Friday, June 13, 2003


Tucked away in this list of Delaware General Assembly votes is this intriguing item:

H.B. 61 (Williams) -- Creates a witness protection and relocation program modeled after the federal statute. 21 yes. To governor.

A witness protection and relocation program. In Delaware.

Delaware is the second smallest state in the union. The place covers less than 2,000 square miles. You can drive the length of the state in 3 hours. There also aren't that many people there -- the almanac's list of it's 10 Largest Cities includes places like Smyrna (pop. 5,679) and New Castle (pop. 4,862) -- not exactly the sorts of places where one can get lost in the sea of humanity.

I'm a fan of local self-reliance and all, but I'm thinking witness relocation really works better at the federal level ...

posted by Fred Clark 1:34 PM

Thursday, June 12, 2003


Why an apostate pope is better than a renegade hyperpower.

Hypocrisy, Matthew Arnold said, is the "tribute that vice pays to virtue." To be hypocritical, in other words, is to honor the rules even while violating them.

Consider, for example, the apostate popes of the Middle Ages. They were liars, thieves, adulterers and oppressors of the poor. Yet each of them pretended to be otherwise. While they may have violated the rules recklessly, they did not actually seek to abolish them or to pretend that they were of no consequence. These popes held nearly unrivaled power -- power enough to claim the imperial exemption from the rules that govern the powerless hoi polloi. Yet they never claimed such an exemption.

The apostate popes were hypocrites, not nihilists. The legacy of a hypocrite is to be remembered as a bad person. The legacy of a nihilist is far more destructive. Nihilists seek to make the category of "bad person" meaningless.

Consider also the example of President Lyndon Baines Johnson and the hypocritical duplicity of the Gulf of Tonkin crisis -- the manufactured incident used as justification for American involvement in war in Southeast Asia.

Give LBJ his due -- he was not a timid, incompetent liar. The old bastard would never have stooped to half-baked Nigerian forgeries or clumsy "dodgy dossiers." His lies had heft and scope. They had grandeur, almost.

LBJ's duplicitous vice paid tribute to virtue. He broke the rules, or cheated around them, but he did not try to pretend the rules were meaningless. The Gulf of Tonkin was bad, but it could have been much worse.

Johnson might have claimed that because of 11/22, the old rules no longer applied. He might have said, as many in those days did, that "Sputnik changed everything." That now that the Communists had weapons of mass destruction (the real kind -- nukes -- not some measly mustard gas) he could no longer be bound by some musty notion of a "just war." He could have claimed that our enemies' lawlessness required us to abandon the law in order to level the playing field.

LBJ could even have claimed to the U.N. that Ho Chi Minh had the bomb himself, and that only pre-emptive regime change in Hanoi would keep America safe from this imminent threat.

But he didn't. Johnson instead chose the time-honored method of provoking a war of choice by manufacturing an incident. He got his war and the rules -- although violated -- remained intact. His hypocrisy, although vicious, still allowed for the existence of virtue.

As power-hungry as Robert Caro assures us Johnson was, he was still only a hypocrite and not a nihilist.

Contrast this with the nihilism of the Bush administration's war on Iraq. Bush did not bother to pretend he was obeying the rules (he even backed out of the Security Council vote he had promised). He did not bother even to break the rules. He simple chose to ignore them. Dismissing them with a wave of the hand, he baldly declared a pre-emptive war of choice on the basis of no other authority or precedent than sheer military might.

"Yes, but nihilism," some may object. "Isn't that a bit strong?"

Take it up with Tom Friedman, it's his argument. Friedman's the one who wrote this:

"We hit Saddam for one simple reason: because we could."

Ah, "because we could." In other words, might makes right. In other words, there are no rules -- only power. Rules are for the powerless, and we are powerful. There is no "ought," only "can."

That sounds an awful lot like nihilism. Whatever you choose to call it, I think I'd prefer hypocrisy.
posted by Fred Clark 6:05 PM


More out-of-date quickies from my overflowing, under-posted bookmarks folder.

= = = = = = = = = = = =

Apocalyptic Heresies: Premillennial dispensationalists offer reflexive, unquestioning support for the state of Israel because they can't wait to see it destroyed in the Battle of Armageddon. Joe Lieberman isn't above pandering to these loonies.

