October 13, 2006

transit of mercury

A rare astronomical event is coming your way on November 8th: the transit of Mercury. Observers will see a small black disk “transiting” the face of the Sun as the planet Mercury comes between Earth and Sol in such a way for it to be visible here in North America. Happily, my Son’s telescope and I will be at his school for some hands-on education during the transit. Nothing edifies an old Curmudgeon like spending an afternoon with a class of seven year olds.

Unfortunately, I will be in need of edification on this day after our national apostasy.

Apostasy will be exactly the right word in the eyes of Republicans as they witness American voters turning away from the true faith of conservatism. “Revival” will probably seem more fitting if you are a Democrat.

You see, one jihadist’s sanctification is another’s abomination in American political theology.

But the apostasy to which I refer is the anti-democratic election process we engage in under the guise of republican democracy. Vote for anyone you want, damn near everyone tells me, so long as they are a Republican or Democrat. Republicans seem uncannily certain that Democrats are going to Hell and Democrats share the same heartfelt moral contempt for the GOP. Both would agree on the fate of those that disparage the two-party system: there is a special level of Hell just for us.

I shall not, however, be dissuaded from regaling you with my disenfranchised observations while I await my fate in the hereafter. And given that we are getting down to election time, I will hazard a few prognostications and some prospective aftermath analysis.

I am not in rare company when I predict the GOP’s ouster from power on November 7th. Depending on who you choose to listen to, 350 to 390 seats in the House of Representative are considered “safe”. Decades of rapacious Gerrymandering have reduced things to where as few as twenty seats out of 435 are considered serious contests. But the current margin of GOP House control is so thin that the balance of power may still swing on those twenty or so Congressional districts.

As luck would have it for the Democrats this time around, the Democratic seats up this election tend to be the safer seats and the Republican seats less so. A six seat shift will be required for control of the Senate to go blue and something like ten of the thirty-three seats are considered seriously contested. My sense is the national rage against the war in Iraq is going to deliver the Senate chamber keys to party of Jefferson though by a narrower margin than in the House.

Analyzing congressional elections through the lens of national issues has historically lacked utility, but Tip O’Neil’s admonition that all politics is local seems quaint to me now. Certainly there are still times and specific races where local factors are more important than national ones, but in recent years there have been more Congressional elections that were national in character than not. In the wake of 9-11 and the Iraq Occupation, national issues are at the forefront as seldom before.

It was the national focus that brought out the Moral Majority in record numbers two years ago to thwart the putative leftist attack on families. In spite of this incredible energy generated in the right-wing base last election, the result was an even thinner margin of control in Congress as war weariness was already beginning to set in. This election, there is no lightening-rod issue at the forefront to energize the right, but for the left it will be the body count. It doesn’t take an astrophysicist to grasp the polling data. The GOP base has cooled off and the Democrats sense their opportunity.

And I’m talking now about 2008.

You see, this election is 1966 all over again. In 1966 mid-term elections, the GOP made big gains in Congress in what was an easily recognizable harbinger of the 1968 GOP Presidential campaign success. Wars that lose their purpose inevitably have bigger effects than jokes about “Mission Accomplished” banners. While it would be a mistake to push the 1966 to 2006 analogy too far, the same voter nerves have been rubbed raw and the result will be a changing of the guard.

The good news is that I can look forward to enjoying two years of return to glorious dead-lock. You remember what that was like do you not? Stalemate with the Executive and Legislative branches in the hands of different parties was a (relatively) beautiful thing. It was more beautiful than I even realized back then. Extremist agendas, be they from the left or right, while often noisy, in retrospect they did not get nearly as much traction.

The bad news is that the 1966 election was followed by 1968 just as surely as 2006 will be followed by 2008. As was the case back then, the body bags will continue to accumulate and voters will be looking for change.

Leave it to Shurb to screw up the opportunity for a golden age of glorious stalemate: the GOP has botched things so severely that we are about to find the government entirely in the hands of the Democrats in two years.

Even this I would calculate to be good news for me personally: cynical punditry should be at its zenith. Surely I’ll soon be picked up by a national syndicator because opportunities like his only happen once in a life time. If you think the Arkansas mafia was fun the first time, just wait till they apply the lessons learned at the knee of Rove and company. Can you imagine the excitement in their camp? Now their elitist ways are legal thanks to the GOP.

Whether we like it or not, we should start practicing our salutations now because “Madame President” does not yet flow readily from the tongue.

Yes indeed, I’m looking forward to November 8th and my time with the seven and eight-year olds. Thanks to the kids, I will have less time to contemplate the rigor-mortis that will then be setting in on those experiencing sudden political death. It will get my mind off of the tragic American political mess and on bigger things. On youngsters who offer hope rather than adults who sold theirs to the highest bidder. On the inevitable triumph of Good.

Perhaps it is no accident that Mercury is making his show on the heels of the day of death and apostasy. One of Mercury’s lesser celebrated services to man was to act as an escort to see the newly dead from Earth to the Underworld. Depending on whether you root for Team Blue team or Team Red, you may have differing opinions on whether the departed Titans should properly be escorted to the Elysian Fields.

Me?

My bet is down on justice: a speedy transit to Tartarus.

July 04, 2006

ring of fire

I am not sure whether I fell in to the ring of fire or whether I jumped. Supporting the GOP was for me, like most people, a conscious choice but after a while, I discovered that like love, politics too burns.

In my defense, I was never fully comfortable with the GOP. I supported them by pulling the straight party levers (back when it really was a lever) because I was overwhelmingly concerned with fiscal policy, national defense and abortion. As a teenager and young adult, it was easy to make the error of assuming politicians actually mean what they say, so I beg the forgiveness of the Almighty and my gentle readers for the transgressions of my youth.

I remember my mid-life political epiphany with clarity though it came about not in an instantaneous flash of light but over a period of a few months in 1996. Having already had all I could stomach studying asset forfeiture, flag burning, sacramental peyote and other significant civil liberties affronts, the extraordinary hypocrisy of the budget battles sealed it: I had become a full blown political heretic. After dabbling with the Libertarian Party for a few years and eventually abandoning that institutionally defective and philosophically incomplete camp, I found the path of political redemption by dropping out of the existing political process altogether and dedicating myself to using the power of the pen to try to shake whatever small circle of people I can out of the two-party stupor which plagues our land.

I am reminded of all of this because of reading the recent Supreme Court ruling in the case of Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. It is an interesting read to say the very least.

Interesting because of its overt political nature. The political thrust and parry drip from the white space between the words of putatively sober jurisprudential exegesis. Stevens and Scalia were at their result oriented best reducing the opportunity for righting egregious wrongs and propounding great ideas into a base game of political sport.

Stevens and Scalia are no Hand and Holmes.

The decay of our Federal Judiciary is emblematic of the larger trend of politicization of our nation. Stevens and Scalia are both extremely intelligent men who are fully capable of propounding great ideas in articulate and reasoned analysis. Instead, they give us eisegetical crap.

As a nation we have come to accept this hyper-politicization of everything as something normal and wholesome. When the blue team scores, the crowd roars its approval while the red team clings to hopes of a good free agency period between elections. It is all about victory and defeat.

This politicization affects big stuff that is easy to identify, but you can even see its subtle affects in the smaller things as well.

Perhaps space exploration is not a small thing, but it provides an immediate and useful example of how deeply political we have become. As I write, we are awaiting the Space Shuttle return to flight launch and there is considerable angst over the future of the various NASA programs. If you are not keeping up, it boils down to this: if the flight is successful, then the Shuttle will continue flights for the next four years to complete the International Space Station (ISS). Another failure will likely permanently ground the Shuttle fleet and the ISS will never achieve any stage of construction remotely similar to finished.

Whether Space Exploration is a worthy goal or not is a separate and interesting debate which I am happy to have. But we have gone forward in this direction and having made that decision, we should be proceeding based on scientific merit and rational objectives. Instead the go/no-go decision is being influenced by budget cycles and political spin. The growing corollary national disease of extreme risk aversion plays into the politics of the Space Shuttle, but I’m going to exercise some discipline and avoid venturing further down that tangent.

Truly, it must be incredibly disappointing to career scientists and engineers at NASA to be at the mercy of the spin cycle. But no more disappointing than this political reality is to thousands of our best and brightest who pursue noble causes such as medical research only to find out that getting funding is also a political process. No more disappointing than realization that meritorious science is less important than spending on the political disease du jour.

No more disappointing than figuring out that this is what we have become as a nation.

As we play the two-party game, the federal budget grows and grows. Vote producing procurement programs move forward while things that matter are not even discussed much less addressed. As we fall down, down, down into the political ring of fire, more and more people are getting burned.

I, for one, refuse to stoke the flames.

May 31, 2006

thinking inside the box

It is not often that politicians are candid about their motivations and intentions. Yet there it was with John Conyers writing recently in the Washington Post regarding the potential for impeachment proceedings should the reigns of power change hands in the next election:

It was House Republicans who took power in 1995 with immediate plans to undermine President Bill Clinton by any means necessary, and they did so in the most autocratic, partisan and destructive ways imaginable. If there is any lesson from those "revolutionaries," it is that partisan vendettas ultimately provoke a public backlash and are never viewed as legitimate.


It was close to complete candor, but let me translate this into plain English for you: “We would impeach the guy faster than a Congresscritter accepts a bribe, but we are afraid of losing our seats from voter backlash”.

