Strength and Greatness

My biggest regret is all the people who see the symbol but miss the point — that our greatness, our strength, comes from our principles and not our weapons.
Captain America and the Falcon, #14
In this week’s Sift:
  • Trial By Jury is Controversial Now. Attorney General Holder made a brave principled decision to try the 9-11 plotters in federal court in New York. The heat he’s taking is unprincipled and cowardly.
  • Republicans in 2012. I didn’t get to the second page of Palin’s new book, but the speculation it sparked about who Republicans will nominate is interesting. I say Huckabee.
  • The Public is Not Their Party. Conservative Christian leaders want to control who gets to be considered part of the Public. When they threaten to take their ball and go home, I think we should let them.
  • Short Notes. Lithuania schools us on the rule of law. The return of Ted Haggard. How not to pray for Obama. And a surprising source for good-but-unheralded new fiction.


Trial by Jury is Controversial Now

Conservatives and liberals each claim to love America’s fundamental principles and institutions. But we love them in different ways. Liberals love American principles the way we love a reliable car or a comfortable pair of shoes. Conservatives love them like fine china or delicate crystal — priceless objects to be displayed on special occasions, but not actually used.

Ten days ago, Attorney General Eric Holder announced his decision to try alleged 9-11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (and four accomplices) in federal court in New York City rather than in a military tribunal. This has brought down a hail of criticism from the Right.

Holder’s logic is fairly clear, though opponents claim to find it mysterious: Crimes in the United States against civilians (like destroying the Twin Towers) should be tried in civilian court, while crimes against military targets overseas (like the bombing of the USS. Cole) should be tried in tribunals. Holder could have justified trying KSM in a tribunal because the Pentagon was also a target on 9-11, but he decided that the civilian crime is the more heinous.

Objections come in three flavors:

  • U.S. courts give defendants too many rights. I’ll discuss this in more detail below
  • The trial itself will become a terrorist target. The assumption here seems to be that Al Qaeda has the power to attack New York City, but just hasn’t been motivated enough since 9-11. The fear-mongering needs to be called out: It’s an appeal to our cowardice.
  • KSM could escape from federal prison or build a terrorist network among inmates who will eventually get out. This is one of the many fantasies that spring from the notion that terrorists are demonic supermen. Merely evil human beings like Charles Manson and the Unabomber have been held safely in federal prison for many years.

The too-many-rights argument has to be taken on directly, because it points to something fundamental: In spite of all their rhetoric about freedom, conservatives don’t really believe in human rights. The Founders never talked about “giving” rights. Human beings, says the Declaration of Independence are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Our courts don’t give rights, they recognize them.

Glenn Beck is fond of cherry-picking quotes from Thomas Paine. He should try this one from Paine’s Dissertations on the First Principles of Government:

An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws. He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.

Denying the human rights of suspected terrorists isn’t just bad political philosophy, it’s bad war-fighting strategy. Because Captain America is right — our strength comes from our principles. Why weaken ourselves by casting away those principles?

Johann Hari interviewed a number of British Muslims who have turned away from terrorism to find out what changed their minds. One former terrorist said that recruiting briefly got harder after 9-11 because

there was an inhibiting sympathy for the victims of 9/11 – until the Bush administration began to respond with Guantanamo Bay and bombs. “That made it much easier. After that, I could persuade people a lot faster.”

Bush took Bin Laden’s worst propaganda and made it true. Hari writes:

Every one of them said the Bush administration’s response to 9/11 – from Guantanamo to Iraq – made jihadism seem more like an accurate description of the world. Hadiya Masieh, a tiny female former HT organiser, tells me: “You’d see Bush on the television building torture camps and bombing Muslims and you think – anything is justified to stop this.”

By contrast, they found acts of kindness and decency towards Muslims hard to square with their jihadist worldview.

