Saturday, March 31, 2007

Religion Without Truth

The New York Times
March 31, 2007

In 1992, at a conference of Republican governors, Kirk Fordice of Mississippi referred to America as a “Christian nation.” One of his colleagues rose to say that what Governor Fordice no doubt meant is that America is a Judeo-Christian nation. If I meant that, Fordice replied, I would have said it.

I thought of Fordice when I was reading Time magazine’s April 2 cover story, “The Case for Teaching the Bible,” by David Van Biema, which also rehearses the case for not teaching the Bible. The arguments are predictable.

On the one side, knowledge of the Bible “is essential to being a full-fledged, well-rounded citizen”; also, if you get into a debate with a creationist, it would be good if you knew what you’re talking about.

On the other side: bring the Bible into the schools and you are half a step away from proselytizing; and besides, courses in the Bible typically play down the book’s horrific parts (dashing children against stones and the like), and say little about the killings done in its name.

As the Time article reports, the usual response to those who fear that allowing the camel’s nose under the tent will sooner or later turn the tent into a revival meeting is to promise that the Bible will be taught as a secular text. Students will become familiar with the Bible’s stories and learn how to spot references to them in works of literature stretching from Dante to Toni Morrison.

There may be a bit of instruction in doctrine here and there, but only as much as is necessary to understand an allusion, and never to a degree that would make anyone in the class uncomfortable.

Stephen Prothero of Boston University, who is cited several times by Van Biema, describes the project and the claim attached to it succinctly: “The academic study of religion provides a kind of middle space. … It takes the biblical truth claims seriously and yet brackets them for purposes of classroom discussion.” But that’s like studying the justice system and bracketing the question of justice. (How do you take something seriously by putting it on the shelf?)

The truth claims of a religion — at least of religions like Christianity, Judaism and Islam — are not incidental to its identity; they are its identity.

The metaphor that theologians use to make the point is the shell and the kernel: ceremonies, parables, traditions, holidays, pilgrimages — these are merely the outward signs of something that is believed to be informing them and giving them significance. That something is the religion’s truth claims. Take them away and all you have is an empty shell, an ancient video game starring a robed superhero who parts the waters of the Red Sea, followed by another who brings people back from the dead. I can see the promo now: more exciting than “Pirates of the Caribbean” or “The Matrix.” That will teach, but you won’t be teaching religion.

The difference between the truth claims of religion and the truth claims of other academic topics lies in the penalty for getting it wrong. A student or a teacher who comes up with the wrong answer to a crucial question in sociology or chemistry might get a bad grade or, at the worst, fail to be promoted. Those are real risks, but they are nothing to the risk of being mistaken about the identity of the one true God and the appropriate ways to worship him (or her). Get that wrong, and you don’t lose your grade or your job, you lose your salvation and get condemned to an eternity in hell.

Of course, the “one true God” stuff is what the secular project runs away from, or “brackets.” It counsels respect for all religions and calls upon us to celebrate their diversity. But religion’s truth claims don’t want your respect. They want your belief and, finally, your soul. They are jealous claims. Thou shalt have no other God before me.

This is what Governor Fordice meant. He understood that if he prefaced Christian with “Judeo,” he would be blunting the force of the belief he adhered to and joining the ranks of the multiculturalist appreciators of everything. Once it is Judeo-Christian, it will soon be Judeo-Islamic-Christian and then Judeo-Islamic-Native American-Christian and then. … Teaching the Bible in that spirit may succeed in avoiding the dangers of proselytizing and indoctrination. But if you’re going to cut the heart out of something, why teach it at all?


Stanley Fish is the Davidson-Kahn professor of law at Florida International University.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

How to Tell a Billionaire From a Bomber

The New York Times
March 30, 2007

The Billionaires, with a capital B, were delighted to hear that there are more superrich New Yorkers than they had thought.

Several Billionaires were sitting in Union Square Park the other day, and one of them remarked to us that 45 billionaires, small B, call New York home. Actually, we said, there are 50, judging from the latest Forbes magazine list.

Well, that touched off so many high-fives and shouts of “All right!” that you’d have thought the incredible had happened, like world peace or the Knicks making the playoffs.

“Ka-ching,” said an exultant Andrew Boyd, also known as Phil T. Rich. Marco Ceglie, who at times calls himself Monet Oliver DePlace, had something of an “It’s a Wonderful Life” moment. “Every time there’s a new billionaire,” he said, “a devil gets a new pitchfork.”

All in all, they had to concede, these are not bad times for the rich and mighty, normally as unappreciated a minority as we have.

Speaking up for that put-upon class is a mission of the Billionaires, whose full name is Billionaires for Bush. You may have seen them in the streets, decked out in tuxes and gowns, praising Big Oil, proclaiming à la Leona Helmsley that only little people pay taxes and organizing events like Dick Cheney Is Innocent Day. In New York, they have circulated petitions demanding limousine lanes, freed “from the clutches of bicycles.”

They are, as should be obvious, a band of satirists who don’t think much of President Bush (or, for that matter, the never-met-an-unwelcome-developer climate of the Bloomberg City Hall).

They are also one of the many political groups that the New York Police Department spied on in advance of the Republican National Convention held here in 2004.

That the authorities have conducted covert operations in the wake of Sept. 11 is neither a surprise nor, many would say, a problem. These are dangerous times. Most New Yorkers probably accept that it would be derelict of the police not to keep tabs on potential threats, be they rampaging anarchists or — worse — terrorists. Courts have thus far agreed.

The only goal of the pre-convention surveillance was to keep the city safe, the mayor insisted this week. “We were not keeping track of political activities,” he said. “We have no interest in doing that.”

But as a report in The New York Times has disclosed, the spied-upon included many groups that, agree with their views or not, engaged purely in political activity; they had no history of violence and no agenda other than a constitutional right to oppose the government. The Billionaires are a good example. The only bomb that they’ve been known to throw is a joke that falls flat.

“Not only did we not do violence,” Mr. Boyd said, “we did not profess doing violence or even pretend to profess doing violence. We see ourselves as a calming presence in demonstrations, getting out of that normal confrontational protest/police mode.”

