Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Propaganda is in the Eye of the Beholder

"Brokeback Mountain is a politically correct piece of anti-family and anti-American propaganda aimed at poking a finger into the eye of the 128 million Christians who go to church every week."

Ted Baehr, Christian Film & Television Commission

"I realised that what he was up to was propaganda in the cause of the religion he believed in."

Children's author Philip Pullman on The Chronicles of Narnia


Propaganda n. The systematic propagation of a doctrine or cause or of information reflecting the views and interests of those advocating such a doctrine or cause; material disseminated by the advocates or opponents of a doctrine or cause.


Propaganda is a neutral word. Propaganda is merely a message meant to influence beliefs or opinions; in Spanish it simply means "advertising." In modern American culture, however, "propaganda" means, at best, an unbalanced exaggeration or, at worst, manipulation through the deliberate portrayal of falsehood as truth.

If you accept that "propaganda" is simply advocacy for a certain point of view -- which you must, since that's what it means -- then really all art is propaganda.

The idea that you can criticize art as "propaganda" and somehow be taken seriously must stem from the belief that artists are not allowed to have a point of view, or that they should not communicate it, or that as members of the "cultural elite" their views are out of touch and irrelevant, or, at least, that they should only communicate things which are pleasant and non-controversial. But as human beings never agree on anything, the idea of "non-controversial art" is a non-starter. Back when the first Neanderthal painted a mammoth on the wall of a cave, you can be sure two other cavemen got in an argument over whether it was any good.

The question is not really whether Brokeback Mountain or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe can be said to promote certain ideas, but whether they promote falsehoods.

"The real object is to demonstrate that homosexuality is normal, " wrote R. Cort Kirkwood for The New American in his lengthy and emphatic essay Homos on the Range. Mr. Kirkwood did not see Brokeback Mountain: "You needn't lift the lid on a garbage can, after all, to know what's inside." And what's in the trash, according to Kirkwood? "Homosexuals aren't like everyone else; and not just because they can't tell the difference between an entrance and an exit: they also expect society to accept, tolerate and legalize their sin."

Peter Bronson, writing in the Cincinnati Enquirer, agrees: "It dishonestly portrays selfish betrayal of family and marriage as a brave struggle against repression, as if homosexual love is more noble than traditional marriage."

Art, however, is not used to “settle” a discussion, but rather to provoke it. Brokeback Mountain no more proves homosexuality is normal than The Ten Commandments proves God parted the Red Sea…

…which brings me to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The propaganda controversy swirling around this film is not so much over its Christian content, but rather its target audience: children. The concern is whether children, too young and too naïve to be able to detect artistic bias, are being presented with ideas they don’t know how to defend themselves against. Are they being indoctrinated against their will?

Please forgive the lack of juicy quotes attacking C.S. Lewis’ agenda. It turns out when you do a Google search for “Narnia” and “propaganda,” instead of a lot of hot-tempered liberal screeds about the evils of religion, you get academic essays rebutting Christian assertions that the film is good propaganda by saying things like, “C.S. Lewis warned us not to read too much Christian theology into the stories of Narnia.” Liberals, it turns out, need to work on their inflammatory rhetoric.

“Much of the controversy generated before the film’s release concerning its potential overt Christian propaganda turned out to be hot, empty gassing,” wrote one reviewer, adding, “[it’s not] propaganda except in the perception of the religious or secular fundamentalist. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe brought me much comfort and joy as a Muslim child growing up in Wales." [emphasis mine] Yup, that’s right, here’s a Muslim movie critic defending Narnia on IslamOnline.

Art can certainly be moving, but its critics in this instance grant it more power than it has. Taking a child to see The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe no more plants a covert time bomb in their minds destined to turn them into Jerry Falwell than Brokeback Mountain will make them queer. Though he was referring to the latter film, Andrew Sullivan’s statement applies equally to the value of both movies: “That is what great art does: it reveals the truth we are too scared to see and the future we already, beneath all our denial, understand.”

Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Value of Art

In advance of the Oscars next Sunday, there's a post germinating in my mind on the cultural divide over Narnia and Brokeback Mountain. In the course of my research on the conservative Christian response to Brokeback, I noticed a number of people gleefully point out that while the film garnered the most Oscar nominations of any work this year, its overall earnings at the box office don't rank anywhere near the top grossing films.

I find this specious for many reasons. The year's top moneymaker, Revenge of the Sith, came out in May and is already on DVD; Brokeback opened in December. Furthermore, Brokeback is an arthouse film, not crowd-pleasing blockbuster. The subject matter is mature and controversial, with an admittedly limited appeal. March of the Penguins it is not. But what does that have to do with the quality of the film? Are they trying to argue that if Brokeback was as good as "Hollywood" and "the liberal media" say it is, it would be making the same money as Star Wars? And, who said Revenge of the Sith was good?

