Saturday, September 4, 2010

End The "Diabolization" Of Imam Rauf

The peerless Leon Wieseltier on the lower Manhattan community center and mosque:
In matters of principle...polling is beside the point, or an alibi for the tyranny of the majority, or an invitation to demagogues to make divisiveness into a strategy, so that their targets come to seem like they are the ones standing in the way of social peace, and the “decent” thing is for them to fold. Why doesn’t Rauf just move the mosque? That would bring the ugliness to an end. But why don’t Palin and Gingrich just shut up? That, too, would bring the ugliness to an end. Certainly the diabolization of Rauf, an imam who has publicly recited the Shema as an act of solidarity and argued that the Declaration of Independence “embodies and restates the core values of the Abrahamic, and thus also the Islamic, ethic,” must cease. In a time when an alarming number of Muslims wish to imitate Osama bin Laden, here is a Muslim who wishes to imitate Mordecai Kaplan.
Read the whole column.

Atheist In The Hole

Michael M. Phillips totally nails the beginning of this evocative story:

SANGIN, Afghanistan—They say there are no atheists in foxholes. There's one on the front lines here, though, and the chaplain isn't thrilled about it.

Navy Chaplain Terry Moran is steeped in the Bible and believes all of it. His assistant, Religious Programs Specialist 2nd Class Philip Chute, is steeped in the Bible and having none of it.

Together they roam this town in Taliban country, comforting the grunts while crossing swords with each other over everything from the power of angels to the wisdom of standing in clear view of enemy snipers. Lt. Moran, 48 years old, preaches about divine protection while 25-year-old RP2 Chute covers the chaplain's back and wishes he were more attentive to the dangers of the here and now.

It's a match made in, well, the Pentagon.

"He trusts God to keep him safe," says RP2 Chute. "And I'm here just in case that doesn't work out."

She Did Buy The Shoes, BTW

This afternoon I posted on Facebook about a friend's Mustang and, not long after, noticed a Mustang ad in the right-hand column. This Wall Street Journal investigation explains how they do that. I heard the reporter, Julia Angwin, talking about it on NRP's Fresh Air not long ago.

The sites we visit most often, and advertising firms that specialize in this stuff, have ways of gathering information about the things we look at on line and generating ads that match our interests. Angwin found that the average site puts over 60 tracking devices on your computer when you visit. Often third parties are running the tracking programs without the host sites' even knowing.

Angwin said that when she checked out some shoes on line, "they kept following me around the web" as ads popped up at other places she visited. While she says that our profiles can get pretty detailed and sophisticated, our names aren't attached to them. The data is mined and traded instantaneously, since the whole idea is to get to us while we're in the market and before the data are corrupted by our fickleness, or the other people who are using our computers and start searching for guitar strings instead of pumps.

I tried to summon some outrage about an invasion of privacy inherent in this example of the market in hyperactivity, but I couldn't. This is Big Broker, not Big Brother. I only got worried when the NPR interviewer, Dave Davies, asked Angwin, "Is anyone in the government interested in this?"

Hawking, Dickens, And Spontaneous Combustion

Stephen Hawking now says that the laws of gravity were enough to bring the universe into being -- which would have been the first instance of spontaneous combustion. For us old-earth Bible-interpreters, this is big news. Since the publication of his A Brief History of Time, Christian adult education teachers who found no essential conflict between the big bang and Genesis have been able to say that the great British astrophysicist himself was willing to concede the possibility of Someone throwing the great switch.

That Hawking has changed his mind, as disconcerting as it may be at first to the Bible study teachers, just means that he has chosen to insist that "science is on his side in order to make his case for the imagination." Oops. Sorry, that's what Brooke D. Taylor says about Charles Dickens in the September 2010 issue of Dickens Quarterly.

See, the 19th century's greatest English writer believed in spontaneous combustion, too, and used it in his novel Bleak House to dispose of a character named Krook. Krook had been hoarding papers which held the key to a legal case that has been grinding along for decades. Two characters who come looking for him find -- well, you could say that they find evidence of a sacramental reenactment of the scientist's vision of the beginning of the universe, a mass for rationalists:
Here is a small burnt patch of flooring; here is the tinder from a little bundle of burnt paper, but not so light as usual, seeming to be steeped in something; and here is--is it the cinder of a small charred and broken log of wood sprinkled with white ashes, or is it coal? O Horror, he IS here!
That's Krook's burnt remains that are "here," not God. As Hawking now insists about the universe, no one had to light the fuse in Krook's grubby little room. It just happened. Really, it happens all the time. As he assured his readers in the preface of Bleak House, Dickens had studied the literature.

