Archive for February, 2005

Anti-Bush Mythology

Sunday, February 27th, 2005

Mythologies are difficult to debunk because they filter the way people processes information. Information buttressing the mythology is given disproportionate even dispositive weight. Contradictory information is ignored or dismissed. Yet, mythology comforts because it eases the burden of considering alternative ideas or the challenge the uncomfortable facts.

One such mythology holds that President George W. Bush is a religious zealot, who believes he receives directives from God to prosecute a war on terror and specific instructions on how to conduct it. With this mythology, critics can explain Bush’s apparent steadfastness in terms of a blind and uncritical faith by someone not quite in full control of his faculties. As someone facetiously asked, “Does President Bush even tip his hat to reality as he goes breezing by?”

It does not take much scrutiny to undermine the weak foundations upon which anti-Bush partisans build their prevailing mythology. One primary source for this anti-Bush mythology is David Corn who writes in The Nation:

“[Bush] claimed his duty was to defend the United States. This remark — coupled with Bush’s comment that `there is a higher father that I appeal to’ — does make it seem that Bush believes he is on a mission from God. That might scare some, but it would not be so problematic if Bush also believed that God expects him to engage in self-examination and critical and honest discourse…”

Here, Corn takes a single sentence from Bush, “There is a higher father I appeal to.” as evidence to suggest, in Corn’s words, that Bush is on a “mission from God.” Corn provides a patina of fairness and credibility by cautioning that we have to evaluate Bush’s remark in the context of whether Bush is sufficiently introspective.

Yet, we and Corn really do have sufficient context. Corn does not have to look very far to find it. The fuller background of the Bush’s remark comes from Bob Woodward’s book Plan of Attack. Woodward asked Bush whether he consulted his father, the former president, about Iraq. Bush was a little uncomfortable is answering the question. If he made it sound as if he constantly consulted his father, he would appear as the little Bush — a “shrub” in the words of Liberal columnist Molly Ivins.

Bush answered Woodward’s question in a broader context saying,

“You know he is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher father that I appeal to.”

With the simple neglect of the preceding sentence, Corn turns the Bush’s perfectly reasonable statement, that he uses his faith as a source of strength, into the subtle suggestion that Bush is on a zealous “mission from God,” Corn pretends to ask for context, then appears to deliberately ignore it.

Lest there be any doubt as to the role of Bush’s faith, Bush explained to Woodward:

“I’m surely not going to justify war based upon God. Understand that. Nevertheless, in my case, I pray that I be as good a messenger of His will as possible. And then, of course, I pray for personal strength and for forgiveness.”

Surely, we can ask no more of anyone than that he seeks to be a “messenger of His will,” is humble enough to pray for “strength,” and recognizes the invariable necessity to request “forgiveness.”

However, that explanation is too reasonable; too modest, too eloquent, too consistent with the understanding of most people of faith, and too incompatible with the prevailing Left-wing mythology to enter the discussion.

Faith-Based Presidency or Faith-Based Criticism

Sunday, February 20th, 2005

If you happen to run into the journalist Ron Suskind, be nice to him. He has had a rough time recently as the lead thesis of two of his most prominent and controversial projects have proven conspicuously false soon after the publication.

In The Price of Loyalty, Suskind teamed with the President George W. Bush’s controversial first Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill. Anti-Bush partisans wanted desperately to believe that decision to attack Iraq was made early in the Bush Administration, well before 9/11. Proof of such would lend credence to the belief that the attacks on 9/11 were merely a convenient excuse to go into Iraq.

Suskind and O’Neill believed that O’Neill had seen a smoking gun. Suskind quoted Paul O’Neill has having seen a Pentagon document listing oil contractors for a post-War Iraq. Suskind should have filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the documents like the public interest group Judicial Watch did. If he had, he would have realized that the documents were not what he hoped and believed they were. This particular charge had to wait to be independently debunked and even Paul O’Neill himself backed away from charge. Of course, the thesis persists long after to evidence for it was withered under the harsh sun of open scrutiny.

Then in October 2004, Suskind wrote an investigative piece, “Without a Doubt,” that appeared in the New York Times Magazine. The timing was not uncorrelated with then pending election. The piece led off with a provocative sentence from Republican Bruce Bartlett that, “…if Bush wins, there will be civil war in the Republican Party starting on November 3.” November 2 rolled around, Bush won re-election bringing with him larger majorities in both the House and Senate, the first time any president had done so since 1936, with nary a Fort Sumter in sight.

Suskind was using a technique as old as political reporting. Find a disgruntled ex-administration official whose ego is a little bruised, and you will likely have someone who is anxious to explain how a foolish administration refused to listed to his brilliant ideas and analyses.