Militarily, one of the best things we can do is demonstrate our commitment to human rights, particularly the rights of Muslims who think we’re evil. Trial by jury in a legitimate court of law is not some priceless-but-fragile heirloom from the 1700s. It’s the American way, and it works.


The most effective legal defense of Holder’s decision is a WaPo op-ed by former leaders in the Bush administration Justice Department: Jim Comey and Jack Goldsmith. (I’ve mentioned them before. Comey was the acting attorney general during the famous John Ashcroft hospital-room scene, and Jack Goldsmith was the Office of Legal Counsel head who invalidated some of the more outrageous opinions written by John Yoo. In short, they are conservative lawyers who served in the Bush administration without becoming Bushies. I reviewed Goldsmith’s book The Terror Presidency.) They write:

One reason [military] commissions have not worked well is that changes in constitutional, international and military laws since they were last used, during World War II, have produced great uncertainty about the commissions’ validity. This uncertainty has led to many legal challenges that will continue indefinitely — hardly an ideal situation for the trial of the century. … Holder’s critics do not help their case by understating the criminal justice system’s capacities, overstating the military system’s virtues and bumper-stickering a reasonable decision.



Republicans in 2012

Standing by the first display table in my local Barnes and Noble, I toyed with the idea of reviewing Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue. Besides, I’m fascinated by opening lines and opening scenes, so I wondered what kind of call-me-Ishmael hook the ghost-writer had prepared for us.

If you tell Palin’s story chronologically it takes forever to reach the interesting part, so I figured any good writer would jump into the middle of something exciting, then wander back into mundane biographical details later. A call-to-greatness scene — where John McCain asks Palin to be vice president — would be a cliche, but off the top of my head I couldn’t come up with anything better.

It turns out I was right, but I didn’t read far enough to realize it. Chapter 1 has the Palins at the Alaska State Fair, being the all-American family they are. In an attempt to capture Palin’s voice, the ghost-writer has made the sentences just slightly too long — not run-on exactly, but with one-too-many adjectives or clauses or prepositional phrases. I found the style irritating, and by the end of first page (still being adorable at the Fair) I was bored. I put the book down.

Wikipedia told me later that Palin got McCain’s call at the state fair, so that must have been where that scene was going. If you really want to know, you can go look for yourself. I’m willing to make certain sacrifices for the Sift, but reading Going Rogue cover-to-cover is not going to be one of them.

There are plenty of other reviews you can read or watch: Steven Colbert’s is my favorite. Fox News has been 24/7 Sarah, including once again switching tapes to make an event look more popular than it really was. (They used 2008 campaign footage as if it were book-tour video.) Jon Stewart explains to right-wing pundits why liberals like him don’t like Palin — and no, it really has nothing to do with her family. AP  and Max Blumenthal fact-checked, which Frank Rich considers a pointless exercise because “Palin’s political appeal has never had anything to do with facts.”

2012. I’ve been more interested in the speculation Palin’s book sparked over the 2012 Republican nomination. In the 2008 cycle all my best predictions were about the Republicans: Already in October 2007 I predicted Huckabee’s rise, but said in early December that McCain would be the last man standing. (On the Democratic side, I thought John Edwards would be our strongest candidate, and that New Hampshire would seal it for Obama. Let’s not talk about that.)

My 2012 crystal ball says Palin will not be the Republican nominee. A lot of pundits make a Palin-Obama comparison: He didn’t have presidential credentials either, but his personal charisma carried him through. That view overlooks two big factors. First, Obama didn’t beat Clinton on charisma, he out-organized her. Obama and Clinton were neck-and-neck in primary votes, but his margin of victory in delegates came from caucuses, where organization is key. So I’ll buy the Palin-Obama parallel only if you can establish that Palin is a master strategist and organizer, or that she is willing to stick to the script of somebody who is. Looking at an early glitch in her book tour, either seem unlikely to me.