Ashcroft, John: In this 1997 article, Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) provides a vigorous defense for privacy rights online, condemning "Big Brother" and "police-state" tactics the government was considering that would have infringed on the sacred civil liberties of American citizens. I understand that Mr. Ashcroft is no longer in the Senate. That's too bad -- now more than ever we need champions of the Bill of Rights in public office.

Bad DMV Photos: I think I originally bookmarked this column to argue that Gore was right and Reynolds wrong. Months later, this seems like cheating. Glenn Reynolds said the right wing is just plain more popular. Gore's analysis -- that cable news is like the British partisan newspaper biz -- seems far likelier. MSNBC is betting the farm that Reynolds was right, and Jesse Ventura promises to do for that network what he did for the XFL. Anyway, visiting the link now, I see it only as an argument against Web page headshots.

Bastards, Corporate: Via the invaluable Memory Hole, a list of the corporations that supplied Iraq's weapons program. Extra Credit: Cross-reference this list with the upcoming list of corporations that the Bush administration will be awarding contracts for the rebuilding of Iraq. (See also this list of profiteers.) Saddam Hussein: evil tyrant? Or moneymaking machine for multinational corporations?

Belgium, non-existence thereof: (via Zizka) Belgium is, and has always been, a leftist ruse; a device applied to propagate the Liberal agenda throughout the world. Hijacking a real country for this use would be difficult at best; the people living there wouldn't stand for it (i.e. the fall of communism.) Thus the idea to invent an imaginary country, insert it into the global consciousness through the perversion of history, and use it as a tool of manipulation ... Read more.

Bizarre religious Web sites: The Brick Testament -- kinda cool.

Bizarre religious Web sites: Ticket to Heaven -- graceless.

Business Movies: Forbes picks their ten best. It's quite a list. If a liberal group had listed the same 10 movies, they'd be accused of anti-business prejudices.

Camouflage Bibles: "Camouflage Christians" sounds like a Bad Sermon Illustration (text: Romans 12:2), but the idea, apparently, is to get outdoorsmen reading the Bible. That's fine, but what if they drop it? Wouldn't it make more sense to make it that day-glo orange?

posted by Fred Clark 6:02 PM

Wednesday, June 11, 2003


The Alabama governor is about to feel the wrath of Christian McCarthyism

I knew little about Alabama Gov. Bob Riley before reading this New York Times op-ed column yesterday. I still don't know much about the man, but I know he's in for a rocky road -- in various dark corners of Scaife-funded Christendom, they're reading faxed copies of that column and declaring "Release the hounds!"

Adam Cohen describes Riley as a "teetotaling, Bible-quoting businessman from rural central Alabama." When someone is a "Bible quoter" the pertinent question is "which Bible?" Is he quoting from the Christian Bible -- one read through the prism of 2,000 years of Christian understanding? Or is he quoting from the American Bible -- one read piecemeal through cultural blinders that allow readers to find little more than condemnations of Baal-worship, dancing and homosexuality?

The pleasant surprise is that Riley seems to be reading the former, which means adherents of the latter will viciously attack him.

But Governor Riley has stunned many of his conservative supporters, and enraged the state's powerful farm and timber lobbies, by pushing a tax reform plan through the Alabama Legislature that shifts a significant amount of the state's tax burden from the poor to wealthy individuals and corporations. And he has framed the issue in starkly moral terms, arguing that the current Alabama tax system violates biblical teachings because Christians are prohibited from oppressing the poor. ...

Alabamians are used to hearing their politicians make religious arguments, and Governor Riley thinks he can convince the voters that Christian theology calls for a fairer tax system. "I've spent a lot of time studying the New Testament, and it has three philosophies: love God, love each other, and take care of the least among you," he said. "I don't think anyone can justify putting an income tax on someone who makes $4,600 a year."

Cohen provides a bit of background on just how oppressive Alabama's current tax structure can be for "the least of these."

The state income tax kicks in for families that earn as little a $4,600, when even Mississippi starts at over $19,000. Alabama also relies heavily on its sales tax, which runs as high as 11 percent and applies even to groceries and infant formula. The upshot is wildly regressive: Alabamians with incomes under $13,000 pay 10.9 percent of their incomes in state and local taxes, while those who make over $229,000 pay just 4.1 percent.