All these years everyone has thought him a bit daft on this narrow point. Seeking to rescue him, Brooke Taylor concludes:
In the end, most of us agree that, for literary purposes, the scientific accuracy of Spontaneous Combustion doesn't matter. But Dickens argues for the scientific authenticity of this manner of death because a world in which fact and feeling are irreparably divided is a tragic and frightening place.
Maybe that kind of fear helps us understand why the mystery of God can be such a challenge or an affront to the rational mind. For Hawking and those who are most pleased by his latest assertion, it actually seems less preposterous, or perhaps less frightening, to say that they know what occurred 14 billion years ago at a point in-- well, somewhere, than to accept the possibility that a living but persistently invisible source of ultimate meaning and benevolence is present right now, right here. The very idea of a power they can't fully explain must make them want to explode.

Nixon's On The Ballot Yet Again

George Demos, vying with Christopher Nixon Cox for the GOP nomination in New York's first congressional district, isn't confining his campaign to Long Island issues. He's also running against the most famous mosque in Manhattan and the most famous Quaker from Whittier.

Obama At His Best

Tim Rutten on the stakes in the Middle East for President Obama:
[He's] a president even more willing to put himself directly on the line for an agreement than Clinton was in Northern Ireland — a chief executive seemingly willing to risk his record for audacious hope.

On the other hand, while nothing but jobs and the economy may matter in 2012, healthcare and Middle East peace might be something on which to run.
Then again, probably not. In 1980, voters didn't care about President Carter's historic Camp David breakthrough, when Israel and Egypt made peace. They cared about inflation and jobs, and so they voted him out of office after one term. Obama knows that, which is why it's pretty close to astonishing that he chose to make dialogue between Israel and Palestinians a top priority within 48 hours of his inauguration and then renewed his commitment by driving the progress toward the new round of talks.

It's Obama at his best, and shrewdest. Middle East peace would further isolate Iran and be a boon for regional stability and democratization. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!

Mustang Saturday

When Tom Meena bought this 1966 Mustang seven years ago, it was painted yellow and had a vinyl roof. His first plan: Restore it and send it off to college with one of his and Denise's daughters, but after all the time and treasure, he decided to keep it. Wouldn't you have? When the couple met, he had a 1964.5 Mustang, the earliest ever. That's one at right. I spotted the Mustanging Meenas Saturday as Tom was helping Denise, director of the St. John's Episcopal School preschool, with start-of-the-year preparations.

Hamassed On The High Ground

If there's ample reason to be pessimistic about Middle East peace,
The most acute danger facing both Israel and the Palestinian Authority is radical Islam. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rightly regards a nuclear Iran as an existential threat to the Jewish state. And if Israel launches a preemptive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities — a real possibility should international sanctions against Tehran fail — it will need the support of its friends. Progress on the Palestinian front could ease Israeli diplomatic and military isolation.

As for [PNA President] Abbas, he is engaged in a life-and-death power struggle with Iran's ally, Hamas. That is why he approved an unprecedented level of cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces in the West Bank.

Friday, September 3, 2010

George The Big Swedish Meatball

From the first moments of the hollow-hearted thriller "The American," the Swedes are out to get George Clooney, and Ingmar Bergman is at the head of the posse. The movie has gorgeous scenery and minimal dialogue and music and reeks of existential angst. Most Bergmanesque of all is a scene where Clooney, playing a weary assassin named Jack, has a conversation with an inquisitive priest, Fr. Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli) during which his face is in focus while staring at Benedetto's, which is perpendicular to his and slightly out of focus. You've seen the same move in Bergman movies, Woody Allen movies making fun of Bergman movies, and the SNL Compulsion ad starring Jan Hooks and Phil Hartman.

Jack and Father bond over brandy and beef stew and soon recognize each other as sinners with dark secrets, though Jack's are a lot darker and more recent. We never learn why Swedish assassins want to kill him, but when they track him to his snowbound love nest at the beginning of the story, he murders his innocent girlfriend to make sure he gets away clean.

