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Wednesday, February 26, 2003

Away til next week.

I'll be in Washington DC for the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship conference, Revival 2003, tomorrow through Sunday. I won't be posting again until next week.

In the meantime, check out Ship of Fools, the cheeky British religious Web site, which is gearing up to launch The Ark.

"The Ark is an internet reality gameshow, set on the world's most famous floating zoo," says Simon Jenkins, editor of shipoffools.com, creators of The Ark. "We're looking for 12 contestants from around the globe to take the craziest voyage of their lives. In the comfort of their own homes, our chosen 12 will spend time every day playing a Bible celeb of their choice on a 3D cyberark — while the world looks on."

Just think: You may not be hot, you may not be a millionaire — you may not even be a $19,000-a-year construction worker — but you could play Samson or Jezebel on the Web! Also check out Ship of Fools' "Gadgets for God." Whose says religion can't be fun — or at least silly? (They also offer a biblical curse generator, always helpful when you have some smiting to do.)

Posted by Philocrites, February 26, 2003, at 06:48 PM | 0 comments

Tuesday, February 25, 2003

Hawks and tough doves.

"The neo-cons want to frighten the bad guys in rogue states by demonstrating U.S. power and resolve," writes Ronald Brownstein in yesterday's Los Angeles Times. But these conservative hawks aren't the only ones who want to disarm Saddam Hussein. "The tough doves want to unify the civilized world against emerging dangers by demonstrating the value of what [Tony] Blair has memorably called 'a new doctrine of international community.'" At stake is something much larger than whether the U.S. goes to war with Iraq: "The two camps are seeking to establish in Iraq very different precedents for how the world deals with new threats in the age of global terrorism."

The new New Republic.

What a spiffy redesign! The magazine's "Liberalism and American Power" issue is a must-read for tough doves — for anyone, actually, who is serious about America's role in the world. I'll have more to say about the contents as I have time to digest them, but right off the bat I'd say Paul Berman and Samantha Power are good places to start. (Since I'm a subscriber, I'm enjoying the whole magazine on-line, though their server seems awfully sluggish; you may need to become a subscriber, too.)

Posted by Philocrites, February 25, 2003, at 05:51 PM | 0 comments

Sunday, February 23, 2003

Forceful opposition.

"We need a complicated campaign against the war, whose participants are ready to acknowledge the difficulties and the costs of their politics," writes Michael Walzer in the March 13 New York Review of Books (Update 3.5.03: now on-line). "The right way to oppose the war is to argue that the present system of containment and control is working and can be made to work better. This means that we should acknowledge the awfulness of the Iraqi regime and the dangers it poses, and then aim to deal with those dangers through coercive measures short of war. But this isn't a policy easy to defend, for we know exactly what coercive measures are necessary, and we also know how costly they are" — not only to Americans, who will foot the bill, but to Iraqis as well.

First, the existing embargo. . . Second, the 'no-fly' zones. . . Third, the UN inspections [which] will have to go on indefinitely. . . But the inspections regime will collapse, as it collapsed in the Nineties, unless there is a visible readiness to use force to sustain it. And this means that there have to be troops in the vicinity. . .

But internationalist liberals also need to be thinking long-term as well, and this is where Walzer's essay is most helpful:

[W]e need a campaign that isn't focused only on the war (and that might survive the war) — a campaign for a strong international system, organized and designed to defeat aggression, to stop massacres and ethnic cleansing, to control weapons of mass destruction, and to guarantee the physical security of all the world's peoples. . .

Today, the UN inspections regime is in place in Iraq only because of what many American liberals and leftists, and many Europeans too, called a reckless US threat to go war. Without that threat, however, UN negotiators would still be dithering with Iraqi negotiators, working on, but never finally agreeing on, the details of an inspections system. . . Some of us are embarrassed to realize that the threat we opposed is the chief reason for the existence of a strong inspection system, and the existence of a strong inspection system is today the best argument against going to war. . .

Liberal internationalists can't just criticize American unilateralism:

This is what internationalism requires: that other states, besides the US, take responsibility for the global rule of law and that they be prepared to act, politically and militarily, with that end in view. . . When we campaign against a second Gulf War, we should also be campaigning for that kind of multilateral responsibility. And this means that we have demands to make not only on Bush and Co. but also on the leaders of France and Germany, Russian and China, who, although they have recently been supporting continued and expanded sanctions, have also been ready, at different times in the past, to appease Saddam. If this preventable war is fought, all of them will share responsibility with the US.

