Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Smoking is as healthy as ever.

Yesterday was a large rally at the State Capitol for Smoke Free Minnesota. The name of the bill that citizens were asking their legislators to support is titled Freedom to Breathe and has the audacity to assert that even workers in bars and restaurants have a right to breathe clean air. Other states have passed similar legislation. Minnesota, once the leader in public health issues, has been too "MN nice" to get legilsation like this passed...until this year!

My state Senator whose partisan caucus approaches this issue as something that the "free market needs to take care" and that government should not interve, recognizes that when 74% of those who identify with his political party support government intervention on this serious public health issue HIS "free market" is speaking loud and clear! This was a stastic that even surprised me! Surprisingly he reluctantly said, "you do know this bill will pass and it will be signed". This was the first time this early in a session that I've heard an legislator make such a remark in my 10 years as a citizen lobbyist. One of our group asked him to share this thoughts and he gave them honestly. He has a brother who smokes and he calls him "idiot"--no recognition or compassion for the deep addiction smoking causes. He also is a member of the local American Legion but won't go to it because it is so unhealthy and calls the attempts that are coming to exclude these places "hypocritical". Interestingly the Commander in Chief of the American Legion National Organization wants to make all posts smoke-free. His comment when hearing this news was "I guess the free market is speaking here too. That's good to know."

So I was feeling like yesteday was a very great day. So much progress is being made in this important area--until I read the news this morning...Here's an excerpt from an article from the N. Y. Times about how tobacco stock is doing better than ever. As in so many other areas of our lives, there is still so much more work for us to be done.

Tobacco’s Stigma Aside, Wall Street Finds a Lot to Like
Published: January 31, 2007

...Still, on Wall Street, analysts are much less enthusiastic about the future of an independent Kraft Foods — which makes a wide range of well-known food products — compared with Altria’s prospects.

Kraft has struggled for several years to find its way in a rapidly changing marketplace, and Irene B. Rosenfeld, the chief executive, is expected to lay out her plans for a turnaround next month.

While many analysts say that Kraft is better off without the taint of tobacco, it still faces formidable challenges in repositioning its products at a time when consumers are less loyal to brands and more attracted to natural products, analysts said.

Investors in Altria are expected to get 0.695 share of Kraft for every share of Altria they own, said Ms. Herzog, who predicted that Altria would distribute the shares early in a 120-day period between the announcement and the distribution.

There is, however, a possibility that the distribution could be delayed by a legal challenge.
Michael D. Hausfeld, a lawyer in a pending class-action lawsuit against tobacco companies, said he might file an injunction to stop a spinoff of Kraft. The lawsuit, first filed in 2004 and known as the Schwab case after the lead plaintiff, Barbara Schwab, contends that cigarette manufacturers defrauded consumers by marketing light cigarettes as safer than regular cigarettes.

The idea behind seeking an injunction is that a judgment could be so enormous that Altria might need Kraft — with a market capitalization of $57.25 billion — to pay off the damages.
“Apparently at this point they have decided to spin Kraft off because they believe there’s a diminishment in their legal exposure,” Mr. Hausfeld said. “We disagree. If anything, the light’s fraud presents the strongest legal merit claims against the industry and Philip Morris.”

He estimated that a judgment in the case could be “several hundreds of billions of dollars” because 30 million to 50 million people who smoked light cigarettes made by several different tobacco companies were affected over more than 30 years. Asked to comment on Wall Street’s affection for tobacco stocks, Mr. Hausfeld said: “Wall Street loves money. And cigarettes are money. You are clearly earning huge returns at the expense of people’s lives.”

Several analysts who track Altria have dismissed the chances of an injunction’s success, and in an October conference call with investors, Mr. Camilleri, the Altria chief executive, said, “We believe that such an action would not have merit and that we would ultimately prevail.”
Altria’s plan to spin off Kraft is part of a long-term revamping plan that may ultimately split the domestic and international tobacco businesses into two companies because Altria thinks they would have more value as independent companies.

For example, Philip Morris International would no longer be dragged down by problems associated with smoking in the United States, like diminished demand and government intervention.

“At times, as a tobacco investor or a tobacco analyst, it seems like an unending stream of negative news,” Mr. Adelman of Morgan Stanley said. “You hear about smoking bans, a new piece of legislation. You hear about criticism from the World Health Organization.
“And then lo and behold, manufacturers release their results,” he said. “And they are good.”


Tobacco companies have identified those most vulunerable to succumb to this extremely addictive behavior and it is working for them around the world. I'm reminded that I need to watch the movie "Thank you for Smoking" which I've not yet seen. Has anyone else seen it? People who went to the rally yesterday are the voices necessary to counteract the strong tobacco lobby and marketing industry. Apparently smoking is as healthy as ever--what a sad oxymoron.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Prayer for Today

This prayer by Detrich Bonhoeffer is today's prayer posted on Beliefnet:

I Cannot Do This Alone

O God, early in the morning I cry to you.
Help me to pray
And to concentrate my thoughts on you:
I cannot do this alone.
In me there is darkness,
But with you there is light;
I am lonely, but you do not leave me;
I am feeble in heart, but with you there is help;
I am restless, but with you there is peace.
In me there is bitterness, but with you there is patience;
I do not understand your ways,
But you know the way for me…
Restore me to liberty,
And enable me to live now
That I may answer before you and before me.
Lord, whatever this day may bring,
Your name be praised.

- Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Eating Well

Fresh on the heals of a wellness workshop at church which presented some interesting insights on nutrition, this long but interesting article by Michael Pollan, author of An Omnivore's Dilemma, appears in the New York Times Magazine. The short version of the article is that our focus on nutritional science has bamboozled us into focusing on what is in our foods instead of how much and how we are eating:

No one likes to admit that his or her best efforts at understanding and solving a problem have actually made the problem worse, but that’s exactly what has happened in the case of nutritionism. Scientists operating with the best of intentions, using the best tools at their disposal, have taught us to look at food in a way that has diminished our pleasure in eating it while doing little or nothing to improve our health. Perhaps what we need now is a broader, less reductive view of what food is, one that is at once more ecological and cultural. What would happen, for example, if we were to start thinking about food as less of a thing and more of a relationship?

In nature, that is of course precisely what eating has always been: relationships among species in what we call food chains, or webs, that reach all the way down to the soil. Species co-evolve with the other species they eat, and very often a relationship of interdependence develops: I’ll feed you if you spread around my genes. A gradual process of mutual adaptation transforms something like an apple or a squash into a nutritious and tasty food for a hungry animal. Over time and through trial and error, the plant becomes tastier (and often more conspicuous) in order to gratify the animal’s needs and desires, while the animal gradually acquires whatever digestive tools (enzymes, etc.) are needed to make optimal use of the plant. Similarly, cow’s milk did not start out as a nutritious food for humans; in fact, it made them sick until humans who lived around cows evolved the ability to digest lactose as adults. This development proved much to the advantage of both the milk drinkers and the cows.

“Health” is, among other things, the byproduct of being involved in these sorts of relationships in a food chain — involved in a great many of them, in the case of an omnivorous creature like us. Further, when the health of one link of the food chain is disturbed, it can affect all the creatures in it. When the soil is sick or in some way deficient, so will be the grasses that grow in that soil and the cattle that eat the grasses and the people who drink the milk. Or, as the English agronomist Sir Albert Howard put it in 1945 in “The Soil and Health” (a founding text of organic agriculture), we would do well to regard “the whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal and man as one great subject.” Our personal health is inextricably bound up with the health of the entire food web.

Want to eat healthier? Pollan suggests that we eat nothing our great grandmothers wouldn't recognize as food. No processed foods. Eat a balanced diet. And eat like the French or Italians, which means eating less and enjoying our meals.

Corn and Ethanol

Being against the expansion of ethanol made from corn is almost as bad as being accused of being soft on terrorism, especially in farming states like Minnesota. But Paul Krugman tells us what is wrong with ethanol made from corn:

In the United States, ethanol comes overwhelmingly from corn, a much less suitable raw material. In fact, corn is such a poor source of ethanol that researchers at the University of Minnesota estimate that converting the entire U.S. corn crop — the sum of all our ears — into ethanol would replace only 12 percent of our gasoline consumption.

Still, doesn’t every little bit help? Well, this little bit would come at a very high price compared with the obvious alternative — conservation. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that reducing gasoline consumption 10 percent through an increase in fuel economy standards would cost producers and consumers about $3.6 billion a year. Achieving the same result by expanding ethanol production would cost taxpayers at least $10 billion a year, based on the subsidies ethanol already receives — and probably much more, because expanding production would require higher subsidies.

What’s more, ethanol production has hidden costs. Even the Department of Energy, which is relatively optimistic, says that the net energy savings from replacing a gallon of gasoline with ethanol are only the equivalent of about a quarter of a gallon, because of the energy used to grow corn, transport it, run ethanol plants, and so on. And these energy inputs come almost entirely from fossil fuels, so it’s not clear whether promoting ethanol does anything to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

So why is ethanol, not conservation, the centerpiece of the administration’s energy policy? Actually, it’s not entirely Mr. Bush’s fault.

To be sure, at this point Mr. Bush’s people seem less concerned with devising good policy than with finding something, anything, for the president to talk about that doesn’t end with the letter “q.” And the malign influence of Dick “Sign of Personal Virtue” Cheney, who no doubt still sneers at conservation, continues to hang over everything.

But even after the Bushies are gone, bad energy policy ideas will have powerful constituencies, while good ideas won’t.

Subsidizing ethanol benefits two well-organized groups: corn growers and ethanol producers (especially the corporate giant Archer Daniels Midland). As a result, it’s bad policy with bipartisan support. For example, earlier this month legislation calling for a huge increase in ethanol use was introduced by five senators, of whom four, including presidential aspirants Barack Obama and Joseph Biden, were Democrats. In a recent town meeting in Iowa, Hillary Clinton managed to mention ethanol twice, according to The Politico.

Meanwhile, conservation doesn’t have anything like the same natural political mojo. Where’s the organized, powerful constituency for tougher fuel economy standards, a higher gasoline tax, or a cap-and-trade system on carbon dioxide emissions?

Not only that, but just when we are getting farmers to buy into the idea that sustainable farming is good for the land and the farmer, that planting diverse crops, using less fertilizer, setting aside marginal farming lands for wildlife and stream health, etc. is good for everyone, we tempt them with the idea of tilling everything up to plant corn, which because of ethanol-related government subsidies is suddenly becoming more profitable.