Judging a work of art by its popularity is a risky proposition. The Phantom of the Opera opened in London in 1986 and is presently the longest running show in Broadway history; it has been seen by an estimated 52 million people. But does it belong in the theatrical pantheon alongside Hamlet and Hedda Gabler?

What about The DaVinci Code, another work that has some Christians concerned? It's been on The New York Times bestseller list since April, 2003. I thought it was great. But if I were in the business of giving literary awards, Dan Brown isn't anything close to Garcia Marquez or Barbara Kingsolver or Salman Rushdie.

Should the controversial nature of the story prohibit it from award consideration? Richard Strauss' Salome was pulled from the boards of the Metropolitan Opera after a single performance in 1907 and banned until 1934. At the risk of getting an angry email from Antonin Scalia protesting my endorsement of the theory of evolving standards of decency, you'd be hardpressed to find a serious person today who would criticize Salome's artistic worthiness on the basis of its twisted eroticism.

Does Brokeback promote a specific agenda? That's a topic for a different post, but the tactic of accusing a work of art of pushing subversive ideas is an old one. Going back to the Metropolitan Opera, its 1950 production of Don Carlo was vociferously protested by people who accused it of being a "pro-communist" opera because the Spanish Inquisition comes off rather badly in it.

Furthermore, sometimes a work's limited appeal is testimony to its sophistication. (And sometimes it's not: raise your hand if you saw Gigli. Exactly.) When I first heard Alban Berg's Wozzeck at 18, I was appalled. Now, not only do I appreciate it, I find it unspeakably beautiful and emotionally gripping, but it took six years of hard study at a conservatory to learn enough about composition to understand what's happening in the score.

At the heart of this conundrum is the ancient argument over just what, exactly, "art" is. Remember Piss Christ? Damian Hirst's pickled shark? Some people seem to be under the impression that in order for art to be art, it has to be "good," which means to them that they have to like it, or, at the very least, understand it. But if it elicits such an extreme reaction as inspiring protests and debates in Congress, my guess is, it's art.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

The bridge at Multnomah Falls. Posted by Picasa

From Cape Horn on the Washington side of the Columbia River, looking east. Posted by Picasa

Horsetail Falls. Posted by Picasa

Friday, February 24, 2006

Cut and Run, Don't Walk

I have long maintained that we have an obligation to the Iraqi people: after invading their country following mistaken accusations that Saddam Hussein possessed banned weapons of mass destruction (later, "weapons of mass destruction related program activities") and actively maintained ties with Al Qaeda leadership, the least we could do was rebuild and repair the infrastructure that was damaged in the process and help guide (without controlling) the formation of a new representative government.

I am, sadly, no longer convinced that success is possible, at least not now.

I've written a lot about what "democracy" means: not just majority rule, but civil protections for minorities, freedom of speech, and the rule of law, accompanied by explicit rights such as rights to counsel, due process, appeal, habeas corpus review, etc.

Unspoken and unwritten in all our great founding documents is that democracy is the best substitute for violence. Not an antidote, mind you, but a substitute. The idea of western democracy was created by people who had fully accepted that the best way to solve problems was to sort them out rationally, not to kill people who disagreed with you.

Of course you can look to America and see violence all around: school shootings, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Los Angeles riots, etc. But these are extraordinary events, not daily circumstances. Yes, we've had presidents assassinated and abortion clinics bombed, but generally our public differences are resolved through civil means.

Look at the current fight over gay rights: yes, there's anti-gay violence now and then, certainly more than we'd like, but the "fight," such as it is, is in the courts and the voting booths, not in the streets. As a culture, we have renounced violence as a solution. Democrats don't bomb Republican campaign offices. Republicans don't kidnap Democrats' children. We don't take innocent reporters hostage and make unreasonable, unanswerable demands. Catholics won't allow me, a Protestant, to take communion at their altars, but they're not plotting the demolition of Grace Cathedral.

Look at the 2000 election. Sure, many of us feel the result was illegitimate, and it's not contested that Al Gore received more votes nationally than George Bush. But such is our commitment to civil society and respect for the law and each other that we acquiesced. We knew there was another chance in 2004. And there will be another one in 2008. That same situation in many other parts of the world would have resulted in burning cars and martial law and politicians fleeing for their lives. Not here.

The middle east hasn't gotten there yet.

