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Month: February 2007

Swinging Back to the Middle

Swinging Back to the Middle

According to this column from The Guardian, it looks as though the right wing has taken their strange brew of fundamentalist Christianity and politics about as far as they can, and now things are starting to move back towards a more tolerant middle:

…a growing number of American Christians are uneasy about allowing religion to become so politicised and so closely associated with one party. Fundamentalist Islam has also made a difference; it has reminded the bulk of Americans of the wisdom of the American constitution – keeping religion and state firmly apart.

For two faiths coexist in the United States: one is devotion to God and the other to the Constitution. The genius of the founding fathers was to make sure that the two did and do not mix. Religion is a private matter, with which the state is barred from interfering – and which is barred from interfering with the state. Fundamentalist Christians have had ambitions to overturn that long-standing convention

The mood has been reflected by an extraordinary little book, Letter to a Christian Nation, by Sam Harris. It has become a bestseller. Harris quotes passages from the Bible that I did not know existed, such as one in Exodus discussing the demands you should make when selling your daughter into slavery. One passage from Deuteronomy encourages Christians to stone to death anybody who tries to draw them away from their God. As for governing America according to the 10 Commandments, Harris is withering; four do no more than outlaw other religions and the rest are a routine expression of core moral precepts.

For a book which ridicules religion and ruthlessly exposes the inadequacies of the Bible to become a bestseller is a classic Schlesinger-style signal that times are a-changing. And politicians are feeling the mood swing.

Those are good signs, but then there is this reminder that the pendulum still has quite a ways to fall back from its apex high on the right.

A year ago, he was a Pentecostal Christian minister at Camp Anaconda, the largest U.S. support base in Iraq. He sent home reports on the number of “decisions” — soldiers committing their lives to Christ — that he inspired in the base’s Freedom Chapel.

But inwardly, he says, he was torn between Christianity’s exclusive claims about salvation and a “universalist streak” in his thinking. The Feb. 22, 2006, bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, which collapsed the dome of a 1,200-year-old holy site and triggered a widening spiral of revenge attacks between Shiite and Sunni militants, prompted a decision of his own.

“I realized so many innocent people are dying again in the name of God,” Larsen says. “When you think back over the Catholic-Protestant conflict, how the Jews have suffered, how some Christians justified slavery, the Crusades, and now the fighting between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, I just decided I’m done. . . . I will not be part of any church that unleashes its clergy to preach that particular individuals or faith groups are damned.”

Larsen’s private crisis of faith might have remained just that, but for one other fateful choice. He decided the religion that best matched his universalist vision was Wicca, a blend of witchcraft, feminism and nature worship that has ancient pagan roots.

He learned about Wicca, ironically, from the Army, in an overview of various faiths at the Chaplain’s Basic Training Course at Fort Jackson, S.C., in 2005.

Well you probably can guess how his request to switch from a Pentecostal chaplain to a Wiccan chaplain turned out.  Request Denied Sir!  There will be no Wiccan chaplains in the U.S. ARMY SIR!

It’s a pretty interesting article.  Read it all here.

Why Senator Clinton Should Not Have to Say She’s Sorry

Why Senator Clinton Should Not Have to Say She’s Sorry

It seems that Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton will be dogged for eternity regarding her vote in the Senate to give authority to the president to use all means, including military force, against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2002.  I understand the anger and consternation her vote engenders particularly on the liberal left of the Democratic Party. What seems to really grate on many, though, is her unwillingness to recant her vote, to say she’s sorry, to admit that she made a mistake.  For those people I have two questions: why should she and what good would it do now?   

