A Bit of Poetry

It’s a bit rich for FOX News to suggest that it’s the victim of a political witch hunt. To be fair, FOX News has never been biased in its coverage of witches. Admittedly, it has been unfair and unbalanced in regards to certain topics… Like welfare queens, Howard Dean, rebellious teens, gay rights advocates, MSNBC analysts, anti-war pacifists, class antagonists, judges that are activist, illegal immigrants, student militants, death penalty abolitionists, the AFL-CIO, watchers of the Daily Show, subsidies to public radio, Clinton getting fellatio, multiracial tolerance, Northeastern RINO moderates, John Edwards’ cheating, Anthony Weiner’s tweeting, Obama appointees, Gitmo Bay detainees, torture critics, abortion clinics, global warming, WikiLeaks informing, celebrity paparazzi, man-hating feminazis, Iranian apologists, New York Times columnists, left-wing writers, pillow-biters, Hollywood egotists, secular hedonists, the rising price of gas, attacks upon the ruling class, crossdressers and transexuals, pointy-headed intellectuals, affirmative action hires, smelly Wall Street Occupiers, civil libertarians, vocal vegetarians, egalitarian humanitarians, the Chinese, rap CDs, Obama merchandisers, community organizers, growing budget deficits, detention that’s not indefinite, Keynesian stimulus, lack of border vigilance, failure to observe Leviticus, cutting Pentagon weaponry, treating France respectfully, denying U.S. supremacy, anybody surnamed Kennedy, Al Gore, the culture war, holding terrorists on our shores, policies that cause inflation, bilingual education, public transportation, more financial regulation, Tim Geithner’s tax evasion, trial laywer litigants, Obama’s birth certificate, extending jobless benefits, promoting selflessness, clean coal, gun control, skewed liberal opinion polls, Ron Paul, but most of all…George Soros’ many riches… But never EVER witches.

(With apologies to the excellent Charlie Brooker)

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Why the Left Loves Santorum: The “Threat” of the Religious Right

Lately, Rick Santorum has been feeding red meat like crazy to social conservatives, portraying himself as such a rabid cultural warrior that he is a bombastic flourish away from donning a Viking helmet, hoisting a broadsword and leading a charge toward some combination of Valhalla and 1950s suburban America. In just the last few days alone, Santorum has criticized Barack Obama’s “phony theology” of elevating the environment above humanity, taken aim at mandatory coverage of prenatal care by insurers, and insists we need to “rebuild the family and the church.” Comments such as these have fired up the Republican base, and Santorum is now leading his main rival, Mitt Romney, both nationally and in Romney’s home state of Michigan. If Romney, who only seems to resonate with other rich people and fellow electronic appliances, cannot win Michigan, where his father was governor, some pundits speculate party elites will push a “dark horse” candidate into the race, to pick up enough delegates to force a “brokered convention.” In other words, the GOP Establishment will frustrate the democratic primary process and anoint a candidate of their choosing, eschewing letting the “best man win” principle in favor of forcing Republican voters to rally behind whomever they are told their candidate will be.

Honestly, I find the prospect of a “brokered convention” more interesting (and I use that word loosely) than Santorum’s Religious Right talking points. If Romney is unelectable because he is too moderate (as well as being about as exciting as a bowl of Kashi Extra Fiber cereal), Santorum may well win in the Bible Belt but flop virtually everywhere else. The political center, while it may expect candidates to profess their religious faith in order to qualify just for consideration, gets uncomfortable at the prospect of a holy roller who is not just vehement in his or her opposition to abortion, but to cultural questions long considered settled – such as contraception. The recent dust-up over the Obama administration requiring religious institutions to cover their employees’ birth control costs owed more to the intrusion of the federal government into the operations of private organizations, not because most Catholics actually think condoms and spermicidal lubricant are tools of the Devil. U.S. citizens enjoy preserving their religious freedom, but they also regularly exercise their freedom to choose what aspects of their religion to follow. An unequivocal Bible-thumper like Santorum may play well among evangelical zealots, but he is a parody to everyone else – an uptight, sanctimonious neo-Puritan, complete with drab sweater vests and a Supercuts hairdo.

And this is exactly why progressives love him. It is why he tops the list of news items on Google News, why my Facebook feed is inundated with links to stories about how crazy Santorum is, and why – despite the fact that he belongs on the fringe, that his political career is a dead end, that he borders on irrelevance – he galvanizes so much attention. Indeed, rare are the editorial pieces or blog posts gushing over how great Santorum is. It is far more common to find pages devoted to how he is alienating moderates, how his views are backwards and sexist, how he represents everything that is wrong with Christian fundamentalism and its influence on U.S. politics. Progressives love him because he is the perfect punching bag; he is an easily identifiable face they can attach to their target on the rhetorical firing range, as they launch fiery diatribes against delusional deists.

