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Entries for January 2009

January 30, 2009

Justifying universal and existence statements

My post on how we should implement the Year of Reason by asking religious people why they believe in god provoked quite a spirited back-and-forth in the comments section.

In the post, I said that there was no substantive reason that religious people could give in response to the question "Why do you believe in god?" and I categorized the likely things they would say under the headings Argument From Personal Incredulity, Argument From Wishful Thinking, and Argument From Vague Feelings. I endorsed Sigmund Freud's assertion that religion was a form of mass delusion since so many people believed in something for which there was no credible evidence whatsoever.

Commenter Lucas took exception to my post and critiqued it saying that I should not make statements such as that "There is no sense in believing in something for which there is no evidence" without substantiating them. He said that he himself did believe in god because he had "studied the evidence" and found it to be "extremely convincing".

This is where the discussion in the comments took an interesting and somewhat surprising turn. I asked for an example of the convincing evidence that he had that did not fit under the three umbrella headings that I had given. But Lucas resolutely refused to do so, saying that that was a detour, and that I was using it as an excuse to avoid addressing his challenge to my lack of substantiation.

This post seeks to clarify what seems to be a basic misunderstanding between us about where the burden of proof lies and what kinds of statements need evidence in support of them and what kinds of statements are justified by the absence of evidence against them.

To begin, let me repeat what I said in an even earlier post.

As mathematician John Allen Paulos argues in his book Irreligion: A mathematician explains why the arguments for god just don’t add up (2008), basic logic requires that existence claims and universal claims be treated differently.

Existence claims can be proved but not disproved. "No matter how absurd the existence claim (there exists a dog who speaks English out of its rear end), we cannot look everywhere and check everything in order to assert with absolute confidence that there's no entity having the property." (Paulos, p. 42) But all the person making the existence claim needs to do to prove it is to produce just one specimen. So the burden of proof is on the person making the existence claim, and in the absence of such proof, it is perfectly logical to deny the validity of the claim.

On the other hand, universal claims can be disproved but not proved. For example, the claim that all swans are white can be disproved by producing just one black swan. But no one can prove the universal claim since we can never say we have checked each and every swan. So the burden of proof is on the person denying the universal claim and in the absence of such proof, it is perfectly logical to assume the validity of the universal claim.

My statement that "There is no evidence for god" is a universal statement whose justification depends on the lack of a counter-example, and so according to the rules of logic, the burden of proof is on the person who challenges it to provide that counter-example. Equivalently, the statement by someone that he or she has convincing evidence for the existence of god that does not fall under the three categories that I provided is an existence statement, and again the burden of proof is on that person to provide an example, not on me to show that he or she has no such evidence.

But if we accept to Lucas's rules of logic, it seems like I cannot even make a claim such as that "there does not exist any dog that can speak English out of its rear end" unless I can provide citations from peer-reviewed journals that assert that the authors have checked every dog (or at least an extensive number of them) and found this statement to be true.

But of course that is absurd. The reason we can confidently make such a statement and expect them to be believed even in the absence of controlled studies is because we apply the commonly accepted rules of logic, not Lucas's rules. I have never personally encountered a dog that can speak out of its rear end and base my statement on the confidence that if anyone in the world had such a dog, it would be an event of such enormous significance that it would be publicized widely and known by everyone. So the absence of a counter-example is, by itself, sufficient to justify the statement.

Of course, someone could claim that I should still not say this because there may be a dog somewhere that can speak out of its rear end but that the owner is keeping it secret and that I do not know for sure that this is not the case. But no one would credit such a statement until the dog is actually produced. This is because the statement that such a dog exists is an existence statement, and the burden of proof is on that person to provide the evidence. It reminds of the claim by the Raelians in December 2002 that they had cloned a human being and would produce the baby later. While this generated a blizzard of publicity, when no baby was forthcoming, people rightly concluded that the whole thing was a hoax.

The point is that there are many statements that all of us can and do routinely make that are perfectly justifiable and accepted as such even if they are generalized from our personal experience of just a few cases, provided the negation of such statements would be extraordinary. These rules of logic are so commonplace and so basic that people may not even consciously realize that they are using them.

So I can confidently say that no cows have seven legs, although I have personally seen only a few cows, noticed that none of them had seven legs, but have not done an exhaustive literature search to see if anyone else had found one. This is because my statement that there does not exist a cow with seven legs is a universal statement. Someone who says I am wrong has to produce such a cow.

This is why I can make the statement that the stated reasons for the beliefs of religious people (except for people like Pat Robertson who have a direct line to god) will fall into the three categories: Argument From Personal Incredulity, Argument From Wishful Thinking, or Argument From Vague Feelings. My statement is a universal statement, based on all the reasons that have been given to me over a long time discussing these issues with thoughtful people, and similar to the ones about the absence of seven-legged cows or rear-end talking dogs. Its validity has to be challenged by providing a counter-example.

So getting back to Lucas's concerns, I am not even asking that any counter-evidence he produces be convincing because what is convincing to one person may not be convincing to another. All I am asking is that he produce any evidence at all that does not fall under those three categories because I am really curious what form such evidence would take, the same way I would be really curious to see what a rear-end talking dog would look like.

It is his choice whether he wants to provide such evidence.

POST SCRIPT: Why science and religion can never be reconciled

Jerry Coyne, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, has written a terrific review of two new books by scientists trying to reconcile science with religion: Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution by Karl W. Giberson and Only A Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul by Kenneth R. Miller.

The review, titled Seeing and Believing: The never-ending attempt to reconcile science and religion, and why it is doomed to fail, contains arguments and conclusions that will be familiar to regular readers of this blog, but it is all in one place and very well-written, well worth reading.

January 29, 2009

Why journalists should not schmooze with politicians

A week before his inauguration, Barack Obama had dinner at the home of conservative columnist George Will (aka "the man who confuses pomposity with profundity"). Also in attendance were conservative and neo-conservative columnists Bill Kristol (aka, "the man who is almost always wrong"), David Brooks (aka, "the man who can be depended upon to say the most obvious things in the most banal way"), and Charles Krauthammer (aka, "the man who loves torture").

This caused a stir in the pundit world. A few liberals worried whether Obama would be swayed by this group and abandon his policies and suddenly declare that more tax cuts for the rich, more torture, and more wars was the way to go. Conservatives worried that 'their' pundits would be charmed and won over by Obama and put away their knives and become lapdogs.

The very next day, Obama put these alarmed pundits mind at ease by meeting with a group of supposedly 'liberal' columnists (Andrew Sullivan, Roland Martin, Rachel Maddow, the Gene Robinson, the Boston Globe's Derrick Z. Jackson, Maureen Dowd, Frank Rich, Jerry Seib, Ron Brownstein, DeWayne Wickham and E.J. Dionne Jr.)

So in the world of politicians and elite media, everything was ok. That desirable quality of 'balance' had been restored. Rarely did you find the sentiment expressed that both events should never have happened.

I find the whole idea of journalists schmoozing with politicians distasteful. I don't blame Obama or other politicians for doing it. Shrewd politicians love to cultivate social interactions with journalists because they know that they can use that access to reward and punish journalists and thus control them. John McCain was very good at this, even calling the media 'his base', and used them to advance his career before the relationship turned sour towards the end of his last campaign.

The people I fault are the journalists. They have no business having off-the-record, friendly, social meetings with the politicians they are supposed to be covering. The ideological labels attached to the participants are irrelevant. Journalists and politicians should never be friends.

I. F. Stone, one of the greatest journalists America has produced, refused to meet socially with politicians for very good reasons. This is what Stone said:

It's just wonderful to be a pariah. I really owe my success to being a pariah. It is so good not to be invited to respectable dinner parties. People used to say to me, 'Izzy, why don't you go down and see the Secretary of State and put him straight.' Well, you know, you're not supposed to see the Secretary of State. He won't pay any attention to you anyway. He'll hold your hand, he'll commit you morally for listening. To be a pariah is to be left alone to see things your own way, as truthfully as you can. Not because you're brighter than anybody else is -- or your own truth so valuable. But because, like a painter or a writer or an artist, all you have to contribute is the purification of your own vision, and add that to the sum total of other visions. To be regarded as nonrespectable, to be a pariah, to be an outsider, this is really the way to do it. To sit in your tub and not want anything. As soon as you want something, they've got you!

Victor Navasky writes of Stone that "although he never attended presidential press conferences, cultivated no highly placed inside sources and declined to attend off-the-record briefings, time and again he scooped the most powerful press corps in the world." How? Because as Stone said, "if you didn't attend background briefings you weren't bound by the ground rules; you could debrief correspondents who did, check out what they had been told, and as often as not reveal the lies for what they were."

Contrast Stone's attitude with that of the late Tim Russert, a truly awful journalist, who said at the trial of Scooter Libby, "When I talk to senior government officials on the phone, it's my own policy our conversations are confidential. If I want to use anything from that conversation, then I will ask permission." As Dan Froomkin points out:

According to Russert's testimony yesterday at Libby's trial, when any senior government official calls him, they are presumptively off the record.

That's not reporting, that's enabling.

That's how you treat your friends when you're having an innocent chat, not the people you're supposed to be holding accountable.

Glenn Greenwald describes how Richard Cohen excuses the actions of those politicians whom he considers friends, and adds:

Reflecting the vast diversity of our national media, Richard Cohen now joins fellow Washington Post columnists Ruth Marcus, David Ignatius, David Broder and Fred Hiatt -- as well as virtually every other Beltway journalist -- in demanding that Bush officials not be prosecuted even if they committed felonies.

Why? Because they are all friends, the politicians, the journalists, and the powerful business interests, and they look out for each other.

Stone's journalistic credo was summed up this way:

To write the truth as I see it; to defend the weak against the strong; to fight for justice; and to seek, as best I can, to bring healing perspectives to bear on the terrible hates and fears of mankind, in the hope of someday bringing about one world, in which men will enjoy the differences of the human garden instead of killing each other over them.

It is hard to fight for those things if you socially hobnob with those who commit the very injustices you are against.

This is why journalists should refuse all invitations to socialize with politicians.

POST SCRIPT: Asian stereotypes

The Daily Show takes the opportunity of the rumor that the awful Sajay Gandhi Sanjay Gupta (Thanks to Kural for the correction) may be appointed Surgeon General by Obama to let Asif Mandvi do a hilarious riff on Asian-American ambitions.


January 28, 2009

Bogus exaltation of women

I was on a panel recently that sought to clarify any misconceptions that people might have about the various religious beliefs, or the lack of them. I was the atheist, and the other panelists consisted of people having backgrounds in Islam, Judaism, Mormonism, Scientology, Catholicism, and Protestantism.

Each of us were asked to begin the session by speaking for a few minutes about what we felt were the biggest misconceptions. I said that when it comes to beliefs, it should be easy for everyone to understand what atheism is all about because everyone is an atheist. After all, religious people are atheistic about all gods other than their own, while those who call themselves atheists merely add one more god to that vast list of disbelieved gods, making a clean sweep of it. The reason we do so is for the same reason that religious people disbelieve other gods.

Atheists live by a very simple and commonsensical principle: There is no sense believing in something for which there is absolutely no evidence. Atheists disbelieve in the existence of any and all gods for the same reason we disbelieve in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy or the Loch Ness monster or unicorns.

During the question period, one student asked whether it was the case that some religions treat women as second class. The response of the religion panelists was, "Of course not!" It is a sign of progress that nowadays no one can openly and explicitly declare the superiority of one gender ort race or ethnicity over others. If they do believe such a thing, they have to practice a quiet hypocrisy.

The awkward fact is, of course, that many religions do not allow women to do many things that they allow men to do. I am not even talking the cruel, absurd, and rigid prohibitions that women face in some Islamic countries. Orthodox Judaism, Catholicism, mainstream Islam, and Mormons all have restrictions on the role of women, especially in their religious rituals and even extending to their dress.

So how to reconcile this with the assertion that women are equal to men? The panelists gave various reasons and took an interesting tack. Some argued that the dress rules that highly restrict what women can wear in some religions arise out of general modesty rules that apply to both men and women. They also argued that women were biologically different, that they had a childbearing capacity denied to men and that as a result, their religions highly valued women because of the immense importance of the role of childbearing and motherhood in the life of any society. Hence, according to them, women actually enjoyed an exalted, not inferior, status in their religions. Because of the special and important role only they could play, women were encouraged to devote their full attention and energies to their superior biological role and leave the other supposedly minor stuff to men. In other words, all the restrictions imposed on them were not restrictions at all but should be taken as signs of how much women were valued. The rules had been created to allow them to play their superior role unencumbered by having to worry about other mundane things.

This is typical of the absurd logical knots that religions tie themselves into trying to incorporate universally accepted standards of equality in their fundamentally unequal doctrines. Their argument was so manifestly self-serving rubbish that it could have been demolished by even a middle-school level debater. Its advocacy by religious people shows the extent to which these religions are being squeezed as their outdated doctrines confront a modern world and modern values.

These religious people were trying to glide past the uncomfortable fact that the women in their religions had no choice whatsoever about their roles and were being forcedto accept their position based on ancient books written and interpreted by men.

There is nothing wrong with a woman choosing to dress extremely modestly by covering herself from head to toe, or to stay at home and devote her life to bearing and raising children, or to not want to become a priest or similar religious leader. But there is a world of difference between making such a choice freely and being told that they have to do so, otherwise they will be expelled form their religious group or suffer an even worse fate.

Can anyone be expected to take seriously the suggestion that women in Saudi Arabia are exalted because they are forbidden freedoms that women elsewhere routinely have access to? We see where this kind of absurd religious thinking leads to when a Muslim cleric recently said that women should wear a veil that reveals only one eye because " showing both eyes encouraged women to use eye make-up to look seductive." The article goes on "The question of how much of her face a woman should cover is a controversial topic in many Muslim societies." (my italics). Really? The only thing that should be controversial is the fact that this is even a question or a topic for discussion at all. It clearly shows the inferior status of women, because that kind of decision should be left solely to each individual woman to make freely without any pressure or coercion.

Any religion or society that does not allow women equal access to every single aspect of life that men have is a religion or society that treats women as second class. There is no denying that even if there are women in that religion or society who find their situation acceptable or even desirable and even become advocates of such restrictions being imposed on their fellow women.

I hope that bogus exaltations of women such as those offered by the religious panelists will be increasingly seen as the laughably ridiculous arguments they are.

POST SCRIPT: Who does god really talk to?

Turns out it is to Stephen Colbert.


January 27, 2009

Don't leave Obama alone!

Irish orator John Philpot Curran said in 1790 that "The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance." This has since been abbreviated to "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance" and attributed to many people, including Thomas Jefferson. Those who supported Obama during the campaign should take these words to heart. People have to be extra vigilant when their preferred candidate wins because that is when people let their guard down, thinking that the winners will look after the interests of those who put them into power.

In fact, having your own person win can sometimes lead to times when your interests are most endangered.

Let us not forget that it was Jimmy Carter's administration that started much of the deregulation process that led to the eventual economic crisis we faced, that it was Carter that supported the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan that later morphed into the Taliban, and it was Carter who supported awful dictators like Suharto in Indonesia and Reza Pahlavi in Iran.

This is not to say that Carter was worse than others. In many ways, Carter has been one of the better presidents of recent years and clearly one of the best ex-presidents. But the point is that you cannot assume that just because a candidate supports some or even most of your interests while campaigning, and may even be genuine about it, that he or she will fight for those interests after getting into office.

Bill Clinton is another example. Because he had the support of liberals, he was able to push through policies that went against their interests such as the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act, his anti-poor welfare 'reform' program, and letting Wall Street interests dominate financial policy.