Also in the March 13 issue, Israeli liberal Avishai Margalit's essay on the real threat: "Radical Islam of the sort promoted by bin Laden is and should be regarded as the enemy. . ." He thinks the US is getting its priorities mixed up: "Terror as propaganda-by-action counts on one thing: the overreaction of its victims. . . The governing principle should be: Do not overreact. Acting against Iraq is a glaring example of overreacting." (Update 3.5.03: Now on-line.)

Posted by Philocrites, February 23, 2003, at 12:52 PM | 0 comments

Those aren't ugly Americans abroad.

Three cheers for Walter Kirn and his New York Times Magazine piece "The Anti-Anti-American." And I laughed out loud at the photograph accompanying it — of two young American hicks in loud T-shirts in an Italian plaza, and then I laughed again, because that's no Italian plaza. It's The Venetian in Las Vegas!

Posted by Philocrites, February 23, 2003, at 12:48 PM | 0 comments

Saturday, February 22, 2003

Another good UU blog.

Jone Lewis's Hemsidan comes to us from one of the best Unitarian Universalist-Ethical Culture-religious humanist webheads around. She is the force behind Transcendentalists.com and is About.com's Womens History guide. Highly recommended sites!

Posted by Philocrites, February 22, 2003, at 01:07 PM | 0 comments

Billy Collins.

The poet laureate, referring to the controversy caused by poets who wanted to turn a White House symposium on poetry into a commentary on the President's war policy, tells the New York Times Magazine: "Politicizing the event has resulted in its cancellation and perhaps the end of literary events at the White House." That is a pity, but poetry will survive just fine.

I thought Collins was especially interesting in this exchange:

What was the last poem that really spoke to, or was embraced by, the American people?

I can't think of an antiwar poem that has spoken to the American people. There is one poem that has spoken to the American people, and that is ''Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.'' That is the most popular poem in America. It was either that or ''The Road Not Taken'' that John F. Kennedy carried with him in his wallet on a piece of paper.

He also comments that poetry "dies off and gets buried under other adolescent pursuits" — which is why he puts so much of his energy into his Poetry 180 project. But he reminded me of one of the more heartening things I experienced when I worked as a youth advisor at a Unitarian Universalist church from 1997 through 2000. The leaders of the youth group planned a "poetry night" one Sunday, and while I knew that the kids were bright and creative, I didn't actually expect them to bring in literature. There were Ani DiFranco lyrics — but one ninth-grade boy brought in his own copy of Robert Frost, and read both poems Collins mentioned, and a ninth-grade girl who I hadn't thought of as a literary type brought in something that surprised me much more: Wislawa Szymborska's View with a Grain of Sand. (They must have had a great poetry unit earlier that year.)

I had been promoting Szymborska as the best candidate for a Unitarian Universalist lectionary — friends, she is a thousand times better than Mary Oliver — but I had not really expected Szymborska to speak so immediately to teens as well as to adults. But there you go. And that leads to the other wonderful observation Collins makes in the interview:

If you could hand Bush or Cheney a poem right now, what would it be?

The poets who have written the best poems about war seem to be the poets whose countries have experienced an invasion or vicious dictatorships. Poets like Vaclav Havel, and Mandelstam and Akhmatova from Russia, and from Poland, Milosz, and the poet whom I am centering on, Wislawa Szymborska, a Nobel Prize winner. She has a poem, ''The End and the Beginning,'' that begins: ''After every war / someone has to clean up. / Things won't / straighten themselves up, after all. / Someone has to push the rubble / to the side of the road, / so the corpse-filled wagons / can pass.'' I would probably stand at the White House and hand out this poem.

Milosz and Szymborska are great favorites of mine, and I've also been reading their compatriot Adam Zagajewski. (Incidentally, I've read Szymborska's poems in several Unitarian Universalist church services I've led — "In Praise of Feeling Bad about Yourself" for a sermon on the conscience, and "Nothing's a Gift" at the conclusion of my sermon A hand on your shoulder — and I selected "On Death, without Exaggeration" for UU World's special issue after 9/11.)

