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August 31, 2005

Hand of God

Despite the spreading horror in New Orleans (Mayor Ray Nagin said earlier today that the number of deaths in the city had probably already gone into the thousands), there are a few signs of the city's quirky and indomitable sprit still in view. Check out this item from the Times-Picayune's invaluable newsblog, posted this afternoon:

In the garden behind St. Louis Cathedral on Royal Street lies an incredible tangle of zig-zagging broken tree trunks and branches, mixed with smashed wrought iron fences. But right in the middle, a statue of Jesus is still standing, unscathed by the storm, save for the left thumb and index finger, which are missing.The missing digits immediately set off speculation of divine intervention.New Orleans has a long history praying to saints for guidance and protection in times of great peril. In fact it was Our Lady of Prompt Succor who was said to be responsible for saving the Ursulines Convent in the French Quarter from a raging fire that consumed the rest of the city centuries ago.Since then, New Orlenians have prayed to the saint for protection from natural disasters. On Saturday, Archbishop Alfred Hughes read a prayer over the radio asking for Our Lady's intervention to spare the city a direct hit by Hurricane Katrina. Many in the Quarter are now saying it was the hand of Jesus, the missing digits to be precise, that flicked the hurricane east just a little to keep the city from suffering a direct blow. And the search is one for those missing fingers.Shortly after Katrina passed, several men went to Robert Buras, who owns the Royal Street Grocery and told him they know who has the finger. Buras said he'd give them all the water and beer they need if they bring him the finger. They told him they'd find it and asked to be paid upfront. But Buras told them he wouldn't take it on credit. "I'm going to find Jesus' finger,'' Buras said. ''I've got a lead on it.''
The Royal Street Grocery, BTW, has remained open through the whole saga, so far at least, though the owner has to toss goods to purchasers through an upstairs window where's he's stored his most valuable wares.Here's another tale of French Quarter imperturbability from the T-P newsblog:
Johnny White’s Sport Bar on Bourbon Street at Orleans Avenue didn’t close Tuesday night, and had six patrons at 8 a.m. drinking at the bar.“Monday night, they came by after curfew and wanted us to close,” bartender Perry Bailey, 60, said of officers then patrolling the French Quarter. But all we did was shut the doors and stayed open.”
Unfortunately, most of this anarchic good cheer will soon have to come to an end with the Governor's mandatory evacuation order. Current estimates are that the city may be shut down for three to four months. New Orleans truly needs the Hand of God to provide a future that's anything like its past.

Horror Show

I should be getting some real work done, but I'm finding it hard to stop thinking about what's happening in my favorite city right now, and trying to follow developments through the news media.Unfortunately, media coverage is at best spotty. To some extent that's understandable; after all, there are very few "on the scene" reporters, and information on key issues like progress towards plugging the gaps in the levee system is hard to come by. Still, Atrios has a very good point about the inability or disinclination of the media to provide basic explanations of the horrific images they keep showing:

It's a shame that from what I've seen in the media they don't seem to understand the importance of maps. Disaster footage is flashed randomly on the screen, devoid of any genuine geographic context. Maps appropriately scaled for the location of the footage would provide actual useful information. Otherwise, it's mostly just disaster porn.
If you know a little bit about the geography of New Orelans and its many wonderful neighborhoods, these random images are maddening, since a flooded house in Bywater pretty much looks like a flooded house in the Irish Channel. Most viewers probably don't care, and in the end, it doesn't matter what I know when, but some effort to match images with words if not maps would be helpful. Even nightmares need scripts.

August 30, 2005

Lord Have Mercy

I profoundly wish my last post had been accurate about New Orleans' close brush with catastrophe. As I'm sure you know, today has brought forth scenes of ever-growing horror in the Crescent City, as a large breach in the levees protecting the city from a swollen Lake Pontchartrain developed, pouring water into the Central Business District at a rate that is overwhelming the city's pumping system. Mayor Ray Nagin estimated earlier today that 80 percent of the city is already flooded, and it's not clear how efforts to plug the levee gap are progressing.This levee breach is exactly the "doomsday" scenario that so many in New Orleans have long feared. The only good news is that it happened after about four out of every five residents were evacuated. But that still leaves well over a hundred thousand people there as waters rise and food and water supplies begin to run out--more than 10,000 of them, including patients from flooded hospitals, taking shelter in the Superdome, fast becoming a sweltering nightmare. Yesterday's widespread looting led to a declaration of martial law in three parishes in the area, though I would guess today's flooding has put the kibosh on all but the hardiest thieves.Even if the levee breach is plugged, and the waters subside without major loss of life, New Orleans' will be in trouble for some time, given the huge health hazards associated with contaminated water, toxic wastes and disease. Having once worked on a flood recovery project in Georgia (of a much smaller dimension), I can tell you that floods are the nastiest of natural disasters, and that public health problems really emerge when the big water's all gone.All we can do now is watch, pray, and send what we can to the Red Cross.When it's all over, we should all renew our faith in this wonderful city, even if it's just by heading down there and helping revive its heavily tourism-based economy. If nothing else, perhaps those who just think of New Orleans as the French Quarter and jazz clubs will understand this is a living, breathing city with problems as immense as its charm.UPDATE, late Tuesday night: another levee breach has developed; efforts to close the first one have so far failed; and in general, the situation in New Orleans continues to deteriorate. The best single source of first-hand reports from the city is the blog-style coverage being offered by the Times-Picayune, which has provided sporadic but vivid stories of the disaster and its effects on people and their neighborhoods.

August 29, 2005

Big Winds

I've just returned tonight from a quick weekend trip to Prince Edward Island, a delightfully remote corner of Canada, but all the talk while I was there was of the USA.Like Americans, Canadians have been riveted by the incredible destructive power of Hurricane Katrina, and particularly the predictions that New Orleans might finally be wiped out by catastrophic flooding. (Since New Orleans is my favorite place, I was frantic yesterday and today to get the news, and only after sitting through a long CNN feature about the impact on oil refinery capacity at the Charlottetown airport did it become apparent that massive loss of human life did not occur in the Crescent City, though Biloxi was less fortunate).But the news item that competed with Katrina across much of Canada involved America in a far less sympathetic story. Canadians are absolutely livid about a cavalier rejection by the Bush administration of a NAFTA-sponsored arbitration decision declaring U.S. duties on Canadian softwood lumber illegal under the agreement. In fact, under heavy public pressure, Prime Minister Paul Martin is reportedly thinking about calling a special session of Parliament to take retaliatory measures against U.S. exports.This hasn't exactly been big news in the States, but Canada is America's biggest trading partner, and the longstanding U.S.-Canada partnership on trade policy is the linchpin not only of NAFTA, but of hemispheric free trade efforts generally. And the long-simmering dispute over Canadian lumber is now leading a variety of voices north of the border to call for a reconsideration of that partnership, and of NAFTA itself.It didn't help that Bush's ambassador in Ottawa, David Wilkins, responded to outrage over the U.S. decision to ignore the lumber ruling by lecturing Canadians to eschew "emotional tirades." Bush himself, of course, is vastly less popular in Canada than his predecessor, and Wilkins' comments reinforced every available perception about the administration's general disdain for the opinions of long-time allies.This incident also shines a bright light on the Bush administration's generally bumbling and inconsistent stewardship of trade policy, which follows few clear principles other than solicitude for domestic business interests with political clout.In any event, it was fascinating to spend a few days among our neighbors whose love-hate relationship with the U.S. was illustrated by their worries over a hot wind from the south roaring into the Gulf Coast, and their willingness to launch a cold wind from the north towards Washington.