Ethanol has a role to play in decreasing our dependence on foreign oil, but not corn-based ethanol.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Liberal Catholic Pastor Retired

One of the shining progressive lights in the Catholic Church has been forcibly retired:

In his last Mass as pastor at the inner-city parish in Detroit where he had served for 23 years, Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton told his parishioners that he was forced to step down as pastor because of his lobbying efforts on behalf of the victims of sexual abuse by members of the clergy, a stance that put him in opposition to his fellow bishops.

Last weekend, the archbishop of Detroit, Cardinal Adam Maida, sent a letter to the parish, St. Leo, saying Bishop Gumbleton had to be removed because of church rules on retirement. But as Bishop Gumbleton, who turns 77 on Friday and had already retired last year as a bishop, told his parish last Sunday, there are many pastors even older than he who are allowed to continue serving.

“I’m sure it’s because of the openness with which I spoke out last January concerning victims of sex abuse in the church. So we’re all suffering the consequences of that, and yet, I don’t regret doing what I did because I still think it was the right thing to do,” he said, as the congregation rose and erupted in applause.

Bishop Gumbleton, though he never led a diocese, is known nationally in church circles as a liberal maverick. He co-founded the peace ministry Pax Christi and accompanied antiwar delegations to Haiti and Iraq. He broke ranks with church teaching by preaching in favor of acceptance of gay men and lesbians and the ordination of women.

Last January, he lobbied in favor of a bill in Ohio to extend the statute of limitations and allow victims of sexual abuse to sue the church many years after they were abused. He said he was speaking out because he had been abused by a priest as a teenage seminarian and knew how hard it was to speak publicly even decades later. Bishops in Ohio opposed the bill, which failed.

A spokesman for the archdiocese of Detroit, Ned McGrath, said Bishop Gumbleton’s removal from St. Leo Parish had nothing to do with his lobbying on sexual abuse or his political stands.

Isn't the Catholic Church facing a severe shortage of priests?

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Bachmann on Parade

She was an embarrassment when she was in the State legislature so it is no surprise that she is an even bigger embarrassment in Washington:

From the Drudge Report to the New York Times political blog, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann was all the buzz online Wednesday thanks to her exuberant greeting of President Bush at Tuesday's State of the Union address.

A video clip from the event on captures the Republican congresswoman as she grabs the president's shoulder and holds on to him for almost 30 seconds before kissing him. KSTP-TV Channel 5 news director Chris Berg said that by late Wednesday afternoon, the Bachmann-and-Bush video had received more than 343,000 hits and the station had received hundreds of comments from viewers.

Even though she is on a bigger stage, I am so glad she is out of the state legislature.

God Behind Global Warming

A parent in the Seattle school district put a stop to Al Gore's movie, An Inconvenient Truth, from being shown. Why? Gore has the audacity to suggest that humans, and specifically Americans, have contributed to global warming. But the truth is God is behind it, and it's all part of The Plan:

Hardiman, a parent of seven here in the southern suburbs of Seattle, has himself roiled the global-warming waters. It happened early this month when he learned that one of his daughters would be watching "An Inconvenient Truth" in her seventh-grade science class.

"No you will not teach or show that propagandist Al Gore video to my child, blaming our nation -- the greatest nation ever to exist on this planet -- for global warming," Hardiman wrote in an e-mail to the Federal Way School Board. The 43-year-old computer consultant is an evangelical Christian who says he believes that a warming planet is "one of the signs" of Jesus Christ's imminent return for Judgment Day.

This is a perfect example of why tolerance has its limits. Every person should be free to believe what they want, attend whatever church they want - or not - and if someone wants to believe that God is behind global warming and that this is just the warm up act for the return of Jesus, more power to them. But when they move into the public arena and try to stop children from learning what science is teaching and what the National Academy of Sciences says is fact beyond dispute, then they need to be opposed tooth and nail. Let them pull their children out of the public schools and teach them bogus science in their own privately funded pretend schools.

Man Behind the Curtain

Yesterday the man behind the curtain came out for a brief interview and it wasn't pretty:
In a television interview that turned increasingly contentious as it wore on, Cheney rejected the gloomy portrayal of Iraq that has become commonly accepted even among Bush supporters. "There's problems" in Iraq, he said, but it is not a "terrible situation." And congressional opposition "won't stop us" from sending 21,500 more troops, he said, it will only "validate the terrorists' strategy..."

"The pressure is from some quarters to get out of Iraq," he told CNN. "If we were to do that, we would simply validate the terrorists' strategy that says the Americans will not stay to complete the task, that we don't have the stomach for the fight."

Cheney said the administration would disregard the nonbinding resolution opposing the troop increase and suggested it undermines soldiers in a war zone. "It won't stop us," he said. "And it would be, I think, detrimental from the standpoint of the troops."

Cheney has been criticized in the past for presenting what some called an overly rosy view of the situation in Iraq, most notably in 2005 when he said the insurgency was in its "last throes." The view he expressed yesterday seemed no less positive, and he sparred repeatedly with "Situation Room" host Wolf Blitzer, telling him "you're wrong" and suggesting he was embracing defeat.

When Blitzer asked whether the administration's credibility had been hurt by "the blunders and the failures" in Iraq, Cheney interjected: "Wolf, Wolf, I simply don't accept the premise of your question. I just think it's hogwash."

In fact, Cheney said, the operation in Iraq has achieved its original mission. "What we did in Iraq in taking down Saddam Hussein was exactly the right thing to do," he said. "The world is much safer today because of it. There have been three national elections in Iraq. There's a democracy established there, a constitution, a new democratically elected government. Saddam has been brought to justice and executed. His sons are dead. His government is gone."

"If he were still there today," Cheney added, "we'd have a terrible situation."

"But there is," Blitzer said.

"No, there is not," Cheney retorted. "There is not. There's problems -- ongoing problems -- but we have in fact accomplished our objectives of getting rid of the old regime, and there is a new regime in place that's been here for less than a year, far too soon for you guys to write them off." He added: "Bottom line is that we've had enormous successes and we will continue to have enormous successes."

But it certainly is obvious why the President's world looks like Oz.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

And speaking of the brain, magic and Mozart...

If you want to enrich your life and stimulate your mind with music and beauty tomorrow night (in contrast with the State of the Union Address tonight) I encourage you to watch Mozart's The Magic Flute on PBS. When the MET premiered this in movie theatres across the U.S. it sold out in MN at the one theatre in Brooklyn Park where it was showing.

Now, we will see it on our little t.v. screen here at home in low definition. It was not the first opera my mom took me to see, but it wasn't in English translation when I was a kid. I hope my children "get hooked".

Here's the e-mail press release from the MET:

On Wednesday, January 24, 2007, at 9:00 p.m. ET (check local listings), all the excitement of this spectacular Magic Flute comes home to you on PBS, the first broadcast in a new opera series, GREAT PERFORMANCES AT THE MET. Also to be shown in HD, the PBS series includes five additional performances captured live in 2007—the largest number of complete Met operas ever presented by PBS in one season. Tune in to PBS to see why critics—as well as music lovers of all ages around the globe—fell in love with the newest way to experience the thrill of the Met’s 2006-07 season. The New York Times heralded the Met’s innovative adaptation of Flute and said of the live HD performance, “In movie theaters across the United States on Saturday, people did an odd thing during the main attraction: They clapped.” Join in the applause on Wednesday, January 24, on PBS. For more information on the HD series, visit the Met’s website.

On this date in 1964--Poll Tax Eliminated

My second grader is starting to study the U.S. Constitution. We went online to view the text. (Con. Law was one of my favorite subjects both undergrad and in law school). Here's a little historical tidbit for today....

24th AmendmentOne of the last legal vestiges of segregation was the effort to keep the black population from participating in the vote. With most methods for keeping the black vote to a minimum declared unconstitutional, several Southern states found an answer - the poll tax. The poll tax has a long history, and was often used in Europe to raise funds. With a poll tax, in order to vote, a certain tax must be paid. The tax is the same for all, which allowed the generally more affluent white population access to the polls with a minimum of pain, while the generally poorer black population would have trouble justifying trading food on the table for a vote in the ballot box. Worse, different kinds of poll taxes were implemented, some accumulating even if no attempt was made to vote, meaning increasingly higher back-taxes to be paid to gain the vote.
In 1939, Congress began to try to get rid of the poll tax, but history was not behind them. After all, in colonial times and when the Constitution first same into effect, land ownership was often a requirement for suffrage. Though only five states still had a poll tax by the time the amendment passed Congress, Supreme Court rulings made it doubtful that mere legislation would eliminate the tax altogether. Proposed by Congress on August 27, 1962, the 24th Amendment was ratified within a year and a half, on January 23, 1964 (514 days).

The God Question

My newsletter article this week:

When I moved to the Twin Cities in 1993 to start a new church, I carried with me two overarching core values that had crystallized for me during my previous church experiences. One, I never again wanted to be part of church where sexual orientation mattered. Because it doesn't. And two, I wanted to be free to speak about my own evolving beliefs and be a part of a church where it was o.k. to ask questions about the existence of God, to learn about the real Jesus, and to explore a variety of spiritual traditions and practices. After fourteen years at Open Circle my commitment to these two core values hasn't wavered. And in fact, I have become more and more convinced that if Christianity is going to have anything meaningful to say to our world in the 21st century these core values will need to be at the center of Christian faith experience.

I have discovered over the years at Open Circle that of these two core values of mine, the second is the one that is on the "cutting edge" for our community. There is no one in our community who cares about the issue of sexual orientation. And in fact, many came here first for this reason.

But on the issue of God and Jesus and spirituality, we are not all at the same place. Which is not surprising. We have folks who have come from traditional Christian experiences and others who have come from none. Some of us hold to more traditional Christian beliefs (but not too traditional or it would be uncomfortable to be here, I suspect) and some are more interested in exploring other belief systems and spiritual practices.

A couple of years ago I discovered first-hand our diversity on these issues when I addressed forthrightly my own beliefs about God. I doubt if any message I have delivered here got such a response. What are my beliefs? I don't "believe" in the personal, traditional God of orthodox Christian theology. I am one of those who share the sentiments of the retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong that the "traditional religious understandings have lost most of their ancient power." Spong again: "My personal God, a kind of divine father protector, a bit of a Mr. Fixit, what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would call the God of the gaps, began to shake visibly, to wobble before my eyes, and to fade perceptibly." This has been my experience. I don't "believe" in a god who is up there, out there, in control of everything, able to answer any prayer.