Honest yes, but utterly contemptible.

Conyers himself described the charges of malfeasance against the administration as, “grave, serious, well known, and based on reliable media reports and the accounts of former administration officials.” He then goes on to describe the problems of proof, exacerbated by administration stone-walling, that prevent a conclusive determination on the presence of impeachable conduct.

Back in 1974, that was called obstruction of justice.

I can not seem to find the public outrage over obstruction of justice being tolerated by Congress under the explicit rationale that there might be a political backlash. I’m sure the outrage is lying around here somewhere—probably hiding under a pile of weapons of mass destruction.

It will not surprise my readers that I think that 43 crossed the line of impeachability long ago. If you are one of those poor souls who think the Democrats or Republicans will save us, however, it should shock you to learn that impeachment is no longer even an option. Where ever you may come down on the issues, this should torque you. Time after time politics trumps the rule of law yet there is no rage against the political machine.

And it is a political machine: the spirit of Tammany Hall is alive and well. Alive like some twisted vision of Mary Shelly crafted from the head of an elephant and ass of a donkey.

I wish Shelly were alive today to animate the American voters with a bolt of reality.

Whatever my wishes for a great awakening, the American voters continue their oblivious ways and seem poised to reactively return the Ass to the head of our political institutions. If you have been paying attention for the last several decades, you can go ahead and write the speeches now. The GOP urging us to stay the course with ads conjuring phantoms of terroristic demons that only they can be trusted to protect us against. While the Democrats will be urging a return to honest leadership and demonizing those who would send our children to war and poison our Earth to purposely make their lives miserable if they survive.

After all the fine speeches, the Democrats will win. This is the American way after a scandal such as is the current administration. And that of course means for the first time we will be saying “Madame President”.

The sad thing is that many of the hordes of people voting for Hilary will be doing so in a sincere effort to return our government to some semblance of respectability. It is sadder still that we have had a presidential administration so thoroughly obnoxious and incompetent that it makes Hilary look good in comparison. To borrow a phrase from a friend of mine, it is bone crushingly depressing that our choices will be limited to the candidates of Two-party Hall.

Not that I believe Two-party Hall exists as a simple hierarchical power structure. There is no Boss Tweed running the operation. No David Rockefeller behind the curtain. But the mutual self-interests of the power blocks within Two-party Hall operate to protect the family with almost as much loyalty as the machines of old.

Perhaps this is what they meant by “family values”.

Ruminate for a while on the reality of that which lies ahead as We the People turn away from a “culture of corruption” is the likelihood of returning the Clinton family to the White House. Consider their return to power in a world where lying to the American people, insider corporate dealing, unrepentant torture of prisoners, and obstruction of justice are charges too weak to justify impeachment proceedings. The rule of law has become of joke and we have no one to blame but ourselves.

But this joke is no laughing matter. We consistently let politicians off the hook as long as they stoically maintain their walls of plausible deniability. It is hard to laugh at the reelection of the President in the face of the horrible revelations from Abu Ghraib because people are willing to give him a pass on knowing the facts. We failed to remove his predecessor for lying under oath because the economy is good and the majority of Americans did not want to rock that boat. The litany of imperial tendencies could go on ad nauseum.

The problem with failing to take care that we remain a nation of laws is much larger than the political maneuvering of the current election cycle. James Madison articulated it well in the Federalist Papers when he wrote:

The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.


Does an executive branch that claims unilateral rights to take us to war, make decisions on searches without judicial assent, and abrogate ratified treaties sound like tyranny to anyone besides me? Do the rumblings about executive privilege make any of you queasy?

What we're dealing with here is a complete lack of respect for the law.

Unfortunately, developing an understanding of the legal implications in the broader populace is probably impossible at this point. Historically, Americans have relied on its opposition leaders to at least point out Constitutional abuses and corrupt practices, but where are the senior statesmen calling Conyers on the carpet for his outrage?

Obviously, these “statesmen” are busy protecting their own position and pecuniary interest rather than seeing to the long term health and viability of These United States. Ultimately, politicians who share the guilt for the destruction of our legal institutions can not be expected to hold their peers accountable. Only an awakening of the power of We the People can change our course and avert destruction.

I think if I were a betting man, I would bet with the power elite that lazy Americans will continue to take it all in stride, so long as their Tivo and porn surfing are not interfered with. However improbable significant social backlash may be our political elite would do well to heed a proverb that I recently heard: "At the end of the game the king and the pawn go back in the same box."

King or Pawn, thinking about one’s future in a box would be a very good thing right now.

May 04, 2006

ugly unamericans

I’m pretty sure that my lawn man, Miguel, is a legal immigrant. I’ve never checked papers on him but he tells me that he makes regular trips to and from Mexico. As far as I know, that does not involve a covert middle of the night swim.

On the other hand, I’m not so sure about Miguel’s hired hands. The faces change periodically and when I speak English to them, they usually smile politely and nod toward Miguel who speaks reasonably functional English. I’m guessing that the papers are not necessarily in order on these people and I’m very glad it is not my job to verify that.

I’m not so glad that it soon will be.

In the world as it is about to be, if you do not make it your business to check papers, you will be in jeopardy of becoming an involuntary guest of the federal penal system. I don’t know how risk averse you are, but these new laws will probably have me doing my own lawn again for the first time in many years: the old reliable neighborhood teenager just isn’t available anymore.

I know this from experience. Last fall some teenagers came to my door looking for some leaf clean-up work. I thought it would be good to support the industry of American youth even if it was at Miguel’s expense, so I agreed. They started on the job and since I had to leave, I paid them before they had finished and paid more than they asked for in their inexperienced low job bid. When I returned, the job was about half done and I never saw the budding entrepreneurs again.

Miguel handled the rest of the job.

Immigrants have been handling the jobs that second and third generation Americans would not throughout our history. One of the amazingly stupid things is to consider that we had to have a whole civil war over the forced labor of Africans in the cotton and tobacco fields when “free” labor was readily available were we not too stupid to pursue it. Even before slavery ended, Chinese immigrants were famously tending to the construction of railroads and other laborious jobs on the Western frontier. Irish and German coal miners too are a part of our fabric of unconscious social memories.

I say unconscious because individuals fully aware of the centrality of immigration to the success of our nation would not exhibit the mass stupidity that is rampant. You have seen them on the news too. I heard a seventy year-old lady on the radio who pulled no punches. “I hate illegal immigrants”, she said with a vicious edge. Increasingly they have the sensibility to include “illegal” in front of the word immigrant lest their bigotry show too clearly.

This misdirected anger is very odd because unless you are one hundred percent indigenous American, you too are an immigrant of sorts. It is rather trite to say that immigrants built this country, but as is necessarily the case, trite things became so because of their truth.

We love to think of our modern selves as more enlightened than the bad old days, but illegal immigration is the source of the worst de facto racial exploitation since the Emancipation Proclamation. What makes it so bad isn’t the actual condition of the illegal aliens. There is little doubt that the immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th Century were materially far worse off than the Hispanic immigrants of today. What is so horrible is the intentional complicity of our government in creating a black market in Hispanic labor to bolster our economic health.

Intentional may seem a strong accusation, but the facts compel that conclusion. The notion that we can not effectively control our borders is simply absurd. Examples are easy to come by, but surely none is more relevant than that of the state of security in the post-occupation Iraqi oil fields. And the Soviet Union was famously able to effectively seal borders long before the advent of modern electronic hardware.

To think our present situation to be involuntary is delusional.

Perhaps it is just voluntary ignorance. The facts are there in plain sight such as when it seems just yesterday we had multiple mini-scandals of would-be federal Cabinet appointees that knowingly employed illegals for domestic services. The rich and powerful are clearly benefiting from the existence of the black market in a very personal and direct way. It is no great leap to realize that these same people understand the value of illegal immigrant labor to their key campaign contributors in business.

Nothing new here: just follow the money.

I’d also urge you to follow your instincts in evaluating the moral depravity of people who have for decades turned a blind eye to illegal immigration only to turn around and suggest that illegal immigrants be demonized as felons for nothing more than a political side-show. The very people who have profited most from the presence of illegal aliens are using them a second time for crass political advantage.

Much has been said about the fact that these people are here illegally and have it coming. I simply can not stomach that simple minded rationalization of fundamentally bigoted attitudes. I would ask you to put yourself in the shoes of a Mexican laborer with a family to feed and support. For decades, Estados Unidos has ineffectively guarded its borders and unaggressively pursued illegal residents who want nothing more than to earn some money to send home.

The only thing missing is a formal invitation.

The real question is how do we fairly and compassionately fix a broken system? The answer is certainly not to round up the illegals and deport them for their felonious ways.

The honest and effective solution is to allow an appropriate level of legal immigration from Latin America, but increasing these levels is untenable until we stanch the flow (and exploitation) of undocumented people. The avarice of our ruling class is further exhibited by the undeniable double standard that exists between expanding the H1B visa program for skilled workers while creating an underclass willing to do the dirty work. Instead of asking the world to send us their huddled masses, we invite those having the key skills powerful corporations are seeking and those who are willing to sneak in illegally and work for substandard wages.

This all gives a whole new dimension to Ugly Americans.

I hate to make the economic argument when the moral one is so strong, but perhaps Ugly Americans might respond to such an appeal: sadly, it is the only one that works for many. So I ask, have you given any thought to who is going to be paying the taxes for your Social Security and Medicare support in a few decades? Declining birth rates among European descent Americans tell you that it won’t be our own kids. Have you given any thought to where the labor will come from to continue to grow the American Economic machine? Rising productivity will only take us so far.