Melody Bates, a member whose nom de rire is Ivy League-Legacy, called humor one of the more effective ways to make a point. “A good joke is in essence a gift,” she said, “and when you open with a gift, people are more receptive.”

The question is whether City Hall and the police have struck a reasonable balance between security needs and the imperatives of free expression, or whether the authorities, in Mr. Ceglie’s words, suffer from a post-9/11 case of “not knowing when to stop.”

It isn’t as if New York hasn’t rethought other policies that were deemed absolutely essential in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks. With municipal blessing, hideous concrete barriers rose in front of one building after another across town. In recent months, most have finally been torn down — recognition that Fortress New York doesn’t cut it.

Similar questions have been raised about the refusal of the National Park Service, in the name of security, to allow tourists to climb to the crown of the Statue of Liberty. Such a restriction at this potent symbol of American freedom has been strongly criticized by the likes of Senator Charles E. Schumer and Representative Anthony D. Weiner, who hardly see themselves as soft-on-terror types.

When the police spy on law-abiding groups, “it’s hard not to feel that it is an attempt to discourage free speech,” said Elissa Jiji, a k a Meg A. Bucks.

And Mr. Boyd drew lessons from the past. “It’s like that famous quote,” he said. “First, they came for the billionaires, and nobody said anything. …”


Many Plans, No News

The New York Times
March 30, 2007

In the Middle East today, home of the invention of algebra, a new math seems to have taken over. It is subtraction by addition. It goes like this: Add more trips to the region by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — who doesn’t seem to have any coherent strategy — to an emotionally stale, restated Saudi peace overture to Israel, and combine it with a cynical Hamas-Fatah cease-fire accord and an Israeli prime minister so unpopular his poll ratings are now lower than the margin of error, and you’ll find that we’re actually going backward — way back, back to the pre-Oslo era.

Only the bad guys make history in the Middle East today. Only the bad guys have imagination and resolve. Arab, Palestinian and Israeli “moderates” are just watching. Their leaders have never been weaker, and America has never been more feckless in framing clear choices to spur them to action.

We could be and should be doing better. Nearly seven years ago, President Bill Clinton put forward something called the “Clinton plan” for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. For the first time, the U.S. laid out its own detailed design of a fair deal between the parties. That plan called for Israel to give up 95 percent of the West Bank, Gaza and Arab East Jerusalem; for Palestinian refugees to be able to return to Palestinian areas but not to Israel; for the most populated Jewish settlements around Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to remain in place and the others to be removed; and for Palestinians to be compensated for those settlements with land swaps and other arrangements from Israel.

Yes, Yasir Arafat rejected it at the time, and even the Israelis never fully embraced the plan as it was, but everyone knew then and knows now that the Clinton plan is the only realistic framework for peace. The Bush team took the view that since Arafat wouldn’t accept it, the Clinton plan was a dead letter and therefore could be and should be forever sidelined. They also put themselves on the sidelines of Arab-Israeli diplomacy for six years, rather than sell anything with the name “Clinton” on it.

So instead of constantly telling the parties that the Clinton plan was the only viable basis for peace, and that U.S. diplomacy would be devoted to building a context for Palestinians and Israelis to act on that plan and a U.S. team to execute it, President Bush gave us scattershot visits by his secretaries of state and minimalist, stopgap measures to engineer cease-fires or talks about talks. Who can name them? “The Mitchell plan,” “the quartet,” “the Zinni mission,” “the Tenet plan,” “the road map,” the “two plus four plus four framework” and soon the “six plus two” framework.

You can make fun all you want of Bill Clinton’s “naïve” Middle East peace passion, notes Mr. Clinton’s top negotiator, Dennis Ross, but the fact is four times more Israelis and Palestinians died fighting each other during the “realistic,” “pro-Israel,” sideline-sitting Bush years of 2001 to 2005 than in the “naïve” decade of intense U.S. peacemaking — dominated by President Clinton — from Madrid to Oslo, 1991 to 2000.

Had the Bush-Rice team stuck with the Clinton plan, today, at a minimum, it would have been locked in as the only acceptable formula for peace, and at a maximum we might have gotten there. But the Bush philosophy seems to have been: “A.B.C. — anything but Clinton,” said Gidi Grinstein, who heads Reut Institute, Israel’s premier strategy policy group. “But by not endorsing the Clinton parameters, we are back with plans that are much worse.”

Indeed, all that is on the table now is the restated Saudi peace initiative, calling for full peace with Israel after full withdrawal and justice for Palestinian refugees — with no maps, details or Arab plan for how to pursue it with Israel. And we have the Saudi-brokered Mecca peace accord between Hamas and Fatah, which doesn’t even acknowledge Israel.

If you read the Mecca agreement, said Mr. Ross, “Israel appears only as an adjective, not as a noun. Israel only appears in the agreement modifying words like ‘aggression’ and ‘occupation,’ but never appears as a noun — much less as a state to be recognized.”

That is what happens when America leaves a vacuum. Others fill it with peace plans that fit their needs first and the needs of a real peace second.

The Bush team reminds me of someone who buys a rundown house that comes with remodeling plans by Frank Lloyd Wright, but insists instead on using drawings submitted by the next-door neighbors. You get what you pay for. Or what you don’t pay for.

No U-Turns

The New York Times
March 29, 2007

There is an argument floating around Republican circles that in order to win again, the G.O.P. has to reconnect with the truths of its Goldwater-Reagan glory days. It has to once again be the minimal-government party, the maximal-freedom party, the party of rugged individualism and states’ rights.

This is folly. It’s the wrong diagnosis of current realities and so the wrong prescription for the future.

Back in the 1970s, when Reaganism became popular, top tax rates were in the 70s, growth was stagnant and inflation was high. Federal regulation stifled competition. Government welfare policies enabled a culture of dependency. Socialism was still a coherent creed, and many believed the capitalist world was headed toward a Swedish welfare model.