Violence and rivalries, probably evolutionary leftovers from the days when it really was survival of the fittest, still abound. But we channel them into things like sports. We can assume a local identity, such as being a Yankees' fan, and we can enjoy our rivalry with the Red Sox -- which has lasted a century now -- but a few idiots aside, this doesn't result in violence. It mimics it, in a way, but it also replaces it.

In the run-up to the Iraq invasion, President Bush made a lot of facile comparisons between Saddam and Iraq and Hitler and Germany. Historians and middle-east experts cautioned, however, that the more appropriate analogy was Yugoslavia: an artificial nation comprised of disparate ethnic and religious groups arrogantly stitched together by foreign powers who thought they knew better.

How will you prevent civil war, the skeptics asked the President, once you have freed Iraq from the iron grip of Saddam Hussein? How will you keep the majority Shiites, long oppressed, from retaliating against their minority oppressors? Instead of receiving an answer, we were accused of being unpatriotic. In the President's mind, fantasy-based optimism is a more responsible position than pragmatism that takes into account unpleasant realities and potential outcomes.

Democracy won't take hold there until the people decide they really want it for themselves. It is not for America to bestow. Right now they seem content to slaughter each other. They are not going to end centuries-old hostilities because Condoleezza Rice asks them nicely. The United States should be ready and willing to help when our help is invited. Until that time, let's not waste lives, money and energy on people who don't appreciate it.

Support the troops. Get them the hell out of there.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Frozen Waterfalls

Just about an hour away from downtown Portland, Oregon is the beautiful Columbia River Gorge, with its many spectacular waterfalls. While I was home the temperature dropped to around 20, but there was no precipitation so the roads were clear and dry. My father and I drove up and got some pretty amazing shots of frozen waterfalls. I'll probably post a few more during the week. Posted by Picasa

If a picture's worth 1,000 words, here's 1,000 reasons why I love Oregon. Posted by Picasa

Wahkeena Falls breaks through the rocks. Posted by Picasa

For comparison, Multnomah Falls in springtime. Posted by Picasa

Multnomah Falls, the second highest waterfall in the United States. Posted by Picasa

I'm Still Single Why, Exactly?

Me with my mom's beloved pooch Maxine. Max does this amazing impression of Medusa from Clash of the Titans. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, February 22, 2006


Sorry for the silence. Got back late last night. Swamped at work, feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. Cool photos to come.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

I Have Beheld The Future, II

In Richard Wagner's opera Parsifal, Kundry is a woman condemned to earthly immortality. Forced to endure an endless existence, every time she awakes from her periodic deep sleeps, she utters a bloodcurdling scream.


I went to visit Grandmother yesterday. The last time I was in Oregon, about six months ago, I had an experience with her that wasn't super pleasant. Shortly afterward, she was determined to be a danger to herself and to others, and was placed in a home where she is monitored and treated with anti-psychotic drugs. She believes she is "recovering" and going home soon, and we encourage that particular delusion.

Her range of emotions has been greatly stunted by the drugs, which is a good thing. She's relatively coherent: she knew who I was, where I live, what I do for a living, and has been following the Olympics on her TV and wanted to know what I thought of the Flying Tomato. I did not desire to test whether she remembered the events of last August. She speaks in a fairly level monotone, clear and precise, but slow. Her facial expressions don't seem to change much, but she did say she was pleased to see me and gave me a nice hug and a peck on the cheek.

My father and I stopped by to chat with her during lunch at the home. It seems an okay enough place; my family does not have any money, so she's in a charity facility run by the Catholic Church. (As my grandmother is a devout atheist, I cannot help but enjoy the irony that she now sleeps every night under a large, rather ostentatious crucifix with a cement statue of Christ out the window.) She shares her small, dark, awful room with four other women. At one point she asked me to turn on the light, and I was distressed to see that the single, weak fluorescent fixture made no noticeable change in the room.

The dining/community area is a large, open, sunny space, but it does feel awfully institutional. Easy-listening music plays constantly.

I can't imagine how she endures her time there. I am not exaggerating when I say my Grandmother is the only resident who can articulate a sentence, let alone complete one. Many of the residents can no longer feed themselves. I watched as an aide held a piece of fish on a fork up to the mouth of a gentleman seated behind me. He stared past the fish. She tapped his chin with the fork, and he made no response.

At another table, a family had come to visit their father. "Hey dad, do you remember me?" The man sat, with his hands folded in his lap, staring downward, and did not answer.

My father, who has been regularly visiting for several months now, has gotten to know the quirks of the other folks. "Don't make eye contact with that one, or she'll come over." Or, "Keep some distance from her, she likes to grab people."