Clinton’s 10 October 2002 floor speech in support of Senate Joint Resolution 45 authorising the use of force against Iraq makes clear her ambivalence on the issue. In the end she was persuaded by the intelligence analyses, which indicated Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, that the president needed the strongest possible hand to garner international support in dealing with the putative threat posed by Saddam.  Her words suggest that she had a naïve and manifestly misguided faith that George W Bush would not abuse the authorization and would resort to war only as a last resort.  Bush had used this very argument to gain support in the Congress – that it would strengthen his hand in seeking United Nations support for tough action against Iraq, including invasive and exhaustive inspections.  Without a credible threat of force, the argument went, Saddam would impede UN inspectors in their efforts to find WMD.  Clinton seems to have believed that Bush would allow the inspections to play out, thereby obviating the need for an invasion.

We know now (or at least strongly suspect) that Bush had no intention of allowing the UN inspectors to do their jobs.  Sure he tried to get the UN on board (Secretary of State Colin Powell’s notorious address laying out the intelligence that Iraq possessed or was trying to obtain WMD), but this was for military action, not measures which would allow the international community to ascertain, once and for all, whether an invasion was necessary. In the end, the UN inspectors were forced to leave Iraq to get out of the way of our own General Tommy Franks doing his George Patton imitation.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

Was Clinton hopelessly naïve to have trusted Bush?  No question about it.  On the other hand, most of us believed at the time that Saddam still had at least some WMD capacity (we should have listened to Scott Ritter, the ex-Marine weapons inspector whose warnings that Iraq had few if any such weapons fell largely on deaf ears).  The difference was that those of us who opposed the war simply did not believe that he represented a genuine threat.  He had never used them or threatened to use them outside of the region and he had nothing to gain and everything to lose by doing so.  And the notion that he would hand deadly weapons over to al-Qaeda seemed ridiculous given that they were just as likely to turn them on him as on an American target; hence his willingness to kill Muslim fundamentalist extremists in Iraq with the same mercilessness that he did any potential threat.  

When it comes to the conduct of the war’s aftermath, the total absence of a meaningful occupation plan, and the level of incompetence that followed as both the civilian and military hierarchy scrambled to impose order and to counter a growing insurgency, this came as an unpleasant surprise to everybody – not just Senator Clinton.  I mean really, who knew we were so ill-prepared?

Many suspect that there was also a political calculation to Clinton’s vote to authorise the war.  It’s an unfortunate fact that Clinton faces an uphill fight as a presidential contender in part because many Americans are sceptical that a woman is tough enough for the job of commander-in-chief; as though anyone could be less fit than our current duo at the top.  Take Dick Cheney, who talks endlessly about the danger of exposing America’s lack of stomach for war if it withdraws from Iraq, when his own was so conspicuously lacking during the Vietnam War; and G W Bush who used his daddy’s connections to get into the Texas National Guard – and who didn’t even fulfil that obligation properly.  At least Bill Clinton had the grace to oppose the war (and anyone else’s sacrifice) on principal when he avoided the draft; Cheney and Bush never had a problem with others going to war as long as their own backsides were safe.

It’s hard not to view Senator Clinton’s vote as an effort, in part at least, to counter this image of perceived feminine timidity (which is absurd on its face – Margaret Thatcher anyone?) and to buttress her national security credentials.

Which raises the second question: what good would it do for her to apologise for her vote now?  Other than to appease some folks on the left, I mean.  It would appear self-serving, calculating and insincere, the same criticisms her original vote provoked.  It’s way too late for such an action to look anything but a weak and ultimately self-defeating attempt to curry favour with the liberal wing of the party. 

There are some who compare this reluctance to say she’s sorry with Bush’s stubborn refusal to admit mistakes or reverse course when his policies have clearly failed.  This is unfair.  There is no reason to believe that Clinton would show similar inflexibility and obtuseness as a policymaking executive on the basis of her refusal to recant a single, albeit important, vote in the Senate for a war that, at one time, commanded the support of almost 70% of the American people.

