrorism. Tomorrow I will look at other options.

POST SCRIPT: Fighting bad science reporting with actual data

George Mason University’s STATS website is doing a valuable service. It is looking carefully at sensational science-related news stories and checking if the data actually match the claims of the reports.

See, for example, its 2005 Dubious Data Awards where they set “The Record Straight on the Year’s Biggest Science Reporting Flubs,” which include the meth drug scare, poison popcorn, and today’s teenagers supposedly alarming obsession with illicit drugs, alcohol, and sex.

Religion and respect

Last month I posted a tongue-in-cheek article about the “rapture letters”. Most readers found it amusing but I was gently upbraided by one who said that I was making fun of the deep and sincere beliefs of many people and not being respectful of them.

It is undoubtedly true that I was having fun at the expense of the believers in the rapture but that exchange with the commenter caused me to think about the relationship of religion and respect.

In some respects, all the major religions are in principle fundamentally disrespectful to those of other faiths. For example, most Christians and Jews and Muslims believe that there is some special benefit that accrues to them from their beliefs that is not available to members of other religions. This benefit may be in the form of entering heaven or being raptured or whatever. Such people may not go out of their way to publicize this special benefit but it is there nonetheless. Members of each religion believe that those with other beliefs are simply wrong.

Is such a view disrespectful of the faiths of other people? I believe it is. If I believe that god likes my religious group specially and is going to give us a big reward when we die, while sending members of other religious groups straight to hell or someplace equally unpleasant, that belief inherently disrespectful of the beliefs of others, even if I don’t explicitly and openly declare it.

Actually, it could be argued that the atheist approach is the most respectful to all because the future that the atheist envisages is exactly the same for everybody, atheist or otherwise. In the atheist framework, there is no preferred group at all. There is no advantage to being an atheist, except the intellectual peace of mind that comes with not having to worry about how to reconcile the workings of the natural world with existence of a supernatural deity.

I have often wondered why (say) some religious people are so touchy about anything that they see as disrespectful towards their religion. I remember in Sri Lanka there would be periodic uproars because some business in the West had adopted the image and name of the Buddha to market some product or service. There would be demonstrations and protests and marches. I could never see the point of it. If you are happy with your own religion, why do you care what other people say about it?

All this phony fuss about the so-called war on Christmas is another example of this. If I was a born-again Christian (or the equivalent in Judaism or Islam or any other theistic religion) and believed that when I die I was guaranteed to go to heaven or be raptured or the equivalent, then frankly I would feel pretty content and not care one whit what other people say or believe about my religion. After all, my own future is secure, and it is the people who are sneering at me that are sure of going to hell. One should feel sorry for them, rather than annoyed and angry.

Conversely, since I am an atheist, it does not bother me in the least if some people think that I am heading to eternal damnation. The effect on me is the same as if they say they believe in unicorns or the tooth fairy. I would have the same lack of reaction if people should mock atheism.

While writing the last sentence, I tried to think of a concrete example of what someone might say to mock atheism, and failed. I realized that it is hard to actually mock atheism since it does not have a belief structure that can be parodied or ridiculed. It is simply the absence of belief in a god. One can reject it, but it is hard to ridicule it.

POST SCRIPT: Appearing on TV tonight (See update below)

UPDATE: At the taping today, I was told that the broadcast of this show would be at 8:30pm on Friday, January 27, with a repeat at noon on Sunday, January 29.

I will be talking about the future of newspapers (and the role of blogging in that future) on TV tonight (Friday, January 20, 2006). It will be at 8:30pm on WVIZ channel 25’s Feagler and friends. Editor of the Plain Dealer Doug Clifton will also be on the program.

The taping is this afternoon and I am assuming that the show will be broadcast tonight and not next week.

Morality exists independently of, and prior to, religion

There were some very thoughtful and lively comments to yesterday’s post on the topic Should atheists come out of the closet?