It will also be easier for those who wish to privatize Social Security to do it through Obama than through the Republicans, so we will have to be vigilant on that front too.

If one accepts the thesis that what we have is a pro-war, pro-business one party system with two factions, then the interests that elected representative will try to pursue are pro-war, pro-business interests. The only counterbalance to that permanent pressure is to exert counter-pressure.

So one has to be even more vigilant now that Obama is in power because it will be easier for Obama to start a war with Iran because those who would have vociferously opposed Bush on such a move might support Obama on it. Look at how Democrats supported Clinton in his war in the Balkans.

Even though Obama spoke of having talks with the leaders of Iran, he will be under pressure to make unreasonable and unilateral demands of them, to show that he is 'tough'. These demands will of course likely be rejected by Iran, thus allowing for the manufacture for yet another fraudulent case for war with that country, egged on by political chameleons, those warmongers who have now dressed themselves in new clothing and claim to have been critics of past wars.

Already Obama, despite claims to the contrary by US intelligence agencies in its own National Security Estimate, is making unsubstantiated claims that Iran is making nuclear weapons. Hillary Clinton at her confirmation hearing made the same claim. Remember how we got into Iraq because the Bush regime determinedly ignored facts that were contrary to their agenda? It looks like Obama and Clinton are doing the same thing with Iran. Obama is also rumored to be hiring Dennis Ross, former AIPAC lobbyist whom John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt identify as a member of the Israel lobby that seeks the overthrow of Iran's government, to advise him on relations with that country.

As the ever-quotable Glenn Greenwald says:

Right this moment, there are enormous pressures being exerted on Obama not to make significant changes in the areas of civil liberties, intelligence policy and foreign affairs. That pressure is being exerted by the intelligence community, by the permanent Pentagon structures, by status-quo-loving leaders of both political parties, by authority-worshipping Beltway "journalists" and pundits (such as the ones who wrote the wretched though illustrative "What Would Dick Do?" cover story for this week's Newsweek).

If those who want fundamental reform in these areas adopt the view that they will not criticize Barack Obama because to do so is to "help Republicans," or because he deserves more time, or because criticisms are unnecessary because we can trust in him to do the right thing, or because criticizing him is to "tear him down" or "create a circular firing squad" or "be a Naderite purist" or any of those other empty platitudes, then they are ceding the field to the very powerful factions who are going to fight vehemently against any changes. Do you think that those who want the CIA to retain "robust" interrogation powers and who want the federal surveillance state maintained, or want a hard-line towards Iran and a continuation of our Middle East policies, or who want to maintain corporate-lobbyist-domination of Washington, are sitting back saying: "it's not right to pressure Obama too much right now; give him some time"?

As an example of the value of applying pressure, during the campaign Obama was emphatic about closing Guantanamo. But he then began saying that closing of Guantanamo and either trying its inmates using the regular court system or freeing them is not going to be easy because some of the people are 'bad' people who should not be freed but it may not be possible to put them on trial in regular courts since the evidence against them may be ruled inadmissible because it is 'tainted', which is an euphemism for the fact that it was likely obtained using torture and other forms of severe coercion.

In other words, although Obama says that he is against torture, he wants to reserve the right to use information obtained using torture to keep people who have been tortured incarcerated indefinitely. We thus see him sliding into Bush-Cheney mode of thinking, using the same excuse of saying he wants to 'protect' us.

Fortunately his remarks caused considerable uproar amongst his supporters who had taken seriously his vow to close the camp immediately, and the next day he issued a statement saying that an executive order would be signed immediately after taking office, although that still leaves him room to delay closing it.

If many of those who vociferous critics of torture under the Bush-Cheney regime now become silent, thinking that because Obama is 'their' guy (and by definition 'good'), he must have good reasons for doing it, we can be sure that those appalling policies will continue. This is the kind of pressure that must be continually applied on your own people to prevent them being sucked into the maw of the pro-war, pro-business party.

POST SCRIPT: The 50 most loathsome people in America

I usually don't care much for lists of this sort but this one was fun. Obama was #50. Guess who ranked #1?

January 26, 2009

Why bloggers are more interesting than newspaper columnists

Today marks the fourth anniversary of this blog and as is my custom I want to reflect on the nature of blogging and, briefly, my own blog.

When I began, I never thought that I would write so much. I have written over a thousand posts and a million words. I also did not anticipate the form that it would eventually take, which was a cross between op-ed type essays and long form articles that I broke up into multi-part series with each episode an op-ed sized chunk. One such series of posts formed the basis of a book The Case of God v. Darwin: Evolution, Religion, and the Establishment Clause that will be published later this year and some others will form the basis of future books and articles.

But enough about me. I want to talk more about blogging and bloggers in general and their influence on the national political scene. There is no question that they are here to stay and are going to play increasingly important roles.

About three years ago I was on a local PBS TV talk show called Feagler and Friends, along with the then editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The topic was the role of blogs and the future of newspapers. I predicted on the show that while there would always be a need for old-fashioned reporters and reporting, newspaper columnists like Dick Feagler himself were an endangered species because there was absolutely nothing that they offered that was not available, in superior form, on blogs.

I think it is already apparent that that prediction is coming true. Bloggers provide far more varied, interesting, and incisive commentary than traditional media columnists.

It is not hard to understand why. Newspaper columnists are usually former reporters who are 'rewarded' for their long service by being given regular space on the editorial pages. They are people who have 'paid their dues' to the industry. But paying their dues means more than merely learning their craft. It also means that they have internalized the one party pro-war/pro-business mindset that characterizes the mainstream media. They have either learned to think within the narrow spectrum of respectable opinion that requires not questioning that basic assumption or they have left the business. But bloggers are freed from going through that filtering system.

Take for example, Glenn Greenwald's take on how the Democratic leadership colluded with the administration to approve the warrantless wiretap program. The kind of analysis he makes and the conclusions he draws is not the kind that would be commonly found amongst the standard columnists because they have internalized the need to maintain a façade of fierce partisanship between the two parties, and the thought that they collude to deceive the public would not even occur to them or if it does they would keep silent. Greenwald would never have risen through the ranks of newspapers with his willingness to express such views.

This is why there is such dreary uniformity in the ranks of newspaper columnists, with hardly any original thinking or sharp critiques. This is why we have the dreary predictability and pablum put out by people like George Will, David Broder, David Brooks, Maureen Dowd, etc. What protects them is that nobody buys those newspapers just for the opinion columnists. They are packaged together with news, sports, and entertainment, and hence these writers have an audience delivered to them.

But bloggers are not packaged together with other material. They have to find their own audience. And because they stand alone, people will only read them if they are saying interesting things in an interesting way. It takes a certain kind of brashness to start out on your own, relying purely on your own ability to garner an audience one reader at a time. Since there is no percentage in repeating the same ideas that can be found elsewhere, bloggers tend to develop specialized niches where they can provide quick, informed, incisive commentary. And sometimes they become so good at it, and draw such a large readership that they get hired as columnists for bigger operations, like Glenn Greenwald at Salon, Steve Benen at Atlantic Monthly, Kevin Drum at Mother Jones, Greg Sargent at the Washington Post, etc.

But the free-wheeling, shoot-from-the-hip style of bloggers can sometimes clash with the buttoned-down ethos of traditional media. Some of the people in the bigger operations that have blogs do not quite understand this new form of commentary or the benefit that accrues from giving bloggers their full freedom to say what they think. When they try to apply some 'editorial oversight', they receive feedback that can only be described as brutal. This is what happened recently when some muckymuck at ThinkProgress, concerned about criticisms that their resident blogger Matt Yglesias had made about a group they were affiliated with, tried to soften Yglesias's message by preempting space on his own blog. Read the comments made to the intruder's post. A kind of bond develops between a blogger and his or her readership and woe on anyone who tries to get in between.

Most of the blogs I read are written by people much younger than me, some young enough that I could be their father. They write with an energy and attitude that is refreshing because it has not been beaten out of them. They have not been filtered out in the way reporters are filtered before they can rise to be columnists. Sure they sometimes use profanity. They are also sometimes wrong, of course, and their readers are quick to correct them.

But compare the errors of the better blogs with some of the columnists and you will see why those bloggers are better. I have never seen anyone as consistently wrong as Bill Kristol who has a regular column at the New York Times, and yet he continues blithely along. [UPDATE: The paper announces that today's (as usual) inane column will be Kristol's last.] Roger Cohen and Maureen Dowd have to be two of the most inane commentators, and yet they too are fixtures. They would never last as bloggers.

But the king of mindless punditry is, of course, Tom Friedman. I must admit that I am completely baffled by the admiration that many people I know, so-called 'liberals', have for Friedman. I recall a faculty member who deplored the lack of awareness of current students, using as an argument that many of them did not even read Tom Friedman's columns. He was startled when I said that I thought Friedman was a high-functioning idiot and that our students were showing admirable good sense in steering clear of him.

Gonzo journalist Matt Taibbi, one of the funniest writers around, brutally dissects Friedman, exposing not only the vapidity of his thinking and the shallowness of his research ("This is Friedman’s life: He flies around the world, eats pricey lunches with other rich people and draws conclusions about the future of humanity by looking out his hotel window and counting the Applebee’s signs."), but also his appalling writing style.

I've been unhealthily obsessed with Thomas Friedman for more than a decade now. For most of that time, I just thought he was funny. And admittedly, what I thought was funniest about him was the kind of stuff that only another writer would really care about—in particular his tortured use of the English language. Like George W. Bush with his Bushisms, Friedman came up with lines so hilarious you couldn't make them up even if you were trying—and when you tried to actually picture the "illustrative" figures of speech he offered to explain himself, what you often ended up with was pure physical comedy of the Buster Keaton/Three Stooges school, with whole nations and peoples slipping and falling on the misplaced banana peels of his literary endeavors.

Remember Friedman's take on Bush's Iraq policy? "It's OK to throw out your steering wheel," he wrote, "as long as you remember you're driving without one." Picture that for a minute. Or how about Friedman's analysis of America's foreign policy outlook last May:

The first rule of holes is when you're in one, stop digging. When you're in three, bring a lot of shovels."

First of all, how can any single person be in three holes at once? Secondly, what the f--- is he talking about? If you're supposed to stop digging when you're in one hole, why should you dig more in three? How does that even begin to make sense? It's stuff like this that makes me wonder if the editors over at the New York Times editorial page spend their afternoons dropping acid or drinking rubbing alcohol. Sending a line like that into print is the journalism equivalent of a security guard at a nuke plant waving a pair of mullahs in explosive vests through the front gate. It should never, ever happen.

The last election saw bloggers provide most of the analysis and commentary and drive a lot of news stories. After initially sneering at bloggers as ignorant and profane shouters who should be ignored, every mainstream media outlet now has its own blogs although, oddly, the sneering can still be heard.

Steve Benen argues that although the 'conservative' wing of the one-party political spectrum has a lot of well-funded outlets, they do not seem to have the people with the skills to be interesting bloggers which is why the 'liberal' end of the spectrum is largely dominating the blogosphere.

POST SCRIPT: Jason Jones goes to pundit school

The Daily Show explains why TV talk shows are the way they are.


January 23, 2009

Gaza and the Israel lobby

The main thesis of the book The Israel Lobby and U. S. Foreign Policy by University of Chicago professor of political science John J. Mearsheimer and Harvard University professor of international affairs Stephen M. Walt can be summarized as follows:

The US gives Israel a level of unconditional military, economic, and diplomatic support that far exceeds what it gives to any other country, both in absolute and per capita terms. This level of support cannot be justified on strategic or moral grounds and in fact has resulted in actual harm being done to the long-term interests of the US and even Israel. The existence of the current policies can only be explained as due to the successful lobbying efforts of a powerful group that they call the 'Israel lobby'. A frank discussion would quickly reveal the negative consequences of these policies but this has not occurred because the lobby not only has the ability to influence the speech and actions of the administrative and legislative bodies, it also tries to stifle in the media any examination of its role in influencing policy by accusing critics of the policy and the lobby of being anti-Semitic, and lumping them with Holocaust deniers and purveyors of various conspiracy theories.

An example of how the Israel lobby reacts to any criticisms of the actions of Israel can be seen in what happened recently to Bill Moyers when he spoke about the human cost of war in general and in Gaza in particular. Here is the original Moyers clip.

I thought it was extremely moving. Not so Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League who immediately fired off a letter to Moyers hauling out the usual charges and accusing him, among other things, of anti-Semitism, 'moral equivalency', and historical revisionism. Moyers is an old hand who knows that anyone who criticizes the actions of the Israeli government has to expect this kind of thing from people like Foxman and responded in his usual tempered manner. You can see the correspondence here and Glenn Greenwald's reaction to the episode here.

But Foxman is refreshingly candid in his demand that the US must not have an impartial stance when it comes to the Middle East. He said that he was "concerned" that Obama might appoint former Senate majority leader George Mitchell as his special envoy to the Middle East, which was announced yesterday. Why? Because he says "Sen. Mitchell is fair. He's been meticulously even-handed. But the fact is, American policy in the Middle East hasn't been 'even handed' — it has been supportive of Israel when it felt Israel needed critical U.S. support. So I'm concerned. I'm not sure the situation requires that kind of approach in the Middle East." Fairness is a bad thing? John Rawls must be turning in his grave.

The type of response of Foxman to Moyers (or to anyone who advocates for even slightly more balanced treatment in the Middle East) is actually routine. In 2006 Kenneth Roth of the group Human Rights Watch was attacked when his group produced a report critical of Israel's use of cluster bombs in Lebanon. Roth was promptly accused of making a 'blood libel', participating in the 'de-legitimization of Judaism' and employing 'a classic anti-Semitic stereotype about Jews.' This was despite the fact that not only is Roth Jewish but his father was a refugee from Nazi Germany.

As Georgetown University law professor Rosa Brooks said of such responses:

But what's most troubling about the vitriol directed at Roth and his organization isn't that it's savage, unfounded and fantastical. What's most troubling is that it's typical. Typical, that is, of what anyone rash enough to criticize Israel can expect to encounter. In the United States today, it just isn't possible to have a civil debate about Israel, because any serious criticism of its policies is instantly countered with charges of anti-Semitism.

Writing recently in The American Conservative Mearsheimer analyzes the real purpose of the Israeli assault on Gaza.

The campaign in Gaza is said to have two objectives: (1) to put an end to the rockets and mortars that Palestinians have been firing into southern Israel since it withdrew from Gaza in August 2005; (2) to restore Israel's deterrent, which was said to be diminished by the Lebanon fiasco, by Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, and by its inability to halt Iran's nuclear program.

But these are not the real goals of Operation Cast Lead. The actual purpose is connected to Israel's long-term vision of how it intends to live with millions of Palestinians in its midst. It is part of a broader strategic goal: the creation of a "Greater Israel." Specifically, Israel's leaders remain determined to control all of what used to be known as Mandate Palestine, which includes Gaza and the West Bank. The Palestinians would have limited autonomy in a handful of disconnected and economically crippled enclaves, one of which is Gaza. Israel would control the borders around them, movement between them, the air above and the water below them.

The key to achieving this is to inflict massive pain on the Palestinians so that they come to accept the fact that they are a defeated people and that Israel will be largely responsible for controlling their future.

Mearsheimer recites the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict and why the attack on Gaza might well turn out to be a major setback for Israel. The whole article is well worth reading as is this article titled Israel's Lies by Henry Seigman, former national director of the American Jewish Congress and of the Synagogue Council of America.