In short, in the 1970s, normal, nonideological people were right to think that their future prospects might be dimmed by a stultifying state. People were right to believe that government was undermining personal responsibility. People were right to have what Tyler Cowen, in a brilliant essay in Cato Unbound, calls the “liberty vs. power” paradigm burned into their minds — the idea that big government means less personal liberty.

But today, many of those old problems have receded or been addressed. Today the big threats to people’s future prospects come from complex, decentralized phenomena: Islamic extremism, failed states, global competition, global warming, nuclear proliferation, a skills-based economy, economic and social segmentation.

Normal, nonideological people are less concerned about the threat to their freedom from an overweening state than from the threats posed by these amorphous yet pervasive phenomena. The “liberty vs. power” paradigm is less germane. It’s been replaced in the public consciousness with a “security leads to freedom” paradigm. People with a secure base are more free to take risks and explore the possibilities of their world.

People with secure health care can switch jobs more easily. People who feel free from terror can live their lives more loosely. People who come from stable homes and pass through engaged schools are free to choose from a wider range of opportunities.

The “security leads to freedom” paradigm is a fundamental principle of child psychology, but conservative think tankers and activists have been slow to recognize the change in their historical circumstance. All their intellectual training has been oriented by the “liberty vs. power” paradigm. (Postwar planning in Iraq was so poor because many in the G.O.P. were not really alive to the truth that security is a precondition for freedom.)

The general public, which is less invested in abstract principles, has been quicker to grope its way toward the new mental framework. As a Pew poll released last week indicated, the public has not lost its suspicion of big government. Most Americans believe government regulation does more harm than good. But they do think government should be more active in redressing segmentation and inequality. Almost all corporations, including Wal-Mart, have extraordinarily high approval ratings. But voters are clearly anxious about globalization.

The Republican Party, which still talks as if government were the biggest threat to choice, has lost touch with independent voters. Offered a choice between stale Democrats and stale Republicans, voters now choose Democrats, who at least talk about economic and domestic security.

The Democrats have a 15 point advantage in voter identification. Voters prefer Democratic economic policies by 14 points, Democratic tax policies by 15 points, Democratic health care policies by 24 points and Democratic energy policies by 20 points. If this is a country that wants to return to Barry Goldwater, it is showing it by supporting the policies of Dick Durbin.

The sad thing is that President Bush sensed this shift in public consciousness back in 1999. Compassionate conservatism was an attempt to move beyond the “liberty vs. power” paradigm. But because it was never fleshed out and because the Congressional G.O.P. rejected the implant, a new Republican governing philosophy did not emerge.

The party is going to have to make another run at it. As it does, it will have to shift mentalities. The “security leads to freedom” paradigm doesn’t end debate between left and right, it just engages on different ground. It is oriented less toward negative liberty (How can I get the government off my back?) and more toward positive liberty (Can I choose how to lead my life?).

Goldwater and Reagan were important leaders, but they’re not models for the future.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The D.C. Tea Party

The New York Times
March 29, 2007

Larry Chapman is a firefighter, and during an interview the other day I couldn’t help but notice the burns from a recent fire that circled both of his wrists. He shrugged them off. Part of the job.

He and I were talking about something that bothered him a lot more. He’s an American citizen, lives in the nation’s capital, has kept his nose clean his entire life and has always had a strong interest in national politics and government.

So why, he wanted to know, should he be denied the right to be represented in Congress?

President Bush was on television yesterday explaining why he feels it’s so important to keep fighting the war in Iraq. Nearly 12 million Iraqi citizens showed up to vote, he said, “to express their will about the future of their country.”

Supporting that effort, in Mr. Bush’s view, is an important enough reason to send Americans off to fight and die in Iraq.

But in Washington, D.C., which has more than a half million residents, American citizens are denied the right “to express their will about the future of their country” by voting for members of Congress. And Mr. Bush has not only opposed their effort to right this egregious wrong, he has threatened to veto legislation that would give these D.C. residents — hold your breath — one seat in the House of Representatives.

Someone please explain why the president is sending young Americans to fight and die for democracy abroad while working vigorously to deny the spread of democracy to American citizens here at home.

“Just because I live here,” said Mr. Chapman, “I’m denied the fundamental rights of every other American in the United States. That is messed up.”

The slogan on license plates in the district is “Taxation Without Representation.”

There’s a poster in wide circulation in the city, put out by DC Vote, a group that has campaigned hard for an expansion of voting rights. It shows two firefighters in full gear. One is Mr. Chapman, and the other is Jayme Heflin, who lives in Maryland. The poster says:

“Both will save your life. Only ONE has a vote in Congress — Washington D.C.’s nearly 600,000 residents include firefighters, nurses, teachers and small business owners. They pay federal taxes like all Americans, but are denied representation in Congress. That’s taxation without representation — and it’s still wrong.”

This denial of a fundamental voting right is especially significant at this moment in history. The executive branch is under the control of a belligerent and often amateurish group that has hacked away at civil liberties and is adamant about pursuing a war that neither Congress nor the public wants.

The rest of the nation’s business, including the economy, which looks increasingly like it may be going south, has been neglected. Nothing was more basic to the establishment of a co-equal legislative branch than the idea that it would serve as a check on a runaway executive.

And yet the residents of Washington (who can vote for president) are prevented from having any real say in the business of the legislature. (Eleanor Holmes Norton serves as a nonvoting delegate from the District.) There are, in fact, some Republicans who have stepped up valiantly on behalf of voting rights for the District. Representative Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican, has been a leader in the fight to have a Congressional seat established.

But President Bush and some of his mean-spirited, antidemocratic allies are determined at all costs to prevent this expansion of the franchise to decent, honorable Americans.

The threat of a presidential veto was already in the air as the House moved close to a vote last week on legislation to create the Congressional seat. And then the entire process was sabotaged when the sleazoids from the gun lobby, acting with their usual hypocrisy and bad faith, tried to insert language that would demolish the District’s gun control laws.

The legislation was pulled, to the delight of the mischief-makers. Democrats said they will try to bring the matter up for a vote again soon, without the offending language.