It was suggested that one of the other reasons that atheists might feel uncomfortable about revealing their point of view is because of the common perception that morality is derived from religion and that to say one is an atheist is to run the risk of being thought to have no moral standards and be capable of any atrocity.
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Should atheists come out of the closet?

Some time ago, I posed the question on whether atheists should “come out.” I was reminded of this recently when I was involved in a discussion some time ago on the topic of whether atheists should ‘come out of the closet.’ The implication of the question was that stating openly that was one was an atheist could have negative repercussions on one’s work and family and social life, the way that being openly gay could. Of course, no one was suggesting that atheists experience anything close to the repression and harassment that gays experience. But it was clear that many people in the group kept their atheistic beliefs private for fear of negative consequences.

I was surprised by this because I have not personally felt any negative consequences. But this may be that the university setting in which I work is generally more accepting of heterodox views than the community at large.

But the interesting point that arose was that many of the people who hid their atheist beliefs said that it would be much more socially acceptable in America to say they were Hindus or Jews or Buddhists than to say that they were atheists. Despite the current anti-Islam sentiment in the US, even saying one was a Muslim was seen as being less discomfiting to the listener than being an atheist.

Why is this? Why would atheism arouse stronger negative feelings than belonging to a completely different religion? And it is not just in the US that this happens. I recall during the first Gulf war in 1991, CBS News correspondent Bob Simon was captured by some Islamic group but was subsequently released unharmed. He said that during his captivity his captors asked him whether he was a Jew and he acknowledged it. Simon said he felt that the fact that he was religious, a ‘man of the Book,’ made it safer for him than if he had said he was an atheist.

During the discussion on atheists coming out, someone made a very enlightening remark. He said that he recalled seeing the late Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the militant atheist who was responsible for the case that resulted in school-sponsored prayer being outlawed from public schools, on TV talk shows. He said she would love to get the audience all worked up and hissing at her with her provocative statements. Then she would tell them “You hate me because I am the embodiment of all your doubts.”

That makes sense. All religions depend on faith, the willful act of belief in something that cannot be discerned. Faith implies belief in the absence of, and counter to, evidence. Such an effort necessarily involves the suppression of doubt. When a person of one religion encounters someone from another, it is relatively easy to think that yours is the ‘right’ faith and the other person’s is the ‘wrong’ one. The other person is not challenging the very act of faith, but just the details of that faith.

The greater challenge to faith is not a competing faith, but doubt. When persons of faith encounter an atheist, that brings them face to face with their own doubts and that can be much more disconcerting.

POST SCRIPT 1: Praying for other people’s souls

After my op-ed on intelligent design was published in the Plain Dealer following the Dover case, I was woken up at 5:30am the next day by someone who had clearly disliked my article. The point of his call was to tell me to read some book (presumably in favor of intelligent design) and he proceeded to spell out the name and the author. I interrupted to ask him if he knew what time it was and he replied “I can only pray for your soul.”

When people say they are praying for someone else’s soul, what they really mean depends on the context. When friends and members of my family say it, they really do mean it and are worried that my atheism is going to bring me to a bad end. I am touched by their concern and appreciate the thought.

But when someone who is obviously annoyed with you or disagrees with you says it, then you know it is insincere. When such people say it, what I think they are really saying is “I can’t wait for judgment day when I can see you rot in hell and gloat over you.” But because such people feel the need to preserve a publicly pious face, they sanctimoniously say “I will pray for your soul” instead.

Here’s my advice to such religious people. If someone annoys you, do not expect to get any appreciation when you say that you are praying for their soul. If that person is an atheist, he or she will probably laugh at you (internally if they are polite people) for saying this, because atheists don’t think they have an immortal soul, remember? And if that person is religious, he or she may be offended at the implication that you are tighter with god than they are and have some sort of say in what happens to their soul. Nobody likes a “holier than thou” attitude. Just ask the Pharisees, if you can find one in your neighborhood. Or better still, ask Pat Robertson.