One sometimes finds a barbarous way of thinking by those who should know better that if some people are made to suffer on a massive scale, they will simply give up their struggle to achieve justice and let the people inflicting the suffering do what it wants to them. As an example, see Glenn Greenwald's evisceration of the despicable Tom Friedman, who seems to think that raining death and destruction on ordinary Palestinians to achieve political and military ends is just fine, that if you "inflict a heavy death toll and heavy pain on the Gaza population" their elected representatives Hamas can be "educated" into giving up, despite the fact that punishing civilian populations to achieve political and military aims is about as clear a definition of a war crime as you can get.

Oddly enough, this is exactly the same kind of 'logic' of people like bin Laden and groups like al Qaeda, who seem to think that killing huge numbers of American civilians by means of crashing airplanes into buildings would cause Americans to feel defeated, turn on their own political leaders, and reverse their policies in the Middle East. Columnist Mark Steel also noticed this parallel and pointed out in a column laced with black humor, that if you replace "Gaza" with "western" in Friedman's comments, his words could have been written by al Qaeda.

We know how well that strategy turned out. The events of 9/11 resulted in Americans rallying around Bush and unifying them against the terrorists. Even the ever-clueless Friedman earlier said that the 9/11 attacks caused him to rally round his own government and want to lash out in retaliation, using the macho, tough language that seems to come so easily to these armchair warriors safely ensconced in their suburban mansions.

So it's time we got tough. It's time that we looked people in the eye. It's time that the terrorists were the ones who are always afraid, always looking over their shoulder, and to create that, you do have to fight a different kind of war. I was a critic of Rumsfeld before, but there's one thing…that I do like about Rumsfeld. He's just a little bit crazy, OK? He's just a little bit crazy, and in this kind of war, they always count on being able to out-crazy us.

Friedman does not draw the obvious conclusion from his own reaction to 9/11 to what is likely to be the Palestinian reaction to the events in Gaza. As Jonathan Schwarz notes sardonically, "Huh. Well, I'm sure it will work differently on the filthy wogs, given that they're subhuman."

POST SCRIPT: Tide turning?

There are hopeful signs that a more balanced discussion on the Middle East may be starting to take place in the mainstream media. On a recent episode of MSNBC's Morning Joe, thanks to the absence of the regular obnoxious host Joe Scarborough, a surprisingly reasonable discussion took place about what is happening in Gaza.

Part 1:

Part 2:

It was interesting that Richard Haass could say unchallenged that the problem is that Israel has no partners for peace to negotiate with in Gaza since it 'obviously' could not negotiate with Hamas. The idea that Israel has the right to decide who should represent the Palestinians was not challenged. No one had the temerity to ask him whether it would be acceptable if Hamas said that they cannot negotiate with the Israeli government but would only talk with the peace groups in Israel. To pose such an audacious question would be to commit 'moral equivalency', that dangerous sin of applying the same standards to all parties in a conflict.

But things are changing. Veteran Australian war correspondent John Pilger says:

Across the world, people once indifferent to the arcane "conflict" in the Middle East, now ask the question the BBC and CNN rarely ask: Why does Israel have a right to exist, but Palestine does not? They ask, too, why do the lawless enjoy such immunity in the pristine world of balance and objectivity? … In France, 80 organizations are working to bring war crimes indictments against Israel's leaders. On 15 January, the fine Israeli reporter, Gideon Levy, wrote in Ha'aretz that Israeli generals "will not be the only ones to hide in El Al planes lest they are arrested [overseas]."

Let's hope this trend continues.

January 22, 2009

Infantilizing people

One of the extraordinary features of the last decade is the extent to which people have accepted as necessary or even desirable the most appalling crimes done by the government. Arbitrary arrest, indefinite detention, torture, sending people secretly to authoritarian countries to be tortured, warrantless wiretaps and other invasions of privacy, have now become seen as 'normal'.

How was this achieved? By political leaders inflating the threat of terrorism in the US, making people terrified, and then acting as if those same leaders alone can protect us provided we give them all the power they ask for to do so. In effect, we have seen the steady infantilizing of people, not unlike a father who terrifies a small child by telling ghost stories so that the child looks up to him even more for protection.

One of the symptoms of this strategy is that one frequently hears the statement by US political leaders, especially Bush and Cheney, that they are taking this or that action to 'protect the American people'. As a consequence of the drumming of this message, ordinary citizens often say in interviews that they expect the president to 'protect' them and that this is his main job.

I find this kind of language to be extremely distasteful due to its highly patronizing and condescending nature. It baffles me that so many people say that they are grateful to president Bush for 'protecting' them from another terrorist attack. It seems to me that this is sign of an infantile disorder, where people feel the need for a father figure to keep them safe from real and imagined threats.

During the campaign, one of the refreshing things about Obama was that he seemed to treat the American people like they were adults, and this was especially so in his speech about race delivered in the wake of the Jeremiah Wright episode. But now Obama seems to have picked up on the Bush-Cheney disease, saying in an interview on ABC's This Week (Sunday, January 11, 2009) that "My number one priority every single day that I wake up is how do I make sure that the American people safe."

Obama should stop not lose sleep over my safety. I do not need or want him to 'protect' me or to 'keep me safe'. I just want him to run a lawful, constitutionally based government and adopt policies that improve the welfare of people, especially those who need it the most.

Let me be clear. I am not saying that the government should not be in the position of providing public security. One of the most important roles of a government is to ensure that people have services that protect them from violence against their person and from crime and fire and flood and other calamities, and that they can call upon those services as needed. The leaders of a nation also have a duty to defend the nation from hostile actions by nations that seek to conquer any or all parts of it.

I am also not opposed to some supposedly 'anti-terrorist' measures like taking off your shoes and not carrying liquids through airport checkpoints. I think that some of these things are excessive and annoying and promote fear and anxiety (which may actually be their main purpose) but they are not gross violations of civil liberties or constitutional rights, which are the things I am most concerned about.

But those are not the kinds of things that Bush-Cheney (and now I fear Obama) seem to mean when they say they must have the tools to 'protect the American people'. What they are doing is trying to conflate two separate things – the normal expectation that people have that they should be safe from everyday crime, with the heightened fear that they will be at the receiving end of a major catastrophe at the hands of mass murderers,

These political leaders are implying that if they are not allowed to be able to use torture and all the other things I listed above, then the next thing you know, al Qaeda or similar groups are going to detonate a nuclear weapon in downtown Cleveland

No one has suggested that these murderous groups have the remotest intention of taking over the US. No other country, however strong, has the remotest chance of ever subjugating the US or has expressed any intention of doing so. It would be insane to even try. If there is a threat to US dominance of the world at all it will come from within, because of economic collapse due to corruption and looting by its own elites and the financial sector, to expensive and unnecessary wars, and the neglect of basic infrastructure and services.

Bush-Cheney exploited the fears of a terrorist attack to gain compliance for acts that violate the laws and constitutional safeguards and basic human rights, on the basis that such violations are needed to 'protect' us from some shadowy external threat. What they were saying is that beyond the normal levels of protection that people enjoy and that can be provided within the parameters of laws while still preserving long-accepted standards of civil liberties, there is another level of protection that can only be achieved by violating those rights for some people, purely on the basis of suspicion. What the government is doing is similar to the protection racket run by mobsters.

I do not need or want this extra level of protection, whether it is from Bush, Cheney, or Obama. The national security state, which is what we have now, is an evil thing that must be dismantled. I would rather take my chances with a terrorist attack than see the systematic dismantling of the long-standing, hard won protections of habeas corpus, the right to a speedy and fair trial, freedom from torture or the fear of torture both here or abroad, freedom from arbitrary arrest and indefinite detention, and freedom from the invasion of privacy.

I do not believe that we can be totally protected from internal or external terrorist threats and we pay far too high a price in seeking to do so. We should resist being infantilized by political leaders who are seeking to increase their own authoritarian powers by promoting such fears. We must realize that there are some threats that we have to learn to live with if we are not to see the complete abandonment of the civil liberties and freedoms we have long taken for granted.

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart looks at this protection racket

January 21, 2009

Obama and Russia, Cuba, and the neoconservatives

Jim Lobe reviews some articles and the book They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons by Jacob Heilbrunn who speculates on what the neoconservatives, those instigators and cheerleaders for the disastrous policies of Bush-Cheney regime, will try to do now:

It speculates on the internal splits that the neo-cons are going through as a result of the political campaign and Obama's victory, and the possibility (I would say probability) that at least one major faction — headed by people like Robert Kagan, David Brooks and even David Frum — will seek to forge an alliance with liberal interventionists, presumably led by Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton (although Susan Rice also fits the bill), in the new administration, much as they succeeded in doing during the Clinton administration with respect to Balkans policy. As I've written before, the two movements have similar historical origins (inspired in major part by the "lessons" — "never again" — they drew from Munich and the Holocaust) and tend to see foreign policy in highly moralistic terms in which the U.S. and Israel are "exceptionally" good. While I don't agree with everything in Heilbrunn's analysis, it offers a good point of departure for watching the neo-cons as the Age of Obama gets underway.

As I wrote yesterday, the most immediate foreign policy issues confronting the Obama administration involve Iraq and Afghanistan. On other issues, the residual effects of neoconservative and cold war politics is likely to constrain Obama to continue to follow their agenda, at least for a short while. So far he has taken very much a standard pro-war establishment stand. We will have to observe whether the neoconservatives have any success in infiltrating the Obama administration and influencing its policies in the long run.

For example, during the campaign Obama was absurdly belligerent towards Russia on the Georgia/South Ossetia issue. After first making a fairly reasonable statement calling for restraint on both sides, under pressure he resorted to the required anti-Russian belligerence, blaming Russia (on August 9) for "aggressive actions" while sidestepping the provocations of the Georgian president.

What the pro-war one party state demands is that Georgia be portrayed as this plucky little democratic, innocent, western-friendly country that was suddenly attacked without provocation by the big bad Russians, and Obama belatedly but dutifully got on board with the program. However, as was clear from the beginning for anyone who read outside the mainstream media in the US, this picture was far too simple and that Georgia, far from being purely an innocent party, suffered from the actions of their own reckless president. As always, the unpalatable truth leaks out later in dribs (November 7) and drabs (November 17) long after the strong false but initial impressions have been created.

Governments and public relations professionals know how easy it is to manipulate public impressions if you have first crack at shaping the news. In an article (An Orwellian Pitch: The inner workings of the war-propaganda, LA Weekly, March 21-27, 2003) in which he analyzed the way that lies were used to rush the public into invading Iraq, John R. McArthur quotes Peter Teeley, George H. W. Bush's press secretary when he was vice president, who explained it this way: "You can say anything you want during a debate, and 80 million people hear it." If it happens to be untrue, "so what. Maybe 200 people read [the correction] or 2,000 or 20,000."

In a post in 2005, I gave several examples of this lying technique in action. Uri Avnery points to some new examples in the current Israeli assault on Gaza

An example of this process surrounds the most shocking atrocity of this war so far: the shelling of the UN Fakhura school in Jabaliya refugee camp.

Immediately after the incident became known throughout the world, the army "revealed" that Hamas fighters had been firing mortars from near the school entrance. As proof they released an aerial photo which indeed showed the school and the mortar. But within a short time the official army liar had to admit that the photo was more than a year old. In brief: a falsification.

Later the official liar claimed that "our soldiers were shot at from inside the school". Barely a day passed before the army had to admit to UN personnel that that was a lie, too. Nobody had shot from inside the school, no Hamas fighters were inside the school, which was full of terrified refugees.

But the admission made hardly any difference anymore. By that time, the Israeli public was completely convinced that "they shot from inside the school", and TV announcers stated this as a simple fact.

So it went with the other atrocities. Every baby metamorphosed, in the act of dying, into a Hamas terrorist. Every bombed mosque instantly became a Hamas base, every apartment building an arms cache, every school a terror command post, every civilian government building a "symbol of Hamas rule". Thus the Israeli army retained its purity as the "most moral army in the world".

Governments that lie take careful measures to prevent independent voices from gaining access to the news. In the case of Gaza, until yesterday Israel prevented journalists from entering Gaza, even defying the order of its own Supreme Court to allow them in. As a result, the only independent news sources are from Al Jazeera and from individuals, such as this eyewitness report from an Irish human rights worker that details in horrifying detail the terror and destruction that Israel has inflicted on the people of Gaza.

The morgues of Gaza's hospitals are over-flowing. The bodies in their blood-soaked white shrouds cover the entire floor space of the Shifa hospital morgue. Some are intact, most horribly deformed, limbs twisted into unnatural positions, chest cavities exposed, heads blown off, skulls crushed in. Family members wait outside to identify and claim a brother, husband, father, mother, wife, child. Many of those who wait their turn have lost numerous family members and loved ones.

Blood is everywhere. Hospital orderlies hose down the floors of operating rooms, bloodied bandages lie discarded in corners, and the injured continue to pour in: bodies lacerated by shrapnel, burns, bullet wounds. Medical workers, exhausted and under siege, work day and night and each life saved is seen as a victory over the predominance of death.

BBC reporters now allowed in say (and the videos show) that parts of Gaza looks like it has been hit by an earthquake with entire neighborhoods flattened and bodies still buried in the debris. The killing of a well known doctor's daughters in their own home is another example of the horror inflicted on the people of Gaza.

But the Israeli government knows that by limiting first access to the news to its own sources, by the time the truth emerges and makes it into the mainstream press, it has had time to shape public perceptions in ways that are hard to correct.

This is why you have to be skeptical of the statements made by any political leader or government, especially in the immediate aftermath of some major event. They are not trying to inform you, they are trying to shape perception in their favor, and using the fact that they are the ones with immediate access to the media to distort the truth.

The only foreign policy area where there is some hope for quick improvement with the Obama administration is with Cuba. The tide seems to be turning as far as Cuban-American sentiment goes towards Cuba. The older hard-line anti-Castro embargo supporters are dying off and the younger generation wants to create normal relations. This may enable the cautious Obama to open channels towards that country, which has suffered so cruelly from the sanctions, without suffering loss of domestic support. Cuba's president Raul Castro has offered to hold direct talks with Obama and I hope he accepts.

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart on Bush's final media blitz - clueless to the end

Is there anyone less capable of being reflective than Bush?

January 20, 2009

Obama on Iraq and Afghanistan

Yesterday I gave my sense of the direction the Obama administration is likely to go on domestic policy. When it comes to foreign policy, I expect continuing trouble in the coming years, perhaps even worse (if you can imagine it) than what we experienced during the Bush years.

Obama may be able to fulfill his campaign promise to get out of Iraq fairly soon but I worry about his repeatedly stated goal to escalate the war in Afghanistan. The latter country has long been a pawn in geopolitical games played by big powers and its people have suffered tremendously as a consequence. It has also historically been a graveyard for foreign armies and there is no reason to expect anything otherwise this time. It is true that Obama is putting more pragmatic and less warmongering ideologues in the top ranks of the defense and security agencies but that in itself is no guarantee of a good result.

The fact that his administration is stacked with people who have plenty of formal academic credentials is no guarantee that they will not create huge foreign policy disasters. We have to remember that the incoming John F. Kennedy administration also brought with them an ivy-league educated technocratic elite. As chronicled in David Halberstam's memorable book The Best and the Brightest, they got America hopelessly mired in Vietnam. Even the 'best' technocracy cannot make a bad policy successful, and trying to remake other countries to one's own liking by invading them is always bad policy, not to mention a clear and unequivocal violation of international law and morally unjustifiable.

If Obama is not careful, Afghanistan could be his Vietnam, the millstone around his neck the way Iraq was for Bush. His best hope might be for a new intelligence report to come out that Osama bin Laden is dead, which some intelligence people already believe to be true given his long absence from the public eye, and use that to say that the battle is over, the man responsible for 9/11 is gone, and that it is time to put that event in the past and move on. (The release last week of an audiotape by bin Laden, if it turns out to be recent and authentic, will dash that hope.)

Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai has given Obama an opening by calling for a timetable for a withdrawal of US troops and he should seize it.

This does not mean that the US can wash its hands of Iraq and Afghanistan. Those two countries have suffered terribly because of US actions and we have a moral obligation to help them rebuild the infrastructure that we have been party to destroying. Sarah Chayes gives an eye-opening account of the problems in Afghanistan and how the corruption of the US-supported Karzai government is increasing the influence of the repressive Taliban and the warlords.

It is unfortunately true that unstable states tend to bring to power the most hard line extremists and Afghanistan is a good example of that, where the Taliban gained power because of its ability to bring about order, even though it represents a brutal and repressive Islamist ideology. But the disorder that provided them with this window of opportunity did not arise spontaneously. As I pointed out nearly two years ago there was a deliberate US policy decision taken by the Carter administration to intervene and destabilize Afghanistan so as to lure the Soviet Union into invading that country, so that they would get stuck in their equivalent of Vietnam. The Carter administration did this by having the CIA begin aiding the Islamic forces called the Mujahadeen in July 1979, six months before the Soviets invaded.

As a result of that invasion, Afghanistan has been in turmoil ever since. The US supplied arms and ammunition (including sophisticated Stinger surface-to-air missiles) to the Mujahadeen fighting the Soviet army, and the Soviet Union eventually was forced to withdraw in 1989, leaving behind a government they had put in place. But that government was unstable and collapsed in 1992, leading to a period of instability. The Taliban, originally a loose confederation of local units, became a unified body in 1994, gained popularity surprisingly quickly, and took over the government in 1996. The founder of the Taliban Mullah Mohammad Omar was once a Mujahadeen fighter.

Current Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was at that time executive assistant to Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzerzinski, the architect of that inhuman strategy, that saw the people of Afghanistan as merely expendable pawns in superpower political games. (Brzerzinski is one of those political chameleons who is now re-branding himself as a 'sensible' foreign policy voice because of his mild criticisms of Bush's Iraq war policy.)

There is a rich irony in Obama now having Gates in charge of fighting the very forces in Afghanistan that he once helped create. But for the long-suffering Afghan people, caught in the middle of a war involving the US and its NATO allies, its puppet Karzai government, the Taliban successors to former US proxies the Mujahadeen, and the warlords, this is no laughing matter. Right now it seems that the US is trying to combat the Taliban by supporting the warlords, the very people whose oppressive and exploitative behavior resulted in the Taliban gaining popularity because they drove the warlords from power.

The US owes the Afghan and Iraqi people a huge debt for what it has put them through. The best way to do that is to focus on building roads, hospitals, schools, and providing good government wherever it has control. Otherwise the people will have no incentive whatsoever to risk the wrath of the brutal Taliban and warlords. It is when people have an interest in preserving their society that they will oppose, often with great courage and sacrifice, those who seek to oppress them.

So while I do not expect much from Obama, I hope that he will at least do the following: end the US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, help rebuild those shattered countries, and end the practice of torture and renditions. On the last point on torture, some of his appointments for the Justice Department give a glimmer of hope.

So on the day of his inauguration, I wish Obama well. He at least starts out with one big advantage. No president could be as appallingly bad as the George W. Bush.

POST SCRIPT: Ah, memories!

Marcus Brigstocke during last year's campaign.


January 19, 2009

What to expect from the Obama administration on domestic issues

On the eve of Barack Obama's inauguration, I want to muse on what we might see in the coming years.

There has been considerable hand-wringing amongst some liberal supporters of Obama about the people he has selected so far for his administration, since many of them are warmed over Clintonites and other establishment types. But I have not been really surprised. As I have said repeatedly, Obama is a cautious and centrist politician. He is definitely not a progressive, even though some progressives read into his words and campaign more than what he actually said he stood for. The willingness of so many people across the political spectrum to think that Obama represents them is probably a measure of how fed up they are with Bush. Obama is seen as not-Bush and that is enough for them.

I expect Obama to continue the bipartisan practice of being servile to Wall Street financial interests because they are the true rulers of the economy. It will be interesting to see if he can resist the efforts of those who are using the bailout of the auto industry to achieve their long-standing goal of destroying unions, even though the unions are not the cause of the auto industry's troubles.

I do not expect him to push for real changes like a single-payer universal health care system, even if such proposals are advanced by members of his own party, like Congressman John Conyers and his House Bill 676 which calls for just such a sensible plan.

H.R. 676, also called the United States National Health Insurance Act, is a bill to create a single-payer, publicly-financed, privately-delivered universal health care program that would cover all Americans without charging co-pays or deductibles. It guarantees access to the highest quality and most affordable health care services regardless of employment, ability to pay or pre-existing health conditions.

The benefits over the plan over the current wasteful, inefficient, and positively cruel system that actually profits from denying needed health care should be obvious to anyone. (See my earlier series of posts on this topic.) But this bill will be strenuously fought by the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries and some physician group lobbies because they make huge amounts of money from the current system. It will also be opposed by those who have no idea of how such a system operates in places in France and have been completely brainwashed into thinking that the 'free market' system works best for everything (despite the evidence of the collapse of the unregulated financial sector) and that it will mean they will have no choices in their doctors and hospitals or that they will have long waits to see a doctor. I cannot see Obama or the Congress, most of whom have been bought by these lobbies, taking any action in furthering bill 676 unless there is huge public pressure on them.

As readers of this blog know, I supported Obama over McCain in the last election. But as soon as he is inaugurated, I will immediately become one of his critics. It is nothing against him personally. He seems like a nice person, to the extent that one can infer the nature of public figures. But as someone once said, it is very hard to figure out what a politician really thinks and it is not worth the effort to do so. What a politician may want to do and what he or she actually does are not the same.

All elected officials need to have pressure put on them constantly in order to get them to do the right thing and to counterbalance all the pressure they receive from the moneyed interests that normally control them. So I disagree with those who say that we should leave Obama alone at least for awhile and not criticize him because to do so is to give ammunition to his enemies. As Glenn Greenwald points out:

Politicians, by definition, respond to political pressure. Those who decide that it's best to keep quiet and simply trust in the goodness and just nature of their leader are certain to have their political goals ignored. It's always better -- far better -- for a politician to know that he's being scrutinized closely and will be praised and supported only when his actions warrant that, and will be criticized and opposed when they don't. (emphasis in original)

Just because Obama is sympathetic to a particular policy does not mean that he will push for it on his own. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt said to a group of people who were appealing to him to act on a deeply felt cause "I agree with you. I want to do it. Now make me do it."

So my hopes for an Obama administration have never been very high and his appointments so far have not caused me to change my mind about what to expect. But he is a realist and pragmatist and such people, given the circumstances, can sometimes be pushed to take radical steps that they are not temperamentally inclined to simply because they do not rule out sensible policy options purely on ideological grounds.

The best we can hope for from an Obama administration are some sensible actions on some domestic issues. To get us out of the economic troubles, he is correctly pushing for spending on big projects to repair and improve the nation's infrastructure, actions that will at least create jobs and improve everyone's lives by uplifting the environment and providing better services. Even though it will increase the deficit and the national debt in the short and intermediate term, at least we will have some public good to show for it. This is definitely better than the stupid Bush policy of sending people checks (even to those who don't need them) and encouraging them to spend it on expensive baubles like flat-screen TVs. Unfortunately Obama seems to be caving in to Republican pressure to give tax cuts to those who don't need it.

I do expect Obama to take some positive steps on policies to create sustainable alternative energy sources, on increasing conservation measures, and on the environment because I think in those areas the public has come a long way towards those views and he can count on their support.

So there is some hope on a few sectors on the domestic front. On foreign policy, things don't look so good, as I will discuss tomorrow.

POST SCRIPT: Don't let the door hit you on your way out

As George W. Bush leaves office with deservedly the lowest approval rating of any president (22%) since Gallup started measuring it 70 years ago, David Letterman lists his top ten Bush moments.

January 16, 2009

Journalistic courage

(On January 8, 2009 Lasantha Wickramatunga, the outspoken editor of a Sri Lankan newspaper The Sunday Leader was brutally murdered on his way to work in the heart of the capital city Colombo. It was the work of a so-called 'death squad', those shadowy armed and violent groups that act with impunity in many countries.

Anyone who follows these things closely knows that the reason such 'death squads' can act so brazenly and are almost never captured and tried is because they are almost always a paramilitary arm of the government itself, often consisting of security forces out of uniform, and thus enjoy immunity. Their role is to intimidate and terrorize and eliminate all those whom the government dislikes. See this report on the murder and the events leading up to it to see how these death squads operate in Sri Lanka, but it is similar in many countries.

Wickramatunga knew that he was incurring the enmity of the government and that as a consequence his life was in danger. So he wrote an editorial before his death that was to be published in the event of his murder explaining why he was taking the risk of speaking out. It appeared on January 11, 2009. I am reproducing it in its entirety because it is an eloquent testimony to what true journalism is, and it also provides a window into the thinking and motivation of an extraordinarily courageous person.

His article shames us all about our own timidity to speak the truth, even though the risks we run are trivial in comparison to those he faced. It should especially shame our Washington beltway journalists, for whom the mere threat of not being invited to cocktail parties is enough to keep them from reporting anything even mildly embarrassing to the members of the pro-war, pro-business one party elite.

Explanatory notes: The 'Mahinda' he refers to is the president of Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapakse, who is also the leader of the current governing party, the SLFP. The main opposition party is the UNP. LTTE refers to the Tamil Tigers, an ethnic group that has been fighting with successive governments for a separate state for nearly three decades.)

And Then They Came For Me
Lasantha Wickramatunga

No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism. In the course of the past few years, the independent media have increasingly come under attack. Electronic and print-media institutions have been burnt, bombed, sealed and coerced. Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened and killed. It has been my honour to belong to all those categories and now especially the last.

I have been in the business of journalism a good long time. Indeed, 2009 will be The Sunday Leader's 15th year. Many things have changed in Sri Lanka during that time, and it does not need me to tell you that the greater part of that change has been for the worse. We find ourselves in the midst of a civil war ruthlessly prosecuted by protagonists whose bloodlust knows no bounds. Terror, whether perpetrated by terrorists or the state, has become the order of the day. Indeed, murder has become the primary tool whereby the state seeks to control the organs of liberty. Today it is the journalists, tomorrow it will be the judges. For neither group have the risks ever been higher or the stakes lower.

Why then do we do it? I often wonder that. After all, I too am a husband, and the father of three wonderful children. I too have responsibilities and obligations that transcend my profession, be it the law or journalism. Is it worth the risk? Many people tell me it is not. Friends tell me to revert to the bar, and goodness knows it offers a better and safer livelihood. Others, including political leaders on both sides, have at various times sought to induce me to take to politics, going so far as to offer me ministries of my choice. Diplomats, recognising the risk journalists face in Sri Lanka, have offered me safe passage and the right of residence in their countries. Whatever else I may have been stuck for, I have not been stuck for choice.

But there is a calling that is yet above high office, fame, lucre and security. It is the call of conscience.

The Sunday Leader has been a controversial newspaper because we say it like we see it: whether it be a spade, a thief or a murderer, we call it by that name. We do not hide behind euphemism. The investigative articles we print are supported by documentary evidence thanks to the public-spiritedness of citizens who at great risk to themselves pass on this material to us. We have exposed scandal after scandal, and never once in these 15 years has anyone proved us wrong or successfully prosecuted us.

The free media serve as a mirror in which the public can see itself sans mascara and styling gel. From us you learn the state of your nation, and especially its management by the people you elected to give your children a better future. Sometimes the image you see in that mirror is not a pleasant one. But while you may grumble in the privacy of your armchair, the journalists who hold the mirror up to you do so publicly and at great risk to themselves. That is our calling, and we do not shirk it.

Every newspaper has its angle, and we do not hide the fact that we have ours. Our commitment is to see Sri Lanka as a transparent, secular, liberal democracy. Think about those words, for they each has profound meaning.

Transparent because government must be openly accountable to the people and never abuse their trust. Secular because in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society such as ours, secularism offers the only common ground by which we might all be united. Liberal because we recognise that all human beings are created different, and we need to accept others for what they are and not what we would like them to be. And democratic... Well, if you need me to explain why that is important, you'd best stop buying this paper.

The Sunday Leader has never sought safety by unquestioningly articulating the majority view. Let's face it, that is the way to sell newspapers. On the contrary, as our opinion pieces over the years amply demonstrate, we often voice ideas that many people find distasteful. For example, we have consistently espoused the view that while separatist terrorism must be eradicated, it is more important to address the root causes of terrorism, and urged government to view Sri Lanka's ethnic strife in the context of history and not through the telescope of terrorism. We have also agitated against state terrorism in the so-called war against terror, and made no secret of our horror that Sri Lanka is the only country in the world routinely to bomb its own citizens. For these views we have been labelled traitors, and if this be treachery, we wear that label proudly.

Many people suspect that The Sunday Leader has a political agenda: it does not. If we appear more critical of the government than of the opposition it is only because we believe that - pray excuse cricketing argot - there is no point in bowling to the fielding side. Remember that for the few years of our existence in which the UNP was in office, we proved to be the biggest thorn in its flesh, exposing excess and corruption wherever it occurred. Indeed, the steady stream of embarrassing exposes we published may well have served to precipitate the downfall of that government.

Neither should our distaste for the war be interpreted to mean that we support the Tigers. The LTTE are among the most ruthless and bloodthirsty organisations ever to have infested the planet. There is no gainsaying that it must be eradicated. But to do so by violating the rights of Tamil citizens, bombing and shooting them mercilessly, is not only wrong but shames the Sinhalese, whose claim to be custodians of the dhamma is forever called into question by this savagery, much of which is unknown to the public because of censorship.

What is more, a military occupation of the country's north and east will require the Tamil people of those regions to live eternally as second-class citizens, deprived of all self respect. Do not imagine that you can placate them by showering "development" and "reconstruction" on them in the post-war era. The wounds of war will scar them forever, and you will also have an even more bitter and hateful Diaspora to contend with. A problem amenable to a political solution will thus become a festering wound that will yield strife for all eternity. If I seem angry and frustrated, it is only because most of my countrymen - and all of the government - cannot see this writing so plainly on the wall.

It is well known that I was on two occasions brutally assaulted, while on another my house was sprayed with machine-gun fire. Despite the government's sanctimonious assurances, there was never a serious police inquiry into the perpetrators of these attacks, and the attackers were never apprehended. In all these cases, I have reason to believe the attacks were inspired by the government. When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.

The irony in this is that, unknown to most of the public, Mahinda and I have been friends for more than a quarter century. Indeed, I suspect that I am one of the few people remaining who routinely addresses him by his first name and uses the familiar Sinhala address oya when talking to him. Although I do not attend the meetings he periodically holds for newspaper editors, hardly a month passes when we do not meet, privately or with a few close friends present, late at night at President's House. There we swap yarns, discuss politics and joke about the good old days. A few remarks to him would therefore be in order here.

Mahinda, when you finally fought your way to the SLFP presidential nomination in 2005, nowhere were you welcomed more warmly than in this column. Indeed, we broke with a decade of tradition by referring to you throughout by your first name. So well known were your commitments to human rights and liberal values that we ushered you in like a breath of fresh air. Then, through an act of folly, you got yourself involved in the Helping Hambantota scandal. It was after a lot of soul-searching that we broke the story, at the same time urging you to return the money. By the time you did so several weeks later, a great blow had been struck to your reputation. It is one you are still trying to live down.

