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Monday, December 29, 2003

Corruption, continued...

The LA Times continues its investigative series on politicians misusing their office with an expose` on Ted Stevens, the enormously powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and how he has become quite wealthy by starting businesses that benefit from legislation his committee passes. Among the other things they uncovered
• Armed with the power his committee posts give him over the Pentagon, Stevens helped save a $450-million military housing contract for an Anchorage businessman. The same businessman made Stevens a partner in a series of real estate investments that turned the senator's $50,000 stake into at least $750,000 in six years.

• An Alaska Native company that Stevens helped create got millions of dollars in defense contracts through preferences he wrote into law. Now the company pays $6 million a year to lease an office building owned by the senator and his business partners. Stevens continues to push legislation that benefits the company.
And lest you think this is politically motivated, the paper did similar exposes on Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana and Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, both democrats, as well as republicans Orrin Hatch of Utah and Trent Lott of Mississippi. A perfect follow up to the last essay.

Ed Brayton | 5:38 PM | | | Permalink

Sunday, December 28, 2003

The nature of modern cynicism

Having used the moniker StCynic for nearly a decade now in various places, I have often been asked what a cynic is. More often, I am simply presumed to be whatever the person asking the question presumes cynicism to be - unduly negative, hateful, unhappy, angry, etc. For myself, the best definition I have seen is from the arch-cynic himself, Ambrose Bierce:
Cynic, n: a blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be
This preference for truth over lie, fact over fiction, is at the heart of my approach to the world. In political terms, this primarily means seeing the reality behind the rhetoric - a tall task in a political culture increasingly dominated by the soundbite and the tools of public relations and propaganda. We live, after all, in the age of the "post-convention bounce", the quadrennial phenomenon whereby each major party holds a 4 or 5 day infomercial and a sizable portion of the public immediately changes their voting loyalty, until the other party holds their own informercial and the winds shift yet again. And though the task of separating truth from falsehood may have gotten taller, it is surely nothing new.

HL Mencken, the American uber-cynic of the early 20th century, was pointing out long before most of us were born that most of what comes out of a politician's mouth is utter nonsense. He referred to political campaigns as a "carnival of buncombe", and took special delight in puncturing the rhetorical nonsense of the party conventions. Of the 1924 Republican National Convention, Mencken wrote
"Some dreadful mountebank in a long-tailed coat will open them with a windy speech; then another mountebank will repeat the same rubbish in other words. Then a half dozen windjammers will hymn good Cal (Coolidge) as a combination of Pericles, Frederick the Great, Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt and John the Baptist; then there will be an hour or two of idiotic whooping, and then the boys will go home."
Can you imagine what Mencken, the man who wrote that an honest politician is as unthinkable as an honest burglar, would do with Clinton's 1992 pledge to have "the most ethical administration in history"? Or with George W. Bush's promise to "restore honor and dignity to the White House"? How he would have roared with laughter at the site of George W. Bush and Al Gore, both 3rd generation scions from the nation's most powerful political families, attempting to position themselves as "outsiders" as they engaged in what Lewis Lapham has called "the ritual denunciation of Washington"? Imagine the bombast aimed at the gaudy display of campaign promises to fund every solution to fix every problem from the man who wrote of Harry Truman,
"If there had been any formidable body of cannibals in the country, he would have promised to provide them with free missionaries fattened at the taxpayers' expense."
What Mencken wrote about Warren Harding's inaugural address in 1921 could as accurately have been said of the false pretenses and vague imbecilities of what comprises political speeches today:
It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash."
One need only watch a single stump speech during a presidential campaign to see how thoroughly our prospective political leaders have mastered the art of using 10,000 words to say absolutely nothing. After watching a debate between the Democratic presidential candidates recently, I could only laugh at how overwhelmed the average voter must be, trying to decide between the candidate that wants to "get America moving again" or the one who wants to "invest in America's future." Once in office, things only get worse. In place of empty promises, we are offered a dishonest rationale to convince us that the bill which was intended only to pay back campaign contributors by handing them a slice of our tax dollars in one form or another was really done for you and me - the "American people" so popular among demographers and demagogues.

Buried beneath the public relations catchphrases - "hard work of freedom"; "new American century"; "thousand points of light"; "what America is all about"; - is the reality of a government that has become imperial in reach and staggering in scope. An army of sycophants, from CEOs to university presidents to corporate lawyers to industry lobbyists, gather in the King's bedchambers to bow and scrape like courtiers in the palace of Louis XIV. As Lapham put it in The Wish For Kings,
The federal treasury at the moment supplies 45 percent of the nation's income. The politicians dress up the deals in the language of law or policy, but they're in the business of brokering the tax revenue, and what keeps them in office is not their talent for oratory but their skill at redistributing the national income in a way that rewards their clients, patrons, friends and campaign contributors. They trade in every known commodity - school lunches, tax exemptions, water and mineral rights, aluminum siding, dairy subsidies, pension benefits, highway contracts, prison uniforms - and they work the levers of government like gamblers pulling at slot machines. As with the subsidizing of the farms and the defense industry, so also with paying off the bad debt acquired by the savings and loan associations.
As with the rhetoric from government, the rhetoric of the free market is often equally devoid of reality. Lapham, again:
In the late twentieth century, as in the early nineteenth, a clear majority of American businessmen has shown a profound aversion for anything that remotely resembles a free market or a genuine risk. At their annual conventions they sometimes make brave speeches about the joys of "risk taking" and the wonders of "entrepeneurship", but what they know and trust is the rigged price, the safe monopoly, the sure percentage. By and large, and certainly in its primary and steadier movements, the national economy depends not only on systematic price-fixing and noncompetitive bidding but also on the guarantee of government intervention. The theory of the free market works at the margins of the economy - among cabdrivers and the owners of pizza parlors who made the mistake of borrowing $20,000 instead of $20 million - but the central pillars of the American enterprise rest...firmly on the foundation stones of federal subsidy..."
Corporate America is not stupid. Tens of millions of dollars are spent in each election cycle by the corporate courtiers to secure the favors of King Government, and they are dutifully rewarded for their patronage. In 1997 and 1998 alone, the banking, brokerage, and insurance industries gave $57 million to major party candidates directly, $87 million to the parties (so-called "soft money" donations), and spent an additional $163 million on lobbying campaigns to gain passage of the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999 - the most sweeping deregulation of the financial industry in history. This act was the final piece of the deregulation puzzle that began in 1995 with the Securities Reform Litigation Act, which protected accounting firms from lawsuits from stockholders and investors. The predictable results was a wave of corporate accounting scandals, from Enron to Worldcom to Merrill Lynch, that has bankrupted numerous corporations and cost Americans tens of billions of dollars in retirement savings.

Another textbook example is the comprehensive energy bill now working its way through Congress, which comes on the heels of $130 million in campaign contributions from the energy industry to those who are writing the bill, as well as over $100 million worth of lobbying campaigns. This bill, of course, came out of a series of meetings, the records of which Vice President Dick Cheney is now attempting to keep secret (the Supreme Court has agreed to hear that case). What don't they want the public to know? Well, the enormous windfall to the energy industry is a good place to start. The bill contains around $22 billion worth of tax breaks - that's $22 billion that goes direct from our tax revenues to the bottom line of companies like Enron. Add to that another $18 billion worth of loan guarantees. In addition, it delays until 2007 a plan by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that would have balanced out the power loads on our nationwide grid and, according to analysts, could have fixed some of the problems that led to the blackout we experienced a few months ago. But since that would have forced Southeastern utility companies to share more of their energy, a little pressure and money spread around to key southern senators got that plan pushed back in the new bill.

And as if all of that wasn't enough, it even insulates the producers of MTBE, a gasoline additive that has polluted public water supplies all around the country, from litigation. Almost all of the MTBE produced in the US is made in Texas and Louisiana, and lo and behold, this provision was submitted and pushed through by Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, chairman of the House Commerce Energy Subcommittee, and aided by Rep. Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, who chaired the energy bill negotations in the joint hearings to reconcile the house and senate versions of the bill. It doesn't even need to be asked how much money those two have received from the makers of MTBE. And while they saw fit to delay the beneficial FERC plan until 2007, the Congressional brain trust decided to make that portion of the bill retroactive to September 5th. Why would they do that? Well, because on September 30th the state of New Hampshire and numerous other entities filed suits to force the producers to pay for the cleanup of the polluted water supplies. And to add insult to injury, they also decided to hand over $2 billion of taxpayers' money to those same producers to cover any inconvenience they might experience as a result of phasing out the use of MTBE in gasoline.