In an easy chair by the window, a small-framed, pudgy woman had fallen asleep. Two aides went to wake her so she could eat. Startled, I suppose, by the ruinous shock that her nightmare was real, trapped in a body that can no longer stand, her mind imprisoned behind a mouth that can no longer talk, she did the only thing she still can: she screamed.


They say to be careful what you wish for. I wish to not end up like that.

Friday, February 17, 2006

I Have Beheld The Future

I had an unexpected experience this morning.

I scanned my own groceries.

Yes, here in humble Beaverton, Oregon, I beheld a sociological and technological advance that is probably decades ahead of New York City, assuming it would even be possible there.

At first I was intimidated. I felt nervous, thinking, "Am I really supposed to be doing this?" But there were no checkers in sight, just scanning stations all set up with touch-screens, shopping bags, and an ATM. It was amazing.

My first time scanning groceries, and already I'm better at it than the girls at my Associated back in Manhattan who've been doing it for years. Swipe, beep, swipe, beep, swipe, beep, total, done. I now have even less respect for them than I did before. It is as easy as I thought it was.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

I am Here

On vacation through Tuesday. I may or may not be blogging very much depending on a) if anything interesting happens, b) the muse inspires me, c) how much fun I'm having, or d) how much time my mother spends on eBay. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Cheney Thing

Am I the only one who thinks the press is overreacting to this whole Dick Cheney shooting an old man in the face thing? It was a hunting accident. It happens.

Cheney could have handled this better. I mean, holding a press conference to announce that you shot -- excuse me, peppered -- an old geezer with buckshot would certainly be novel, but having your host, a beltway lobbyist, give an exclusive scoop to a regional newspaper hours after the incident sure makes it sound like they needed time to get the story straight.

Here are my questions: have you ever been around quail? They're beautiful. They're small. They don't really fly. Not like ducks, or anything. When panicked, they can flap themselves straight up in the air to escape from danger (usually terrestrial predators), but they're about as aerodynamic as a chicken. What kind of sadistic fuck enjoys blasting away cute, quirky, defenseless birds with a shotgun? Answer: our Vice President.

Now, I'm not a hunter. I confess, I'm not aware of hunting etiquette. It makes sense to me that if you're around people with guns -- people who intend to use them presently -- you'd want to let them know where you are. Still...Mr. Whittington is seventy-eight years old. How fast does this guy move? I'm supposed to believe that he just appeared out of nowhere?

Despite all that, what is wrong with the media? They're clearly just out for blood. So he didn't have the $7 license to shoot caged birds. Big. Effin. Deal. Cheney's clearly deceived us on so many other issues, it's not a stretch of the imagination to think he's fibbing here, too. But let's analyze this.

There are two possibilities. A) it was an accident. B) it wasn't an accident.

Now, just for the entertainment value of conjecture, let's suppose Possibility B. What are some possible motives for the Vice President to shotgun a senior citizen? Maybe he said, "Hey Dick, I read your wife's novel. I see where your daughter gets it."

Does the press really suspect that this was something other than an accident? If it was an accident, which it almost certainly was, isn't that the end of the story? Come on, mainstream media. You've got bigger quails to fry.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

A view across the Harlem River at The Bronx. Posted by Picasa

George Washington Bridge. A little blurry, sorry...hard to hold the camera still enough in the dark. Posted by Picasa

Heather Garden, Ft. Tryon Park Posted by Picasa

Mesicku na nebi hlubokem... Posted by Picasa

Thank You

To "Anonymous" in Wisconsin...thank you very much.

: )


Monday, February 13, 2006

Happy Valentine's Day: A Love Story

One of the more humiliating things I had to do during the year I had my ego forcibly beaten out of me in Switzerland was an open-air performance of Pergolesi's justifiably forgotten opera Il Maestro di Musica. The opera house had cast a true bass in the role of Colagianni, presumably because the "personaggi" page of the score does in fact indicate basso. In Pergolesi's day, however, they did not yet make the distinction between basses and baritones. Had they bothered to actually look at the music, they'd have seen the part calls for a lyric baritone.

The bass complained that he could not sing the role, but they basically told him to stop being a baby. Then of course they heard him at a late-stage rehearsal and fired him, because he couldn't sing it. They drafted me.

The music is easy and it's only about an hour long, but there is quite a bit of secco recitative, which is what us snobby types call that operatic form of dialogue accompanied by a harpsichord. There's a real art to secco recitative, and it's not the kind of thing that should be rushed. Alas, sometimes in the opera world you don't have a choice. I memorized it as fast as I could, but still took to the stage more than a little nervous about it. After all, you can fake the real singing part: no one knows the words anyway, and you're not going to forget the tune. Just make pretty noises. Just try faking secco recitative. It only works if you're fluent in Italian and can improvise in alternating, rhyming lines of seven and eleven syllables and can remember the chord progression so as to end your sentence in the correct key.