You have told me yourself that you were not greedy for the presidency. You did not have to hanker after it: it fell into your lap. You have told me that your sons are your greatest joy, and that you love spending time with them, leaving your brothers to operate the machinery of state. Now, it is clear to all who will see that that machinery has operated so well that my sons and daughter do not themselves have a father.

In the wake of my death I know you will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry. But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one, too. For truth be told, we both know who will be behind my death, but dare not call his name. Not just my life, but yours too, depends on it.

Sadly, for all the dreams you had for our country in your younger days, in just three years you have reduced it to rubble. In the name of patriotism you have trampled on human rights, nurtured unbridled corruption and squandered public money like no other President before you. Indeed, your conduct has been like a small child suddenly let loose in a toyshop. That analogy is perhaps inapt because no child could have caused so much blood to be spilled on this land as you have, or trampled on the rights of its citizens as you do. Although you are now so drunk with power that you cannot see it, you will come to regret your sons having so rich an inheritance of blood. It can only bring tragedy. As for me, it is with a clear conscience that I go to meet my Maker. I wish, when your time finally comes, you could do the same. I wish.

As for me, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I walked tall and bowed to no man. And I have not travelled this journey alone. Fellow journalists in other branches of the media walked with me: most of them are now dead, imprisoned without trial or exiled in far-off lands. Others walk in the shadow of death that your Presidency has cast on the freedoms for which you once fought so hard. You will never be allowed to forget that my death took place under your watch. As anguished as I know you will be, I also know that you will have no choice but to protect my killers: you will see to it that the guilty one is never convicted. You have no choice. I feel sorry for you, and Shiranthi will have a long time to spend on her knees when next she goes for Confession for it is not just her owns sins which she must confess, but those of her extended family that keeps you in office.

As for the readers of The Sunday Leader, what can I say but Thank You for supporting our mission. We have espoused unpopular causes, stood up for those too feeble to stand up for themselves, locked horns with the high and mighty so swollen with power that they have forgotten their roots, exposed corruption and the waste of your hard-earned tax rupees, and made sure that whatever the propaganda of the day, you were allowed to hear a contrary view. For this I - and my family - have now paid the price that I have long known I will one day have to pay. I am - and have always been - ready for that. I have done nothing to prevent this outcome: no security, no precautions. I want my murderer to know that I am not a coward like he is, hiding behind human shields while condemning thousands of innocents to death. What am I among so many? It has long been written that my life would be taken, and by whom. All that remains to be written is when.

That The Sunday Leader will continue fighting the good fight, too, is written. For I did not fight this fight alone. Many more of us have to be - and will be - killed before The Leader is laid to rest. I hope my assassination will be seen not as a defeat of freedom but an inspiration for those who survive to step up their efforts. Indeed, I hope that it will help galvanise forces that will usher in a new era of human liberty in our beloved motherland. I also hope it will open the eyes of your President to the fact that however many are slaughtered in the name of patriotism, the human spirit will endure and flourish. Not all the Rajapakses combined can kill that.

People often ask me why I take such risks and tell me it is a matter of time before I am bumped off. Of course I know that: it is inevitable. But if we do not speak out now, there will be no one left to speak for those who cannot, whether they be ethnic minorities, the disadvantaged or the persecuted. An example that has inspired me throughout my career in journalism has been that of the German theologian, Martin Niemoller. In his youth he was an anti-Semite and an admirer of Hitler. As Nazism took hold in Germany, however, he saw Nazism for what it was: it was not just the Jews Hitler sought to extirpate, it was just about anyone with an alternate point of view. Niemoller spoke out, and for his trouble was incarcerated in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps from 1937 to 1945, and very nearly executed. While incarcerated, Niemoller wrote a poem that, from the first time I read it in my teenage years, stuck hauntingly in my mind:

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

If you remember nothing else, remember this: The Leader is there for you, be you Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, low-caste, homosexual, dissident or disabled. Its staff will fight on, unbowed and unafraid, with the courage to which you have become accustomed. Do not take that commitment for granted. Let there be no doubt that whatever sacrifices we journalists make, they are not made for our own glory or enrichment: they are made for you. Whether you deserve their sacrifice is another matter. As for me, God knows I tried.

January 15, 2009

Breaking the rule in discussions about US policies

In yesterday's post, I spoke about the unwritten rule that politicians, reporters, and commentators in the US are expected to follow when it comes to discussing the Israel-Palestine conflict.

A similar rule exists when it comes to discussion of the policies of the US government. Glenn Greenwald points out where this rule leads, where now 'serious' commentators dismiss the idea that people in the Bush-Cheney administration should be tried for war crimes because 'they meant well' and supposedly had 'good reasons' for committing awful acts, such as trying to 'keep the country safe from terrorists'. He points out what happens if you carry that argument to its logical conclusion.

"[V]irtually every single war criminal in history can recite good reasons for undertaking "excessive" measures. Other than psychopaths who do it exclusively for sadistic entertainment, every torturer can point to actual fears, or genuine threats, or legitimate grievances that led them to sanction violence and brutality.

But people like Goldsmith, Drezner, Douthat, and The Los Angeles Times Editorial Page can only see a world in which they -- Americans -- are situated at the center. They cite the post-9/11 external threats which American leaders faced, the ostensible desire of Bush officials to protect the citizenry, and their desire to maximize national security as though those are unique and special motives, rather than what they are: the standard collection of excuses offered up by almost every single war criminal (my italics).

If ostensible self-protective motives are now considered mitigating factors in the commission of war crimes -- or, worse, if they justify immunity from prosecution -- then there is virtually no such thing any longer as a "war crime" that merits punishment. Every tyrant and every war criminal can avail themselves of this self-defense. But advocates of this view -- "Oh, American officials only did it to protect us from The Terrorists" -- can't or won't follow their premise to this logical conclusion because their oh-so-sophisticated and empathetic understanding that political leaders act with complex motives only extends to their own leaders, to Americans.

But the rest of the world's war criminals -- the non-Americans -- have no such complexities. They are basically nothing more than Saturday morning cartoon villains who commit war crimes not for any rational or justifiable reason or due to some grave predicament, but rather, out of some warped, cackling pleasure or to satisfy their evil, palm-rubbing plot for world domination and conquest.

This is the self-absorbed mindset that allows the very same people who cheered for the attack on Iraq to, say, righteously condemn the Russian invasion of Georgia as a terrible act of criminal aggression. Russia's four-week occupation of Georgia is a heinous war crime, while our six-year-and-counting occupation of Iraq is a liberation. Russia drops destructive, lethal bombs on civilian populations, but the U.S. drops Freedom Bombs. Russian leaders were motivated by a desire for domination even though they withdrew after a few weeks; Americans, as always, are motivated by a desire to spread love and goodness.

Jim Henley adds that "The United States government has always engaged in war crimes and human rights violations. What's different this decade is that, under the leadership of a terrible president, our elites have become vociferous advocates of the goodness and rightness of war crimes and human rights violations." (emphasis in original)

Matthew Yglesias says, "According to the perverse rules of our post-9/11 discourse, willingness to verbally endorse the idea of having other people torture strangers counts as a form of courageous "toughness" akin to, you know, actually doing something brave. And the rot has, I'm afraid, spread pretty far."

There are occasions for comparing actions and trying to create some kind of moral calculus especially if one is looking at the unfolding of history and trying to point out how cycles of violence usually become more cruel. But if an act is a murder or an atrocity or a war crime, then it remains so irrespective of who commits it or whether other people also do it. Justifying or excusing or minimizing an evil by pointing the finger at another evil only leads to a continuing cycle of evil.

During the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in August 2006, I covered some of this ground before in a four-part series of posts (part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4) describing how this kind of tribal thinking leads to never-ending violence and death and destruction, made even worse by smug feelings of self-righteousness by the perpetrators.

Part 3 is particularly relevant to today's and yesterday's posts. In re-reading what I had written in it, it was depressing to see that if you replace the words Lebanon with Gaza and Hezbollah with Hamas, that essay would apply with equal force to the events of today. Will we ever learn?

POST SCRIPT: Prosecutions for torture and war crimes

Lawyer Phillipe Sands, who directs the Centre for International Courts and Tribunals at the University of London and is author of the book Torture Team: Rumsfeld's Memo and the Betryal of American Values, discusses with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air how war crimes are considered so evil that international treaties have declared that people who commit them should have no refuge. They are considered crimes against humanity, so that citizens of one country who committed those acts within their own country, can still be prosecuted by other countries.

So the fact that US authorities may choose to ignore the war crimes committed by its own citizens by not prosecuting them because they were done by 'our' people only increases the chances that prosecutors in other countries might open investigations. He says that many people in the Bush administration had better be very cautious about going abroad because they might be subject to arrest, the way Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was when he visited England.

January 14, 2009

Breaking the rule

My series of posts last week on the events in Gaza caused unease for some readers because of their strong criticisms of the actions of the Israeli government and military, such as the siege that had been going on for years and the massive assault that has been going on the past month.

The unease was expressed in one comment by HRK who said:

I've been a long-time reader of your blog, but I have to say, I'm somewhat confused by this latest series of posts. Although I understand - and to a large extent agree with - your basic idea that the Israeli policies are self-destructive, I don't understand why you seem to be giving the Palestinians a free pass on this one. I know plenty of other sources don't, but as that your basic stance seems to be that civilian deaths are an unnecessary evil, wouldn't it be better to point out the lack of regard for it that both sides have shown in the past?

HRK was quite perceptive in sensing that there was something slightly out of kilter and I can understand his/her confusion. It arose because I had broken the rule regarding how one comments on particular issues like the Israel/Palestine conflict.

The rule in the US is that whenever the actions of the Israeli government are criticized, it must be immediately preceded or followed by equal or harsher criticism of the Palestinians. Otherwise one is deemed to be 'not responsible', or biased, or worse.

Moreover, the rule requires the opposite behavior when the parties are switched. Harsh criticism of Palestinian atrocities against Israelis need not be accompanied by a similar balancing act, such as pointing out equivalent or worse acts by Israel. In fact, attempting to do so immediately opens one up to criticism, the charge that one is 'excusing' the atrocity, or implying 'moral equivalency' between the two sides. (Read journalist Robert Fisk's experiences with this.)

HRK's confusion about what my stance was is an indication of how much this rule has been internalized, so that it is assumed to be the norm that everyone must follow. Anyone who violates the rule is immediately subject to having his or her motives questioned.

I do not choose to follow that rule and will criticize actions that need to be criticized on their own merits without worrying about what motives may be imputed to me. Anyone who has read my writings will know that I think that tribal allegiances based racial, ethnic, religious, and national identities are not only stupid but even evil, and that the resultiing wanton harming of civilians that is a consequence of these allegiances is also an evil, whether done by al Qaeda, the US, Israel, the Palestinians, the Sri Lankan government, the Tamil Tigers, or whoever. Life is precious and ordinary people have the right, wherever they live, to be free of the fear of being the victims of political power plays.

The implication that 'moral equivalency' is necessarily a bad thing is another symptom of how these kinds of rules are internalized. It seems to imply that 'our' side because of our very nature, by virtue of who we are is morally superior to 'their' side. Hence 'our' actions can never be evil by definition, but must be due to mistakes or accidents or unavoidable events. Meanwhile 'their' actions, even if identical to 'ours', are intentionally evil, carried out with cruel deliberation. So again, by definition, there can never be moral equivalency between acts committed by 'us' and 'them', even if the acts themselves are identical.

This kind of thinking is endemic and can be found in discussions of almost all conflicts, not just with Israel and Palestine. Uri Avnery tellingly describes how the dominant power uses its propaganda power to shape the narrative structure.

Nearly seventy ago, in the course of World War II, a heinous crime was committed in the city of Leningrad. For more than a thousand days, a gang of extremists called "the Red Army" held the millions of the town's inhabitants hostage and provoked retaliation from the German Wehrmacht from inside the population centers. The Germans had no alternative but to bomb and shell the population and to impose a total blockade, which caused the death of hundreds of thousands.

Some time before that, a similar crime was committed in England. The Churchill gang hid among the population of London, misusing the millions of citizens as a human shield. The Germans were compelled to send their Luftwaffe and reluctantly reduce the city to ruins. They called it the Blitz.

This is the description that would now appear in the history books – if the Germans had won the war.

Absurd? No more than the daily descriptions in our media, which are being repeated ad nauseam: the Hamas terrorists use the inhabitants of Gaza as "hostages" and exploit the women and children as "human shields", they leave us no alternative but to carry out massive bombardments, in which, to our deep sorrow, thousands of women, children and unarmed men are killed and injured.

IN THIS WAR, as in any modern war, propaganda plays a major role. The disparity between the forces, between the Israeli army - with its airplanes, gunships, drones, warships, artillery and tanks - and the few thousand lightly armed Hamas fighters, is one to a thousand, perhaps one to a million. In the political arena the gap between them is even wider. But in the propaganda war, the gap is almost infinite.

Almost all the Western media initially repeated the official Israeli propaganda line. They almost entirely ignored the Palestinian side of the story, not to mention the daily demonstrations of the Israeli peace camp. The rationale of the Israeli government ("The state must defend its citizens against the Qassam rockets") has been accepted as the whole truth. The view from the other side, that the Qassams are a retaliation for the siege that starves the one and a half million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, was not mentioned at all.

The kind of thinking decribed by Avnery illustrates the worst kind of tribalism, where we demand to be judged by the good intentions that we say lie behind our actions, while we judge 'them' by their actions alone and the intentions that we get to assign to them. To look at the actual acts and use the same standard of judgment for those committed by both sides is to commit the sin of moral equivalency.

The propaganda system can only work if we internalize the rules of discussion set by the dominant forces and follow them unthinkingly. It is encouraging that more and more people are breaking them.

Next: Breaking the rule in discussions about US policies

POST SCRIPT: Israel's clout with the US

In this report that appeared in the Jerusalem Post (January 12, 2009), we see that not only can the Israeli prime minister order George W. Bush about, he feels free to brag publicly about doing so.

The Security Council resolution passed on Friday calling for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza was a source of embarrassment for US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who helped prepare it but ultimately was ordered to back down from voting for it and abstain, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Monday.

Rice did not end up voting for Resolution 1860, thanks to a phone conversation Olmert held with US President George Bush shortly before the vote, the prime minister told a meeting of local authority heads in Ashkelon as part of a visit to the South.

Upon receiving word that the US was planning to vote in favor of the resolution - viewed by Israel as impractical and failing to address its security concerns - Olmert demanded to get Bush on the phone, and refused to back down after being told that the president was delivering a lecture in Philadelphia. Bush interrupted his lecture to answer Olmert's call, the premier said.

America could not vote in favor of such a resolution, Olmert told Bush. Soon afterwards, Rice abstained when votes were counted at the UN.

As John Cole says: "I am not sure what Israel has on us that they can extract billions of American taxpayer dollars every year and dictate our foreign policy, but it must be something pretty good. The craziest thing about this is the silence of the jingosphere. Had this been any other nation bossing around Bush’s Secretary of State, or, god forbid, France, can you imagine the wingnut Voltron that would have been formed in outrage? As it is, crickets."

Juan Cole tries to understand why Israel's prime minister would so openly boast about his power over the US president and US foreign policy.

January 13, 2009

The Year of Reason-2: Starting the process

When in social situations people hear that I am an atheist, they often ask why I don't believe in a god. The answer is extremely simple and can be given in just one sentence: There is no sense in believing in something for which there is no evidence. But I have noticed that when people say, for example, that they belong to some religious sect like the Catholics or Judaism or Islam, no one asks them why they joined that sect or why they believe what members of that sect believes, though we would normally do that if people expressed a preference for anything else, say a film or book or a sports team.