This completely unjustifiable act makes him the most unsympathetic well-trained killing machine I've ever seen on film, which is ironic, since the whole idea is that in middle age Jack's becoming a big Swedish meatball. "Don't make any friends," his ridiculously sinister handler, Pavel (Johan Leysen), says scoldingly after bringing him in from the cold. "You used to understand that." Pavel sends Jack to a remote Italian village to await instructions and not make friends, whereupon he promptly sidles up to Benedetto and falls in love with a prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido).

Wandering through the village's dark, empty, maze-like streets trying to evade Swedes, Jack is your basic Sergio Leone antihero trapped by his destiny. Later, he's MacGyver, out to fulfill his last assignment by building a rifle for a mysterious Belgian assassin (Thekla Reuten) out of auto parts. You never know whom he, she, and Pavel are working for. You may care, but I didn't.

Oh Henry!

In the New York 1st, 56 throws his weight behind 37's grandson, agent of what some in the Nixon family have referred to as "the restoration."

Arab Solidarity Is Cheap

Secretary Clinton calls on Arab regimes who say they want peace to keep their promises:
[She] repeated the oblique criticism of Arab states voiced by Mr. Obama on Wednesday. “We hear often from those voices in the region who insist this is a top priority and yet do very little to support the work that would actually bring about a Palestinian state,” she said.

Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states have been slow to deliver promised financial aid to the Palestinian Authority, officials close to Mr. Abbas said, and the authority faces an increasingly dire shortfall.

Why Don't You Lay Down And Sleep, Earl

A prayer for the East Coast, courtesy of the Dixie Chicks' "Goodbye Earl," perhaps the first and only rousing singalong about domestic abuse

Bush League

The new round of Middle East peace talks show the president at his best. Yesterday's New York Times article about his poor relations with his predecessor seems to show him at his pettiest:
It is no secret that he opposed the Iraq war, and that as a senator he took a dim view of Mr. Bush’s “surge,” the 2007 troop buildup that many military analysts credit with helping to stabilize Iraq. Leading up to Tuesday night’s address, Republicans were clamoring for Mr. Obama to give the former president credit.

He did not. Instead, he said simply that he had spoken to Mr. Bush earlier in the day, and that while their disagreements were well-known, “no one could doubt President Bush’s support for our troops, or his love of country and commitment to our security.”

The White House declined to discuss the thinking behind that language. But Bush loyalists on Wednesday were more than a little miffed by it.

Especially because Obama has ordered a surge of his own in Afghanistan, his persistent failure to acknowledge that Bush's had turned Iraq around is frustrating. It was understandable when he refused to do so during the campaign. But in a presidential address, he could have figured out how to say that Bush's commitment of extra forces, combined with other factors in Iraq, had made a difference without seeming to go back on his opposition to the war in general. Saying so would have given him the opportunity to heap additional praise on the troops.

So why didn't he? Was it the pride of not wanting to call attention to his opportunistic failure to acknowledge the obvious in the campaign? But to do so would've made him look statesmanlike. Was it anger at the way he feels Bush left the country? Then he may be overlooking that it was the perfect storm of crisis in the fall of 2008 than won him the presidency at such a young age. This disrespectful miscue reminds us just how young he is.

Pray For The Peace Of Jerusalem

Secretary of State Clinton watches Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, right, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands as she hosts the re-launch of direct negotiations on Thursday at the State Department in Washington. (AP caption and photo/Charles Dharapak)

Thursday, September 2, 2010

We'll Always Have "Jackie Brown"

The Del Amo Fashion Center in Torrance, California is getting a remake.

"The Extremists Lose Control"

Blogging at the "Economist," a correspondent with 18 years' experience in the Middle East is astonished:
[S]omething happened yesterday that, to my recollection, has never happened before, at least not with such clarity: in the midst of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, a deadly attack took place, and rather than call off the talks, both sides resolved to keep going. In fact, they both explicitly characterised the attack as an attempt to sabotage the talks, and insisted they wouldn't be sidetracked.

Three Watergates

James Lipton called "Two Cathedrals," the last episode of the second season (2:22 to the scripturally minded) of "The West Wing," the best hour of television ever produced. His benediction is far above my poor power to add or detract. I've already waxed goofy about the last five minutes, when Josiah Bartlett (Martin Sheen, above) receives a cleansing civic baptism while Mark Knopfler hymns on his electric guitar.

Episcopal bones tingle during the scenes in Washington National Cathedral, especially the way the young crucifer and candle-bearers move in perfect, reverential unison -- almost as good as at St. John's! Scriptwriter and series creator Aaron Sorkin makes a complete muck of the funeral liturgy for the president's beloved secretary, Delores Landingham. Ending with the prayer of St. Francis? I don't think so.