Personally, I’m sorry Mrs Clinton voted as she did in October 2002.  I think her misplaced faith in George W Bush showed uncharacteristically poor judgment. To the extent she was influenced by political considerations relating to her presidential aspirations, it clearly turned out to be a miscalculation.  I do not however believe that she has anything to apologise for.  She did what she thought at the time was the right thing, based on the information that she had (which was much less than the administration).  If some Democrats won’t vote for her in the primaries as a result, so be it.  There are, as she has said, other candidates.  John Edwards, for example, has recanted his senate vote and Barak Obama had the good judgement not to support the resolution in the first place.

Senator Clinton may or may not stick to her guns on this issue but I hope she does.  Let’s not lose sight of the fact that it was not Senator Clinton who ordered the attack on Iraq.  That was George W Bush and it is he and nobody else who bears ultimate responsibility for the terrible mess in which we find ourselves in that unfortunate land.

Florida or Iraq? Baghdad or Ft. Lauderdale?

Florida or Iraq? Baghdad or Ft. Lauderdale?

Hmmm… What kind of question is that?  Perhaps a little background is necessary.

Yesterday I got an email from my neighbor who is working in Iraq as a producer for ABC News.  He asked me to go check out an article he recently posted to the ABC website, so I went to the ABC News main page, and what did I find?  Anna Nicole Smith was their feature story of the day.   When will this story go away?  Why does the mainstream media pay so much attention to it?  Why does the American public pay so much attention to it?  All good questions.  I have no answers…

Which reminds me of why my neighbor is in Iraq.  He went their to cover the news.  In his latest email, he wrote that there was a rocket attack a couple days ago that must have been pretty close to him.  He said it “Scared the bejesus out of me.”

What would he be covering if he was safe at home?  Well he used to work on a lot of the stories that Americans find so fascinating like Jon Benet Ramsey and Laci Peterson, so who knows?  Maybe he’d be in Fort Lauderdale covering Anna Nicole Smith’s decomposing body.

Back to Iraq…  Here’s his story:  You Be the Commander:  Get a Sense of the Decision Facing Troops in Iraq.  After reading the story about soldiers that located two Al Qaeda operatives in a safe house, you are given two choices of action for taking them out.

Who’s Selling the Good Coffee?

Who’s Selling the Good Coffee?

About a year and a half ago I put up a post about supporting your local coffee shop.  There are hundreds of great little shops in Seattle, San Francisco, and Portland.  There are probably many of them in your area too.  This website can help you find them.

This morning I went to a local shop in Ballard that I’v always liked.  It’s called Cupcake Royale because they specialize in fresh baked cupcakes of many flavors, and they are robot free!  Their coffee has always been good, but today I had cup of coffee produced by a company that I’d never heard of before, Stumptown Coffee Roasters of Portland, Oregon. 

The coffee they were serving was Ethiopia Misty Valley Idido (organic) and it was the best cup of coffee I’ve had in a long time.  The person at the counter said it was her favorite because it had an intense blueberry flavor in it.  I had to agree–it did have a kind of blueberry taste to it.  It was also very aromatic and had a rich mouth-feel.   Unfortunately, Cupcake Royale had sold every bag of that variety.  I’ll have to go back another day to get some of that, but I did buy a bag of Rwanda Musasa (fair trade) that Stumptown describe as follows:

Beautiful, clean coffee as a result of washing stations built by a USAID/PEARL project which improved quality and price in a country devastated by genocide.  Sweet chocolate, pineapple juice, myer lemon, and a lush floral character.

Visit their website and check out all the varieties of coffees they sell.  Buy some, you won’t be disappointed.

Lost Soul of Starbucks

Lost Soul of Starbucks

Today’s headline for The Seattle Times was Starbucks must find lost “soul,” Schultz says.

The article quotes a February 14th memo from Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, to the employees of Starbucks.  In the memo Schultz says:

…we have had to make a series of decisions that, in retrospect, have lead to the watering down of the Starbucks experience, and, what some might call the commoditization of our brand.

He goes on to talk about past decisions to use automatic espresso machines and to package coffee in “flavor locked bags.”