I should say that I am no fan of the Religious Right. Yet my objection to it stems not from a distaste for religious dogma, but for how plutocrats have used that dogma to manipulate working class voters, inducing them to work actively against their economic interests. Deeply red states, such as my own home state of Oklahoma, used to be deeply red in another sense. Oklahoma especially boasted its fair number of socialists at the turn of the 20th century.  Over the course of the last hundred years, however, the people in the poorest parts of the country were encouraged to care more about abortion and same-sex marriage than full employment, the 40 hour week or income equality. Those on the East and “Left” Coasts have come to believe that residents in “fly-over country” always clung to their Bible, existing as little more than reactionary provincial peasants, completely ignoring the likes of Woody Guthrie, the Ludlow massacre and the Battle of Blair Mountain. The prevalence of religion in middle America, in their minds, automatically precludes people in that region from achieving genuine consciousness, from realizing what is best for them. In their view, Santorum is the natural consequence of what religious people want in a leader, a symptom of a shared disease. In my opinion, though, he and others like him are truly to blame, using religion to bolster political sanctimony, just as politicians did during Prohibition in the 1920s (the temperance movement) and the Red Scare during the Cold War (communists as “godless” heathens). To see religion only as a harmful virus in the body politic is to dismiss how Christian values spurned on the campaigns to end slavery, establish a social safety net and every anti-war movement in our history.

Iconoclasts, however, do not make distinctions; they often do not look to see where they are swinging their hammers. In our culture today, certain individuals have made reputations for wielding very large blunt objects against religion: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens, to name a few. It is no coincidence that they truly found their niche in the mainstream after September 11th, 2001, when fundamentalist Islam became the new “evil” ideology, replacing National Socialism and Marxist-Leninism. Obviously, Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens did not make their names arguing exclusively against Islam, but (as I am sure they realized) it was the most profitable strain of ardent atheism on the market at the time. They were (and remain) especially popular on the Left, where their rejection of moral relativism provides cover for left-wingers, once inclined to evaluate ideas and practices in context, to accept that not all cultures are equally morally developed, and that – as we all “know” deep down – we in the secular West are morally superior to the rest of the world. Whereas it was once positive to differentiate between different moralities, doing so has now become a sign of weakness, a loss of conviction. One should have the courage, these committed, confrontational atheists argue, to reduce all religious observance to the pathetic need of dupes to have “easy answers” to the world. Religious experience that transcends this simplification, such as members of a community coming together through communal worship, or those who seek the mystical ecstasy in some sort of spiritual connection, all falls under the category of absurd fallacies. Seeing the world in this way, classified into science and superstition, black and white, allows us all to get away from tricky critical thinking and to make bold pronouncements – such as Harris’ “Islam… has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death” or Hitchens’ appreciation for cluster bombs being able to kill large numbers of evil “Islamo-fascists.”

We can easily see how absolutist atheism enables the Left to cheerlead the War on Terror; you only need to watch an episode of Bill Maher to see this in action (not that I encourage doing so). But when sites like Salon, the Atlantic or Mother Jones beat you over the head with just how goddamn crazy Rick Santorum is, I believe it’s emblematic of the same thing. Instead of offering us a subtle, nuanced exploration for how religion is being used in politics as an instrument to certain ends, we get unrealistic, absurd Chicken Little hysteria about how the U.S. is headed toward a Christian theocracy, and that is just what we will get if those yokels in Peoria get their dithers.

The threat is non-existent. No amount of coverage will make Santorum relevant. Instead of getting all worked up about Santorum and the “danger” he poses, those militant troops on the other side of the cultural war should ponder something. One of the assertions often made by those “radical atheists” is that people hold beliefs based on emotional comfort and social ties, and that when combined with severe self-confidence, these beliefs can result in hasty, incorrect understandings of how the world really is. They may find they have more in common with the opposing force than they thought.

A Hypocrisy of Violence: Khader Adnan’s Imminent Death

In mid-December, Israeli authorities arrested Khader Adnan, detaining him without trial or charge. Shortly after his arrest, Adnan began a hunger strike over his treatment, and has, as of the time of this writing, gone without food for 65 days. Doctors working for the Physicians for Human Rights-Israel organization issued a report a few days ago indicating Adnan was “in immediate danger of death,” finally prompting Israel’s High Court to move forward a hearing concerning his case. Unfortunately, due to the circumstances surrounding his detention, Adnan and his lawyers have no idea what exactly he is being charged with or what evidence the government has to support its unknown allegations.