For me, "belief" in this kind of God ultimately foundered on the question of evil in the world. If there is an all-knowing, all-powerful God, why does he or she allow evil to persist in our world? Enormous amounts of brain-power and ink have been exhausted over the centuries attempting to answer this question in a satisfactory way. Some believe God ultimately wills the evil; some believe we are pawns in cosmic battle between God and Satan; some believe that in his wisdom, God allows it to happen. Some believe that there is eternal justice; God allows it to happen here but exacts justice in the afterlife. For me it is very simple and concrete. I can't believe in any God who has the power to stop terrorist bombers from killing 100's of innocent Iraqis everyday and allows it to happen. (And remember that these same terrorists believe that their God is calling them to do this and is going to reward them for it in the afterlife!)

For me, God is a metaphor for the ultimate and deep realities of our world that we experience but only partially. For instance, we all know what love is. We all know that we need love. We also know that the love we experience is always incomplete; it never exhausts the depths of what love is. And we feel the constant pull in our lives to go deeper, to become more loving and loved individuals. That deep, inviting love is God for me. This God/Love is real for me. I don't "believe" in it; but I do trust it completely.

So, there, I have said it again. Why? Because I want to be honest with you about my beliefs. Because I want to invite you to think about yours and know that it is o.k. to talk about your beliefs at Open Circle. And, because I know that there are lots of Christians who are sitting in traditional churches or who have already left and who know that they don't believe what they once did but don't know what to do with it. If you know someone like that maybe you should send them this newsletter or invite them to Open Circle.

Jesus Will Wreck Your Life

Tony Campolo, nationally known left-leaning evangelical talking to the Star Tribune today (he is speaking in the Twin Cities) about right-wing Christian suburbanite youngsters being exposed to poverty at service camps run by his son:

Most kids who come to Mission Year arrive as right-wing Republicans and leave as left-leaning Democrats because they find out how different life is for poor people. For instance, they discover that police in inner-city Philadelphia don't act the same as those in suburban Minneapolis. Life is grittier there, and less fair.

One of my students [at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pa., where Campolo is professor emeritus of sociology] who's becoming rather famous, Shane Claiborne, talks about how life-changing that experience is in his book "The Irresistible Revolution" and a new one called "How Jesus Wrecked My Life." The stereotype is that a poor person finds Jesus, then happiness and ease. Claiborne writes about being a privileged suburban kid who found Jesus and suddenly was exposed to poverty and tough challenges in inner-city Philadelphia. Poof! The good life is gone, but real life is richer.

Do You Believe in Magic?

Most of us do, apparently:

Children exhibit a form of magical thinking by about 18 months, when they begin to create imaginary worlds while playing. By age 3, most know the difference between fantasy and reality, though they usually still believe (with adult encouragement) in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. By age 8, and sometimes earlier, they have mostly pruned away these beliefs, and the line between magic and reality is about as clear to them as it is for adults.

It is no coincidence, some social scientists believe, that youngsters begin learning about faith around the time they begin to give up on wishing. “The point at which the culture withdraws support for belief in Santa and the Tooth Fairy is about the same time it introduces children to prayer,” said Jacqueline Woolley, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas. “The mechanism is already there, kids have already spent time believing that wishing can make things come true, and they’re just losing faith in the efficacy of that.”

If the tendency to think magically were no more than self-defeating superstition, then over the pitiless history of human evolution it should have all but disappeared in intellectually mature adults.

Yet in a series of experiments published last summer, psychologists at Princeton and Harvard showed how easy it was to elicit magical thinking in well-educated young adults. In one instance, the researchers had participants watch a blindfolded person play an arcade basketball game, and visualize success for the player. The game, unknown to the subjects, was rigged: the shooter could see through the blindfold, had practiced extensively and made most of the shots.

On questionnaires, the spectators said later that they had probably had some role in the shooter’s success. A comparison group of participants, who had been instructed to visualize the player lifting dumbbells, was far less likely to claim such credit.

In another experiment, the researchers demonstrated that young men and women instructed on how to use a voodoo doll suspected that they might have put a curse on a study partner who feigned a headache. And they found, similarly, that devoted fans who watched the 2005 Super Bowl felt somewhat responsible for the outcome, whether their team won or lost. Millions in Chicago and Indianapolis are currently trying to channel the winning magic.

The researchers suggest that sometimes magical thinking serves us well:

For people who are generally uncertain of their own abilities, or slow to act because of feelings of inadequacy, this kind of thinking can be an antidote, a needed activator, said Daniel M. Wegner, a professor of psychology at Harvard. (Dr. Wegner was a co-author of the voodoo study, with Kimberly McCarthy of Harvard and Sylvia Rodriguez of Princeton.)

“I deal with students like this all the time and I say, ‘Let’s get you overconfident,’ ” Dr. Wegner said. “This feeling that your thoughts can somehow control things can be a needed feeling” — the polar opposite of the helplessness, he added, that so often accompanies depression.

The article just touches on the larger evolutionary issue of why we believe. I recently re-read Michael Shermer's book, How We Believe, where he suggests that humans evolved a "belief engine" that was closely related to our ability to see and remember patterns everywhere. The ability to observe and remember what it took to be successful to hunt for food or grow crops allowed our ancestors to fill in the gaps of their unknowing by seeing an event (like an approaching storm cloud) and then imagining what was about to happen (it was going to rain so they ought to take shelter). This highly useful pattern-making function sometimes also enabled them to see things that were not there (ghosts) and imagine causes and outcomes not supported by the evidence. But perhaps it was, and is, useful to the human psyche and spirit to believe in "magic."

Finally, A Consensus on Global Warming

Front page on the Wall Street Journal this morning:

The global-warming debate is shifting from science to economics.

For years, the fight over the Earth's rising temperature has been mostly over what's causing it: fossil-fuel emissions or natural factors beyond man's control. Now, some of the country's biggest industrial companies are acknowledging that fossil fuels are a major culprit whose emissions should be cut significantly over time...

Even Exxon Mobil, the company that has funded bogus anti-global warming science all over the globe, is relenting. Naturally, every company is looking out for its own financial interests and wants whatever financial pain that is going to be inflicted in the response to be born by someone else. And lots of companies, like DuPont, have shifted to thinking about how to make a profit from whatever new technologies come down the pike.

But finally the battle over the science of global warming is largely over. Chalk one up to Al Gore.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Music on the Brain

It is an amazing a and powerful experience to hear a song and suddenly be transported to a different time and place. How does it happen? From the Washington Post:

Another Saturday night and I ain't got nobody/ I've got some money 'cause I just got paid/ Now, how I wish I had someone to talk to/ I'm in an awful way . . .

It came to him unbidden, that song from his college days. Only now it meant something completely different. There was a man on a stretcher before him, draped in a poncho. Blood dripped off the end of the stretcher, the only sign of life from a lifeless body. It was 1967, but Howard Sherpe had already decided that the war in Vietnam was pointless, that the dead man before him had died for nothing.

Sherpe felt lonely, but not the same way he felt back in college when he didn't have a date on a Saturday night. He felt alone, existentially alone. In his mind, he heard Sam Cooke's voice, but the lyrics were different.

Another Saturday night and I ain't got nobody/ I got all bloody and feel some pain/ I just want to get the hell out of here/ I'm in an awful way. . . .

Nearly 40 years later, Sherpe needs to hear only a few bars of the song to be transported back to Vietnam, where he served as a medic attached to the 4th Infantry Division. The music brings the sights and sounds and smells roaring back. He can even see a cigarette in his hand that is splotched with blood -- the dead man's blood.

"What I feel is the sense of all of this was in vain, it was for nothing," said Sherpe, 62, of Madison, Wis. "That sense of loss. . . ."

Sherpe's experience is both unique and universal. That moment in Vietnam was highly personal, but the experience of having a tune bring to mind a powerful memory is something everyone can relate to. For neuroscientists, this raises a question: How is it that music connects people to faraway places and events from long, long ago?

Music hooks deep into emotions and memories in ways that words do not; in fact, Sherpe is contributing to a project that aims to get at a history of the Vietnam War through the music of the era. At the University of Wisconsin, scholar Craig Werner and Vietnam vet Doug Bradley have found that music is a highway into veterans' memories of the war.

"Words are tied up in politics," said Werner, who is chair of the Afro-American studies department. "When we talk about wars, it becomes an issue of liberal ideology versus conservative ideology, hawks versus doves, you are for it or against it. . . . For the guys who were there, the words don't fit the complexity of the experience."

"What music does is reach down into parts of our brain, it opens networks and pathways that you can't get to via language," he added.

For neuroscientists, the power of music poses a puzzle.

McGill scientist Robert Zatorre once hypothesized that because music is abstract, it must activate parts of the brain that process abstract ideas -- areas that developed relatively recently as humans evolved from apes. But when Zatorre asked people to listen to their favorite pieces of music as he ran brain scans on them -- people selected whatever kinds of music sent chills down their spine -- he found that music activated very ancient parts of the brain.

"Because music was abstract, we thought it would activate higher levels of cortex," he said. "Instead we got this very ancient system which is usually involved in biological reward. . . . What we found in a nutshell is when people experience chills, there was a huge range of activity all over the brain. It lit up like a Christmas tree."

Music seems to activate pleasure networks that are typically activated by food, water and sex. Why would music have the same effects on the brain as biological experiences integral to survival?

Zatorre hypothesized that the capacity to appreciate music might be an accidental outgrowth of other abstract human skills. But Mark Jude Tramo, a neuroscientist at Harvard University and a songwriter, said that notion sells music short -- and overestimates the importance of words to survival.

"Some of the most emotionally laden sounds we hear and make are non-speech vocalizations, like moans and groans and oohs and aahs and laughing and crying," Tramo said. "If you believe music does not have evolutionary significance you are in a very small minority."

