A Straight Shot of Politics

A blog from a gentleman of the Liberal political persuasion dedicated to right reason, clear thinking, cogent argument, and the public good.

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Location: Columbus, Ohio, United States

I have returned from darkness and quiet. I used to style myself as "Joe Claus", Santa Claus’ younger brother because that is what I still look like. I wrote my heart out about liberal politics until June of 2006, when all that could be said had been said. I wrote until I could write no more and I wrote what I best liked to read when I was young and hopeful: the short familiar essays in Engish and American periodicals of 50 to 100 years ago. The archetype of them were those of G.K. Chesterton, written in newspapers and gathered into numerous small books. I am ready to write them again. I am ready to write about life as seen by the impoverished, by the mentally ill, by the thirty years and more of American Buddhist converts, and by the sharp eyed people [so few now in number] with the watcher's disease, the people who watch and watch and watch. I am all of these.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005


So now that some of the dust has settled, let's consider the United States Senate. They went to the brink on restricting the filibuster, but compromised. I don't like the compromise all that much, but I understand the reasons for it. The brokers of it, including my own senator Mike DeWine, decided that doing other business in the Senate, on reasonably pleasant terms, was more important than either of the take-no-prisoners partisan stances. I won't second guess them on that one, after all, they have to work there and I don't.

I do think however that it was a victory for no one except Harry Reid. The "social conservative" wing of the Republican Party (that's what we Liberals call them when in polite company, by the way) has gone ballistic. And the irreconcilable opposition to judges from the farouche fringe, has awakened with a hangover named Priscilla Owens. Harry Reid can be quite satisfied with the way he outmanuvered Bill Frist. But nobody else is, or should be, satisfied with anything.

It was most emphatically not a victory for "moderation" or "centrism", either. A deal is not an alternative, a compromise is not a political program. The most annoying thing about the so-called "centrists", the Joe Liebermans, the Arlen Specters, the John McCains, and the "Blue Dog" Democrats is that they do not seem to want anything but to "make a deal". They stand nowhere in particular and they advocate not much of anything. Or, if they do, I have not yet heard of it.

Now, as a Liberal, I have some definite ideas about what I think government should do. I haven't talked about them that much since they are unlikely to get heard or considered under the current political circumstances. For example, I think Social Security should be structured just as it is and should be supplemented directly from the general government revenue to keep it like it is for the duration. I am perfectly willing to concede that many might think this is a bad idea, but it is a definite one.

However, under the circumstances, I am perfectly willing to put my own ideas to one side and listen to the definite ideas of what "moderates", "centrists", and "conservative Democrats" would propose as policy: what laws should be passed, what executive orders promulgated. There is no reason for me, or other Liberals, not to get behind such policies, given the present climate, as long as they don't constitute something that I think the government ought not to be doing.

Do I hear such definite ideas? Not so much as you would notice. What I do hear is a constant litany to "be more centrist, be more moderate, be more responsive to what a majority of Americans really want".

Well, what do a majority of Americans really want, and how do you propose to give it to them? A few months ago, as a Liberal, I said the following on the subject:

A majority of us really want to defeat Islamic based terrorism and effectively protect ourselves from any terrorism. And a majority of us want to keep our freedoms doing it.

A majority of us really want a level economic playing field where everybody can do better for themselves, if they wish to do better, or at least maintain themselves if they are not interested in doing better, or not able to do better. A majority of us also believe that this level playing field does not happen by magic and that it is the responsibility of Government to make it level and keep it level.

A majority of us really wish to make war only when needed, for reasons which do not prove to be a bunch of hot air, and for reasons which reasonable people everywhere recognize as morally just. A majority of us really wish to make war effectively, when we must make war, and do not wish to be fed pablum that "things are going well" when they are really not going very well at all. A majority of us, thank heavens, really think that war must be waged morally, no matter who the enemy is and that immoral actions by our enemies do not justify immoral actions by ourselves.

Finally, a majority of us really wish to choose our values voluntarily, rather than through coercion by some small faction of the public, because freedom under law and voluntary choice within the law are the point of our values.

Do you agree? If not what would you say?

As far as I can see, "being more moderate" means having no definite ideas about anything whatever, except for the utility, under all circumstances, of "making a deal". This is what I, and other Liberals, are being asked to do.

Thanks, but no thanks. I like having ideas.

After all, without a definite idea, without clear opinions, without specific proposals, what the devil is there to make a deal about? Moreover, without definite views about what should be done, how is it possible to cultivate a stance about what should not be done? In the world of "let's make a deal", on these terms, everything is up for grabs.

The fine art of really making a deal, and one which is neither a pointless, incoherent compromise (like the one the Senate just made), nor an abject surrender, is knowing when to make a deal and when to stand firm. You can do this only if you have some definite views of your own.

And, yes, the recent compromise was pointless, with no winner except Harry Reid and no loser except Bill Frist. It committed no one to anything substantial except one vote on one judge.

Harry Reid won because the whole filibuster issue exhausted both the Senate and the media. Any further attempt to modify the filibuster will be much weaker, like a second or third serve in tennis. Also, with the "social conservatives" out with their long knives for the Republican members of the moderate "betrayal", the actual party discipline of the Senate Republicans is unlikely to improve.

Unlike the Arlen Specter affair at the start of the session, where grassroots protest nearly prevented him from receiving a committee chair, moderates now will really gain nothing by conforming to strict party discipline. Little else they do will influence their bad standing with the "social conservative" grassroots.

Bill Frist lost because his control of his party has been seriously undermined, and his standing among "social conservatives" (whom he claimed, very ostentatiously, as his power base) has probably withered. This is so not only because he didn't deliver the goods, he failed to do so in a way which made him look like he didn't try that hard.

Why has all this happened? Harry Reid outmanuvered Frist because Reid was willing to risk losing and Frist wasn't. Because he was afraid to lose, Frist didn't pull the trigger soon enough. He let Reid propose some real possibilities for compromise, and he left enough time for the moderates of both parties to get to work. They took the fight right out from under him.

Now was it really worth the weeks of uproar over it? Particularly with torture, murder, and the Downing Street Memo still on the stove?

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Monday, May 30, 2005

A New Buddhist Post

My teachers say that what we Buddhists call “compassion” does not mean a sweetness-and-light attitude toward everything and everyone. They say that when bad things need really fixed, they really need fixed, and then sweetness-and-light is merely what they call “idiot compassion” and it actually breaks one’s vows, particularly the Bodhisattva Vow.

True compassion consists of being firm and forthright when firmness and forthrightness are really needed. But, with the absence of enlightened judgment in an ordinary guy like myself, there are serious personal considerations involved when one is firm and forthright. The Bodhisattva Vow is especially difficult to keep, because you can break it merely by bad thoughts and these are not wholly under the control of most of us.

Both in my “emergency post” of nearly two weeks ago, and in another matter where a broad misunderstanding of American Buddhism was being perpetuated in a generally responsible religious forum, I had to do some rather sharp letter writing, not only to point out errors of fact, but also to explicitly rebuke what were totally unnecessary errors of ordinary good judgment toward a religion which one is not practicing—Catholicism by a fellow Buddhist in the first case, and Buddhism by a Christian pastor in the second.

These rebukes are highly dangerous to anyone’s fidelity to the Bodhisattva Vow. Luckily, there are specific remedies to repair any breaches in my vows that may have occurred from such forceful activity, and I have been availing myself of them. I won’t go into details, but the nearest equivalent would be the Sacrament of Penance in the Catholic Church, and that not all that near. I am very grateful to have such “skillful means” at my disposal. The rough and tumble of lay life makes them regularly necessary.

Buddhism is sometimes confusing to outsiders because there is a lack of separation in their eyes between Buddhist views (what Christians would call doctrine) and Buddhist skillful means. There are far fewer differences in views between the various styles of Buddhism than there are of the techniques of actual practice. As far as my limited reading can discern, the range of views between all the different styles of Buddhism is far narrower than, say, that between Unitarian Universalism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

The differences in view that exist among Buddhists are also generally additive rather than direct disagreements of doctrine. The difference between the Theravadin Buddhist traditions of South Asia and the Mahayana traditions of North Asia (to which I belong) is that Mahayanists accept all Theravadin teachings, but regard the Mahayana Sutras as explicit amplification and expansion of what the Theravada only implies.

There are probably many reasons for this homogeneity of views among Buddhists when compared to Christians, but I think one of the most important has to do with the differing histories of Christ and Shakyamuni Buddha. Christ died due to persecution, and his followers endured the same persecution for hundreds of years under Imperial Rome.

The compilation of the Gospels and other books of the New Testament under these conditions left many points of Christian doctrine and dogma unclear. The various Pauline epistles, I think, are indicators that this ambiguity of doctrines and consequent conflict about them, started very early in the Christian historical timeline. And the process of strong disagreement and schism over them continues to this day.

The Buddha died of sickness, in old age, amidst a large and peaceful Sangha of monks, nuns, and laypeople. He and his Sangha were widely honored, supported, and welcomed throughout the India of his day. Following his death, this Sangha made diligent efforts, undisturbed by persecution, to preserve the Buddha’s teaching, as well as to put it into practice. This was done through both systematic oral recitation and memorization, as well as in writing on palm leaves.