As for the Nixon resonances, the whole episode's a learn-from-Watergate, it's-the-coverup-that-kills-you allegory. On learning several episodes before that President Bartlett has been concealing his MS for years, aide Toby Ziegler demands that Bartlett consult his anti-John Dean of a White House counsel, Oliver Babish, who instantly puts the sullen if pliable president on the road to full disclosure, special prosecutor, the works.

Thus will Bartlett survive to run again, though his misdeeds are far more egregious and systematic than Nixon's. I can't tell you the number of people who've said to me over the years, "If only Nixon would have admitted what he did, he'd have survived." Of course unlike Bartlett, who submits to Babish's will, and his principled aides, the stubbornly unrepentant Nixon was surrounded by a considerable number of felons and liars who made matters fatally worse.

It would've been nice to try it Bartlett's way, though, and as a matter of fact, I did, too. In 1989 I published a novel, Patterns of Abuse, that amounted to an anti-Watergate in which a Democratic president breaks the law in the service of national security only to have the scandal manipulated for partisan purposes by a scheming Republican editor of the Washington Post. My president lets it all hang out, too.

It sold dozens of copies (some of which are still rattling around). Published on exactly the same day by the same now-defunct house, Wynwood Press, was the first edition of a novel I like to call A Time To Kill by John Grisham. Our editor, a publishing and agenting legend, Bill Thompson -- who helped get Elmore Leonard his first bestseller, Glitz, and also edited Nixon's book No More Vietnams -- discovered Stephen King in addition to Grisham. Two out of three ain't bad!

Bill now helps authors treat their ailing manuscripts. There's a writing doctor in WW 2:22 as well, namely Lawrence K. Altman, M.D., who recently retired as the New York Times medical correspondent. Bartlett's press secretary, C. J. Cregg, puts him in the front row at a press conference in the vain hope that Bartlett will call on him first for a softball about his health rather than the dreaded question about his reelection plans.

I always thought the part was played by Altman himself, but when I said so on YouTube, I was gently corrected by a woman in Washington who said it was her late husband, a veteran character actor. I regret that I can't find his name. He played someone whom Nixon had admired for outstanding coverage of his near-fatal brush with phlebitis during 1974-75, when his critics unfairly accused him of being a faker to avoid coming to Washington to visit with the all-too-real special prosecutor.

For All The Relocated Saints

Here's another of those stories about hallowed ground. In May, according to Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), 82-year-old Mary Tan's funeral in Da Nang, Vietnam turned bloody. On Aug. 18, he told the House's human rights commission:

Vietnamese authorities and riot police disrupted that sad and solemn occasion, shooting tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd, beating mourners with batons and electric rods. More than 100 were injured, dozens were arrested, and several remain in custody and have reportedly been severely beaten and tortured. At least two innocent people have been murdered by the Vietnamese police.

Mary's mourners were trying to bury her in the Roman Catholic parish cemetery in Con Dau village, which the communist government has ordered closed. It denies attacking the funeral procession but doesn't deny preventing Mary's family from burying her. According to one report, 59 people were arrested.

I first learned about the incident from the Aug. 20 Viet Nam News, an English-language daily published by the government. (A St. John's friend travels widely in Asia and always brings newspapers home.) It carries the headline "U.S. Congressman's claims of attacks in Viet Nam refuted" and for good measure pummels Rep. Smith with "totally fabricated," "sheer fabrications," and "smear." It adds:

Da Nang City's Religion Board said extremist elements had taken advantage of Tan's funeral to deliberately cause public disorder and attack police...
The article repeats a Vietnam foreign ministry statement at the time of the incident in May that it all had "nothing to do with religion." What's really happening, you see, is that local Roman Catholics refuse to acknowledge the state's superior insights about the best use of prime real estate. Why worry about those resting below when officials have big ideas for those remaining above? The Viet Nam News reveals:
Con Dau Cemetery is to be relocated as part of Da Nang's widely publicized new residential area development scheme. The city is currently providing compensation for the site clearance work to local residents and the cemetery is no longer available for use.
Obviously the mourners had just failed to keep up with news reports.