Tramo argued that the sounds and grunts widespread in the animal kingdom set the stage for the human brain to appreciate music. If music grew out of nonverbal communication, and nonverbal communication is essential to survival in much of the animal world, it would make sense that music should hook deep into the brain. For social species such as humans, Tramo said music can bind groups together.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Radical Islam in Great Britain

Christiane Amanpour reports on the growing threat of radical Islam in Great Britain:
When we reported the unprecedented suicide bombings of the London underground trains and buses in 2005, we were shocked beyond words that young British Muslims, born and bred here, would go to that extreme.

We could not understand what would drive them to kill themselves and their fellow citizens.

And so we started to investigate what we call "The War Within."

What struck us most was how deeply the Iraq war has radicalized today's generation of young Muslims in Britain. Whether extreme or mainstream, they are angry about the war, angry that their country so devotedly follows U.S. foreign policy, angry at what they see as a worldwide war against Muslims and Islam.

A man who runs a youth center in a London neighborhood with a large Muslim population said the message of extremism preys on many kids who see no way out of their ethnic ghettos. Those youth, he said, have always had vices -- street crime, drugs, car thefts.

"But then now you've got another threat," Hanif Qadir told me.

"The new threat is radicalism. It's a cause. Every young man wants a cause."

We knew much of the Islamic world feels like this, but we were surprised at the extent of these feelings in Britain...
There are moderates trying to make a difference, she says, but it doesn't sound too hopeful. The rippling waves of the disastrous policies of the Bush Administration are being felt around the world.

Still, it must be said that these individuals have a choice about whether they choose peace or violence.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Lutheran Pastor Faces Ouster for Being Openly Gay

A minister who disclosed that he was gay before Atlanta’s oldest Lutheran church hired him as its pastor could now be defrocked for announcing he has a partner.

The Rev. Bradley Schmeling was chosen in 2000 to lead St. John’s, though some worried his sexuality could threaten its standing with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. But last year, the 350-member congregation threw a party for him and his partner, when Schmeling announced he had found a lifelong companion.

Bishop Ronald Warren of the ELCA’s Southeastern Synod, however, asked the 44-year-old pastor to resign. When Schmeling refused, Warren started disciplinary proceedings against him for violating church rules barring sex outside of marriage.

On Friday, Schmeling will face a hearing — structured much like a trial — where a committee of 12 ELCA members will decide whether he can remain an ordained minister in the church that sits among mansion-lined hills just east of downtown.

If the committee rules against Schmeling, he could face suspension or no longer be recognized as an ordained minister in the ELCA. In the latter case, if his congregation opts to keep him as its pastor, the ELCA could also discipline St. John’s.

I don't know enough about the ELCA to know how this will work out if the congregation decides to keep him anyway, which is what the article says is their sentiment. But these battles have to be fought in every denomination until gay and lesbians are fully accepted as members and clergy, and more importantly, as normal everyday people.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Studying Faith at Harvard

From Newsweek:
In your prayers tonight, you might want to thank God that no one has put you in charge of the Task Force on General Education at Harvard.

The job wasn't going to be easy. Harvard has been looking at revising its core curriculum—established in 1978 to ensure that all undergraduates are educated in certain subject areas—for years. Committees were convened and disbanded, defeated by internal politics and conceptual stalemates. The most recent iteration, the aforementioned task force, is now drafting its final recommendations for a vote next month by the faculty. It will likely succeed, but not without sustaining considerable damage from the culture wars.

In October, the task force issued an innocent-enough proposal. Given the prominence of religion in the world today, all students should be required to do coursework in an area called "Reason & Faith." "Religion is realpolitik, both nationally and internationally," the report said. "By providing [students] with a fuller understanding of both local and global issues involving religious faith, the courses are intended to help students become more informed and reflective citizens."

Criticism was loud and immediate—and came largely from the science faculty. "There is an enormous constituency of people who would hold that faith and reason are two routes to knowledge. It is a mistake to affirm that," says Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker. "It's like having a requirement in 'Astronomy & Astrology.' They're not comparable topics." Pinker is not just splitting hairs. In a 2006 study of the religious beliefs of science professors at elite universities, SUNY Buffalo sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund found that many are infuriated by what they see as a widespread erosion of belief in proven scientific theories, such as evolution. "Some of the faculty I talked to wanted to suppress discussion of religion in the classroom," she says. Pinker says he's all for teaching students about world religions, just not as a requirement.

Enough people agreed with him. In December the task force withdrew its "Reason & Faith" recommendation, substituting instead a category called "What It Means to Be a Human Being." On the phone, Louis Menand, the English professor who cochaired the task force, sounds exhausted. "It's noncontroversial that there is this thing called religion out there and that it has an enormous impact on the world we live in. Scholars should be able to study and teach it without getting cooties"—a term of art, not science.

Maybe at no time in our history is it more important for young people to graduate from college knowing about world religions and their impact on our globe today. At an elite educational institution it is unthinkable that a student could get a degree and not have learned anything about religion. Let's just pretend that it doesn't exist and maybe it will go away.

To Be Christian in Bagdad

Via Talking Points Memo, a priest discusses what it is like to be a Christian in Iraq these days:

After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Christians have felt themselves increasingly under attack. During Saddam Hussein’s time, brutal acts were carried out against all Iraqis, but Saddam only permitted atrocities at his whim.

Without the security of Saddam’s strong central state and intelligence apparatus, sectarian, religious, and ethnic in-fighting has sprung up in much of Iraq. The Christian community, already small and isolated, primarily in Northern Iraq and Baghdad, has grown even more worried. They have faced a surge of attacks targeting them, attempting to push them from the country.

These attacks have been all too successful, today Iraq’s Christian community is almost entirely devastated. Most of them have fled to Jordan and Syria, many seeking a path to safety amongst other Christians in the West.

This has also led to the devastation of two of Iraq’s oldest idigenous communities, the Assyrians and Chaldeans, who are both primarily Christian communities now.

Sacrificing Our Peace of Mind

From The Wall Street Journal's Morning Brief, a snippet of conversation between PBS anchor Jim Lehrer and the President on the meaning of sacrifice:
Later, Mr. Lehrer asked the president if Iraq is indeed part of a struggle for the future of America, "why have you not, as president of the United States, asked more Americans and more American interests to sacrifice something? The people who are now sacrificing are, you know, the volunteer military - the Army and the U.S. Marines and their families. They're the only people who are actually sacrificing anything at this point."

President Bush: "Well, you know, I think a lot of people are in this fight. I mean, they sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night. I mean, we've got a fantastic economy here in the United States, but yet, when you think about the psychology of the country, it is somewhat down because of this war. Now, here in Washington when I say, 'What do you mean by that?,' they say, 'Well, why don't you raise their taxes; that'll cause there to be a sacrifice.' I strongly oppose that. If that's the kind of sacrifice people are talking about, I'm not for it because raising taxes will hurt this growing economy. And one thing we want during this war on terror is for people to feel like their life's moving on, that they're able to make a living and send their kids to college and put more money on the table."
This is the thinking of a man born with silver spoon in his mouth and handed job after job for which he wasn't qualified and, at least until this moment, bailed out of trouble every time he screwed up. Sacrifice involves having a troubled peace of mind from watching the news; but real sacrifice would involve paying higher taxes.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

NFL has Paris, doesn't want Britney

This belongs in the no comment department:
The NFL has rejected Britney Spears' request to be in a Super Bowl commercial to tout the NFL Network, the New York Daily News reported Tuesday.

"She's too much of a train wreck. Besides, we already have Paris Hilton," the Daily News cited its source as saying.

McCain Panders to Dobson

Sen. John McCain once had a claim to being a maverick legislator who could appeal across the political spectrum. But after getting pasted by Bush in 2000 after Bush successfully portrayed McCain as too liberal to the religious right, McCain has decided he needs to pander to the right-wing religious movement. First it was Pat Robertson and now it is James Dobson:
Sen. John McCain said Tuesday he hopes to patch things up with conservative Christian leader James Dobson, who recently said he wouldn't support the Republican's presidential bid under any circumstances.
McCain should be proud to have Dobson spurning him. Dobson represents the very worst of Christianity. And what worked in 2000 isn't going to work in 2008. The country is tiring of wedge issues and the corrupt and dishonest politicians who have used them to their benefit. And the influence of Dobson's ilk is declining as younger evangelicals become more less concerned about wedge issues and more interested in following the actual teachings of Jesus.

I wonder how our Governor feels about this. At the very moment when he is working studiously to move to the center he is announced as a campaign coordinator for a candidate that is tacking hard right on the war and on "religious" values.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Remembering MLK Jr.

Yesterday in worship we showed the 40 minute DVD "The Children's March" by The Southern Poverty Law Center. It tells the story of Birmingham, Alabama protest in 1963 that literally broke the back of southern segregation. King went to jail in Birmingham and was disappointed that he got so little support from blacks in the city. He brought in James Bevel to organize and Bevel had the same problem; the oppression was so severe the adults were afraid to act. But in what must have been an incredibly moving scene - it certainly was on the DVD - when Bevel (or was it King?) called for volunteers at the packed 16th Street Baptist Church, which was later bombed, it was the children who stood up and volunteered to fill the jails. And for a week that is just what they did; thousands of children marched and were arrested and jailed. The newspaper and television reports of the time showing Bull Connor using fire hoses and dogs on children shocked the nation and forced President Kennedy to intervene. Hearing them, as adults, tell their story, as well as showing footage from the march, was inspiring.

We honor Dr. King today as a great leader who challenged and inspired the nation to redress a great wrong. But it is well to remember that it was children who were among the first to get what he was all about; they led the way in Birmingham.

Daniel in the Lions Den

The Washington Post has an interesting article about an evangelical Christian making his way in a large secular university. After attending Christian schools from kindergarten through high school he decided he wanted to test his faith in a more diverse setting, so he matriculated at the University of Maryland. A week before he began he checked the Facebook of his new roommate. It said, "I hate Evangelical Christians." His roommate, it turns out, was talking about TV preacher types.

After getting off to a tentative start, he was making his way quite well. And learning a few things about the rest of the world:

And he was diving into his new challenge: understanding the secular psyche. For example, what exactly was driving the activism he was seeing among irreligious people?

"For me, if I didn't believe in God, it seems that the natural conclusion is to live life as selfishly as possible," he said. "If I wasn't religious, I can certainly see living my life quite differently."

He also felt himself opening up a bit on the subject of homosexuality. He'd gone to the dialogue and also had been assigned a book condemning anti-gay discrimination for a class on civics. Even before coming to Maryland, he'd wrestled with the idea that God sends people to Hell, but now he felt even less comfortable judging who.