The oral tradition has survived continuously for about 2500 years. To this day in the various Tibetan monastic colleges, the “degrees” of monastic study such a khenpo or geshe have explicit requirements for the complete memorization of a very large number of texts, as well as finely honed skills of explanation and debate.

This is made possible by the long-standing scholastic tradition of short and pithy “root texts” which have generated moderately long traditional commentaries. Each of these commentaries is the starting point for longer and more detailed commentorial exgesis that continues for many texts to this day. Also, the root texts themselves often come in 3-4 versions of different lengths with systematic expansion of detail from the shorter to the longer texts. With millennia of careful and continuous scholarship, these types of textual organization have maintained the high degree of continuity and agreement of Buddhist doctrine since the death of its founder.

The Tibetans preserve the form of the palm leaf texts in their pechas, as well. The texts are written or printed parallel to the paper length, on long narrow pages, and kept together in loose-leaf form wrapped in cloth. This is not mere empty tradition with no point to it besides preserving the approach of the past. Pechas are far more functional than Western bound books when reading, studying, or reciting while seated on the floor behind a low flat table, as in most monasteries and dharma centers like mine, which is where many of the Buddhist practices that use the texts also take place.

Nothing is more amusing in my own center than to watch all of us fumbling with loose-leaf 81/2 by 11 inch notebooks of those texts that our parent monastery has yet to have printed in pecha form. This is particularly true if an ongoing practice requires us to manipulate a hand-bell, or other ritual implements, and make the beautiful and complex ritual gestures known as mudras. Many of the Buddhist “deities”, which are the focus of Tibetan-style practice, have more than two hands, and, when practicing rituals with Western style notebooks, most of us sincerely wish we did too.

The Western book, bound on one side, with text perpendicular to the page length, in the traditional sizes of folio, quarto, octavo, or duodecimo, is the product of the Monastic scriptoria of the Middle Ages. The copy stand, where the pages were produced by hand lettering, was nearly vertical, and large pages of folio, about 15 inches high, were favored both for the obvious convenience of the scribe making letters large enough to read clearly, and for the beauty of the illuminated miniature pictures which graced and honored the texts.

The large books that resulted were read reverently--by single individuals who were standing up--on bookstands that still survive as the platforms for unabridged dictionaries in many libraries. And the basic proportions of length to width carried over into the age of printing as the books got smaller when Aldus Manutius of Venice produced the first octavo books that could be carried in a pocket--about 9 3/4 inches. These “Aldines” were fairly large books still, from our vantage point of trade paperbacks, but the pockets of the Renaissance were larger, too.

Pechas also store more compactly than Western books, and very conveniently for access. They are typically stored stacked and short side out. Treated this way, the entire Buddhist canon in Tibetan, which includes both root texts and primary commentaries, can be stored on one long wall of a moderately large room with every text available to hand.

While the doctrines of the various schools of Buddhism mesh quite closely with one another, the training methods often vary considerably. All Buddhist traditions practice one form or another of meditation to calm and concentrate the mind. Some, like my Tibetan teachers or the Zen teachers begin with a focal point in the body—the Zen practitioner concentrates on the hara or d’an tien below the navel, the Tibetans concentrate on the breath going in and out of the nostrils. A Japanese Pure Land practitioner may simply concentrate on the repetition over and over of a praise to Amitabha, the Buddha of Boundless Light: Namo Amida Butsu. Besides their other applications, all these techniques foster a calm and concentrated mind. The rest of the traditions of practice all have something similar.

Generally speaking, it is at this point that the training methods diverge. Some schools put the now concentrated mind to work thinking of things like fresh corpses, rotting corpses, and bleached bones. These reflections undermine attachment to sex and other physical pleasures. Other traditions use a pattern of systematic philosophical analysis to undermine the naïve beliefs we have about the reality of either ordinary objects or the “self” which supposedly perceives them. Still others encourage the systematic study of Buddhist sutras.

My teachers, the Karma Kagyudpa, have a sequence of elegantly summarized repeated contemplations, to practice with a concentrated mind, that are called The Four Thoughts That Turn The Mind To Dharma. The first of these is the “precious human birth”, which is precious because we have found the Dharma, have at least some time and leisure to practice it, and have the motivation to do so because we are dissatisfied with our world.

The second thought is the “inevitability of death”, which is coming closer to us with each passing minute, might come at any moment, and is the reason not to waste our time, but to corral every spare moment we have to practice the Dharma.

The third of these is “karma, cause, and effect” which means that we are making our future right now, and immediately after we die we will not be able to control where our prior actions will lead us. So practicing Dharma is essential to insure that this uncontrolled process after death will have good and meaningful results for us.

The fourth thought is the “sufferings of continued rebirth” which points out that, given the reality of our precious but perilous situation at the moment, any distracting pleasure that makes us forget that we are inherently dissatisfied with life, and keeps us from Dharma practice, is like a fine last meal before execution.

The ultimate point of all these techniques is what is called vipashana, or insight, which is, in all Buddhist traditions, the direct perception that the “self” that supposedly constitutes our innermost being simply does not exist, and the direct erasure of our habitual emotional desire to make it exist somewhere.

In my tradition, and other Mahayana traditions, vispashana also includes the direct perception that the world of objects is “empty” of any permanence or fixity, and the supposed objects within it are “mere appearance”, the karmic products of our prior mental fabrications stemming from our belief in, and our emotional attachment to, our so-called “self”. This “insight” or “realization” is the first definite and unequivocal step on the path to full and complete Buddhahood.

The Zen masters call this insight kensho or satori and the Zen techniques consist of an agonizing, effort-filled, and absolutely determined use of the basic calming meditation, over long, intense periods of time, to forcefully push the mind through that wall of mental fabrications and directly into insight. Sometimes the nonsense riddle known as the koan is used as a point of mental focus, rather like a hardened steel drill, to bore through that mental wall. The most well known of the koans is Hakuin-zenji’s, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

The Pure Land practitioner expects to achieve this basic insight by constantly turning to Amitabha Buddha, who, it is said, made the vow before Buddhahood that anyone who did so would be reborn in Amitabha’s paradise realm, or “pure land”, through the power of Amitabha’s own enlightened mind. Such a rebirth automatically confers this basic “insight”, and the practitioner can proceed from there, either in the pure land itself, or in future and deliberate rebirths elsewhere. The Tibetans also preserve this tradition.

My own, and the other Tibetan traditions, have a wide variety of “skillful means”, which are chosen and tailored to the needs of the particular individual, and evolved as a pattern of practice by both the student and the teacher (the “lama” or the “guru”) between them in a relation of great intimacy requiring great mutual trust. It is this need for such intimacy and trust which has given it the name among Western, and non-Buddhist, observers of “Lamaism”, and fostered the incorrect belief that these traditions are not “really Buddhist”. I can assure you, from the inside, that they are.

The particular package of “skillful means”, specific to each student, acts to globally dissolve the net of mental fabrications gradually, but surely, to achieve insight. These techniques may involve the visualization of “deities” like Chenrezig the Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion and Loving Kindness, as well as more arcane practices of outer physical, and inner mental, Buddhist yoga.

From the outside, these traditions of Buddhist practice look radically divergent, but, from the inside, they are all pointed toward the same goals. Many who are not Buddhist have been glamoured into thinking that these different traditions must totally oppose one another like, for example, the various schisms or divisions of Christianity have done in history. This isn’t so. Practitioners of the various traditions, of course, favor the practices that they are closest to, but there is little, if any, sense of “orthodoxy” versus “heterodoxy” of views.

Which may be why, generally, and with only a very few exceptions, Buddhists of all traditions have lived in peace with one another, and have attempted to cultivate an attitude of tolerance for other religions. And, unfortunately, it may also be why Buddhist teachings are more limited in appeal to fewer in number than many other religions. For Buddhism is, in that sense, circular, and the insight which is gained by practicing it diligently is essentially an expansion of the impulse of tolerance and good will which brought one to the Dharma in the first place.

May All Beings Benefit.

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Saturday, May 28, 2005

Another Principled American Speaks Out

His name is John Cole, his blog is Balloon Juice, he is a conservative, and this is what he has to say about torture and murder:

Put aside the demagoguery, the denial, and the smears. Put aside the wishful thinking, the demonization of the media, and the claims that anyone who is outraged by this abuse is un-American, anti-military, hyperventilating over nothing, or out to get the President (which I am decidedly not).....

Why is it that few, if any, members of the Republican party have called for congressional investigations?....We have time for investigating the use of steroids in professional sports, seemingly endless debates about Senate filibusters, and a whole bevy of unimportant issues, but when it comes to torture, the prevailing attitude is 'Let's just pretend nothing happened and villify anyone who refuses to go along.'

If some have their way, a full accounting of the nefarious misdeeds of a few won't happen, because that would require that we accept blame for what has been done in our name, and that might require a level of candor and responsibility that many do not seem to possess. That would require an honest and open debate, a full documentation of events, and accountability.

Welcome to my blogroll Mr. Cole. Nice to have you here.

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Everything Ordinary in the World Began to Strike Me as Screamingly Funny

Friday was a fine spring day in Columbus, Ohio. The good-looking young ladies from the offices were crossing the city streets in droves. Amazing, isn’t it, how regular features and a pert figure give you a leg up in the office job market. I guess all those Special K cereal commercials are on the mark.