Finally, I heard Collins read at the November 30 "Prairie Home Campanion" broadcast in New York City with my fiancee and her parents. (Thanks, Mike and Jackie!) Garrison Keillor lampooned Collins's role as poet laureate in one sketch; Billy Collins played a version of himself. You can hear Collins read some charming poems here and here. And if you don't have enough poetry in your life, the best place to encounter wonderful poetry on the Web is at Poetry Daily.

Posted by Philocrites, February 22, 2003, at 12:53 PM | 0 comments

Friday, February 21, 2003

Wieseltier vs. Menand.

Thanks to Arts & Letters Daily yesterday for finding a referee for the skirmish over Orwell's legacy. Tim Rutten takes a close look at Leon Wieseltier's controversy with Louis Menand. (Background reading here and here.)

In The Metaphysical Club — definitely worth reading — Menand clearly buys Oliver Wendell Holmes's assertion that "certitude leads to violence." Holmes preferred a kind of adjudicatory liberalism, keeping every party a bit off balance so that no one had the upper hand for long. It wasn't so much that truth was in the middle; he thought that truth was merely a tool — a club — that each party wanted to use. But William James never embraced this variety of pragmatism. Instead he saw the tragic necessity in having to choose. He explicitly acknowledges in Pragmatism that there is no guarantee that truth or right will prevail, and that people do act on the basis of what they believe most strongly. Consequently, he went looking for "a moral equivalent to war." That's worlds apart from Holmes's anti-certainty.

And Wieseltier is right to poke at this weakness in Menand's argument. Holmes, Brahmin to the end, liked being an impartial arbiter; it was his version of the old Yankee "disinterestedness." A liberal democratic state manages conflict in ways that we often take for granted, but it's quite an achievement for a society to make space for disinterestedness. It's also quite dangerous to forget that a liberal democratic state is a human and therefore vulnerable achievement, not a state of nature.

Risks of commitment.

But Menand is getting at something important. When I read Paul Tillich's Dynamics of Faith, it occurred to me that it isn't really possible to avoid finding one's "ultimate commitment" in symbols, or in what Tillich calls "concrete concerns," which are never truly ultimate. We always encounter transcendence through non-transcendent things; we discover truth in part, but never wholly; our piety always has an idolatrous dimension — and idolatry, Tillich pointed out, does unleash demonic powers.

(Or, as James Baldwin puts it more excitedly in The Fire Next Time: "Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have." Freud might point out that no human being can help denying the "fact of death" — that's actually what the "pleasure principle" is all about — but that's another post for another day. For now, latching on to some "identity" in order to avoid meaninglessness is exactly what Tillich is describing as idolatry.)

The danger of idolatry motivates Tillich to place such a premium on the "Protestant principle," the critical spirit that denies that our ideas of God are ever adequate. And this is why criticism is always dangerous to the status quo: There is a point at which certitude dismisses all critics, denies that its claim to truth is not absolute, and adopts violence in the name of its vision. That's the story of totalitarianism.

Menand doesn't like tragedy, however. Tillich's "Protestant principle" protests against idols in the name of the "God beyond God"; Menand protests against commitment itself. And Wieseltier goes to town on him for it. I would like to believe that we can banish violence from politics (or, to euphemize a bit, "coercion from human interactions"), but here in the real world, the question is how to expand the realm of human freedom so that people can pursue their commitments with the smallest threat of violence. For me, that requires a strong commitment to extending and strengthening political and cultural freedom — even though I know that holding this commitment involves some tragic risks. (I examine one commonly-held Unitarian Universalist commitment here.)

Every bad idea has had unforeseen consequences. We often forget that every good idea does, too. Which reminds me: Read Isaiah Berlin. I especially recommend "The Pursuit of the Ideal" in The Crooked Timber of Humanity.

Posted by Philocrites, February 21, 2003, at 06:03 PM | 0 comments

Have liberals been duped?