Like every important issue of our time, factual analysis and deductive reasoning seldom visit the hyper-politicized forums of inquiry. Time after time we allow political agendas to pervert our national discourse. A return to genuine skeptical inquiry is no more likely on this critical matter than any other.

It is doubly sad that this is so on something so fundamentally American and formerly at the forefront of our social consciousness.

That is decidedly un-American.

And ugly.

April 18, 2006

livin' la vida mocha

That professional football is a business I know all too well. Since the day of the unceremonious firing of the honorable Tom Landry, I have been painfully conscious of it. That singular event muted my rooting enthusiasm permanently, but still I clung to my team.

Eventually, and much like in earlier years, a new crop of Good Guys helped me not to notice the occasional rotten coach or player. You see, I still want to root for the guys in the white hats even if in the real world, perfect heroes are not to be found. The Cowboys were just good enough for my willful disbelief to be sustained.

So imagine my horror when MY football team signed the infamous and odious Terrell Owens.

The day after the Owens signing I saw some idiot wearing a Cowboy’s jersey with his name and number on it. At that moment, I though about how quickly attitudes can change when Character Doesn’t Matter anymore. The new mantra has become “whatever helps my team win is good.”

This fundamental shift in what people look for in their sports heroes set me thinking about all kinds of things. Things like who we, the American people, have become. And the more I contemplated our corporate identity, the more it seemed that Americans have changed over the last four decades in fundamental and profound ways.

Whether Americans or I have changed or not, it is my first responsibility to keep my own house in order. When I stop and reflect, I know that my inability to root for the Cowboys this year is truly inconsequential to my life outside of spoiling a few Sunday afternoons. Afternoons should be more profitably spent anyway.

So in my small quest for self-improvement, I quickly noticed that I needed to find more time for prayer. Since I started a new job some weeks ago, the miles involved in that change caused me to lose access to the Church sanctuary I used regularly during the week. I knew that I was overdue to fix the situation.

To my dismay, looking for a place to pray on a day that is not Sunday has made me feel like TO looking for a football team willing to take him. The difficulty has been shocking. I do not begrudge Churches their locked doors even if I find the realities of good stewardship unfortunate. In fact, my old place of respite was always locked and a very nice lady was always there to let me in when I knocked. But Church after Church was the same experience: locked doors and groundskeepers staring at the strange fool who wanted in the Sunday Place.

I went to a LOT of Churches.

At three of them, at least I actually got to see a kind friendly face. The friendly looks seemed to give way to confusion when I asked if I could use the sanctuary or other chapel for prayer, but each did offer places to pray. The one offering that wasn’t a couch in a hallway was a brightly lit glass walled sitting room next to the entrance of a busy day care facility. Sadly, all three of these churches had nice big sanctuaries sitting dark and lifeless.

There was a fourth Church I snuck into. My intention was not to sneak but there wasn’t a soul around to ask permission of. Perhaps this would be a good place I thought as I entered and sat in a pew. I could not help but notice how beautiful the place was. It was so magnificent, perfect and unused as to feel sterile, almost surreal.

As I prayed silently, two older gentleman entered as well. They were talking loudly and examining the magnificent architecture seemingly oblivious to my presence initially. When I noticed their repeated inhospitable glances my direction as they loudly toured the facility, I did as they wished and left as quietly as I had entered. I skipped my usual practice of dropping a small offering on the way out: it was better to let others pay to polish this edifice of excess.

Slowly then it has dawned on me that even here in the Bible Belt the ancient tradition of going to a holy place for quiet contemplation and prayer is essentially dead. Our Churches have become Sunday Places. Not a place for life, but a place for a weekly fill-up. The signs outside our theaters invite us eagerly to the Sunday matinee.

I have to admit, I am jealous of those who can make it on a single fill-up for the entire week. My mileage is not nearly so good.

Perhaps I get poor mileage because of the time I spend in the drive through lines at Starbucks. After all, when I want a mocha, I want it quick. Unfortunately, I increasingly find that when Starbucks is not quick, my anger often is. My defense is that it is all a part of my conditioning as a modern. If a website does not appear in a couple of seconds, the back button takes me quickly to Google where I try the next link on the list. For better or worse, we are all living at the speed of the Internet.

One’s tank can get drawn down pretty quickly in Internet paced plastic America.

Americans have become so comfortable with plastic things that we are remaking our notions of even our most fundamental values with the stuff. A prominent nominally Christian evangelist starts their slick television production with the theme, “This is Your Day”. It is no longer God’s day apparently: the world revolves around me.

I can see now that the future really was plastics.

Truly, both the Owens signing and Sunday Places fit our plastic lives perfectly. If MY Cowboys are to win at internet speed, then how they go about it is of little consequence. If I am to be sanctified, then I need to get it done efficiently in the time allotted on my Outlook calendar for Sunday. I want what I want, when I want it.

The greatest concern of franchise owners and ministers is that back button and the cornucopia of choices.

We are so fortunate in America because our Horns are truly full of Plenty. I would not trade life here in the land of Milk Duds and Honey Buns for that available elsewhere—at least not yet. But when I look a little harder and see that the horn is made of polycarbonate fiber and the fruit is enhanced with genetically modified high-fructose corn syrup, I can not help but wonder if life at the speed of electrons leaves too much of the past behind too quickly.

But then, what do I know. I still pop my popcorn in a pan on the stove top when the world has long moved on to microwave packets. I am a true Curmudgeon, I suppose, finding pan-popped more satisfying because it tastes better. More satisfying like football with respectable players. Like prayer on a weekday when I just need it.

Really, is it any wonder at all that microwave politicians leave most of us feeling empty?

March 21, 2006

it’s a long, long way to tucumcari

Time to beat the dead horse again. And frankly, if Iraq were a horse, that glue pot would have been used up long ago.

But here we are nearly three years after the Mission Accomplished photo-op, and still there is no end in sight. Not that this is at all surprising to informed observers. Way back then when I used the word “decades” to describe what it would take to change Iraq, I was treated as something akin to Benedict Arnold. Three years and hundreds of billions of dollars later, I have seen nothing to change my opinion on what is required to fundamentally alter the social calculus Over There.

Then again, when I suggest that it will take decades, I am assuming we are talking about competent governance of Iraq. That is looking like an unjustified assumption as well.

Yet Iraq-nam has worked out so well, it looks like serious consideration is being given to liberating Iran too. You should not buy the liberation thing this time either. Perhaps it could be adequately explained by jealousy on the part of Emperor W who wants to plant the American flag on more Arab soil than did Britannia at her apex. Covetousness can be such an ugly thing you know.

Unlike many Americans, Rule Uncle Sam simply doesn’t work for me.

The irony here is that I will probably end up opposing the impending intervention in Iran when in fact I have been and remain a strong advocate of containing the Iranian nuclear threat. Unlike the case in Iraq, the Iranian nuclear infrastructure is real and of ominous portent. The West must act, and ideally act in a unified fashion.

But what I can not support is continued ham-handed and unilateral actions under false pretenses. Let us name these coming military actions plainly for what they are-legitimate defensive moves against hostile threats and behave in accordance with honest agendas. The bad news is that we haven’t seen a shred of honesty out of the imperial court since…well, I’m sure there was something they were honest about.

The good news is that limited military action is likely to be effective against the Iranian nuclear infrastructure. The facilities that process uranium hexafluoride are relatively large and immobile. This is perhaps a tailor made opportunity for the military to unveil their “rods from god” system that does not exist. Wink.

An Iraq style invasion of Iran is simply unthinkable now as our reach has already well exceeded our grasp. The panic on world oil markets alone could bring down Western civilization. Something more narrow in time and scope is in order. To pull it off politically, action must be sudden and swift. Done well, such an action could in fact be stabilizing.

The larger problem here is that it is hard to find a soul in this world outside of the American Republican Party Faithful that trust our President to lead such an endeavor. The price of squandering our legacy of international good-will is going to be paid sooner rather than later I fear. We may in fact be in a position where unilateral action is the only viable action because of our recent forfeit of leadership ability.

And if we do not act, be even more afraid of unilateral action by Israel.

Whatever the facts may be or what is actually in the best interests of Americans and the World in general, we do know one thing for certain: this administration will pursue that which is in the best interests of the Republican party first and the rest only if it fits the party agenda. The administration is keeping up the misinformation campaign and doing so with increasing enthusiasm. War is Peace they tell us. Undoubtedly the focus groups are telling them that patriotic platitudes continue to sell well.

Thus the drums of war continue to beat loudly. The martial rhetoric and hubris are getting more deeply infused in our social consciousness with each passing day. Truly, we have become the heirs of Britannia in all the wrong ways. As this mindset deepens, I fear our culture will end up more like Sparta than the Shining City on the Hill and our legacy more like that of Alexander the Great than the America which liberated the world from the yoke of fascism.

We would do well to remember that we indeed follow in Alexander’s footsteps in undertaking to conquer Persia. Unlike Alexander, there is little doubt that militarily, we can do so. With a little luck, perhaps Emperor W’s name will not be cursed in Persia two-thousand years hence as is Alexander’s to this day.

But, I doubt it.

January 24, 2006

galilean contemplation

My Son’s Christmas present has given me a new perspective on the Universe.

Literally.