The janitors were out in force and dressed all in purple. They carried SEIU picket signs and assorted noisemakers from drums to Coke cans to kazoos as they headed to a specific street corner to demonstrate. It made me wish I had a harmonica and knew the tunes and the words to some of Joe Hill’s music. I would have gone down and serenaded them, if I had. But it’s been a long time, and maybe they don’t even remember Joe, or know anything about him.

My friend, the short, round, and rotund “Reverend”, was in fine form. He not only sang his gospel lustily in front of my building, he also had brought his tambourine to keep time. The fresh produce market in the alley between the buildings was going great guns. And a forlorn old fellow was standing on the sidewalk with a sign on a pole: Licensed Large Midwestern University Sunglasses. Five sets of scarlet and gray sunglasses were attached to the pole. Nobody seemed to want them.

Across the street a man in Mormon Missionary Uniform (white shirt & dark pants) was wearing a Jesus Saves sandwich sign. He was probably not a Mormon. He didn’t have a bicycle. White haired men in yellow change aprons and blue blazers were selling small fake poppies for the VFW. They were also casting a sour eye on the janitors. Perhaps they were thinking about the “W” bumper sticker or the yellow magnetic ribbon on their cars.

I chatted with several casual acquaintances about the upcoming Memorial Day weekend. They are going to Michigan, bringing out the barbecue grill, buying the tomato plants to set out in the garden. I told them about the high standard of pizza in Ann Arbor, the $1.99 a pound whole salmon special at a local grocery chain, and the average last frost date. Ex-professors know things.

The brilliant sun and high white clouds made the shirts of the city litter patrol fluoresce beyond endurance. The city fathers have chosen polo shirts for them of Day-Glo chartreuse. I idly wondered if we should all be wearing lead aprons when they came close to us. But they were pulling a huge flat trash can cart, so they hugged the building walls to avoid having to thread the cumbersome thing through the crowd.

The sunlight also fluoresced the puffy red & blue veined faces of the juicers piling out of the buses, revealing every ravage of alcohol to coarse complexioned faces that were once smooth and young. They were both male and female, with the women sustaining by far the greatest facial damage. They wore cast-off basketball logo jackets, generally, and the fragrance of the morning tipple rose off their bodies as the day became definitely warm.

A man in a motorized wheel chair, wearing an impossibly large canvas sombrero, with rough, frayed vent holes cut in the top, made a stately trek in the crosswalk across the five-lane street. The Suits didn’t seem to be out in force. Maybe they had made their long weekend longer. I would have, if I were them.

But I was on a half-day, afternoon, gig. I sat in for the one of the time-flexed, anxious to spring early into the weekend, people--what else? The phones were quiet. Presumably everyone with complaints had decided to stow them for the weekend, too. As I passed by the crude empty kitchen, with the frayed and flapping sign, The Refrigerator WILL be Emptied EVERY Friday, the microwave oven oozed the smell of stale, reheated garlic bread. The aroma floated lazily out the door and drifted into the Men’s Room across the hall.

A square, one-layer, going-away, cake, 7/8 plowed into submission, decorated the counter. It still had fluted squirts of lethally nutrient-free frosting covering what was left. Used plastic forks were strewn all over the cardboard cake box, with large clumps of yellow edible sponge, and it looked for all the world like a Leprechaun construction site.

The psychotropic meds had me too connected to the world. Can’t you tell? It usually happens when the dosage cycle bottoms out. When it tops up, I get drifty. I told my boss one day (at work they know I’m bipolar and medicated, so they cut me some slack) that, unlike other mental health clients who are “out of it” when the drugs peak, I was “into it”. She just shook her head. I have a reputation for irreverence around my shop. When I lost every serious asset that I owned, and then finally got on the medication and into a part-time job after years of fighting to do so, all of a sudden everything ordinary in the world began to strike me as screamingly funny.

It still does.

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The Perils Of Being Invisible

The number of people who try to walk through me, back into me, or push grocery carts through me is quite alarming. You would think so too, if you ever saw me. Even they would think so too, if they could actually see me and give some thought to the matter. As it is, they still don't really seem to see me, even after they excuse themselves for trying to run me over.

Imagine a pocket Sumo wrestler of 280 lbs.; with a bushy gray beard; dressed in khaki pants and a knit polo shirt; carrying a cane with a leather wrapped handle as well as a notebook sized cordovan leather briefcase; and wearing a broad brimmed, flat crowned, white straw hat, with gaudy titanium dioxide beads strung on the hatband. Does that sound like a stealthy Ninja warrior--whom nobody sees--to you?

Apparently I am one, though, and completely without trying to be. I know that my own awareness has been trained to be quite different than most. This is the lingering result of 20 years as a photographer, starting back in the Nixon Administration. But it seems to me that I shouldn't be invisible, despite the fact that I often apparently am.

Back then, I did a great deal of darkroom work with the old wet line and open tray chemistry under dim safelight. I also had to load light-tight film tanks in total darkness. This led to the automatic mental habit, which I still retain, of keeping an inventory of all objects in my immediate vicinity, noting quickly, and remembering, any changes I see in them. Consequently, I can still walk through my entire house at night without the lights on and not run into anything.

Also, when out in the field searching for the best shot, I learned a peculiar thing very quickly. You were often in a location where your training and intuition let you "know" that a superb photo opportunity was somewhere near, but you couldn't put your finger on it. In most cases, it would be directly behind you. So I also developed an automatic mental habit of inventorying what was behind my back.

Finally, shooting a camera, hand-held, on a daily basis, taught me the art of staying totally still and motionless. Most people I see do not really know how to do this. Even at rest they vibrate with a slight fidget beyond the rhythm of their breathing. Subconsciously, we are all aware of this, and rely on it, perhaps a little too much, to track who is and isn't in our immediate area. I know I am most likely to become invisible to others if I am stopped and looking at something intently, for I am usually, again from habit, absolutely still.

But I don't need to be still not to be seen, and there are definite cultural differences modulating whether I am seen or not. No recent immigrant from Hispanic America, Africa, or South Asia ever runs into me. They clearly come from places and cultures where not to notice things is very bad for your health. African-Americans seldom miss me either. Japanese, Koreans, and Southeast Asians are perhaps a little less aware, as are Europeans. Young Chinese students (we have Large Midwestern University here, so we have lots of both from the mainland and Taiwan) are very inattentive, and frequently have near collisions with me, though their elders are far more aware.

But the most unaware of all are (you guessed it) native born Caucasians, particularly those of the middle and upper classes. Invariably, they have no awareness whatever that anything is behind them, sometimes to the degree that leads me to wonder if, functionally, they even know that "behind them" exists and has the rest of the world in it.

Of course, most of them don't seem to be that aware of what is in front of them, either, if my experiences as an invisible Ninja warrior are any indication. So what are they aware of? As near as I can tell, only a fantasy of the immediate future, largely consisting of what they intend to do to shape it and trim it to their liking. This is readily apparent in the grocery store, where I can read in their faces the week's meal planning going on, but I think it is a matter of it happening in most cases and everywhere. They live their lives predominantly in a world of fantasy and wish projection.

This is functional in context. No one does anything that, on some level, does not pay off. For if you are currently comfortably well off in America, there is no absolutely immediate need to look behind you, or even in front of your nose. And if you do, you will cease to be comfortable, in mind at least, if not in body. Far too many of the facts you might see are truly disturbing. We don't need to go into a roll call of them here. I have noted some of them in other posts, and different and better blogs than mine, like Daily Kos, My DD, or The Left Coaster, are filled with the litany of the really disturbing facts which are more comfortable not to see.

One such instance will do, and we don't even have to discuss it, but merely link to it. My friend the Anchoress, has put up a post celebrating the fact that the economy has started to bring more revenue than expected to the several states. Its title implicitly suggests the short-term fantasy of the Insane Bush Borrowing finally and permanently bringing us better economic times. It's a good thing to look at in front of your nose. I, for one, wouldn't want not to see it, run into it, and have to apologize to it.

But as an old photographer, with an old photographer's awareness and intuition, I have written a comment on her post which suggests the real picture is behind her back.

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Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Torture and Murder Files

"That Was In Another Country: and Besides the Wench is Dead." --Christopher Marlowe, The Jew of Malta

Politics is an ephemeral matter, so I have seen no reason to gaggle most of my posts into categories for future reference. What I have to say is either so fundamental in principle that it must be routinely repeated in any new argument, or so specific to the issue that it evaporates in the heated rush of events.

I have made an exception in the case of Buddhism, and I am making one here:

In 1973 Amnesty International published its first report on torture. It found that: "torture thrives on secrecy and impunity. Torture rears its head when the legal barriers against it are barred. Torture feeds on discrimination and fear. Torture gains ground when official condemnation of it is less than absolute." The pictures of detainees in US custody in Abu Ghraib, Iraq, show that what was true 30 years ago remains true today.

Despite the near-universal outrage generated by the photographs coming out of Abu Ghraib, and the evidence suggesting that such practices are being applied to other prisoners held by the USA in Afghanistan, Guantanamo and elsewhere, neither the US administration nor the US Congress has called for a full and independent investigation.

Instead, the US government has gone to great lengths to restrict the application of the Geneva Conventions and to "re-define" torture. It has sought to justify the use of coercive interrogation techniques, the practice of holding "ghost detainees" (people in unacknowledged incommunicado detention) and the "rendering" or handing over of prisoners to third countries that practise torture. The detention facility at Guantanamo Bay has become the gulag of our times, entrenching the practice of arbitrary and indefinite detention in violation of international law. Trials by military commissions have made a mockery of justice and due process.