This is another example of serious matters not being taken seriously in this country. President Bush and the bozos in the gun lobby probably got a chuckle out of their last-minute legislative maneuver. So clever of them.

But the real issue is the continued denial of a vote — something of tremendous value — to men and women who want and deserve more of a say in the important matters facing their country.

How Many Scientists?

The New York Times
March 28, 2007

Sometimes you read something about this administration that is just so shameful it takes your breath away. For me, that was the March 20 article in this paper detailing how a House committee had just released documents showing “hundreds of instances in which a White House official who was previously an oil industry lobbyist edited government climate reports to play up uncertainty of a human role in global warming or play down evidence of such a role.”

The official, Philip A. Cooney, left government in 2005, after his shenanigans were exposed in The Times, and was immediately hired by, of course, Exxon Mobil. Before joining the White House, he was the “climate team leader” for the American Petroleum Institute, the main oil industry lobby arm.

The Times article, by Andrew Revkin and Matthew Wald, noted that Mr. Cooney said his past work opposing restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions on behalf of the oil industry had “no bearing” on his actions at the White House. “When I came to the White House,” he testified, “my sole loyalties were to the president and his administration.” (How about loyalty to scientific method?) Mr. Cooney, who has no scientific background, said he had based his editing on what he had seen in good faith as the “most authoritative and current views of the state of scientific knowledge.”

Let’s see, of all the gin joints. Of all the people the Bush team would let edit its climate reports, we have a guy who first worked for the oil lobby denying climate change, with no science background, then went back to work for Exxon. Does it get any more intellectually corrupt than that? Is there something lower that I’m missing?

I wonder how Mr. Cooney would have edited the recent draft report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, written and reviewed by 1,000 scientists convened by the World Meteorological Society and the U.N. It concluded that global warming is “unequivocal,” that human activity is the main driver, and that “changes in climate are now affecting physical and biological systems on every continent.”

I am not out to promote any party, but reading articles like the Cooney one makes me say: Thank goodness the Democrats are back running the House and Senate — because, given its track record, this administration needs to be watched at all times.

But I also say thank goodness for the way Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has built a Republican-Democratic coalition in California to blunt climate change. The governor is not only saving the Republican Party from being totally dominated by climate cranks, like Senator James Inhofe, and hacks-for-hire, like Cooney, but he also is creating a bipartisan template for dealing with climate change that will be embraced by Washington as soon as the Bush team is gone. I went out to Sacramento to interview the “Governator” a few weeks ago.

“The debate is over,” he said to me. “I mean, how many more thousands and thousands of scientists do we need to say, ‘We have done a study that there is global warming?’ ”

What is “amazing for someone that does not come from a political background like myself,” said Governor Schwarzenegger, is that “this line is being drawn” between Democrats and Republicans on climate change. “You say to yourself: ‘How can it be drawn on the environment?’ But it is. But the great thing is more and more Republicans are coming on board for this. Seeing how important this is. And more and more Democrats and Republicans are working together. … I said in my inaugural address: ‘There isn’t such a thing as Republican clean air or Democratic clean air. We all breathe the same air.’ Let’s get our act together, fix this problem and fight global warming.”

Last September, Governor Schwarzenegger signed the Global Warming Solutions Act, requiring California to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2020.

“Everybody recognized that it was so important that we should not argue over philosophy — that we Republicans believe in this and we Democrats believe in this and get nothing done,” he said. “We did it carefully. … We gave it enough ramp-up time to start in the year 2012 and by the year 2020 we want to hit that level. I am a business-friendly guy. I’m all about economic growth. I am not here to harm businesses. I am here to make businesses boom, but let’s also protect our environment. Let’s make our air clean. Let’s make our water clean. And let’s fight global warming because we know now that this is a major danger, that this is not a debate anymore.”

Murder, I Read

The New York Times
March 28, 2007

You’re at the mystery section of an airport bookstore and the loudspeaker has just announced that your flight is in the late stages of boarding. You have maybe three or four minutes to make a choice. (That is your assignment, if you choose to accept it.) How do you go about deciding?

Look at the back cover? No, back-cover copy is written by an advertising flack who probably hasn’t read the book and is trying for something short and punchy like (and I will be making none of this up) “As unpredictable as trade winds” or “It couldn’t get any worse. Until it does.” Besides, rarely will the style of back-cover prose be anything like the style of the book itself, so reading it won’t tell you what you want to know. Depending on your taste, it might tell you something usefully negative. The moment I spot a reference to any country but this one, I move on. No international settings for me. Ditto for any promise that the book I am holding will be funny. Funny is for sitcoms and stand-up comedians. When it comes to mysteries, I’m a Matthew Arnold guy, all for high seriousness.

How about the blurbs, especially if a few of your favorites are touting the merits of an author new to you? I used to take direction from blurbs until I told a very famous mystery writer that he was right to have praised a book I had bought on his authority. He replied that he didn’t remember it, probably hadn’t read it, and was no doubt doing a favor for his publisher. Members of that club, it seems, pass blurbs out to each other like party favors.

The only thing left — and this is sure-fire — is to read the first sentence. The really bad ones leap out at you. Here’s one that has the advantage of being short (you can close the book quickly): “He cut through the morning rush-hour crowd like a shark fin through water.” Enough said. Here’s one that begins O.K., except for the heroine’s name, but then goes on a beat and a half too long: “Brianne Parker didn’t look like a bank robber or a murderer — her pleasantly plump baby face fooled everyone.” You don’t need the stuff after the dash. Brianne’s not looking like a murderer is the hook that draws you in to find out why she is one. The “pleasantly plump baby face” bit lets you off the hook and dumps you on a cliché, which might be all right if the author gave any sign of knowing that it was one. This guy is going to hit false notes for 300 pages, but I won’t be listening.

Sometimes a first sentence is bad because it’s pretentious. “Some stories wait to be told.” That’s an opening Tolstoy or Jane Austen might have considered (although they would have produced superior versions of it). But mystery writers usually aren’t Tolstoys or Austens, and a first sentence like this one is a signal (buyer beware) that the author is intent on contemplating his or her “craft” and wants you to contemplate it too. No thanks.

