Sunday, February 26, 2006

True colors

For five years now, the Bush administration has played the terror and fear card for all that it's worth. Practically anything and everything the administration does is justified as part of the so-called "war on terror;" any critics of administration policies are decried as weak on security and possibly traitorous. The security issue has been the administration's strength; it's earned Bush support from many quarters of the populace who would otherwise be opposed to his disastrous economic and social policies. As long as Bush remained strong on security, all of his ill-conceived foreign interventions, his attempts to restrict the people's civil liberties, his class-busting tax and economic policies, and even his monomaniacal strivings for an all-powerful imperial presidency got pretty much overlooked by a frightened populace.

But no more.

This week, Bush showed his true colors by stridently supporting a deal to turn control of key U.S. ports to a company from the United Arab Emirates -- the same country that financed the 9/11 attacks and has been a haven for terrorists of all stripes. Even Bush's most dyed-in-the-wool supporters were taken aback by the brazen abandonment of U.S. security in favor of what is quite obviously a financial windfall for some members of the Bush administration. Bush's craven support of this deal -- even threatening to veto any attempt to block the deal, when he hasn't yet used a single veto in his six years in office -- speaks to the power of money over all other issues in the Bush administration. It's not really about security, or terrorism, or fighting the Islamist evil-doers; it's about the all-mighty dollar, and about Bush being able to do whatever the hell he wants to do, everyone else (including his former supporters) be damned.

At the very least, Bush's support of the UAE port deal bespeaks a political tone deafness (as pointed out by several members of Bush's own party); at its worst, it's selling out American security for financial benefit. Even worse, Bush seems to think that his actions -- no matter how extreme or politically illogical -- should be strictly obeyed, no questions asked. It's Bush as the power-mad dictator, finally going over the edge in a way that astounds and confounds even his supporters. By insisting on approval of the UAE deal, Bush's actions contradict all the fear-mongering he's instilled in his red-state base; how does he jibe his support of Arab-run port security with his NASCAR-dad supporters' fear of all things Arabic?

It's actually quite humorous to listen to Bush's remaining toadies try to wiggle their way around this one. There are still a few right-wing shouting radio heads that are contorting themselves to all end in an attempt to justify Bush's support for the deal. It's really funny to listen to Rush and Sean and their fellow travelers accuse Democrats (and Republicans) opposed to the deal of prejudice against Arabs, especially when they're the same bloviators who inspired that prejudice among their listeners. It's equally amusing to hear them play down the deal as not at all important to national security, when prior to this every little thing that popped up was played as a major security issue. You can't have it both ways, guys; your hypocrisy is evident even to your red-state listeners.

There are so many crimes Bush has committed against America that this one actually seems minor; it's ironic that the symbolism of the thing elevates it to a level that could be politically fatal to the administration. A new day is dawning over America -- the public is finally waking up and realizing that the emperor has no clothes.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

A tale of two cities

I live in Indianapolis, but have been spending a fair amount of time in Minneapolis. While there is an obvious similarity in names, there are lots of subtle differences between the two cities -- despite the fact that they both purport to be nice, sedate, family-friendly Midwestern cities. Here's some of what I've found.

Nice... and nicer. Both Indianapolis and Minneapolis pride themselves on being friendly cities where everyone is super nice. Only one of those cities lives up to the niceness hype, however, and it's not the one in Indiana. I've lived in central Indiana all my life, and the people there tend to be as rude and insular in a way that blends the worst of big city and small town cultures. Minneapolitans, however, take the niceness thing personally; the concept of "Minneapolis nice" is real, the people here going out of their way to be friendly and polite and genuinely helpful. Score a big one for our northern neighbors, at the expense of those snarky Hoosiers. (Not all Hoosiers are nasty and grumpy, of course, but a lot are -- and my apologies to those truly nice people in the Hoosier state.)