The USA, as the unrivalled political, military and economic hyper-power, sets the tone for governmental behaviour worldwide. When the most powerful country in the world thumbs its nose at the rule of law and human rights, it grants a licence to others to commit abuse with impunity and audacity. From Israel to Uzbekistan, Egypt to Nepal, governments have openly defied human rights and international humanitarian law in the name of national security and "counter-terrorism". --Irene Khan, Secretary General, Amnesty International

Our country has extended the mere making of war into torture and murder. Some of it has been done under quasi-official sanction, and more of it has clearly been done under quasi-official sanction than the quasi-officials of our quasi-Government will admit.

An honest and moral man must stand against this and an American citizen must demand an accounting for it. I am both and I do both.

This is so even though I don't really expect an accounting any time soon. We will get an accounting only if enough of us unite and insist on it. I doubt that will happen in what is left of my life.

We subsist in a panicked and paranoid atmosphere where there are many apologists for torture and murder, many controversialist for them, and many causuitrists for them. The most degrading thing about this atmosphere is how many people are actually enjoying the parnanoia and panic, because it allows them to justify torture and turn a blind eye to murder. And, by the way, I mean murder and not fighting enemies who are shooting back.

The mongers of torture live in a fantasy, recycled over and over, of the need to torture a hypothetical "somebody" to prevent to prevent another hypothetical large terrorist attack. But since anybody might be that "somebody" without our knowing it, torture of "anybody" is automaticly justified by the same argument. And since "anybody" is, by definition, part of the everybody who we have happened to round up and incarcerate after they surrender, after they are kidnapped, or after they are arrested--the torture of everybody is justified, too.

The defining characteristic of all the American armchair interrogators who justify torture is that they are always somewhere else when the real screams of a genuine human being--with a name, a face, and a family--begin. They probably wouldn't have the stomach to stand them, however much they see the need of torture to protect us at all costs. That's somebody else's job. Unfortunately "somebody else" also has a name, a face, and a family, and "somebody else's" job has a moral impact on their personal future. Do my fine armchair interrogators think about that when they excuse torture?

The one genuine interrogator I have found who has been willing to speak up is perfectly well acquainted with what torture does to the torturer, which is one thing the armchair generals who draw such fine moral lines to justify torture completely ignore.

Nothing, apparently, can bring the makers of this argument for torture to their senses about how it justifies torture as a permanent and enduring American institution, and justifies making a large number of young Americans into a permanent cadre of professional torturers.

Will this happen? Maybe. Will all opposition to it be suppressed? Maybe. Certainly with a permanent cadre of professional torturers, suppressing it will be a whole lot easier than without them.

But until it is, or until a genuine accounting is finally made because enough Americans have the intellectual clarity and moral courage to stand up and demand it be made, and are not buffaloed by the lovers of panic and paranoia to justify hate, I will keep an historical record here of the opposition to torture and murder of myself and others.

We are not quasi-Americans and we will not let the quasi-officials of a quasi-Government speak to the world justifying torture in our name.

The Guantanamo Gulag

Another Principled American Speaks Out

"Don't fool yourself - there is a part of you that will say, 'This is fun.' ''

Twenty-Seven Men Were Murdered By American Soldiers

We All Must Keep Bringing It Up Again and Again

Yes, Virginia, Torture is Wrong

Meanwhile, Back in 1984

Yet Another Systematic UN-American Outrage

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Tuesday, May 24, 2005

The Buddhist Posts

This blog has been around long enough to acquire many categories of posts. The packaging states that politics is its main subject, but the fact that I am a Buddhist has, from time to time, generated interesting posts of its own. So I thought I'd compile them here and place a link on my blogroll. I'll update this from time to time as new posts accumulate. May all beings benefit.

A Buddhist Christmas

One Thousand Dead People and the Bodhisattva Ideal

The Story of a Tulku

The Thankful Way

The Quest for Peace

Clinging To The Pot

Benedict and Me--Part II: One Truth, Four Truths, Two Truths

Pope Benedict And Me, Part I: The Sleep Of Reason

Humming Activity--Peace and Quiet

The Mountain Will Not Come To Joe Claus...

Karma, Merit, Buddhist Vows, and the Spiritual Friend

A New Buddhist Post

This Is An Emergency Post

A Death In The Sangha

His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa

Death, Terri Schiavo, Rationality, and Faith

Thinking about Death yet again

The Way Things Really Are

Letting Go Of Fear

There are Cyber-Retreats and then there are Cyber-Retreats

A Vision of Long Ago and My Religious Friends

When Pleasures Slip Into Larger Spaces Than The Mind

The Power of Prayer

Since the Anchoress Asks, I'll Answer

The Buddhist View Of Original Sin

On Being Liberal and Religious, Part 3

On Being Liberal and Religious, Part 2

On Being Liberal and Religious, Part 1

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Monday, May 23, 2005

The Nuclear Memo

No, its not the one you think, the one about George W. Bush's National Guard Service. Its not the one circulated among Republicans extolling the political advantages of intervening in the Schiavo affair. And, no, it has nothing to do with fillibusters or judicial nominations.

It's the very well written memo of record of the July 23, 2002 meeting held by Tony Blair at Downing Street about George Bush and Iraq. You can read the full text of it here. But let's concentrate on the parts relevant to the historical record:


From: Matthew Rycroft
Date: 23 July 2002 S 195 /02

cc: Defence Secretary, Foreign Secretary, Attorney-General, Sir Richard Wilson, John Scarlett, Francis Richards, CDS, C, Jonathan Powell, Sally Morgan, Alastair Campbell


Copy addressees and you met the Prime Minister on 23 July to discuss Iraq

This record is extremely sensitive. No further copies should be made. It should be shown only to those with a genuine need to know its contents.....

C reported on his recent talks in Washington. ["C" is the traditional designation of the head of MI-6, Britain's foreign intelligence service] There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime's record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action....

The Defence Secretary said that the US had already begun "spikes of activity" to put pressure on the regime. No decisions had been taken, but he thought the most likely timing in US minds for military action to begin was January, with the timeline beginning 30 days before the US Congressional elections.

The Foreign Secretary said he would discuss this with Colin Powell this week. It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran....We should work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors. This would also help with the legal justification for the use of force.

The Attorney-General said that the desire for regime change was not a legal base for military action. There were three possible legal bases: self-defence, humanitarian intervention, or UNSC authorisation....

The Prime Minister said that it would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the UN inspectors.... If the political context were right, people would support regime change. The two key issues were whether the military plan worked and whether we had the political strategy to give the military plan the space to work....

The Defence Secretary said that if the Prime Minister wanted UK military involvement, he would need to decide this early. He cautioned that many in the US did not think it worth going down the ultimatum route. It would be important for the Prime Minister to set out the political context to Bush....

The Nuclear Memo made the American press a few weeks back and probably contributed to the slap in the face Tony Blair received from the electorate after years of overall good management marred by his involvement in the mare's nest of Iraq.Then it vanished without a trace. Too many other things got in the way.

That's the problem with our current politics. The people in power are engaged in so many avenues of bad public policy that it's hard to keep after any one of them with any consistency.

This baby is worth the effort, though. Enough mileage has been squeezed out of the sins of Newsweek. Enough ink and airtime have been given to the Filibuster Follies so that we've reached the point of anticlimax whatever the outcome. The Social Security Snake Oil Road Show flopped weeks ago. And the various lapses of the US Military--murder, torture, and showing Saddam Hussein to the world in his underwear--have turned into steady sellers rather than bestsellers.

So now the memo can command our attention.And it is beginning to. The new public editor of the New York Times, Byrone Calame has stepped up several days before his official first day on the job to discuss why the Grey Lady let the memo slide:

The Times's coverage of the once-secret memo started alertly with a May 2 article by Alan Cowell that laid out its contents in the context of the possible impact on the May 5 British election. But the news coverage languished until this morning when a Times article from Washington focused on the reaction to the memo there. This has left Times readers pretty much in the dark until today --and left critics of the paper's news columns to suspect the worst about its motives. . . So Times readers finally have the Washington bureau's take on the Downing Street Memo to go with the alert coverage on the minutes the foreign desk provided back on May 2. Overall, it's better than the readers of most other newspapers got. It's just unfortunate that today's Washington perspective, much of it based on reporting that could have been done days ago, didn't land in readers' hands sooner.

The Washington Post has also gotten off its duff to deal with a memo that should have raised a firestorm, and would have raised a firestorm if there were a public, a press, and a Congress with moral integrity, courage, and brains. Walter Pincus has finally attempted to put some context around the memo:

The question of prewar intelligence has been thrust back into the public eye with the disclosure of a secret British memo showing that, eight months before the March 2003 start of the war, a senior British intelligence official reported to Prime Minister Tony Blair that U.S. intelligence was being shaped to support a policy of invading Iraq.Moreover, a close reading of the recent 600-page report by the president's commission on intelligence, and the previous report by the Senate panel, shows that as war approached, many U.S. intelligence analysts were internally questioning almost every major piece of prewar intelligence about Hussein's alleged weapons programs.

The story is really ugly. We always knew it would be really ugly. The question is, do we as a country now even care?