Time is running out, the doors will soon be closing. Here’s something much better: “Stromose was in high school when he met the boy who would someday murder his wife and son.” High marks for compression, information and what I call the “angle of lean.” A good first sentence knows about everything that will follow it and leans forward with great force, taking you with it. As you read this one you already want to find out (a) what was the relationship between the two in high school (b) what happened that turned a “boy” into a murderer, and (c) what sequence of events led to his murdering these particular people? The only thing wrong is that the author is as impressed with the sentence as he wants you to be; it is written with a snap and a click of self-satisfaction.

And here, finally, is the real thing, efficient, dense, and free of self-preening: “Joel Campbell, eleven years old at the time, began his descent into murder with a bus ride.” The name is nicely cadenced and sounds serious; “eleven years old at the time” takes the seriousness away, but it comes back with a vengeance and with a question: descent into murder, how did that happen? The answer — “with a bus ride” — only deepens the mystery, and we’re off. And look, the book is big and fat. Sold.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

CIA document links Colombian army chief to right-wing “terrorists”

By Bill Van Auken
27 March 2007

In another blow to the Bush administration’s closest political ally in Latin America, an intelligence report obtained by the US Central Intelligence Agency has charged Colombia’s army chief Gen. Mario Montoya with collaborating intimately with right-wing paramilitaries who are classified by Washington as terrorists. The paramilitary organization, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym AUC, is also believed to be one of the principal forces in cocaine trafficking from Colombia.

The intelligence report was leaked to the Los Angeles Times by a government official who insisted on anonymity and who told the paper he was acting out of opposition to the Bush administration’s uncritical support for the right-wing government of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.

The Times article, published Sunday, indicated that the CIA attempted to intimidate the newspaper into killing the story. The article stated that some material was suppressed in response to the agency’s claims that it would expose covert sources and ongoing operations. The CIA issued a statement asserting that the publication of the article “makes it less likely that friendly countries will share information with the United States, and that ultimately could affect our ability to protect Americans.”

While the CIA report was based upon information gathered by another Western intelligence agency, it was corroborated by US sources. According to the Times, the document included a statement from the defense attaché at the US Embassy in Bogotá, Col. Rey Velez, saying that the report on Montoya “confirms information provided by a proven source.” Velez added that the information “also could implicate” the chief of staff of the Colombian armed forces, Gen. Freddy Padilla de Leon.

The report, implicating the highest levels of the Colombian military in the operations of the AUC, comes in the midst of a roiling scandal that has shaken the Uribe government. Already, 10 congressmen, all of them Uribe supporters, have been either arrested or forced into hiding on the basis of criminal charges stemming from their ties to the paramilitaries. Dozens of other pro-Uribe officials, including mayors and governors, have also been implicated.

Uribe’s foreign minister, Maria Consuelo Araujo—a close political ally of the president—was forced to resign last month after both her father, a former minister, and her brother, a senator, were charged in connection with the AUC scandal.

Also arrested was the former head of Colombia’s secret police, Jorge Noguera, who was charged with supplying the AUC with a hit list of trade union organizers, left-wing activists and human rights worker, many of who were subsequently assassinated. He has also been accused of destroying evidence prejudicial to the paramilitaries. Norguera, who was one of Uribe’s election campaign managers, was recently released on the basis of a technical flaw in his arrest warrant, but is subject to rearrest.

Much of the CIA document on Montoya centers on the general’s role in directing “Operation Orion,” a massive military-police sweep of a slum district in the city of Medellin ordered by President Uribe in October 2002. A combined task force of some 3,000 army troops, intelligence agents and police, backed by helicopter gunships and tanks, swept through the shantytown in a campaign to drive out leftist guerrillas. The operation left at least 14 dead, many more wounded and hundreds arrested. At least 46 people are reported to have “disappeared” in its immediate aftermath.

The net result of the operation was that the left-wing elements supplanted by the military were replaced by the right-wing death squads of the AUC, which continued a reign of terror in the neighborhoods. As the document obtained from the CIA indicates, this was not an unintended byproduct of Operation Orion, but rather was worked out in advance in negotiations between Montoya and leaders of the AUC.

According to the information contained in the document, Montoya, the commander of the local police force and a leader of the AUC, signed a pact before the operation was mounted spelling out its aims, which included the paramilitaries assuming effective control of the area. In Medellin, the AUC succeeded Pablo Escobar in dominating the city’s drug trade. The head of the local paramilitaries, Diego Fernando Murillo, is presently jailed in Colombia, facing a US extradition request on cocaine trafficking charges.

Uribe rejected the charges contained in the CIA document leaked to the Los Angeles Times. His statement was significant, however, in its failure to categorically refute the substance of these charges. His government, he said, “rejects the accusations made by foreign intelligence agencies through press links without any evidence having previously been presented to Colombia’s government or justice system.”

However, the links between the right-wing political coalition backing Uribe, the military and the paramilitary squads have long been known in Colombia and frequently denounced by the government’s left-wing opponents. During his first election in 2002, he was widely seen as the candidate of the paramilitary organizations, and there were widespread charges that he was connected with the Medellin drug cartel. Uribe’s home province of Antioquia, where he held the office of governor from 1995 to 1997, is widely seen as the birthplace of the paramilitaries, who were organized as death squads to suppress left-wing guerrillas, trade unions and left political parties.

Now, however, these charges are coming from within the reactionary alliance of the Pentagon, the CIA, the Colombian military and the paramilitaries themselves that has dominated Colombia over the past decade.

In 2003, the Uribe government enacted its “Law of Justice and Peace,” which amounted to a virtual amnesty for the rightist paramilitaries, who are responsible for the great majority of the massacres and assassinations that have claimed tens of thousands of lives over the preceding decade. There is ample evidence that despite the demobilization of the AUC and the jailing of some paramilitary leaders, the organization continues to maintain its power and influence over both the government and the drug trade. Moreover, the death squads themselves are reorganizing under new names, such as the “Black Eagles,” declaring themselves the successors of the AUC in the struggle to “eradicate communism.”