The bottom line is that for an investment of around $200 million in campaign contributions and lobbying, this single bill hands out something in the range of $50 billion worth of our tax dollars, and that's not including the billions, perhaps tens of billions, that it will cost taxpayers to clean up the MTBE mess since the companies now won't have to. Not a bad return on the dollar. To quote Molly Ivins, quoting Lily Tomlin - no matter how cynical I get, I can't seem to keep up.

Ed Brayton | 8:45 PM | | | Permalink

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Criticism of the Iraq war from military circles

To listen to many on the right wing, you'd think that all opposition to the war in Iraq came from muddle-headed pacifists or "anti-American" liberals. Too many of those who defend the war settle for the simple-minded attack that opposing the war must mean that you hate the troops, hate America and probably love Saddam Hussein rather than engaging in actual discussion. This is by no means an exaggeration or caricature, as anyone who has spent any time on political chatrooms or message boards can attest. Before the war started, many prominent military men spoke out against the war, men who can hardly be accused of being Saddam-loving America-haters. General Brent Scowcroft, the elder Bush's National Security Advisor, wrote an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal arguing that going to war in Iraq could hurt the larger war on terrorism.

General Anthony Zinni, the former head of the US Central Command in the Persian Gulf who oversaw the enforcement of the no fly zone in Iraq and the bombing of Iraqi military and Baath party targets in 1998, spoke out forcefully against the war. In a new article from the Washington Post (available here without having to register for the Post), General Zinni argues that the war was both unnecessary and poorly thought out. He points out that the contingency plans that he had drawn up to govern Iraq in case Saddam fell was ignored by the Bush administration and that the planning for the post-war occupation was woefully inadequate. One of the fascinating things about Zinni is that he has several times been applauded by audiences made up of retired military officers when making those arguments. As the Post article points out,
"My contemporaries, our feelings and sensitivities were forged on the battlefields of Vietnam, where we heard the garbage and the lies, and we saw the sacrifice," he said at a talk to hundreds of Marine and Navy officers and others at a Crystal City hotel ballroom in September. "I ask you, is it happening again?" The speech, part of a forum sponsored by the U.S. Naval Institute and the Marine Corps Association, received prolonged applause, with many officers standing.

Zinni says that he hasn't received a single negative response from military people about the stance he has taken. "I was surprised by the number of uniformed guys, all ranks, who said, 'You're speaking for us. Keep on keeping on.' "
Add to these two retired Generals the famous retired Colonel David Hackworth. Hackworth is a highly decorated veteran who is known for his outspoken advocacy on behalf of the men and women who actually do the fighting on the ground. He has been known to unmercifully blast the "perfumed princes" in the Pentagon who draw up the war plans without adequate preparation for the needs of the grunts, and he reserves even stronger language for the "chicken hawks" who dodged military service but send others to die. Hackworth was opposed to the rush to war before it started, and absolutely furious about the prosecution for the war after it started. He's especially livid that 40,000 of our troops are on the ground without body armor, writing:
My British-made bulletproof Tetranike vest served me well in the badlands of ex-Yugoslavia, Somalia and Latin America back in my days as a war correspondent – that is, before darling wife Eilhys changed the drill.

But that doesn’t mean the vest is also retired. No sirree. Since 9-11, my trusty Tetranike has served one tour with the Army in Afghanistan and three in Iraq: with the Army, FBI and presently protecting a retired “snake eater” who’s training the Iraqi police force.

The reason that sucker’s so well-traveled is that the Bush administration just can’t get its priorities right when it comes to giving each and every one of our soldiers the right stuff to kick up the odds of their making it through the hit-and-run hell of insurgent combat.
He's also quite upset that they are still issuing M-16s, a weapon he says is ill-suited to the combat situation there. But he reserves his harshest criticism for the generals who, according to him, simply don't understand the nature of war.
After six months of light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel propaganda from the Bush administration reinforced by sycophants like Odierno, I’m convinced few generals on the ground in Iraq understand either the nature of insurgency warfare in general or their specific terrorist enemy...Sure, the U.S. military brilliantly won the tactical war in Iraq with “shock and awe,” but no amount of spin can shift the reality that it has been losing the early innings of the occupation phase. The generals so eager to court-martial colonels for doing their jobs should be court-martialed themselves for not doing their duty and confronting SecDef Donald Rumsfeld before we invaded Iraq.

Had they done so, we wouldn’t be dealing with the aftermath of an inept war plan that provided neither enough troops nor sufficient command guidance to prevent the looting and violence that fueled the ever-expanding guerrilla conflict, a conflict that Col. West and other heroes have been stuck in since Commander-in-Chief Bush blithely declared the end of major combat in Iraq last May.
Hackworth points out that the lack of preparation for occupation helped fuel the insurgency that has resulted in so many casualties:
Last April, the only ministry that our forces protected was the Oil Ministry. The rest of the ministries and infrastructure were sacked while our troops looked the other way, and the Iraqi people watched the nuts and bolts of their future Iraqi government being hauled away in hijacked trucks.

Because there was no coherent strategy in the early weeks of the occupation, our top brass responded to events rather than taking charge. Reaction rather than action allowed the insurgents to gain the initiative right from the get-go. And they’re still at it, brazenly displaying the same bold MO as they continue inflicting carefully planned pain on our increasingly weary combat forces.

The generals should also be brought up for not fighting the dumb White House decision to disband the Iraqi army. Instead of integrating that 450,000-man force into the stabilization process – and using it for reconstruction and certain security ops, which would have helped our badly stretched troops gain control over the looters and get the country up and running – we made it our enemy. Thousands of trained and armed Iraqi soldiers couldn’t make tracks fast enough to join the insurgent movement.

The conventional generals like Odierno should be replaced by mainly Special Forces leaders, both from the active and retired ranks, who comprehend the war at hand. Leaders who’d drop the silly charges against Col. West in a heartbeat so he could get on with winning his piece of this ugly war.

As for the “Perfumed Princes,” send them home from both Iraq and Afghanistan, another guerrilla war we're losing, and let them play Political Correctness – or perhaps the emerging Blame Game – with the chicken hawks who got us in this mess in the first place.
The point I'm trying to make is that it is both possible and reasonable to be opposed to the decision to go to war or opposed to how the situation has been handled, and still be strongly in favor of the troops and pro-American. Contrary to the simple-minded nonsense we hear from so many on the right, President Bush is not "the nation" and opposition to his policies is not equivalent to being anti-American. Indeed, I would argue that if someone believes that the war is unjustified or has been handled badly by the politicians and the military, it is his duty to speak up about it. Those who would seek to suppress such criticism and dissent by shouting them down with cries of treason are in fact the true anti-Americans.

Ed Brayton | 7:43 PM | | | Permalink

Monday, December 22, 2003

The ACLU and the NAMBLA Case

Much has been made of the fact that the Massachusetts chapter of the ACLU has taken on a case defending NAMBLA, the North American Man-Boy Love Association, in a civil lawsuit arising from the kidnapping and killing of a 10 year old boy. There is no more controversial or emotionally-charged issue than this. NAMBLA is universally, and justifiably, viewed as a vile organization that advocates something that nearly everyone despises in the strongest possible terms. Unfortunately, that makes it a perfect target for demagoguery and superficial demonizing, and that is just what we have seen. One group has even begun a website called the "ACLU NAMBLA Rage Page" where people can register their revulsion. Bill O'Reilly has ranted against the ACLU for taking the case, as has virtually everyone on the right in America, and many people claim outright that the ACLU is fighting for the right to rape children. But in the midst of this understandably emotional outpouring, something has been lost - the legal issue. This is, after all, a court case and court cases are decided not by emotional reactions, but by reference to legal precedents. So what is the legal issue at stake and under dispute?

Here are the facts of the case. A 10 year old boy named Jeffrey Curley was tortured and murdered by two men, Charles Jaynes and Salvatore Sicari. The men were caught, tried, convicted and sentenced. Furthermore, the parents of the victim filed a civil lawsuit against the two men and won a $200 million verdict, which they will surely never collect. But then the parents went a step further by suing NAMBLA, an organization that advocates that the age-of-consent laws be changed to allow sexual relations between adult men and juvenile boys. Jaynes was a member of NAMBLA and the police found that he had 8 issues of their publication in his home and had accessed their website at the Boston Public Library.

The legal argument that the parents of the victim are making is that NAMBLA's publications fostered an atmosphere that caused the crime to take place. That's right - they do not allege that there was anything that specifically instructed Jaynes to rape and kill a child, that either their publications or their website provided any material support for the crime, or even that it advocated committing such a crime, only that the "totality of the child sex environment" advocated by NAMBLA somehow caused this to happen. In fact, the defendants filed a motion early on in the case asking that the plaintiffs spell out specifically what statements or expressions in either the group's publications or website could reasonably be construed as causing Jaynes to commit this crime. The amended complaint did not do so, referring instead only to the general "climate" fostered by NAMBLA. And herein lies the crux of the case.

