Nov 18, 2007

Why We Must be First Amendment Patriots. Fortunately We Still Have Some Choice (and a Duty)

An Impossible Scenario?

Imagine that you're abd
ucted and gang-raped--the court agrees and convicts the rapists--but you also get punished for this crime by a six-month prison sentence and 200 lashes! Your punishment is for "meeting with an unrelated male" (who also gets raped by the way). Where in the world did that happen, you may ask. You could assume that no civilized country would do this today. But you'd be wrong. That's the reality in the many Muslim countries where there's no separation of state & religion. This case in point took place in Saudi Arabia this month!*

One of the best things we did early on was the separation of ch
urch & state. The Founders knew of the bloody religious civil wars in Europe and elsewhere. They knew about the Inquisition, they knew that the tyranny of the majority could pose threats to individual liberty--after all, liberalism was about freedom, individual freedom. Our Bill of Rights, and the First Amendment in particular, see to this. Freedom of expression and beliefs, now that's a novel concept!

Now, why would intelligent people--especially those who've studied law, the constitution, and maybe some American history--argue for bringing a theocracy to the US? Good question. Maybe we couldn't thoroughly examine their motives, but their actions are based on wishful thinking, ignorance (willful?), and specific political objectives.

This past few days, the Federalist Society had its 25th anniversary with president Bush delivering the keynote address. Members like Robert Bork, Clarence Thomas, Scalia, Roberts, John "torture-is-OK" Yoo, and several others got their chance to "shine" under the presidencies of Reagan, Bush 41 and Bush 43. These people are the most
conservative judges & lawyers that seek to "restore the law" as intended--not by the Founders and framers of our constitution, by of a ..higher authority. This is another example, among the many in recent history, that the lunatic fringe is not marginal in this country.

Unfortunately today, secular America hangs on a very thin margin in the Supreme Court. It's not too early in the election cycle to point out that there is a huge difference between the Democratic and Republican candidates in jurisprudence and intent on keeping our country secular--and by secular I don't mean non-religious, but a separation of church & state. We knew about this very important difference in the last 2 elections. Bush 43 has had a big impact on SCOTUS by appointing very conservative justices to the hight court; one more and the balance will tip to the other side.

The fact is that the Framers of the constitution (and most of the Founding Fathers) were explicit in maintaining this wall of separation. Here's a brief history:

  • 1787: Drafting of the US Constitution. No "god" in it. Article 6, sec. 3: no religious test for any public office. Madison drafted the First Amendment and defended it in the Federalist Papers. Protecting individual conscience was paramount.
  • 1789: Congress rejected arguments that the First Amendment only meant to protect one religion over another and not the non-believers.
  • 1796: The US signed the Treaty of Tripoli which declared that the US is not a "Christian nation."
  • 1802: Jefferson reiterated that the 1st Amend. was indeed a "wall of separation" between church-state.
  • 1868: The 14th Amendment abolished slavery but also said that the Bill of Rights must apply to all states! [make of note of this Judge Thomas]
  • 1947: The Supreme Court decided that no branch of government could favor one religion over another or over non-believers.
There's a great body of legal precedence and jurisprudence that supports this separation, which, in turn, protects individual freedoms. Yet, Americans have failed to grasp the importance of electing extreme conservatives [note: not all Republicans are like that] to the Senate and the White House. Elections have consequences. A majority of FIVE can change the conditions of freedom we expect from living in a liberal democracy!

We Have to Make the Connection: Guilty by Association
The Republican Party today does not want to safeguard this separation of church-state and observe the tradition established by law. Unlike the Goldwater Republicans, the current crowd is state authoritarians who want to impose on others their religious dogma, intolerance of dissent, and that Scripture is without error! It's no surprise they're anti-science [abortion, evolution, stem-cell research, etc] and anti freedom of conscience!

Sure, we have great differences with those conservatives. These differences need to brought into the light. I understand that our politics is to a great extend about personality and not substance, but we can't afford to have another folksy president whose policies can be disastrous. It's too costly and we can't afford it right now!

Why shouldn't we press the point that the conservatives hold crazy views? Justice Scalia has said that the First Amendment does not protect the non-believer! He does not accept the concept of freedom of conscience! His pal on the Supreme Court Thomas has said that the "establishment clause" does not apply to the states! And, that every state can establish its own state church!!