Everyone with eyes, in 2002 and 2003, could see that the United States was on a course, for the first time in its entire history, to make war not because we, as a country, needed to, but merely because the President wanted to.

Anyone with both a sense of history, and a well-oriented moral compass, looked upon this with a sense of dread, knowing that the moral leadership of the world, held by America since the Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, was about to be deliberately abandoned.

American men and women sacrificed their lives or their loved ones for the three grand climaxes of America's moral leadership for international order: the defeat of the Axis powers in 1945, the downfall of the Soviet Union in 1989, and the ouster of Iraq from Kuwait in 1991. That leadership was abandoned in a heartbeat, replaced with a philosophy of American world order imposed by sheer naked power.

Like a bandage on a syphilis chancre, that philosophy--now that we have proven that it doesn't work--has now been covered over with sanctimonious claptrap about "spreading democracy".

A couple of countries have gotten lucky and actually achieved democracy as a byproduct of our moral failure, rather than as an end product of our military world dominance. Time will tell whether they keep it long enough to achieve real independence from us.

But we made the Devil's bargain and everything else logically follows: the torturing, the straight out murders of Iraqis and Afganis, and the high probability that we will still be hemorrhaging blood and lives in Iraq when the man who threw away our moral integrity retires to his ranch.

The Downing Street Memo has all the relevant bullet points. And the Washington Post analysis has most of the evidence about how the bullet points describe what really happened. So let's connect the dots:

  • Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy:
On Jan. 24, 2003, four days before President Bush delivered his State of the Union address presenting the case for war against Iraq, the National Security Council staff put out a call for new intelligence to bolster claims that Saddam Hussein possessed nuclear, chemical and biological weapons or programs. The person receiving the request, Robert Walpole, then the national intelligence officer for strategic and nuclear programs, would later tell investigators that "the NSC believed the nuclear case was weak."

  • But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran:
It has been clear since the September [2004] report of the Iraq Survey Group -- a CIA-sponsored weapons search in Iraq -- that the United States would not find the weapons of mass destruction cited by Bush as the rationale for going to war against Iraq. As war approached, many U.S. intelligence analysts were internally questioning almost every major piece of prewar intelligence about Hussein's alleged weapons programs.

  • The Attorney-General said that the desire for regime change was not a legal base for military action:
Neither Bush nor Powell reflected in their speeches the many doubts that had surfaced at that time about Iraq's weapons programs. Instead, Bush said, "With nuclear arms or a full arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, Saddam Hussein could resume his ambitions of conquest in the MiddleEast and create deadly havoc in that region." He added: "Secretly, and without fingerprints, he could provide one of his hidden weapons to terrorists, or help them develop their own."

  • The most likely timing in US minds for military action to begin was January [of 2003], with the timeline [in 2002] beginning 30 days before the US Congressional elections [the beginning of October 2002]. The Foreign Secretary said he would discuss this with Colin Powell this week:
In an Oct. 7, 2002, speech, Bush mentioned a potential threat to the U.S. mainland being explored by Iraq through unmanned aircraft "that could be used to disperse chemical or biological weapons." The basis for that analysis was a single report that an Iraqi general in late 2000 or early 2001 indicated interest in buying autopilots and gyroscopes for Hussein's unmanned aerial vehicles program. The manufacturer automatically included topographic mapping software of the United States in the package.

When the list was submitted in early 2002, the manufacturer's distributor determined that the U.S. mapping software would not be included in the autopilot package.

Senior members of Congress were told in September 2002 that this [autopilot report] was the "smoking gun" in a special briefing by Vice President Cheney and then-CIA Director George J. Tenet. By January 2003, however, it became publicly known that the director of Air Force intelligence dissented from the view.

All these claims were made by Bush or then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in public addresses even though, the reports made clear, they had yet to be verified by U.S. intelligence agencies. For instance, Bush said in his Jan. 28, 2003, State of the Union address that Hussein was working to obtain "significant quantities" of uranium from Africa, a conclusion the president attributed to British intelligence and made a key part of his assertion that Iraq had an active nuclear weapons program.

  • The Defence Secretary said that if the Prime Minister wanted UK military involvement, he would need to decide this early. It would be important for the Prime Minister to set out the political context to Bush.
  • The Prime Minister said that if the political context were right, people would support regime change. The two key issues were whether the military plan worked and whether we had the political strategy to give the military plan the space to work:
By late January 2003, the number of U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf area was approaching 150,000, and the invasion of Iraq was all but guaranteed.

And here is the "political strategy" that made it all happen:

The planning to invade Iraq was well underway in Washington by July of 2002, though no serious intelligence in Britain or the United States had confirmed either that Saddam was connected with Al Queda or that he possessed WMD's. So every scrap that could be gathered, reliable or not, would be shoehorned into the foregone conclusions that he was.

The game was deliberately started one month before the U.S. Congressional elections. This was for two reasons.

First, pressure had to be brought to bear to stampede the Congress into giving the President authority to go to war. This pressure came from two directions, the panic over a supposed "smoking gun" of a plan to attack the U.S. and the need to appear "strong on fighting terrorism" so close to the elections.

Moreover, the Congressmen and Senators who might be still be skeptical, particularly the Democratic ones, had to be cowed into submission by demonstrating that any questions, reasonable or not, of the President's judgment on Iraq would handicap their political career permanently.

This leads to the second reason for starting things in October--winning the Congressional elections. The Democrats were already in a seriously weakened position. The afterglow of 9/11 and the Afghan war had George Bush and the Republicans riding high in the polls.

By starting to beat the drum against Saddam in October and forcing the Democrats to soft pedal reasonable questions about the adventure, Bush put his political opponents in the position of having to try to win a Congressional election on issues which most of the country wasn’t interested in at the moment, making them look indifferent to the country’s defense.

It worked. The Democrats were clobbered in 2002. Any serious Congressional opposition to Bush’s rush to war was obliterated. And the momentum started over the “War On Terrorism” issue was even enough to carry Bush to a razor thin popular majority in 2004, despite the massive failure to stabilize Iraq after the fall of Baghdad.

Tony Blair, very shrewdly, saw that even if George Bush and his neocons wanted to simply ignore and bypass the UN, the process of feinting Saddam into refusing to cooperate would be necessary, particularly to sell the war in Britain.

So the invasion plans, which were ready to go by January, because the intent to invade had allowed the troop buildup much earlier, were consummated in March, when Saddam, full of hubris, had painted himself into a corner. This was the last link in the “political strategy to give the military plan space to work”.

The other evidence which has been slowly leaked in Britain indicates that Tony Blair supported Iraqi “regime change” in principle as early as March 2002:

Sir Christopher Meyer, then British ambassador to the US, sent a dispatch to Downing Street detailing how he repeated the commitment to Paul Wolfowitz, the US Deputy Defence Secretary. The ambassador added that Mr Blair would need a "cover" for any military action. "I then went through the need to wrongfoot Saddam on the inspectors and the UN Security Council resolutions."

Blair apparently agreed with Bush to actually attack some time in the future in his meeting at the Bush Ranch of April 6, 2002, and it was telegraphed in this segment of the press conference on that date:

THE PRIME MINISTER: Well, John, you know it has always been our policy that Iraq would be a better place without Saddam Hussein. I don't think anyone can be in any doubt about that, for all the reasons I gave earlier. And you know reasons to do with weapons of mass destruction also deal with the appalling brutality and repression of his own people. But how we now proceed in this situation, how we make sure that this threat that is posed by weapons of mass destruction is dealt with, that is a matter that is open….

THE PRESIDENT: Maybe I should be a little less direct and be a little more nuanced, and say we support regime change.

The explicit American political strategy of how to deliberately manufacture reasons to go to war with Iraq apparently was first discussed with the President’s National Security Council by the head of Britain’s MI-6 sometime in the middle of July. The meeting in Downing Street then took place in late July, and the Prime Minister was informed of it. Blair committed to it early, with the warning in mind, from his Defense Secretary, that the buildup to British war readiness must start quickly if it was to be ready on time.

The British Foreign Secretary then apparently discussed it with Secretary of State Colin Powell sometime shortly after July 23, and it was also to be discussed by Tony Blair with George Bush at some indefinite date in the future. The plan involved deliberately pressuring the United States Congress into precipitate action based on skewed intelligence.

Blair was on hand in Camp David with the President one month before the big push, presumably to have this discussion, and probably immediately before CIA Director George Tenet told Congress, in confidence, of the so-called “smoking gun” of Saddam’s intent to attack the United States.

Everything followed from there. The plan worked like a charm. Except, there were no WMD’s, there were no links of Saddam to Al Queda, and the boffins in the intelligence community on both sides of the Atlantic have been steadily leaking the fact that they were pressured to manufacture evidence for prefabricated conclusions ever since.

The British Government has refused to comment on the authenticity of the July 23 Memo.

  • There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action:

We all know the aftermath. We have been living in a morally diminished America in the aftermath.

George Galloway, M.P. tied it all together a few days ago:

I gave my heart and soul to stop you committing the disaster that you did commit in invading Iraq. And I told the world that your case for the war was a pack of lies. I told the world that Iraq, contrary to your claims, did not have weapons of mass destruction. I told the world, contrary to your claims, that Iraq had no connection to Al Qaeda. I told the world, contrary to your claims, that Iraq had no connection to the atrocity on 9/11, 2001. I told the world, contrary to your claims, that the Iraqi people would resist a British and American invasion of their country and that the fall of Baghdad would not be the beginning of the end, but merely the end of the beginning.