Peter Beinart wonders whether liberal hawks have made a bad bet:

The unhappy truth is that, if the Bush administration wins the war but betrays the peace, the political consequences for the president will be small. Once the fighting is over, the American press will turn its attention elsewhere, just as it has in post-Taliban Afghanistan. But the consequences for hawkish liberalism will be great. Having been played for fools, most liberal hawks will retreat to a deep skepticism of American power. They will end up on the decent, feckless left — in the company of those who sincerely condemn men such as Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam but have no strategy for toppling them except empty exhortations to people power. And that soft isolationism will likely retake the Democratic Party. On the right, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney won't lose sleep if Chevron and Crown Prince Abdullah run things in post-Saddam Baghdad rather than Kanan Makiya. Paul Wolfowitz will either shut up or resign.

Many people would consider this ideological reshuffling an improvement. At home, liberals could reclaim the language of human rights for themselves, secure in the knowledge that it, and they, would no longer be sullied by an association with the 82nd Airborne. The collapse of hawkish liberalism might actually diminish anti-Americanism abroad since, absent their liberal allies, Rumsfeld and Cheney would be less likely to drape their actions in the moralistic talk Europeans find so grating. After all, no one protests Russia's intervention in Chechnya on the streets of Paris and Rome.

But, when the next Bosnia did come along, its leaders wouldn't find America's new separation between liberalism and power nearly so refreshing; between the realist left and the McGovernite left, they would have nowhere to turn. The truth is that liberalism has to try to harness American military power for its purposes because American tanks and bombs are often the only things that bring evil to heel. Opposing this war might have helped liberals retain their purity, but it would have done nothing for the people suffering under Saddam. If liberals are betrayed a second time in the Gulf, hawkish liberalism may well go into temporary eclipse. But one day we, and they, will need it again.

My hunch is that we have lost this bet. So it's time to think long-term once again. (Why, you ask?)

Posted by Philocrites, February 21, 2003, at 05:29 PM | 0 comments

Mormons on hate crime.

At last, the Mormon church comes out not opposed to hate-crimes legislation. Church lobbyists called Utah legislators to let them know that "The church's well-known opposition to attempts to legalize same-gender marriage should never be interpreted as justification for hatred, intolerance or abuse of those who profess homosexual tendencies either individually or as a group." And there's a Republican co-sponsor for the bill, from my hometown — where a whopping 89.87 percent of the population is Mormon.

According to the abysmal Provo Daily Herald, Orem Republican James Ferrin — the co-sponsor — is also not opposed. What an endorsement!

This is what we call progress in Utah.

Posted by Philocrites, February 21, 2003, at 04:45 PM | 0 comments

Thursday, February 20, 2003

Schell's game.

In my mail yesterday were issues of Harper's and The Nation, both featuring cover stories by Jonathan Schell: "Why War Is Futile" for Lewis Lapham, "The Case Against the War" for Katrina vanden Heuvel. Such synchronicity!

The real gold in Harper's, though, looks like Jeffrey Sharlet's report "Jesus Plus Nothing: Undercover among America's Secret Theocrats." Sharlet is an editor of KillingtheBuddha.com.

Posted by Philocrites, February 20, 2003, at 05:00 PM | 0 comments

Wednesday, February 19, 2003

What the 'New Europeans' are really saying.

"New Europe" supports Bush against Iraq, over the loud and patronizing objections of "Old Europe" — but the people of Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland actually oppose a war. Scott MacMillan writes from Prague that something else is driving the leaders of the former Warsaw Pact nations to support the U.S.: "For many, the Iraq spat is a proxy battle for the forthcoming redefinition of the European Union. The message to EU powerhouses France and Germany is clear: We'll join you, but that doesn't mean we'll follow you."

Posted by Philocrites, February 19, 2003, at 06:44 PM | 0 comments

'Liberalism lies dying.'

So says Guardian columnist Jackie Ashley about the British scene. "It is easy to be progressive on the back of a long boom and in a time of post-cold war security; real leadership means fighting for progressive values through the dark days too." But the British Labour Party is deeply divided over Iraq — and the feeling of insecurity threatens to obscure liberal successes. Ashley sums up the basic danger to liberal politics: "The state can say: 'It's all right, we'll look after you' but we don't believe them any more."

Update 2.18.05: Are you looking for Martin Peretz's New Republic essay, "Not Much Left" (2.18.05)?

Posted by Philocrites, February 19, 2003, at 06:33 PM | 0 comments

The religious left.