One jailed paramilitary leader, Salvatore Mancuso, boasted that more than a third of the Colombian congress was allied with the AUC, while the confiscated computer of another, Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, known as Jorge 40, provided detailed evidence of the paramilitaries’ funding of politicians and their use of violence to eliminate political rivals or intimidate voters. In some cases, it was revealed that politicians and paramilitaries jointly plotted assassinations and massacres. The new evidence led to investigations by the Supreme Court, culminating in criminal charges.

Uribe has responded to the mounting revelations with a combination of stonewalling and threats. Lashing out at the Colombian politician who has pursued the paramilitary-government links most aggressively, Senator Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla of the M-19 movement, which disarmed more than 15 years ago, he referred to Petro and fellow politicians of the Polo Democratico as “terrorists in business suits.” In Colombia, this kind of violent language amounts to incitement to political assassination.

The growing political crisis and scandal surrounding Uribe’s government has failed to diminish the Bush administration support, a relationship that was underscored again last month when the American president visited Colombia.

The murderous repression—more than 8,200 political murders were recorded between 2000 and 2006—carried out by the security forces and the right-wing paramilitaries has been paid for largely by the US government. And, as has been revealed recently, the death squads have been privately financed by US-based multinationals like Chiquita Brands. Earlier this month the fruit company reached a plea bargain with the Justice Department to pay a minor fine to settle charges of offering material support to a foreign terrorist organization—in this case, the AUC—a charge which has been used to send others to jail for 20 years or more.

Colombia trails only Israel and Egypt in terms of the amount of US aid it receives. Since 2000, more than $4.5 billion have been poured into the country under Plan Colombia, a largely military program that combines a drug eradication campaign with counter-insurgency operations.

A recent report by the White House Office on Drug Control, points to the abject failure of Plan Colombia to achieve its ostensible goal of suppressing cocaine trafficking. It reveals that the street price of cocaine has fallen by nearly a third since 2003, while the purity of the drug has risen from 60 percent to 70 percent, both indicators that cocaine supply has only increased during the multibillion-dollar “drug war.” It is estimated that 90 percent of cocaine sold and used in the US comes from Colombia.

In the end, the billions of dollars in US aid have been funneled into a corrupt government and a corrupt military command that are themselves allied with the cocaine traffickers and the rightist paramilitaries that protect them. While having no discernable effect on the drug trade, this support from Washington has served to prop up a right-wing regime that suppresses the Colombian working class with terror, maintaining 65 percent of the population in poverty, while wealth is ever more concentrated in a few hands.

Monday, March 26, 2007

You, Too, Can Be a Banker to the Poor

The New York Times
March 27, 2007

For those readers who ask me what they can do to help fight poverty, one option is to sit down at your computer and become a microfinancier.

That’s what I did recently. From my laptop in New York, I lent $25 each to the owner of a TV repair shop in Afghanistan, a baker in Afghanistan, and a single mother running a clothing shop in the Dominican Republic. I did this through, a Web site that provides information about entrepreneurs in poor countries — their photos, loan proposals and credit history — and allows people to make direct loans to them.

So on my arrival here in Afghanistan, I visited my new business partners to see how they were doing.

On a muddy street in Kabul, Abdul Satar, a bushy-bearded man of 64, was sitting in the window of his bakery selling loaves for 12 cents each. He was astonished when I introduced myself as his banker, but he allowed me to analyze his business plan by sampling his bread: It was delicious.

Mr. Abdul Satar had borrowed a total of $425 from a variety of lenders on, who besides me included Nathan in San Francisco, David in Rochester, N.Y., Sarah in Waltham, Mass., Nate in Fort Collins, Colo.; Cindy in Houston, and “Emily’s family” in Santa Barbara, Calif.

With the loan, Mr. Abdul Satar opened a second bakery nearby, with four employees, and he now benefits from economies of scale when he buys flour and firewood for his oven. “If you come back in 10 years, maybe I will have six more bakeries,” he said.

Mr. Abdul Satar said he didn’t know what the Internet was, and he had certainly never been online. But Kiva works with a local lender affiliated with Mercy Corps, and that group finds borrowers and vets them.

The local group, Ariana Financial Services, has only Afghan employees and is run by Storai Sadat, a dynamic young woman who was in her second year of medical school when the Taliban came to power and ended education for women. She ended up working for Mercy Corps and becoming a first-rate financier; some day she may take over Citigroup.

“Being a finance person is better than being a doctor,” Ms. Sadat said. “You can cure the whole family, not just one person. And it’s good medicine — you can see them get better day by day.”

Small loans to entrepreneurs are now widely recognized as an important tool against poverty. Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for his pioneering work with microfinance in Bangladesh.

In poor countries, commercial money lenders routinely charge interest rates of several hundred percent per year. Thus people tend to borrow for health emergencies rather than to finance a new business. And partly because poor people tend to have no access to banks, they also often can’t save money securely.

Microfinance institutions typically focusing on lending to women, to give them more status and more opportunities. Ms. Sadat’s group does lend mostly to women, but it’s been difficult to connect some female borrowers with donors on Kiva — because many Afghans would be horrified at the thought of taking a woman’s photograph, let alone posting on the Internet.

My other partner in Kabul is Abdul Saboor, who runs a small TV repair business. He used the loan to open a second shop, employing two people, and to increase his inventory of spare parts. “I used to have to go to the market every day to buy parts,” he said, adding that it was a two-and-a-half-hour round trip. “Now I go once every two weeks.”

Web sites like Kiva are useful partly because they connect the donor directly to the beneficiary, without going through a bureaucratic and expensive layer of aid groups in between. Another terrific Web site in this area is, which connects donors to would-be recipients. The main difference is that GlobalGiving is for donations, while Kiva is for loans.

A young American couple, Matthew and Jessica Flannery, founded Kiva after they worked in Africa and realized that a major impediment to economic development was the unavailability of credit at any reasonable cost.