POST SCRIPT 2: Bush on Global Warming

President Bush, looking surprisingly like actor Will Ferrell, shares his views on global warming. (Thanks to reader Anne for the link.)

Suffer little children

Glenn Greenwald’s blog Unclaimed Territory has become a must-read for me. He writes passionately, knowledgeably, and well about legal matters, and particularly the protection of civil rights.

His recent post is another excellent analysis of the way that people who should know better are complicit in the eroding of civil liberties and the rights protected in the constitution. Rather than merely being at the edge of the slippery slope, these people have slid completely down it and are now wallowing in the muck at the bottom.

Here are some key points of Greenwald’s essay to whet your appetite to read the whole thing:

There is a widespread, tacit assumption that no matter how apathetic and inattentive Americans become, there is still some line which they will not allow the Government to cross when it comes to exceeding or abusing the limits of government power. That assumption has taken a huge beating over the last four years, and is now in serious doubt.

Americans have sat by more or less passively by while this Administration detained American citizens and threw them into a military prison without charges being brought, without a trial, and without even allowing them access to a lawyer. Many are basically indifferent to revelations that the Bush Administration is eavesdropping on American citizens in secret and with no oversight of any kind. And worst of all, a sizable portion of the population is acquiescing to the fact that we have a President who was just discovered breaking the law, and rather than expressing shame or remorse once he was caught, has vowed to continue doing it based on the theory that he has the right to violate the law and that it’s for our own good.

It is sometimes hard to put one’s finger on exactly what motivates such passive acceptance of these obvious government abuses, but Jonah Goldberg puked up a paragraph last night in the Corner which really captures everything that is rancid and decaying in our country and which casts an ugly though illuminating light on all of this.

In his little item, Jonah was talking about – and, of course, defending – the strip searching of the 10-year-old girl in the case where Judge Alito ruled that the search warrant issued to the Police authorized searching of the girl. Jonah then went further – much further – and defended all strip-searching of all children, even without a warrant, whenever the Police thinks the kids’ parents are “drug dealers”:

STRIP SEARCHES [Jonah Goldberg]
I understand the need for following the procedural niceties, but as a plain moral common sense issue, if you are a drug dealer and keep drugs on the premises with your child, you get zero-point-zero sympathy from me if your kids are searched, warrant or no. It may be wrong for the cops to do it. But you are not a victim for choosing a life where you can rationally expect to expose your kids to far greater risks than a search by a polite cop. The kid’s a victim — of bad parents.

….
Thanks to the ceaseless fear-mongering of this Administration, we are becoming – excuse the grotesque imagery – a Nation of Jonah Goldbergs, scared and lazy creatures who sit around believing that the Government is justified – even obligated – to act literally without constraint against the Bad People, the ones who are deemed to be Bad not pursuant to any “procedural niceties” but simply by the unchecked decree of the Government. These Jonah Goldbergs love to talk tough. But they are repulsively coddled and effete, whining about every perceived petty injustice which affects them but breezily endorsing the most limitless abuses of others, as long as the “others” seem sufficiently demonized and far enough away.

It is truly nauseating to watch the basic principles of our country, which have preserved both liberty and stability with unprecedented brilliance over the last 200 years, be inexorably whittled away and treated like petty nuisances by the depraved Jonah Goldbergs among us. It is a mindset based on a truly toxic brew of glib self-absorption, sickly laziness and profound ignorance, and it is being easily manipulated by an Administration which is demanding – and acquiring – more and more power in exchange for coddling and protecting the little Jonah Goldbergs of the world.

I think that what differentiates people who value and fight to protect constitutional protections from those who are willing to have them compromised is whether you are willing and able to imagine yourself in the situation of the people at the receiving end of this treatment and how you would feel if it happened to you and your family and friends, even if you are a person who has never done anything that could be even remotely described as of questionable legality. As Greenwald says:

What makes Jonah’s post conclusively reflective of not only his ideological corruption but also his severe character flaw is that Jonah would never be quite as breezy or casual about lawless strip searches if it was him or his daughter being subjected to them.