Beliefnet has a fine story on religious opposition to war with Iraq, highlighting the visible role mainline denominations and the National Council of Churches have taken in the Win Without War campaign and other antiwar efforts. The best quotes go to Evangelical critics of the antiwar movement, but the story is balanced enough to describe the failure of the National Association of Evangelicals to pass a resolution endorsing the war. Also: a sociologist tells the writer that "with the involvement of religious groups, Americans can recognize antiwar activists as 'a favorite aunt or Ned Flanders.'" Great . . .

President as theologian.

Also on Beliefnet, Mark A. Noll observes that "none of Americaís respected religious leaders — as defined by contemporaries or later scholars — mustered the theological power so economically expressed in Lincolnís Second Inaugural." In the midst of the Civil War, the president turned out to be America's finest theologian. Lincoln embraced the traditional Christian notion that God rules over all events,

But to this conventional belief Lincoln added two most unconventional convictions. First was the notion that the United States might not necessarily be a uniquely chosen nation, or at least that the moral constraints operating on American were the same as those for other nations, and that these universal standards of justice were of greater consequence than any supposed chosenness of the United States. Second was Lincolnís belief that the ways of providence might be obscure, difficult to fathom, hedged in by contingencies, or otherwise not open to immediate understanding and manipulation.

P.S. Lincoln, who never joined a church, was greatly influenced by the radical Unitarian Theodore Parker. Garry Wills looks closely at Parker's influence on the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln at Gettysburg; see especially chapter 3.

Posted by Philocrites, February 19, 2003, at 06:06 PM | 0 comments

The Iraqi opposition in Iran.

Elizabeth Neuffer interviews Iraqis in exile in Iran who are planning to join the fight to topple Saddam Hussein. Jon Lee Anderson's harrowing New Yorker article provides much more detail about their motivations and anxieties about American plans.

Posted by Philocrites, February 19, 2003, at 05:29 PM | 0 comments

Tuesday, February 18, 2003

Iraqi-Americans on the war.

The Globe talks to a few of the 300 Iraqis now living in the Boston area: "Their opinions differed on various issues, but they agreed on one point: Hussein must go." One of the women, Zainab Al-Suwaij, fled after joining the rebellion that rose up against Saddam Hussein in 1991; she describes her experience in more detail in an essay for the New Republic.

Iraqis on Americans.

Elizabeth Neuffer covered the disastrous 1991 uprising, which George Bush cynically abandoned. She recently returned to see how Iraqis might respond to a war to topple their dictator. Her conclusion: "While many Iraqis may hate Saddam Hussein, that does not mean they trust President George W. Bush's pledge to 'liberate' Iraq." She describes their many reasons to distrust us.

John F. Burns interviews Iraqis in exile in neighboring Jordan, and points to a bitter irony: "[T]heir hatred of Mr. Hussein had an equally potent counterpoint: for them, the country that would rid them of their leader was not at all a bastion of freedom, dispatching its legions across the seas to defend liberty, but a greedy, menacing imperial power." But he follows up:

The men refused to accept that their image of the United States might be distorted by the rigidly controlled Iraqi news media, which offer as unreal a picture of America as they do of Iraq. But when it was suggested that they could hardly wish to be liberated by a country they distrusted so much — that they might prefer President Bush to extend the United Nations weapons inspections and stand down the armada he has massed on Iraq's frontiers — they erupted in dismay.
"No, no, no!" one man said excitedly, and he seemed to speak for all. Iraqis, they said, wanted their freedom, and wanted it now.

The United States is about to do something so drastic, so expensive, and so dangerous that the mind reels. But this time there really cannot be half-measures. It would be barbaric to destroy what little remains in Iraq if we don't leave something better, and it is scandalous that President Bush isn't even talking about the expense. Even Andrew Sullivan is complaining.

Posted by Philocrites, February 18, 2003, at 01:39 PM | 0 comments

Outstanding commentary.

Dan Kennedy is senior writer for the weekly Boston Phoenix. His Media Log is one of the best blogs going. And he is a Unitarian Universalist. (He has written for UU World twice in the last year, here and here.)

I mention him today because his posts on the war deserve a wide readership among religious liberals, who too often gravitate to the left-most pole without asking hard questions of themselves or their fellow-travelers, and because — well, because I forgot to mention them earlier. Key posts: February 6, after Colin Powell's presentation to the Security Council, and February 2, on the divergent war plans leaked to the press. His war-related articles for the Phoenix are indexed at his site.