That's the way an efficiently-run government with a Religion Board handles these disagreements. It also helps to have a populace whose members are humble enough to admit their errors. The News refers to allegations that people were detained but never quite says they weren't. There do seem to have been some heart-to-hearts among officials and those involved, because the state organ also secretes this:
Some...people admitted repentantly later that they had incited the deceased woman's family to attack the police during her funeral....[A woman] was one of those lured to join the extremist group, but is now sorry for getting involved. She said: "I see I had been doing wrong."
My takeaway: Beware when someone says, "This isn't about freedom of religion."

Pray For The Peace Of Jerusalem

And Curiosity's a GOOD Thing

In his new memoir, Tony Blair offers an intriguing explanation for the troubles his "political soul mate" experienced:

[Bill] Clinton's two-term presidency was almost derailed because of his affair with Monica Lewinsky, an indiscretion that Blair wrote, "arose in part from his inordinate interest in and curiosity about people."

"Part of his genius [as] a politician is he is extraordinarily curious about people," Blair said today.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Who Else You Got?

The Democratic and Republican candidates for U.S. senator from California both make devastatingly effective cases, so I've made up my mind. The LA Times:
Asked if, after her three terms in the Senate, it was time to give someone else a turn, [Barbara] Boxer said voters would decide whether to give her another shot "or elect someone who made her name as CEO of Hewlett-Packard, laying thousands and thousands of workers off, shipping jobs overseas, making no sacrifice while she was doing it and taking $100 million. I don't think we need those Wall Street values right now."

[Carly] Fiorina, in turn, portrayed Boxer as an ineffective Washington relic who had lost touch with the concerns of Californians and whose liberal ideology has led to higher taxes and more regulation for the state's residents and businesses.

"She is for more taxes, she is for more spending, she is for more regulation, she is also for big government and elite extreme environmental groups," said Fiorina, who said her rival had accomplished little in the Senate because she is "one of the most bitterly partisan members."

If There Were New Bosses, They'd Be The Same

At OC Weekly, Gustavo Arellano didn't like the New York Times article about Orange County's purported political transformation. After questioning its sourcing and findings, Arellano (author of Orange County: A Personal History) added:
[E]ven if Orange County was somehow more liberal than in the past, what good have our so-called liberal leaders have done? The two truest Dem towns, SanTana and Irvine, are paragons of spiteful, wasteful, dirty-tricks political machines (run by friends Larry Agran and Don Papi Pulido, respectfully) that would make Daley's Chicago seem like Mayberry. The Dems spend more time playing footsie with their Republican opposition than cultivating strong candidates--hence, the painful slaughter they experience in nearly every partisan race every two years.

We Don't Mind Studying, But Please: No Test

The yellow cookie-cutter figure, signifying a child injured in a disaster, is the closest we hope we'll ever get to the real thing at St. John's Episcopal School. And yet each year during orientation week, our school nurses, Marjorie Trujillo and Jeanne Rodriguez, walk the faculty and staff through a meticulously planned drill in which we're invited, or rather beseeched, to anticipate every possible contingency.

Supervised by our headmaster, Jim Lusby, inspection and response teams roam the campus checking for injuries and damage, while reunion teams get ready for the parents who'll be rushing to Via Con Dios virtually en masse to collect over 700 students. Marjorie and Jeanne give us a quick lesson in triage. Some of us put on vests signifying our roles (my colleagues Gerda Kilgore and Suzy Hardy are at left) and practice with walkie-talkies: "Command? This is inspection team one, over." And we pray we won't have to think about it again until next year's drill.

All The President's Remaining Men

Rick Lazio probably wishes he didn't have Nixon to kick him around anymore.

The conservative ex-congressman (shown at right), who had the unenviable job of running against Hillary Clinton for U.S. Senate in 2000, wants to be this year's GOP nominee for governor of New York. He fought Nixon War I in the late spring against the state party chairman, Nixon son-in-law Ed Cox, who had backed a more moderate candidate, Steve Levy, after going to the trouble of helping persuade him to convert from Democratism. Cox (below) has also been accused of trying to set the stage for a Senate run by his and Tricia's son, Christopher, who's aiming for the altar and the House this year.

At the June GOP convention, Lazio handily beat back the Cox-Levy challenge. But now he has to contend with yet another Nixonite, Roger Stone, who pops up in the paper today as the key strategist for an insurgent with Tea Party bona fides, real estate tycoon Carl Paladino. The primary's Sept. 14, and while Lazio's still ahead, according to the New York Times, Paladino is picking up strength.