I think this reticence to pose what would be a natural question is because religious people know that there is no real answer that they can give as to why they belong to their religious group. Their allegiance has no more substantive basis than those of fervent supporters of the Browns football team who are fans simply because they were born and live in the Cleveland area. To try to give an answer as to why they belong to a particular religious group is to expose the soft underbelly of religious beliefs, so believers protect other believers from this mutual embarrassment, thus allowing religion to persist (as Sigmund Freud says) as a kind of mass delusion. Freud adds, "No one, needless to say, who shares a delusion ever recognizes it as such." (Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud, translated by James Strachey, 1961, p. 32.)

But there is no reason that we atheists should play by those rules. As part of the Year of Reason, we need to start poking holes in this mass delusion. I think that if someone asks us why we are atheists we should, after answering, immediately turn the question around and ask people why they believe in god.

What will people say in response to such a question? My guess is that they will first be surprised that such a question is asked at all, because the basis for religious belief is rarely unquestioned. (Thanks to Lucas for pointing out this typo.)

I also suspect none of them will say that they actually saw god or spoke with him/her/it. If they do say such an incredible thing, good follow up questions to ask them are what god looks like, whether it was a man or woman, whether god spoke in English, what tone of voice or accent he/she/it had, what the exact words were, whether anyone else was present to see this visitation and, if not, whether they called anyone else to come and witness this extraordinary event.

But you are highly unlikely to get such a response, unless you are speaking with Pat Robertson to whom god speaks once a year and tells him what is going to happen in the coming year. Since it is god speaking, you would expect 100% accuracy. But the record is, to put it most charitable, spotty which means that either god is losing his/her/its grip, pulling Pat's leg, or that Pat is a fraud. (God's statement about what is going to happen in 2009 is here. You can also see what god said about what would happen in 2008 and 2007 as well.)

Although every religious person says they believe in god and even claim to speak to him, only delusional people actually claim to have heard voices or had visions. As the TV character House tells a colleague in one episode about a teenage faith healer who says god speaks to him, "You talk to god, you're religious. God talks to you, you're psychotic." (This is a terrific episode of House that reminded me of Marjoe. You can seen an extended clip of the episode here.)

The most likely reason people will give for saying they believe in god is the Argument From Personal Incredulity. This is a version of "I don't understand how the complexity of the world and how life could come about without someone to plan and implement it. So there must be a god." This argument is a lazy one. Collectively we know a huge amount about how the world came to be. There will always be some unanswered questions but there is no reason to think that they will not be answered in the future just the way that previously unanswered ones were.

Another lazy argument is the Argument From Wishful Thinking. This is from people who seek to find some meaning and purpose in life but are incapable of doing the work of constructing meaning and purpose for themselves, so resort to the option of buying one of the off-the-shelf meanings provided by religions, even though they do not make any sense. Take the central dogma of Christianity: "An omnipotent god loves the world and wants to save his creations from the sin he himself allowed them to commit, so he arranges for the brutal murder by crucifixion of his own son, who is also god, in addition to destroying vast numbers of people with natural disasters, wars, and diseases." Only a person committed to self-delusion would subscribe to such a doctrine.

Another is the Argument From Vague Feelings. Here people will take some perfectly natural events that have some emotional punch and imbue them with immense spiritual or cosmic significance. So you will often hear something about the 'miracle' of childbirth or like Francis Collins's experience of being overwhelmed by the sight of a frozen waterfall and seeing in these everyday things signs from god.

Sigmund Freud, trying to understand the appeal of religion even though he himself saw it as an illusion, reports on a religious colleague who told him that the source of his religion "consists in a peculiar feeling, which he himself is never without, which he finds confirmed by many others, and which he may suppose is present in millions of people. It is a feeling which he would like to call a sensation of 'eternity', a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded –as it were – 'oceanic'." Freud says that this vague feeling "is the source of religious energy which is seized upon by the various religious Churches and religious systems, directed by them into particular channels, and doubtless exhausted by them." (Freud, p. 10, my italics)

Again, we see that belief caused by a purely internal emotional reaction is transformed in the mind of the believer into something objective and tangible, merely because other people also report similar feelings.

Those answers, weak as they are, are actually the ones that will be given by the more thoughtful people. The real reason that most people believe, but which they are unlikely to admit to, is because they are expected to believe. Social norms expect that one belong to some religious group.

So to usher in the year of reason, whenever someone speaks about their religion, let's simply reflect the question back at them: "Why do you believe in a god?" Reason begins with asking questions about what one believes and why, and using evidence and logic as the bases of one's beliefs.

I know that some readers of this blog are religious. I hope they will give the reasons for they believe in god in the comments.

POST SCRIPT: The Rapture is coming! No, really, this time I mean it!

Richard Bartholomew notes that the people who believe in that weird idea known as the Rapture seem to be getting impatient and are hoping that maybe this year will be when the 'third time lucky' superstition actually kicks in.

January 12, 2009

The Year of Reason-1: Understanding the reasons for irrational beliefs

(I was planning to start the new year with this post, but it got pre-empted by the posts on the horror that is being perpetrated on the people of Gaza.)

I think we should declare 2009 the Year of Reason.

This should be the year when we make a concerted effort to wipe out superstitious and irrational beliefs of all kinds. This category includes not only religious beliefs but also absurd and divisive and harmful ideas such as that the people who share one's own nationality and ethnicity are somehow better than those who don't, and thus deserve greater allegiance and consideration.

Familiarity breeds false rationality. For many people, irrational beliefs are what other people hold, not their own. Their own irrational beliefs seem reasonable because they acquired them at a very young age when they tended to believe what the adults in their lives told them and they have rarely been asked why they believe. The power of myths is that it never even occurs to people to question the validity of ideas that they have always had and which everyone around them seems to share..

As I wrote earlier, in his book The God Delusion (p. 178), Richard Dawkins quotes the anthropologist Pascal Boyer who once over dinner at a Cambridge University college recounted the beliefs of the Fang people of Cameroon who believed that "witches have an extra internal animal-like organ that flies away at night and ruins other people's crops or poisons their blood. It is also said that these witches sometimes assemble for huge banquets, where they will devour their victims and plan future attacks. Many will tell you that a friend of a friend actually saw witches flying over the village at night, sitting on a banana leaf and throwing magical darts at various unsuspecting victims."

Bayer says he was dumbfounded when a Cambridge theologian turned to him and said "This is what makes anthropology so fascinating and so difficult too. You have to explain how people can believe such nonsense." (italics on original)

Dawkins points out that the theologian, as a mainstream Christian, did not see any irony at all in referring to the Fang people's beliefs as nonsense even while he himself believed many or all of the following beliefs:

  • In the time of the ancestors, a man was born to a virgin mother with no biological father being involved.
  • The same fatherless man called out to a friend called Lazarus, who had been dead long enough to stink, and Lazarus came back to life.
  • The fatherless man himself came alive after being dead and buried three days.
  • Forty days later, the fatherless man went to the top of a hill and then disappeared bodily in to the sky.
  • If you murmur thoughts privately in your head, the fatherless man, and his 'father' (who is also himself) will hear your thoughts and may act upon them. He is simultaneously able to hear the thoughts of everybody else in the world.
  • If you do something bad, or something good, the same fatherless man sees all, even if nobody else does. You may be rewarded or punished accordingly, including after your death.
  • The fatherless man's virgin mother never died but 'ascended' bodily into heaven.
  • Bread and wine, if blessed by a priest (who must have testicles), 'become' the body and blood of the fatherless man.

Similar nonsense is believed by Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Mormons, Scientologists, all of whom think that the beliefs held by people of other religions are not only wrong but even absurd, despite the fact that there is no difference at all in the evidentiary basis for all of them. All of them have exactly zero credible evidence in support and whose only basis for belief is that they are found in ancient texts of dubious authenticity.

It is telling that some Protestants, who believe almost all of the things in the above list, snigger at the absurdity of some Catholic beliefs such as that Mary remained a virgin all her life and did not die but ascended directly into heaven, or at the doctrine of transubstantiation. Does one need any more convincing evidence that this that religion breeds irrational thinking? (See my earlier post on why religions expect you to believe preposterous things.)

This reminds me of how during the 2008 presidential campaign people in the mainstream media snickered at Congressman Dennis Kucinich because of his statement that he once saw something that he called a UFO. I have written before about my own deep skepticism that there could be alien beings flying around near the Earth but I cannot understand how religious people can make fun of Kucinich. After all, while alien beings flitting around Earth is highly unlikely, at least it is compatible with all the laws of science, while religious people believe in an undetected and undetectable god and all manner of weird ideas for which there is not a shred of credible evidence and which violate all known physical laws. Kucinich at least claims that he actually saw something physical and did not think it was supernatural. Religious people believe in things they have neither seen nor heard but believe because have been simply told by others that they exist.

Bertrand Russell, who came from a wealthy aristocratic family, was not sent to school and had private tutors instead, which gave him plenty of time to reflect on things. As a result, from the age of fourteen to eighteen he successively rejected the ideas of free will, immortality, and belief in god. But he did not share this realization with anyone mainly for fear of ridicule. (My Religious Reminiscences, in The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell, Robert E. Egner and Lester E. Denonn (eds.), Touchstone (1961), p. 31)

Russell was fortunate that he was not exposed to the coercive pressure that accompanies religious beliefs. Our entire social structure has been set up to brainwash children, through a mixture of bribes and fear, into believing in god at an early age, just like they are made to believe in Santa Claus, except that with god the fiction is continued into adulthood by parents and priests and their community, and deviation from such orthodoxy is frowned upon. Most children dislike being different. The peer pressure of other children will cause even those children who question their religious beliefs to keep quiet.

It is easier to believe something, however absurd, if everyone around you also believes it, or at least say they believe in it even if they harbor doubts. And since the question of why they believe is never posed, religious people can avoid the realization that their beliefs make no sense.

So let's make a dent in this protective coat by posing to religious people the question "Why do you believe in god?"

POST SCRIPT: How Muslims/Arabs are stereotyped

Palestinian-American comic Dean Obeidallah from the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour (Thanks to Crooks and Liars). His last bit is particularly poignant given the recent removal of a Muslim family from an AirTran plane after passengers said they heard the family say things they thought were threatening.

Joy Behar had a nice interview with Obeidallah on The View.


January 09, 2009

On Gaza-5: The public reaction

The largely one-sided nature of the response in the US to the events in Gaza is seen by the fact that even university academics, who are supposed to have the knowledge and independence to speak their minds, become suddenly silent when Israel takes actions like what is currently happening in Gaza. Neve Gordon and Jeff Halper point out that even the bombing of a university in Gaza did not arouse indignation among US academics, who are quick on other occasions when academic rights are infringed upon and academic institutions attacked.

Not one of the nearly 450 presidents of American colleges and universities who prominently denounced an effort by British academics to boycott Israeli universities in September 2007 have raised their voice in opposition to Israel's bombardment of the Islamic University of Gaza earlier this week. Lee C. Bollinger, president of Columbia University, who organized the petition, has been silent, as have his co-signatories from Princeton, Northwestern, and Cornell Universities, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Most others who signed similar petitions, like the 11,000 professors from nearly 1,000 universities around the world, have also refrained from expressing their outrage at Israel's attack on the leading university in Gaza. The artfully named Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, which organized the latter appeal, has said nothing about the assault.

Of course, Bollinger has already revealed that consistency and principles are of little concern to him. Some may recall how he gave a vicious tongue lashing to the democratically elected Iranian president Ahmadinejad while he was actually introducing him as a guest at his university, while fawningly and fulsomely praising the Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf on a similar occasion.

I do not expect Barack Obama to shift much from the standard practice of support for even the most appalling of right-wing Israeli policies. During the primaries Obama and Hillary Clinton seemed to be competing to see who could grovel more towards the Israel lobby groups and to right wing Israeli politicians, ignoring those who advocate a just solution to the Palestinian issue. Obama has tried to curry favor with hardline Israeli political groups and has also pandered quite shamelessly to AIPAC, even at one time calling for Jerusalem to be the 'undivided capital' of Israel, though he tried to walk that statement back a bit.

I do not expect him to do much about the atrocious treatment by Israel towards the people of Gaza, where the Israeli government has implemented a blockade that has caused immense hardships to everyone, or to pressure them to remove the settlements in the occupied territories, or to insist that they remove the wall being built that effectively annexes parts of the occupied territories and splits Palestinian communities. I do not expect him to go to that region and echo Ronald Reagan's words to the Soviet Union in Berlin and to call upon the Israelis to "Tear down this wall!", let alone call for the return to the pre-1967 borders called for by UN resolution 242 and others. The appearance of new organizations like J Street that challenge the impression that only groups like AIPAC represent the views of American Jews is an encouraging sign and one hopes that the Obama administration will talk to such groups more.

This series of maps by Siun shows how Israel has been steadily squeezing the Palestinians so that they end up living in Bantustan-like enclaves surrounded by the Israel military and have to pass through checkpoints to go from one enclave to another, similar to those created for blacks by the white South African regime during apartheid.

To take on the issues that would lead to justice for that region would require a level of political courage from Obama that he has not so far revealed. As Alexander Cockburn says:

It's certainly true that the minute the new Obama administration made any move, however tentative, deemed "anti-Israel" by the massed legions of the Israel lobby – stretching from vice president Biden's office, through Obama's own Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel to about 98 per cent of the U.S. Congress, the major newspapers and TV networks, the think tanks in Washington, the big Democratic Party funders – political mayhem would break loose. The White House would see its prime political enterprise, the economic recovery program, immediately held hostage.

Hamas has been greatly strengthened by the current attack and the status of President Abbas reaffirmed as a spineless collaborator with Israel; Mubarak likewise; Syria and Turkey alienated from Western designs; Hezbollah and Iran vindicated by the world condemnation of Israel's barbarous conduct. For months Israel besieged Gaza, starving its civilian inhabitants of essential supplies with no effective international reproach. It's hard to take dramatic photographs of an empty medicine bottle, but easy to film a bombed out girl's dorm or a Palestinian mother weeping over the bodies of her five dead daughters, featured on the front page of the Washington Post this week.

Palestinians are considered expendable people by the US elites, somewhat less than human, whose deaths and suffering do not count for as much. It is similar to the way the million Iraqi casualties of the US invasion or the millions of Vietnamese casualties were regarded during the US invasion of that country.

The invaluable Glen Greenwald puts his finger on the basic problem: the tribal ways of thinking that permeate our societies.

So many of these conflicts -- one might say almost all of them -- end up shaped by the same virtually universal deficiency: excessive tribalistic identification (i.e.: the group with which I was trained to identify is right and good and just and my group's enemy is bad and wrong and violent), which causes people to view the world only from the perspective of their side, to believe that X is good when they do it and evil when it's done to them. X can be torture, or the killing of civilians in order to "send a message" (i.e., Terrorism), or invading and occupying other people's land, or using massive lethal force against defenseless populations, or seeing one's own side as composed of real humans and the other side as sub-human, evil barbarians. (emphasis in original)

He quotes George Orwell who long ago pointed out that this kind of tribalism blinds people to their own glaring inconsistencies:

All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side ... The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.

The results of this kind of tribal thinking that Greenwald and Orwell describe are on clear display in almost any conflict that is going on now, such as Gaza. This is why I argue that taking pride in, and having excessive allegiance to, one's religion, race, ethnicity, region, and nationality are all evils that an enlightened person will not countenance.