"You put more faces to [a subject], and it makes a little bit of difference, and you understand it from their point of view more," he said. "If Jesus was here today, he would hang around with the gay community; these guys are shunned..."

"Now I feel that I'm very entrenched in my faith, my view of God. But when it comes to other things, like gay marriage or any number of things, I'm not deeply entrenched in them," he said.

"I feel like I'm different, but I don't feel alienated. And that's not a bad place to be."

There is hope for the world.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

We are the Deciders

Molly Ivins gets it right in her syndicated column today. The President and those who support a surge are out of touch with reality; the war is lost and the American people have had enough. If they won't listen then it is time for us to take matters into our own hands:

A surge is not acceptable to the people in this country -- we have voted overwhelmingly against this war in polls (about 80 percent of the public is against escalation, and a recent Military Times poll shows only 38 percent of active military want more troops sent) and at the polls. We know this is wrong. The people understand, the people have the right to make this decision, and the people have the obligation to make sure our will is implemented.

Congress must work for the people in the resolution of this fiasco. Ted Kennedy's proposal to control the money and tighten oversight is a welcome first step. If Republicans want to continue to rubber-stamp this administration's idiotic "plans" and go against the will of the people, they should be thrown out as soon as possible...

We are the people who run this country. We are the deciders. And every single day, every one of us needs to step outside and take some action to help stop this war. Raise hell. Make our troops know we're for them and trying to get them out of there. Hit the streets to protest Bush's proposed surge. If you can, go to the peace march in Washington Jan. 27. We need people in the streets, banging pots and pans and demanding, "Stop it, now!"

Friday, January 12, 2007

Lessons of History for Congress

Three decades ago Rep. Bob Edgar was a newly elected Congressman from Pennsylvania. Today he is the general secretary of the National Council of Churches. In this Philadelphia Inquirer commentary, he remembers what it was like as a freshman legislator to be opposing President Gerald R. Ford's plan to send some 20,000 more troops into Vietnam in a last-ditch effort to secure Saigon. Under the tutelage of Tip O'Neill, he and the other "Watergate babies" offered amendment after amendment to try and block the plan. In the end it became a moot issue because Saigon fell. But Edgar notes this irony:

It is somewhat ironic that, on that same day, April 22, 1975, an official White House photograph captured the architects of the proposed troop surge. President Ford is seated behind his desk in the Oval Office. He is conferring with his chief of staff, Donald Rumsfeld, and his deputy, Dick Cheney.

Fast-forward 32 years. We are hearing the same talk. We are hearing the same reasoning that more troops will help us get out of a war thousands of miles away.

We have just seen a new Congress sworn in. Many say voters spoke loudly last November against the status quo. In 1975, the 49 of us were called "Watergate babies," referring to the crimes that brought down the Nixon administration. Voters then were tired of being lied to, and wanted desperately to get our troops home from the war in Southeast Asia.

The architects of the waning days of the Vietnam War are many of the same planners who pushed our troops into the current war in Iraq. Apparently history has taught them nothing.

History, however, apparently was not lost on the American voters last November. I suspect it will likely not be lost on their representatives in the 110th Congress. I suspect those elected by the people will not approve spending any more tax dollars to extend another unpopular, ill-planned and shortsighted war.

Let's hope he is right. And how ironic - and sad- it is that Rumsfeld and Cheney were at the center of that mess three decades ago and are at the center of another foreign policy debacle today.

Friday Cat Blogging

These two, on the other hand, were unwilling to step outside in the cold and protest the war.

Peace Vigil

Well, it was too dark for my camera, but we had a great turnout last night for the Burnsville peace vigil which was one of a thousand planned for around the country. I counted 62 present.

Why does this kind of event matter? It is just the tip of the iceberg. For most people, standing on the street corner protesting with a sign is the very last thing they want to be doing. When thousands of Americans take to the streets to voice their opposition to the war, you know they are speaking for tens of thousands more who have had enough and want change.

Bill Moyers on the Need for a Liberal Story

Bill Moyers has an article in The Nation, adapted from remarks made to a gathering sponsored by The Nation and others, that cements his reputation as one of our finest progressive thinkers. After commenting on the satisfaction of the resent election remarks, he noted the long list of liberal "to-do's" that are popping up everywhere. While he doesn't dispute the agenda, he thinks something more important is at stake:

But America needs something more right now than a "must-do" list from liberals and progressives. America needs a different story. The very morning I read the message from the progressive activist, the New York Times reported on Carol Ann Reyes. Carol Ann Reyes is 63. She lives in Los Angeles, suffers from dementia and is homeless. Somehow she made her way to a hospital with serious, untreated needs. No details were provided as to what happened to her there, except that the hospital--which is part of Kaiser Permanente, the largest HMO in the country--called a cab and sent her back to skid row. True, they phoned ahead to workers at a rescue shelter to let them know she was coming. But some hours later a surveillance camera picked her up "wandering around the streets in a hospital gown and slippers." Dumped in America.

Here is the real political story, the one most politicians won't even acknowledge: the reality of the anonymous, disquieting daily struggle of ordinary people, including the most marginalized and vulnerable Americans but also young workers and elders and parents, families and communities, searching for dignity and fairness against long odds in a cruel market world.

Everywhere you turn you'll find people who believe they have been written out of the story. Everywhere you turn there's a sense of insecurity grounded in a gnawing fear that freedom in America has come to mean the freedom of the rich to get richer even as millions of Americans are dumped from the Dream. So let me say what I think up front: The leaders and thinkers and activists who honestly tell that story and speak passionately of the moral and religious values it puts in play will be the first political generation since the New Deal to win power back for the people.

There's no mistaking that America is ready for change. One of our leading analysts of public opinion, Daniel Yankelovich, reports that a majority want social cohesion and common ground based on pragmatism and compromise, patriotism and diversity. But because of the great disparities in wealth, the "shining city on the hill" has become a gated community whose privileged occupants, surrounded by a moat of money and protected by a political system seduced with cash into subservience, are removed from the common life of the country. The wreckage of this abdication by elites is all around us.

Corporations are shredding the social compact, pensions are disappearing, median incomes are flattening and healthcare costs are soaring. In many ways, the average household is generally worse off today than it was thirty years ago, and the public sector that was a support system and safety net for millions of Americans across three generations is in tatters. For a time, stagnating wages were somewhat offset by more work and more personal debt. Both political parties craftily refashioned those major renovations of the average household as the new standard, shielding employers from responsibility for anything Wall Street didn't care about. Now, however, the more acute major risks workers have been forced to bear as employers reduce their health and retirement costs--on orders from Wall Street--have made it clear that our fortunes are being reversed. Polls show that a majority of US workers now believe their children will be worse off than they are. In one recent survey, only 14 percent of workers said that they have obtained the American Dream.

It is hard to believe that less than four decades ago a key architect of the antipoverty program, Robert Lampman, could argue that the "recent history of Western nations reveals an increasingly widespread adoption of the idea that substantial equality of social and economic conditions among individuals is a good thing." Economists call that postwar era "the Great Compression." Poverty and inequality had declined dramatically for the first time in our history. Here, as Paul Krugman recently recounted, is how Time's report on the national outlook in 1953 summed it up: "Even in the smallest towns and most isolated areas, the U.S. is wearing a very prosperous, middle-class suit of clothes, and an attitude of relaxation and confidence. People are not growing wealthy, but more of them than ever before are getting along." African-Americans were still written out of the story, but that was changing, too, as heroic resistance emerged across the South to awaken our national conscience. Within a decade, thanks to the civil rights movement and President Johnson, the racial cast of federal policy--including some New Deal programs--was aggressively repudiated, and shared prosperity began to breach the color line.

To this day I remember John F. Kennedy's landmark speech at the Yale commencement in 1962. Echoing Daniel Bell's cold war classic The End of Ideology, JFK proclaimed the triumph of "practical management of a modern economy" over the "grand warfare of rival ideologies." The problem with this--and still a major problem today--is that the purported ideological cease-fire ended only a few years later. But the Democrats never re-armed, and they kept pinning all their hopes on economic growth, which by its very nature is valueless and cannot alone provide answers to social and moral questions that arise in the face of resurgent crisis. While "practical management of a modern economy" had a kind of surrogate legitimacy as long as it worked, when it no longer worked, the nation faced a paralyzing moral void in deciding how the burdens should be borne. Well-organized conservative forces, firing on all ideological pistons, rushed to fill this void with a story corporate America wanted us to hear. Inspired by bumper-sticker abstractions of Milton Friedman's ideas, propelled by cascades of cash from corporate chieftans like Coors and Koch and "Neutron" Jack Welch, fortified by the pious prescriptions of fundamentalist political preachers like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, the conservative armies marched on Washington. And they succeeded brilliantly.

When Ronald Reagan addressed the Republican National Convention in 1980, he a told a simple story, one that had great impact. "The major issue of this campaign is the direct political, personal and moral responsibility of Democratic Party leadership--in the White House and in Congress--for this unprecedented calamity which has befallen us." He declared, "I will not stand by and watch this great country destroy itself." It was a speech of bold contrasts, of good private interest versus bad government, of course. More important, it personified these two forces in a larger narrative of freedom, reaching back across the Great Depression, the Civil War and the American Revolution, all the way back to the Mayflower Compact. It so dazzled and demoralized Democrats they could not muster a response to the moral abandonment and social costs that came with the Reagan revolution.

We too have a story of freedom to tell, and it too reaches back across the Great Depression, the Civil War and the American Revolution, all the way back to the Mayflower Compact. It's a story with clear and certain foundations, like Reagan's, but also a tumultuous and sometimes violent history of betrayal that he and other conservatives consistently and conveniently ignore.

Reagan's story of freedom superficially alludes to the Founding Fathers, but its substance comes from the Gilded Age, devised by apologists for the robber barons. It is posed abstractly as the freedom of the individual from government control--a Jeffersonian ideal at the root of our Bill of Rights, to be sure. But what it meant in politics a century later, and still means today, is the freedom to accumulate wealth without social or democratic responsibilities and the license to buy the political system right out from under everyone else, so that democracy no longer has the ability to hold capitalism accountable for the good of the whole.