Oh, you also have to have an accompanist who can improvise along with you. As you can imagine, it's best just to avoid fucking up.

Every June, Zürich holds a citywide summer festival called Zürifäscht, and for this particular year the Opernhaus had decided to contribute Maestro. We were to perform this disaster on a rickety, hastily erected platform which looked like nothing so much as a gallows in a square on the Bahnhofstrasse, one of the most elegant shopping districts in all of Europe.

I was warmed up and ready to go, when suddenly we heard thundering disco music.

Somehow, someone overlooked that our performance coincided exactly with the time and location of Zürich's annual gay pride parade.

Now, Zürich's pride parade takes all of about twenty minutes. (New York's lasts six hours). Still, our tenor was much put out. Imagine, these homosexuals making the great Boguslaw Bidzinski delay a performance! (He also once told me a violinist friend of his couldn't be hired in Europe "because the Jews control all the orchestras." Charming guy.)

We finally got the show underway. We didn't really have an audience. Shoppers would pause for a moment, awkwardly, and then slink away. Some diners at a nearby sidewalk cafe passively sneered at us in that unique Swiss combination of bored disdain.

Things were going pretty well...until we got to a section of secco recitative and the Great Boguslaw skipped...oh, about a page. As fresh as I was to this score -- and given the difficulties of improvising -- I just blanked. I recognized his line, but for the life of me just could not recall what I was supposed to say next.

The pianist, leaning in from the weather-beaten upright that looked and sounded as if we'd purchased it at the auction when Gunsmoke went off the air, tried to prompt me. But given that we were outside on a busy street, a whisper was fairly useless. I gestured subtly, "again, please?" with my hand, but I still had no idea. Finally, since no one was really paying attention to us anyway, I looked straight at her and shouted, "WHAT?"

Oh yes, a performance for the ages. If there's a recording, it surely belongs here.

After that was over, I decided I had earned a drink. Or eight.

Since it was Pride, the bars were packed. And, of course, I ran into Thom. With him was just about the cutest boy I had ever seen.

His name was Dani, and it turned out he was Thom's best friend from childhood. Thom, ever the social butterfly, left us to go say hello to the four million other people he knew and...well, Dani and I hit it off.

[Un]fortunately, I only had about a month left on my contract (I had thrice declined renewal offers) before I returned to America. Had I met Dani earlier, I honestly might have made a different decision. What a sweetie. He was one of only a handful of people I met during that year who offered his shoulder for me to cry on. When we went out, he paid (a most un-Swiss thing to do). He came to see me in Don Carlo. At a desperate time, he restored my faith in humanity.

Dani is a teacher, and not long after I left Zürich he spent a year teaching in a missionary school in a remote coastal village in Ecuador. There he met Enrique.

I got an email from Dani today, in response to birthday greetings I sent him a short while back. He wrote, "I am as happy and as in love today as I was the day I first met him. We're getting married this summer."

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Winter That Almost Wasn't

Until last night, New York had barely seen anything this year that could properly be called "snow." This morning my windowsills had 10 inch drifts.

The New York Times is predicting this could be one of the top ten snowstorms in city history.

Normally on weekends I walk down to the Starbucks on 181st for a venti coffee, but today I thought I'd go for a walk first and get some shots of the pristine snow, already shin-deep, before it's ruined with foot- and pawprints, garbage, soot, and frozen dog poop.

I didn't get very far, unfortunately. The strong winds and heavy snow meant I was wet, cold and very uncomfortable before long. I turned around. I didn't even make it to Starbucks, as the prospect of going down the hill and coming back up seemed daunting. I settled for the Monkey Room.

Back inside, I curled up on the sofa with my large (if weakish) coffee and settled in to watch The V.I.P.'s, a movie I'd never heard of. Appropriately enough it's about a group of people stranded at Heathrow Airport in bad weather. It stars Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, as well as a very young Maggie Smith, Orson Welles in a minor character part, and the campy Margaret Rutherford as the Duchess of Brighton.

Now I'm going to bundle up again and trudge off to the store and make sure I have enough provisions to last out the storm.

If you don't hear from me again, tell Sean Astin goodbye for me.