It's not illegal to advocate a change in the laws, and nowhere in their complaint do the plaintiffs point to any statement made in any NAMBLA publication that urges that one violate the laws in place currently. And in most cases, it's not even illegal to advocate breaking the law. Multiple court rulings have established that only if the advocacy carries a "clear and present danger" of an "imminent breach of the peace" can speech that advocates criminal behavior be censored and punished by law. This is known as the Brandenberg test because of the Supreme Court case it stems from, and the standard has been upheld several times by the Court, as recently as 2000. But the question at stake here is not so much whether the government can censor such speech, but whether the person or organization that advocates a change in the laws should be held responsible for the actions of someone who reads their material and thereafter breaks those laws.

Let's think about the ramifications of this precedent if the plaintiff wins. There have been numerous cases of anti-abortion advocates killing abortion doctors. One such activist was recently put to death in Florida for committing murder. Under the precedent that would be given if the plaintiffs win in the NAMBLA case, anti-abortion groups whose literature such a murderer had read, or whose website they visited, could be sued and held responsible for the actions of the individual who pulled the trigger. After all, they advocate a change in the laws and they "foster an atmosphere" in which abortion doctors are viewed as murderers who must be stopped. Let's say a law is passed banning the ownership of automatic weapons. The NRA would surely oppose such a law and would advocate that the law be changed in their publications and on their website. Could the parents of a victim of a murder by such a weapon blame the NRA on the same grounds as NAMBLA is being sued? Of course they could. The NRA would be "fostering a climate of lawlessness" by claiming that the gun laws are unjust and illegitimate.

Once we establish the legal principle that groups which advocate changing the laws can be held responsible for the actions of those who break the laws, the sky is the limit for such lawsuits. What is now legal advocacy aimed at changing the laws would be suppressed by the need to avoid civil damages. And the principle of individual responsibility would be undermined in America yet again. The responsibility for the murder of Jeffrey Curley lies with the two men who committed the act and those men have been tried and convicted - and frankly, if someone in prison takes a shiv to one or both of them, I don't think any of us will lose any sleep over it. But we cannot let our justifiable outrage at this horrible crime allow us to set a precedent that could destroy what is now legal and protected political advocacy in America. We cannot allow that emotional reaction to prompt us to destroy a bedrock principle of our legal system, the notion that it is actions that are punishable, not words no matter how repulsive they may be.

The ACLU is, in my view, correct to take this case. They are not defending the right of men to rape and kill little boys, the men were duly convicted of crimes and the laws that they were convicted under are not at issue. They are not defending the message that NAMBLA puts out, anymore than the Jewish ACLU attorney David Goldberger was defending the anti-semitic message that the Nazis were advocating when he took their case and defended their right to assemble and speak their views, even if those views are repulsive to virtually everyone. It may well be that the ACLU will suffer financially because of this highly controversial case, as they did when they lost 30% of their membership after taking the Nazi case in Skokie. But if they do, it will be a result of the triumph of emotional demagoguery over sober thinking. And that will hurt us all far more than most people can currently envision.

Ed Brayton | 4:29 PM | | | Permalink

Friday, December 19, 2003

Free speech and patriotism in times of war

It has become a truism that the American people are "too cynical" about their government. We hear this repeated often, but I think the truth is quite the opposite. I think most Americans are still entirely naive about their government, even after having our trust betrayed by the government so many times. The nature of government - all governments - is to increase its power, to protect its privelege by abusing and circumventing the law and by expanding the scope of its authority. At no time is this tendency more obvious than in wartime.

In the US, as in most countries, we have a prevailing sentiment that when the country is at war, everyone should "get behind" the government and criticism of their policies should cease. How many times have we heard the protestors of the Iraq war savaged as "anti-american" and "unpatriotic"? I think this conception of patriotism is childish and dangerous, as it has often been used to shred the first amendment. It is astonishing to me how quickly and easily many Americans are willing to give up their freedom, ostensibly in the name of protecting that freedom. And this is not a new phenomenon. It goes all the way back to the founding fathers themselves.

In 1798, under John Adams, the Sedition Act was passed. A scant few years after the first amendment declared that Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech or of the press, this act declared:
That if any person shall write, print, utter or publish, or shall cause or procure to be written, printed, uttered or published, or shall knowingly and willingly assist or aid in writing, printing, uttering or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States, with intent to defame the said government, or either house of the said Congress, or the said President, or to bring them, or either of them, into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them, or either or any of them, the hatred of the good people of the United States, or to stir up sedition within the United States, or to excite any unlawful combinations therein, for opposing or resisting any law of the United States, or any act of the President of the United States...shall be punished by a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars, and by imprisonment not exceeding two years.
This effectively gutted the first amendment protections of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, of course. The pretense for this act was the threat of impending war with France, but it was passed for one purpose - to squelch criticism from Thomas Jefferson and his Republican allies. And it worked for that purpose. Prominent editors of opposition newspapers were arrested and their newspapers shut down, including Benjamin Franklin's grandson. But in those days, the people were savvy enough to react to this power grab on the part of government. The outcry over these violations was largely responsible for the election of Jefferson to the presidency in 1800, defeating Adams. Jefferson promptly pardoned everyone convicted under this law and repaid the fines, with interest. Unfortunately, it did not stop there.

In the early days of the Civil War, Lincoln came under fire from a group that was often called the "copperhead Democrats". They opposed the war and sought to broker a truce and call a new constitutional convention to frame an amendment protecting state's rights. In 1861, Lincoln suspended the civil law in certain territories and claimed for himself all powers not specifically delegated in the constitution. In 1862, he suspended habeus corpus and ordered the arrest of many of the leaders of this group under military law. 13,000 people were arrested and imprisoned by his order. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Roger Taney, declared the action unconstitutional - Lincoln and the military simply ignored this ruling.

In 1917, Congress passed the Espionage Act. That act declared it a crime to advocate by speech anything that
"shall willfully cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty in the military or naval forces of the United States, or shall willfully obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service of the U.S."
This was interpreted to prohibit any criticism of the US entering World War I in Europe, and over 2000 people were arrested on these obviously fraudulent grounds. In one overlooked irony of the situation, the maker of a film entitled The Spirit of '76, which depicted British atrocities against those who fought in the American Revolution, was arrested and charged with violating the Espionage Act. Why? Because, as the judge said, the film might cause Americans "to question the good faith of our ally, Great Britain." In a case ironically titled U.S. v. Spirit of '76, the filmmaker was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

In the case with Lincoln during the Civil War, the Supreme Court at least attempted to stop this rush to destroy the first amendment. In this case, the Court was no help at all. In two consecutive unanimous decisions, both written by the eminent Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Court declared that the Espionage Act did not violate the first amendment. In the first of these decisions, Holmes invokes the now-infamous and often repeated line that the first amendment "would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater". It's an absurd analogy, of course. Speaking out against a government policy is not in any way analagous to shouting fire in a theater and causing a stampede.

The Espionage Act remains on the books today and can be invoked in times of war or "national emergencies". In fact, the law was extended in 1940 by the Smith Act to invoke its provisions in peacetime as well. In 1941, the government raided the headquarters of the Socialist Workers Party and arrested their leaders for violating this act. Again, hundreds were arrested for nothing more than advocating ideas that the government disapproved of, and again, the Supreme Court allowed it to happen. Time after time, the clear command that "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press" has been violated in the most flagrant fashion, with little outcry from the public since the early days of this nation.

Why do the American people so easily give up the bill of rights in times of impending war? Because, as I said up front, we are not only not cynical enough about our government, we are incredibly naive. Most Americans simply do not understand the principles involved or know the history of such violations. And they are too easily frightened into thinking that in times of war, the government must somehow protect us from our own questions about their actions. But how many times must this be abused before we wake up? We were lied to about the Gulf of Tonkin incident that provided the pretext for war in Vietnam. We were lied to about the secret bombing of Cambodia. Over and over again, the government has used patriotism and impending war as an excuse to silence their critics. And yet, every time it happens, too many Americans just roll over and play dead. In all cases since the earliest days of the republic, it is only a small minority that protests such violations. Intimidated into silence by the shallow nationalism that inevitably accompanies times of war, we give up not only our right to question our government, but our duty to do so. As Teddy Roosevelt said,
To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.
In times of war, this becomes more important, not less. I agree entirely with the historian Howard Zinn, who writes,
It seems to me that the security of the American people, indeed of the world, cannot be trusted to the governments of the world, including our own. In crisis situations, the right of citizens to freely criticize foreign policy is absolutely essential, indeed a matter of life and death. National security is far safer in the hands of a debating, challenging citizenry than with a secretive, untrustworthy government."