August 27, 2005

Jack Abramoff's Ring of Fire

If you want to know why the ever-burgeoning Jack Abramoff network of meta-scandals really matters to people other than those he defrauded, check out Susan Schmidt's front-page article in the Sunday Washington Post.The headline focuses on shadowy dealings between Abramoff and a Deputy Secretary of the Interior who appears to have intervened in two separate cases to put roadblocks in front of Indian casino plans that threatened the financial interest of Abramoff clients--the clients he was at the same time massively ripping off. Turns out Abramoff was also trying to hire the guy for his lobbying firm.But the subplot that strikes me as equally significant is the role played in one of these cases, involving a Michigan tribe, by a woman named Italia Federici, who headed an organization called Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy. Here's what Scmidt says about this group:

Federici's group, CREA, was founded in the 1990s by conservative anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and Gale Norton, now secretary of the interior. It has received financial backing from chemical and mining interests, leading some environmentalists to brand it a front for industrial polluters. Abramoff directed tribes he represented to donate $225,000 to CREA from 2001 to 2003.
Federici jumped into the Michigan case to demand an environmental impact statement for the proposed casino that Abramoff wanted to stop, after getting an "urgent email" from Casino Jack himself. And the ploy worked for quite a while, slowing the project down until this year.So you've got bogus environmentalists who've benefitted from Indian Casino money (not to mention Abramoff's brother-in-arms Grover Norquist) asking for a bogus environmental impact statement from a department headed by one of its founders--a statement insisted upon by a deputy from that department whom Abramoff was trying to lure into a incredibly lucrative lobbying gig. Federal investigators are now looking into the whole mess, but whether or not indictments even come down, this case shows how incredibly incestuous a network Republicans set up linking high--level policymakers, far-right ideologues, and shakedown artists and influence-peddlers like Jack Abramoff. This billowing ring of smoke suggests a ring of fire that could burn down the whole conservative ascendancy if Abramoff's hijinks were the rule rather than the exception in the ethical standards of the GOP. And so far, we aren't seeing much evidence that anybody in authority in Washington thought Abramoff was anything other than an absolute prince.

August 25, 2005

What "Killed" the Democrats?

Over at TAPPED yesterday, my man Matt Yglesias took the occasion of Gary Hart's op-ed on Iraq in the Washington Post to dismiss the idea that the McGovern campaign (which Hart ran), and its antiwar message, was the pivotal moment in the demise of the New Deal Coalition. No, sez Matt:

The truth, which lots of left-of-center people of various stripes seem to have a hard time dealing with, is that the old, dominant Democratic Party was dependent on white supremacist voters for its majority. Take a look at the 1960 electoral map and ask yourself how far John Kennedy would have gotten without this bloc. Nowadays, naturally, the Democrats can't just bring that coalition back, and the party's troubles in the South are rather different, but it was Lyndon Johnson's embrace of civil rights, not the McGovern campaign, that killed the Democratic Party.
Well, that's maybe half-right. Matt forgets that (1) McGovern managed to lose 38 of 39 states outside the Old Confederacy, including many where the 1968 Wallace vote was negligible; and (2) Jimmy Carter won in 1976 on a pro-Civil Rights platform with near-universal African-American support, along with most of the old Wallace voters, who must have been motivated by something other than racism to return to the Democratic Party. Sure, Watergate, and in the case of the South, regional pride enormously helped Carter. But let's don't forget that Carter, despite his quasi-pacifist image today, also ran a campaign that emphasized his tough-on-defense views and background as an Annapolis grad and nuclear sub officer. Carter supported Scoop Jackson in 1972, and never really came out against the Vietnam War. That legacy, along with his open religiosity, helped him among many Democrats who defected in 1972, and actually hurt him in some upscale WASPy areas where he ran behind McGovern. No--repeat, no--I am not arguing for the point of view that anti-Vietnam War views generally, or George McGovern specifically, "killed" the old Democratic majority. But nor was it simply the Civil Rights Act, either. What happened in the 1960s and 1970s was the acceleration of long trend beginning in the New Deal of the realignment of the two major parties as ideological rather than regional and ethnic-group coalitions. This involved a wide range of issues, international and domestic, and it happened in fits and starts, not really culminating in rigorously left-of-center and right-of-center parties until 1980 at the earliest, and 1994 at the latest.Ideological realignment helped and hurt both parties with particular constituencies. The Democratic civil rights commitment obviously alienated many white southerners and quite a few ethnic white Catholics elsewhere, but also created a remarkably durable bond with minority voters, along with a significant share of previously Republican white liberals. Similarly, the late-Cold War realignment of "hawks" towards the GOP and "doves" towards Democrats drove voters in both directions, too. But overall, realignment benefitted Republicans more, due to the enduring numerical advantage of conservatives over liberals. In our party, we are all still arguing over how to deal with ideological polarization, but as Matt suggests, it's important to understand how it actually developed.

August 24, 2005

Robertson Digs Himself Deeper

It's clearly time for Pat Robertson to retire from politics altogether. Having committed a gaffe that rose to the level of a diplomatic problem for the United States (calling for the assassination of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez), Robertson issued a couple of "clarifications" that made the whole thing worse. First off, he tried to pretend he hadn't said anything about actually murdering Chavez; the phrase "take him out," said Pat, might mean a kidnapping or something. Yeah, right. Informed he actually used the word "assassination," Robertson finally recanted, but then negated the gesture by comparing himself to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was executed for his role in a plot to assassinate Hitler. This is an old and very disreputable ploy for members of the Christian Right, posing as persecuted victims of those they attack; identifying their enemies as Nazis; and identifying themselves with the Confessing Church resistance to Hitler. James Dobson has made a real habit of this kind of self-glorifying series of lies, and now here's Robertson doing the same thing instead of admitting his mistake and simply apologizing.As my colleague The Moose pointed out today, Robertson has a long history of outrageous statements. Maybe it's finally time for him to retire from punditry and engage in a little prayerful reflection on his attenuated connection with the faith he has dragged into the political mire.