The High Court’s decision has sparked mainstream media attention to Adnan’s hunger strike, despite that it has been going on for months. The similarity of the situation with that of Bobby Sands, the IRA member who led a 1981 hunger strike from a prison in Northern Ireland, is obvious. Sands’ campaign drew a great deal of attention, enough that he was elected to the UK Parliament, and his death sparked an international outcry. While many consider Sands a martyr against Britain’s draconian treatment of Irish republicans during the Troubles, there is unlikely to be similar sympathy for Adnan, even if he too should die as Sands did. Unlike Sands, Adnan is neither Caucasian nor Christian, but an Arab Muslim accused of terrorism – and in the United States, the supposed leader of the “free world,” a majority of the population supports depriving basic rights, such as due process, to Muslims accused of even a tangential relationship to terrorist groups or activities.

As Glenn Greenwald recently pointed out, the denial of rights to “enemies of the state” – however nebulous the charge, however weak the evidence – no longer riles many people in ostensibly “free” and “democratic” countries, where the defining qualities of political life have traditionally been protected freedoms and inalienable rights. We pretend that we despise bullies, that we cheer for underdogs, and that we prefer consensus and conciliation to conflict. Yet, when faced with the looming, ambiguous “terror” threat, we have no qualms about sanctioning the government’s use of violence, even when it means stepping outside the confines of legal norms and human rights conventions. We gnash our teeth about the Obama administration requiring religious institutions to cover birth control for their employees, yet we shrug off the extrajudicial execution of U.S. citizens because, the government tells us, they are a threat to our way of life. In other words, we do not trust our government to spend our taxes wisely or to administer federal programs efficiently, yet we almost blindly trust them to decide who lives and who dies.

The most galling part of this hypocrisy, however, is the thick patronizing that comes on the heels of any use of violence by a repressed people. The moment after a drop of blood is shed for the sake of resistance or even liberation, liberal and conservative pundits alike bemoan the bloodshed and construct paragraphs devoted to non-violent paragons like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. The problem with this is that, when a non-violent protester like Khader Adnan comes along, drawing attention to the brutality of the Israeli occupation through self-sacrifice, there is virtually no coverage of it. It is ignored, or in Adnan’s case, should he die, he will most likely be savaged in several circles as a terrorist sympathizer whose death will leave the world a better place.

Adding to the irony is that, despite widely being seen as an adherent of non-violence, Mandela hoped found Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress, in 1961, and was influenced more by the more confrontational Nehru than by Gandhi. Classified as a terrorist by many governments before the 1980s, Mandela escaped a reputation for violence only because he was arrested before being able to lead his group into its guerilla warfare tactics, which led 130 people dead. Mandela realized that, if he allowed the South African government to brutalize the black population with impunity, it would reinforce complacency rather than invite opprobrium on the part of the international community. He also knew that the blatant injustice of the apartheid system would materialize its downfall, not merely the methods employed by those devoted to ending it. However, he was also aided by the fact that no African nationalists had, in recent memory, committed acts of terrorism against U.S. civilians, leaving thousands dead.

That the Israeli government treats Palestinians unjustly has become harder and harder to overlook, and Adnan’s hunger strike – and imminent death – serves as just one more reminder how unjust Tel Aviv can be. Unfortunately, we in this country have become numb to caring, both because we have been indoctrinated to accept a certain amount of state-sponsored terrorism against the right people, and that violence on the part of any non-state actor is reprehensible and primitive. We publicly call for a Gandhi in the Middle East, yet when we are presented with such a case, we react with cold indifference. For us, living with this double standard does not prevent us from sleeping at night. For the likes of Khader Adnan’s family, though, it may mean that a husband and father may well die in vain.

Our Man in Monrovia: Charles Taylor, CIA Agent

This one is dedicated to Peter Jagger Glover, who brought to my attention to the revelation, published by the Boston Globe in early January, that Charles Taylor, the former despot of Liberia who is now standing trial in the Hague for war crimes, worked for the CIA as a “source of information.” Some time has passed since that story, and the Globe has subsequently distanced itself from its original assertion, claiming that it “overstepped available evidence.” In truth, the Pentagon’s spy division admits that it has almost 50 documents relating to Taylor in its possession, but refuses to disclose the content of those documents. While the Globe is correct to state that it lacks the evidence to back up its claim, if you are one of the people who believes that Taylor has had no links to the U.S. intelligence community at all in his long and bloody political career, you’re probably also one of those people who is skeptical that either the U.S. or Israel has been assassinating Iranian nuclear technicians recently.