Senator, in everything I said about Iraq, I turned out to be right and you turned out to be wrong. And 100,000 people have paid with their lives, 1,600 of them American soldiers sent to their deaths on a pack of lies; 15,000 of them wounded, many of them disabled forever on a pack of lies.

A pack of lies....

I think he has a point, don't you?

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Saturday, May 21, 2005

A Generation of Workaholics With Dreams of Adequacy

I have recently had the experience of looking into the heart and soul of about 650 teenagers. It was a look as intimate as any father confessor or psychologist would get and, because their guard was down, it was more revealing, in many ways, than their deliberate confessions will ever be. For the things that they don't even see about themselves were clearly on display. It was also as good a snapshot as anyone will ever get of the Generation whatever-it-will-be-called of the years 1985-1990, the children of late Baby Boomers.

I'm not going to discuss the how, the why, or the what of this in any detail. All of those issues have been whisked away to an Undisclosed Location, not by the Department of Homeland Security, but by a company who is far better, actually, at the whisking away business. For they neither announce terrorist alerts for electoral advantage, nor sweep problems under the rug after electoral advantage has been achieved. They merely keep their mouths shut about their real business.

But I can offer some conclusions.

The generation yet to be named is afraid of nothing more than "Chaos", though the odds are 5 to 3 for any particular one of them to spell it correctly. An apocalyptic nightmare of American society completely collapsing beats its dark wings and dive bombs them in the borderlands of their sleep.

It is worth our while to ask why. For if ever there was a hopeful decade to be a child in America, it was the decade between the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, and the Dot.com crash in 2000. You have to reach all the way back to the Roaring Twenties to find anything that even comes close. Yet Chaos haunts their dreams. Maybe it is 9/11. But I think it's that and something more.

What also haunts what they say about everything are the received pronouncements of wisdom from their parents and their teachers. The late Baby Boom generation (or perhaps its the early Generation X, it all depends on where you cut the pie, the actual birth dates are 1960-1970) are quite clearly unbelievably preachy windbags, in the privacy and comfort of their families. Far more so even than the parents of The Greatest Generation, like my parents, who, having been through both the Great Depression and World War II, really had something worth preaching about.

I'm not so sure that the solemn pronouncements of the parents of these poor kids are quite up to that high standard. But whether or no, their fledglings are smothered in wisdom about the value of work, the worthlessness of sitting around idly watching television and playing computer games, the need to keep busy to avoid getting into trouble with drugs and gangs, the need for routine and order, the triumphant march of rights for women, and the importance of college to the jobs of the future.

That's about it, really, a rather narrow band of wisdom for a far wider, more complicated, more challenging, and more interesting world, the sort of rushed philosophy one can easily imagine absorbing from a Soccer Mom in the SUV while hurrying from the piano lessons to Tai Kwan Do. The perspective of my own parents, at least, had much broader horizons.

As a result of this chronic prompting by The Authorities, barely one in every 25 of those 650 teenagers has a recognizable voice of their own, from thinking on their own, and clearly shaped by reading on their own. All the rest was the ventriloquism of parents and teachers and textbooks and assigned readings. I'll have more to say about reading on their own in a bit.

Why have The Authorities imposed this vision of Chaos so thoroughly on their children? Well, odds on, it has to do with how anyone born between 1960 and 1970 experienced the horror of Southeast Asia and the aftermath of stab-in-the-back bitterness and economic stagflation that followed. We had a little acid reflux of it in the last Presidential election, from the Swift Boat Vets, so I think we can say with some assurance, that America has never fully digested the dish it served itself back then.

Will the majority, or even a plurality, of these teens ever find a voice of their own? Probably, but I think its going to take some time. For one thing is certain. Not a single one of the teens I encountered had rising expectations about the possibilities for their future. They spoke of the American Dream only in the most cynical of terms, not, as my own generation did, as a thing bad for the morals of those who achieved it (we were wrong, by the way) but as something which is a fake, a chimera, and a cheat.

There is an overall atmosphere among them of playing against a rigged roulette wheel because it's the only game in town. They really don't seem to mind it very much.

So who are their heros? Two men, almost without exception, and no women. The two men are Bill Gates and Donald Trump. And they don't look up to Bill Gates for his philanthropy, either. Dreaming of being rich and powerful and famous is actually ethically neutral, despite what my own generation thought. But there was utterly nothing among all those 650 teens that suggested they had a clue about how to turn that dream into a genuine possibility. No reference to saving, none to investing, none to ideas and invention, and none to independent business. Absolutely none.

What was even more a surprise was that none of them mentioned admiring movie and television stars; sports heros; NASCAR drivers; popular musicians; politicians; authors; artists; military generals; courageous moral leaders like Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandella; numinous historical figures like Washington, Lincoln, or Churchill; or any other profession of people whatever. There were absolutely none of the types of people me and my friends grew up admiring.

The only real exceptions to this were the very occasional appearance of Michael Jordan and George Bush, though they showed up far less frequently than Gates and Trump, and the general sense was that Jordan was admirable for his work ethic rather than his athletic talent, and Bush was noteworthy for how much he is kept busy (!!!) with the routine of running the country.

And no women whatever. Not Condi Rice, not Hillary Clinton, not Laura Bush, not Venus and Serena Williams, not Oprah Winfery, not Martha Stewart, and not Princess Di. No one. None. And at least 300 or so of the teens were women themselves.

Just two rich, powerful, famous, and reasonably good-looking white businessmen. (You really didn't expect Warren Buffet, now, did you? Neither did I.)

And gosh, these teens are busy. Some of them work as many as three jobs, besides schoolwork, homework, volunteering, and extracurricular activities! Even when there is a strong commitment to high school sports, or cheerleading, or clubbing, or whatever, it clearly is another fun job, and not merely just for fun.

Frankly, there was absolutely no indication of what these kids do just for fun, and in many ways, I'm not wholly sure that the conception of doing something just for fun has ever penetrated their minds. Not that they don't have fun, what teen ever didn't? Between thirteen and twenty-one when everything and everyone around you is imprinted with the large capital letters SEX it is impossible not to have at least some fun somewhere. And the constant reiteration of the worthlessness of TV and computer games leads me to suspect that lots of fun is going on there, too. Presumably, all the other collateral toys of fun, such as cellphones or I-pods, would have been mentioned, if The Authorities had taken the trouble to condemn them.

And, of course, the real fun, the fun that The Authorities must never get wind of, is certainly going on, though it was never mentioned. These teens are far shrewder and less innocent about this sort of need-to-know consideration than I ever was at the same age.

But what none of them seemed to have was the sense of a body and mind freed by leisure. No conception touches them that the availability of the choice of doing nothing is a freedom, even when you use it to make the choice of doing something. This possibility of doing nothing is the heart of all genuine play. There was no conception of a hobby, no stamp collecting, no coin collecting, no model building, no bird watching, nada.

They had absolutely no sense of genuine play, no sense of the value of genuine play, and no sense of the liberation that genuine, purposeless, play gives to the heart and mind. Even the fun, apparently, has to be a job, has to have an end, has to have a goal.

And it has to take place within a certain measured block of time. Nothing is more comforting to most of these 650 odd teens than structure and routine. Nothing more disturbing, than the freedom and openness of having nothing to do, and of thinking out of the box to find something new to do. After all, if everyone did nothing, the country would dissolve into Chaos.

As you can easily tell, I found this disturbing. It caused me to reflect on why I did so much just for fun in those years (I still do, by the way).

When I look back on it, what I see most vividly is my time in the Public Library, my time riding my bicycle in whatever direction and whatever twisted pattern of suburban streets, and my time walking in what passed for woods, filling the ravines of rivulets running through my neighborhood. My time, in short, where I was free to think my own thoughts, in a private and personal space where The Authorities could not stick their busybody noses.

I see no one who is young doing these things today, no one in a comfy chair by the new book rack reading whatever has caught their eye, no one on a bicycle terryhooting around the neighborhood at random, no one walking in the woods.

Especially, no one reading for pleasure. My 650 teens do read, of course, but every last book they talked about was clearly on the assigned reading list: Macbeth but not The Merry Wives of Windsor (what would The Authorities think of Doll Tearsheet!), Huckleberry Finn but not Life On The Mississippi, Their Eyes Were Watching God but not Tell My Horse (Voodoo? Nooo way, Dude!). No Conan Doyle, no Robert Lewis Stevenson, no Alexandre Dumas, no Anne Rice, and even, for heaven sake, no Harry Potter! It is as if everyone who made J.K. Rowling a millionaire many times over simply left the book on the coffee table unopened.

So what do they dream about? Getting into college, mostly. College is going to be a healthy extension of the routine they've learned on their three jobs and managing everything else in their appointment book (or, if they are very lucky, on their Blackberry). College is going to be their passport to a good job, with a strong routine, co-workers to socialize with, The Authorities to organize the place, and enough money to keep admiring Bill Gates and Donald Trump from afar, with, they know, no real chance to emulate them. So their dreams are dreams of adequacy.

I went to college because I loved learning, learning anything, learning everything. Zero of 650 teens even mentioned learning in connection with anything but a vocational future. No play, all work.