That's very much the kind of system that the Christian Bible calls an abomination -- the sort of thing that inspires all those "Woe unto you ..." passages. The American Bible, by contrast, finds little objectionable in oppressing the poor -- and it's much more widely read here than its orthodox alternative.

Marvin Olasky and the hacks from World Magazine will be all over this. So too will be the Southern Baptist hierarchy (oxymoron alert: "Baptist hierarchy") and their version of HUAC. Riley is reading the Bible without their treasured cultural blinders, and that simply will not be tolerated.

Olasky -- the pugnacious editor of World and sometime adviser to the Bush administration -- was himself a Communist before his magnetic poles shifted and he became a rabid, anti-government free-marketeer (shades of David Horowitz). This conversion shapes Olasky and his magazine far more than his conversion to Christianity.

Writers like Olasky and ultra-hack E. Calvin Beisner have no use for 2,000 years of Christian teaching on statecraft and stewardship. Calvin and Kuyper, Aquinas and John Paul II have nothing to offer these men. They are, rather, disciples of F.A. Hayek, Julian Simon and R.J. Rushdoony. (Hayek and Simon, at least, were pagans who could claim the protection of invincible ignorance. Rushdoony was simply a heretic -- the founder of the anti-Christ cult of "Reconstructionists.")

I have some idea of what Riley is in for because I spent several years working for Ron Sider at Evangelicals for Social Action. Sider, a devout Mennonite, wrote a book in 1977 called Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. That book's centerpiece was an argument for a "graduated tithe" -- for generous, sacrificial giving on behalf of wealthy American Christians. Keep what you need, Sider said, give the rest away to help the poor.

That suggestion did not go over well with readers of the American Bible.

The southern-gothic free marketeers responded to Sider's call for sacrificial almsgiving as though he were advocating a Stalinist five-year plan. A Reconstructionist vanity press published a polemic screed condemning Sider as a Communist. That book, written by an angry little man named David Chilton, was called "Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt-Manipulators." The book's thesis -- stop me if you've heard this one before -- is that the best way for the wealthy to help the poor is by consuming more and giving less. (Chilton died a few years ago, but he continues to work as an adviser to the Bush administration.)

Sider's book, like Gov. Riley, quotes the Bible exhaustively. But like Riley he quotes from the Christian Bible, not the American Bible. Hence the attack.

Defenders of the flaccid, vacuous American Bible are an angry, vicious lot. They are zealously on the lookout for any perceived threat to their Americanized faith.

As a college student, I wrote a short, earnest piece in my campus newspaper advocating individual generosity in the context of global poverty. (The wincingly idealistic piece argued that we should "share our cookies" -- I was 21, okay?) The paper had a print run of less than a thousand, and no off-campus circulation, yet the article did not escape the wrath of the Christian McCarthyists. My idealistic charge to "share your cookies" was condemned by an editor of the Stewardship Journal as an example of moribund, "statist" policymaking.

Bob Riley has a much larger platform than a college newspaper so you can be sure he will not escape the attention or the wrath of the Christian McCarthyists.

Gov. Riley does not seem to be advocating theocracy -- his vision of justice is informed by his reading of the Christian Bible, but his agenda poses no threat to religious pluralism. He needs to continue making his case in secular, as well as sectarian, terms -- to argue that his tax reform is good policy and not just good Christianity.

But I hope he will continue to speak as he has about the religious motivation behind his plan -- he may be attacked, but it's an argument he can't lose. As Cohen notes:

The Christian Coalition of Alabama has not yet taken a position on the September vote, but it has been speaking out against the plan's tax increases. In an interview yesterday, John Giles, the group's president, had trouble pointing to a biblical passage that directly supported his opposition to new taxes ...

posted by Fred Clark 3:04 PM

Tuesday, June 10, 2003


My bookmarks folder has gotten out of hand. That "Organize Favorites" item in the Explorer menu might as well read "Cleanse Augean Stables."

I stumble across things and think, "Wow, I should post something on this." And so I bookmark them. But I only get around to the actual posts maybe 20 percent of the time. After almost a year of this, that neglected 80 percent has really piled up.