Ed Brayton | 12:27 PM | | | Permalink

Congratulations to Paul Phillips

Congratulations to Paul Phillips for winning the Bellagio 5 Diamond World Poker Classic in Las Vegas last night. Paul is one of the truly good guys in the world of poker. He's also, I'm sure he would agree, one of the luckiest SOBs ever to walk the earth. And I don't mean getting lucky at cards, because Paul is fearless at the table and has earned the right to be considered one of the best poker players in the world. He also married his beautiful wife Kathleen a mere 6 weeks ago. On the list of the best ways to end a honeymoon, winning $1.1 million in a poker tournament has to be in the top 5.

Look for Paul's win to be shown on national television on the Travel Channel in the next few weeks as part of the World Poker Tour's regular telecasts. And congratulations again, Paul - for your victory, for your marriage, and for remaining funny and engaging and down to earth in the midst of it all.

Ed Brayton | 10:38 AM | | | Permalink

Thursday, December 18, 2003

Science and the media, part 1

As someone who is very involved in the fight for quality science education in the US, nothing is more frustrating than seeing how often and how flagrantly science gets distorted in the popular media. Most Americans get what little knowledge they have of science not from scientists but from journalists and TV producers. Unfortunately, much of what passes for science in newspapers, popular magazines and on television is either drastically oversimplified, wildly exaggerated, or just plain wrong. This example caught my eye on the web.

The headline is "Evolutionary theory says self-interest dictates our behavior, so why do we show such generosity at Christmas?." So what's wrong with this headline? Two things. First, it's false. Second, even if stated correctly it only gives half the picture.

Evolutionary theory does not say that self-interest dictates our behavior. Many in the related field of sociobiology infer FROM evolutionary theory that self-interest dictates SOME types of behavior. It is important to distinguish between scientific theories and the inferences drawn from them. It's also important not to oversimplify, which is something that both sociobiologists and journalists reporting on their work often do.

It is much too simplistic to pretend that "evolutionary theory" says that genes must replicate themselves and must act selfishly in order to do so, and that this is the only, or even the primary, factor dictating human behavior. Human reproduction does not happen in a vacuum, nor does human behavior. We are influenced not only by the genetic necessities of life, but by cultural inputs as well, and it simply isn't true that only selfish behavior aids in reproduction. Human beings live in groups, and not just families but communities, tribes and nations as well. Altruistic behavior helps societies remain stable and more peaceful, thereby creating a more conducive atmosphere for raising children. By helping our fellow man, we build safer and more supportive communities, and it seems to me that this is every bit as much a positive for the propogation of the species as selfish behavior.

The author of the article does get it right, but he has likely been failed by an editor supplying the headline. The author cites studies on altruistic behavior that strike the right balance:
Strong reciprocity promotes kindness and discourages cheats, but is it a product of our genes or in our culture? It can't be entirely genetic, since different human societies (with very similar genes) vary greatly in their tolerance of cheating. Fehr and Fischbacher argue for gene-culture co-evolution: cultural and institutional environments promote social norms that favor the selection of genes that promote cooperation.
This type of work is every bit as much a product of work in the field of sociobiology as Dawkins' The Selfish Gene is. And neither are a part of evolutionary theory itself; both are inferences drawn from evolutionary theory and applied to the question of human behavior.

Ed Brayton | 3:02 PM | | | Permalink

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Where should Saddam Hussein be tried?

Now that we have Saddam Hussein in custody, what do we do with him? There are really two possibilities - try him in Iraq or try him in the International Court of Justice in the Hague, as is currently happening with Milosevic. Let's look at two different arguments, one in favor of each possibility.

The desire to try Hussein in Iraq, to have him face the judgement of the Iraqi people, obviously is a compelling one. Zeyad writes in the Healing Iraq blog:
I want to see him sit in an Iraqi court and explain himself to Iraqis. I want to hear him apologize to Iraqis. It won't help the dead, but I want to hear it anyway. He must be handed over to Iraqis. I don't care about legitimacy. He must be tried publicly in an Iraqi civil court by Iraqi judges. The rest of the Arab dictators should see it and learn from it.
My first inclination was to say the same thing, that Hussein should face the Iraqi people first and foremost. Let the people he wronged pass legal judgement on him. But as I think about it, I wonder if that's such a good idea. The reason is this. Iraq has no constitution at the moment and there is no legal system in place to handle even basic trials, much less a trial of this magnitude. Upon violation of what laws is he to be tried? With what judicial authority? By what judges? And by which lawyers? All of the attorneys in Iraq currently were trained under Hussein's regime, with the laws that he set. They can turn to exiles, but that would only undermine the legitimacy of the proceedings. The only real legal basis for trying him is under international law, the same law that is now being used to try Slobodan Milosevic for his crimes in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia.

Kenneth Ruff, the director of Human Rights Watch, writes in the Herald Tribune that the sheer complexity of the proceedings requires an international tribunal rather than an Iraqi one. After laying out the crimes for which Hussein should be tried, he argues:
As we know from Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, prosecutions of genocide or crimes against humanity can be enormously complex, demanding jurists of exceptional skill and sophistication. They require amassing volumes of official documents, collecting sensitive forensic evidence from mass graves, presenting hundreds of witnesses from among victims and accomplices, and paying scrupulous attention to the requirements of due process. To avoid being perceived as show trials or "victor's justice," they call for highly experienced jurists of unquestioned integrity.

Saddam's brutal and arbitrary justice system can hardly be expected to have produced such jurists. Prosecutions were typically based on confessions, often induced by torture. Serious criminal investigations, let alone complex trials, were virtually unheard of. The Iraqi Governing Council hopes to solve this problem by looking to Iraqi exiles as well as Iraqis from communities historically repressed by the Baath Party who remained in the country. But even among these it will be difficult to find jurists with the right combination of skills and emotional distance from the former dictatorship to produce trials that are fair - and seen as fair.

An internationally led tribunal would be a far better option, whether a fully international tribunalor, more likely, an internationally run tribunal with significant domestic participation, such as the special court set up for Sierra Leone. Because its personnel would be selected by the United Nations rather than by Washington's surrogates, an internationally led tribunal is more likely to be seen as legitimate. And because it can draw from a global pool of talent, it would be better able to secure the experienced and fair-minded jurists than a court that must look only to Iraqis. An internationally led tribunal could still conduct trials in Baghdad and involve Iraqis as much as possible, but it would be run by international jurists with proven records of overseeing complex prosecutions and scrupulously respecting international fair-trial standards.
Ruff further argues that one of the reasons why the administration seems reluctant to try Hussein under international law is because they think an Iraqi court under the jurisdiction of the governing authority that we control is less likely to allow testimony about our government's support for Hussein when he was committing his worst human rights abuses in the late 70s and 80s. But is this really the reason for that reluctance? I'm not so sure.

First, the fact that the US supported Hussein in the late 80s is hardly a secret. The video of Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein in the 80s has been played all over the world. Is there anyone who doesn't know that we sold Hussein tanks and helicopters, or that we provided the samples that were likely used to develop the chemical and biological weapons he used on the Kurds, or that we often provided diplomatic cover for his actions during that time? These are all well known and well documented, and they don't do anything to lessen Hussein's responsibility for his own actions. At best, it could be seen as guilt by association, but it seems to me that this is exactly why an international tribunal is necessary - to send the message that Hussein's brutality is wrong, regardless of whether he had the tacit approval, or at least indifference, of the United States.

I think the real reason why the Bush administration will insist on an Iraqi trial controlled by the Governing Authority rather than an international tribunal is because they are afraid of legitimizing the role of international law in the future. The US itself has been found in violation of international law in the past and our government has walked a tightrope for a long time on this issue. We're in favor of war crime tribunals for the likes of Milosevic, but also afraid that the more we turn to international law for such proceedings, the more we undermine our own credibility later if the US is indicted under that same law for our own actions. That, I believe, is the root of the insistence on an Iraqi trial.

As far as embarrassing the United States is concerned if that information is entered into evidence in Hussein's trial, I can only say that we should be embarrassed by that. Perhaps we will learn from this, once and for all, that a foreign policy based purely on our short term perceived interests, with no consideration for the human rights consequences, is enormously damaging to our long term real interests and to our credibility when we speak so grandly of being the beacon of freedom to the world. Let us stand up and take our lumps in this regard. We were wrong and we should not shrink from that fact and bury our responsibility under a pretense of nobility. Let Hussein be tried for his crimes under an international tribunal, but let the trial be held in Baghdad with as much Iraqi involvement as possible. This is the only solid legal basis for such a trial, and it will provide the resources and the expertise for the proceedings while allowing the Iraqi people play a big part in the judgement of their oppressor.