So let's leave them, and their anxious and solicitous parents, whose generation I so often lock horns with here on the Internet, with one of the little tidbits I found while merely playing around in College so many years ago:

Though logic choppers rule the town
And every man and maid and boy,
Has marked a distant object down,
An aimless joy is a pure joy.
Or so did Tom O'Roughley say,
Who saw the surges running by.
And wisdom is a butterfly
And not a gloomy bird of prey.

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Wednesday, May 18, 2005

This Is An Emergency Post

I have at least four separate essays in various states of completion on the political topics of the day. However something in my e-mail from a fellow Buddhist has made it imperative that I drop all of them.

There is a malignant story involving Buddhism and Hinduism spreading all over the Net. Moreover, it is a false libel of Pope Benedict XVI. It is intellectually dishonest and base rumor mongering, in the form of a supposed presentation of the Pope's views about Buddhism and Hinduism, expressed when he was Cardinal Ratzinger.

I first encountered it in a form quoted from an unbelievably vitriolic article by Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the world's largest circulation "progressive" Jewish magazine, Tikkun, and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in San Francisco:

In 1997 Ratzinger called Buddhism an "autoerotic spirituality" that offers "transcendence without imposing concrete religious obligations." Hinduism, he said, offers "false hope," in that it guarantees "purification" based on a "morally cruel" concept of reincarnation resembling "a continuous circle of hell." At the time, Cardinal Ratzinger predicted that Buddhism would replace Marxism as the Catholic church's main enemy.

But it has wormed its way into many other places on the Net than this.

I found the original of Benedict's statement, in French. It was an interview in L'Express magazine of April 1997, reprinted in April 2005. It consisted of short answers to interview questions.

First, as responses to an interviewer, I don't think it should be regarded as Benedict's total and complete view on anything. I also would note that he was speaking in the context of why a Catholic might be attracted to Buddhism, or believe in reincarnation, which is significantly different than the answer might have been if he had been asked directly about Buddhism or Hinduism itself.

Further, I have some experience with Benedict XVI's writing as Cardinal Ratzinger, and, with that background, and some graduate French reading knowledge, I can assure you that the actual sense and meaning of the original piece is far less harsh and pugnacious than the rumors about it make out.

I append below both the French original and my translation:

Do you fear that Catholics might lose their souls while dialoging with other religions, like Buddhism?

Dialogue between religions is necessary in a world becoming more unified. But the danger is that of a superficial dialogue. This is because relativism, which today has taken hold in the world, leads to a moral and intellectual anarchism where people do not accept a single truth anymore. To assert truth is now regarded as a mark of intolerance. However a true dialogue does not exist in a vacuum. It has as its goal a common search for the truth. A Christian cannot give up his knowledge of revealed truth, that Jesus Christ is the only son of God. If they are attracted to Buddhism, this is because it offers a possibility of happiness by touching the infinite, without having concrete religious obligations. It is, to some extent, a spiritual self-absorption. Somebody predicted in 1950, that the challenge to the Church in the 20th century would not be Marxism, but Buddhism.

What would you say to a Catholic tempted to believe in reincarnation?

This has a particular meaning in the Hindu religion, it means a path leading to purification. Out of that context, reincarnation would be morally cruel, because endless lives would be an endless hell.

Here is the original French, if anyone wants to try their hand at improving my translation:

Craignez-vous que les catholiques ne perdent leur âme en dialoguant avec d'autres religions, comme le bouddhisme?

Le dialogue entre les religions est nécessaire dans un monde qui tend à s'unifier. Mais le danger est que s'instaure un dialogue superficiel. Car le relativisme qui s'est emparé aujourd'hui des esprits développe une sorte d'anarchisme moral et intellectuel qui conduit les hommes à ne plus accepter de vérité unique. Affirmer sa vérité passe désormais pour une marque d'intolérance. Or un vrai dialogue n'est pas un mouvement dans le vide. Il a un but: la recherche commune de la vérité. Un chrétien ne peut pas renoncer à sa connaissance de la vérité, révélée pour lui en Jésus-Christ, fils unique de Dieu. Si le bouddhisme séduit, c'est parce qu'il apparaît comme une possibilité de toucher à l'infini, à la félicité sans avoir d'obligations religieuses concrètes. Un autoérotisme spirituel, en quelque sorte. Quelqu'un avait justement prédit, dans les années 1950, que le défi de l'Eglise au XXe siècle serait non pas le marxisme, mais le bouddhisme.

Que dites-vous à un catholique tenté de croire à la réincarnation?

Celle-ci a un sens dans la religion hindoue, celui d'un chemin de purification. Hors de ce contexte, la réincarnation est moralement cruelle, car ces éternels retours à la vie terrestre ressemblent à un cycle infernal.

I think anyone knowledgeable about Buddhism will agree that Benedict's views on reincarnation, at least as I have translated them, are much closer to the First Buddhist Noble Truth--"life is suffering"--than one would expect.

Benedict is clearly ignorant of the very real and quite concrete religious commitments you make in Buddhism, particularly of the five Lay Practice Vows, the 227 Monastic Vows, and the Bodhisattva vow.

He also does not understand how difficult Buddhist meditation really is, despite the fact that it looks from the outside like you are merely sitting and doing nothing. Most non-Buddhists are equally ignorant of this. Benedict, further, does not appear to understand that Buddhism makes an overwhelmingly radical critique of the very notion of a "self" to become absorbed in.

But Benedict in the above passage is in no way hostile or insulting to either Buddhism or Hinduism. Rabbi Lerner falsely presents him so.

Most importantly, I have translated "autoérotisme" as "self-absorption" because, in context, that is clearly what Benedict means in good idiomatic English. It should not, in my view, be translated by the English word "autoeroticism". Nothing in the context supports such a translation. Beyond this, I think the remaining errors in Rabbi Lerner's treatment of it should be self-evident.

Finally, I would point out that Rabbi Lerner's description of Benedict's views constitute an extreme danger to the Dharma practice of any Buddhist who encounters it with no basis for rational criticism of that description.

Upon a little reflection, this should make sense to anyone. Part of the commitments in our Lay Practice vows consist of avoiding irrational and arbitrary anger, aversion, or criticism for non-Buddhist religions. And part of the commitments of the Bodhisattva Vow consist of avoiding anger and aversion toward any sentient being whatever. Rabbi Lerner's comments are a clear case of coat-trailing to any Buddhist to break those vows toward Catholicism and Benedict XVI.

This is primarily why I have built up a full head of steam to take this issue on.

But there is another reason, which is abstract intellectual integrity.

In this matter, and probably in most of the other citations of Benedict's supposed "opinions" by Rabbi Lerner and others, the Pope is being wronged, and wronged in a way which is despicable.

I know most of my readers aren't Buddhist, and I suspect that most of them are Christian, since I tend to hang around and comment on Conservative Christian blogs. They do, after all, have a high density of people who are genuinely involved in their faith and personally good, to the degree that human frailty permits such things. And I find it great fun to comment when most of the other people there disagree with you.

So I say to any reader, Buddhist, Christian, or whatever, but most particularly to any Catholic reader, if my translation of Benedict's responses will help you defend him, please feel free to copy and use it--give me credit as the translator, and, preferably, use the entire selection--but take it wherever it is needful to defend your Pope and your faith.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2005

So Now Let's Welcome George Galloway, MP

There is no point in my getting in his way. I have seen films of the Kefauver investigation into organized crime, I have seen films of the Army/McCarthy hearings, I watched the Watergate hearings live on television. None of those equalled Mr. Galloway's testimony today. Absolutely none.

Here it is:

UPDATE: Revised transcript.

Senator, I am not now, nor have I ever been, an oil trader. and neither has anyone on my behalf. I have never seen a barrel of oil, owned one, bought one, sold one - and neither has anyone on my behalf.

Now I know that standards have slipped in the last few years in Washington, but for a lawyer you are remarkably cavalier with any idea of justice. I am here today but last week you already found me guilty. You traduced my name around the world without ever having asked me a single question, without ever having contacted me, without ever written to me or telephoned me, without any attempt to contact me whatsoever. And you call that justice.

Now I want to deal with the pages that relate to me in this dossier and I want to point out areas where there are - let's be charitable and say errors. Then I want to put this in the context where I believe it ought to be. On the very first page of your document about me you assert that I have had 'many meetings' with Saddam Hussein. This is false.

I have had two meetings with Saddam Hussein, once in 1994 and once in August of 2002. By no stretch of the English language can that be described as "many meetings" with Saddam Hussein.

As a matter of fact, I have met Saddam Hussein exactly the same number of times as Donald Rumsfeld met him. The difference is Donald Rumsfeld met him to sell him guns and to give him maps the better to target those guns. I met him to try and bring about an end to sanctions, suffering and war, and on the second of the two occasions, I met him to try and persuade him to let Dr Hans Blix and the United Nations weapons inspectors back into the country - a rather better use of two meetings with Saddam Hussein than your own Secretary of State for Defence made of his.

I was an opponent of Saddam Hussein when British and Americans governments and businessmen were selling him guns and gas. I used to demonstrate outside the Iraqi embassy when British and American officials were going in and doing commerce.

You will see from the official parliamentary record, Hansard, from the 15th March 1990 onwards, voluminous evidence that I have a rather better record of opposition to Saddam Hussein than you do and than any other member of the British or American governments do.