…the height of the machines, which are now in thousands of stores, blocked the visual sight line the customer previously had to watch the drink being made, and for the intimate experience with the barista. This, coupled with the need for fresh roasted coffee in every North America city and every international market, moved us toward the decision and the need for flavor locked packaging…  We achieved fresh roasted bagged coffee, but at what cost? The loss of aroma — perhaps the most powerful non-verbal signal we had in our stores; the loss of our people scooping fresh coffee from the bins and grinding it fresh in front of the customer, and once again stripping the store of tradition and our heritage?

The article reports that the employees generally approve of the message. 

A Seattle-area barista who has worked at Starbucks for six years said she’s glad Schultz is concerned.

“I agree that there’s a diluting of the Starbucks experience,” she said, largely because some workers are not passionate about coffee or service.

As the company grows, she said she sees more workers who are “just kind of there because they want a job, and it’s kind of cool to work for Starbucks these days.”

She said she’s glad Starbucks switched to automatic espresso machines, even though some customers complain the coffee does not taste as good. The old manual machines were “really, really hard on your body,” she said.

I can’t say that I’ve ever worked and espresso machine for four or more hours at a stretch, but I can think of a few jobs that would be much harder on your body.

But that’s beside the point…

I’ve lived in Seattle for over 21 years, and when I first started working downtown, there were two Starbucks that I knew of in Seattle:  The original one in Pike Place Market, and one at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Spring Street.  I used to go there for coffee pretty often.  That was way back when they actually sold more coffee than milk. 

I liked their coffee then, and I like their coffee now.  They sell a great variety of quality beans from all over the world.  But as Schultz pointed out in his memo, the stores used to smell like coffee when you walked in the door.  They don’t anymore…

So can Starbucks regain its soul?  I doubt it.  It’s become too big.  Their patrons have expectations of it that the stores might only be able to meet by staying much like they are.  Their customers expect their latte’s to be made quickly, and they expect a large variety of fresh beans.  It would be difficult for them to go back to hand-made lattes and hand-bagged beans and maintain the profit margins their investors expect. 

Starbucks is a huge corporation.  We can’t expect it to have a “soul.”

George W. on George Dubya

George W. on George Dubya

George Washington’s real birthday was 274 years ago today.   

He delivered his Farewell Address in 1796.  I imagine that as he wrote it, he looked 207 years into the future and saw the man that now occupies the office.  Perhaps the current occupant inspired him to write these words:

It is important, likewise, that the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those intrusted with its administration to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism.

So, likewise, a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification.

Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other. Real patriots who may resist the intrigues of the favorite are liable to become suspected and odious, while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people to surrender their interests.

George W. knew what this country was about and he had some ideas about what type of people should hold office an how the government should serve its citizens. 

204 years later, George Dubya took office with some crazy ideas about how he could screw it all up.


Dark Presidency

Dark Presidency

On 26 September 2002, a 32-year old Syrian-born naturalized Canadian citizen by the name of Maher Arar was returning alone from a family vacation trip to Tunisia when his Montreal-bound plane made a scheduled stopover at JFK International Airport in New York.  Mr Arar was detained by United States Department of Homeland Security officials and questioned because Mr Arar’s name appeared on a watch-list and he was suspected of ties to al-Qaeda.  This information had evidently been supplied to US authorities by Canadian security officials – and has since been debunked as evidence of terrorist ties.  Despite the fact that Mr Arar carried a Canadian passport, had resided in Canada since the age of 17 and that no serious effort was made to investigate with Canadian authorities whether Mr Arar was, indeed, a terrorist, he was deported a week later, not to Canada his home, but to Syria, a country well known for its harsh treatment of prisoners.

After more than ten months of sheer unadulterated hell in a Syrian prison, during which he was tortured, Mr Arar was released by the Syrians who announced they were satisfied he had no terrorist ties.  An official enquiry in Canada reached the same conclusion and the Canadian government, which had already apologized to Mr Arar, recently announced a compensatory award of C$10.5 million (a little over US $9 million) for his pain and suffering.  An unrepentant US government, on the other hand, refused to co-operate with the Canadian enquiry and has stubbornly refused to remove his name from the DHS watch-list; this despite official protests from Canada that the evidence held by the Americans provides no justification for such listing.