In 1983, Charles Taylor was an official in the Liberian government, charged with procurement. He fled the country after being charged with plundering the state bank, and in 1984 he was arrested in the United States and imprisoned until he could be extradited back to Liberia. Yet, strangely, Taylor managed to escape from jail on September 15, 1985, and returned to Liberia on his own terms, leading a successful revolution against the dictator at the time, Samuel Doe. Considering that international fugitives do not generally break out of the big house on a regular basis, it is easy to see how many believe that the U.S. government enabled Taylor’s emancipation. Indeed, Taylor confirmed this theory in 2009. Granted, Taylor is not the most credible source, but he has not always been willing to accept the view that he and Washington worked together. In fact, before the Globe retracted its claim that he worked for the CIA, Taylor threatened to sue the newspaper.

If the U.S. did grant Taylor a “get out of jail free” card, what was the reasoning behind it? To understand that, one must know the history of Liberia. In 1847, Liberia was born, a slice of Sierra Leone bought by U.S. citizens so African slaves could “go home” rather than be forcibly assimilated into a society that would, at best, treat them as a separate class but never as equals. In a tragic twist, those American-born blacks who emigrated to Liberia became a privileged elite, and aped their former white masters by essentially enslaving native Africans as an underclass. The Americo-Liberian elites were in turn supported by U.S. companies like Firestone and Goodrich, who were granted license to plunder Liberia of its rubber. With the onset of the Cold War, Liberia also became an important Western satellite in West Africa, serving as stage of operations to prevent the spread of communism in the region.

In the early 1980s, the Soviet Union was on the ropes, but the new Reagan administration wasn’t taking any chances. In addition to worrying about the communist “threat” taking advantage of instability in Central America, it was also anxious about the destabilization of pro-Western dictatorships like those of Samuel Doe, whose cruel and merciless repression of trade unions agitating against pseudo-colonial extraction naturally led the local population into insurrection. Given what we know about U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War, it is certainly not difficult to believe that Washington permitted Taylor to return to Liberia to lead a rebellion against the unpopular and isolated Doe so that a pro-Western regime could be reestablished, order restored and economic interests safeguarded. The fact that Taylor took funds from Libya during his revolt might indicate otherwise, but it could very well be that Taylor played both sides in his pursuit of power.

For most of the 1990s, Taylor was a successful warlord who use child soldiers and blood diamonds to attain the most dominant position in Liberia. When elections were held in 1997, he stunned the world by winning a presidential election observers considered to be free and fair. Liberians, fearful that a defeated Taylor would simply resume his war if he lost, marked their ballots for a man who had killed their loved ones. At the time, other than the usual rhetoric, Washington did nothing meaningful about Taylor’s ascent to authority. Uncle Sam was prepared to look past the massacres and the exploitation if Taylor was willing to fall in line and play ball.

Taylor, however, had other ideas. In defiance of the West, he continued to support the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a rebel group terrorizing neighboring Sierra Leone. The RUF had supplied Taylor with blood diamonds, and he in turn paid for the jewels with weapons. When Taylor refused to end this relationship, the U.S. moved to bring him down. A 2000 diplomatic cable leaked by WikiLeaks revealed the U.S. was planning a “long-term campaign” designed “to convince other UN members … that Charles Taylor is instigating cross-border conflict, trafficking arms, looting resources (Liberia’s and neighboring nations’) and, in general, sowing instability throughout West Africa.” His previous sins of embezzlement while a government minister and his amoral methods during his struggle for power are not mentioned. It was only after Taylor disobeyed Washington on Sierra Leone that American aid to Liberia gradually fell from $37 million in 1997 to a paltry $6 million in 2003. It is also interesting to note that the Special Court for Sierra Leone, set up just to try Taylor, owes its existence to the U.S., which has provided it with more than $76 million in funding.

Taylor has since been replaced by Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated former World Bank official and Citibank director more in touch with the global economic elite than she does with her own people. She writes and speaks with enthusiasm about the economic growth achieved throughout the continent, but her words — and her Nobel Peace Prize last year — mean absolutely nothing to the average Liberian still aspiring for even a basic level of human development.

Taylor deserves to be tried and punished for his crimes, but his current trial rings hollow as a righteous accounting for his transgressions. In reality, he is being hung out to dry for refusing to be a good puppet and do as he was told, to limit himself only to the abuses he was permitted. Liberia is undoubtedly better off without him, but Liberia — and the rest of Africa — will never truly know true progress until it is liberated from the present exploitative world capitalist system, not just the dictators it supports.