Now you say in this document, you quote a source, you have the gall to quote a source, without ever having asked me whether the allegation from the source is true, that I am 'the owner of a company which has made substantial profits from trading in Iraqi oil'.

Senator, I do not own any companies, beyond a small company whose entire purpose, whose sole purpose, is to receive the income from my journalistic earnings from my employer, Associated Newspapers, in London. I do not own a company that's been trading in Iraqi oil. And you have no business to carry a quotation, utterly unsubstantiated and false, implying otherwise.

Now you have nothing on me, Senator, except my name on lists of names from Iraq, many of which have been drawn up after the installation of your puppet government in Baghdad. If you had any of the letters against me that you had against Zhirinovsky, and even Pasqua, they would have been up there in your slideshow for the members of your committee today.

You have my name on lists provided to you by the Duelfer inquiry, provided to him by the convicted bank robber, and fraudster and conman Ahmed Chalabi who many people to their credit in your country now realise played a decisive role in leading your country into the disaster in Iraq.

There were 270 names on that list originally. That's somehow been filleted down to the names you chose to deal with in this committee. Some of the names on that committee included the former secretary to his Holiness Pope John Paul II, the former head of the African National Congress Presidential office and many others who had one defining characteristic in common: they all stood against the policy of sanctions and war which you vociferously prosecuted and which has led us to this disaster.

You quote Mr Dahar Yassein Ramadan. Well, you have something on me, I've never met Mr Dahar Yassein Ramadan. Your sub-committee apparently has. But I do know that he's your prisoner, I believe he's in Abu Ghraib prison. I believe he is facing war crimes charges, punishable by death. In these circumstances, knowing what the world knows about how you treat prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison, in Bagram Airbase, in Guantanamo Bay, including I may say, British citizens being held in those places.

I'm not sure how much credibility anyone would put on anything you manage to get from a prisoner in those circumstances. But you quote 13 words from Dahar Yassein Ramadan whom I have never met. If he said what he said, then he is wrong.

And if you had any evidence that I had ever engaged in any actual oil transaction, if you had any evidence that anybody ever gave me any money, it would be before the public and before this committee today because I agreed with your Mr Greenblatt.

Your Mr Greenblatt was absolutely correct. What counts is not the names on the paper, what counts is where's the money. Senator? Who paid me hundreds of thousands of dollars of money? The answer to that is nobody. And if you had anybody who ever paid me a penny, you would have produced them today.

Now you refer at length to a company names in these documents as Aredio Petroleum. I say to you under oath here today: I have never heard of this company, I have never met anyone from this company. This company has never paid a penny to me and I'll tell you something else: I can assure you that Aredio Petroleum has never paid a single penny to the Mariam Appeal Campaign. Not a thin dime. I don't know who Aredio Petroleum are, but I daresay if you were to ask them they would confirm that they have never met me or ever paid me a penny.

Whilst I'm on that subject, who is this senior former regime official that you spoke to yesterday? Don't you think I have a right to know? Don't you think the Committee and the public have a right to know who this senior former regime official you were quoting against me interviewed yesterday actually is?

Now, one of the most serious of the mistakes you have made in this set of documents is, to be frank, such a schoolboy howler as to make a fool of the efforts that you have made. You assert on page 19, not once but twice, that the documents that you are referring to cover a different period in time from the documents covered by The Daily Telegraph which were a subject of a libel action won by me in the High Court in England late last year.

You state that The Daily Telegraph article cited documents from 1992 and 1993 whilst you are dealing with documents dating from 2001. Senator, The Daily Telegraph's documents date identically to the documents that you were dealing with in your report here. None of The Daily Telegraph's documents dealt with a period of 1992, 1993. I had never set foot in Iraq until late in 1993 - never in my life. There could possibly be no documents relating to Oil-for-Food matters in 1992, 1993, for the Oil-for-Food scheme did not exist at that time.

And yet you've allocated a full section of this document to claiming that your documents are from a different era to the Daily Telegraph documents when the opposite is true. Your documents and the Daily Telegraph documents deal with exactly the same period.

But perhaps you were confusing the Daily Telegraph action with the Christian Science Monitor. The Christian Science Monitor did indeed publish on its front pages a set of allegations against me very similar to the ones that your committee have made. They did indeed rely on documents which started in 1992, 1993. These documents were unmasked by the Christian Science Monitor themselves as forgeries.

Now, the neo-con websites and newspapers in which you're such a hero, senator, were all absolutely cock-a-hoop at the publication of the Christian Science Monitor documents, they were all absolutely convinced of their authenticity. They were all absolutely convinced that these documents showed me receiving $10 million from the Saddam regime. And they were all lies.

In the same week as the Daily Telegraph published their documents against me, the Christian Science Monitor published theirs which turned out to be forgeries and the British newspaper, Mail on Sunday, purchased a third set of documents which also upon forensic examination turned out to be forgeries. So there's nothing fanciful about this. Nothing at all fanciful about it.

The existence of forged documents implicating me in commercial activities with the Iraqi regime is a proven fact. It's a proven fact that these forged documents existed and were being circulated amongst right-wing newspapers in Baghdad and around the world in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Iraqi regime.

Now, Senator, I gave my heart and soul to oppose the policy that you promoted. I gave my political life's blood to try to stop the mass killing of Iraqis by the sanctions on Iraq which killed one million Iraqis, most of them children, most of them died before they even knew that they were Iraqis, but they died for no other reason other than that they were Iraqis with the misfortune to born at that time. I gave my heart and soul to stop you committing the disaster that you did commit in invading Iraq. And I told the world that your case for the war was a pack of lies.

I told the world that Iraq, contrary to your claims did not have weapons of mass destruction. I told the world, contrary to your claims, that Iraq had no connection to al-Qaeda. I told the world, contrary to your claims, that Iraq had no connection to the atrocity on 9/11 2001. I told the world, contrary to your claims, that the Iraqi people would resist a British and American invasion of their country and that the fall of Baghdad would not be the beginning of the end, but merely the end of the beginning.

Senator, in everything I said about Iraq, I turned out to be right and you turned out to be wrong and 100,000 people paid with their lives; 1600 of them American soldiers sent to their deaths on a pack of lies; 15,000 of them wounded, many of them disabled forever on a pack of lies.

If the world had listened to Kofi Annan, whose dismissal you demanded, if the world had listened to President Chirac who you want to paint as some kind of corrupt traitor, if the world had listened to me and the anti-war movement in Britain, we would not be in the disaster that we are in today. Senator, this is the mother of all smokescreens. You are trying to divert attention from the crimes that you supported, from the theft of billions of dollars of Iraq's wealth.

Have a look at the real Oil-for-Food scandal. Have a look at the 14 months you were in charge of Baghdad, the first 14 months when $8.8 billion of Iraq's wealth went missing on your watch. Have a look at Haliburton and other American corporations that stole not only Iraq's money, but the money of the American taxpayer.

Have a look at the oil that you didn't even meter, that you were shipping out of the country and selling, the proceeds of which went who knows where? Have a look at the $800 million you gave to American military commanders to hand out around the country without even counting it or weighing it.

Have a look at the real scandal breaking in the newspapers today, revealed in the earlier testimony in this committee. That the biggest sanctions busters were not me or Russian politicians or French politicians. The real sanctions busters were your own companies with the connivance of your own Government.....

I had gotten used to the allegation that I was taking money from Saddam Hussein. It's actually surreal to hear in this room this morning that I'm being accused of giving money to Saddam Hussein. This is utterly preposterous, utterly preposterous, that I gave $300,000 to Saddam Hussein. This is beyond the realms of the ridiculous.

No. The Miriam Appeals finances have been investigated by the charity commission on the order of Lord Goldsmith. You'll recall him, Senator. He's the attorney general, probably the only lawman in the world, that thought your war with Iraq was legal, thought Britain joining your war with Iraq was legal.

He ordered the charity commission to investigation to investigate the Miriam Appeal. Using their statutory powers, they recovered all money in and all money out ever received or spent by the Miriam Appeal. They found no impropriety, and I can assure you, they found no money from an oil contract from Aredio Petroleum, none whatsoever....They looked at every penny in and every penny out. And they did not find, I can assure you, any entries of a donation from a company called Aredio Petroleum, or, frankly, a donation from any company other than Mr. Zureiqat's company. That's a fact.

I can assure you, Mr. Zureiqat never gave me a penny from an oil deal, from a cake deal, from a bread deal, or from any deal. He donated money to our campaign, which we publicly brandished on all of our literature, along with the other donors to the campaign....

It's about time somebody said these things, and not just about Iraq.

For over fifty years the power of Congressional hearings has been abused by the members of Congress. For over fifty years Senators such as Joe McCarthy and Representatives such as Richard Nixon have used the Congressional power of subpeona to conduct trials by newspaper, trials by radio, and trials by television where the accused is never confronted with the accuser and allowed the least right of cross-examination, as Mr. Galloway has been, where the name of a man is smeared in the press without compunction and before he has a chance to reply, as Mr. Galloway has been, and where the names of the accusers are hidden from public view, as have Mr. Galloway's.

It will probably never cease. The temptation to use the power of subpeona for political advantage and conduct a de facto trial in the media will always be too great. But watching a member of the British Parliament use the forensic skills of that august institution to take the hide off a United States Senator in one inch strips certainly warmed the cockles of my heart.

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