Second, the “unqualified” charge never works by itself, because experience is only a stand-in for two qualities voters are really looking for: Does the candidate know his/her stuff? And will s/he lose his/her head in a crisis? Clinton couldn’t make Obama’s lack of experience stick because he stood next to her in 20-some debates and proved that he knew the issues as well as she did. And McCain couldn’t make it stick because when the economy started falling apart, it was McCain who seemed to be losing his head.

Palin is no Obama. She does not know her stuff, and does not stand up well under pressure. When the campaign starts, that will quickly become obvious. The “unqualified” charge will stick, and her fans will think it’s terribly unfair. And she won’t persevere through initial failure; she’ll explode in a nova of maverickiness.

If not Palin, then who? Not Bobby Jindal, for a reason no Republican strategist can admit: The teabagger base will never trust someone as smart as Jindal. He’s a Rhodes scholar, for God’s sake. Like Bill Clinton was. The reason Jindal looked so terrible when he gave the Republican response to Obama’s speech in February is that he tried to dumb himself down. He can’t.

What about somebody coming from nowhere, like Jimmy Carter in 1976? Nope. Republicans haven’t gone that way since Wendell Wilkie in 1940. You can’t do the come-from-nowhere thing without picking up an image of cleverness as you out-manuever your more familiar rivals — and the base distrusts cleverness.

Maybe somebody pushing a Bush restoration, like Dick Cheney or Jeb Bush? Too soon. The Bush administration was an across-the-board disaster.  They started wars they didn’t know how to win. They doubled the national debt. They broke the economy. Republicans know that, even if they can’t say so in public, and it’s going to take more than four years for people to forget. If we suffer another 9-11-style attack, there might be space for someone not directly connected to Bush — General Petraeus, say — to claim the he-kept-us-safe part of the Bush record. But it’s a long shot.

Somebody might be able to walk the same road Bush did in 2000: The 1998 election was a Democratic victory because the Republicans were identified with the unpopular Clinton impeachment. Meanwhile, Bush won in Texas as a “compassionate conservative” who could work with Democrats. He was a familiar name and a breath of fresh air at the same time. Gary Hart did something similar in 1980; he rose to national attention when he was re-elected to the Senate while all the other Democrats were going under.

That will be harder to do if the Republicans pick up seats in 2010, as 538.com expects. But somebody who is sort-of-familiar could become presidential timber by symbolizing what the party did right. If there’s a true teabagger revolt, maybe Michelle Bachman gets a boost. (I think Palin would be confused if she had to debate another conservative woman. Bachman would shine through as the more authentic lunatic.)

Otherwise, you’re left with the 2008 hold-overs: Romney and Huckabee. They represent two sides of the old Reagan coalition. Romney is the Club-for-Growth tax-cutter and Huckabee is the evangelical family-values guy. Romney’s problem is that his economic plan sounds too much like Bush, and we know how that worked out. So Huckabee will have an easier time re-uniting the coalition. The evangelicals will gather around him after Palin flames out, and he’ll be nominated.



The Public Is Not Their Party

Have you ever had one of your friends announce: “If you’re inviting her to your party, then I’m not coming”? Well, translated a little, that’s what 145 conservative Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical leaders just said about gays and lesbians: If they’re going to be part of “the public” then we can’t be.

More specifically, they signed the Manhattan Declaration, composed by Watergate-felon-turned-minister Charles Colson and two other guys. Here’s the conclusion:

Because we honor justice and the common good, we will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other anti-life act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family.

That part after the semi-colon is all about “conscience clauses” which allow Christians (theoretically anybody, but in practice Christians) to offer their services to the public, but still deny them to people they think are immoral. NPR covers several widely-discussed cases, including the ones referenced in the Declaration. No case involves forcing someone to “bless immoral sexual partnerships” in a religious capacity. In each case, the religious group is claiming its right to exclude gays and lesbians from something that is otherwise available to the public, and threatening to withdraw its services from the public sphere if it can’t continue to discriminate. FDL’s Peterr, describing himself as “a Christian and a pastor” comments:

This isn’t about religious freedom — it’s about churches asking for special rights: the right to legally discriminate in workplace practices and the right to legally discriminate in the delivery of publicly funded social services.