“I believe the real solutions to poverty alleviation hinge on bringing capitalism and business to areas where there wasn’t business or where it wasn’t efficient,” Mr. Flannery said. He added: “This doesn’t have to be charity. You can partner with someone who’s halfway around the world.”

What We Can Do

The New York Times
March 27, 2007

We must acknowledge the limits of our power and knowledge in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere and concentrate on what is achievable. The question is not “What ought we to do?” but “What can we do?”

This is rarely discussed. When I ask politicians whether we can defeat the Taliban, they reply that we “have to” defeat the Taliban. If I ask whether we can actually do any good by staying in Iraq, they reply that we have “a moral obligation” to the Iraqi people.

By emphasizing moral necessity, politicians can justify almost any risk, uncertainty or sacrifice and make compromise seem cowardly and criticism treasonous. When I suggest recognition of Moktada al-Sadr or negotiation with the Taliban, I am described as an appeaser. But these moral judgments are fragile, and they increasingly cloak despair, paralysis and preparation for flight.

We are learning, painfully, that many of the problems in Iraq or Afghanistan — from violence and state failure to treatment of women — are deeply embedded in local beliefs, political structures and traumatic histories. Iraqis and Afghans do not want their country controlled by foreigners and non-Muslims. A powerful and effective minority is trying to kill us. The majority is at best lukewarm: they may dislike Sadrists or the Taliban, but they prefer them to us.

We are also now aware how little we can comprehend. Our officials are on short tours, lack linguistic or cultural training, live in barracks behind high blast walls and encounter the local population through angry petitions or sudden ambushes. We will never acquire the subtle sense of values, beliefs and history needed to create lasting changes, still less as we once intended, to lead a political, social and economic revolution.

Paul Bremer, then the top American administrator in Iraq, told us in October 2003 that we had six months to computerize the Baghdad stock exchange, privatize state-owned enterprises and reform the university curriculum. Now he would be grateful for stability. The American and British people have sensed that their grand objectives are unachievable, and since no one is offering any practical alternative, they are lapsing into cynicism and opposition.

Meanwhile the paralyzed leaders, afraid of their impotence, flit from troop increases to flight, from engagement to isolation. We must prevent this by acknowledging our limits, while recognizing that although we are less powerful and informed than we claimed, we are more powerful and informed than we fear.

A year ago, for example, I felt it would be almost impossible to help re-establish ceramics, woodwork and calligraphy and restore part of the old city of Kabul. I worried that Afghans were uninterested, the standards too low, the prices too high, the government apathetic and international demand nonexistent. But I found great Afghan energy, courage and skill and received imaginative and generous support from the U.S. government. Unexpected markets emerged; the Afghan administration helped; men and women found new pride and incomes. There are many much better established and more successful projects than this all over Afghanistan.

My experience suggests that we can continue to protect our soil from terrorist attack, we can undertake projects that prevent more people from becoming disaffected, and we can even do some good. In short, we will be able to do more, not less, than we are now. But working with what is possible requires humility and the courage to compromise.

We will have to focus on projects that Iraqis and Afghans demand; prioritize and set aside moral perfectionism; work with people of whom we don’t approve; and choose among lesser evils. We will have to be patient. We should aim to stop illegal opium growth and change the way that Iraqis or Afghans treat their women. But we will not achieve this in the next three years. We may never be able to build a democratic state in Iraq or southern Afghanistan. Trying to do so through a presence based on foreign troops creates insurgency and resentment and can only end in failure.

“You are saying,” the politician replies, “that we ought to sit back and do nothing.” On the contrary I believe we can do a great deal. But ought implies can. We have no moral obligation to do what we cannot do.

Rory Stewart’s latest book is “The Prince of the Marshes and Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq.” He runs the Turquoise Mountain Foundation in Kabul and is a guest columnist this month.

Kissinger's extradition to Uruguay sought over Operation Condor

MONTEVIDEO (AFP)-- An attorney for a victim of Uruguay's 1973-1985 dictatorship has asked his government to request the extradition of former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger over his alleged role in the notorious Operation Condor.

Condor was a secret plan hatched by South American dictators in the 1970s to eliminate leftist political opponents in the region. Details of the plan have emerged over the past years in documents and court testimony.

The Latin American dictatorships of the time "were mere executors" of a "plan of extermination" hatched in the United States by a group led by Kissinger, said attorney Gustavo Salle, who represents the family of Bernardo Arnone.

Uruguayan prosecutor Mirtha Guianze has received the request and is studying the case, according to news reports.

A leftist activist, Arnone was arrested in October 1976 and flown to Argentina with a group of political prisoners that vanished and were presumably executed.

Kissinger played a dominant role in US foreign policy between 1969 and 1977, and was a strong supporter of right-wing regimes across Latin America.

The extradition request comes as the topic of rights violations during Uruguay's dictatorship is making headlines again, with Salle citing evidence from declassified US State Department documents.

Witnesses are set to testify in April in a case that began in September against eight retired regime officials over rights violations.

“If I quack like a duck… I’m a duck…Quack, quack…”

AP Photo: Republican Presidential candidate John McCain speaks at news conference in Dallas, Monday, March 26, 2007.

Emerging Republican Minority

The New York Times
March 26, 2007

Remember how the 2004 election was supposed to have demonstrated, once and for all, that conservatism was the future of American politics? I do: early in 2005, some colleagues in the news media urged me, in effect, to give up. “The election settled some things,” I was told.

But at this point 2004 looks like an aberration, an election won with fear-and-smear tactics that have passed their sell-by date. Republicans no longer have a perceived edge over Democrats on national security — and without that edge, they stand revealed as ideologues out of step with an increasingly liberal American public.

Right now the talk of the political chattering classes is a report from the Pew Research Center showing a precipitous decline in Republican support. In 2002 equal numbers of Americans identified themselves as Republicans and Democrats, but since then the Democrats have opened up a 15-point advantage.

Part of the Republican collapse surely reflects public disgust with the Bush administration. The gap between the parties will probably get even wider when — not if — more and worse tales of corruption and abuse of power emerge.