Stone (that's he, with his idol) was one of Nixon's closest political friends when Kathy and I were working for the ex-president in New York and New Jersey in the 1980s. He'd done dirty tricks in the 1972 Nixon campaign and was a key Reagan strategist in 1984.  Nixon and Stone spent countless hours talking politics, and some of Nixon's White House-era aides resented it. During one of Roger's not-infrequent brushes with notoriety, one of the president's older men, who had already complained that Roger used Nixon's name too freely around Washington (which is precisely what Nixon wanted him to do), told me, "I knew he was no good. It couldn't happen to a better guy."

Be that as it may have been, he's back, yet again, as implacably resilient as the president himself. Meanwhile, assuming Lazio can beat back his second Nixon challenge in one year and make it all the way to November, we can assume he won't be playing 37 in the Lotto.

True Love And Homegrown Tomatoes

During one of my annual visits to see him and his devoted fourth wife in Florida, my godfather taught me to put sliced tomatoes on buttered toast. "A great taste sensation," Louis always said, as he did when Dorothy, just as the evening news came on, would give him a bowl of popcorn and his one officially authorized daily glass of vodka. When my mother, Louis, and I were in Miami during a newspaper strike in 1965, he shared perhaps the greatest taste sensation of all by giving his 10-year-old godson his first medium rare cheeseburger, topped with a juicy quarter-inch slice of white onion.

He and Dorothy are gone now. One of my duties while Kathy was out of town was watering and bringing in the crop from the two tomato plants she bought during a horticultural episode. We both grew up in the big city, but when she was in high school she tended vegetables in a plot provided by the Bronx Botanical Garden.

My duties also included eating them, and wow. I didn't make toast, but they were pretty snazzy (another Louis word) on Triscuits with a little bit of butter.

Just a few more of the cherry tomatoes are coming in. This too shall pass. I never have horticultural episodes, so I didn't realize, until Kathy told me, that tomato plants die. It's all got me thinking about Guy Clark's song, "Homegrown Tomatoes":
Ain't nothin' in the world that I like better
Than bacon and lettuce and homegrown tomatoes
Up in the mornin' out in the garden
Get you a ripe one don't get a hard one
Plant `em in the spring eat `em in the summer
All winter without `em's a culinary bummer
I forget all about the sweatin' and diggin'
Every time I go out and pick me a big one

Homegrown tomatoes
Homegrown tomatoes
What'd life be without homegrown tomatoes
Only two things that money can't buy
That's true love and homegrown tomatoes

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Hamas Y Mas

The award goes to Isabel Kershner and Mark Landler of the New York Times for tortured news lead of the week:
The killing of four Israeli settlers, including a pregnant woman, in the West Bank on Tuesday evening rattled Israeli and Palestinian leaders on the eve of peace talks in Washington and underscored the disruptive role that the issue of Jewish settlements could play in the already fragile negotiations.
Hooey. The killing of four settlers underscores the disruptive role that Hamas's murdering terrorists are trying to play. If there were no settlements, we are entitled to think that Hamas would just find someone else to murder. In 2008, as the Bush administration tried to broker a peace deal, it was children in a library in East Jerusalem.

Sugar Blues

Ross Douthat went to Glenn Beck's rally and had an experience that sounds a little like what it must've been like to go to the Iowa state fair in 1954:

It was a long festival of affirmation for middle-class white Christians — square, earnest, patriotic and religious. If a speaker had suddenly burst out with an Obama-esque “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” the message would have fit right in.

But whereas Obama wouldn’t have been Obama if he weren’t running for president, Beck’s packed, three-hour jamboree was floated entirely on patriotism and piety, with no “get thee to a voting booth” message. It blessed a particular way of life without burdening that blessing with the compromises of a campaign, or the disillusioning work of governance.
Let me boil all that down to its essence:

A festival..for middle-class white Christians...[which] blessed a particular way of life.
An event described like that doesn't need to be explicitly political to be a little ominous, especially when we have a black president whom many of these same folks (if we go by recent polls) think is pretending to be a Christian (thanks in part to Beck's own accusations) while secretly favoring the global triumph of Islamic law. The racial component loomed even larger on Saturday than it would have if Beck had not, inadvertently or not, chosen the anniversary of Dr. King's speech and if there hadn't been a largely African-American counter-demonstration going on nearby.