Surely, you can find someone guilty by association too! I'm not talking about casual association, but about building alliances, bridges of support, and forming public policy. Mr. Giuliani has to be held accountable for accepting the support of Pat Robertson. The label reverend can be easily obtained but this should not deflect criticism, nor should it bestow any more legitimacy on anyone.

The reverend Falwell wanted to see an America without public schools, where the churches would take them over. He also said this: "I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way -- all of them who have tried to secularize America -- I point the finger in their face and say "you helped this happen." Robertson concurred. Take that Rudy. God punished your city. God was behind the attacks on 9/11. Now, if this isn't lunacy, religious bigotry, ignorance, superstition, I don't know what it is.

This bigotry reveals itself in the overt effort to oppress homosexuals [insert any "deviancy" here]. In 2003, SCOTUS [Texas v. Lawrence] decriminalized private sexual conduct--as it should have. No state can punish consenting adults for what they do to each other. But, only a few years later, this view hangs on a 5-4 margin! In his dissent, Scalia [with Thomas concurring] said that people should be able to use the sense of tradition to criminalize all sexual behavior they deem offensive!!!! [and he's not talking only about homosexuality; NYU student questions Scalia]

We have the federal government mandating the teaching of religious dogma instead of science--i.e., birth control is bad, masturbation can lead to pregnancy, etc. President Bush asked the Pope to direct American Catholic priests to be more political in cases like same-sex marriage and abortion (rights). Religious charities have been funded by Bush and they spread misinformation. Contraception, family planning, the "morning after" pill [not an abortion], sex education, etc, have all been contorted to fit a particular religious dogma. And, in ..supermarket fashion, they pick what they like (or being told) while disregarding other passages from their holy book. Protect life from the moment two cells meet until birth, but after that, you're on your own!
Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't Jesus (allegedly?) said, "there's no justice if people have no shelter," and "there's no justice if people are hungry"? Did he add any qualifiers to this statement? I wonder...

The conservatives talk about limited government but their most popular leaders want to use the government to tell us how to live our own private lives. The next president must support the wall of separation. No Republican presidential candidate is for this! The Supreme Court's future depends on our decision in 2008. The next president should not be a religious preacher. The control of the US Senate is at stake too. Judge Bork had said that the 1st Amendment only applies to political speech (campaigns), and that we should "get over" our objection to school prayer. It was the widespread opposition and a Democratic Senate that prevented this extremist from serving on SCOTUS.

Both parties and all their candidates appeal to religious groups for support. Yet, they differ on what kind of judges we get on the federal courts. This, to me, is a clear choice--among the many that keep liberals and conservatives apart. You have to be partisan today if you want to have a realistic chance of maintaining a secular society where individual freedom of conscience is protected.

We have to be First Amendment patriots!

* From Think Progress: The woman, who had been appealing her original sentence of 90 lashes, was sentenced to six months in prison and 200 lashes after her appeal. The Saudi judges more than doubled the punishment for the victim because of “her attempt to aggravate and influence the judiciary through the media.” The Saudi Justice Ministry confirmed that the stiffer sentence handed out on appeal stemmed from the fact that the victim had gone to the media with her story. “Media may have adverse effects on the other parties involved in the case,” a statement said.

Editor's note 11/21: The victim met with a male friend (he was the "unrelated" male) when they were abducted by 7 men. Both were raped; she was 14 times. For her "crime" she was originally sentenced to 90 lashes! But, she had the audacity to challenge this punishment, appealed, spoke to the media, and that was offensive to the theocratic regime that keeps the country firmly in the 12th century. Horrors.

Nov 11, 2007

What a Commander-in-Chief Could Say to the Veterans and those Serving in our Armed Forces

As president Bush is making the rounds of Veteran hospitals and speaking about the meaning of Veteran's Day (11/11), I'm re-posting excerpts of a "speech" I drafted for a president who could speak honestly and would face reality--if he had the guts.