But polling data on the issues, from Pew and elsewhere, suggest that the G.O.P.’s problems lie as much with its ideology as with one man’s disastrous reign.

For the conservatives who run today’s Republican Party are devoted, above all, to the proposition that government is always the problem, never the solution. For a while the American people seemed to agree; but lately they’ve concluded that sometimes government is the solution, after all, and they’d like to see more of it.

Consider, for example, the question of whether the government should provide fewer services in order to cut spending, or provide more services even if this requires higher spending. According to the American National Election Studies, in 1994, the year the Republicans began their 12-year control of Congress, those who favored smaller government had the edge, by 36 to 27. By 2004, however, those in favor of bigger government had a 43-to-20 lead.

And public opinion seems to have taken a particularly strong turn in favor of universal health care. Gallup reports that 69 percent of the public believes that “it is the responsibility of the federal government to make sure all Americans have health care coverage,” up from 59 percent in 2000.

The main force driving this shift to the left is probably rising income inequality. According to Pew, there has recently been a sharp increase in the percentage of Americans who agree with the statement that “the rich get richer while the poor get poorer.” Interestingly, the big increase in disgruntlement over rising inequality has come among the relatively well off — those making more than $75,000 a year.

Indeed, even the relatively well off have good reason to feel left behind in today’s economy, because the big income gains have been going to a tiny, super-rich minority. It’s not surprising, under those circumstances, that most people favor a stronger safety net — which they might need — even at the expense of higher taxes, much of which could be paid by the ever-richer elite.

And in the case of health care, there’s also the fact that the traditional system of employer-based coverage is gradually disintegrating. It’s no wonder, then, that a bit of socialized medicine is looking good to most Americans.

So what does this say about the political outlook? It’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future. But at this point it looks as if we’re seeing an emerging Republican minority.

After all, Democratic priorities — in particular, on health care, where John Edwards has set the standard for all the candidates with a specific proposal to finance universal coverage with higher taxes on the rich — seem to be more or less in line with what the public wants.

Republicans, on the other hand, are still wallowing in nostalgia — nostalgia for the days when people thought they were heroic terrorism-fighters, nostalgia for the days when lots of Americans hated Big Government.

Many Republicans still imagine that what their party needs is a return to the conservative legacy of Ronald Reagan. It will probably take quite a while in the political wilderness before they take on board the message of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s comeback in California — which is that what they really need is a return to the moderate legacy of Dwight Eisenhower.

Campaign Candor

The New York Times
March 26, 2007

John and Elizabeth Edwards managed to keep smiling last week as their lives once again took a terrible turn. The former senator talked about the importance of staying tough. Mrs. Edwards, whose breast cancer has metastasized, said, “We’re going to always look for the silver lining.”

The public looked on, wondering what to make of the inexplicable. Fate seems to have toyed with the Edwardses, throwing the cruelest of twists into lives otherwise filled with so much good fortune.

“We’ve been confronted with these kinds of traumas and struggles already in our lives,” Mr. Edwards said, referring to the loss of their 16-year-old son Wade, who was killed in a car accident in 1996, and Mrs. Edwards’s initial fight against the cancer that was discovered at the end of the 2004 campaign.

This latest setback, he said, would not stop his current run for the presidency.

Since presidential campaigns are covered like sporting events, the speculation immediately centered on whether Mrs. Edwards’s illness would harm her husband’s fund-raising ability, or cause him to go up or down in the polls, or in some other way hamper or enhance his ability to compete.

The pack is obsessed with the horse race, which is regrettable. It would be far more constructive and interesting if this heightened attention to Mr. Edwards’s campaign resulted in the media and the public taking a closer look at the issues he has been pushing, not just in the campaign but ever since his unsuccessful run for vice president in 2004.

If that were to happen it could be part of the silver lining that Elizabeth Edwards hopes will emerge from her family’s latest devastating crisis.

The 2008 presidential campaign has gotten an absurdly early start and has drawn staggering amounts of media coverage. The result has largely been the triumph of the trivial: Who said what nasty thing about whom? Who flipped? Who flopped?

Substance is considered boring, and thus less newsworthy. How many people really know, for example, what Mr. Edwards proposes to do about health care?

He has, in fact, put together what is probably the most coherent plan for universal coverage of all the candidates thus far. Among other things, he would require employers to either provide coverage or contribute to a fund that would help individuals purchase private insurance.

He wants to expand Medicaid and CHIP, the successful Children’s Health Insurance Program. And he has said that he would help pay for his initiatives by rolling back the Bush tax cuts for people making more than $200,000 annually.

Mr. Edwards and other candidates have offered many important ideas and proposals, but they tend to get lost in a media environment that focuses obsessively on front-runners. What’s Hillary up to, and where’s Barack? Are Rudy’s kids talking to him yet?

Mr. Edwards is one of the few candidates to talk seriously about ending poverty in the U.S. and fighting the ravages of poverty abroad. He once told me: “I feel passionately about this. We have a moral obligation to do what we can. And we can do a lot more than most people realize.”

A closer look at John Edwards’s views on health care, poverty and other issues would require, of course, a closer look at the positions of the other candidates. What could be better? What’s the sense of having a presidential campaign that takes up the better part of two years if the bulk of that time is spent on foolishness?

Elizabeth Edwards’s illness is a logical catalyst for a national discussion about health care in the U.S. But why stop there? Next year’s election will be one of the most important in history. Whatever you think of their politics, John and Elizabeth Edwards are giving the country a world-class lesson in courage and candor.

You want straight talk? “I was wrong.” That’s what John Edwards said about his vote to authorize the president to go to war in Iraq. “The world desperately needs moral leadership from America,” he said, as he acknowledged his contribution to the debacle, “and the foundation for moral leadership is telling the truth.”

The war goes on, and fate has dealt the Edwards family another devastating blow. The rest of us can help invest the absurdity of their tragedy with meaning by paying closer attention to the issues that are important to them. Whether one ends up agreeing with them or not, it’s a way of opening the door to a more thoughtful, rational way of selecting our presidents.

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