Looming over his “library” now is a rather substantial telescope that was the only present on his Christmas list. Dad, of course, is learning a bit of astronomy now too since at his age substantial assistance is to be expected.

Doing astronomy you spend a lot of time in quiet dark places. Just the kind of places that bring on a pensive mood whether you want it to or not.

Try some time to avoid thinking while gazing at the heavens. The wonders of the Universe that lie behind those little pinpoints of light will set in motion the mental wheels of even the most mentally rusted American Idol fan. The big questions are inescapable out under the stars.

One haunting quandary for me is the whole disenfranchised state in which I find myself. It seems like at least once a week I hear a remark somewhere to the effect “if you do not vote, then you do not have a right to complain”. And like a Raven tapping at the door of my cranial chamber, there is that omnipresent deep voice that subconsciously insists that voting is a patriotic duty.

I continue to stand by my right to complain: it is not my fault that there are no candidates for which my conscience will allow me to vote. At a minimum I have a right to complain about that. Since my disagreements are rooted in substantive issues, I do not think abstention fairly takes me out of the substantive discussion either.

But then, of course, there is the Louisiana Defense.

In 1991, Louisianans had a choice in front of them for Governor that is hard to forget: Edwin Edwards, on his comeback from a corruption indictment (actual prison time only came later), and David Duke, a neo-Nazi and former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. It is hard to blame the fine citizens of that State who stayed home on election day rather than forcing a choice between a lizard and wizard.

I too will continue to choose none of the above.

It is significant to my view that I find both of the major American parties equally obnoxious on the issues I care most about: Human Rights, abortion and fiscal responsibility. On the issues alone it is impossible to find someone to vote for that is even somewhat consistent with myself on the critical things.

But my disenfranchisement is much deeper than mere disagreement on the issues.

The rotten core of the problem is that both parties are working against the best interests of the American people. A vote for either of the two major parties is a vote for more power consolidation, more sound bites, and more guests at the Congressional Country Club. In short, voting the majors is voting to continue the course of self-destruction. If I were ever convinced that either a Democrat or a Republican candidate was a real Mr. Smith, I could probably hold my nose on the issues and vote.

And self-destruction is exactly what is occurring. Consider, if you have the courage, the last quarter century of headlines.

Robert Bork. Jim Wright. Iran-Contra. Republican traitors in budget wars. Gingrich quits. White-watergate. Perjury skates. Democrats for the war. Body bags in Babylon. I can’t take it anymore.

I didn’t start this fire. And truly, the full list would be so long that Billy Joel could produce another hit single.

This is just the public corruption side of the analysis. If you look at the substance, it is a hard case to make by those who support the major parties that their loyalty has produced any results. They will make that argument, again and again, but I suggest you consider the facts as they are and not as you wish them to be. Decades of Democratic dominance yielded scant progress on key issues at best. Over two decades of Republican dominance have yielded perhaps even less for their base. Has anyone checked the deficit lately?

What we have instead of substantive progress is an increasing accumulation of power in the hands of fewer and fewer people. When it was Democrats grabbing power, the Republicans wailed. And now, of course, the names are changed but the crimes against Liberty are the same.

Reflection is always a good thing. In the end, I remain unrepentant for refusing to vote for those who are running our formerly great nation further into the ground. I have admitted my not voting really stands for nothing in the greater scope of things, but then my conscience is perhaps a bit less troubled as the wheels are coming off of America.

To ease my conscience further, my goal remains to trouble partisan hearts without mercy. Eventually facts make a difference. Just like with Galileo.

Where was I? Darn. Mars moved totally out of view.

January 12, 2006

surgical strike: my mother the jellyfish

I am hesitant to make a post on the subject of bioethics yet again. Another universal yawn induction no doubt. Truly, this is no more shocking than earlier links I have posted, but I get a sense that the pace of genetic tinkering is picking up exponentially. There are literally scores of chances over the last several months I could have posted something along these lines.

In light of the ethical freight train which is undeniably headed our way, it stupefies me that there is such an ominous silence from all corners outside the intelligentsia. The rare news report will contain a few scant but shocking details, an obligatory sound bite from some half-wit talking about “playing God”, and a scientist explaining how essential the development is for the good of mankind.

The details change but the basic script is reliably followed.

I’m a babbling fool for bringing it up again, but I have to ask the question again: how much human DNA does it take before Shelley’s beast is sufficiently human to deserve those same protections? It is a pressing question whose answer has the power to tear apart the fabric of our society. The truth is that neither the humanist/materialist or the theistic/ID gangs have grappled with the issues adequately. Soon, the present opportunity will pass and we will be forced to react instead of taking a measured and sensible approach.

My modest proposal is a simple rule: any human DNA, expressed or otherwise, should give rise to Constitutional protection. This is the only way to potentially keep a lid on things. The only way to keep our few remaining vestiges of human rights law from crumbling under the onslaught of political nonsense which these developments will give life.

Furthermore…

…ah, never mind. I can already hear the snoring.

January 06, 2006

bridgehead over troubled waters

Almost exactly a year after having written my post entitled premature iraqification discussions of troop withdrawal are again a hot topic. At that time I was seriously concerned about the possibility that the administration would perform some sort of cut and run under political duress.

Thankfully my concern was unfounded. But now it is a new year and time to examine the situation and to see why the withdrawal did not happen and will not happen any time soon.

I will not waste your time with the official version of why we remain. You can read that in any newspaper. And the opposition position is equally artificial, disingenuous and available.

Rather what I would like to consider is the facts.

First, as an aside, let me point out that I am not saying that this administration will not pull some troops out and call it a withdrawal or “draw down”. After all, this is the crew that boldly declared Mission Accomplished some two and a half years ago. No matter what actual course we take there is little of which I am so certain as the ultimate declaration of victory by this President and those of his party which will attempt to assume his mantle.

But the facts continue to be rather stubborn. American deaths continue to mount and the grim reaper’s roll call will continue as long as we are present there. Islam is fundamentally hostile to foreign rule and nothing is going to change this in a time frame measured in anything smaller than decades. Because of the mounting political pressure, some kind of withdrawal is inevitable before the next election, and the question is only what form and shape it will take.

If you think that complete withdrawal is a possibility, forget about it. The reason we will never entirely leave Iraq is buried in our real purpose for being there in the first place.

Iran.

It has been clear at least since the end of Gulf War One that the real threat to world peace in the Middle East was not an emasculated Iraqi regime, but the Islamic Revolution. Recent headlines highlight the problems which a powerful Islamic State can cause. Of course, Iran is not the only threat, just the biggest and the one with the greatest chance of striving toward a greater Islamic State.

Iraq II is not about terrorism and never was. There is little doubt remaining in this Curmudgeon’s mind that the major reason for occupying Iraq was to create a permanent Western bridgehead at the center of this volatile region.

That bridgehead until recently had been Saudi Arabia. But events there have rendered our reliable forward logistics area problematic in the future. Hostility to the House of Saud continues to grow as does the world’s appetite for their oil. And Diego Garcia is too small and too remote to facilitate a significant modern military embarkation.

I can not even say that such a base of forward operations are undesirable. Whether we like it or not, the modern world runs on oil. If the oil stops flowing, modern civilization grinds to a halt. Or ceases altogether as a result of the social disorder a closed spigot would spawn. However obnoxious you may find the idea, the West must be prepared to keep the spigot open and to do so by force if necessary.

Forward bases in the less occupied regions of Western Iraq are just the ticket.

It is not a bad motive to want to insure the continued existence of modern civilization. Truly that which renders all of this so incredibly obnoxious is all the deception. Since we have gotten in the bullying business in extreme form already, perhaps it is time for a little honesty? Perhaps we should draw a perimeter of some size on a map of western Iraq and add a Fifty-first star to our flag? I doubt that Americans would get killed in any greater numbers.

John Adams should certainly consider his copious work on the topic of Factions vindicated by the present mess. It was during the Clinton reign that the methodology of all campaign all the time was first made overt. Those in charge of this formerly great nation continue to operate in continual campaign mode and the bridgehead must continue to be made politically palpable.

So I suspect that the current campaign slogans about a drawdown are nothing more than trial balloons just as was the case a year ago. Just another probing by the political savvy to determine the exact contours of what will sell to the masses of functionally illiterate people known as the American public.

But cheer up: an election is coming. The choice will be clear for the “informed” voter exercising their “responsibility” to go vote. We will again have our chance throw the bums out. A chance for redemption through regime change.

And you KNOW the party that brought you Vietnam can turn this thing completely around.

September 06, 2005

living in the eye of the storm

An old elementary school joke familiar to all is distressingly relevant to the tragic events unfolding in New Orleans. This schoolyard classic involves a vocabulary quiz, a revolving door and what was called a “fat woman” in a less politically correct time. The punch line was something to the affect that the door nearly dis-assed-her.

Sadly, that is probably the most thought most Americans have ever given to disaster planning.

Some of us are thinking about it. Big Business has been very active in what is known as business continuation planning for several decades. As a result of legislation imposing personal liability on Directors and Executives for failure to plan adequately and insurance premium rate pressure from property insurance underwriters, business has had little choice but to get serious about the future even in spite of the quarterly earnings focus. The 9/11 attack should have woke the rest of us up to the perils of catastrophic disasters and invoked a vigorous preparedness response.

What we got instead was a new ineffective bureaucracy, the Department of Homeland Security.