Ed Brayton | 1:27 PM | | | Permalink

The Sex Police - part 1

The Sex Police - Part 1

Thanks to Glenn Reynolds for finding this story:
Joanne Webb, a former fifth-grade teacher and mother of three, was in a county court in Cleburne, Texas, on Monday to answer obscenity charges for selling the vibrator to undercover narcotics officers posing as a dysfunctional married couple in search of a sex aid.
Glenn Reynolds is right. If the police in Cleburne, Texas have the time and resources to set up a sting operation to nail someone for selling a vibrator to a married couple with a boring sex life, they should immediately lay off a good portion of that department as they are obviously overtaxed and have more than enough police to "serve and protect" the citizens of that community.

The US has the highest rates of murder, rape and other violent crimes in the western world, by a huge margin. We lock up 4 times as many of our citizens per capita than any other western nation. And our police are busy busting people for smoking a joint after work, for having a poker game with their buddies, and for selling sex toys. It's time to break up the vice police, folks. The obscenity does not lie with someone using a vibrator to get off in the privacy of their own home; the obscenity lies in those who take joy (and our tax dollars) in damaging the lives of others for having sex or reaching relaxation in ways they don't approve of.

Ed Brayton | 12:34 PM | | | Permalink

Thursday, December 11, 2003

Evolution in public schools and the Fairness Argument

Evolution in public schools and the Fairness Argument

I've long been active in the battle over the teaching of evolution in public schools. One of the arguments that we hear quite often is the "Fairness Argument". It goes like this: There are two explanations for the existence of life on earth, either life evolved by "random chance" (evolution) or it was put here by a creator (creationism or "intelligent design theory"); since neither has been "proven", it's only fair that if you're going to teach one, you should teach them both and let the kids decide. To the average person, this argument sounds eminently reasonable. Who, after all, could argue against "fairness"? And what's so bad about presenting both "theories" and letting kids decide for themselves? But the reality is that this argument, while sounding persuasive on the surface, falls apart on analysis.

The first flaw in the argument is a logical fallacy known as a "false dichotomy". A false dichotomy is an argument that sets up two alleged opposites and implies that they are the only two possibilities. In this case, the argument is wrong both because the two sides of the dichotomy are not opposites at all, and because they are not the only two possible explanations. Let's take them in order....

Are evolution and creation opposing explanations for life on earth?

The answer is "sometimes", but not necessarily. That is, evolution cannot be reconciled with some specific creation stories, or at least with literal interpretations of those stories, but it does not, in any way, address the question of the existence of God. A great many people believe that evolution is an inherently atheistic idea, but that is simply false. Science does not allow for supernatural explanations because they cannot be tested or falsified in any way, but that doesn't mean that scientific theories end with "and therefore, there is no God." Evolution is no more "atheistic" than the kinetic theory of gasses or the theory of relativity. If you believe that God created all life on earth a few thousand years ago, then evolutionary theory, and the vast amount of data that supports it, cannot be reconciled with that explanation. But this creation story, which is typically referred to as Young Earth Creationism (YEC), is limited only to the most literal interpretation of the book of the Bible. That is an interpretation that is not shared by Catholics or most of the mainline Protestant denominations. I have been priveleged in my work in this area to cross paths with a few brilliant Christian scientists like Howard Van Till, Steve Schimmrich, Glenn Morton and Keith Miller. They along with like-minded colleagues such as Ken Miller, Terry Gray and Davis Young, would tell you that the work they do as geologists, molecular biologists and chemists, rather than being a negation of their religious views, is motivated by their faith, and that their faith is both informed and deepened by their work as scientists. The conflict is only with those who insist on the most literal reading of Genesis 1.

What are the other possibilities?

The other flaw in the false dichotomy is that even if one were to accept that they are necessarily opposed to each other, they're not the only two possibilities. As my friend Rob Pennock points out in his wonderful book Tower of Babel, there are lots of religious or quasi-religious alternatives to evolutionary theory. You not only have the creationism of fundamentalist Christianity to deal with, you also have the Muslim creationism of Harun Yahya. You have the Hindu/Vedic creationism of Michael Cremo and Richard Thompson that says that humans have been on the earth for hundreds of millions of years and that the natural history of the earth is cyclical as it says in the Hindu scriptures.. And you have the Raelians, who argue that humans were bioengineered by aliens. Indeed, the Raelians issued a press release pledging their support for the Intelligent Design movement's attempts to open up the classrooms so that their explanation could get in there too. And surely if it's "only fair" to allow one religious alternative into the classroom, then it's "only fair" to let them all in. The result, of course, will be nothing but confusion and a watering down of the science education curriculum in public schools.

Let's also remember that the precedent, once set, does not end with evolution. Evolution is not the only scientific idea that conflicts with some particular interpretation of a religious text. Heliocentrism is the theory that the earth revolves around the sun, which conflicts with geocentrism, the idea that the earth is fixed at the center of the universe and everything revolves around the earth. It may sound silly, but there is a growing movement in Calvinist Christian circles in support of geocentrism, led by the astrophysicist Gerardus Bouw. For many, in fact, anti-evolution and anti-heliocentricity arguments go hand in hand, as both rely on a literal reading of bible verses. The geocentrist site at fixedearth.com bills itself as the "non-moving earth and anti-evolution web page." Heliocentricity is every bit an affront to geocentrists as evolution is to creationists. If it's only fair to allow creationism in as an alternative in biology classes, then it's only fair to allow geocentricity in as an alternative in earth science classes.

For that matter, you have the flat earthers. Contrary to common perception, the Flat Earth Society is serious in their claims. They truly believe that the earth is flat. My late friend Bob Schadewald, the chronicler of so many fringe scientific movements, got to know and befriended Charles Johnson, the now-deceased head of this group. They are very serious in their beliefs, and they are based almost entirely on their interpretation of the bible. If it's only fair to allow in creationism and geocentrism, then it's only fair to allow the flat earthers to have their views represented as well.

The list could go on and on. For hundreds of years it was believed that sickness and infirmity was sent by God as punishment for our sins. This is clearly an alternative to the germ theory of disease and the fairness argument surely applies as well in that case. Pat Robertson and other fundamentalists have often been heard to claim that natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes are God's punishment for our sinful culture (I have often joked that the 700 Club should include a weather forecast based on this theory - "Sodomy is up 14% in the midwest this week. Expect clouds of locusts"). The fairness argument requires that we present this as an alternative to conventional meteorology and seismology. For that matter, why limit the fairness argument to science? Surely the holocaust deniers should be allowed their say in our history classes. Why not "present both theories" and "let the students decide for themselves"?

Clearly, the answer to this is that science classes should teach science. Evolution is accepted nearly universally in the relevant fields of science not because it denies God (which it doesn't) but because it is the central unifying theory in a dozen different disciplines. Nothing makes sense in biology, paleontology, comparative anatomy, zoology, genetics, or several other fields without evolution to explain the data. There is simply no other model that can match the explanatory power of evolution over such a vast range of evidence. The YEC alternative fails miserably to explain even the most basic facts of our natural history, while vague ideas like Intelligent Design Theory (IDT) don't present any testable model at all. Rather than weakening our biology curriculum to allow in fanciful religious alternatives, we should be strengthening it.

Ed Brayton | 5:52 PM | | | Permalink

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Teaching about different religions in schools

Teaching about different religions in schools

I'll quote just the first part of this article:
Groups of students, teachers and administrators from five Oakland County school districts are taking part in the Religious Diversity Initiative - a program funded by the Community Foundation of Southeastern Michigan and sponsored by the Oakland County Superintendents Association, the Michigan Region of the National Conference for Community and Justice, and the Jewish Community Council.

As part of the voluntary, nontaxpayer funded program, participants from the Berkley, Bloomfield Hills, Clarkston, Walled Lake and West Bloomfield school districts are visiting local religious institutions to learn from clergy about the beliefs they espouse.

The goal, said program coordinator and Jewish Community Council public relations associate Eric Adelman, is to promote understanding and respect among students of various belief systems.
The Michigan chapter of American Atheists has begun a campaign to fight against this program on the basis of separation of church and state, despite the fact that it's privately funded and voluntary. Quite frankly, they're being absurd. The Supreme Court has long held that teaching about world religions is permissable as long as it's not done in a manner which promotes one of them. This is a textbook example of how you can teach about religious views and encourage understanding without violating the establishment clause. The only thing that I would do to modify the program is that I would add humanism to it, perhaps by including a Unitarian/Universalist church that is so inclined into the mix. I think this is exactly the kind of thing that we need to be doing, especially in a time of increasing distrust across religious divides.