What's that crap on my windowsill? Oh. Posted by Picasa

Fire escapes. Posted by Picasa

I bet it's even slower than usual! Posted by Picasa

My favorite building on Ft. Washington Avenue. Posted by Picasa

Looking north toward an invisible Ft. Tryon Park. Posted by Picasa

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Hotness on a Snowy Night

I was going to go on the blarg hop tonight, but after balancing my checkbook this afternoon and realizing I have about enough money for a pack of gum, I decided perhaps it would be best to stay in and watch TV. I ended up watching The Graduate, which, believe it or not, I had never seen before.

I didn't really care for it. It was kind of weird. And boring, in parts.


Oooof, young Dustin Hoffman? Hello.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Random Unrelated Thoughts (A Typical Friday)

Ruminations on Life in Manhattan

I am sick and tired of waiting in line for goddamned everything.

File Under: How the Hell Did I Not Hear About This?

I know I've said I don't believe you can read God's will into weather patterns, but...well...

This Picture Was the Highlight of My Week

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Civil Rights for Terrorists?

Back in December 2003, Howard Dean -- then leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination -- shocked people when he said he believes Osama bin Laden, were he to be captured, deserves a fair trial. Conservative columnist Robert Novak called it the most damaging "of all Dean's bizarre statements."

Fast-forward to today and the controversy over the President's warrantless wiretapping program. "If Al Qaeda is calling you," he says frequently to applause, "we want to know why." Civil libertarians have expressed concerns about the program.

Meanwhile, over at the alternative-reality blog GayPatriot, they're laughing themselves silly over a puerile satire of the Gingrich era, called "Democrats' Contract With Al Qaeda." The bottom line, according to them? "Show me how Democrats want to defend Americans, not terrorists’ civil rights."

Do terrorists have civil rights? Should they?

Once again, the right-wing activists who make up the core of the GOP's base have shown their lack of understanding and contempt for the Constitution, despite their repeated insistence that they believe in an "originalist" interpretation. The three-branch government, with its system of checks and balances, is the essential mechanism for controlling corruption. Basic protections, such as due process and habeas corpus, help prevent the government from using imprisonment as a method of silencing the dissent necessary for a healthy democratic society. Today's conservatives act like a "fair trial" is a privilege to be extended only to Enron executives.

The reason that Osama bin Laden deserves a fair trial has nothing to do with him. It's because you deserve a fair trial.

Let me put it this way. What do you personally know about Osama bin Laden and his guilt in relation to the events of September 11 or any other terrorist attacks Al Qaeda is believed to be responsible for? Chances are, you know only what you've heard from the government and the media. The reason most Americans believe that bin Laden is guilty is because they've been told he is.

Some would argue that the severity of his crimes -- or because he is a non-citizen conducting a stateless, non-traditional war -- merit forfeiture of his civil rights. But we're not really talking about being kind to Osama, we're talking about being fair to the average citizen. If bin Laden were captured, he needs to be brought to trial and have the evidence against him presented before a court, and, yes, our founding fathers would also argue that he has the right to defend himself.

This is not, as some conservatives might have you think, some kind of legal loophole designed to let terrorists get away thanks to clever lawyers. It's not being soft on terror. It's being faithful to the principles on which America was founded.

If Osama bin Laden could be apprehended and, say, summarily executed without due process -- meaning, without a trial where evidence of his guilt was presented publicly and a verdict reached in accordance with the law, then pretty much anyone could be apprehended and sentenced without court review.

Let's say for example that you were apprehended on American soil by federal authorities. A representative from the government -- say, the attorney general or someone from the Department of Homeland Security -- held a press conference announcing that you had ties to Al Qaeda and had been arrested because you were planning a terrorist strike on a major American city. Would President Bush and the GOP insist on due process?

Actually, we don't have to speculate because unfortunately that's not a hypothetical scenario. The answer is no, President Bush favors imprisoning Americans without a trial.

In May 2002, Jose Padilla was arrested at Chicago's O'Hare Airport and taken to a military jail in South Carolina, where he was held without access to counsel and was never charged with a crime. Then-Attorney General Ashcroft held a press conference and announced that Padilla was an Al Qaeda associate who had been planning to detonate a radioactive dirty bomb in an American city. President Bush labeled Padilla an "enemy combatant" and argued that due process did not apply.

After more than three years of court-wrangling, civil rights attorneys won for Padilla the right to a civilian trial, forcing the federal government to outline charges against him in court. The charges that were filed included no mention of a dirty bomb plot, because the government had no evidence. None. Zero. Zilch.

Jose Padilla is no saint, but President Bush was content to lock him up and throw away the key based on charges for which he had no evidence. If we don't insist on civil rights for suspected terrorists, we can no longer guarantee them for ourselves.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Blasphemy, Freedom of Speech, and the War on Terror

Your mother is a fat, stupid cunt.