It's time to clean out the bookmarks. This is too big a job to do all at once, so I'm approaching it a little bit at a time. Some of the links will just have to be deleted -- their shelf-life and sell-by dates having long ago expired. Others, while no longer timely, are still informative or amusing or both.

So please bear with me, this could take a while. I'm cleaning out the attic ...

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Robertson, Pat, ties to al-Qaida: Radley Balko points out that would-be theocrat, TV host and snake-oil huckster Pat Robertson is porbably a few degrees of separation closer to Osama bin Laden than is Saddam Hussein. Of course, unlike Pat, Saddam can't leg press 1,500 pounds.

Rubbish! Sweet piece of guerilla journalism by the Williamette Week (just in case you missed this back when I originally bookmarked it -- last December).

Shaffer, Paul: I hadn't realized that in addition to his gig with Letterman, the square-to-be-hip Canadian also earns a living from royalties from this song. As long as there are bachelorette parties, as long as the "Electric Slide" crowd enjoys drunken karaoke, as long as there are drag shows -- Paul Shaffer will be a wealthy man.

Southern Baptists: The Southern Baptist news service boasts about this church and its support for the children of a missionary couple and their interracial marriage. Well, okay. Congratulations to the Robertville Baptist Church in Oak Ridge, Tenn. -- but isn't this a bit like congratulating someone for tying their shoes properly. I mean, jeez, it's 2003 people. Two thousand years after Pentecost these people still aren't with the program.

Spy Knockoff, but it's a well-excuted Spy knockoff.

Strange but fun: "Independent Woman played by kittens."

SUVs, indefensibility of: Arianna argues that hummers are a problem for this president too. Still haven't seen these ads though. More here.

Systematic racial discrimination, concrete evidence of: Yeah, this article is four months old -- but the news wasn't really all that new then, was it?

Systematic racial discrimination, concrete evidence of: It seems minorities in Wilmington are charged higher fees than whites. More breaking news: fire burns, water is wet and George Hamilton is tan.

Troops, Support Our: This has its good points -- but it also reminds me of Twain's "War Prayer." Maybe we also need one that says, "Dear Member of the U.S. Military: Thank you for being willing to defend our freedom. I'm sorry that instead we have you shooting first in this crummy little imperial war."

Vampires, purported federal agencies dealing with: Yes, it's the Federal Vampire & Zombie Agency.

Watergate II: John Dean eyes up the Bush administration and sees something familiar.

Welles, Orson: A genius, yes, but good Lord man, it's just an ad for peas -- just read it and get it over with.

What Liberal Media?: Back in January, in the UK Guardian, Matthew Engel predicted that the American media would be President Bush's lapdog during the coming march to war: "a dog that never bites, hardly barks but really loves rolling over and having its tummy tickled." Give Engel credit -- he accurately described the president's March 6 press event back on January 13.

Whole Foods Market, additional reasons they're cooler than Acme.

posted by Fred Clark 8:28 PM


EPA says Clean Water Act isn't being enforced.

Disturbing story from Guy Gugliotta and Eric Pianin in The Washington Post. You know those laws designed to keep our drinking water clean? It seems they're not being enforced.

About a quarter of the nation's largest industrial plants and water treatment facilities are in serious violation of pollution standards at any one time, yet only a fraction of them face formal enforcement actions, according to an Environmental Protection Agency internal study. ...

The study, completed in February by the EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance, found that half the serious offenders exceeded pollution limits for toxic substances by more than 100 percent.

When formal disciplinary actions were taken, fewer than half resulted in fines, which averaged about $6,000. ...

The study focused on compliance by what the law describes as "major facilities." They comprise about 6,600 industrial installations and wastewater treatment plants whose large discharge requires them to monitor and report monthly on waste water "toxics," such as lead, selenium and mercury, and "conventionals," which include fecal matter, silt and other biosolids.

The political party currently in charge of all three branches of the federal government is passionately opposed to regulations, taxes and "activist" government. A legitimate response to such a posture is to ask such people why they should be trusted to keep the lead, mercury and fecal matter out of our drinking water.