After 9/11 in particular, we've seen how easily religious divisions can be turned into battle lines. Promoting understanding of other religions is crucial to combat this problem. The more we see those of other beliefs as caricatures, as mere abstractions - as THEM - the more fractured our nation and the world becomes. Building bridges between these groups through education about other religious and ethical traditions helps to foster understanding, which in turn diminishes unjustified fear and hatred. If the teaching is done well, it will foster an appreciation of diversity. This is true multiculturalism, as opposed to most of the fads, like afrocentrism and its ideological brethren, that pass under that often misused term.

One thing I have learned through the study of the different religious traditions over the years is that, at their core, they are remarkably similar. What Christians call the Golden Rule is not unique, it is found in every conceivable tradition in one form or another. This principle is found in the writings of Baha'u'llah in the Bah'ai' faith, the Mahabharata of Hinduism, the Udana-Varga of Buddhism, the Doctrine of the Mean from Confucianism, the Hadiths of Al-Nawawi in Islam, the Acarangasutra of Jainism, the Talmud of Judaism, the Tao teh Ching of Taoism, the writings of Plato, Seneca and other classical philosophers, and the Humanist Manifesto in modern times. This is the basis of all ethical reasoning and it is as close to universal as any concept can possibly be.

By teaching these commonalities, and an appreciation of the various religious beliefs, programs such as these can be a powerful tool against ignorance and hatred. They can help us to appreciate the beauty and grandeur of ideas and traditions not our own and help us to understand that once we strip away all of the artificial minutiae that we get so focused on, most people are substantially the same. The vast majority of human beings, regardless of their religion, want a world of freedom, peace and justice. We want a world where we can share our lives with family and friends without being derailed by hatred or fear or violence.

Ed Brayton | 2:28 PM | | | Permalink

Sunday, December 07, 2003

Answering an e-mail defending the "Christian Nation" argument

There is an e-mail making the rounds with a set of arguments alleging to prove that the US is a "Christian Nation." The entire e-mail was taken directly, word for word, from this webpage: http://www.errantskeptics.org/hold_quotes_2.htm, which was in turn taken from an article in Worldnetdaily, and which is quoted verbatim on what seems like hundreds of other webpages. I've put the original in italics and my responses in normal text.

We are a Christian nation.

A loaded beginning right off the bat. This statement could mean two very different things, and has been used to mean both things depending on who is speaking. Does this mean we are a nation made up mostly of Christians, whose culture has been highly influenced by Christianity? No one in their right mind would deny that very obvious truth. Or does it mean that we are an officially Christian nation, a nation whose government should endorse Christianity in a de jure or de facto manner? That is a far more controversial statement, one that even most Christians would likely oppose. Since the first one is painfully obvious to everyone, and thus pointless to argue on behalf of, we can safely assume that the author here is advocating the second option.

Immediately after creating the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress voted to purchase and import 20,000 copies of Scripture for the people of this nation.

Not quite true. The Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4th, 1776. The decision to import the bibles was not made until a year later. Some of the members of the Continental Congress were not even the same people who signed the declaration a year earlier. A little background here is important. After we declared independence from England, we lost access to nearly all imports from England, which was our primary source for English language books. A group of Presbyterians was concerned that there was no longer a source for English-language bibles and petitioned the Continental Congress to find a new source from which to import them. They began to look around and had settled on a source in Holland, but it never happened because the British took over Philadelphia and the Congress fled. An American printer began the job of printing them as a business decision, without any government prompting or money behind it.

More importantly, the Continental-Confederation Congress governed the US from 1774 to 1789 and wrote the articles of confederation, the first "constitution" of the US. The Articles of Confederation contained no provisions whatsoever preventing the government from declaring an official religion or endorsing a particular religion. But the Articles of Confederation were replaced by the US Constitution, written in 1787 and ratified in 1789. The US Constitution did contain clear language forbidding the federal government from declaring or endorsing a religious belief. So while the statement is true that the Continental Congress did this, it's also true that the constitutional system that allowed the action was changed by some of those same men to forbid it a few years later. Something obviously changed in the conception of government between 1777 and 1789. What was it?

Well one thing that changed was that those who wanted separation of church and state began to win the intellectual dispute and convince people of the necessity to keep government out of the religious sphere. In 1779, Thomas Jefferson penned his Act for Establishing Religious Freedom for the state of Virginia. The Virginia legislature did not pass the bill until 1786, when James Madison re-introduced the bill in response to a bill entered by Patrick Henry that would have allowed for "multiple establishments" in the state of Virginia. That is, it would have used tax dollars to support multiple churches, all Christian of course. There was a legislative battle over the two bills, with Patrick Henry on one side and James Madison on the other, one arguing that the government should endorse and support with tax dollars a variety of Christian churches, and the other arguing that the government should stay out of the matter entirely and that to use tax money paid by citizens to support churches that they did not belong to or support was tantamount to religious tyranny. Madison's view won the day. Henry's bill was defeated, Jefferson's original bill declaring a strict separation between church and state in the state of Virginia was ratified, and the tide began to turn against what at that time was termed "establishmentarianism" and in favor of "disestablishmentarianism" - the idea that the government has no authority to endorse any religion. This followed on the heels of Madison writing his "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessmentsnts" in 1785, a very influential document arguing for separation that was widely distributed among the men who shaped the constitution. It can't be overstated how influential the events in Virginia were. Virginia was the key state among the original 13 states, with 4 of the first 5 presidents - Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe - coming from that state, along with other notable founders like Patrick Henry and George Mason. There is a very big difference between the Articles of Confederation and the US Constitution on the matter of religious establishments, and that difference was a result of an enormous change in the intellectual tides on that issue in the intervening decade between the two documents.

Patrick Henry, who is called the firebrand of the American Revolution, is still remembered for his words, "Give me liberty or give me death"; but in current textbooks, the context of these words is omitted. Here is what he actually said: "An appeal to arms and the God of hosts is all that is left us. But we shall not fight our battle alone. There is a just God that presides over the destinies of nations. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone. Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it Almighty God. I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death."

These sentences have been erased from our textbooks. Was Patrick Henry a Christian? The following year, 1776, he wrote this: "It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great Nation was founded not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For that reason alone, people of other faiths have been afforded freedom of worship here."

Of course Patrick Henry was a Christian. No one has ever denied that. But do his words really do anything to support the claim that America was intended to be an officially Christian nation? No, for the following reasons. First, notice that he made this declaration about what this nation was "founded upon" before the nation was actually founded. In 1776, we were still British colonies in revolt against King George. There was no "United States" - there was no nation. There was a group of colonies hoping to become a nation. The United States was not founded until at least a year later, when the Articles of Confederation were written, and was not truly established with a coherent political and legal system until 1791, when the bill of rights was ratified and our enduring constitutional system was completed. Secondly, remember that when the time came to frame the Constitution, Patrick Henry was opposed to the passage of the first amendment establishment clause. He was also opposed to the ban on religious tests for office found in Article 6 of the Constitution, believing that only Christians should be allowed to hold office in the US. In fact, he refused to be a delegate to the constitutional convention in 1787 because he knew that the tide had turned against him and his theocratic views. When the constitution was passed, Patrick Henry opposed it specifically because it was a "godless document" and he preached long and hard that because the constitution did not establish the US as an officially Christian nation, it would bring down the wrath of God upon us all. In other words, he was on the losing end of history on this issue and his views on church and state were completely rejected by the founders as a group, both in Virginia and in the Constitutional Convention . Patrick Henry wanted no separation of church and state at all, he wanted an explicitly and officially Christian nation, and he lost the fight for that idea. So in point of fact, citing his views on church and state proves the opposite of what the author intends - it shows that those who pushed for theocracy were in the minority.

Consider these words that Thomas Jefferson wrote in the front of his well-worn Bible: "I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus. I have little doubt that our whole country will soon be rallied to the unity of our creator."

This is a bizarre amalgam of two entirely different quotations, both not only quoted inaccurately AND out of context but attributed to the wrong source, and it points out one of the major problems with these kinds of discussions. Whoever wrote this article originally was either totally dishonest in his quotations, or he is merely copying the quotes from yet another source and he has not bothered to actually look at the original documents themselves too see if the quotation is accurate. Let's begin the task of examining the quote....

First, none of those words were written "in the front of his well worn bible". The first sentence of the quote, though quoted completely inaccurately, is from a letter he wrote to Benjamin Rush in 1803. Here is what Jefferson actually said:
"To the corruptions of Christianity I am, indeed, opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian in the only sense in which He wished anyone to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference of all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other."
If the person doing the quoting had bothered to actually read this letter, and many others that Jefferson wrote on the subject, he would know what Jefferson meant by this. One of the primary "corruptions of Christianity" that Jefferson opposed was the claim that Jesus was the son of God. Jefferson not only did not believe that Jesus was divine, he did not believe that Jesus had ever claimed to be the son of God. He viewed Jesus as an ethical philosopher and compared him to Socrates and Epictetus as men who were great thinkers but who, because they wrote nothing themselves, had their views distorted by their students and followers. He lamented the fact that the task of writing about his life and ideas fell to "unlettered and ignorant men", referring to the gospel writers and especially to Paul, whom he loathed greatly. Jefferson greatly admired the ethical system of Jesus, but completely rejected any claims of his divinity, claims of him having performed miracles, the virgin birth, the resurrection, and all other supernatural claims about him. All of those he considered "corruptions" of Christianity.