And that is not how freedom was understood when our country was founded. At the heart of our experience as a nation is the proposition that each one of us has a right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." As flawed in its reach as it was brilliant in its inspiration for times to come, that proposition carries an inherent imperative: "inasmuch as the members of a liberal society have a right to basic requirements of human development such as education and a minimum standard of security, they have obligations to each other, mutually and through their government, to ensure that conditions exist enabling every person to have the opportunity for success in life."

The quote comes directly from Paul Starr, one of our most formidable public thinkers, whose forthcoming book, Freedom's Power: The True Force of Liberalism, is a profound and stirring call for liberals to reclaim the idea of America's greatness as their own. Starr's book is one of three new books that in a just world would be on every desk in the House and Senate when Congress convenes again.

John Schwarz, in Freedom Reclaimed: Rediscovering the American Vision, rescues the idea of freedom from market cultists whose "particular idea of freedom...has taken us down a terribly mistaken road" toward a political order where "government ends up servicing the powerful and taking from everyone else." The free-market view "cannot provide us with a philosophy we find compelling or meaningful," Schwarz writes. Nor does it assure the availability of economic opportunity "that is truly adequate to each individual and the status of full legal as well as political equality." Yet since the late nineteenth century it has been used to shield private power from democratic accountability, in no small part because conservative rhetoric has succeeded in denigrating government even as conservative politicians plunder it.

But government, Schwarz reminds us, "is not simply the way we express ourselves collectively but also often the only way we preserve our freedom from private power and its incursions." That is one reason the notion that every person has a right to meaningful opportunity "has assumed the position of a moral bottom line in the nation's popular culture ever since the beginning." Freedom, he says, is "considerably more than a private value." It is essentially a social idea, which explains why the worship of the free market "fails as a compelling idea in terms of the moral reasoning of freedom itself." Let's get back to basics, is Schwarz's message. Let's recapture our story.

Norton Garfinkle picks up on both Schwarz and Starr in The American Dream vs. the Gospel of Wealth, as he describes how America became the first nation on earth to offer an economic vision of opportunity for even the humblest beginner to advance, and then moved, in fits and starts--but always irrepressibly--to the invocation of positive government as the means to further that vision through politics. No one understood this more clearly, Garfinkle writes, than Abraham Lincoln, who called on the federal government to save the Union. He turned to large government expenditures for internal improvements--canals, bridges and railroads. He supported a strong national bank to stabilize the currency. He provided the first major federal funding for education, with the creation of land grant colleges. And he kept close to his heart an abiding concern for the fate of ordinary people, especially the ordinary worker but also the widow and orphan. Our greatest President kept his eye on the sparrow. He believed government should be not just "of the people" and "by the people" but "for the people." Including, we can imagine, Carol Ann Reyes.

The great leaders of our tradition--Jefferson, Lincoln and the two Roosevelts--understood the power of our story. In my time it was FDR, who exposed the false freedom of the aristocratic narrative. He made the simple but obvious point that where once political royalists stalked the land, now economic royalists owned everything standing. Mindful of Plutarch's warning that "an imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics," Roosevelt famously told America, in 1936, that "the average man once more confronts the problem that faced the Minute Man." He gathered together the remnants of the great reform movements of the Progressive Age--including those of his late-blooming cousin, Teddy--into a singular political cause that would be ratified again and again by people who categorically rejected the laissez-faire anarchy that had produced destructive, unfettered and ungovernable power. Now came collective bargaining and workplace rules, cash assistance for poor children, Social Security, the GI Bill, home mortgage subsidies, progressive taxation--democratic instruments that checked economic tyranny and helped secure America's great middle class. And these were only the beginning. The Marshall Plan, the civil rights revolution, reaching the moon, a huge leap in life expectancy--every one of these great outward achievements of the last century grew from shared goals and collaboration in the public interest.

So it is that contrary to what we have heard rhetorically for a generation now, the individualist, greed-driven, free-market ideology is at odds with our history and with what most Americans really care about. More and more people agree that growing inequality is bad for the country, that corporations have too much power, that money in politics is corrupting democracy and that working families and poor communities need and deserve help when the market system fails to generate shared prosperity. Indeed, the American public is committed to a set of values that almost perfectly contradicts the conservative agenda that has dominated politics for a generation now.

The question, then, is not about changing people; it's about reaching people. I'm not speaking simply of better information, a sharper and clearer factual presentation to disperse the thick fogs generated by today's spin machines. Of course, we always need stronger empirical arguments to back up our case. It would certainly help if at least as many people who believe, say, in a "literal devil" or that God sent George W. Bush to the White House also knew that the top 1 percent of households now have more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined. Yes, people need more information than they get from the media conglomerates with their obsession for nonsense, violence and pap. And we need, as we keep hearing, "new ideas." But we are at an extraordinary moment. The conservative movement stands intellectually and morally bankrupt while Democrats talk about a "new direction" without convincing us they know the difference between a weather vane and a compass. The right story will set our course for a generation to come.

Some stories doom us. In Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond tells of the Viking colony that disappeared in the fifteenth century. The settlers had scratched a living on the sparse coast of Greenland for years, until they encountered a series of harsh winters. Their livestock, the staple of their diet, began to die off. Although the nearby waters teemed with haddock and cod, the colony's mythology prohibited the eating of fish. When their supply of hay ran out during a last terrible winter, the colony was finished. They had been doomed by their story.

Here in the first decade of the twenty-first century the story that becomes America's dominant narrative will shape our collective imagination and hence our politics. In the searching of our souls demanded by this challenge, those of us in this room and kindred spirits across the nation must confront the most fundamental progressive failure of the current era: the failure to embrace a moral vision of America based on the transcendent faith that human beings are more than the sum of their material appetites, our country is more than an economic machine, and freedom is not license but responsibility--the gift we have received and the legacy we must bequeath.

In our brief sojourn here we are on a great journey. For those who came before us and for those who follow, our moral, political and religious duty is to make sure that this nation, which was conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that we are all created equal, is in good hands on our watch.

One story would return America to the days of radical laissez-faire, when there was no social contract and the strong took what they could and the weak were left to forage. The other story joins the memory of struggles that have been waged with the possibility of victories yet to be won, including healthcare for every American and a living wage for every worker. Like the mustard seed to which Jesus compared the Kingdom of God, nurtured from small beginnings in a soil thirsty for new roots, our story has been a long time unfolding. It reminds us that the freedoms and rights we treasure were not sent from heaven and did not grow on trees. They were, as John Powers has written, "born of centuries of struggle by untold millions who fought and bled and died to assure that the government can't just walk into our bedrooms and read our mail, to protect ordinary people from being overrun by massive corporations, to win a safety net against the often-cruel workings of the market, to guarantee that businessmen couldn't compel workers to work more than forty hours a week without extra compensation, to make us free to criticize our government without having our patriotism impugned, and to make sure that our leaders are answerable to the people when they choose to send our soldiers into war." The eight-hour day, the minimum wage, the conservation of natural resources, free trade unions, old-age pensions, clean air and water, safe food--all these began with citizens and won the endorsement of the political class only after long struggles and bitter attacks. Democracy works when people claim it as their own.

It is only rarely remembered that the definition of democracy immortalized by Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address had been inspired by Theodore Parker, the abolitionist prophet. Driven from his pulpit, Parker said, "I will go about and preach and lecture in the city and glen, by the roadside and field-side, and wherever men and women may be found." He became the Hound of Freedom and helped to change America through the power of the word. We have a story of equal power. It is that the promise of America leaves no one out. Go now, and tell it on the mountains. From the rooftops, tell it. From your laptops, tell it. From the street corners and from Starbucks, from delis and from diners, tell it. From the workplace and the bookstore, tell it. On campus and at the mall, tell it. Tell it at the synagogue, sanctuary and mosque. Tell it where you can, when you can and while you can--to every candidate for office, to every talk-show host and pundit, to corporate executives and schoolchildren. Tell it--for America's sake.

Is it Apartheid?

Jimmy Carter has come under fire for suggesting in his book Peace Not Apartheid that the Israeli policies used to control the Palestinians in occupied territories amount to a system of apartheid. Fourteen members of his 200-member advisory board for the Carter Center have resigned to protest his book. The Lede, a New York Times blog by Tom Zeller takes note of the controversy this morning. Hoisted from the comment section:

I have recently returned from a two week trip to Palestine, staying predominantly on the east side of the Wall, though I did spend time in a Palestinian town in Israel. Having never been to that region before, I read President Carter’s book on the flight over.

The inferences I draw from my visit is that Carter is pretty darn close to right. The title is provocative, but the situation on the ground does look like a system of apartheid. The critics say that it is not “race” based and therefore unfair to call the policy apartheid. these critics have a very narrow view of race, and/or a very narrow view of the meaning of apartheid. Palestinians drive on different roads than the Israelis, Palestinians have “papers” that are required to pass through areas; Palestinians cannot live in the same area as Israelis (settlements); passage between two points in the West Bank is regulated by Israeli troops and Palestinians are subject to the checkpoint policy. Israelis never get on the roads that have the checkpoints. These policies and impediments are set up to regulate one group of people based on a cultural trait. If that is not a form of apartheid, what is.

Jimmy Carter’s book is provocative and presents a side of the argument that is rarely heard in the US — even though it is around the rest of the world. The reason it is rarely heard is in part because of the vigorous challenge to any discourse critical or Israeli policy with regard to Palestine. The peace process in the Middle East is strained because of behavior by both the Israelis and the Palestinians, but it is not correct to argue that the Isralis have continually held out the olive branch, only to have it rejected by the Palestinians. The Palestinian would argue that the Israelis have continually bulldozed olive trees, with the tacit approval of the US government. The settlement policy, today, might be the biggest impediment to peace.

I wonder if any of the critics of Carter’s book have ever spent time with people in the Palestinian territories, whether they have ever listen to the voices from inside the wall.

If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck...

Friedman on the Surge

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman tells us what it should take to get American's to support the President's surge:

My reaction to the president’s speech was to recall a line from Bill Maher’s book about the war against terrorists: “Make them fight all of us.”

Mr. President, you want a surge? I’ll surge. I’ll surge on the condition that you once and for all enlist the entire American people in this war effort, and stop putting it all on the shoulders of 130,000 military families, and now 20,000 more. I’ll surge on the condition that you make them fight all of us — and that means a real energy policy, with a real gasoline tax, that ends our addiction to oil, shrinks the flow of petro-dollars to bad actors and makes America the world’s leader in conservation.