Also stressing the event's benignity, Reihan Salam put it this way:

They don’t feel as though their values are reflected by the country’s economic and political elite, and they worry about losing their economic and cultural autonomy, sensing that the further centralization of power will hurt rather than help that cause, a premise we can’t expect committed social democrats to understand.
If so, I wish Beck and Sarah Palin had actually made it political, or at least policy, by giving a three-hour seminar on marginal tax rates and the dangers of ballooning deficits and galloping federal growth. From Jane Mayer's New Yorker article about the libertarian sugar daddies who are sweetening the Tea Party, we learn that there's a rational motive behind all this, namely lower tax rates and less growth-stultifying regulation for the sugar daddies. I can understand that and, to a certain pragmatic moderate centrist extent, applaud it. But when policy preferences come cleverly hidden behind racial semiotics, no matter how gosh-darn middle America cuddly it may look on the surface, we're not going in a good direction or having the useful debate the country needs and deserves.

Sunday's Sermon: "All About Us"

"All About Us," my sermon for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost at St. John Chrysostom Episcopal Church. Seeing the hopeful eyes of children in Pakistan who've fled to a tent in a graveyard to escape flootwaters makes us wonder how we'd feel if they were our children. And ours they are, according to the radical empathy commanded by scripture. The wonder is that practicing empathy can deepen the joy in our own lives.

Monday, August 30, 2010

A Glaring GOP In Knowledge

Oy vey:
A majority of Republicans believe that President Barack Obama "sympathizes with the goals of Islamic fundamentalists who want to impose Islamic law around the world," according to a survey released on Monday.

If It Acts Like A Nation...

...perhaps Palestine might not have to wait as long as some peace talk skeptics fear to be a nation.

Nixon Blues

Photo by Monica Almeida/New York Times

Adam Nagourney's article in the New York Times about demographic changes and their political impact in Orange County, California stresses deepening ethnic diversity and a decline in GOP registration. The first odd thing about the article is its photo of white people behaving awkwardly at a blues festival in Irvine, which fails to illustrate the new ethnic reality nor indeed anything about politics.

Odder still is the headline: "Orange County Is No Longer Nixon Country." That's really old news. Since the presidential election of 1980, it's been Reagan country, in recognition of the insurgent who had battled Nixon for the nomination in 1968, savaged Nixon's foreign policy co-architect Henry Kissinger, and set the stage for winning the presidency by running a bruising primary campaign against Nixon's successor, Gerald Ford, in 1976.

For years the big Orange has been Reagan red in a blue state, with Yorba Linda showing about nine acres of purple. When I was director of the Nixon library foundation from 1990 to 2009, doctrinaire local conservatives called me out for such Nixon policies as wages and price controls and the abandonment of the gold standard (for which Jack Kemp genially denounced me) and the creation of the EPA. The former editor of the Orange County Register's libertarian-leaning editorial page, Ken Grubbs, once told me that my library predecessor, ex-Nixon aide Hugh Hewitt, was a "heterodox conservative." What the heresy was, he didn't say. But influential Orange County Reaganites could rattle off an endless list of Nixonian detours from the Way.

You could say Orange County was episodically Nixon country in 1960, 1968, and 1972, when it went for the Yorba Lindan for president. But the conservative vs. centrist GOP divide was evident even then. In 1962, some relatively moderate Republicans such as the late Arnold Beckman and Bob Beaver banded together to create the Lincoln Club, which, Beaver told me during long conversations in his Fullerton family room, had as its mission "to get the crazies under control" and promote Republican candidates who could win general elections. In Beaver's view, the crazy-in-chief was the late Joe Shell, who called liberals socialists (sound familiar?) and battled Nixon for the GOP nomination to run for governor in 1962. Shell said it was the other way around, that Nixon was the race's richard-come-lately. His partisans argued that his impact on Nixon's November loss was overrated. Be that as it may, Nixon always believed Shell had hurt him. He was a founding Lincoln Club member and kept up his dues.

But by the 1990s, the Lincolnites were firmly ensconced in Reagan country, where they remain, and then some. The club's Sept. 2 speaker is former Rep. Dick Armey, chair of FreedomWorks, which stirs plenty of sugar into the Tea Party. As the Lincoln Club turned right, some local moderates created a competing organization, the New Majority, that abhorred "litmus tests" (as in Supreme Court nominees' positions on abortion) and what it called the exclusion of women and minorities. One of the group's key founders told me, "We got tired of our wives complaining about the pro-life movement's total dominance of the Republican Party." Of course they wanted winning candidates who might lower their taxes, too. With the U.S. right now tilting libertarian as opposed to Falwellian, the New Majority may have lost some of its motivation. The organization's anemic Orange County web page features an address by that promoter of multiple family values himself, Newt Gingrich, but it's three years old.