The failure of this Presidential administration to achieve any kind of readiness over the past four years could not be plainer than it is in the wake of Katrina. There has, of course, been copious coverage on the slow and poor emergency response from FEMA and other organizations charged to answer national distress calls. This is certainly an important topic and deserves substantial attention. There is a lot of information to digest there and I’m sure plenty of relevant stories yet to be told both of heroism in the face of inadequate resources and the incompetence which helped produce the situation. Steadfastly focused by the media on these juicy stories, the American people will as usual miss the greater significance of what is playing out before their eyes.

Missed entirely will be the big picture: the breakdown in social order that occurred when civilization ceased to exist. While the lurid facts of rape, robbery and irrational violence have made headlines, the broader implications deserve serious consideration.

Consider if you will the misfeasance of the government in allowing four years to pass without any serious effort to educate American citizens on how to react in disaster situations. Four years of rhetorical frothing without any apparent attempt to actually plan for the aftermath of an event of this scale.

I suppose that if this administration could not foresee the social breakdown caused by its military invasion of Iraq, it should not surprise us that they could not foresee that natural disasters could have the same effect here at home.

Immediately after 9/11, I remember discussions with a lot of people concerning what would happen if we have another 9/11 scale event. The number one concern in the minds of everybody I talked to was the prospect of civil unrest. The possibility of the total collapse of society around us is very real and this above all else should be what terrifies us about Katrina. Though the problem is both obvious and real, this administration has produced much noise and little else.

I for one am not so naïve as to attribute this mess to unforseeability. While the specific scenario that has permanently changed the face of the Crescent City was perhaps hard to detail, the risk of living below sea level on the Gulf of Mexico was well understood. When The Big One finally hits California we will probably call it unforeseeable no matter what the facts might say to the contrary.

I suppose that if you are one who can not foresee the inevitable large scale disasters of varying scope and nature, then perhaps you are also inclined to give the administration the benefit of the doubt on this one. I view recent history and history generally as teaching that mankind will continue to endure a succession of large scale disasters.

In my short span on this globe, we have had the New York City blackout, the Arab Oil Embargo, Hurricane Andrew, Mississippi River flooding, the San Francisco earth quake and 9/11. What these disasters are cumulatively showing us is that our social cohesion is at an all time low. And even were it not, anyone who has seen Deliverance can tell you that bad things can happen even in America when one is sufficiently removed from civilization. Or in the case of Katrina, when civilization ceases to exist.

Armed with ordinary schoolhouse knowledge, there is simply no excuse for not being better prepared. We live in an era that is truly on the edge in a more real way than at any time since the Great Depression. Thinking about a nuclear device detonated in Houston Harbor should give you serious pause as to the viability of America in the aftermath. Just follow the pipelines and see how quickly our world of material excess could go dark.

And this is just one scary scenario out of a multitude.

Viewed soberly it is clear that there is no substantive difference between what has happened in New Orleans as a result of Katrina and what would might have happened there in the event of a dirty bomb attack. Katrina has exposed how vulnerable America remains.

Unfortunately, this is no schoolyard and the joke is on you and me.

August 12, 2005

surgical strike: roe v. wade overturns self

By using past progressive tense, perhaps I am getting a bit ahead of the state of the art in artificial wombs. But then, if you doubt man-made wombs will be a reality in the not so distant future, you really need to read this story out of Popular Science.

There is a lot of grist for discussion in there.

If you have read Roe v. Wade, the implications of an artificial womb should be obvious. Science appears poised to send this jurisprudential non-sense the way of Plessy v. Ferguson.

The Curmudgeon’s Digest version is that Roe linked the government’s constitutional limits to the “viability” of the baby whose life a mother seeks to terminate. When the inevitable day comes that artificial wombs are a reality, Roe itself will no longer be viable on its own reasoning. Or at least not viable in the sense of “protecting” a women’s access to abortion.

So whether you want to limit abortion or make it freely accessible, it will all come back to the definition of life. Unfortunately, the abortion rights advocates do not embrace this essential discussion. Heck, based on my sampling here at the Disenfranchised Curmudgeon, nobody really likes to talk about it but me.

Since talking to myself is an ordinary thing in my world, I shall not be dissuaded.

That failure is not an option will certainly not impede America’s avarice for ignoring difficult questions. Why should this issue be any different than education, budget deficits or illegal immigration? Why should I expect that Americans give it the same attention that we give steroids in baseball or Brad Pitt’s latest conquest?

If it is important, we simply do not deal with it.

But then I like to think that the readership here is well above average and willing to tackle hard questions. So there it is again: what is life? Or even a better question: what is a definition of life that will be a working solution for our pluralistic society. We don’t have to answer this. But if we don’t, we’ll have to take what the politicians give us.

And that possibility is frightens me more than even the Patriot Act.

July 28, 2005

war of the worlds

It is that season again. A Supreme Court nomination is again our nation’s political focus. There is no question that this has become a sham political debate and not a quest for a sound jurist.

It would be naïve to suggest that politics in the judiciary is a new phenomenon in our land. Marbury v. Madison itself was about the seedy intersection of politics and blind justice. What I am decrying is that the process has been emptied of all content whatsoever.

The divisiveness over Roe v. Wade has much to do with this, but this is itself merely part of a larger trend. A trend toward high stakes political gamesmanship at the expense of We the People. A trend away from the substantive decision-making and toward the blood sport of politics.

The Roe debate itself is minor in the context of the overall tragedy which is the extreme politicization of the American mind.

It is with some mirth that I observe all the casual conversations around the water cooler where the phrases “judicial activism” and “strict construction” are bandied about with cavalier certainty. But I derive no similar humor from the lawyer-politicians who consciously perpetuate the existence of these mythical jurisprudential antipodes. The shameless lying coming from both sides of the aisle should disgust any informed observer.

“Lying” will probably seem too harsh a word to many. But frankly if you make it through law school and still have an honest belief that this political terminology is of utility in the substantive discussion, then you are too stupid to deserve the degree. Sadly, I do not think that most of the CongressCritters are in fact stupid. They just play stupid on TV.

The truth you seldom hear is that this quasi-legal language exists solely as proxies for underlying political positions.

The funny thing is that many of the same people who carp the loudest about these issues are the same ones you will later hear lamenting the poor jurisprudence coming from our courts. As the ancient wisdom would tell us, we will reap what we have sown. Sow political seeds and what you get is political fruit. And political fruit is almost never good law.

Personally, I lay much of the blame at the feet of the Traynor and Warren courts. These “great” jurists and their brethren made it fashionable for courts to get into the business of making law. Brown v. The Board of Education led to the popular error that the courts are competent to be agents of social change. And have no doubt, “error” is exactly correct: as monumental as was Brown it is highly arguable whether the court ordered busing produced the social benefit many assume flowed strictly from that aspect of the decision.

My just saying something negative about Brown will undoubtedly prompt some ugly emails.

But I have a dream of sound jurisprudence that anchors our human rights in natural law rather than subjecting them to the whims of an inherently political legislature or their conscripts in the judiciary. Contrary to the myths you hear nightly on the news, returning the courts to their limited Constitutional function would not dictate any particular political outcome. Social Justice is possible without tearing our legal institutions apart. Liberty can be protected without shredding our Constitution.

But judging by the empty rhetoric I hear daily, my vision is destined to remain nothing more than it is: an abandoned dream.

June 14, 2005

jacksonian democracy

Lost amidst the Michael Jackson trial headlines was news that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in closed session last week approved legislation to reauthorize and expand the Patriot Act. The level of citizen concern over reauthorization compared to interest in the Thriller acquittal is almost as disconcerting as the proposed legislation.

News stories on reauthorization are sadly scant. If you are one of those whose legal curiosity extends beyond local criminal matters and into the erosion of our civil rights legacy, perhaps you will find this resource helpful in locating a few of the limited stories on the subject.

It is very tempting to rehash the old arguments against the wisdom of the original Patriot Act. Tempting because the arguments are incredibly strong and nearly irrefutable to those that practice the arcane and nearly lost art of deductive reasoning. But the irresistible morsel of the moment for me is the opportunity for an I-told-you-so.

The last time around the patriotic block there was some discussion of what lawyers refer to as a “slippery slope”. Slippery Slopes abound in legal tomes and it is perhaps unfortunate that such an important idea is encapsulated in such ordinary and seemingly familiar language.

Perhaps if there were a grand term such as “res ipsa loquitur” to describe the process by which certain detrimental changes in the law gather momentum and sometimes crush the spirit of the well-meaning originators, then we would not garner as much flippant ridicule. While the term may be inappropriately ordinary, the phenomenon in this case is as real and present as it was predictable.

What is telling now is the total absence of discussion of whether the original Patriot Act was constitutionally permissible. It appears that to the extent that the reauthorization debate gets visibility, the reauthorization discussion is going to center around making the act permanent and the expansion of the powers granted.

We have slid down this slope in an entirely foreseeable fashion.

It is hard to know with certainty whether the present intention of the politicians is simply another naked power grab or clever political posturing to attempt to move the center of the debate farther toward the totalitarian end of the scale. Perhaps it is some of both. Either way, the essential Constitutional questions have been taken off the table.

The despair is almost enough to send me to the tabloid rack to get the latest on Michael Jackson too.

The powers that are sought in Patriot Redux truly are as seedy as the most lurid tabloid. The FBI’s desire for these powers is conveniently packaged as necessary for fighting terrorism. But in truth, the FBI has long desired the power to issue administrative warrants to circumvent the need for judicial review for what we would have referred to as 4th Amendment searches in days of antiquity.