Welcome to President George W Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney’s America.  This disgraceful episode epitomizes for me the attempts by the Bush administration to undermine our nation’s democracy, its international reputation as a beacon of liberty and justice and even the sense of what it means to be an American. 

It was clear from the beginning that this president came to office with an alarming view of the unfettered authority and expansive powers of the presidency, which he believed had been diminished by successive presidents and congresses.  Bush and Cheney appear to have shared a vision of a sort of elected dictatorship in which once the election was out the way, the president’s was the only power that counted and everyone else was expected to shut up and get out of the way – and to hell with checks and balances. 

Under normal circumstances they would have received short shrift from the established order.  Unfortunately, Osama bin Ladin and 9/11 intervened to breath life into the administration’s power grab.  Cleverly exploiting the fears and uncertainties of the moment, and helped by a disgracefully compliant Republican Congress and intimidated mainstream media, the administration went on an authoritarian binge that, even now, seems breathtaking in its scope.  Using national security as a fig leaf, the administration:

–         ignored the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and bypassed the FISA court to establish a programme of electronic surveillance of international communications to and from American citizens without judicial or any meaningful Congressional oversight;

–         arrested even US citizens to hold as enemy non-combatants without access to the judicial system;

–         established a series of secret prisons overseas, notably in Eastern Europe (reportedly in facilities once used during the Soviet-era), to detain and interrogate high-value terrorist suspects without disclosing their detention to the Red Cross;

–         established a detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to hold hundreds of individuals seized in Afghanistan and elsewhere, many of them on the basis of unproven and even unfounded allegations or on the flimsiest of evidence, where they have been kept for years without the opportunity to challenge their imprisonment in a court of law;

–         illegally seized individuals off the streets of such allies as Italy and Germany to detain and interrogate (and in at least two known cases, to later release when they discovered that they had made a mistake);

–         embraced the idea of torture as an interrogation method by trying to narrow its definition under international conventions and assert national executive authority to trump America’s international obligations;

–         established what amounts to nothing more than military kangaroo courts (or “military tribunals”) to try detainees at Guantanamo and elsewhere that would have allowed coerced and hearsay evidence with no opportunity for the detainee to even view the evidence if it was classified; when the US Supreme Court threw these out, the administration persuaded the GOP-led Congress, to establish new military tribunals that operate under rules which, whilst not quite as heinous, are shameful enough; to make matters worse, the definition of “enemy combatant” has been significantly broadened, and detainees have lost the right to habeas corpus or the right to challenge their detention in court;

–         shrouded its actions in secrecy to a degree unprecedented in modern presidencies and fiercely resisted efforts of those who sought to shine some light on its inner workings.

With this administration, the gloves are always off, as Mr Arar found out to his cost.  And in Alberto Gonzales the administration has the perfect face for its totalitarian proclivities. When challenged to defend its actions, Mr Gonzalez typically issues bland statements to the effect that the administration acted, of course, within the law but that for national security reasons the courts should not actually examine their legality. All too often, the courts have bought this self-serving nonsense, as in the case of Mr Arar, whose law suit against the US government was dismissed on those very grounds.  And when it confronts defeat in court, on such questions as holding US citizens without trial, or wiretapping without FISA court authority, the administration folds before the Supreme Court can rule.

There are many reasons for believing that George W Bush will be regarded by history as one of the very worst presidents in American history – and very probably the worst.  I could list a host of reasons for this that would include everything from his assault on our environment, to his fiscal irresponsibility which has not only significantly increased the amount of debt we are passing on to our children but has had the effect of widening the income disparities in US society to unhealthy levels.  And then of course there is Iraq. 