Posted by Philocrites, February 18, 2003, at 12:58 PM | 0 comments

Monday, February 17, 2003

How scared should we be?

In the Times' Week in Review section yesterday, Gregg Easterbrook went back over the subject he covered more thoroughly in the New Republic shortly after 9/11: When it comes to weapons of mass destruction, there's a huge difference between chemical and biological weapons on the one hand and nuclear weapons on the other. Americans, led by their government, are almost wildly overreacting to the danger of a terrorist attack using chemical or biological agents. In fact, a regular old bomb — like the one Timothy McVeigh used in Oklahoma City — would kill a lot more of us than sarin, VX, or anthrax.

Easterbrook's earlier article appeared in the November 5, 2001, issue of the New Republic. Also related: William Saletan examined the real danger of a radioactive "dirty bomb" — panic. See also Bill Keller's frightening article "Nuclear Nightmares" in the New York Times Magazine (5.26.02).

Update 5.30.06: Expired links deleted.

Posted by Philocrites, February 17, 2003, at 06:14 PM | 0 comments

What? No religion reporters?

The Boston Globe's unusually empty article yesterday about President Bush's religious rhetoric must have been written by a reporter who doesn't pay much attention to religion. He compares bin Laden's jihad to Bush's "crusade." He tells us that Muslims are divided about the war on terror, just as Christians are divided about war with Iraq. He quotes a liberal academic — Harvard's David Little — who raises questions about the president's theology, and an Evangelical political activist who sees the president in the "role of a healer, a role of a priest in consoling the nation in the loss of lives."

I'd think an Evangelical who sees the president of the United States as a "priest" is a story all to itself, but this is only small potatoes to the article's strangest moment:

The frequent use of religion in Bush's speeches also comes amid a conflict within religious circles on whether to go to war against Iraq. Pope Jean Paul II has spoken against a war and for a negotiated peace, as has the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

That's right, folks. The Boston Globe, which has printed so many thousands of words in the past year on the crisis in the Catholic Church, spells the pope's name wrong. I cannot believe that a copy editor would have changed "John Paul II" to "Jean Paul II," so I can only assume that the writer made this error. The Globe features terrible religion coverage, but this is bizarre.

Meanwhile, for a slightly more thorough story, see last week's New York Times story; my comments here.

Posted by Philocrites, February 17, 2003, at 01:24 PM | 0 comments

Saturday, February 15, 2003

Confronting Professor Singer.

Harriet McBryde Johnson's remarkable essay in tomorrow's New York Times Magazine describes her encounter with Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, the utilitarian advocate of legal rights for animals — and selective euthanasia for disabled human beings. Johnson, a lawyer and disability rights activist, uses a motorized wheelchair and travels with a health aide; a muscle-wasting disease has transformed her spine into a "a deep twisty S-curve." Most people find her appearance unsettling — "At this stage of my life, I'm Karen Carpenter thin, flesh mostly vanished, a jumble of bones in a floppy bag of skin" — but she and many other people find Singer's views more unsettling still. He says that parents should have the right to abort or kill children with disabilities that impair their quality of life; she thinks he is setting up an argument for something like genocide.

So many interesting things about the article: Johnson describes the odd sensation of actually liking the person whose views she finds not only reprehensible but directly threatening, which prompts some careful self-examination. Furthermore, Singer and Johnson are both atheists, but with quite different perceptions of how to anchor human values. For one thing, Singer wants to live in a world of abstractly-derived principles, but Johnson sees how dangerous this is. She is a liberal humanist of a different order — in my view, a much more humane order:

As a disability pariah, I must struggle for a place, for kinship, for community, for connection. Because I am still seeking acceptance of my humanity, Singer's call to get past species seems a luxury way beyond my reach. My goal isn't to shed the perspective that comes from my particular experience, but to give voice to it. I want to be engaged in the tribal fury that rages when opposing perspectives are let loose."

As a shielf from the terrible purity of Singer's vision, I'll look to the corruption that comes from interconnectedness. To justify my hopes that Singer's theoretical world — and its entirely logical extensions — won't become real, I'll invoke the muck and mess and undeniable reality of disabled lives well lived. That's the best I can do.

(For more on Singer, read Peter Berkowitz's New Republic critique, "Other People's Mothers".)