In “Without a Doubt,” Suskind’s thesis is that Bush is absolutely certain in his policies, brokers no dissent, and is constrained by his “preternatural faith-induced certainty in uncertain times.” According to Suskind, “The president has demanded unquestioning faith from his followers, his staff, his senior aides and his kindred in the Republican Party.” Suskind views strong religious faith as both a metaphor and reason for Bush’s supposed closed-mind and unflinching approach to governance.

Suskind perpetuates the misunderstanding that the Founding Fathers were “…adamant about erecting a wall between organized religion and political authority.” Of course, Suskind must know the real words of the First Amendment are, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Jefferson referred to a wall of separation in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut, which can hardly claims the force of law, the consensus of the Founding Fathers, or even consistency with Jefferson in other contexts. None of the Founders wanted a state-sponsored religion, but neither did they expect their leaders to exercise judgment without the sustenance of their faith or that religion be removed from the public square. Indeed, what ever “wall” there was did not prevent the Founders from conducting voluntary services in off hours at the Capitol or from referencing the “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence. Suskind drive-by assertion on the Founding Fathers’ view of the appropriate relationship between church and state is embarrassingly puerile.

Less interesting than what Suskind’s article claims to say about George Bush or about the Founders, is what it says about post-modern notions of faith, notions probably shared by many of Suskind’s New York Times readers. To those of faith, Suskind’s article makes no sense. The arrogant intransigence Suskind assigns to Bush is not in the nature of faith, but rather the antithesis of it. However, to the irremediably secular, faith is a blind, uncritical acceptance by people too intellectually and emotionally immature to think critically. Those who are susceptible to religious faith are probably just as uncritical and credulous in other areas as well.

It is presumptuous to speak of anyone else’s faith, but it a service to people with Suskind’s world view to broaden their notions of faith. I am not privileged to peek into Bush’s personal life, but if Bush’s faith is anything like the faith of some of other American presidents, it is a faith that sustains in difficult times. It is a faith that sustains not because things will not go wrong, but because of a conviction that these problems too are part of a grander plan. It is not a faith that stops self-doubt, but allows one to proceed in the face of personal uncertainty. It is not faith that refuses to question. It is faith that requires constant self examination. It is not a faith that presumes that God acts solely through us, but recognizes that we are all imperfect agents.

Perhaps it is best to illustrate a mature faith, with an example from a President that some have foolishly and mistakenly regarded has having little faith: Abraham Lincoln. In the middle of the nineteenth century, politicians often spoke in religious terms, using religious imagery. Hence, it is difficult to separate convenient pious platitudes used for effect, and genuine belief. Abraham Lincoln, fortunately, left a paper trail.

According to Ronald White Jr.’s new book The Eloquent President, Lincoln was in the habit of writing notes to himself on scraps of paper and on the backs of envelopes and then placing these scribblings for safe keeping in his hat. Later Lincoln would ponder these words and ideas, rearrange the notes in different order, as a way to consider, develop, and organize his thoughts. Years after Lincoln’s presidency, meditative notes were found that Lincoln wrote to himself and not for the public. These notes provide key evidence as to the place of faith in Lincoln’s thinking. Lincoln begins his reflection:

“The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one certainly must be wrong. God cannot be for, and against the same thing at the same time.”

Nonetheless, humans must act. Lincoln writes that though God’s purpose can certainly differ from those of either party, “…human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose.” In Lincoln’s faith and I suspect George Bush’s as well, and as expressed in Lincoln Second Inaugural address, a person must proceed, “…with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right…”

What frustrates Bush’s critics is his stead fastness rather than intransigence. They fail to see or acknowledge change and growth which would undermine their thesis of rigidity. When the Civil War began, Lincoln’s goal was the preservation of the Union and issue of slavery was a secondary issue. In 1861, Lincoln wrote,

“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

Later Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation because he came to understand that saving the Union required the liberation of slaves.

When the War with Iraq began, Bush’s purpose was to secure Americans, to the extent possible, against terror. One way to do this was to remove the threat of weapons of mass destruction from Iraq. Bush’s views have grown and matured. He now appreciates that terrorism is rooted in the lack of freedom and democracy. Freedom and democratic societies are not fertile grounds for terrorists.

The only unreasonable certainty in Suskind’s “Without a Doubt,” is Suskind’s credulity in believing and repeating everything negative he has ever heard about Bush and the small-minded view of faith underpinning his article.

The Case of Ward Churchill and Academic Tenure

Sunday, February 13th, 2005

For people with a politically Conservative perspective, Ward Churchill is just one of those gifts that keep on giving. For many years, Conservatives have been pointing out to a largely indifferent country, that parts of universities, particularly the humanities departments, have become tenured bastions for the far-Left, largely out of touch with most Americans and only loosely connected to serious scholarship.