August 23, 2005

Cooking the Good Book

One of the perils of fundamentalism, in any scripturally-based religion, is the temptation to treat Sacred Text, because it's "all true," as a cook book for whatever secular causes you want to find in this or that verse, pulled out of context and blown way out of proportion.Among Christian fundamentalists, this temptation is generally illustrated by the determination to treat the Bible as a treatise whose main message to today's world is to condemn feminism, abortion and homosexuality--even though none of these themes is anywhere even remotely close to central to the Bible's main preoccupations.But it gets worse. As Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times reports, fundie activists have gotten deeply involved in policymaking in Tom DeLay's Congress, targeting congressional staffer with efforts to plumb the Bible for conservative talking points. Indeed, they meet in the House Speaker's Dining Room:

Nearly every Monday for six months, as many as a dozen congressional aides — many of them aspiring politicians — have gathered over takeout dinners to mine the Bible for ancient wisdom on modern policy debates about tax rates, foreign aid, education, cloning and the Central American Free Trade Agreement.
Personally, as a Christian, I cannot imagine anyone really thinking there is definitive wisdom in the Bible about tax rates, cloning or CAFTA. The scriptural guidance offered on the more general subjects of foreign aid and education is not likely to comport with conservative ideology.So the question remains, as always with fundamentalists: are you obeying the Bible, or are you cooking the Good Book to impute divine support for your secularist cultural and political prejudices?A lurid example of how conservative Christians claiming to submit to Scripture have made Scripture submit to them is on display right now in Pat Robertson's fatwah calling for the murder of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.Jesus wept.

August 22, 2005

Wes Clark's Stand for Darfur

You don't hear that much in the American media or the blogosphere about Darfur these days. Aside from the furor over Iraq, there are at least two other African crises (in Niger and Zimbabwe) taxing the limited interest of Americans in that continent. And even when it comes to Sudan, the renewed north-south civil war tremors emanating from the death of John Garang seem to be getting as much attention as the ongoing genocide to the west.That's why I was pleased to hear Wesley Clark speak out on National Public Radio today, calling for a NATO/AU military mission to deploy the estimated 12,000 troops needed right now to stop the genocide.Think about that number: just twelve thousand peace-keeping troops to stop the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, with millions all told suffering homelessness, displacement, semi-starvation, and possible death--not to mention the value of finally showing the civilized world is willing to intervene to halt genocide. Yet the AU is struggling towards a deployment of just over 7,000 troops.As Clark argues, supplementing the AU force with a small NATO contingent, with full NATO logistical support, could work miracles. Sure, a U.N. authorized force would be even better, but that's virtually impossible thanks to the pro-Khartoum posture of China and Russia.Given U.S. troop commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. contribution would have to consist of logistics and air cover, but these are critical given the remoteness of Darfur. That's why the U.S. should pressure the U.K., France and Germany, who have shed many crocodile tears over Darfur, to step up to the plate with a small commitment of troops.The DLC came out for almost exactly the same plan back in April. But when it comes to humanitarian interventions, nobody has the authority of Wes Clark, who has actually carried out one successfully. I hope he keeps it up, and helps shame the Bush administration into action in the one arena where their increasingly ludicrous swagger might actually do some good.

August 20, 2005

The Graham Saga

My colleague The Moose, fresh from a forced-march family vacation in the Lone Star State, has drawn attention to the profile of Texas gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman by Dan Halpern in the current issue of The New Yorker. This is indeed a great read, which shows exactly how far the Kinkster is pushing the anti-political, political envelope beyond the far horizons established by Jesse Ventura back in 1998 (compared to Kinky, The Body was a fairly conventional candidate, as the former Ventura advisors now staffing Friedman have probably figured out).But the same issue of The New Yorker has another piece that I highly recommend: Peter J. Boyer's article on Billy and Franklin Graham. (The article's not available online, though the New Yorker site does offer an audio slide show about it).Boyer interprets Billy Graham's rise as representing the emergence of Protestant Evangelical Christianity through the deliberate blurring of fundamentalism's "rough edges," most epecially doctrinal rigidity and hostily towards less-rigorous Christians. And he interprets Franklin Graham's long and winding road towards a prominence rivalling his father's as illustrating a more recent resurgence of fundamentalist theology bent on direct engagement with secular culture, and a recommitment to conservative and partisan politics.I found Boyer's reporting on Billy Graham's early career, and the hostility he generated among evangelical fundamentalists, fascinating and instructive. As it happens, I grew up in a conservative southern evangelical milieu, and had no idea Graham was considered a dangerous liberal by the fundies. Indeed, my wife and I have virtually identical anecdotes from our childhood about our deeply conservative Baptist grandmothers striding to the family television set (a major war-zone in those pre-cable days), changing the channel from a movie our fathers wanted to watch, and announcing: "It's time for Billy Graham." No one dared to switch the channel back.In the decades since those innocent days, the fundamentalists have indeed not only reconquered southern evangelical Protestantism, but appear to currently occupy the commanding heights of evangelical Protestantism around the country. Billy's son, Franklin, is part of the backlash. And moreover, another famous son of a famous father, George W. Bush, is a key transition figure in the rightward turn of evangelical Protestantism.You probably know the story: Back during his impressionable thirties, W. left behind a casual affiliation with the Anglicanism of his forefathers, and perhaps a more intense attachment to the congregation of Jack Daniels, after a discussion with Billy Graham. And years later, of course, the younger Bush developed a close political alliance with the new fundamentalist-dominated Christian Right, including the younger Graham. Indeed, Franklin Graham probably achieved his greatest notoriety when protests broke out against his plans to become an administration-authorized dispenser of aid to war-ravaged Iraq despite a history of inflammatory statements about Islam as "evil."In any event, the whole tale is fascinating, and worth the price of buying the print version of The New Yorker. You can read about Kinky for dessert.