By playing the terrorism fear card, Hoover’s boys will undoubtedly get their wish.

The argument usually goes something like “the government needs this power because it is too burdensome to go to a court to obtain a warrant”. Warrants, so they claim, consume too much time and energy for effective law enforcement. The problem with this argument is that it can be used to justify almost any form of civil rights infringement you can imagine. All of our Constitutional protections are burdensome on the government. There are more than a few prosecutors that would love to dispense with a trial because of the undue burden.

But, there is little doubt that there are some situations where it is difficult to obtain a warrant in a useful time frame. Truly, I do wish to help out law enforcement by addressing the genuine requirements of a tough job.

The answer, however, is not to eviscerate our civil liberties, but to make the warrants easier to obtain. It is little known by the general public, but the law has long allowed emergency warrants to be issued by a judge over the phone. That the fact of this real and potential flexibility is never a part of the discussion should give all of us insight into the insidious disinformation campaign that is being waged against our Liberty.

Of course, you will never hear the simple idea of hiring more judges and making minor tweaks in the law. The politicians have an agenda and it has nothing to do with protecting you and me. Does anyone seriously doubt which choice the American people would make if actually given the opportunity? Would anyone assert that the better choice is surrendering to the government the right to molest our privacy without cause rather than incurring the expense of hiring a few hundred more judges to guarantee ready access to an independent deliberative body?

An adequately informed public would render the very question rhetorical.

Our faint hope is that it appears to be more fashionable these days to oppose the President than during the previous legislative rubber-stamping extravaganza. Perhaps the Democrats will smell electoral blood in the water and actually mount an opposition to reauthorization.

But given the tepid response of the American people to reauthorization, I will be surprised if legislative opposition goes beyond trying to prevent the expansion of the Patriot Act Powers. Other issues appear more electorally profitable. The politicians totally get it: Americans do not care about civil liberties as long as the government manages to present the illusion of relative Safety. A moment of national reflection on the wisdom of surrendering six centuries of accumulated personal sovereignty does not seem likely.

Have no doubt: this is one time when we will definitely get what we asked for.

Michael, whatever you do, please don’t move Neverland to Africa: at times like these I really need the distraction.

May 03, 2005

chimerical reactions

If the Terri Schiavo imbroglio did nothing else it should at least convince people that bioethics is not so abstract and distant after all. While the subject is deservedly associated with academic ivory towers, it is still amazing to me how little concern there is over the looming ethical train-wreck. From experience, I know with certainty that mentioning bioethics is the surest way to drive a house (or blog) guest to call it an early night.

I suppose that I must hazard that risk one more time.

This is a hazard worth bearing because science is moving us very far and very fast. If you are a regular reader and followed the links in my post entitled i, heretic, you probably already have an inkling of the profound issues being raised by current and imminent biological research. If you have not personally delved into bioethics or the very latest on what is happening in biology, you owe it to your kids to do so now.

Science fiction stories have nothing on the current experimental projects that can be found on our nation’s lab benches.

If you doubt the urgency of my plea, here is a short AP news story that might get your attention. While it is a continuing challenge to write about this stuff without striking a hyperbolic tone, frankly, if you can pass over the patent application for a humanzee with a wave of your hand, perhaps you have spent a bit too much time Tivoing sitcoms.

Though it may be offensive to our mass media induced instinct to classify and simply, some problems just will not succumb to that effort. I wish I could tell you that I can offer an easy solution to these pressing issues.

I certainly think that the definition of life that I have previously offered rooting humanness and life in the human genome is a starting place, but surely no more than that. Even if we have a sudden infusion of caution and prudence in such matters and pause this kind of research until our ethics, law and society catch up, there will still be those creations that get made by those unscrupulous souls that will inevitably place themselves above or beyond the law.

It would be comforting if I believed that our legal system is fundamentally robust and able to adapt easily to new developments. But the inadequacy of our law to deal with the issues was profoundly demonstrated by the fact that the humanzee patent application was denied on the basis of constitutional prohibitions against slavery. Yes, slavery. It is somewhat chilling that our legal system’s first response was to protect new life forms with the same tools as they would a human being.

The social and intellectual carnage that will be caused when an illegally created humanzee, or some other being resulting from a chimera project yet to be named, falls ill and seeks a human organ transplant makes me shudder in fear.

But there is little doubt that we will choose to continue to ignore our legal predicament regarding a definition of life though the price we will pay for the convenience of procrastination is clear enough. One only has to consider the Terri Schiavo circus to appreciate where we are headed if we fail to act proactively.

Honestly friends, do we really want that cast of characters haunting our lives indefinitely?

I didn’t think so.

But regardless of what thoughtful Americans might desire, I would recommend your girding your mind. Avoiding the national haunt would require leadership and will. Those who pass for leaders in America today are unfortunately politicians first and have much to gain by letting mere disagreements fester into crises. Until we are sufficiently aroused to collectively call bull-feathers on the usual suspects, we will continue to get what we voted for: a slick and well produced reality show.

This time the reality show affects the world in which our children will live in fundamentally different ways than we have never before even imagined.

April 19, 2005

the ‘n’ word

Today’s Times editorial page is calling for the creation of a meaningful energy strategy and I wholeheartedly endorse that broad proposition. While we can argue long and hard on the details, I think it is well past time for serious measures.

If America has an Achilles heal, then it is her rapacious energy appetite. Those of us who lived though the Arab Oil Embargo should understand the peril of dependency on foreign sources of oil. And certainly if one cares about the world we leave our children, we should be concerned about long term reliance on oil whatever its source. One can only hope that the current run up in gasoline prices will get a few people’s attention.

It should: these price increases have come even without any serious interruption to crude supply.

While I am concerned about the environment, it is the national security aspect of the crude supply that screams out for government action with the loudest voice. We have reached a place where extreme political unrest in places like Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Mexico could throw the world economy into a devastating abyss.

These places are not exactly epitomes of institutional stability. It is time for Americans to demand better than this.

It would not be so irresponsible on the part of our “leaders” if it were not for the fact that alternatives are available. None of them are as cost effective in the short run, but here is an example of where the market simply does not work. The probability discounted future cost of a breakdown in oil supplies is scarcely factored into any balance sheet in the World, though that will start to change as insurance premiums rise further with the increasing probability of realizing some of these risks. The problem with the insurance cost feedback loop is it is too slow for the purposes of national defense: the time to act was thirty years ago. Any further delay is simply compounding foolishness.

What we need now and not thirty more years hence is a multi-pronged attack that approaches various alternative energy sources in a serious way. In the short run this means exploring efficient use of our abundant natural gas reserves, conservation measures such as an improved automobiles, and revisiting nuclear power.

There, I said it. I used the “n” word.

I am not suggesting that nuclear power is some cure-all, but rather that it could be an important part of a better future if we approached the topic as rational beings rather than emotional ones. I suppose that is probably a bit of a stretch goal for this politicized society in which we live.

We desperately need to be pouring money into more research on alternative fuels. There have been exciting developments in the last five years in the areas of photovoltaics and biomass to name but a couple. The fascinating thing about many of these more futuristic possibilities is that in addition to the supply potential, the energy sources are much more decentralized. This is fascinating because decentralization will bring infinitely greater energy security than is imaginable with the more conventional large-scale energy sources destined to dominate the next quarter century.

What a great legacy we could we leave our children by bequeathing energy security.

Undoubtedly calls for a serious energy policy will go unheeded due to the lack of public demand and the vested antagonistic interests of those who hold the reins of power. If the seventies did not shock people into reality, I doubt the present situation will either. We know with disturbing certainty the alternative: the coming military budgets will be gruesome thing to behold.

Almost as gruesome as the imperialist acts that our greed and intellectual sloth will compel us into.

April 11, 2005

focus on the tautology

First, let me candidly admit what a valuable resource Focus on the Family and Dr. James Dobson has been to my family. I remember well the films shown at my Church back when Dr. Dobson was relatively unknown and I was a young adult with a great need for Dr. Dobson’s wisdom. Since then, I have purchased and read a number of Dr. Dobson’s books, and my Son’s video library has a generous selection of the wonderful Adventures in Odyssey videos that Focus on the Family produces. I am grateful and will continue to be grateful for the professional wisdom Dr. Dobson has shared.

This gratitude, however, does not extend to the ever-increasing political activities of Dr. Dobson and the Focus on the Family organizations.

In the Focus on the Family Action April newsletter, Dr. Dobson wrote an article entitled Life, Death and Judicial Tyranny extolling the perils of the judiciary and calling the faithful to action with respect to the administration’s effort to get its judicial nominees confirmed in the senate. In his view, the Terri Schiavo imbroglio was solid evidence of an Imperial Court imposing its will on a Moral Majority and the way to set things right is by getting more right minded jurists to the bench.

It seems to me that the greater imperialistic risk of that episode came from a Federal Government intervening in a matter that was well adjudicated in Florida Courts. And while I am concerned with the make-up of the jurists on the Federal bench, I have trouble imagining how Dobson’s purposefully expanding upon the politicization of judicial nomination process can be calculated to improve the jurisprudential temperament of the courts. But the most disturbing thing Dobson wrote does not clearly tie to a specific public issue, but rather involves an extraordinarily misleading and erroneous "analysis" of the landmark case of Marbury v. Madison .