I bet you didn't like that, did you? You reacted in a visceral way, no doubt, with a sickening feeling gathering in the pit of your stomach that tells you no one should use ugly words like that, especially not in a public forum like this, and especially not about your mother, whom I don't even know.

Well, fuck yourself, there's a little thing called Freedom of Speech, asshole.

What? You're not buying my defense? You're still upset? You think I shouldn't have said that?


There is a difference, my friends, between Freedom of Speech and Poor Taste. Freedom of Speech is one of the fundamental pillars of democracy, the recognition that ideas deserve protection from censorship. Our founding fathers put a lot of stock in free speech because they escaped from a world where publicly criticizing the government was a crime, where expressing dissent meant risking your life.

And so in this country we have constitutionally protected free speech, which means you have the right to say absolutely anything you want. However, just because you can doesn't mean you should.

As you are probably aware, there are riots and other forms of violence going on right now in Europe and the middle east over the publication in a Danish newspaper of some cartoons featuring images of the Prophet Mohammed. In Islam, depicting the Prophet in any way is an egregious act of blasphemy. This is common knowledge, in the same vein as the ban on pork in Judaism and on beef in Hinduism.

Here in the west, particularly for those of us of Christian European descent, it might be hard for us to imagine how a picture of Mohammed could possibly be offensive; after all, Christian art abounds with images of Christ, the Virgin, the Saints -- even, in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, the face of God Himself. The idea that a mere image could be offensive is, well, foreign to us.

But it is not for us to judge what someone else gets to be outraged over, or for us to gauge the appropriate level of sensitivity. We have got to understand that in Islam, an image of the Prophet is as horrifying as the words I used at the opening of this post.

But there's more. These were not just cartoons in which Mohammed appeared. Here is a description of the illustrations from the blog Sisyphus Shrugged: "Mohammed with a lit bomb in his turban, Mohammed with devil horns sticking out of his turban, and Mohammed informing terrorists that they had to stop blowing things up because Islam has run out of virgins to reward them with in heaven."

In other words, these were images intended to insult.

The Danish Prime Minister and his right-wing apologists here in the U.S. insist this is purely a matter of free speech; the newspaper didn't do anything wrong, it has a right to express its opinons. Imagine the response over at Little Green Footballs if tomorrow The New York Times published a cartoon of Condoleezza Rice dolled up like Aunt Jemima. There's nothing illegal about it, so how could they object?

Because it's offensive, that's why. As Sisyphus wrote so beautifully, "Free speech means that you have the right to express yourself. You even have the right to be protected by law from people you've offended who want to express their offense in illegal ways. It does not mean that if you act like a dumb [rude anglo-saxon noun] you're really a brave warrior for truth and the rights of man or anything but a really, really dumb [rude anglo-saxon noun]."

This is not to say that I find the response from the Muslim world justified or appropriate. Over at GayPatriot, they've been waiting for a liberal to condemn the violence: "Will the Lefty bloggers and Democratic mainstream disavow this type of statement? I doubt it. There is less and less distance between the American Left/Democrats and our enemies abroad."

No, I condemn the violence in the strongest possible terms. And I concur with Republicans who call for Islamic leadership and middle eastern governments to oppose the violence. The good news is, some of them have: Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora condemned the use of violence in the protests. "This has nothing to do with Islam at all," he told Future television. "Destabilizing security and vandalism give a wrong image of Islam. Prophet Mohammad cannot be defended this way."


This is why we're losing the War on Terror.

President Bush has long denied it, but this is a religious war. It does not matter whether the U.S. is really waging this war at the behest of Evangelicals trying to empower the Zionists to usher in the return of Christ, because the man on the street in the middle east believes that's exactly what's going on. In politics, perception is truth.

It's a war of ideas. As we marched into Baghdad proclaiming liberation, the Muslim world saw American oppression. Sincere Bush supporters might see our military endeavors as a virtuous attempt to export democracy to a troubled region of the world, but the Islamists see it as part of the grand, global, eternal struggle between Good and Evil. Because they believe they are fighting for God, they will never give up.


And now we've added this grotesque miscalculation by the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten, which cynically claims it was making a stand for free speech when in fact it was intentionally baiting the violence which followed.

Until we can somehow convince the average Arab that we are really on their side, that we really want the best for them and their society, that we want to help them escape from oppressive theocracies and move into the modern era for their own benefit and not for America's financial gain, we will continue to lose this war of ideas.

Insulting Mohammed is a step in the wrong direction. A big one.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Gay Republicans?