August 19, 2005

Liberal "Hawks" and Iraq

Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly's Political Animal threw down a blunt challenge last night to Democrats who don't support an early fixed date for withdrawal from Iraq, basically suggesting they don't have a clue about what to do and simply don't want to appear "weak" for cynical political reasons. He cited my last post--a brief discussion and link to a couple of New Republic articles--as evidence of this cluelessness, if not the cynicism.Well, I didn't know I wasn't allowed to write about Iraq without articulating a full-blown plan for the country, but speaking only for myself, yeah, I have a few thoughts about what we should say and do, based in part on Larry Diamond's long-standing recommendations:1) Publicly announce the United States is abandoning any plans for permanent military bases in Iraq to make it absolutely clear our presence is temporary.2) Publicly announce benchmarks that will trigger withdrawal of American troops, including approval of a constitution and election of a permanent government; specific levels of trained Iraqi troops and other security forces; and renunciation of demands by major Iraqi communities that are incompatible with a stable and pluralistic regime (e.g., Kurdish right to secede, Sunni Arab privileges in a strong central government, Iranian-style Islamic Republic).3) Initiate direct negotiations with insurgents.4) Renounce any public or private-sector U.S. designs for control of Iraqi natural resources5) Launch an internationalized reconstruction effort which explicitly renounces U.S. exclusive privileges, with special attention to assistance from Sunni Arab countriesThe goal would be to leave Iraq with a half-decent chance of maintaining a sustainable government without civil war, foreign domination, or a permament base of operations and recruitment for al Qaeda. The main strategy would be to convince, through carrots and sticks, the Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and Shi'a to step back from their maximalist demands, while creating trans-communal political and security institutions. The philosophy would be to dramatically invest Iraqis with complete responsibility for their common future. And while they would not provide a guaranteed, fixed date for final U.S. withdrawal, the benchmarks would immediately create tests for Iraqis that would either lead to greater stability in the country ad large U.S. troop withdrawals in a matter of months, or would make it clear it truly is time to cut our losses and leave with a brief effort at damage control. Now, there are all sorts of objections that can legitimately be made about every line I've written above, but the same is obviously true about every other approach, including "timed withdrawal," which even its advocates admit will likely lead to a failed state and chaos. And if you think my suggestions are stupid, then check out the very detailed plan articulated by Wes Clark, another opponent of "timed withdrawal," who has forgotten more about military operations and nation-building than Kevin or I will ever know. In demanding alternatives from "hawks," Kevin adds another stipulation that is troubling once you really think about it: any plan must be realistic given "the leadership of George Bush and his staff, not some fantasy scenario in which he suddenly turns into the reincarnation of FDR."Unfortunately, that kind of makes any Democratic proposal on Iraq unrealistic, doesn't it? I mean, Bush and his staff are not about to embrace "timed withdrawal," either. And they are going to be in office until January of 2009, a juncture at which even neocons aren't going to be arguing for 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. The Democratic responsibility on Iraq, other than making all the richly deserved critiques of administration policy that we've all been writing and talking about for years, is to give the public an idea of what our leaders would do if they were in power, nothing more and nothing less. And like it or not, this is an inherently political calculation that does not necessarily mean choosing the position most diametrically opposed to Bush.Tetchiness aside, I want to make it clear that Kevin and other "timed withdrawal" advocates are absolutely asking good and important questions of all Democrats, and particularly those who resist the course of just denouncing the whole Iraq enterprise as a disaster and getting out. I certainly share the impulse to unambiguously pin Bush and the GOP with total responsibility for the mess by refusing to countenance support for it in any form. But at a moment when there remains a chance to salvage something positive for the people of Iraq and for the sacrifices of our own troops, my own "moral compass" points me elsewhere.

August 18, 2005

Two Sober Assessments of Iraq

For those of you who haven't already made up your minds what Democrats should specifically say and do about Iraq at this moment, I encourage you to read two pieces posted this week on The New Republic site that essentially offer a glass-half-full and glass-half empty assessment of recent events. Both are sharply critical of Bush administration policies, past and present, and both are essentially pessimistic, yet neither expresses total hopelessness about the possibility that the U.S. can exit Iraq without leaving a complete disaster.The glass-half-full offering is by Larry Diamond, the justifiably renowned author of Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and The Bungled Effort To Bring Democracy to Iraq. Diamond points out that the deferred constitutional agreement in Iraq not only illustrates the key points on which the parties are not agreed, but also the refusal of the parties to override each other with unacceptable demands, so far at least.The glass-half-empty rejoinder is by TNR's own Spencer Ackerman, author of the late, great "Iraq'd" blog, who suggests the unacceptable demands and the likely divisive consequences are still looming over the proceedings.You should read both articles, and reflect on the continuing relevance of facts on the ground in Iraq and the challenge facing Democrats who deplore Bush's policies, think the course he has plotted and mindlessly defended has taken the U.S. and Iraq down the road to perdition, but want to propose a responsible alternative given the options we actually face.I say this in no small part because of the current rash of claims out there in the blogosphere (too numerous to cite) that any Democrat who isn't simply for a fixed timetable for withdrawal is blindly supporting Bush's stay-the-course-til-doomsday path. Diamond and Ackerman show there's a lot of space for debate between these two fixed poles, and it's a debate that only Democrats are willing to undertake.We should treat our openness to debate and to objective reality as a source of strength, not of weakness.UPDATE: This post may have created the impression that Larry Diamond and Spencer Ackerman themselves reject the idea of a fixed timetable. Diamond does, but Ackerman does not; indeed, he called for a withdrawal from Iraq quite some time ago. I regret the inference otherwise. Ackerman's honest and informed ongoing assessement of developments on the ground in Iraq may have left some readers thinking all was not lost, but his own judgment to the contrary deserves respect.

August 17, 2005

Brother Roger R.I.P.

Excuse me for a totally non-political post, but I wanted to acknowledge the death yesterday of a truly great man: Brother Roger, founder and Prior of the Taize ecumenical monastic community in France. He was murdered in his own church during evening prayers, apparently by a mentally disturbed woman whose motives are as yet unknown.Taize was founded by Brother Roger in 1940 at a small farm, which served as a sanctuary for refugees (especially Holocaust refugees) during World War II. Soon after the war, it developed into a formal monastic order with Protestant roots but an inclusive ethic that eventually attracted Catholic and Orthodox participants. Aside from its obvious value as an example of Christian unity, Taize's central mission has been service to the poor and oppressed around the world. But as a byproduct of its own community life, Taize also developed a distinctive set of prayers and songs. It's this last contribution for which Taize is probably best known in America, especially among my fellow Episcopalians, for whom "Taize worship" exerts a strong appeal on both sides of the High Church/Low Church divide. As an obdurate member of the former faction, I can say that Taize's songs and chants stand out sharply in the wasteland of "contemporary" liturgical music as uniquely capturing both the simplicity and reverential spirit of traditional plainsong, without the self-conscious antiquarianism of High Church ceremony. Without diminishing Taize's more important missions, I do think any force that can unite today's warring Anglicans has miraculous healing properties.It's obviously sad and ironic that Brother Roger, a man devoted to the pursuit of internal and external peace, died a violent death. But just as obviously, this reflects the original paradox of Christianity, and serves as a reminder of the "broken" nature of humankind that is symbolized by the Cross. I am grateful for the life of Brother Roger, who spent each day working quietly to forge the bonds of community near and far.