Passive-aggressive. It's probably part of the niceness equation, but Hoosiers are much more aggressive drivers than their northern brethren, who tend to take polite driving to its illogical extreme. Hoosiers are pushy, rude, and extremely lead-footed drivers, constantly cutting one another off in traffic and being somewhat reckless about it. Minneapolitans, in contrast, always let the other driver cut in front of them, hesitate to merge at speed on the interstate (that would be too pushy), and actually cause accidents by stopping to help stranded drivers by the side of the road. Speed is also a factor; Hoosiers tend to drive 15-20 miles over the stated speed limit, while Minneapolitans drive at or under what the signs say. Put another way, a typical Hoosier driver would eat a typical Minneapolis driver for lunch.

Speed freaks. Speaking of speed, let's spend a moment discussing the Greatest Spectacle in Racing -- which is practically unheard of in Minnesota. I'm talking about the Indianapolis 500, and Indy car racing in general. It's safe to say that few people in Minneapolis have ever heard of A.J. Foyt or Johnny Rutherford (Mario Andretti, maybe...); everyone in Indy knows their favorite racers. Sorry Minneapolis; Indy is the home of world-class automobile racing, and all the hockey players in the great white north can't cover the Speedway's five hundred glorious miles.

Hockeyball? Indiana is basketball country (remember the movie Hoosiers?); Minnesota is hockey country. I don't know a puck from a hat trick, but I do know a three-pointer from a three-second violation. 'Nuff said.

Health and beauty. Minneapolis is an amazingly healthy city. In spite of spending more months of the year than I like to think of under near-arctic conditions, Minneapolitans like to get outside and partake of all forms of exercise, from winter sports to summer walks around their ten thousand lakes. (And they have tons of wonderful parks in which to do this.) Indiana, on the other hand, ranks as one of the most unhealthy states in the nation. Hoosiers are, to generalize, fat, out of shape, cigarette smoking, doughnut eating porkers. The people of the Twin Cities are much healthier, in all ways -- slimmer, trimmer, fitter, and less likely to die of lung cancer. Smoking appears to be mandatory in Hoosierland; Minneapolis is pretty much a smoke-free city. As a bonus, Minneapolis is filled with fair-skinned, blonde-haired women; Indy isn't. Guess which burb I like best in this regard...

White... and whiter. Neither Indianapolis or Minneapolis are what you'd call ethnically diverse cities. That said, Indianapolis has a sizeable African-American community, a growing number of Hispanics, and a surprising number of Asian immigrants. Minneapolis has... well, a lot of fair-skinned, blonde-haired, white people. Yes, there are some blacks up north, and a decent number of Asians, but the great white north is just that -- primarily white.

Left and right. Minneapolis is a blue state, primarily Democratic and fairly liberal. Indianapolis is George Bush country, a red state where Democrats aren't just the minority, they're pretty much missing in action. (Believe it or not, many local races don't even have a Democrat on the ballot.) I'm a liberal. I hate living in Indiana. Minneapolis is a much more friendly environment for old-school lefties like me.

Weather... or not. In Indianapolis, the TV weathermen report a winter near-miss like this: "Good news! The winter storm hit north of the city, so we only got a dusting of snow." In Minneapolis, a similar situation is reported like this: "Bad news! The winter storm hit south of the metro area, so we only got a dusting of snow." That's right, the Minneapolitans like their snow -- which means that they're really hating this winter. January was the warmest month in recorded history, and there's barely any snow cover on the ground. Not the normal sub-zero, several feet of snow piled on the ground type of weather they've grown to know and love. Which has the locals complaining, of course. Indy has had a similar uber-warm, near-snowless winter season, and no one is complaining about 50-degree days in February. A marked cultural difference.

Weather, part deux. One last thing about the weather. In normal years (and this year is anything but), Minneapolis is damned cold in the winter time. Indiana, not so much. Minneapolis also gets a shitload of snow, none of which ever melts, which results in streetside piles of Everestian heights. In Indiana, what snow we get (and we do get some) melts within a week or so, so there aren't those imposing snowpiles that last until the spring thaw. The only good thing about Minneapolis winters is that the sun actually shines; you might get 12 inches of snow one day, but it's nice and sunny the next. An Indiana winter is an exercise in bleakness; it's not unusual to go several weeks without the sun ever peeking through the depressing gray clouds. So, yeah, Minneapolis might have testicle-chilling cold, but at least you won't get seasonal affective disorder from too many cloudy days.