POST SCRIPT: Getting wider news sources

Eric Garris of the absolutely invaluable website Antiwar.com provides some important information about a new application called Livestation that enables you to get live TV and radio stations from around the world, including BBC World Service and Al Jazeera (English). The download was easy and the quality is excellent.

Thanks to Livestation I can now see Al Jazeera live and see first hand what is going on there because it is the only major news organization that has reporters in Gaza. Al Jazeera was unable to gain access to US cable channels because the cable companies here would not agree to include them as an option, thus reinforcing the one-sided view of the conflict. This is another example of how the internet is allowing people to bypass the media filters and gain access to a broader news spectrum.

January 08, 2009

On Gaza-4: The US and UK government reactions

In response to the Israeli attack on Gaza, the US and UK governments and the mainstream media in those countries have been as usual almost unanimous in their support for the Israeli actions and in condemning the Palestinians.

Paul Craig Roberts comments on the underlying reasons why Gaza is being strangled and the hypocritical reactions of especially the US and UK governments.

Israel's excuse for its violence is that from time to time the Palestinian resistance organization, Hamas, fires off rockets into Israel to protest the ghetto life that Israel imposes on Gazans. The rockets are ineffectual for the most part and seldom claim Israeli casualties. However, the real purpose for the Israeli attack is to destroy Hamas.

In 2006 the US insisted that the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank hold free elections. When free elections were held, Hamas won. This was unacceptable to the Americans and Israelis. In the West Bank, the Americans and Israelis imposed a puppet government, but Hamas held on in Gaza. After unheeded warnings to the Gazans to rid themselves of Hamas and accept a puppet government, Israel has decided to destroy the freely elected government with violence.

For the US and UK governments, Israel can do no wrong. Israel doesn't have to stop withholding food, medicine, water, and energy, but Hamas must stop protesting by firing off rockets. In violation of international law, Israel can drive West Bank Palestinians off their lands and out of their villages and give the stolen properties to "settlers." Israel can delay Palestinians in need of emergency medical care at checkpoints until their lives ebb away. Israeli snipers can get their jollies murdering Palestinian children.

The Great Moral Anglo-Americans couldn't care less.

The fearful conditions in Gaza have existed for a long time. Chris McGreal in the UK newspaper The Guardian in 2005 reports on life under Israeli occupation:

In southern Gaza, the killings take place in a climate that amounts to a form of terror against the population. Random fire into Rafah and Khan Yunis has claimed hundreds of lives, including five children shot as they sat at their school desks. Many others have died when the snipers must have known who was in their sights - children playing football, sitting outside home, walking back from school. Almost always "investigations" amount to asking the soldier who pulled the trigger what happened - often they claim there was a gun battle when there was none - and presenting it as fact.

And now we hear of over 40 people being killed in separate attacks on two UN schools in a refugee camp where they had sought shelter from the bombardment. As of yesterday, over 200 children have been killed out of a total of about 600 deaths.

Columnist Mark Steel of the UK newspaper The Independent uses black humor to make some sharp points about the way that the US and British politicians and media have reacted to the latest events in Gaza.

When you read the statements from Israeli and US politicians, and try to match them with the pictures of devastation, there seems to be only one explanation. They must have one of those conditions, called something like "Visual Carnage Responsibility Back To Front Upside Down Massacre Disorder".

For example, Condoleezza Rice, having observed that more than 300 Gazans were dead, said: "We are deeply concerned about the escalating violence. We strongly condemn the attacks on Israel and hold Hamas responsible."

Someone should ask her to comment on teenage knife-crime, to see if she'd say: "I strongly condemn the people who've been stabbed, and until they abandon their practice of wandering around clutching their sides and bleeding, there is no hope for peace."

The gap between the might of Israel's F-16 bombers and Apache helicopters, and the Palestinians' catapulty thing is so ridiculous that to try and portray the situation as between two equal sides requires the imagination of a children's story writer.

The reporter on News at Ten said the rockets "may be ineffective, but they ARE symbolic." So they might not have weapons but they have got symbolism, the canny brutes.

It's no wonder the Israeli Air Force had to demolish a few housing estates, otherwise Hamas might have tried to mock Israel through a performance of expressive dance.

Or there's the outrage that Hamas has been supported by Iran. Well that's just breaking the rules. Because say what you will about the Israelis, they get no arms supplies or funding or political support from a country that's more powerful than them, they just go their own way and make all their weapons in an arts and crafts workshop in Jerusalem.

But mostly the Israelis justify themselves with a disappointing lack of imagination, such as the line that they had to destroy an ambulance because Hamas cynically put their weapons inside ambulances.

They should be more creative, and say Hamas were planning to aim the flashing blue light at Israeli epileptics in an attempt to make them go into a fit, get dizzy and wander off into Syria where they would be captured.

But they prefer a direct approach, such as the statement from Ofer Schmerling, an Israeli Civil Defence official who said on al-Jazeera, "I shall play music and celebrate what the Israeli Air Force is doing."

Maybe they could turn it into a huge national festival, with decorations and mince pies and shops playing "I Wish We Could Bomb Gaza Every Day".

In a similar tone Dov Weisglas, Ariel Sharon's chief of staff, referred to the siege of Gaza that preceded this bombing, a siege in which the Israelis prevented the population from receiving essential supplies of food, medicine, electricity and water, by saying, "We put them on a diet."

That Weisglas, such a kidder.

Stephen M. Walt, co-author with John Mearsheimer of the book The Israel Lobby and U. S. Foreign Policy points out that there is almost complete unanimity in this country's political leadership for providing unconditional support for any and all Israeli policies. He says that the perception that Americans in general support their government's stance needs to be challenged:

The evidence suggests otherwise: although most Americans support Israel’s existence and have more sympathy for them than they have for the Palestinians, they are not demanding that U.S. leaders back Israel no matter what it does. But that's what American politicians reflexively do, even though it encourages Israel to continue immoral and self-destructive policies (including the continued expansion of settlements) and contributes to Arab and Islamic anger at the United States.

Mearsheimer made similar arguments in a very funny appearance on The Colbert Report that yet managed to convey some of the crucial points at issue.

Although there had been criticisms of the US government's almost unconditional support for Israel and against the Palestinians in the alternative media, it was the appearance in 2007 of the Mearsheimer and Walt book based on their 2006 article in the London Review of Books that took it more mainstream, since these two scholars were very much establishment figures of the 'realist' school of political scientists, hardly radicals. For those interested in what the book says, my earlier three part series of posts on their book (here, here, and here) provides an introduction.

POST SCRIPT: The Daily Show on the one-sided response in the US to events in Gaza


January 07, 2009

On Gaza-3: The media reaction

The mainstream media in the US and UK follow the line of their respective governments, who in turn follow Israel's lead and place almost the entire blame on the Palestinians. The power of this conformity can be seen in the kinds of things that Martin Peretz, for over three decades the owner and publisher of the 'liberal' magazine The New Republic, says. Eric Alterman profiles the vicious racism against Arabs that characterizes his writings.

I have gotten this far and not even gotten to the topic that usually comes up in discussions of Peretz of late, which is his obsessive and unapologetic hatred of Arabs, the evidence of which is visible nearly every day on Peretz's "The Spine." Here are just a few of the choice descriptions Peretz has had occasion to employ in his magazine about assorted Arabs, whether Palestinian, Iraqi, or of the generic variety: They are "violent, fratricidal, unreliable, primitive and crazed … barbarian"; they have created a "wretched society" and are "cruel, belligerent, intolerant, fearing"; they are "murderous and grotesque" and "can't even run a post office"; their societies "have gone bonkers over jihad" and they are "feigning outrage when they protest what they call American (or Israeli) atrocities"; they "behave like lemmings," and "are not shocked at all by what in truth must seem to them not atrocious at all"; and to top it all off, their rugs are not as "subtle" and are more "glimmery" than those of the Berbers.

Trust me, I could go on. As the blogger Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, Peretz's blog is "basically a museum for every anti-Arab/Muslim stereotype and caricature that exists." Nevertheless, as the Prospect's Ezra Klein blogged, "Peretz is rarely held to account, largely because there's an odd, tacit understanding that he's a cartoonish character and everyone knows it."

When it comes to Palestinians, it seems like you can say almost anything and not be taken to task. Take for example, Michael Goldfarb, editor of the Weekly Standard. He wrote about the current Israeli assault thus:

The fight against Islamic radicals always seems to come around to whether or not they can, in fact, be deterred, because it's not clear that they are rational, at least not like us. But to wipe out a man's entire family, it's hard to imagine that doesn't give his colleagues at least a moment's pause.

Matthew Yglesias noted the significance of Goldfarb's comments:

To be clear, he’s not saying that it’s sometimes okay to kill a bad guy’s innocent children as part of a military operation directed against the guy. He’s saying it’s better to kill his children than it would be to avoid killing them. (emphasis in original)

Glenn Greenwald points out that the logic used by people like Goldfarb is exactly the same as that used by those whom we label terrorists:

To the Terrorist, by definition, that innocent civilians and even children are killed isn't a regrettable cost of taking military action. It's not a cost at all. It's a benefit. It has strategic value. Goldfarb explicitly says this: "to wipe out a man's entire family, it's hard to imagine that doesn't give his colleagues at least a moment's pause."

That, of course, is the very same logic that leads Hamas to send suicide bombers to slaughter Israeli teenagers in pizza parlors and on buses and to shoot rockets into their homes. It's the logic that leads Al Qaeda to fly civilian-filled airplanes into civilian-filled office buildings. And it's the logic that leads infinitely weak and deranged people like Goldfarb and Peretz to find value in the killing of innocent Palestinians, including -- one might say, at least in Goldfarb's case: especially -- children.

Can you imagine anyone saying anything like what Goldfarb and Peretz say about any other group and not be written off as a racist? And yet, they not taken to task and indeed continue to be media players. They get away with it because it seems like there is nothing you can say against the Palestinians that will lose you your mainstream media perch. But say something critical of Israel's policies without a harsher criticism of Palestinians and you are quickly gone. The limit of 'respectable' criticism of Israel consists of doing the 'both sides should show restraint and we should find a way to get the peace process back on track but Israel has the right to do anything in defend itself ' song-and-dance.

We are expected (rightly) to be horrified that Israeli people are subjected to rocket and suicide bomb attacks but to treat as unfortunate but not equally horrifying that the Palestinians have been under occupation for over four decades, with no autonomy, unable to enter or leave without Israeli approval, restricted in their movements internally by hundreds of checkpoints, subject to daily harassments and arrest and detention by security forces, their homes demolished by bulldozers, their land steadily encroached upon by settlers, their access to food, medicine, water, energy, and any and all other supplies restricted and controlled by a hostile power that does not hesitate to use that power as a weapon to impose collective punishment on them whenever it feels like it, and periodically subjected to massive military force that kills and injures huge numbers of people and destroys their basic infrastructure.

But Jane Hamsher suggests that there are encouraging signs that the situation is changing and a more honest, and thus more productive, debate over Israeli policies may be emerging in the US. Philip Weiss even goes to the extent of suggesting that this latest Gaza assault may result in the ending of the ability of the Israel lobby to control the terms of the discussion.

Greenwald elaborates how Peretz merely says more bluntly what others in both political parties say more delicately. He also points to this curious washing of hands that US political leaders indulge in, saying that the US should not intervene and that Israel's security decisions should not be challenged.

What could be more absurd than that? Apparently, not only should we continue to feed Israel billions of dollars a year of American taxpayer money and massive amounts of weapons -- thereby ensuring that the world, quite accurately, perceives their actions as American actions -- but we should then take the position that they are free to do anything they want with it, no matter how extreme or destructive to our interests, and our only view on all of it should be that we blindly support whatever they do.

Greenwald also accurately captures why David Gregory is perfect to replace the late Tim Russert as the host of Meet the Press. Both practice the art of toothless journalism, all grandstanding bark and no bite, where they see their role as mainly enablers of policies preferred by the establishment, though of course they themselves do not see it that way. Read the list of questions Gregory asked Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and marvel that he did not a challenge a single one of the dubious assumptions underlying this Israeli action and Israeli policies in general. The questions were all about procedure and tactics and even the urging of more harsh measures. Of course Gregory knows that this is the kind of ingratiating behavior that will gain him the favor of his bosses and enable him to be the media star that Russert was.

Justin Raimondo suggests that this latest assault on Gaza by Israel is to serve as a warning shot across the bow to the incoming Obama administration that they should not even think of veering away from unconditional support for any and all Israel's actions.

Speaking of Obama, the real focal point of the Israeli assault isn't Gaza – it's Washington, D.C. The whole point of this exercise in futility – which will not create a single iota of security for Israel, will not topple Hamas, and will not prove any more successful than the second Lebanese war – is to set the terms by which the Israelis will deal with the incoming U.S. president. Before he even gets a chance to appoint his Middle East team, his special envoys and advisers, the Israelis will have sabotaged the peace effort they can clearly see coming – and put the Americans on notice that whatever "change" is in the air will have to be to Israel's advantage. In short, the Gaza massacre is a preemptive strike against the prospect of American intervention on the Palestinians' behalf, or, at least, a more evenhanded policy framework.

Richard Silverstein also suggests that this Israeli offensive is meant to put the new Obama administration on the defensive even before it begins.

The reflexive support for it by the US mainstream media and the congressional leadership of both parties will add to that pressure.

POST SCRIPT: The Real News

Fed up with the news you get in the mainstream media? Check out The Real News, which gets its feeds from all over the world, from a much wider spectrum of sources than what you normally see. What it lacks in glitzy production values, it more than makes up in providing alternative voices.

January 06, 2009

On Gaza-2: Countering the myths

Mustafa Barghouthi, Secretary General of the Palestinian National Initiative, in an article well-worth reading titled Palestine's Guernica and the Myths of Israeli Victimhood painstakingly tries to refute all the reasons given by apologists for Israel's actions to justify this latest assault on the Palestinians. Those myths, which the mainstream media and both democratic and Republican politicians in the US tend to repeat uncritically, consist of the following:

  1. Israelis have claimed to have ended the occupation of the Gaza Strip in 2005.
  2. Israel claims that Hamas violated the cease-fire and pulled out of it unilaterally.
  3. Israel claims to be pursuing peace with 'peaceful Palestinians'.
  4. Israel is acting in self-defense.
  5. Israel claims to have struck military targets only.
  6. Israel claims that it is attacking Hamas and not the Palestinian people.
  7. Israel claims that Palestinians are the source of violence.

Like nearly all durable myths, they do contain factual elements but these are merely used as scaffolding to create a propaganda edifice designed to hide the truth. Interestingly, Barghouthi's article was published on the allegedly 'liberal' Huffington Post website with an extraordinary disclaimer not usually given for other writers, in which they essentially disowned him. As Jeremy Sapienza comments;

HuffPo runs all kinds of commentary from all over the political spectrum (or at least its leftish side), but only those who dare speak against the sainted Israelis seem to require an editorial explanation that resembles an apology.

Justin Raimondo follows the money to the people from whom Arianna Huffington, the politically opportunistic creator of the site, gets her substantial support and argues that the website did this because its financial backers would not take kindly to anyone breaking the media consensus in the US that Israel is always the innocent party.

Jennifer Loewenstein makes the crucial point that is necessary in order to understand why every year or two ones sees these violent flare ups in that region. The reason is that Israel has no intention whatsoever of ever giving the Palestinians a viable nation of their own based upon agreed international frameworks. So they will regularly create these conflagrations in order for US and European public consumption, to argue that the elected leaders of the Palestinians should not and cannot be negotiated with.