Yet, for me, all of these pale beside the immeasurable harm that has been done to our democracy, to our international reputation – to our very national soul by this administration.  In our name terrible things have been done by an American government – things I would never have believed possible before this president came along.  And he has exposed our democratic institutions and our belief in them to a withering scrutiny in which they have been found wanting.  The media let him get away with a mountain of deception, manipulation and misinformation that led us into a disastrous war; the Congress rubber stamped his assault on our civil liberties with the USA Patriot Act and, of course, his plan to attack Iraq; the courts have been slow and at times reluctant to rein in his power grab; and the American people were fooled for far too long by his tough-guy, squinty-eyed rhetoric that successfully masked, for a while, the simple fact that he was not up to the job of being president. Only someone as utterly incompetent as Mr Bush could possibly have made a mess this big.  

I realize there are plenty of Americans who support what this administration has done, even now.  Shame on them.  If they truly share Messrs Bush and Cheney’s twisted vision of America, then I feel sorry for them.

Personally, I look forward to the day when we again have a government in which we can be proud; a government that will return us to the values we as Americans must share if we are to live up to our promise as a nation; in short, a government that will find the moral courage and clarity to apologise to Mr Arar for the terrible wrong that was done to him. 

When that day comes, as I believe it will, it will not just be Mr Arar who will have reason to cheer.

George on George

George on George

George Bush went to Mt. Vernon today and delivered a speech to honor George Washington

During his speech, Bush spoke of Washington reluctantly accepting the job, the powers of the president, and yes… he even linked the American Revolutionary War to the “War on Terror.”

Bush said, “After winning the war, Washington did what victorious leaders rarely did at the time. He voluntarily gave up power. Many would have gladly made George Washington the king of America.”

Funny… Our current George sort of acts like a king by ignoring the laws laid out in The Constitution that were ultimately brought about by Washington’s valiant efforts in the  American Revolutionary War.

Which leads to another quote from Bush’s speech:  “As President, George Washington understood that his decisions would shape the future of our young nation and set precedent. He formed the first Cabinet, appointed the first judges, and issued the first veto.”

Our current George has never vetoed any law passed by Congress.  That’s what he’s supposed to do if he disagrees with a law.  He’s supposed to send it back to Congress with a request for them to rewrite it in a way that is more acceptable to him.  It’s called compromise.  Our current George isn’t into that.  What he prefers to do is sign the disagreeable bill and write a statement about how he’ll choose to ignore the law if he wants to.

Bush also spoke of Washington’s character:  “His honesty and courage have become the stuff of legend. Children are taught to revere his name, and leaders to look to him for strength in uncertain times.” 

Our current George is perhaps the most dishonest and fearful man to ever be president.  Children will never be taught to revere his name.

And Bush had the audacity to close with this: 

George Washington’s long struggle for freedom has also inspired generations of Americans to stand for freedom in their own time. Today, we’re fighting a new war to defend our liberty and our people and our way of life. And as we work to advance the cause of freedom around the world, we remember that the father of our country believed that the freedoms we secured in our revolution were not meant for Americans alone. He once wrote, “My best wishes are irresistibly excited whensoever in any country I see an oppressed nation unfurl the banners of freedom.”

President Washington believed that the success of our democracy would also depend on the virtue of our citizens. In his farewell address to the American people, he said, “Morality is a necessary spring of popular government.” Over the centuries, America has succeeded because we have always tried to maintain the decency and the honor of our first President.

Funny…  Our current George has resided over an administration that has aggressively taken away our rights and limited our freedom here at home.  They have allowed torture, they have unlawfully detained American citizens, they have tapped our phones, intercepted our emails, and wasted our national treasure on an ill-conceived war to secure an oil supply—all the while telling us it was a war to protect us from WMD’s, then to prevent the development of WMD’s, then to spread democracy, and finally to quell another country’s civil war.

George Washington must have been turning in his grave as his antithesis stood above him today.