August 16, 2005

Abramoff's Widening Gyre

Most of the public still doesn't know much about the series of scandals emanating from the toxic vicinity of Jack Abramoff. Lots of Republicans still scoff at the idea that there will be significant collateral damage from the multiple misconduct of Casino Jack, and even some Democrats wonder if those of us who have obsessed about the subject would be wise to look to more obvious GOP problems like Iraq.But aside from the fact that Democrats ought to be able to multitask: look, folks, the Abramoff scandals bid fare to strike at the rotten core of the whole latter-day GOP. He's right smack in the middle of an elaborate and well-entrenched network of conservative movement and GOP activists who have been together since the 1980s. There's no way he can be marginalized as a minor figure in the GOP, and no way its most important figures can pretend they somehow didn't know he was trading his connections with them for giant bags of money, and sending at least some of that money back in their various directions. And the scale of the whole thing is really something else. As Josh Marshall summed it up today:

This is a huge sum of money Abramoff was sitting on. There was lots of money to keep Grover Norquist rolling in cash, lots of spare cash to fund Ralph Reed's transition from Christian Coalition sachem to power lobbyist, money for skyboxes to use to raise more money without the in-kind donation of the use of the skybox, millions of dollars pushed through front organizations then passed on to others.This isn't just a crooked lobbyist. This is someone managing a slush-fund. The sort of unregulated, unwatched pile of money patronage-based political machines always need to keep running.So who is he running it for?

That's a very good question, and one that should be asked until it is answered. Abramoff has already implicated in his shady activities enough key GOP operatives to refute the idea that he was just a rogue wolf who strayed from the pack. But even if his friends did not specifically approve his every action, they sure as hell set him up as a major hustler in the hazy and lucrative limbo-land where big money is made off political connections, and politicians get a big cut of the action. And it got crazy out of control.As Yeats once put it:"Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer."But who was the falcon, and who the falconer? We really need to know.

August 15, 2005

Justice Sunday II--Fundamentally Dishonest

What really jumps out at you upon watching or reading about the Justice Sunday II sermon-o-ganza in Nashville yesterday is the contrast between the carefully process-oriented framing of the event--all about the separation of power, and checks and balances, and maintaining legislative prerogatives, and so on, bark bark, woof woof--and the underlying extremism of what the speakers actually were talking about.Sure, one theme of the event was the hoary pretense that somehow people of faith (or more accurately, of conservative faiths) are being persecuted for speaking their minds on political issues, which is pretty hilarious given the presence of the all-powerful Majority Leader of the House of Representatives, and the event's object of promoting the judicial appointees of the President of the United States in the Senate controlled by that president's party. There are a few of us who think the religious leaders participating in Justice Sunday II are dangerously shirking their spiritual duties by committing their flocks to a seamy alliance with Mammon through today's Republican Party, but I don't know anybody who denies their First Amendment right to sell their religious birthright for a mess of political pottage.But aside from all the paranoiac (and very un-Christ-like) whining, the big underlying message from Nashville was that reshaping the Supreme Court is necessary to stop the alleged baby-killing, sodomizing, and paganizing that characterizes contemporary America. And there is zero, zero doubt that each and every one of the speakers at Justice Sunday II would completely reverse themselves on every issue related to the Constitution, activist judges, and all the other stuff they blathered about, if the shoe was on the other foot and the judiciary was promoting their own ideology.Suppose, as a thought experiment, that a future Supreme Court embraced the implicit interpretation of the Equal Protection Clause embedded in the Human Life Amendment (still supported in the last Republican platform): that unborn children are endowed with all the rights and privileges of citizenship. Was there a single speaker in Nashville who would not hail such a decision as vindication of a Higher Law that binds all people and all times? I think not.In all their talk about legislative and democratic prereogatives, and the horrific arrogance of unelected judges, the Justice Sunday crowd is painfully reminiscent of the southern segregations who relied for many decades on Supreme Court decisions like Plessy v. Ferguson (the infamous "separate but equal" validation of Jim Crow), and then suddenly re-discovered a populist hostility to the federal judiciary the moment the constitutional winds started blowing in a different direction.It's true that the Left as well as the Right has flip-flopped on this subject in the course of American history; reducing the power of the judiciary was a staple of the People's Party and of the Progressive Movement back when judges interpreted the Constitution as prohibiting any and all legislation regulating private property rights.I don't accuse today's Cultural Right of a unique political heresy, but I do accuse them of a great and notable streak of dishonesty. They don't give a damn about any of the constitutional and procedural issues they talked about in Nashville; they care about a particular policy outcome. They want to criminalize abortion, criminalize homosexual behavior, and sanction public displays of particular religious traditions. They will pursue those policies through any means available, and they ought to be pushed to the wall to admit it.

August 13, 2005

Ironies of Justice Sunday II

As you may know, the usual suspects of the Christian Right, led by Tony Perkins, Chuck Colson, and James Dobson, along with their political clients Rep. Tom (Trouble Man) DeLay and Zell (The Duelist) Miller, are holding something called "Justice Sunday II" in Nashville tomorrow night, to once again howl at the moon about the alleged conspiracy to keep people of faith off the federal bench. (There's a counter-event being sponsored by a variety of religious representatives earlier in the day in the same city).This event is full of ironies. For one thing, the key guest speaker from Justice Sunday I, the man leading the charge for Bush's judicial nominees, Sen. Bill Frist, has been conspicuously excluded from this one, even though it's being held in his own state. That's his punishment for (a) failing to invoke the "nuclear option" during consideration of Bush's Court of Appeals nominees earlier this year, and (b) flip-flopping more recently on stem-cell research.For another thing, this very sanctimonious event will be graced by Tom DeLay, a man who's under so many legal and ethical clouds at the moment that a thunderstorm may break out over his head the moment he mounts the rostrum tomorrow.But the main irony is that the intended beneficiary of all the sermonizing, Judge John Roberts, is a Roman Catholic. And you can expect many of the sermonizers to claim that any and all opposition to Robert is based on anti-Catholic bigotry, on the theory that questions about his position on a constitutional right to privacy, or of a woman's right to choose, involve excluding judges with religious convictions that impinge on their judicial philosophies. Indeed, the whole point of both "Justice Sundays" is that religious views can, do and must affect judicial philosophy, and to think otherwise is to persecute people of faith.This is, of course, richly ironic, since the theological and denominational ancestors of the conservative evangelical Protestant leaders most prominently on display in Nashville frequently and vehemently made the opposite argument against earlier Catholic political figures.The evangelical Protestant inquisition of John F. Kennedy in Houston in 1960 is the most famous example of conservative demands that a Catholic leader swear absolute fealty to the principle of separation of church and state. But there was an earlier and much more savage inquisition back in 1928, when Al Smith, the first Catholic to be nominated for the presidency, was bitterly opposed by conservative Protestant ministers, especially in the South, for the possibility that his faith might somehow affect his policies in office.As it happens, I'm currently reading an interesting book (Happy Days Are Here Again, by Steve Neal) about the 1932 presidential campaign that has a short but fascinating section about Smith's persecution for his faith, and his brave but futile response. And here's what the preeminent American Catholic political martyr of the 20th century had to say:

I recognize no power in the institutions of my church to interfere with the operations of the Constitution of the United States or the enforcement of the law of the land. I believe in absolute freedom of conscience for all men and in equality of all churches, all sects, and all beliefs before the law as a matter of right and not as a matter of favor. I believe in the absolute separation of church and state.
Today, peculiarly enough, such views are considered by the likes of the Justice Sunday crowd as "secular humanist," "anti-Catholic," and "anti-Christian." It's clear that poor Al Smith, were he resurrected today and lifted to public office, would again suffer persecution from the same people, but for the opposite reasons.I'd be real curious to know how Judge Roberts would feel about that.

August 12, 2005

Mis-Polling Iraq

One of my long-time pet peeves is about how political pollsters often decide to frame important questions in public opinion surveys. Some insist on false choices that simply reinforce stereotypes about candidates and political parties and ignore ambivalent public sentiments that actually influence voting behavior. Some endlessly search for bite-sized policy formulations that poll extremely well, at the expense of larger questions facing the country. And some, in the search for trend-lines, insist on asking the same questions for years even as the context radically changes.It's this last habit that Chris Bowers skewers at length in an excellent post on MyDD about polling questions on Iraq. Here's a sample:

Since the start of the war, polling firms have asked the public whether or not they thought the decision to go to war was correct more than five hundred times. Further, in that same time frame, they have asked the public if they approve or disapprove of Bush's handling of the war more than 1,000 times. By contrast, they have asked the public how long they would like to continue fighting the war only twice. Considering that how long we intend to keep fighting the war is the number one issue when it comes to Iraq right now, it is the responsibility of those who frame the debate to at least pose that question to the American people. That question is a lot more important than whether or not we think what we did two and a half years ago was the right thing to do, because we can't do anything about that now.
I might add to Chris' observation that the preoccupation with what we did two and a half years ago isn't terribly helpful to Democrats, since we were divided on the subject while Republicans were not. Moreover, where you were on the original war resolution isn't neatly correlated with what you think the U.S. should do today. There are plenty of people who opposed the war but who are reluctant to support a quick withdrawal today. And I personally know a fair number of Democrats who supported the war but now think Bush and Rumsfeld have screwed it up beyond retrieval. I suspect there are a growing number of Republicans who share that view. As Chris says, the only way to find out what Americans want to do now in Iraq is to ask them in a way that explores the real choices.

August 11, 2005

Casino Jack's Other Problem

Word is that Republican mega-lobbyist Jack Abramoff may finally get indicted late today or tomorrow on fraud charges related to casino operations. But not for his more famous involvement in casinos, the Indian Casino Shakedown Scandal. No: the impending indictment in Miami relates to alleged bank fraud by Abramoff and several partners in securing a loan to buy a casino cruise company, SunCruz Casinos, which later went belly-up during a legal battle over the deal. The seller, BTW, got murdered in the middle of all this in what authorities called a likely gangland hit. Nice.The incredible and ever-increasing web of dubious activity surrounding Abramoff and his political cronies is evidenced by this deadpan line in the AP story on the probable indictment: "[Rep. Tom] DeLay, R-Texas, was not mentioned in any lawsuits involved in the SunCruz deal." This disclaimer tells you everything you need to know about how closely DeLay, Ralph Reed, Grover Norquist, and other key Republicans are tied to Casino Jack's not-very-promising fate.

August 10, 2005

Get Yer Program!

As someone who's deeply into the Abramoff/Scanlon/Norquist/Reed Casino Shakedown Scandal, I'm aware it's a complicated game where it's hard to keep the players straight. That's why I recommend you read a post by Josh Eidelson up on TPMCafe's Auction House section that gives a quick but thorough rundown of the key figures other than Casino Jack himself. And while you're roaming around the Auction House (the site's forum for news on various House GOP scandals), be sure to read Austin Bonner's earlier post about Abramoff's pricey Washington restaurant, which has served as a feedbag and watering whole for those involved in Jack's various schemes. After all, as they say at the ballpark, you don't know your players without a program--or in some cases, a menu.

Ohio Reform Initiative Lookin' Good

Wow, that was fast. ReformOhioNow, a group that began a late-breaking effort to get a package of election and redistricting reform initiatives on the November 2005 ballot, appears to have succeeded in meeting the state's ballot requirements by the August 1 deadline.RON filed 520,000 petitions for the ballot measures. If 322,000 of them are valid, then the three initiatives--one on redistricting, one reversing a GOP effort to relax the state's campaign finance laws, and one stripping election administration from the highly partisan secretary of state's office--will go before Ohio voters.How big a deal is this? Well, big enough that the Ohio GOP--with backing from Republicans in Washington--is scurrying into court to try to stop the initiative. And it's apparently the redistricting measure that has them really worried. Here's what the anti-reform leader told The New York Times:

A former Republican president of the Ohio Senate, Richard Finan, last week filed a lawsuit in the Ohio Supreme Court pre-emptively challenging the petitions because they did not identify the passages that would be deleted from the Constitution.In a telephone interview, Mr. Finan said if the suit failed, a new group he had founded, Ohio First, would take up the cause with the expected backing of Republicans in Washington. Mr. Finan predicted that if the redistricting amendment became law, Republicans would lose six seats in the House of Representatives and that "you'll see this idea spread to other states."
Sounds good to me.

August 9, 2005

Empty Grins

As George W. Bush set a new record for vacationing among American presidents, he sought to gussy up the latest down-time by summoning down to Crawford his "economic team"--i.e., the appointees who can be counted on to grin at the cameras and support the party line that everything's hunky-dory.I don't know what these folks did down there. Maybe they helped W. clear the sage brush. But they sure as hell didn't confirm, adjust, or create any kind of national economic strategy, because we don't have one.The President of the United States came out from the clambake and said that latest job numbers confirmed his tax cut plan.This photo op was obviously caused by (a) a relatively good job creation month, combined with (b) poll numbers showing Bush's approval ratings on the economy dropping to 41 percent.The Bush economic plan, such as it is, depends on a cyclical rebound after the dot.com bust and the 9/11 swoon; the short-term stimulus caused by massive public and private debt and federal spending; a surge of cheap imports; and exceptional and dangerous foreign government investment.Our economy is balanced on a pin, and unfortunately, our economy is being guided by empty minds hiding behind empty grins.