But please, Mr. President, stop insulting our intelligence by telling us that this is the “decisive ideological struggle of our time,” but we’re going to put the whole burden of victory on 150,000 U.S. soldiers...

You need to tell Iraqis that by calling for a surge in troops you’re giving them one last chance to reconcile, otherwise we’re gone by Dec. 1. And you need to tell Americans that you’re creating a $45-a-barrel floor price for imported oil, so investors can safely finance alternatives without worrying that they’ll be undercut by OPEC.

By not setting a hard date to leave Iraq, we are only putting a floor under bad behavior and allowing Iraqi leaders to pay wholesale, not retail, for their tribal politics. If Sunnis or Shiites want it “all” in Iraq, they have to pay for it all...

And by not setting a hard floor price for oil to promote alternative energy, we are only helping to subsidize bad governance by Arab leaders toward their people and bad behavior by Americans toward the climate.

Make them fight all of us, Mr. President, or don’t do it at all! If we made ourselves energy independent, we would bring down global oil prices, which would not only shrink the resources for mischief by our enemies and limit Saudi Arabia’s ability to transform Islam all over the world into its most intolerant Wahhabi form, but also, more important, would force the Arab world to reform. It would force Arab leaders, including Iraqis, to organize their societies in ways that would tap their people, not just their oil wells — whether our troops were there or not. Also, if the rest of the world saw all of us sacrificing to win this war, we might actually be able to enlist them to help a little.

Friedman is one of those who supported the war and now blames the President for bungling the war effort. The war effort has certainly been mismanaged in every possible way, but we should have never gone to war in the first place. And for all of his globe-trotting inspired expertise on the Middle East, Friedman has been wildly naive about the possibility of transforming Iraq and the Middle East into functioning democracies. Still, this post gets it right about what it would have taken to make something salvageable come out of the whole operation: clear deadlines with clear markers for the Iraqis, and most importantly, a call for sacrifice from all Americans and a war-footing-like effort to get us off Middle East oil once and for all. But it is too late now.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Cost of War

We must never forget that this war was a war of choice, and that every dollar spent in Iraq could have been spent for critical needs in our country and/or for foreign aid that would actually improve the chances for peace in our world.

At the National Priorities Website they keep a running total of the cost of the war as well as what that money could have been spent on.

It was this CNN video that clued me in about the National Priorities Website.

Message Not Received

Newsletter Post This Week:

Last night our Leader spoke to us. He told us he was sending 20,000 more troops to Iraq. He is doing this despite the fact that the American people don't support it, Congress doesn't support it, the military leadership doesn't support it, and even the Iraqi's don't support it. But he, our Leader, believes he knows what is best for us. Trust him; he is our Leader.

The problem for me is that I don't trust him. I do not believe he is in touch with reality. I do not believe he is in any way qualified to figure out how to get us out of the mess he has gotten us into. I do not believe he listens to any advice that contradicts what he believes. I do not even believe at this point that he cares about the consequences of his actions apart from how it might affect his legacy.

It is clear to me now that the message of the last election was not received by our Leader. So, before 3000 more American soldiers die and tens of thousands more Iraqis die, we are going to have to redouble our efforts to call for a change in policy. Our elected officials need to hear from us about this. Call or write your Senator and Congressman/woman.

Tonight, I will be joining thousands around the country in a vigil of protest against the war. Yesterday morning when I got online to see where the vigils were being held around the twin cities, there were two planned. By the end of the day there were ten. I will be at an event outside the offices of Rep. John Kline (at the corner of Burnsville Parkway and Nicollet Avenue in Burnsville), who has indicated his support for our Leader's plan. I invite you to join me, or find an event near your home, and peacefully register your protest to escalating this war.

Christian Groups Trade Barbs

The Washington Post reports that the National Council of Churches and the Institute for Religion and Democracy are challenging each other's finances. The NCC, the article reports, has seen a drop in donations from churches and an increase in contributions from liberal groups like the Sierra Club. The IRC, meanwhile, is heavily dependent on support from conservative foundations, such as Scaife and Coors. While it is not unusual for conservative and liberal groups to go after each others policies, it is unusual for them to be challenging each other's funding sources, says the article.

Here, though, is what caught my eye in this article:
But the council, a New York-based alliance of 35 Christian denominations, is deeply involved in liberal social causes, such as reducing poverty and making peace...
Reducing poverty and making peace are "liberal" social causes? So increasing poverty and making war are conservative social causes? In fact, they are, or at least they are the logical outcomes of the policies conservative Christians typically support. But still it is rather startling to see making peace and reducing poverty seemingly dismissed as only the goals of radical left-wingers.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Bush and Johnson

I closed my eyes while listening to the President and it was like listening to Lyndon Johnson talking about escalating the war in Vietnam.

Bush's Plan is in Trouble

Bush hasn't announced his plan yet to escalate the war in Iraq, but it is already clear he is in trouble. How do I know? Today our MN Senator Norm Coleman took to the floor and announced his opposition:
"A troop surge in Baghdad would put more American troops at risk to address a problem that is not a military problem," Coleman said Wednesday on the Senate floor.
Senator Coleman is the quintessential political weather vane. Once a Democrat when Democrats were a political force, Coleman became a Republican in time to benefit from Republican ascendancy to power in the 90's. But now the winds are changing again and Coleman is beginning to distance himself from the President. He is up for re-election in 2008 and if current trends continue, he won't look much different by then from whatever opposition faces him.

Virginia Episcopal Diocese May Sue

Who owns the property when a church decides to split from a denomination or judicatory body? It depends on the denominational polity. In the Episcopal Church, apparently, it is the denomination that owns the property. The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia may sue the nine churches who have decided to align themselves with an African diocese because they disagree with the American church's stand on ordaining women and gay pastors. From the Washington Post:
Hopes for a peaceful settlement between the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia and nine breakaway congregations suffered a blow yesterday when the diocese announced it would not renew a mutual promise to avoid litigation over property.
My guess is that if it goes to court the local congregations will lose.

Climate Change is Happening

From the Washington Post this morning:

Last year was the warmest in the continental United States in the past 112 years -- capping a nine-year warming streak "unprecedented in the historical record" that was driven in part by the burning of fossil fuels, the government reported yesterday.

According to the government's National Climatic Data Center, the record-breaking warmth -- which caused daffodils and cherry trees to bloom throughout the East on New Year's Day -- was the result of both unusual regional weather patterns and the long-term effects of the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

"People should be concerned about what we are doing to the climate," said Jay Lawrimore, chief of the climate monitoring branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "Burning of fossil fuels is causing an increase in greenhouse gases, and there's a broad scientific consensus that is producing climate change."

The center said there are indications that the rate at which global temperatures are rising is speeding up.

Average temperatures nationwide in 2006 were 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the mean temperatures nationwide for the 20th century, the agency said. It reported that seven months in 2006 were much warmer than average, and that last month was the fourth-warmest December on record. Average temperatures for all 48 contiguous states were above or well above average, and New Jersey logged its hottest temperatures ever...

The one bright spot: warmer temps mean we are using less energy in the north to keep us warm.

Maliki Cut from Same Cloth as Bush

Harold Meyerson on the idea that the Shiite Prime Minister of Iraq is actually going to clamp down on the Shiite militias:

Why Bush believes the Iraqi prime minister will actually do this is anybody's guess. For Maliki to cordon off Sadr City is a little like Bush blockading Southern Baptist churches, or surrounding the headquarters of the National Rifle Association and telling everyone to come out with hands up. Bush expects Maliki to turn against his own -- a gambit nowhere to be found in Bush and Rove's own political playbook.

America's most polarizing president is telling Iraq's polarizing prime minister to stop polarizing. It's possible, I suppose, Bush told Maliki that the lesson of our November election is that polarizing doesn't always work to your advantage, but the fact that Bush has only stepped up his commitment to his ruinous policy in Iraq, against overwhelming bipartisan advice to the contrary, suggests that that idea hasn't even crossed his mind.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Ramp it up or Withdraw?

Peace. Can we even talk about this word in relation to Iraq at this point? President Bush wants to appropriate more money and troops. U.S. Rep. Kucinich has a different proposal. Here it is:

The Kucinich Plan for Iraq
Dear Friends,
In November of 2006, after an October upsurge in violence in Iraq, the American people moved decisively to reject Republican rule, principally because of the conduct of the war. Democratic leaders well understand we regained control of the Congress because of the situation in Iraq. However, two months later, the Congress is still searching for a plan around which it can unite to hasten the end of US involvement in Iraq and the return home of 140,000 US troops.
There is a compelling need for a new direction in Iraq, one that recognizes the plight of the people of Iraq, the false and illegal basis of the United States war against Iraq, the realities on the ground which make a military resolution of the conflict unrealistic and the urgent responsibility of the United States, which caused the chaos, to use the process of diplomacy and international law to achieve stability in Iraq, a process which will establish peace and stability in Iraq allow our troops to return home with dignity.
The Administration is preparing to escalate the conflict. They intend to increase troop numbers to unprecedented levels, without establishing an ending date for the so-called troop surge. By definition, this escalation means a continuation of the occupation, more troop and civilian casualties, more anger toward the US, more support for the insurgency, more instability in Iraq and in the region, and prolonged civil war at a time when there is a general agreement in the world community that the solution in Iraq must be political not military. Iraq is now a training ground for insurgents who practice against our troops.
What is needed is a comprehensive political process. And the decision is not President Bush's alone to make.
Congress, as a coequal branch of government has a responsibility to assist in the initiation of this process. Congress, under Article 1, Section 8 of the US Constitution has the war-making power. Congress appropriates funds for the war. Congress does not dispense with its obligation to the American people simply by opposing a troop surge in Iraq.
There are 140,000 troops remaining in Iraq right now. What about them? When will they come home? Why would we leave those troops in Iraq when we have the money to bring them home? Soon the President will ask for more money for the war. Why would Congress appropriate more money to keep the troops in Iraq through the end of President Bush's term, at a total cost of upwards of two trillion dollars and thousands of more troop casualties, when military experts say there is no military solution? Our soldiers stand for us in the field, we must to stand for them in our legislature by bringing them home.
It is simply not credible to maintain that one opposes the war and yet continues to fund it. This contradiction runs as a deep fault line through our politics, undermining public trust in the political process and in those elected to represent the people. If you oppose the war, then do not vote to fund it.
If you have money which can be used to bring the troops home or to prosecute the war, do not say you want to bring the troops home while you appropriate money in a supplemental to keep them in Iraq fighting a war that cannot be won militarily. This is why the Administration should be notified now that Congress will not approve of the appropriations request of up to $160 billion in the spring for the purposes of continuing the occupation and the war. Continuing to fund the war is not a plan. It would represent the continuation of disaster.
The US sent our troops into Iraq without a clear mission. We created a financial, military and moral dilemma for our nation and now we are talking about the Iraq war as our problem. The Iraqis are forgotten. Their country has been destroyed: 650,000 casualties, [based on the Lancet Report which surveyed casualties from March of 2003 to July of 2006] the shredding of the social fabric of the nation, civil war, lack of access to food, shelter, electricity, clean drinking water and health care because this Administration, with the active participation of the Congress, authorized a war without reason, without conscience, without international law.
The US thinks in terms of solving our own military, strategic, logistical, and political problems. The US can determine how to solve our problems, but the Iraqi people will have problems far into the future. This requires an intensive focus on the processes needed to stabilize Iraq. If you solve the Iraqi problem you solve the US problem. Any comprehensive plan for Iraq must take into account as a primary matter the conditions and the needs of the Iraqi people, while providing our nation with a means of righting grievous wrongs and taking steps to regain US credibility and felicity within the world community.
I am offering such a plan today. This plan responds to the concerns of a majority of Americans. On Tuesday, when Congress resumes its work, I will present this plan to leadership and members as the only viable alternative to the Bush Administration's policy of continued occupation and escalation. Congress must know that it cannot and must not stand by and watch our troops and innocent Iraqi civilians die.
These are the elements of the Kucinich Plan:
1. The US announces it will end the occupation, close military bases and withdraw. The insurgency has been fueled by the occupation and the prospect of a long-term presence as indicated by the building of permanent bases. A US declaration of an intention to withdraw troops and close bases will help dampen the insurgency which has been inspired to resist colonization and fight invaders and those who have supported US policy. Furthermore this will provide an opening where parties within Iraq and in the region can set the stage for negotiations towards peaceful settlement.
2. US announces that it will use existing funds to bring the troops and necessary equipment home. Congress appropriated $70 billion in bridge funds on October 1st for the war. Money from this and other DOD accounts can be used to fund the troops in the field over the next few months, and to pay for the cost of the return of the troops, (which has been estimated at between $5 and $7 billion dollars) while a political settlement is being negotiated and preparations are made for a transition to an international security and peacekeeping force.
3. Order a simultaneous return of all US contractors to the United States and turn over all contracting work to the Iraqi government. The contracting process has been rife with world-class corruption, with contractors stealing from the US Government and cheating the Iraqi people, taking large contracts and giving 5% or so to Iraqi subcontractors.
Reconstruction activities must be reorganized and closely monitored in Iraq by the Iraqi government, with the assistance of the international community. The massive corruption as it relates to US contractors, should be investigated by congressional committees and federal grand juries. The lack of tangible benefits, the lack of accountability for billions of dollars, while millions of Iraqis do not have a means of financial support, nor substantive employment, cries out for justice.
It is noteworthy that after the first Gulf War, Iraqis reestablished electricity within three months, despite sanctions. Four years into the US occupation there is no water, nor reliable electricity in Baghdad, despite massive funding from the US and from the Madrid conference. The greatest mystery involves the activities of private security companies who function as mercenaries. Reports of false flag operations must be investigated by an international tribunal.
4. Convene a regional conference for the purpose of developing a security and stabilization force for Iraq. The focus should be on a process which solves the problems of Iraq. The US has told the international community, "This is our policy and we want you to come and help us implement it." The international community may have an interest in helping Iraq, but has no interest in participating in the implementation of failed US policy.
A shift in US policy away from unilateralism and toward cooperation will provide new opportunities for exploring common concerns about the plight of Iraq. The UN is the appropriate place to convene, through the office of the Secretary General, all countries that have interests, concerns and influence, including the five permanent members of the Security Council and the European community, and all Arab nations.
The end of the US occupation and the closing of military bases are necessary preconditions for such a conference. When the US creates a shift of policy and announces it will focus on the concerns of the people of Iraq, it will provide a powerful incentive for nations to participate.
It is well known that while some nations may see the instability in Iraq as an opportunity, there is also an even-present danger that the civil war in Iraq threatens the stability of nations throughout the region. The impending end of the occupation will provide a breakthrough for the cooperation between the US and the UN and the UN and countries of the region. The regional conference must include Iran, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
5. Prepare an international security and peacekeeping force to move in, replacing US troops who then return home. The UN has an indispensable role to play here, but cannot do it as long as the US is committed to an occupation. The UN is the only international organization with the ability to mobilize and the legitimacy to authorize troops.
The UN is the place to develop the process, to build the political consensus, to craft a political agreement, to prepare the ground for the peacekeeping mission, to implement the basis of an agreement that will end the occupation and begin the transition to international peacekeepers. This process will take at least three months from the time the US announces the intention to end the occupation.
The US will necessarily have to fund a peacekeeping mission, which, by definition will not require as many troops. Fifty percent of the peacekeeping troops must come from nations with large Muslim populations. The international security force, under UN direction, will remain in place until the Iraqi government is capable of handling its own security. The UN can field an international security and peacekeeping mission, but such an initiative will not take shape unless there is a peace to keep, and that will be dependent upon a political process which reaches agreement between all the Iraqi parties. Such an agreement means fewer troops will be needed.
According to UN sources, the UN the peacekeeping mission in the Congo, which is four times larger in area than Iraq, required about twenty thousand troops. Finally the UN does not mobilize quickly because they depend upon governments to supply the troops, and governments are slow. The ambition of the UN is to deploy in less than ninety days. However, without an agreement of parties the UN is not likely to approve a mission to Iraq, because countries will not give them troops.
6. Develop and fund a process of national reconciliation. The process of reconciliation must begin with a national conference, organized with the assistance of the UN and with the participation of parties who can create, participate in and affect the process of reconciliation, defined as an airing of all grievances and the creation of pathways toward open, transparent talks producing truth and resolution of grievances. The Iraqi government has indicated a desire for the process of reconciliation to take place around it, and that those who were opposed to the government should give up and join the government. Reconciliation must not be confused with capitulation, nor with realignments for the purposes of protecting power relationships.
For example, Kurds need to be assured that their own autonomy will be regarded and therefore obviate the need for the Kurds to align with religious Shia for the purposes of self-protection. The problem in Iraq is that every community is living in fear. The Shia, who are the majority fear they will not be allowed to government even though they are a majority. The Kurds are afraid they will lose the autonomy they have gained. The Sunnis think they will continue to be made to pay for the sins of Saddam.
A reconciliation process which brings people together is the only way to overcome their fears and reconcile their differences. It is essential to create a minimum of understanding and mutual confidence between the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.
But how can a reconciliation process be constructed in Iraq when there is such mistrust: Ethnic cleansing is rampant. The police get their money from the US and their ideas from Tehran. They function as religious militia, fighting for supremacy, while the Interior Ministry collaborates. Two or three million people have been displaced. When someone loses a family member, a loved one, a friend, the first response is likely to be that there is no reconciliation.
It is also difficult to move toward reconciliation when one or several parties engaged in the conflict think they can win outright. The Shia, some of whom are out for revenge, think they can win because they have the defacto support of the US. The end of the US occupation will enhance the opportunity for the Shia to come to an accommodation with the Sunnis. They have the oil, the weapons, and support from Iran. They have little interest in reconciling with those who are seen as Baathists.
The Sunnis think they have experience, as the former army of Saddam, boasting half a million people insurgents. The Sunnis have so much more experience and motivation that as soon as the Americans leave they believe they can defeat the Shia government. Any Sunni revenge impulses can be held in check by international peacekeepers. The only sure path toward reconciliation is through the political process. All factions and all insurgents not with al Queda must be brought together in a relentless process which involves Saudis, Turks and Iranians.
7. Reconstruction and Jobs. Restart the failed reconstruction program in Iraq. Rebuild roads, bridges, schools, hospitals, and other public facilities, houses, and factories with jobs and job training going to local Iraqis.
8. Reparations. The US and Great Britain have a high moral obligation to enable a peace process by beginning a program of significant reparations to the people of Iraq for the loss of lives, physical and emotional injuries, and damage to property. There should be special programs to rescue the tens of thousands of Iraqi orphans from lives of destitution. This is essential to enable reconciliation.
9. Political Sovereignty. Put an end to suspicions that the US invasion and occupation was influenced by a desire to gain control of Iraq's oil assets by A) setting aside initiatives to privatize Iraqi oil interests or other national assets, and B) by abandoning efforts to change Iraqi national law to facilitate privatization.
Any attempt to sell Iraqi oil assets during the US occupation will be a significant stumbling block to peaceful resolution. The current Iraqi constitution gives oil proceeds to the regions and the central government gets nothing. There must be fairness in the distribution of oil resources in Iraq. An Iraqi National Oil Trust should be established to guarantee the oil assets will be used to create a fully functioning infrastructure with financial mechanisms established protect the oil wealth for the use of the people of Iraq.
10. Iraq Economy. Set forth a plan to stabilize Iraq's cost for food and energy, on par to what the prices were before the US invasion and occupation. This would block efforts underway to raise the price of food and energy at a time when most Iraqis do not have the means to meet their own needs.
11. Economic Sovereignty. Work with the world community to restore Iraq's fiscal integrity without structural readjustment measures of the IMF or the World Bank.
12. International Truth and Reconciliation. Establish a policy of truth and reconciliation between the people of the United States and the people of Iraq. In 2002, I led the effort in the House of Representatives challenging the Bush Administration's plans to go to war in Iraq. I organized 125 Democrats to vote against the Iraq war resolution. The analysis I offered at that time stands out in bold relief for its foresight when compared to the assessments of many who today aspire to national leadership. Just as the caution I urged four years ago was well-placed, so the plan I am presenting today is workable, and it responds to the will of the American people, expressed this past November. This is a moment for clarity and foresight. This is a moment to take a new direction in Iraq. One with honor and dignity. One which protects our troops and rescues Iraqi civilians. One which repairs our relationship with Iraqis and with the world.
Thank you,
Dennis J Kucinich