Enter Ward Churchill, chairman of the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado. Professor Churchill was to be a speaker at Hamilton College. Churchill probably believed that this was to be one of many speaking engagements at an American university where one can get paid to spew vicious, hateful statements, rally radical students, and pass largely unnoticed by not only a majority of students on campus, but by the world at large.

However, this time before his speech at Hamilton College what Churchill had been saying for some time about 9/11 came to popular attention before he could speek at Hamilton College. Bill O’Reilly at FoxNews perhaps deserves credit for bring Churchill to national attention.

The people who died in the 9/11 attacks represented people from all walks of American life and insulting them was the same as insulting all of America. Churchill compared the people working at the World Trade Center on 9/11 to functionaries of a Fascist system, specifically calling them “little Eichmanns.” Adolph Eichmann was technocrat in the Nazi regime who managed the logistics of the Holocaust. Ward Churchill was suggesting that those that died on 9/11 were not innocent and somehow deserved what happened to them.

Every serious person now recognizes Churchill as a scheming charlatan who plays up a fictitious American Indian background and relies on the generosity of the taxpayers of the Colorado to subsidize his speech and provide him the patina of legitimacy. There is little to be gained here by towering yet one more one silly statement of his upon another. To do so would be grant him more credibility than he deserves. Churchill’s cruel and hateful speech, however, has shined a light upon other questions about academia.

Churchill is a tenured professor at the University of Colorado and as such can not and should not be dismissed for making irresponsibly foolish statements. The real question is by what criteria is the University of Colorado granting tenure. Mr. Churchill does not have a PhD, the usually required credential. However, a university might overlook that particular credential if Churchill had an exemplary publication record in peer-reviewed journals. It seems that Mr. Churchill is lacking in that area as well.

The truth is that there are some departments at some universities that are not really scholarly departments, but rather paid centers of advocacy that universities tolerate lest they be considered less than tolerant. The support of such departments is protection money to keep campus peace. Ask yourself whether any science or engineering department at the University of Colorado would have hired as a professor, much less granted tenure to and make chairman of a department, anyone with as few scholarly credentials as Churchill.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule that angry anti-Americanism comes from non-scholarly, indeed anti-scholarly enclaves at universities. Noam Chomsky is a broadly recognized expert in linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who vocally spews far Left, largely anti-American politics. In some sense, Chomsky has earned the right (that is tenure) by his scholarship to enter the university dialogue.

Yet in the case of Churchill, a mistake is a mistake, and to support the concept of tenure, the University of Colorado will have to tolerate Churchill for at least a little while longer. The Rocky Mountain News in Denver is now lavishing on Churchill the scrutiny the University of Colorado should have devoted before granting Churchill tenure. According to the Rocky Mountain News, there is some question as to whether Churchill has committed plagiarism. It is too soon to tell, but the University of Colorado may yet find a way to use possibly fraudulent scholarship on the part of Churchill as a cause for dismissal and a way to circumvent tenure.

Somewhere at the University of Colorado, there must have been an academic dean who signed off on Churchill’s tenure. If that person is still at the university, he or she ought to be dismissed for allowing a person without sufficient scholarly credentials to be granted tenured.

It is unfortunate that it is only under the pressure of public embarrassment, that the University of Colorado may do the right thing. What of all the other Churchill’s holed up in ivory towers, not pursuing scholarship put political advocacy?

Human Shields

Sunday, February 6th, 2005

There is much to be learned from and admired about those who have effectively used nonviolent resistance to produce political and social change. Mahatma Gandhi used such resistance to hasten Britain’s departure from India and was responsible for the development of much of the intellectual frame work of and practical techniques for nonviolent resistance. Gandhi’s experience informed the Rev. Martin Luther King’s nonviolent approach to civil rights for black Americans in the United States. Nations too can apply nonviolent pressure with success. Economic and political sanctions against South Africa played a role in the eventual collapse of apartheid. It is certainly not a coincidence that nonviolent techniques, calling upon the conscience of an oppressor, works when some conscience remains and when the political structures are democratic.

As honorable and heroic as nonviolent resistance can be, it is unlikely it could have been successfully applied to Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, or some other totalitarian states. First, in the leadership of such states there is little or no residual conscience to call upon. Second, the media are controlled and there is little opportunity to touch the hearts of the masses, and even if hearts are touched there are no democratic structures to express the will of the people. Nonetheless, brave protests by the people certainly help hasten the fall of communism in Poland and the recent efforts to insure fair elections in the Ukraine.