Netanyahu and the Size Principle

The Washington Post reports that the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attained a major triumph in his party’s leadership race on Wednesday. Defeating his ultranationalist challenger, Moshe Feiglin, Netanyahu secured 75 percent of the vote in the Likud Party primary. Netanyahu owed this victory, the Post noted, in some part to a recent housing subsidy approved by the Israeli government for West Bank settlements, in effect mollifying hard-liners upset with Netanyahu’s 2009 endorsement of an independent Palestinian state. Unsurprisingly, the Palestinian government denounced the subsidy as detrimental to the Arab-Israeli peace process. The so-called “Quartet on the Middle East” – the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and Russia – are also likely to be critical of the settlement enticement. Indeed, the Los Angeles Times observed that President Obama have quarreled over the issue of West Bank settlement construction in recent years. As Netanyahu delves into a re-election campaign, one might have expected him to moderate his maneuvers, to win domestic and foreign support on promises of reconciliation and negotiation rather than appeasing extremists. Yet the assumption that political leaders will seek to maximize support by creating large coalitions neglects the fact that truly astute leaders will minimize concessions by building coalitions sufficient to win but no larger. This theory, manifest in William Riker’s “size principle,” helps to explain why Netanyahu is making a concerted effort to consolidate his right-wing coalition rather than attract centrists to his side, either locally or internationally.

In his 1957 work, An Economic Theory of Democracy, Anthony Downs asserted that leaders, acting rationally, would strive to win the most possible votes obtainable on the electoral market, and in so doing would appeal to voters based on policy or ideological positions. Downs claimed that leaders (or, more accurately, political parties) did not so much care about the best interest of their country as did winning and holding on to political office. As such, they would have little compunction about situating themselves in the “middle of the road” of public opinion, thereby only alienating those outlying voters on the far ends of the political spectrum. There is some truth to the effectiveness of this tactic, as evidenced in Israel by the Kadima party, which boasts politicians formerly of both left-wing and right-parties, and previously ruled the country from 2005 to 2009. In the 2009 legislative elections, Kadima even won the most seats. Yet it was Netanyahu’s Likud that was able to form a governing coalition, through alliances with the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party and the highly religious Shas, United Torah Judaism and Jewish Home parties. Why, in contravention of Downs’ theory, have the Israeli moderates lost out to the radical right?

The answer lies in Riker’s aforementioned size principle. According to Riker, leaders are not as reckless with their promises as they are under Downs, and will limit those promises those blocs required for a government cornerstone. Rather than trying to be all things to all people as Kadima and its figureheads had done, Netanyahu and Likud utilized their consistent right-wing stances to get the other right-wing parties on their side. Rather than mire themselves in the unenviable quagmire of attempting to satisfy peace-minded doves and national security hawks, peace promoters and Zionist nationalists, Netanyahu and the Likud leadership placed themselves firmly in the latter camps of each policy debate, and therefore were able to assemble a functional union from the highly fragmented interest groups that constitute Israeli politics. Kadima, meanwhile, faltered in the aftermath of the 2009 election, coming off as opportunist when it solicited the Yisrael Beiteinu nationalists, a move that alienated the center-left Labor and Meretz parties, which shared economic programs with Kadima. By keeping its pledges focused on only the right-wing parties, Netanyahu and Likud have forged a coalition large enough to win power and stay there, and no larger. The housing subsidy to West Bank settlers can thus be seen as a fulfillment on one such pledge, and Netanyahu’s overwhelming primary victory as an affirmation that he is delivering on those pledges.

Of course, it cannot be said that Riker’s “size principle” entirely captures what is happening at present with Netanyahu and Israeli politics in general. For example, neither Riker nor Downs factors in external pressures into the decision-making of leaders.  Netanyahu – like all Israeli leaders – contends with influence from the Middle East Quartet on a regular basis. Indeed, his 2009 conditional support for the two-state solution cannot be regarded as arising from domestic necessity so much as a consequence of his needing, at the time, to be considered as a facilitator of the peace process rather than an obstacle to it. In light of the conditions Netanyahu attached to recognizing an independent Palestinian state (including that Palestinians recognize Israel as a legitimate Jewish state), it is clear that the gesture was meant to conciliate the Quartet abroad while suggesting to his core supporters that the peace process would not see advancement – as the conditions would never be accepted by the Palestinians. Riker, like Downs, sees leaders as thinking in economic terms – that is, in regards to resources and their allocation – but not in regards to other considerations, such as diplomacy and walking the tightrope of global politics.