August 7, 2005

War Among Bush's Warriors?

It's now getting pretty obvious that weird things are going on within the Bush administration's national security apparatus.First, there's been the peculiar and very atypical open disagreement about what it is the United States is involved in with respect to terrorism, with the Pentagon wanting to drop the Global War on Terrorism (in favor of something called the Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism), and Bush rather pointedly repudiating the change of terminology in a couple of public appearances last week.And second, there's the constant drumbeat of suggestions from the Pentagon that things are going so swimmingly in Iraq that we might be able to begin bringing home troops by next spring--in sharp contrast to Bush's repeated argument that any talk of withdrawal prior to the military defeat of the insurgency, or a dramatic increase in Iraqi security capabilities, offers encouragement to the enemy.A lot of Democrats think the Pentagon is finally getting out of denial. But on the Republican side of the punditocracy, there's neoconservative editor Bill Kristol , who thinks Rummy and the boys are turning coat and undermining Bush after having concluded that Iraq is a military disaster that's redeemable only by an Iraqi government that's showing us the door, even as Bush still holds out for a U.S.-led victory over the insurgents.Is this, the most "disciplined" administration in memory, about to be torn apart on the issue it has made its very signature? Hard to imagine, but it's starting to look that way. It would sure be ironic if Rumsfeld finally got the sack not for his incompetent handling of Iraq, but for his belief that a change of course is necessary.

August 6, 2005

The 40th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act

For many younger Americans who may have noted in passing short news reports about the commemorations in Atlanta and elsewhere of the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, this may seem like a bit of ancient if important history. For southerners of any race who were old enough to know what was going on 40 years ago, this event was as cataclysmic as its more famous antecedents, Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The drive for voting rights exposed the fundamental anti-Americanism of Jim Crow society even more decisively than the struggle against segregated schools, buses and lunch counters. For all its immorality, segregation could hide behind the fig-leaf of "separate-but-equal," and the pretense that African-Americans were somehow protected from the violence that might accompany abrogation of the South's cultural codes. But the denial of the right to vote could only be defended by lies, or an open rejection of the U.S. Constitution.Over at TPMCafe, I've done a post raising some questions about the future of the Voting Rights Act, but here, I simply want to honor it--and its architects, from John Lewis to Lyndon Johnson--as one of the key developments in the moral redemption of my native region.

August 4, 2005

Mid-Summer Post

Americans inveterately use sports metaphors in talking about everything from politics and economics to personal development and sex. But sometimes, to paraphrase Freud, a game is just a game.I mention this because John Judis, one of my few journalistic idols, posted a meditation at TNROnline yesterday on Ryne Sandburg's Hall of Fame induction speech last weekend. Judis' purpose was to suggest that baseball is falling prey to the same erosion of community and responsibility as corporate America at large.While I agree with Judis' broader point about the decline of mutuality in the modern corporate workplace, I'm not sure baseball is a particularly apt example of it. For one thing, baseball, as a highly regulated competitive game, has self-correcting features not generally prevalent in other markets. And for another, the game has gone through similar problems many times before.In suggesting the Pastime's association with the sturdy virtues of the past, Judis says: "baseball itself is a very conservative game." I disagree. But there's something about baseball that certainly brings out the conservative instincts of its fans.Indeed, what struck me most about the preoccupation of both Judis and Sandberg with the alleged ruination of the game by one-dimensional sluggers was a strong sense of déjà vu: their complaint closely tracked the very first book I read about baseball, more than a generation ago, My Life In Baseball: The True Record, by Ty Cobb and Al Stump. Cobb and Stump similarly fretted about the domination of the game by "humpty-dumpty strong boys pulling the ball over the fences," and echoed every old-timer's paen to the Total Players of the past. As it happens, they were writing near the end of a relatively brief period of home-run-oriented baseball not fundamentally different from the 1990s. By the mid-1960s, pitchers began controlling the game, and soon after, thanks to the construction of large, multi-purpose stadiums with artificial turf, the game devolved back towards something resembling the old-timers' fantasies, with high levels of stolen bases, sacrifice bunts and other one-run strategies, and strong defenses characterizing many winning teams.Yet baseball "traditionalists" generally deplored those boring, sterile stadiums and the fake grass. In one of the great ironies of the game, the most self-consciously conservative trend in baseball history, the construction of a new generation of intimate, baseball-only, retro parks, did a lot to produce the "ruinous" and revolutionary home run derby of the 1990s. And now, though you wouldn't know it from the Judis/Ryneberg argument, there's been another reaction, and home run totals are steadily heading down towards historic norms.The point is that baseball moves in cycles, and it's only the tendency of so many fans and sportswriters to idolize the real and imagined past that makes the movement look unprecedented and negative.If you want a much more balanced and nuanced view of the game and its development, along with a more measured series of suggestions about current excesses, you should read The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. As James shows, the game has always featured greedy and sometimes stupid owners; narcissistic superstars; cheaters of one variety or another; and over-evaulations of the contributions of one-dimensional players, from sluggers to batting champs to acrobatic infielders to "closers."And while the economics of the game have indeed gone nuts, the most recent trends in baseball may well be slowly but surely producing a correction. Look at the standings today. Most of the big-payroll, big-market teams are struggling. The hottest team in baseball right now is the Oakland A's, a team (as detailed by Michael Lewis in his 2003 book, Moneyball) that has applied Bill James' empirical measurements of player value to win with a relatively tiny payroll. James himself is a consultant to the World's Champion Red Sox, working for a whiz-kid disciple of his. The most successful franchise in recent history is the Atlanta Braves, who have won 13 straight division titles with stable management, a strong farm system, and a very balanced offense and defense--a very old-timey approach.Perhaps salary insanity and steroids are truly producing an irreversible crisis in baseball, but I doubt it. And while I don't endorse this regulated industry as a model for American capitalism, I also don't think it's typical of capitalism's worst features, either.Let's continue to treat baseball as a game; as a metaphor, it's usually overplayed.