Bottom line, I like both places, but I'm starting to like Minneapolis more -- in spite of the weather and the slow drivers. Minneapolis is all that Indianapolis promises to be, but seldom is; Indianapolis is an aging rust-belt city that's not very friendly to singles, strangers, or anyone remotely artistic or high-tech. Minneapolis is a thriving metropolis with lots to offer in the way of both intellectual and physical pursuits; the locals are also more welcoming to individuals of all stripes. Sorry, Indy, but Minneapolis has what it takes -- Indianapolis doesn't.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Report card

Just so we don't forget what's what in the continually expanding bog of quicksand that is the Bush II administration, here's a short list of the crimes against the country committed by Bush, Cheney, et al, courtesy of right-wing Wall Street Journal opinion page editor Daniel Henninger. (Good to know even the Tories are keeping count!)
  • The stolen 2000 election (and the co-opting of the primarily Republican-nominated Supreme Court)
  • The possible stealing of the 2004 election (I'm just saying...)
  • The Enron corporate fiasco
  • Cheney's top-secret energy task force (and subsequent carving up of America's energy future between the big energy companies)
  • The continuing anti-"sunshine" actions designed to keep presidential papers secret and out of the eyes of the general public
  • Class-busting tax cuts for the wealthy (and resultant cuts in funding for valuable public programs), designed to eliminate the middle class and destroy what Republicans think of as the welfare state
  • Ignoring numerous warnings about al Queda (and botching internal intelligence efforts) that in effect enabled the 9/11 attacks to take place
  • The disgraceful response to the 9/11 attacks -- in effect channeling public sentiment into unjustified warmongering
  • The lying to the country (and to the United Nations) about Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction, as a pretext for war
  • The unmitigated gall in linking, however subtly (but quite effectively), Iraq to the 9/11 terrorist attacks
  • The unwarranted, unprovoked invasion of Iraq -- a country that posed no danger, immediate or otherwise, to America -- and the resultant deaths of at least 100,000 innocent Iraqi civilians
  • The subsequent operational mismanagement of the Iraqi occupation, which set back that country's infrastructure by several decades and has led to what is in effect a nascent civil war
  • The related monetary mismanagement of the Iraqi occupation, in which billions of dollars have gone missing and favored "contractors" (such as Halliburton) have received no-bid contracts worth even more billions of dollars
  • The also-related underfunding of our fighting force, particularly in the form of non-existent body armor for our soldiers, forced conscription of unwilling National Guard troops (and equally unwanted extensions of their tours of duty), and the disgraceful way soldiers are treated by the military when they return home from combat
  • The illegal imprisonment of "enemy combatants," without any First Amendment or Geneva Convention rights, at Guantanamo Bay (and, via the use of "extraordinary rendition," in torture chambers throughout various uncivilized nations around the globe)
  • The use of torture (either implicitly condoned or explicitly ordered) on prisoners in Abu Grahib prison and at Guantanamo Bay
  • The criminally negligent response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster
  • Various and sundry financial/funding/lobbying scandals within the administration and the ranks of the Republican party, from Tom DeLay to Duke Cunningham to Bill Frist (and quite possibly beyond)
  • The illegal leaking of the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame, from deep within the bowels of the administration
  • The President's admitted unlawful and unconstitutional wiretapping of American citizens, in itself quite clearly an impeachable offense
  • The seeking of virtually unlimited presidential authority, in a bid to undermine the Constitution with an all-powerful imperial presidency

That may not be everything, but it's a good starter list. (And I didn't even mention Dick Cheney's shooting of his hunting partner -- the first VP shooting incident since Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton.)

Of all these sins, I'm surprised that being the home team when al Queda attacked New York isn't seen as a bigger deal by the public. Having the world's largest terrorist attack take place on your watch is at best extreme negligence, at worst something bordering on enabling behavior or co-conspiracy. The fact that Bush then used that attack as a rationale to go to war in Iraq (and kill more than 100,000 civilians in the process) is an Orwellian act of such magnitude as to be almost inconceivable -- except that it really happened. You can't make this stuff up, folks.