But Jonah is convinced that abuses of this sort will never happen to him and he therefore doesn’t care that they happen to others. To the contrary, he eagerly wants other people – the alleged, suspected “drug dealers” and “terrorists” and other Bad People – to be subjected to those abuses because he thinks it will protect him from bad things. That’s why I described his thinking as a mindset based on fear and petty selfishness. He is willing to give up and even denigrate the most basic liberties of our country because he thinks he doesn’t need them and would be better off without them.

Notice that Goldberg’s acceptance of what must have been a traumatic experience for the child is because of an allegation against the father. In this, Goldberg’s position is similar to that of John Yoo, now a professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley and before that a former deputy assistant attorney general in the office of legal counsel of the Department of Justice where he wrote a memo on September 25, 2001 justifying Presidential power to do practically anything he wants, which has since been interpreted to include the torturing of captives around the world. His views seem to have got even worse after going into academia.

Listen to this exchange in an debate with Douglass Cassel at the University of Notre Dame (audio available):

Cassel: If the president deems that he’s got to torture somebody, including by crushing the testicles of the person’s child, there is no law that can stop him?

Yoo: No treaty


Cassel: Also no law by Congress – that is what you wrote in the August 2002 memo…


Yoo: I think it depends on why the President thinks he needs to do that.

So there you are. People like Goldberg and Yoo are not only happy to acquiesce in the torture of adults who are suspects, they are even willing to have a suspect’s children be brutalized, as long as the President thinks it is a good idea. Yes, we are truly a nation that values families.

In a speech yesterday to The American Constitution Society and The Liberty Coalition (full transcript here), former Vice President Al Gore made the following point:

Can it be true that any president really has such powers under our Constitution? If the answer is “yes” then under the theory by which these acts are committed, are there any acts that can on their face be prohibited? If the President has the inherent authority to eavesdrop, imprison citizens on his own declaration, kidnap and torture, then what can’t he do?

The Dean of Yale Law School, Harold Koh, said after analyzing the Executive Branch’s claims of these previously unrecognized powers: “If the President has commander-in-chief power to commit torture, he has the power to commit genocide, to sanction slavery, to promote apartheid, to license summary execution.”

Whatever happened to that quaint notion that this is “a government of laws, not men?”

POST SCRIPT: Other examples of moral courage

Last week I wrote about Hugh Thompson, Jr. For more about his rescue of Vietnamese civilians from slaughter, and others in the US military like him who spoke out at what they saw as wrong actions, and how badly they were treated because of their courageous acts, see here. Clancy Sigal writes:

They include Army specialist Joseph Darby, of the 372d Military Police Company, who reported on his fellow soldiers who were torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. His family has received threats to their personal safety in their Maryland hometown. And Captain Ian Fishback, the 82d Airborne West Pointer, who served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and tried vainly for seventeen months to persuade superiors that detainee torture was a systematic, and not a ‘few bad apples’, problem inside the U.S. military. In frustration, he wrote to Senator McCain, which led directly to McCain’s anti-torture amendment. I wouldn’t want to bet on the longevity of Captain Fishback’s military career.

Thompson’s death also reminded me of Captain Lawrence Rockwood, of the 10th Mountain Division. Ten years ago, Rockwood was deployed to Haiti where, against orders, he personally investigated detainee abuse at the National Penitentiary in the heart of Port au Prince. He was court-martialed for criticizing the U.S. military’s refusal to intervene, and kicked out of the Army. While still on duty, he kept a photograph on his desk of a man he greatly admired. It was of Captain Hugh Thompson.

IDC now being attacked by some religious fundamentalists

Judge Jones’ ruling in the Dover, PA has suddenly brought to light what had only been hinted at before, that not all religious people, even evangelicals, were happy with IDC ideas and strategy. Some fundamentalists were unhappy with the IDC movement’s minimalist strategy of claiming only a few supernatural interventions in the evolutionary process. They felt that IDC should go further and argue for the complete Biblical story of creation and be open about the fact that the designer was the Christian god.