The second half of the quote, again quoted entirely inaccurately and wrongly attributed, doesn't really deal with what is implied at all. In the last 20 years of his life, Jefferson was a supporter of tUnitarianismism of his friend Joseph Priestley and he predicted that this would become the dominant religious view in the US. The quote seems to be a bastardization, pulled entirely out of context, of a letter Jefferson wrote to James Smith in 1822. In this letter, Jefferson shreds the notion of the trinity (remember that he rejected the divinity of Jesus, largely for this reason) and says the following:
"The pure and simple unity of the Creator of the universe, is now all bascendantatn in the Eastern States; it is dawning in the West, and advancing towards the South; and I confidently expect that the present generation will see Unitarianism become the general religion of the United States."
Contrary to the implication here, Jefferson was not talking about America rallying around Christianity, but around a rejection of one of the major tenets of Christianity.

He was also the chairman of the American Bible Society, which he considered his highest and most important role.

This is an outright falsehood. Jefferson was never involved with the American Bible Society in any capacity. He was, however, president of the American Philosophical Society after he left the Presidency in 1808.

On July 4, 1821, President Adams said, "The highest glory of the American Revolution was this: "It connected in one indissoluble bond the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity."

This is another textbook example of what happens when quotes are simply passed along and repeated without anyone bothering to check the original source to see if it's accurate. This is why, in scholarly documents, footnotes are used to provide specific documentation of the source of a quote. Let's follow the trail backwards and see where it leads. The quote is used by David Barton, who is nearly always the modern source of false quotations from the founding fathers. We'll see an example of another one below. Barton did not get it from the original documents, he got it from another book of quotations by William Federer called America's God and Country: An Encyclopedia of Quotations. So Federer got it from the original, right? Wrong. Federer's footnote is to a book by John Wingate Thornton from 1860. The Thornton book is full of quotations and footnotes locating the source of those quotes. But these words, attributed to John Quincy Adams, are not in fact a quote at all. The words belonged to Thornton. The words are not in quotation marks and there is no footnote giving a source. And no one has ever located an original source from Adams that contain those words, of even a similar sentiment to it. The quote, to be blunt, is a fake. Adams never said it. But this is an excellent example of what passes for historical scholarship among the Christian Nation proponents - the truth doesn't matter so long as something can be made to appear as supporting their position.

Calvin Coolidge, our 30th President of the United States reaffirmed this truth when he wrote, "The foundations of our society and our government rest so much on the teachings of the Bible that it would be difficult to support them if faith in these teachings would cease to be practically universal in our country."

I'm at a loss to understand how the words of Coolidge, well over a century after the founding of the country, mean much when it comes to the issue at hand. I would ask Coolidge the same question I ask everyone else who makes this claim today. If the "foundations of our government" rest on the teachings of the bible, then which principles found in the constitution that establishes our government are found in the bible? No one ever manages to answer that question because there is no answer. There is nothing in the constitution which rests on the validity of the bible at all. In the Federalist Papers, the essays that Madison, Hamilton and Jay wrote to explain the defend the ideas found in the Constitution to convince the citizens to vote for them, the bible is not cited once. They repeatedly trace the ideas found in the Constitution to John Locke, Baron de Montesquieu, Cicero and other philosophers, but not once do they explain any provision of the constitution as flowing from a biblical principle.

In 1782, the United States Congress voted this resolution: "The Congress of the United States recommends and approves the Holy Bible for use in all schools."

Again, this is from before the passage of the constitution. There was no "United States Congress" at the time, there was the Continental-Confederation Congress operating under the Articles of Confederation, which did not have any provisions for church/state separation. Remember also that there were no public schools at the time.

William Holmes McGuffey is the author of the McGuffey Reader, which was used for over 100 years in our public schools, with over 125 million copies sold, until it was stopped in 1963.

President Lincoln called him the "Schoolmaster of the Nation." Listen to these words of Mr. McGuffey: "The Christian religion is the religion of our country. From it are derived our nation, on the character of God, on the great moral Governor of the universe. On its doctrines are founded the peculiarities of our free Institutions. From no source has the author drawn more conspicuously than from the sacred Scriptures. For all these extracts from the Bible, I make no apology."

Also quite irrelevant to the issue at hand. Whatever McGuffey believed on the subject of the existence of God, and whatever source he himself turned to, has no bearing on the intent of the founders or of the constitution.

Of the first 108 universities founded in America, 106 were distinctly Christian, including the first, Harvard University, chartered in 1636. In the original Harvard Student Handbook, rule number 1 was that students seeking entrance must know Latin and Greek so that they could study the Scriptures: "Let every student be plainly instructed and earnestly pressed to consider well, the main end of his life and studies, is, to know God and Jesus Christ, which is eternal life, John 17:3; and therefore to lay Jesus Christ as the only foundation for our children to follow the moral principles of the Ten Commandments."

Again, completely irrelevant. No one ever doubted, or would dispute, that Christianity has been hugely influential in American culture. But those universities were private institutions, not public ones, and they have no bearing on the issue of whether the American government was intended to be officially Christian. The first public university in the US was the University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson, and he intended it to be entirely secular, with no chapel and no divinity courses at all.

James Madison, the primary author of the Constitution of the United States, said this: "We have staked the whole future of all our political constitutions upon the capacity of each of ourselves to govern ourselves according to the moral principles of the Ten Commandments."

Another excellent example of the shoddy scholarship of David Barton and his ilk and another quote that simply does not exist. The quote appears in Barton's book, The Myth of Separation, but the footnotes are not to any document written by Madison at all. He cites two other sources, neither of which quotes any document from Madison either. No one has ever located the quote in any of the literally tens of thousands of pages of original documents from or about Madison. The historian Robert Alley, a Madison scholar, has done an exhaustive search and finds nothing even close to this quote from Madison himself. It is entirely inconsistent with everything else that Madison has to say on the subject. After several years of being hammered for his use of such quotations, Barton finally wrote an article admitting that there were a large number of quotes that have never been confirmed that he uses. This is one of them. Another is a quote attributed to George Washington saying, "It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible." Such is the state of scholarship among the Christian Nation apologists.

Most of what you read in this article has been erased from our textbooks. Revisionists have rewritten history to remove the truth about our country's Christian roots. You are encouraged to share this with others, so that the truth of our nation's history will be told. This information shared is only a drop of cement to help secure a foundation that is crumbling daily in a losing war that most of the country doesn't even know is raging on, in, and around them....

Please share this with as many as possible and make the ill-informed aware of what they once had.

Given the factual and logical destruction of the arguments presented here, there is little point in responding to the inflated rhetoric at the end. Let the facts speak for themselves.

Ed Brayton | 5:04 PM | | | Permalink

Friday, December 05, 2003

The falsity of common arguments against separation of church and state

Continuing the theme from the last essay, we often hear this argument - "Separation of church and state isn't in the constitution". It's a rather silly argument, but it's very popular. Some people really do look at the first amendment and think, "Gee, those words really aren't in there. I guess that settles it." Well, no it doesn't. A little knowledge of history and a little thought will suffice to dispel this argument.

Of course it's true that the actual phrase "separation of church and state" is not in the constitution. But then neither are the phrases "separation of powers" or "checks and balances", yet no one would argue that the concepts are not there, embodied in numerous specific provisions. Just as the founders used those phrases to describe the intent of the constitutional provisions for power to be divided between three branches of government, they also used the phrase "separation of church and state" to describe the intent of the religion clauses of the first amendment. When the courts go about applying constitutional law, one of the primary ways they do it is to look for the "legislative intent" - the purpose that those who wrote the law had in mind, the goal they wanted to accomplish. When the men who wrote it say in several places, as they did, that the goal of the religion clauses of the first amendment was to erect a wall of separation between church and state, that is about as authoritative as it gets when you're trying to determine legislative intent.