In Dobson’s view, Marbury v. Madison is the root of all evil. Indeed, Dobson’s pièce de résistance in that newsletter was the argument that the founders never intended judicial review as a Constitutional power. Disingenuously he effusively quoted Thomas Jefferson’s remarks that possession by the courts of such a power would lead to oligarchy. His clear implication that this was the position of all the founders is clearly not so.

As you can imagine, there has been much ink spilt in the last two centuries on this very point, however absent from Dobson’s argument is even the scarcest hint of an objective inquiry into the arguments for and against judicial review. But then, I would not expect such a thoughtful analysis from someone who is so blinded by a political agenda that they omit from their diatribe the essential fact that when Jefferson was writing in criticism of judicial review, he was opining from the losing end of a political struggle.

And perhaps it might be worth noting that the man that opposed the Constitution with greater vigor than any of the other anti-ratification voices might not necessarily be the best citation on a point of Constitutional law in the first place. It seems worth at least a mention that in Federalist Paper number 78, Alexander Hamilton, one of the staunchest advocates of the new Federal Constitution, put forth a vigorous argument in favor of judicial review as being essential for the protection of the individual’s rights. Whatever happened in Marbury it is clear that Justice Marshall was not simply creating the doctrine of judicial review out of whole cloth as Dobson is suggesting.

Sadly, in the political realm, omitting inconvenient facts and demagoging on those found more useful has become the norm.

But in the process of demagoging this issue, Dobson has seldom been more out of his element. That he self-righteously calls on the name of Jefferson, a somewhat dubious source for Original Meanings, evidences a radical contempt for his listeners ability, or more likely willingness, to investigate the evidence for themselves.

If you have sympathy for Dobson’s view, I would urge a personal examination. Judicial review at one time troubled me too because on its face it smacks of judicial over-reaching. I am a big believer in courts deciding the cases before them and going no further than necessary to discharge their duty. But after some study I came to the understanding that judicial review is in fact a logical extension of a court’s inherent authority to apply law to facts. A logical extension of the founder’s desires to put the Constitution and the Courts above the political process in an endeavor to preserve the blessings of liberty for posterity.

Federalist No. 78 is actually quite compelling on this point.

Digging into the matter, you will discover that no matter where you come out on judicial review, there are a lot of tough questions you have to answer to get a clear understanding of how this should in fact work. Who would you choose to be the final arbiter of Constitutionality? And what sources are the arbiter to consider in determining Constitutionality? I for one do not consider it wise to submit our human rights to the Legislature or Executive for arbitration but those of you who believe in the virtue of the majority may feel otherwise. And anyone who tells you that constitutional interpretation is as simple as applying “strict construction” is either blowing political smoke or has not seriously studied the issue.

It is clear that Dobson does not expect to be questioned by his followers with any intellectual rigor.

As you might imagine, I have only just touched on the most abrasive of Dobson’s misleading arguments. The genuinely disturbing thing is that so few of my brothers and sisters in Christ will question the word of Dobson and I have no doubt that the bumper-sticker phrase “Judicial Imperialism” will be on the lips of many evangelicals for many weeks to come.

Fortunately for Americans, we still cling to the tatters of a body of law that knows no equal in history. Time will tell whether this audacious power grab by the majoritarian wolves, cloaked as Christian sheep, will run its course before the last vestiges of Liberty are wrested from We the People. Sadly I fear that in an age when politicians like Dobson get so much traction, perhaps we do deserve what we are getting.

Forgive them Father for they know not what they do.

April 05, 2005

surgical strike: to provide for the common defense

I have been opining for some time that Homeland Defense is pretty much a joke in light of the lackadaisical attitude this administration takes toward border security. Not to mention container shipments at ports of entry. It is truly ridiculous that the US military cordons off entire nations while our home borders are said to be just too long to be protected.

Not that I am trivializing the magnitude of the task. I’m sure it is extraordinarily difficult and would require substantial resources to have something that approaches a secure border.

But in the context of the threats that have emerged in the last several years, I have trouble imagining what security issue could be more pressing. And while a few years back I had some sympathy with the notion that our borders were too long to be adequately protected, the progress of technology is making that argument increasingly hollow.

Undoubtedly I have little in common with the self-proclaimed Minutemen who have undertaken the task of defending our borders. If the accusations of vigilantism, bigotry or old-fashioned fascism turn out to be true, then I have even less in common with them than I already imagine. But still, I have to stand amazed that they are already having an impact.

According to the Associated Press, the Administration has finally today come out with plans to strengthen border protection. I can only expect that this will be one of a number of announcements that will be forthcoming in an effort to mitigate the damage to reputation being done by the Minutemen’s presence. I can only hope that unlike in other areas of political activity that perhaps this time there will be some substantive action. Action a bit quicker than the year 2008 would be nice too.

In the mean time, while I await the Government’s taking up of its constitutionally mandated task to provide for our defense, I will remain skeptical of claims of both virtue and depravity on the part of the Minutemen until the actual facts are in.

If the best does turn out to be true of them, however improbable that may be, then they deserve medals. But it would appear that even if the worst is true of them, they have performed for us a service for which we can all be thankful.

March 23, 2005

i, heretic

Terri Schiavo's impending death should give each of us pause no matter where we come down on the issue of her continued access to food. That I am on the side of life for Terri will come as no to surprise to those of you familiar with me. That I am mortified by the desecration of the rule of law by those who in a general sense agree with me will be probably less surprising to you still.

In a New York Times op-ed today, Charles Fried characterized the superficial problem well when he expressed dismay at the Republican’s situational contempt for the rule of law in light of their traditional patronage of that worthy cause. Whether the Republicans ever had a drop of sincerity in their support for the rule of law is hard to say, but it should be clear now that their purported high regard of America as a nation of laws is ultimately subservient to their political agenda. Unfortunately, a lack of fidelity to one’s stated High Ideals is nothing new for our political class regardless of which side of the isle on which they stand.

I seldom get more nauseous than when a Democrat or Republican is accusing other politicians of hypocrisy thereby achieving the epistemological marvel of hypocritical hypocrisy.

But my nausea today stems more from a profound discouragement that we as a society will ever be able to tackle complex ethical problems in a useful manner. We have become so dysfunctional that as a nation that we are not only unamazed at the politicization of a politically neutral moral issue, but we also unrepentantly accept this state of affairs as the norm. Our continuing voluntary acquiescence to content free dialog has brought us to this point where it is highly probable that we will come through the long and arduous “discussion” concerning Terri Schiavo and arrive at the other side with no more understanding or consensus than when we first considered the issues.

While I share the distress of many Americans over the need to find a socially useful definition of life, my greater terror comes from recognizing that the issues presented by the Schiavo case are of great simplicity when compared to profound bioethical questions that lie just over the horizon of popular consciousness. A society that cannot corporately determine that which is Life when dealing with familiar things such as the human genome will surely be dashed to philosophical pieces by the radical technologies which will explode upon us long before this writer reaches his actuarial expectation of the hereafter.

And make no mistake about it, what lays ahead is perhaps more daunting than what any of us can imagine. Will the mice with quasi-human brains that they claim are presently not allowed to fully develop be deemed worthy of any kind of human rights protection? What are we to do with other chimeras yet to be born? And fasten your seat-belts bio-sports fans because mere genetic tinkering of this kind is child’s play compared to efforts to use the building blocks of life to create fundamentally new biologies.

Hyperbole is scarcely even possible in these matters.

What is happening due to our collective inability to intelligently arrive at a conclusion on any issue that presents an ethical conflict is that we are abandoning some of our most important decisions to the political elite. Being dependable politicians, they of course pursue political advantage rather than leading constructive ethical debate. It is the ultimate in naiveté to be shocked by this.

The real shock is that we are missing here a great opportunity to set the law on the reasonable path of a presumption for the continuation of life. Certainly other positions are possible and should be discussed, but it seems likely that most Americans would favor a presumption of life in the absence of a prior clear expression to the contrary by the one who is no longer able to speak for themselves. Instead, we ogle the facts before us, stamp our feet in righteous anger and carefully avoid the uniquely American heresy of substantive dialog.

The politicians will have the last “laugh”, I suppose, because when the petition for injunctive relief to support the human rights of something akin to a pig-human chimera that can be shown to possess a brain with a human structure and chemistry, America will habitually turn to them to be told what to think. And what we must think will then of course depend on the red-blue topography of the upcoming election.

When bioethics questions come up, I often think about the line uttered by the Jeff Goldblum character from the movie Jurassic Park where he admonishes that “life will find a way”. As we set a course for tinkering with life in ways grander still than even what was depicted in that movie, it is a frightening thing to know that we proceed not only without a navigator, but without a rudder as well.

March 15, 2005

surgical strike: asphalt aspirations

I always take note when education topics manage to bubble up to national media: it does not happen that often. Imagine my surprise with not only the presence, but also the content of a New York Time op-ed contributor piece today entitled Failing the Wrong Grades. Diane Ravitch therein points out some shortcomings in current well-intentioned efforts to improve public High Schools and lays much of the blame for the current state of affairs at the feet of the lower schools.

Those of you who have read here for a while will recognize one of my proposals from a while back in my piece entitled beginning at the middle. I have argued for many years that High School in its present form makes no sense and that we should transform it into a more flexible program that assists both college bound and trade bound students.

My hunch is that Ravitch’s op-ed and the book she is promoting therein will get less attention than the Alvin and the Chipmunks revival tour. Unlike the rest of the World, Americans do not care about quality education.