Let me say that I pride myself on my ability to see both sides of an argument. It makes me a wonderful diplomat and a horrible decision-maker. Second, let me say that though I am a liberal, I really am not a partisan. Any regular reader of this blog knows I've had criticism and disdain a-plenty for the Democratic leadership. (And I voted for Bloomberg -- does that count for anything?)

So believe me when I say I completely understand and respect the traditional Republican viewpoints: that the government should tax us as lightly as possible and do only for us what is absolutely necessary, rather than trying to be every answer to every problem; a muscular foreign policy that doesn't shy away from the use of force to protect Americans and American interests; social conservatism and respect for traditional values, including opposition to abortion; supply-side theory and trickle-down economics. Historically, liberals and conservatives have seen the same problems but adopted different approaches to solving them.

Today, however, it's like we're living in different dimensions. Nowhere has this become more apparent to me than over at the blog GayPatriot, where in recent posts the authors have consistently argued that the Democratic party and liberals in general are more hostile to gay rights than Republicans.

Gay Republicans like to point out that many prominent Democrats, such as John Kerry, Howard Dean and Gov. Tim Kaine, who this past week gave the Democratic response to the State of the Union address, have gone on record as being opposed to marriage equality for gay people. They think we don't know this, or, they think we don't care. (They also seem to think that Democrats actually liked John Kerry, for some reason. Iowa: I will never forgive you. He got the nomination because the out-of-touch powers that were at the DNC kept insisting there was something called "electability" and promised us that only John Kerry had it. They kept touting his "gravitas," which was so heavy it sank him.) Liberal gay blogs, including this one, were full of criticism for Kerry's stances on gay rights.

Ironically, but not surprisingly, while gay Republicans gleefully point out that Kerry is anti-marriage, they stay mum when straight conservatives argue that Democrats want to force same-sex marriage on the rest of America, and even suggest that Kerry himself is a big 'mo.

Doesn't it seem far-fetched to try to paint the half-assed, ineffective Democrats as being more anti-gay than the GOP? Wait, strike "far-fetched." Delusional.

Last week, there was a vicious attack in a Massachusetts gay bar, where a neo-Nazi youth went after patrons and the bartender with a handgun and a hatchet. Bruce at GayPatriot wrote, "I thought we were all supposed to go around like nymphs in the fairie meadows in Massachusetts celebrating our gayness. Frankly, I feel more comfortable in Charlotte being who I am then I ever did in Washington, DC or Northern Virginia."

Okay, let's take a look at this. Massachusetts is presently the only state in the union that has granted same-sex couples the right to marry, giving them full equality under the law. Who opposed that? The state's Republican governor, Mitt Romney. (Also, to be fair, John Kerry, the twit. John Kerry would have opposed puppies, if Bob Shrum had told him voters wanted to hear it.) But the civil rights movement is not an all-or-nothing proposition, it's a step-by-step strategy, and bluer-than-blue Massachusetts is ahead right now.

Bruce then went on to say, without providing any evidence, "PatriotPartner and I both agreed that when you hear of gay bashing stories, a majority (though not all) actually seem to come out of Liberal Blue State America." Again, to be fair, it's impossible to find data on this. Why? Because states that don't have hate crime protections for gay people don't record gay-bashings in any way other than as a violent crime. And which states have no hate-crime protections for gay people? Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming.

In the comments section on GayPatriot, I asked if anyone happened to notice a trend. "Yes," said one reader, "they're all listed in alphabetical order." I take it back. Republicans can see the obvious. True, there are several "red" states that do not appear in this list; however, there are no "blue" states that do not have legal protections for gay and lesbian people. If you're going to look at overall violent crime, then, seven of the top ten states for violent crime are "red."

Another GayPatriot fan responded to my list by saying, "Yes. Those are all states in which I would vastly prefer to live, rather than the liberal hell-hole states of New York, Massachussetts [sic], New Jersey, or God forbid, the Peoples’ Republic of California." (Incidentally, New York, New Jersey and California will legalize same-sex marriage this year.)

So let's talk about California. Last summer, California's Democrat-dominated legislature legalized same-sex marriage, only to have it vetoed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Republican governor. The best part? After the endless rhetoric from Republicans about "activist judges redefining marriage," the Governator said he believed the Legislature acted improperly and that the issue should be decided by the courts.

Yet the folks at GayPatriot continue to insist that it's really the Democrats who are the bigots. ThatGayConservative wrote, "I have more faith in Bush than [National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Executive Director Matt] Foreman or [HRC President Joe] Solmonese in achieving gay rights. "