Anyway, lest we (and our media) get too complacent, it's good to have a copy of this list handy. This isn't your average, run-of-the-mill, incompetent administration we have here, folks; this is the most dangerous, the most malevolent bunch of power-hungry despots our country has ever seen. And, given the general uber meat-eating nature of American politicians, that's saying a lot.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Don't shoot the messenger

No, this isn't a post about Dick "Shoot First, Dodge Questions Later" Cheney's birdshot incident, as tempting as that might be. (And why was he shooting at Dan Quayle to begin with?) Instead, this is about Al Gore's recent speech to the Jeddah Economic Forum, in which he addressed various and sundry incidents of abuse against Arabs in America following the 9/11 attacks. As has become predictable, the right-wing shouting class are all over Gore on this one -- not so much countering his remarks as attacking him personally as a traitor and a loon.

Let's look first at what the former VP said. Gore stated that the U.S. government committed "terrible abuses" against Arabs after the September 11, 2001, attacks. He said that Arabs in America had been "indiscriminately rounded up, often on minor charges," and "held in conditions that were just unforgivable."

Like him or not (and most conservatives obviously don't), Big Al spoke the truth. The facts are that, in the weeks and months after 9/11, the U.S. government did round up thousands of people of Arab descent, often on spurious charges (and sometimes on no formal charges at all), and held them -- often without access to lawyers -- for days, weeks, even months at a time. Some of these Arab-Americans were subsequently released, some were sent back to their countries of origin on lightweight visa-related charges, but none were proved to be involved in terrorist-related activities. It was an Arab-flavored witchhunt, pure and simple, a series of incidents embarrassing at best, wholly disgraceful at worst. (I remember the story, told after the fact, of an Indiana man whisked away from his family in the dead of night, held without charges, his family not notified of where he was or why he was there; the man was just a simple merchant with the wrong kind of surname.)

While some right-wingnuts are disputing Gore's facts, most are attacking him personally. And viciously. His remarks have been called "inappropriate in a time of war," outrageous, repugnant, loathsome, ugly, insidious, even treasonous. Gore himself has been called confused, disloyal, shrill, "nutty," insane, and traitorous. He has been accused of bribery (making the remarks in return for Arab money) and of inciting Arab violence against the U.S. He has been labeled Osama bin Al, Al of Arabia, Sheikh al-Gore, and Al-Queda (with the emphasis on the "Al"). The nicest criticism I found labeled Gore as "just wrong;" the worst wished violence upon his person. One blogger even tried to make a Cheney-Gore connection, by joking that "while Cheney errantly shot off his shotgun, former Vice President Gore purposefully shot off his mouth." Another suggested that Gore must be "off his medication."

So much for reasoned, dispassionate political debate.

People, we need to debate the facts. Instead, conservatives insist on Rottweiller politics, always attacking the messenger in the attempt to draw attention away from the message. Al Gore's timing and choice of venue might be questionable, but his statements were truthful and should be debated. Just because he brings up difficult issues doesn't make him crazy or traitorous. Addressing our country's faults in an effort to improve the land where we live is the ultimate act of patriotism -- especially in the face of withering personal attacks. Is it any wonder why our best and brightest avoid public service? Don't shoot the messenger -- deal with the message.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Hitch on Islamic reactionaries

Christopher Hitchens has taken a brief break from being an apologist for the Bush administration's Iraq war, and penned a powerful piece about the Islamic world's violent reaction to a series of Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammad. It's nice to see the old contrarian back in fine form, and his take on the subject is one I wholly endorse.

Click here to read Hitchens' column.

BTW, European governments continue to shrink in fear from the wrath of extremist Muslims -- as does the U.S. government. The Bush administration issued this rather disturbing statement:

"Anti-Muslim images are as unacceptable as anti-Semitic images, as anti-Christian images, or any other religious belief."