So, from where does this phrase originate? Most people know about Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists, which is the first place in which it appears in a writing by one of the founders. One of the most commonly used arguments by the religious right is that Jefferson intended the wall to be "one directional" - that it was intended only to protect the church from the intrusions of the state. But this is absolutely false. The Danbury Baptists had written Jefferson a letter congratulating him on his election to the presidency and to ask for his assistance in getting rid of the official church establishment in Connecticutt. Connecticutt had an official religion of Congregationalism and all citizens in that state were required to pay a tax that supported the church. Thus, the issue at hand was not a violation of free exercise, but a violation of the ban on establishments (though technically it was neither, since the first amendment only applied to federal laws, not state laws - this was changed with the passage of the 14th amendment). Jefferson replied:
"Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church & State."
Some have also replied to Jefferson's letter by saying that it is irrelevant, since Jefferson was in France at the time of the writing of the bill of rights and not a part of their framing. While true, this is a weak argument. Jefferson was in constant contact with several of the men who were there and it was his Religious Freedom Act in Virginia that was the model for the first amendment. He was particularly influential on James Madison, who chaired the committee that wrote the amendment and was the primary intellectual force behind the bill of rights. But at any rate, even without Jefferson's letter we have ample reason to use the phrase because it was used by those who actually were involved in framing the amendment directly, particularly Madison. For instance, in a letter to Robert Walsh in 1819, he discussed the benefits of the religion clauses of the first amendment and referred to them as requiring, "the total separation of the Church from the State". In his Detached Memoranda, Madison pleaded with the states to follow the example of the federal constitution, saying:
" Ye States of America, which retain in your Constitution or Codes, any aberration from the sacred principle of religious liberty, by giving to Caesar what belongs to God, or joining together what God has put asunder, hasten to revise & purify your systems, and make the example of your Country as pure & compleat, in what relates to the freedom of the mind and its allegiance to its maker, as in what belongs to the legitimate objects of political & civil institutions. Strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion & Govt. in the Constitution of the United States the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies, may be illustrated by precedents already furnished in their short history."
Here we have a variation on the phrase, "separation between religion and government". As this quote also points out, Madison was clearly not in favor of a uni-directional wall that only protects church from state and not state from church, as he speaks of the "danger of encroachment by ecclesiastical bodies". Furthermore, Madison makes it clear that the goal of the first amendment was not merely to prevent the establishment of an official church, as many on the religious right claim today, but to prevent anything close to such an establishment. He even went so far as to argue that Congressional chaplaincies was a violation of the first amendment, again from his Detached Memoranda:
The Constitution of the U.S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion. The law appointing Chaplains establishes a religious worship for the national representatives, to be performed by Ministers of religion, elected by a majority of them; and these are to be paid out of the national taxes. Does not this involve the principle of a national establishment, applicable to a provision for a religious worship for the Constituent as well as of the representative Body, approved by the majority, and conducted by Ministers of religion paid by the entire nation."
The esteemed first amendment scholar Leo Pfeffer, in discussing this argument, said:
"It is true, of course, that the phrase 'separation of church and state' does not appear in the Constitution. But it was inevitable that some convenient term should come into existence to verbalize a principle so clearly and widely held by the American people....[T]he right to a fair trial is generally accepted to be a constitutional principle; yet the term 'fair trial' is not found in the Constitution. To bring the point even closer home, who would deny that 'religious liberty' is a constitutional principle? Yet that phrase too is not in the Constitution. The universal acceptance which all these terms, including 'separation of church and state,' have received in America would seem to confirm rather than disparage their reality as basic American democratic principles."
Another very common argument that you hear is that the purpose of the first amendment was only to prohibit the establishment of an official national church, or to prevent the establishment of a specific denomination of Christianity over another. The history of the framing of the religion clauses shows this argument to be false. Congress proposed and rejected numerous wordings that would have limited the prohibition only to those two things. The first wording to be rejected was:
"The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief, nor shall any national religion be established"
A later wording that was proposed and rejected was:
"Congress shall make no law establishing any particular denomination in preference to another"
If they had intended only to prevent those de jure establishments of official churches or denominations, then why did they reject multiple wordings that would have done exactly that and vote instead for the much broader wording of "respecting an establishment of religion"? Because, as Madison noted, the purpose was to prevent everything like an establishment of religion - not merely a de jure establishment, but de facto establishments as well.

Those who make such arguments simply don't know enough about the legislative history of the first amendment to support the claims, all of which are false. What they commonly do have, however, is quotes from several of the founding fathers indicating that Christianity is a good thing, or that Christianity was necessary for the nation to succeed. What they do not understand is that whether one thinks Christianity is a good thing or not has no bearing on their position on separation and whether the government should endorse that belief. Indeed, some of the staunchest defenders of strict separation in the early days of the country were Baptist ministers like Isaac Backus or John Leland. Strict separation is not premised on a rejection of Christianity. Indeed, Jefferson and Madison both argued forcefully that strict separation, far from being a rejection of religion, was necessary for religion to flourish.

Ed Brayton | 2:10 PM | | | Permalink

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Was America founded on "Christian principles"?

One of the arguments heard often, especially lately in light of the situation with Judge Roy Moore in Alabama, is that the US was "founded on Christian principles". Whenever I hear this argument, I counter with this challenge - point to specific provisions within the constitution, the founding documents of the United State, the basis for the entire American system of government, that have an analog in the bible or in standard Christian theology. The response is usually silence. The major principles found in the constitution - separation of powers, checks and balances, limited government, separation of church and state, etc - are found nowhere in the bible, or in Christian theology for that matter. All of these principles are taken from the ideas of numerous philosophers - Montesquieu, Locke, Polybius, etc. - and none of them has an analog in Christianity.

The doctrine of checks and balances, in particular, has its roots in the work of Montesquieu, the French philosopher. The founding fathers cited his Spirit of the Laws innumerable times in explaining and defending the constitutional principle that divides authority between three different branches of government. Likewise, the notion of limited government, of a government constrained from increasing its authority, is traced back to many sources. Cicero, who argued that the purpose of government was to ensure justice, and Locke, who argued that the only just purpose for which the government could act was to secure the natural rights of the people, are the most obvious.

Certainly we find no model of government in the bible that contains these principles. Very little of the Levitical law that was allegedly given by God as his governmental system would be constitutional in the US. The biblical model of government is an outright theocracy, the kind that was explicitly rejected by the founding fathers. There was no right to free speech, no right to worship as one sees fit. Heathens and "witches" were put to death, along with homosexuals, unruly children, and a host of other things. There is no such concept as political liberty found in the bible anywhere. So where exactly are these "Christian principles" in the US constitution?

A common variation on this argument, especially given recent events in Alabama, is that our system of law is somehow "based on the Ten Commandments". This claim has been repeated so often that it has become a cliche, but no one who advocates has apparently taken the time to actually read the Ten Commandments and compare them to the constitution. Let's see how the Ten Commandments would fare if enacted into law in the US:

1. Thou shall have no other Gods before me.

Blatantly unconstitutional. The free exercise clause of the first amendment guarantees that we each have the right to follow any God and any religious belief system we wish.

2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me

Also unconstitutional on free exercise grounds. Americans can make any graven image they wish to make, and bow down to whatever god or idol they wish.

3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain

Unconstitutional on both freedom of religion and free speech grounds.

4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy

Again, unconstitutional on free exercise grounds.

5. Honour thy father and thy mother

A good idea, in most cases, but a law requiring it would be unconstitutional and outside the purview of government. You can't legally enforce an individual's feelings toward their parents.

6. Thou shalt not kill

This one is obviously constitutional, and is a part of our legal system. But it's also found in EVERY legal system, even those that have nothing to do with the bible or Christianity. No society can condone murder of each other and survive, so this is simply a survival imperative.

7. Thou shalt not commit adultery

Another one that is a good idea, but not constitutional if legally enforced. Adultery is a moral wrong, but it's a private matter between individuals.

8. Thou shalt not steal

This is the second one that is obviously constitutional, but also found in every legal system regardless of the religious system that may have initially spawned it. A universal imperative that would be part of the law even if the bible never existed.

9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour

Some have interpreted this to be analagous to our perjury laws, but nothing in the text indicates that. It's talking about lying in general, not in a legal sense during court proceedings. And while lying may be wrong, it's not legally wrong except in specific circumstances - perjury and libel/slander. Under our system, most instances of lying would be covered by the first amendment free speech clause.

10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's

Not only unconstitutional, it would require the ability to read minds. If coveting what your neighbor has was against the law in the US, there would be no "keeping up with the Joneses". You cannot, under our system, legislate against thoughts or feelings.

So there you have it. If the Ten Commandments were made law in the US, only 2 of them would be clearly constitutional, with a third between constitutional in some circumstances. Not only are the other 7 not principles of our governmental system, all of them would be anathema under our constitution. So how exactly is our constitutional system "based on" a set of rules, 75% of which would be obviously illegal under that system? The fact is that these statements are little more than tired cliches. Few people who repeat them have given them any thought. If they bothered to think such statements through, they would recognize the obvious absurdity of them.

Ed Brayton | 7:53 PM | | | Permalink

Dispatches from the Culture Wars