Nonviolent resistance can also be employed cynically and frivolously. In the prelude to the Iraq War, there were a number of people who preened in front of the press, humbly identified themselves as “Truth Justice Peace Human Shield Action,” and setoff to Baghdad to act as human shields to protect Iraqis from the Americans and the British. As overt hostilities approached most of these erstwhile shields reconsidered their options, decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and scurried back to their home countries. Others realized they had made a mistake giving any comfort to Saddam’s regime. In truth, American and British weapons were targeted at military targets and humans shields in front of water plants or hospitals would have little to fear from Coalition forces. The fact that some would offer to be human shields is an implicit acknowledgement that Coalition forces would be reticent about striking civilian targets.

When Gandhi used nonviolent resistance against the British he declared that “Democracy, disciplined and enlightened, is the finest thing in the world.” By contrast, terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi fumed that, “We have declared a bitter war against democracy and all those who seek to enact it.” It is unlikely that such terrorists would have been very much moved by Gandhi’s techniques or likely to employ them. Those former human shields must have implicitly arrived at the same conclusion, because there are no human shields protecting schools or hospitals in Iraq now.

Where were those brave human shields on January 30, 2005 when Iraqis were going to the polls? Before the war, the spokesman for these heroes proclaimed, “Our strategy is potentially dangerous but that is the risk we must take in standing beside our brothers and sisters in Iraq.” Somehow now, standing with their Iraqis brothers and sisters in polling lines with the real possibility that someone might ignite a car bomb in the vicinity proved a little too risky. It was Iraqi soldiers and policemen that stood by Iraqi citizens as they voted, not self-important Lefties. It was American soldiers and Marines who helped Iraq stand up against the moral equivalent of the Klu Klux Klan.

During the Iraqi elections there was at least one person who genuinely qualifies as a human shield, 29-year-old Abdul Amir al-Shuwayli. Shuwayli was an Iraqi policeman guarding a polling place in Baghdad when he recognized a suicide bomber striding towards the polls. According to USA Today:

“Shuwayli threw his arms around the bomber and drove him backward about 50 feet into an intersection. The rush seemed to catch the suicide attacker by surprise. The bomber had a hand grenade but failed to throw it. A second or two passed before he detonated an explosive belt… The blast shredded Shuwayli, whose body took the brunt of the explosion. It also tore the bomber apart, leaving only his face intact.”

After the incident, as if in protest against the suicide bomber, more and more people came out to vote at the polling place Shuwayli protected. Shuwayli is now honored in the area as a martyr. Shuwayli’s sacrifice has not received quite the press coverage or attention as those pre-war human shields did. However, Shuwayli did far more for Iraqis than many others who are more adept at garnering attention than making accurate moral judgments.

Begin the World Over Again

Thursday, February 3rd, 2005

The brave Iraqis queued in long lines, undeterred by threats of violence, to cast their ballots must have believed in the words of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” By becoming the first Arab state in the region to have democratic elections, the Iraqis may indeed be beginning, not only their local world, but their entire region over again.

In one important sense, the argument about Iraq is definitely over. After the immediate euphoria of liberation from the Saddam regime, the extent to which the Iraqi people wanted to move toward a democratic society or would side with the “insurgents” and lapse back into tyranny was an open question. It is no longer. Iraqis have made clear that they want to control their government, rather than be controlled by it. There are many steps from tyranny to a fully functional democracy and the Iraqis may or may not make it, but it is now obvious they aspire to democracy. The insurgents do not represent the Iraqis and no longer even pretend to be a popular movement. They openly intend to acquire and maintain power at the point of a gun.

There are certain crucial or historic turning points that we emotionally recognize by the fact that the hairs on the back our necks prick upward: a marriage, the birth of a child, watching ecstatic Germans chipping away and toppling the Berlin wall. The Iraqi election passed this “back of the neck test.” The joyous dancing, the broad smiles on people dressed up out of respect for the importance for the election, and two fingers, one dyed with purple ink, held up in a defiant victory sign all bespoke an authentic embrace of democracy.

What is disheartening is how people here on the Left can not bring themselves to rejoice fully in the election even if they have legitimate and honest questions about American Iraqi policy. You do not have to be a Bush supporter to recognize that something very good happened this on January 30, 2005 in Iraq. The problem is not only people like Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio who several days before the election cynically predicted it would be a “farce” [1]. Kucinich long ago relinquished the right to be considered a serious or thoughtful critic. It is pundits like E. J. Dionne, Richard Cohen, or John Nichols who acknowledge the importance of the elections, but who feel compelled to nitpick and to caution incessantly about the future, who are putting an unnecessary damper on elation over the Iraqi election. Sure there will be many more problems ahead, but those can wait a while.

This petulance is analogous to watching a child struggle to take their first step. We rejoice and remember that first step, even though it is immediately followed by more falls then steps. Yet the child grows and is soon on the soccer field not only running, but juggling a ball with its feet. The future will come without our hastening it and now is a time for celebration unspoiled by ill-tempered nay-sayers and obstructionists. Remaking the world represents a long journey and the Iraqis have taken their first bold step.