I see before me young men and women who represent the armed forces of this nation, and who have, in essence, pledged their lives to defend our country. I stand here as your Commander-in-Chief, yet I do understand that this title bestows me with a huge responsibility, not only toward you but also toward the United States of America. I have to make difficult decisions, but I will never commit our most precious resources, our blood, sweat and tears, without our country being in grave danger and before I carefully weigh the consequences of such an action. I will never lie to you and I will never ask you to make any sacrifice that I, myself, wouldn't be willing to make.

When our country must sacrifice, I will do my best to see that this burden is widely shared and not placed on the shoulders of the least privileged of our society. I will not allow such a situation to become a way to transfer more wealth to the few, especially when this would result in mortgaging the future of the many. If sacrifice we must, then the pain must be more equitably distributed. It's only fair. Patriotism isn't defined by big talk & long speeches, waving of the flag, and saluting the veterans.

I know that many of you chose a military career because of the benefits offered by the military: the professional training & the skills, the health care benefits, the signing bonuses, etc. I realize that for many of you the military offers opportunities not available to you otherwise. I'm not trying to devalue your commitment to and your love for the country. On the contrary! You all have families, friends, neighbors, our democracy, and our way of life to defend. We are very much indebted to you. I have instructed our recruiters never to lie to you, no false pretenses and promises. And, when you sign up, you should know that your country will never let you down.

Without you, the rest of us wouldn't be able to survive in a hostile world. So, again, we thank you for your commitment, and I promise you to do whatever I can to give you all the necessary means to perform your job. I won't send you into combat without the proper equipment and training. I won't lie to you about our objectives and the reasons for placing you in harm's way. There will be casualties--that's a dire consequence of war. But, I will make sure that all of our injured personnel will get the best medical treatment and their health benefits will never be reduced. The same goes for the families of those killed in action. It's the least we can do for the ultimate sacrifice that so many fighting men & women have done for us.

Yet, a war should be the last resort. We are a powerful country but our strength hasn't relied only on the might of our armed forces. Our strength derives from the strength of the American character, our freedom & tolerance, our diversity, our technology, our culture, our scientific progress, and our democratic way of life. The American experience and the reality of the frontier, even the violent struggles for civil rights, the many peoples who came to our shores to pursue their dreams of a better life... All these, I believe, made us good people, not perfect but always improving. That's progress. We can't turn back! We've endured many trials and tribulations, but like the Revolutionary soldiers at Valley Forge, we marched ahead and blazed our own trails... and we became the envy of the world. We made mistakes aplenty, like every other nation. We accept the responsibility with the promise to look forward with the urgency to keep building a better world for us, and for our children. We should remain the leaders not by military power alone but because we command respect for our worthwhile achievements and the values for which we stand.

My original post and the complete "speech" here
Photos by Associated Press; WaPo front page, Feb. 18, 2007

Nov 2, 2007

The Health of a Nation

Impressions often matter more than the facts, and the mistake many progressives make is not to take seriously the conservatives' ridiculous arguments. My advice has been to respond immediately and forcefully. "I won't dignify this remark with a response" is not a good strategy. Even if someone says the earth is flat, we should take the opportunity to inform the public on the facts, but also--and most importantly--to illustrate the connection of the flat-earth believers to ignorance.

Many people don't have the time, energy, or the skills to connect the dots. The so-called "independent voters"--defined as those without strong party ID--are less informed, and can have wild voting patterns. They often decide close elections. Don't they? Haven't we seen Democrats going down in defeat because they underestimated the Willie Horton ads, the swift-boaters, etc.? The impressions created by the campaigns and the failure to provide a prompt response is what carries the day, and, unfortunately, the election.

There is this saying, where there's smoke, there's a fire! Don't respond (
or, respond smartly) and you let your opponent frame the issue, including the choice of language. Your opponent defines you. Then it's an uphill battle to change the public's perceptions. There's also a perverse element here: most people don't want to be changing their minds too often; they don't have the constitution to re-evaluating issues and revising their views; they want also to appear consistent!

There's an issue very important to me, that of health care coverage for all Americans. I can't accept that the wealthiest country in the world cannot insure all of its people whereas so many other countries do. This is an issue that a Democratic president will deal with. And, yes, we liberals have to be partisan today in order to see progressive politics in our country. For goodness' sake, we're still debating what science is in this 21st America, because the lunatic fringe is not marginal here!