In what must be the unkindest cut of all, even some members of the group known as “creation scientists” such as Hugh Ross are applauding the Dover decision, agreeing with the judge that IDC is not science.
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IDC losing yet more support

There are signs that even more people are feeling that introducing Intelligent Design Creationism (IDC) ideas into science classes is not something worth fighting for. The Cleveland Plain Dealer deputy editorial director Kevin O’Brien, who would have been the most likely person on their editorial board to support IDC writes in a December 28, 2005 column:

What’s with these Intelligent Design people? For years, they’ve been lampooned as anti-intellectual, marginalized as religious nuts, and voted out of office whenever they’ve managed to sneak in under the radar. Now they’ve taken a solid whipping in federal court. And just watch: They’ll be back for more.

[A]s taxpaying members of the public, Christians have just as much right to a say in educational policy as anyone. But if they hope to be effective, they have to make an argument that’s scientifically valid.

Intelligent Design isn’t it. Neither the existence of a higher power nor its participation in the origin of life can be observed or measured, which is what science is all about.

Nationally syndicated columnist Cal Thomas, who identifies himself as a religious conservative, says in a December 28, 2005 Washington Times column that he actually welcomes the judge’s ruling:

The decision by U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III to bar the teaching of “intelligent design” in the Dover, Pa., public school district on grounds it is a thinly veiled effort to introduce a religious view of the world’s origins is welcome for at least two reasons. First, it exposes the sham attempt to take through the back door what proponents have no chance of getting through the front door. Judge Jones rebuked advocates of “intelligent design,” saying they repeatedly lied about their true intentions. He noted many of them had said publicly their intent was to introduce into the schools a biblical account of creation.

This leads to the second reason for welcoming Judge Jones’ ruling. It should awaken religious conservatives to the futility of trying to make a secular state reflect their beliefs. Too many people have wasted too much time and money since the 1960s, when prayer and Bible reading were outlawed in public schools, trying to get these and other things restored. The modern secular state should not be expected to teach Genesis 1, or any other book of the Bible, or any other religious text.

Both O’Brien and Thomas acknowledge that the US is built on secular principles and that Christians should stop trying to make it into a theocracy. O’Brien says:

This nation’s founders wisely drew up a secular system of government, but they understood that the system they created was geared to a moral people who were capable, especially in their public lives, of restraining themselves.

And there’s the key for Christians living in today’s America: Our fight should not be to win control of government institutions – even so small an institution as a classroom – so as to restrain others. Our fight should be to win control of the nation’s culture by persuading Americans to see the value of restraining themselves. (my emphasis)

Thomas agrees, saying:

Culture has long passed by advocates of intelligent design, school prayer and numerous other beliefs and practices that were once tolerated, even promoted, in public education. People who think they can reclaim the past have been watching too many repeats of “Leave it to Beaver” on cable television. Those days are not coming back anytime soon, if at all.

Thomas recommends that those people with strong religious beliefs who are concerned about what they are being taught in the secular public schools should do what they should have done all along: take their children out of the public schools and put them in religious schools or home school them.

I have long been writing that a secular public sphere with great freedom for the private practice of religion is the system that has the best chance of promoting peace among the various religious beliefs. I had not expected such ringing support for this view from such unlikely allies as O’Brien and Thomas. It is very welcome.

POST SCRIPT: Crash

After my postings on race and prejudice, a reader kindly sent me a DVD (thanks, Josh!) of the film Crash (the 2004 film written and directed by Paul Haggis, not a different 1996 film having the same name), thinking it would appeal to me. I saw it and can report that it is a terrific film, with an excellent ensemble cast, including the minor characters. It captures how race is the prism through which most people instinctively initially view things, even though they may know better intellectually. It also shows the unpleasantness and damage that such unreflective responses can cause. It shows how people are complex in their motivations. If you haven’t seen it, check it out.