As Hitchens points out, not only does this equate religious criticism with racism, it also completely abrogates the concept of freedom of speech. Our government (and its equally cowardly European counterparts) wants to muzzle any speech critical of certain religions. Is this political correctness taken to its illogical extreme, or is it simply fear of how offended religious fanatics might react? Given how un-PC the Bush administration usually is, I think it's cowardice, a sign of how afraid our weak-willed leaders truly are of reactionary extremists. (And Muslim extremists are even more extreme than their Christian or Jewish brethren; does anyone remember the fatwa issued when Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses?)

It's time for religious moderates of all stripes to stand up to these vocal and violent extremists. Religious fervor, in the wrong hands, can be a very dangerous thing.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Religious intolerance (Islamic edition)

I've written before of my intolerance of religious intolerance. To date, my rants have been against the intolerant Christian extremist right, but they're not the only intolerant religious fanatics out there. Case in point: the recent "Islamic rage" over perceived sacrilegious political cartoons in the European press.

I'll give the Christian right a little credit; when they take offense to something, they normally don't riot in the streets. (They're more into letter writing and advertiser boycotts.) Offended Muslims, on the other hand, tend to act out a bit more. Not only have Islamic leaders spoken out against the apparently insulting cartoons ("Any insult to the Holy Prophet, peace be upon him, is an insult to more than 1 billion Muslims and an act like this must never be allowed to be repeated," said Hamid Karzai, Afghan president -- and a moderate Muslim leader), but hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets, and gunmen in Gaza surrounded the local office of the European Union and threatened to kidnap citizens of the countries where the cartoons were published. Look for burning effigies soon.

While I believe that all religious beliefs should be treated with respect, that doesn't obviate the right to freedom of expression, or of freedom of the press. Just because some in a given religion might take offense to a particular statement doesn't mean the statement should be repressed. Freedom of speech trumps self-righteousnesss any day, no matter how blasphemous the statements might be perceived.

Religious zealots should not be kow-towed to. When Christian extremists take issue with a television show like The Book of Daniel, the TV networks and stations shouldn't back down and take it off the air. (Which, unfortunately, is what happened in the case of the aforementioned show -- although, to be fair, the show really sucked and nobody watched it, anyway.) When reactionary Muslims take issue with newspaper cartoonists lampooning the foibles of the Islamic world, the newspapers (and their governments) shouldn't back down and censor themselves. When it comes to free speech, any person or organ has the right to offend just about anyone else. It's the nature of liberty.

Unfortunately, the Europeans are really frightened of a militant Islamic response, and are quickly backing away from the issue. Here's the response to date, courtesy of

  • In an effort to calm Muslim anger, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Danish prime minister, was set to appear last night on the al-Arabiya satellite news channel to explain his government's position. He also called a meeting of all foreign ambassadors in Copenhagen for today as the debate in Europe polarised defenders of press freedom and religious groups.
  • Ursula Plassnik, foreign minister of Austria, which holds the rotating EU presidency, said she understood the offence Muslims felt, adding that EU leaders needed to "clearly condemn" acts that insult religion.
  • Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary-general, said he believed "freedom of the press should always be exercised in a way that fully respects the religious beliefs and tenets of all religions."

Wussies. Religious fanatics should not be allowed to rule the day. It doesn't matter whether they're Christian or Muslim or Jewish or Pagan, religious extremists have to live in the same world as the rest of us, and play by the same rules; their beliefs cannot be held above society's laws and liberties. Governments and people everywhere should stand up for the right to speak freely and to criticize without fear of reprisal; religious freedom comes with the freedom to be disagreed with and insulted. It doesn't matter whether the offended (and offending) religious followers are in the minority or the majority, tyranny in the form of religious fascism cannot be allowed. Contrary opinions should not be condemned, they should be embraced.

This is, of course, one of the problems with religion. Believers easily turn into fanatics, and fanatics threaten the fabric of our society. If you're offended by someone or something you take as blasphemous, turn the other cheek; don't force your extremist views on the rest of us, and definitely don't try to censor those who disagree with you. Differing religious beliefs aren't blasphemous, nor is criticism sacrilegious. If the religious among us can't be tolerant of other beliefs, then perhaps the rest of us shouldn't be so tolerant of the intolerant believers. Any religion that threatens to supress all criticism and differing opinions is one small step away from totalitarianism.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds are quite free to disagree.