August 3, 2005

Hackett's Great Run

Those of you who frequent the more intensively political regions of the Democratic blogosphere undoubtedly know about Paul Hackett's campaign in a special congressional election in Ohio, and his impressive 48 percent showing yesterday. It doesn't require spin to call this a large moral victory, given the overwhelmingly Republican nature of the district and the difficulty of mounting a successful insurgency in a special election, where turnout is usually abominable. In terms of its broader implications, the result is being widely interpreted as (a) a very good sign for Ohio Democrats looking forward to '06; (b) a very good sign that Democrats nationally can compete in very red districts in '06, with the right kind of candidates and committed support; and (c) a vindication of the power of the "netroots," which raised a lot of money for Hackett and all but coerced the DCCC into a serious effort in this race. Taking these interpretations in order:(a) Absolutely, Ohio Democrats can and should have a spectacular year in 2006. The state's entrenched GOP leadership, which controls all aspects of state government, has thoroughly worn out its welcome with Buckeye voters, combining bad policies and rampant corruption on a scale that seems to expand endlessly. And Ohio Democrats have properly made reform their mantra. Polls consistently show either of the current Democratic candidates for Governor, Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman or U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland, with sizeable leads over the most likely Republican candidates. Sen. Mike DeWine's increasingly obvious vulnerability will almost certainly attract an A-list opponent in the next few months. The legislature is poised to flip. It's all blue skies at this point.(b) It's trickier to assume the Ohio Special is a 2006 bellweather nationally, though I obviously hope it is. As I recall, Dems did pretty well in Specials in 2003 and 2004 as well; Stephanie Herseth won in a South Dakota at-large district that was nearly as "red" as Ohio-2. On the other hand, the Hackett race was much more of a referendum on GOP policies in Columbus and in Washington than those earlier Specials. The real question is whether Dems nationally can win big with the kind of reform/anti-corruption message that worked well in Ohio. Yes, Ohio presents an especially lurid example of the consequences of total Republican control, but Ohio GOPers do live in the same debased moral and ideological universe as their brethren elsewhere, especially in Washington. So it's definitely worth a try in '06.(c) The "netroots" deserve a lot of credit for making the Hackett race competitive financially and organizationally, and for drawing larger attention to it. But obviously, a quasi-nationalized Special Election is an almost ideal playing-field for netroots-based fundraising and organizing. Replicating their disproportionate Ohio-2 impact in a national campaign with hundreds of targets and a plethora of local factors won't be easy. The best sign, IMO, is that all this excitement was generated on behalf of a candidate nicely tailored to a "red" district, whose policy views probably were at odds with those of a lot of the folks generating the excitement and the cash. And I gather the national groups and bloggers involved in Hackett's campaign let the candidate and his staff call all the important shots. In any event, it was a great effort in tough terrain, and I'm sure we'll be hearing again soon from Paul Hackett.

August 2, 2005

Ralph Reed's Slo-Mo Scandal

Josh Marshall asked today why Ralph Reed's not in more trouble back home in Georgia for his central involvement in the Abramoff/Scanlon Indian Casino Shakedown Scam. As a native Georgian who's watched this thing develop for a while, my answer is: Be patient, Josh. Ralph's political problems may not be shaking, but they're baking. You have to remember:He's running for Lieutenant Governor of Georgia, which may be Ralph's stepping stone to an eventual presidential run, but is not a matter of gripping interest to Georgians at this point. Indeed, and ironically, Reed's Republicans stripped the office of virtually all its once-formidable powers in 2003 after taking over the state senate.He may be a legendary figure nationally, but he's actually not universally known among Georgia voters, and even those who recognize him mostly identify him vaguely with the Christian Coalition, which is rapidly shrinking in the rear-view mirror as a major player in Georgia and national politics. Sure, many Republican activists know he was a spectacularly successful state party chair in 2002, but others remember him as the political consultant whose ham-handed negative campaign for another GOP candidate for Lieutenant Governor, one Mitch Skandalakis, helped take down the whole ticket in 1998. And most of all, Reed's slow-motion-riot of a scandal is clearly going to be the centerpiece of the primary opponent he wasn't able to intimidate into withdrawing, state senator Casey Cagle. To be sure, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has given the Tribal Gaming scam a lot of attention, and Georgia Democrats have joyfully piled on, but it's Cagle's campaign that's made it Daily Bread. In fact, the failure, so far, of Georgia Democrats to recruit a truly top-tier opponent for Ralph is not attributable to fear of Ralph, but mainly to the fear that Reed will implode well before the 2006 primary.Personally, if I were a gambling man, I'd bet big money that Ralph Reed is not going to capture the empty prize of the Lieutenant Governorship of Georgia in 2006, much less grab the brass ring of higher office. Beyond that, I don't know what his future holds, other than to observe that the Lord does tend to reserve special punishment for self-righteous hypocrites.

August 1, 2005

Schwartz on Abdullah

With the news of Crown Prince Abdullah's formal accession to de jure as well as de facto power in Saudi Arabia on the death of long-incapacitated King Fahd, I should mention I've been struggling my way through Stephen Schwartz's 2002 history and polemic about Wahhabism (the harsh Sunni faction in charge in Saudi Arabia, with important links to al Qaeda), The Two Faces of Islam.It's been a struggle for two reasons. The first is that Schwartz's book begins with a full and sometimes idiosyncratic history of Islam in order to frame his indictment of Wahhabism as a betrayal of "traditional" Muslim faith. And the second is that the author's fury at the Saudi Royal Family leads him into some murky waters, such as an extended defense of the Shi'a theocracy of Iran.I supposed I've also mistrusted Schwartz's account because the primary outlets for his views have been American conservative magazines, particularly The Weekly Standard and National Review. But that hasn't kept him from denouncing the Bush administration's ties to the Saudi regime; he particularly seems to detest Dick Cheney as a virtual agent of Riyadh.In any event, Schwartz's otherwise baleful view of Saudi policies softens a bit when he talks about Abdullah, whom he views as a potentially decisive figure in reigning in the activities of Wahhabi clerics at home and abroad. And here's what Schwartz has to say today:

Abdullah himself has long been rumored to detest Wahhabism, which he considers dangerous for Islamic and Arab unity. In a surprising development, Crown Prince Abdullah appeared at the funeral of Syed Mohamed Alawi Al-Maliki, a non-Wahhabi cleric, late last year, praising al-Maliki for his devotion to Islam and to the welfare of the nation. Al-Maliki, a devotee of Sufism as well as a leading Sunni jurist, had previously suffered heavy repression under the Riyadh authorities.
Abdullah is 81 years old; the next three princes in the succession are Defence Minister Sultan, Interior Minister Nayef, and Riyadh governor Salman, all "conservatives" according to Guardian correspondent Brian Whitaker, and all, according to Schwartz's book, part of a Royal Family faction with close ties to Wahhabi clerics.If Abdullah's the one to truly institutionalize genuine reforms in Saudi Arabia, he needs to get a move on.