I don't have any polling data to back this up, but I'm guessing a large majority of Americans would prefer not to have fecal matter in their drinking water. This seems to me an issue that cuts across all demographics: old and young, black and white, male and female, married and single -- hardly anybody wants to drink fecal matter.

The party in power continues its assault on regulations and the tax structure that allows those regulations to be enforced. The inevitable result is obvious: more fecal matter in our drinking water.

I personally prefer my drinking water without quite so much fecal matter. That's one reason, among many, why I will never support the party currently in power.

posted by Fred Clark 11:47 AM

Monday, June 09, 2003


What separates George W. Bush from other evangelical Christians.

The evangelical strand of Christianity frowns on ritual. Yet like any tradition, it has rituals that form an essential part of the faith. One distinctively evangelical tradition is "giving testimony."

This practice -- which has its roots in the testimony of the Apostle Paul -- is an unavoidable, integral part of worship, outreach and devotion for all evangelical Christians.

All it means, really, is to stand before others -- believers and nonbelievers alike -- and to tell your story. This is autobiography, not argument. Believers tell of their life before conversion and of how they have changed or tried to change since "being saved." The practice reaffirms the value of the faith by reminding oneself and others what it is that one is saved from. (Twelve-step programs tend to involve a similar ritual of giving testimony for many of the same reasons.)

Perhaps the most famous example is the testimony given by John Newton:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
Was blind, but now I see.

Before his conversion, John Newton was an evil man -- a slave trader. And while the famous hymn presents his story in its most general form, Newton himself gladly -- joyously -- shared the sordid details of his life before salvation. This is what giving one's testimony is all about. In the words of another gospel hymn, "Jesus saved even me."

Some people's testimonies, of course, are more dramatic and more compelling than others. I was raised in an evangelical church. Like everyone, I was asked occasionally to share my testimony. But I was asked less often than most, since testimonies like mine seemed less about Amazing Grace and "the power of God unto salvation" than about a respectable and godly household and two loving parents. Bor-ring! (I could tell them some stories now, but when I was 12 I really hadn't yet had time to pursue a life of sin.) Far more compelling are the testimonies of people like Newton, or the Apostle Paul -- men who did some serious damage and literally raised hell before they encountered grace and were reborn as new men.1

What one hears -- whether at an evangelical tent meeting or in a basement meeting of AA -- is "Amazing Grace" told without the poetic gloss. You hear the stories of people truly bound, blind and lost and the humble, fragile, bewildered gratitude of these "wretches" when they are set free.

It is curious that -- unlike almost every other evangelical Christian -- George W. Bush refuses to share his testimony.

He is resolutely evasive2 about any details of his life before his conversion experience. He has said that at the time of his conversion, he quit drinking -- which implies without elaboration that he used to drink. We know -- no thanks to him -- that in his drinking days he was once arrested for drunken driving and that he oversaw the spectacular collapse of three different corporations. Aside from that all we have are rumors; a suspicious and contradictory record of sporadic military service; and his adamant refusal to disclose anything further.

The president does not testify -- he simply asserts the fact of his salvation (and his claims of sanctification). The official version of the president's testimony has more to do with amazing willpower than amazing grace. This behavior is out of step both with the evangelical tradition and with the wisdom of the 12-steppers. And neither group is optimistic about the enduring prospects for such "white-knuckle" reform.

I'm far more concerned with the president's ongoing sins3 than the sins of his past. But the past and the present perhaps can't be so easily separated. As the book says you may be through with the past, but the past isn't through with you.

In any case, in the evangelical church where I grew up, a person was viewed with suspicion if he refused to give his testimony. I only wish the media were as skeptical and sophisticated as the people of that church.

= = = = = = = = = = = = =

1. St. Paul's own testimony was more like the 12-step ritual than like the modern evangelical practice. Evangelical testimonies too often present a stark contrast of before and after. Paul saw conversion as more ongoing, more "one day at a time." The man struggling and enslaved to sin that Paul describes in Romans chapter 7 is not the Saul of the past, but the Paul of the present.

2. Can one be "resolutely evasive"? I'm not sure, but when describing people like Bush or his spokesman, Ari Fleischer, you often end up reaching for near-oxymorons.

3. "Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy" (Ezekiel 16:49).
posted by Fred Clark 2:45 PM

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