So, when Mitt Romney describes universal health care as "socialized medicine" and when Giulliani says he had much better chance of surviving prostate cancer in the US than in Britain, we have to respond with the facts and connect those persons to either ignorance or deception!

It's not hard to make comparisons. Indeed it's our obligation to destroy the misconceptions and the misleading advertising that will certainly follow any attempt to reform the health care system. We're talking about human lives here. We have to show that people who have access to health care are (duh) healthier! Prevention and early detection save lives. It should be easy to draw a comparison between the foreign enemies that want to kill Americans [and have already] and the causes that claim far more lives here at home. Many of those lost lives can be saved.

I believe that most Americans do care about their fellow human beings and would be willing to re-allocate our resources to create a better society. Of course we have to start being smarter about our politics too! Elections do have consequences! Similarly, when any leader makes unqualified arguments, he shouldn't be left unchallenged. When, for example, Bush vetoes the S-CHIP [health care coverage for middle class children--those in families earning more than the poverty level but not enough to purchase health insurance] because as he said "it's too expensive", we have to remind him that we spend as much as 6 weeks in Iraq!

Same for the GOP's front-runner and his argument about having better chances
of survival here that in GB. Not so! Paul Krugman (NY Times 11/2/07) calls his bluff. You know what? We should ask our pompous leaders and those aspiring presidents: How can you enjoy the best health care coverage and treatment when 46 million of Americans don't and may die prematurely because of this?!!
You, Mr. President, got your colon examined and a pre-cancerous condition detected. You, Mr. Giulliani, were cured because you had the access key. But, how about the rest of us? Which terror is more threating? Really...

The American Cancer Society recently
launched a campaign to push for early detection [and for universal access to such health services] because many cancer deaths can be reduced by 50%. That's reducing the death rate by half! Now, this is a sensible approach.

I understand that it's hard to show people something unpleasant. It feels good to be special & superior. But, some illusions are dangerous if they perpetuate a bad reality. Assuming we have the best medicine in the world, does this translate in better health care for most Americans? Lower infant mortality rate? Better cure & survival rates for the sick? Less pain & suffering?... And, all this while we're spending more than any other country!

How about education? Consumer protection? Or, is the role of the government to bail out big business and to re-allocate our national wealth to the top tier? What do we really want our government to do?

These are some questions that we need to provide answers to, but before we do this, we must raise these questions. We have better arguments, I believe, and most Americans do hold "liberal values" regarding the role of government. We cannot allow our national dialog to sink to the lowest possible common denominator. We'd be doing a disservice to our country. But, this doesn't mean we should shy away from exposing hypocrisy, ignorance, and deception. Don't fall for the trap, "avoid negative politics!" The Republicans have played this game brilliantly.

So what if the truth has a ..liberal bias?!!

Nov 1, 2007

The Torturous Position of the Attorney General-Nominee

Why should we care about a bunch of terrorists and enemy combatants?

Well, how could Michael Mukasey answer to the senators' questions whether water boarding is torture? The United States prosecuted several Japanese interrogators in WWII for employing such a method on our own troops. Rather recently, we did the same to prison guards in Texas.

Thus, water boarding is torture by any reasonable (legal or non) definition. I place emphasis on reasonable, because there are those like John Woo and his mentor, Alberto Gonzales, who tried to re-define torture as actions that can lead to death or major organ failure. In other words, water boarding, pulling one's fingernails (or cutting fingers off), etc., is not torture.

If Mukasey agrees that water boarding is indeed torture then what should he do when he becomes the country's Attorney General?.... [suggestion: go after those who broke the law!]

On PBS, Bill Moyers Journal, there was an interesting discussion recently. Check it out here.

Meanwhile, the Bush government has refused to answer unequivocally whether this method has been used, several officials, including the CIA chief, have said that water boarding has been used--and it's not a bad thing, they say, when it's used against bad people during times of crisis.... Hmmm

"Waterboarding is torture. Torture is unacceptable. Period.
If Michael Mukasey won't stand up to President Bush and tell him that, then he doesn't deserve to be Attorney General."

Senator E. Kennedy, opposing Mukasey's confirmation. [read the senator's statement here]