The legal principle here was established during the Civil Rights era: If you’re offering something to the public, you have to offer it to the whole public, not just to the people you like. That’s what the Greensboro lunch counter thing was about. So the Manhattan Declaration’s position boils down to this: They refuse to recognize that gays and lesbians are part of the public.

Dear Abby usually gave this advice to a host facing a don’t-invite-her ultimatum from some friend: Invite both; tell each that the other is invited; and if either chooses to exclude herself from the party, that’s her decision. That’s the right course here. Charles Colson and Ellen Degeneres should both be invited to be full-fledged members of the public. If Chuck chooses to decline the invitation because Ellen might accept it, that’s his decision.


To me, the most irritating part of the Manhattan Declaration is the way it invokes not just Martin Luther King, but also the anti-slavery and women’s suffrage movements. Let me add this historical perspective: In every generation, conservative leaders attempt to coopt the liberal reforms of the past, claim the prestige of them, and use that prestige to thwart the liberal reforms of the present.

And so today, representatives of the most conservative wing of the Catholic church pose as the champions of religious liberty, and representatives of the most conservative Protestant sects pose as the inheritors of the women’s suffrage and anti-slavery movements. Is there any doubt that if these 145 leaders could be transported back to the 1500s or 1850s or 1880s, they would side with their conservative brethren in that era against the reforms that they now claim credit for?



Short Notes

If liberals did this, it would be seen as treason.


Imagine: A new president is elected, takes seriously the accusations that the previous president’s war-on-terror actions broke the law, and demands an investigation with possible criminal penalties. It’s President Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania. She believes that the people who OK’d Lithuania illegally hosting a CIA black prison should be held accountable.

“What kind of a backwards, primitive country,” Glenn Greenwald asks, very tongue-in-cheek, “would do something like this?”


A surprising source of good new fiction: the book departments of those big odd-lot stores like Building 19 or Ocean State Discount. Novels often get remaindered not because they’re bad, but because somebody at a publishing house let his own good taste overwhelm his business judgment. Each year I find three or four excellent novels that I would never run into otherwise.

My latest discovery: One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead by Clare Dudman. It’s a novelization of the life of Alfred Wegener, the guy who postulated continental drift. That may sound dull, but the novel includes several Greenland expeditions, World War I, and a first-person prose style based on Wegener’s expedition diaries. It’s the style of a sharp observer who communicates his feelings through detail and metaphor rather than by using emotion-laden words. I was entranced by it.


Disgraced megachurch pastor Ted Haggard is back. He didn’t complete the “spiritual restoration” process he undertook after being fired, but he has started holding prayer meetings at his Colorado Springs home — just a few miles from his old church. Members of the board of overseers of that church recall Haggard promising them he would not start a new church in Colorado Springs. About 100 people, many from his former church, attended his first prayer meeting.


The Onion nails the whole teabagger defend-the-constitution thing.


A new bumpersticker-and-tshirt slogansays: “Pray for Obama: Psalm 109:8.”

Psalm 109:8 says, “Let his days be few.” Hilarious, isn’t it?

Matt Yglesias explains the counter-intuitive nature of testing for rare conditions — like profiling Muslims for terrorism. Even if the test is fairly accurate, the false positives will vastly outnumber the true positives. So the main result is to hassle a lot of innocent people.


I haven’t read the recent report on how the AIG bailout was mismanaged. Next week.

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  • By Short Notes « The Weekly Sift on July 25, 2011 at 10:57 am

    [...] As the Captain America movie opens, the Mighty God King blog speculates on Steve Rogers’ Depression-era communist upbringing. Underneath that jingoistic costume, the Captain is a liberal. He even provided a Sift quote once. [...]

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