The pettiness of some congressional bribes

In following the Abramoff affair in the media and other past scandals, I was struck by something that Adam McKay gave voice to, and that is the relative smallness of the amounts used to bribe these congresspersons. It is not that the fact that some of these Congresspeople can be bribed but that their price is so low. According to the <a href=http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/03/politics/03cnd-abramoff.html New York Times: “Alice Fisher, an assistant attorney general, said Mr. Abramoff offered up gifts to government officials that included an all-expense paid trip to Scotland “to play golf on a world-famous course, tickets and travel to the Super Bowl in Florida, tickets for concerts and other events in Washington, repeated and regular meals at his upscale restaurant, and campaign contributions.”.

Dinners, concert and Super Bowl tickets, seem to me to be rather cheap to buy off a congressperson who earns $158,000 per year and in addition has enormous perks and extremely generous benefits. Why would anyone run the risk of being accused of taking bribes just for the sake of a steak dinner and whiskey or whatever it is they eat and drink at “upscale restaurants.” Even if one was a glutton, how much could it cost? $100? $200? And the same for concert tickets. Surely they could afford it?

Maybe the campaign contributions were large. And the trip to Scotland could perhaps run into a couple of thousand dollars, but surely if they really, really wanted to play golf at a famous course in Scotland, they could have afforded to on their salaries.

I think that it cannot be just the amount of money involved, although money has to be a contributing factor. It must also be the fact that being bribed is used as a marker of the fact that you have power, and some people like others to think that they are important and have the sense of power over people and events.

I think that being offered a bribe must be gratifying to the ego of such people. I also suspect that being offered a bribe someone who you think is important (because they are rich and/or celebrities and/or powerful and/or well-connected) is more valuable than being offered the same bribe by just regular people.

For example, if I offered to take a congressperson out to dinner at a fancy restaurant in return for doing me a favor, he or she would probably laugh at me or be insulted or even have me arrested. But if Donald Trump took that congressperson out for the same dinner, he probably would be granted the favor. The fact that someone supposedly important is paying attention to you, is spending some of their precious time with you, is fawning over you, gives much greater weight to the occasion and makes you feel important too, and generous (and even indebted) towards them. So you do them the favor. You take the petty bribe.

There are some people who do take bribes having a significant value. People like the Republican congressman from San Diego Randy “Duke” Cunningham who resigned after being found to have taken millions from defense contractors to steer contracts their way. (See a video of a conversation between MSNBC talk show hosts Chris Matthews and Joe Scarborough where the latter, who used to be a Congressman, is candid about the blatant quid pro quo that exists between lobbyist payoffs and the favors they get in return.) There are also people in lower profile occupations who enrich themselves by taking a large number of small bribes from many people. These people clearly see bribes as a revenue stream, a steady augmentation of their income.

But for the others in all professions and in all walks of life who take relatively small bribes despite being paid well, I suspect that ego and a feeling of power play a big role.

One occasionally hears or reads about college professors who are approached with bribes for grades. I cannot imagine that the bribes offered are significant enough to make it worthwhile in any tangible sense, so I suspect that if professor succumbs to this kind of temptation, he or she does so for the same reasons given above, because it appeals to his or her sense of importance.

In all my years of teaching in both Sri Lanka and the US, I am happy to report that have never been approached with anything that could be even remotely construed as a bribe. Whether this is because my students have very high ethical standards or they think that my power ego is too weak or unworthy of being flattered, I cannot say. But I am thankful all the same.

POST SCRIPT: Britain taking the lead?

The British Prime Minister Tony Blair is often derided as ‘Bush’s poodle,’ eager to please his master by doing everything asked of him. But veteran journalist John Pilger points out that when it comes to criminalizing dissidents and opponents, Blair (and England) may be slightly ahead of the US.