The general public’s lack of concern about the education of the next generation will undoubtedly puzzle me to the day I die. It just seems to me that even if I did not possess a quality education that I would still want that opportunity for my children and the children of society as a whole. What this reinforces is the truth of my claims that the selfishness permeating our whole society is truly pervasive and not just a matter of rhetorical excess on my part.

Education is relatively expensive as public works go and it is obvious that as a society we have decided that gravel roads will suffice because of the expense of asphalt. And I do not use the word “expense” to just mean financial capital, but to also include the personal cost extracted by dedication and concern. Education is indeed not one of the areas where I think the problem is primarily one of funding, but one of an even scarcer resource: genuine commitment to excellence.

While this sad state of affairs could cause one to lose hope and abandon the discussion, I am in no way more curmudgeonly than in my stubbornness, so you can expect these rants to reoccur.

March 09, 2005

‘roid rage

If you are not a sports fan, you might be unaware of the controversy over steroids that has surrounded major-league baseball for many months. Leaked grand jury testimony from a criminal investigation and the usual informed whispers have fueled the pervasive sports punditry up until now. Enter stage Right the United States House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform who announced that they will be holding hearings investigating steroid abuse in the big leagues.

When asking himself the pre-emptive question of why the need for Congressional hearings, chairman of the committee, Tom Davis, evoked several of the standard Vote For Me symbols wishing to shine a light in the darkness and of course protect our children. As sad as that sop was, he went on to add, “We can help kids understand that steroids aren’t cool.” I wish the committee well in that endeavor because I think that convincing teenage boys that a muscular physique is “uncool” is a grand undertaking indeed.

Is it just me, or does anyone else think that perhaps this might not be the best use of the time of our Congressmen?

Laying aside these silly nits, there is a real problem that does need addressed. Steroids are a dangerous thing and like other illegal drugs, they are making their way into the hands of children far to young for society to have any expectation of a reasonable risk/reward analysis on their part. I certainly agree that a program of communication to young people is desirable and justified, but I can not help but wonder if this is not a more appropriate matter for the Surgeon General than the Committee on Government Reform. It sounds like the Reform Committee is overdue a bit of self-examination.

Of course we all know that the truth is that like most of what poses as legitimate legislative activity in the hallowed halls of congress lately, these hearings are intended primarily to be attention getters for the politicians. In elementary school, we called it mugging for the camera. When describing the behavior of our Congressmen, we should just call it embarrassing.

A while back, in an attempt at making some suggestions that could help with the embarrassment that is called our public school system, I called for the removal of sports from our schools in order to help the institution focus on the actual objective of educating. Perhaps the same treatment is in order for our nation as a whole. It is hard to believe that Congress can be this distracted when as a nation we face challenges the magnitude of international terrorism, nuclear missiles in the hands of depots, and an impending meltdown of our health care system. I’m sorry, but as much as I love watching sports, I find the possibility of the end of Western civilization a more compelling topic.

We should be telling Congress to collect autographs on their own time because they have work to do.

But we love our diversions and really, it is hard these days to tell political discourse from sport anyway. The testimony of some of the biggest names in sports before the Congress will undoubtedly attract the approving attention of Americans who care more about who did what to whom than the substantive health concerns. We will be treated to seeing Davis and Henry Waxman preening before the cameras all the while knowing that their media show will not produce anything more than the ongoing criminal investigation is calculated to determine.

And while we are distracted, terrorists will have more time to exploit our exposed borders, North Korea will move a bit closer toward another nuclear tipped missile, and we will waste yet more precious resources into the entropy of an irrational health care system. Perhaps it is naïve to expect more of our leaders and our citizens than this, but one can always hope. Hope that the façade of genuine concern crumbles off of the Capitol Building. Hope that some of those watching The Show will notice that nothing is actually happening.

On the other hand, maybe not.

Play ball!

March 03, 2005

surgical strike: modern mendacity

It is encouraging to think that there is a burgeoning democratic reform movement afoot in Islam. That is the hopeful message of Thomas Friedman’s latest piece entitled Brave, Young and Muslim.

It is amazing to me that so many Americans do not seem to have even the slightest understanding of Islam and its history. More amazing still that so many Americans do not have any better understanding of their own history. I think if one looks thoughtfully at the progress of Western Civilization, you can see much of where we have been in what Islam is today.

It is easy to forget that our not so distant past harbored a lot of stuff that we do not comfortably claim as our own history. It was in the West after all that Galileo was jailed for nothing more than telling what he saw in his telescope. It was in the West that Albert Einstein had to flee his home for no other reason than being born of those descendants of Abraham that the Nazis chose as the objects of their hatred. And within the life times of much of the Disenfranchised Curmudgeon community we have seen even here in The Land of the Free a time when there were still separate drinking fountains for those born with unacceptable skin pigmentation.

The point is that the West had to have its Renaissance, Enlightenment and religious reformations along its hard climb to modernity. And the birth of Liberty came only at the ends of gun barrels and many centuries of slowly wresting power from the Monarchs. That we collectively undertook and survived those transforming movements is certainly to our credit.

But the attitude that is often heard that Islam is unsuitable for various institutions of modernity is certainly not to our credit. These attitudes are borne of a cultural arrogance that equals that of radical Muslim fundamentals. It is my firm belief that given time Islam will reform as has the other great religions of the World and that perhaps along the way an element or two of modern thought will be found rightfully worthy of their rejection.

I do not necessarily share Friedman’s belief that the time is now, but I certainly share his hope. After all, if the time is not now then we may have a few long centuries in front of us.

February 23, 2005

yes again, again

We often hear the lament “never again” repeated, but sadly, it appears that what people actually mean is “never again in the West”.

Since genocide was defined in international law after the Second World War, there have been five genocidal campaigns of which I am aware: Cambodia, Rwanda, Burundi, Bosnia and now Sudan. And in only one of those five, Bosnia, has the West made a concerted effort stop the horror. I do not want to believe that the lack of Western intervention in the other four tragedies is rooted in racism, but reluctantly I have to conclude that there must be some subconscious racism involved.

I do believe it is subconscious because in most corners of the Western world, institutionalized racism has been largely eradicated. Certainly racism lives in the smaller hearts and smallest minds which comprise Western Civilization, but for the most part we have grown past the point were bigotry is accepted as normal within the bounds of the broader society.

But when one takes a closer look at the mass behavior of the West, I cannot exclude racism as a factor in society’s moral reckoning. Each of the five instances of genocide over the last half century were unspeakably horrible. Each of these blood drenched catastrophes implicitly demanded action by the West, but the one time we intervened in a significant way was when the victim’s faces were similar to our own.

I hope I am wrong about this, but I fear that I am not. I fear it in part because I too must search my own soul because of my own failure to speak out or act.

In a weak attempt to right old transgressions, I have taken the time to write my elected representatives to encourage action on the genocide presently taking place in Darfur. I hope you will consider taking the time as well. I admit that this action on my part is out of sync with my general proposition that the elected representatives do not care what you or I actually think. I have not changed my mind on that point, but I feel that in the face of this much death and destruction, I must say something: this blog entry and my undoubtedly futile missives to elected Federal officials are that something.

The situation in Darfur does deserve your and my attention. I have consciously chosen not to write on this subject previously because I am keenly aware that it is improbable we will act and people get more than a little bit weary of reading impassioned pleas for humanitarian causes with little hope of resolution. My attitude changed last night while watching Charlie Rose interviewing the creators of a new movie on the decline of Hitler. The phrase “never again” has pinged my brain incessantly since. You and I know that we should not have let this happen, but we have failed again.

If you want some motivation, a great starting place is Nicholas Kristof’s op-ed entitled The Secret Genocide Archive. A slight warning is in order as there are pictures there that might be disturbing to some though certainly not extreme by the standards of what is happening in Sudan. The short version is that while it is impossible to know the death toll, a plausible number would be on the order of 200,000 and rising. Unlike the merciful Christmas Tsunami, these oppressors torture and rape their victims before killing them.

Tragically, we have not even taken simple steps such as freezing assets in order to put pressure on these evil people.

I hope the attention some are attempting to bring to what is happening in Darfur makes a difference. We will never know how many lives might have been spared had the Allies acted after Kristallnacht rather than shamefully turning its head and letting events take their course. In Rwanda, scarcely even a decade ago, 800,000 people died when we remained silent. I’d rather not find out how many more African Sudanese will loose their lives if we choose to look the other way this time.

It would be nice to believe that our reason for inaction thus far is something relatively benign like ignorance and sloth. But while we deny our racism at an institutional level, it is perhaps still a diffuse element of our national policy. Witness the reaction in my corner of the West, America, to people of Arab descent in the post 9-11 era. The hostility toward Arab Americans stunned even me because Muslim fundamentalism knows no ethnic boundaries. It is hard not to be reminded that during the Second World War, here in the Land of the Free we locked up Japanese-Americans, but not those of German descent.

Racism is often cast about glibly in our culture and I do not suggest it as a contributing cause cavalierly. After all, 200,000 Muslims were killed in Bosnia so acting on a catastrophe of that magnitude which is in relatively close proximity for Europeans is understandable. While making an unqualified accusation of racism is not justified, the facts are still hard to ignore: In Africa we have had far more death and suffering, yet we do nothing.

If anyone wants to make the case for inaction, I’d love to have it explained to me.