So there's no doubt that the Orange County GOP has left Nixon behind. It happened 30 years ago. But the tendency of our community as a whole is firmly in the direction of the broad, centrist terrain he inhabited as a policymaker and tactician. Yes, Orange County's changing. But the road to Obama country, if the OC ever makes it that far, still passes through Yorba Linda.

Empty Hot Seat

Ali Abunimah (who advocates a one- rather than two-state solution in the Middle East):
No serious analyst believes that peace can be made between Palestinians and Israelis without Hamas on board, any more than could have been the case in Northern Ireland without Sinn Fein and the I.R.A.

The Heart Of A Peacemaker

This LA Times analysis makes clear that the new round of Middle East peace talks that begins this week in Washington is the direct result of President Obama's willingness to run a substantial personal political risk. Hear, hear.

New Life, Again And Again

A fifth of the American people may believe Obama's a Muslim, but a fourth believe in reincarnation.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

High Lonesome Trio

Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, and Emmylou Harris performing in 1987. "Those Memories of You" is by Pam Tillis.

Like Confining God To Sundays

Photo by Tom Sewell/LA Times

Our very green sprout of an incoming U.S. poet laureate, M. W. Merwin, interviewed at his home in Maui by Dean Kuipers, discusses the ecology of the imagination:
Merwin spends his afternoons in the muck of the streambed, and when his famously elliptical poetry arrives, he jots it on an envelope or in a spiral notebook.

"I've never believed that the imagination, the thing that made poems, is separate from the rest of life at all. It's a part of it," Merwin says. "But we have a tradition as a society that is saying the rest of life is there purely for us to exploit without any concern about the consequences of it. It's very short-term and in my view it's suicidal."


...but no ma'am.

And Obama Says The Left's Giving Him Trouble

The elbows on the flanks are a lot sharper in the Middle East. Palestinian President Abbas is under such pressure from Hamas that he's saying the peace talks could die aborning if West Bank settlements continue. And way over on the Israeli right, the AP reports:
The spiritual leader of one of the hard-line parties in Netanyahu's coalition caused a stir by saying in his weekly Sabbath sermon that the Palestinians and Abbas should "perish from the world."
Of all people to be using "final solution" language...

Transformers II

The New York Times this morning, in an article about Glenn Beck's Lincoln Memorial rally:
[Sarah Palin] said she was asked not to focus on politics but did say, in a veiled reference to Mr. Obama, “We must not fundamentally transform America as some would want; we must restore America and restore her honor.”
Veiled? Not really. The Times also reported this morning in an article about President Obama as commander in chief:
Where George W. Bush saw the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan as his central mission and opportunities to transform critical regions, Mr. Obama sees them as “problems that need managing,” as one adviser put it, while he pursues his mission of transforming America.
The second article, carefully reported by Peter Baker, brings to mind President Johnson's error of fighting the Vietnam war "on the the political cheap," as Norman Podhoretz famously said, because he didn't want it to sap the energy of his own ambitious and transformative domestic initiatives. His misjudgment cost him his presidency and helped deliver a poorly conceived and conducted war to Richard Nixon's doorstep. While Vietnam was a much larger commitment, Obama runs a comparable risk by trying to keep Iraq and now Afghanistan from consuming too much of his and voters' attention. For one thing, as Baker makes clear, his approach has contributed to the military's skepticism about their commander in chief:
The schisms among his team...are born in part out of uncertainty about his true commitment. His reticence to talk much publicly about the wars may owe to the political costs of alienating his base as well as the demands of other issues. Senior Pentagon and military officials said they understood that he presided over a troubled economy, but noted that he was not losing 30 American soldiers a month on Wall Street.
Obama's understandable and perhaps justifiable ambivalence about the the wisdom of continuing and expanding the Afghanistan war, so abundantly on display during last autumn's agonizing reappraisal, may persist. And yet Obama insists not. This part of Baker's article is riveting, because it reveals our sometimes stoic-seeming president's humanity as well as his Johnsonesque unwillingness to choose between guns and butter:
Last year, he flew to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to greet soldiers’ coffins. During a later meeting with advisers, Mr. Obama expressed irritation at doubters of his commitment. “If I didn’t think this was something worth doing,” he said, “one trip to Dover would be enough to cause me to bring every soldier home. O.K.?”