In a recent talk given at Case, the noted scholar on the Israel/Palestine question Norman Finkelstein made the same point, that it should not surprise anyone that Israel regularly declares that some incident is an intolerable provocation and unleashes its massive military power (underwritten by the US taxpayers) on the hapless population. These regular assaults should not be seen as reactions to events. They are, in fact, standard policy.

Jonathan Hari provides evidence to support the view that Israel has no intention of allowing a viable Palestinian to be created:

The Israeli government did indeed withdraw from the Gaza Strip in 2005 – in order to be able to intensify control of the West Bank. Ariel Sharon's senior adviser, Dov Weisglass, was unequivocal about this, explaining: "The disengagement [from Gaza] is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians... this whole package that is called the Palestinian state has been removed from our agenda indefinitely."

Richard Silverstein over at Tikun Olam in a post titled Gaza: The Horror suggests that the Gazans are merely disposable pawns in Israeli politics.

It is an Israeli Shock and Awe (and you remember how that turned out). Ehud Barak has prepared a veritable 12 course feast of blood, gore, and mayhem for Gaza. It is Barak’s ultimate political play for the coming elections. If he wins, then he helps Labor maintain its ever-fainter role in Israeli national politics. If he fails, then he and Labor sink together.

Whatever the reason, what is happening in Gaza is an unspeakable atrocity, on top of the unspeakable atrocities that all the Palestinians have been experiencing in both the West Bank and Gaza over these many years.

POST SCRIPT: But can he get the Senate also under his thumb?

Now that Al Franken has been declared the winner of the Minnesota US Senate election, can we hope to see policy speeches set to rock music?


January 05, 2009

On Gaza-1: The horror

I had hoped to start my first new post for the new year on a positive note, to break away from what has almost become an obsession with political commentary, and get back to writing on all the other topics that this blog's header promises.

But I have been horrified at the massive destruction that is being inflicted on the people of Gaza and feel compelled to add my own voice in protest. What is currently happening in Gaza can only be called an atrocity. I am not only talking about the air strikes and shelling that has been rained down upon the people of that area in the past weeks, I am also talking about the long standing embargo imposed by Israel that has highly restricted their food, medicine, electricity, water, and other supplies and which has had the effect of slowly destroying the people there. It is an appalling crime, provoking worldwide mass protests.

To understand the conditions in Gaza, one must realize that 1.5 million Palestinians are crammed into just 139 square miles. If Gaza were an independent country, it would have the third largest population density, after Monaco and Singapore. But whereas the other two countries are developed states that enjoy autonomy and have a high standard of living, Gaza is effectively an Israeli prison that controls their borders and has imposed a siege on it that has highly restricted even essential supplies.

Ellen Cantarow describes the appalling situation that existed even before the current massacre.

As Israel nails shut the coffin that is Gaza under a siege that has lasted nearly three years, steadily intensifying so that malnutrition rates rival those of sub-Saharan Africa, sewage runs raw in the streets and pollutes the ocean, homes are still being bulldozed to super-add collective punishment upon collective punishment; men, women and children are still being sniped at and killed; children are deafened by continuing sonic booms, the vast majority of them suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome, and many of that majority have no ambition other than becoming "martyrs," Israel in mid-December denied entry to Richard Falk, UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur on the occupied territories.

As Falk himself noted in his statement about Gaza to the UN (see "Gaza: Silence is not an Option" at The Heathlander and other Internet sites), the Secretary General of the UN, the President of the General Assembly, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights have all condemned Israel for its monstrous siege. "Karen AbyZayd," stated Falk, "who heads the UN relief effort in Gaza, offered first-hand confirmation of the desperate urgency and unacceptable conditions facing the civilian population of Gaza. Although many leaders have commented on the cruelty and unlawfulness of the Gaza blockade imposed by Israel, such a flurry of denunciations by normally cautious UN officials has not occurred on a global level since the heyday of South African apartheid."

The Israeli military has even rammed relief boats bringing much needed medical supplies, physicians, and other volunteers.

Johann Hari describes what life in Gaza is like:

To understand how frightening it is to be a Gazan this morning, you need to have stood in that small slab of concrete by the Mediterranean and smelled the claustrophobia. The Gaza Strip is smaller than the Isle of Wight but it is crammed with 1.5 million people who can never leave. They live out their lives on top of each other, jobless and hungry, in vast, sagging tower blocks. From the top floor, you can often see the borders of their world: the Mediterranean, and Israeli barbed wire. When bombs begin to fall – as they are doing now with more deadly force than at any time since 1967 – there is nowhere to hide.

All this was before the current horrifying assault on the defenseless people of Gaza. Even the New York Times, always a dependable and loyal apologist of Israel's policies against the Palestinians, could not avoid reporting on the scale of the violence that is currently occurring.

There was a shocking quality to Saturday's attacks, which began in broad daylight as police cadets were graduating, women were shopping at the outdoor market, and children were emerging from school.

The center of Gaza City was a scene of chaotic horror, with rubble everywhere, sirens wailing, and women shrieking as dozens of mutilated bodies were laid out on the pavement and in the lobby of Shifa Hospital so that family members could identify them. The dead included civilians, including several construction workers and at least two children in school uniforms.

By afternoon, shops were shuttered, funerals began and mourning tents were visible on nearly every major street of this densely populated city.

But even those reporters were pulling their punches. Philip Weiss quotes an eyewitness to the carnage:

People are going through the dead terrified of recognizing a family member among them. The streets are strewn with their bodies, their arms, legs, feet, some with shoes and some without. The city is in a state of alarm, panic and confusion…hospitals and morgues are backed up and some of the dead are still lying in the streets with their families gathered around them, kissing their faces, holding on to them. Outside the destroyed buildings old men are kneeling on the floor weeping. Their slim hopes of finding their sons still alive vanished after taking one look at what had become of their office buildings.

And even after the dead are identified, doctors are having a hard time gathering the right body parts in order to hand them over to their families. The hospital hallways look like a slaughterhouse. It's truly worse than any horror movie you could ever imagine. The floor is filled with blood, the injured are propped up against the walls or laid down on the floor side by side with the dead. Doctors are working frantically…

I am not going to post the photos of the carnage. The words are gruesome enough. This is what is being done by the massively powerful Israeli military against a defenseless population and it is largely underwritten by the US. These are our tax dollars at work.

POST SCRIPT: Election winners and losers

James Wolcott writes a review in his own entertaining style, ending with:

[Sarah Palin is] America’s first and probably last prelapsarian drama queen, a brassy object of fascination whose unsheathing of presidential ambitions and personal entitlement will be breathtaking to behold in the years ahead, akin to watching Godzilla eat breakfast. Well, it beats listening to Joe Lieberman ooze. Aligning himself with the wrong team, having the effrontery to show up grinning on the stage at the Republican convention, Lieberman was the loser’s loser of the 2008 election—in the immortal words of Groucho Marx, Go, and never darken our towels again!

You should read the whole thing.

January 02, 2009

Atheism and meaning

(As is my custom this time of year, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some old favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. The POST SCRIPTS will generally be new. New posts will start again on Monday, January 5, 2009. Today's post originally appeared in October 2007.)

People often think that atheists do not have a life affirming philosophy. They have sometimes taken the quote by prominent atheist Richard Dawkins (Scientific American November 1995, p. 85) that "The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference" to argue that atheism leads to a philosophy of hopelessness and despair. I have heard several talks by intelligent design creationism advocate Michael Behe and he repeatedly uses this quote to get a laugh at the expense of atheism by saying that Dawkins must be a real downer at parties.

But anyone who has seen interviews with Dawkins and read his writings will come away with the contrary impression, that he is a witty, courteous, and engaging man with a mischievous sense of humor. One can well imagine him livening up any party. Dawkins was merely making a factual observation about the nature of the universe, saying that it is futile to try and obtain our meaning and purpose externally from the universe, although we can observe it with awe and wonder. We can, and should, construct meaning and purpose for our lives.

The idea that atheists "suffer" from a "lack of meaning" is a curious preoccupation of religious apologists. For example, a Catholic priest called Jonathan Morris talks with sympathetic interviewers on Fox News and trots out the same old tired and discredited arguments for the existence of god, including the eye. Although he seems to have very little understanding of science himself, he has the audacity to suggest that people like Richard Dawkins don't know science. He also suggests that atheists suffer because they know that "the world makes a whole lot more sense if god does exist". Morris does not, of course, provide any evidence that atheists are more unhappy than believers.

In actual fact, the world makes a lot more sense if you think that god does not exist. It is religious people who have to repeatedly resort to the 'mysterious ways clause', invoking the actions of an inscrutable god when confronted with the numerous awkward contradictions that are raised in trying to understand a world that has a god in it.

Every atheist I know is relieved that they don't have to try and make sense out of absurd religious doctrines or have to reconcile the vast number of contradictions that immediately arise as soon as you postulate the existence of a god with anything close to the properties usually claimed for it. When atheists do have regrets about the non-existence of god it is usually because it is usually because it precludes the possibility of meetings one's dead loved ones again in the afterlife or, as philosopher Colin McGinn says, because it means that the people who do real evil and create suffering will likely escape punishment in this world. I admit that it would be nice to think that such people will get their comeuppance in the next. But the evidence is so overwhelmingly against the existence of god and life after death that to cling to it is to indulge in escapism. In the long run it is better not to take refuge in illusions but accept reality and use that knowledge as a spur to work for peace and justice in this world.

Religious people are given a philosophy of life and a sense of meaning packaged in with the religious teaching they imbibe from childhood. Atheism, on the other hand, is not itself a philosophy, any more than disbelief in fairies or unicorns (afairyism? aunicornism?) are philosophies. But atheism does have implications for philosophy.

Since atheists do not have off-the-shelf philosophies and meaning that they can adopt as a package the way that religious people do, they have to create their own. Thus atheists have to do some reflective introspection to construct a philosophy of life, and in that sense, being an atheist requires a certain level of intellectual effort. Most naturally tend to be attracted to versions of humanist and existential philosophies. Ethicist Peter Singer in his book Writings on an Ethical Life (2000) outlines some ideas about what kinds of meanings and moral and ethical values an atheist might adopt. (I hope to write more about these some day).

That search for meaning in the absence of god can produce wonderful results. In the British TV program The Root of All Evil, the writer Ian McEwan says:

We are the very privileged owners of a brief spark of consciousness and we therefore have to take responsibility for it. We cannot rely, as Christians or Muslims do, on a world elsewhere, a paradise to which one can work towards and maybe make sacrifices, or crucially make sacrifices of other people. We have a marvelous gift, and you see it develop in children, this ability to become aware that other people have minds just like your own and feelings that are just as important as your own. And this gift of empathy seems to me to be the building block of our moral system.

If you have a sacred text that tells you how the world began or what the relationship is between this sky god and you, it does curtail your curiosity. It cuts off a source of wonder. The loveliness of the world in its wondrousness is not apparent to me in Islam or Christianity or the other major religions.

Richard Dawkins adds:

By disclaiming the idea of a next life we can take more excitement in this one. The here and now is not something to be endured before eternal bliss or damnation. The here and now is all we have, an inspiration to make the most of it. So atheism is life affirming in a way religion can never be. Look around you. Nature demands our attention, begs us to explore, to question. Religion can provide only facile, unsatisfying answers. Science, in constantly seeking real explanations, reveals the true majesty of our world in all its complexity. People sometimes say "There must be more than just this world, than just this life." But how much more do you want?

Atheists have one huge advantage over religious people that more than compensates for the fact that they are not handed a philosophy of life by religion. Because they do not have to deal with all the intractable logical problems that belief in god entails and for which religious believers have to repeatedly invoke the 'mysterious ways clause' and shut down further investigations, they are free to pursue intellectual inquiry with no restrictions. Unlike religious believers, on the road to increased knowledge they do not have to obey signs that cordon off some areas saying "No admittance by order of religion." They are free to go anywhere and explore and investigate anything. The world is wide open for them.

And that is a wonderfully liberating feeling.

POST SCRIPT: Year in review

Here is the second part of Tom Tomorrow's year in review. (The first part is here.)

January 01, 2009

And now for something completely different…

(As is my custom this time of year, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some old favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. The POST SCRIPTS will generally be new. New posts will start again on Monday, January 5, 2009. Today's post originally appeared in October 2007.)

I like comedies. And within that genre of films, I particularly like parodies. The best ones are those that are based on clichés of particular genres or specific stories that are well known, since a successful parody depends crucially on the ability of the audience to immediately recognize allusions to the original

A parody idea is not hard to come up with. What is hard is to be able to sustain the conceit over the length of a film. Even in the written form, short article parodies are difficult (I know because I have tried and failed miserably) and only a skilled writer can pull it off. I often come across attempts at parodies that seemed to have started out as a single good idea but the writer could not sustain the conceit and it soon becomes painful to read. The ability to maintain a light tough and not to belabor the point is a skill that only a few seem to be able to master. Stephen Leacock and S. J. Perelman are two writers who were good at it. As a very young boy I read Perelman's Somewhere a Roscoe, a parody of the hard-boiled detective story, and I was hooked on parodies for life.

So here are some of my favorite film parodies. If you haven't seen any of them, you should check them out.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) is a parody classic of Camelot. There are so many good scenes in it that it is hard to choose, so I went with Dennis the Peasant.

Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979) is a superb parody of life in the time of Jesus. Here is one of the funniest scenes in it.

And since you can never have too much of Monty Python, here is another one from that same film.

Mel Brooks is undoubtedly the master of the film parody and has produced some of its finest examples. Brooks has the ability to insert a parody of one genre into a parody of another. In Robin Hood, Men in Tights (1993), one of the funniest scenes is where comedian Dom de Luise does a dead-on parody of the Marlon Brando role in The Godfather.

In Spaceballs (1987), Mel Brooks took on the mighty Star Wars franchise.

In Blazing Saddles (1974), Brooks turned his attention to the western and showed his ability to use anachronisms to good comedy effect.

And of course, the monster horror film genre was ripe for Brooks' plucking with Young Frankenstein (1974).

Woody Allen scored a direct hit on the epic Russian psychological novel style of writers like Dostoyevsky with his wonderful Love and Death (1975), which to my mind is his best film.

A little-known but funny parody that I heard about just a month or so ago is Zorro, the Gay Blade (1981), in which George Hamilton stars as both Don Diego (the canonical Zorro) and Bunny Wigglesworth, his twin brother who was sent to England as a child and returns home just in time to substitute for his injured twin. Bunny has, shall we say, a more discerning taste in clothes than his brother and disdains the simple black outfits that he favors. In this scene, Ron Leibman in over-the-top acting mode plays the despotic Alcalde as he starts hearing reports of Bunny's exploits.

I had not thought of George Hamilton as a comedic actor, or even much of an actor at all and was pleasantly surprised at his ability to pull off camp comedy. I knew him as merely the famed possessor of the most perfect year-round tan, which made him a surprise choice to star as a creature of the night, the vampire Dracula in the parody Love at First Bite (1979), which was unfortunately rather uneven in quality.

I have not as yet come across good parodies of the James Bond series. Austin Powers seemed strained to me, too annoyingly caricatured, and I only watched the first one. The original Casino Royale (1967) brought together a whole series of famous actors and was a disaster. Even Peter Sellers and Woody Allen could not salvage a truly ghastly script. The only reason to watch this film is to see a colossal train wreck of a film, and the immense waste of talent.

POST SCRIPT: Happy New Year!

It is unfortunately going to be a difficult year for most people for reasons that do not need to be spelled out. The only good news on the horizon is that in three weeks we see the end of the worst presidency ever. It would be even better if Bush and Cheney were tried and convicted for war crimes.

I would like to wish all of the blog's readers the best wishes for the new year.

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