Posted by Philocrites, February 15, 2003, at 11:30 PM | 0 comments

The Times wants a deadline.

It has been unclear for a while what the New York Times editorial page thinks ultimately about war. Today it seems the Times has made up its mind:

The only way short of war to get Saddam Hussein to reverse course at this late hour is to make clear that the Security Council is united in its determination to disarm him and is now ready to call in the cavalry to get the job done. America and Britain are prepared to take that step. The time has come for the others to quit pretending that inspections alone are the solution. . . .

Mr. Blix and Dr. ElBaradei cannot be left to play games of hide-and-seek. This is not like Washington's unproved assertions about an alliance between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. There is ample evidence that Iraq has produced highly toxic VX nerve gas and anthrax and has the capacity to produce a lot more. It has concealed these materials, lied about them, and more recently failed to account for them to the current inspectors. The Security Council doesn't need to sit through more months of inconclusive reports. It needs full and immediate Iraqi disarmament. It needs to say so, backed by the threat of military force.

Posted by Philocrites, February 15, 2003, at 02:24 PM | 0 comments

Afghaniwhat?

"Apparently when the budgeteers on the Hill started working their way through the president's new budget they discovered there was no money, not even a line item, for humanitarian or reconstruction funds for Afghanistan," Josh Marshall writes. "Congress has had to go back and stick in $300 million."

Posted by Philocrites, February 15, 2003, at 02:08 PM | 0 comments

Friday, February 14, 2003

How not to make the case.

American hawks are annoyed that the French, Germans, and Belgians — not to mention many Americans — share Joschka Fischer's exasperation with Bush's war plan. But Paul Berman notes that President Bush hasn't even bothered to present the case that America's war with "Muslim fascism" is Europe's war, too:

Bush has failed to present the current war and its impending new Iraqi front in terms of a democratic struggle against totalitarianism. He has failed to discuss in any serious way the moral aspect of the war, has failed to present the war as an act of solidarity with horribly oppressed Iraqis and other victims of Muslim fascism, has failed to show the humanitarian aspect of the war, has failed to present the war in the light of the long history of anti-totalitarianism. The president has failed, all in all, to present the kind of arguments that might enlist the enthusiasm of people like Fischer, not to mention the enthusiasm of people in the Muslim and Arab world.

"Excuse me, I'm not convinced," Fischer said. We should listen carefully. Maybe Fischer is not convinced because the Bush administration has presented a series of side arguments about weapons, U.N. resolutions, and dark terrorist conspiracies and has failed to present the main argument, which is the single huge argument that has always sustained the Western alliance. This argument is the one about totalitarianism. It is the argument that says: The totalitarians are dangerous to themselves and to us, and we had better fight them.

Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons may be the most dangerous course of all.

Posted by Philocrites, February 14, 2003, at 02:51 PM | 1 comments

Human costs.

Plans for humanitarian relief when war starts in Iraq involve estimates of "anywhere from 600,000 to 1.5 million refugees and asylum seekers," plus another million displaced people inside Iraq, according to the U.N. chief of humanitarian affairs. . . The U.S. military expects to carry out humanitarian relief and rebuilding projects even as the war is taking place, according to the same A.P. report. . . Derrick Z. Jackson reviews the death toll in the first Gulf war: "The war itself resulted in 56,000 deaths to soldiers and 3,500 to civilians. Another 35,000 people died in internal postwar fighting. The biggest single number of deaths again was to civilians after the destruction of the nation's infrastructure: 111,000." . . . The Boston Globe agrees that the Bush administration is completely misconstruing Osama bin Laden's latest statement: "to pretend he is partnering with Saddam is to indulge in wretched excess."

Oh, creationism is religious, after all.

Does a creationist — who never even took a class from the biology professor he asks for a letter of recommendation to medical school — have a right to such a letter, if the professor publically requires students to give a "scientific answer" to the question of how species arise? The Boston Phoenix has a thorough story on the case that John Ashcroft says is all about religious freedom. Nonsense.

Posted by Philocrites, February 14, 2003, at 08:36 AM | 0 comments

Wednesday, February 12, 2003

Bin Laden to Saddam: 'This is my war.'

I sure hope Bush administration officials are smarter than they let on with their public interpretation of Osama bin Laden's love letter to Iraq. They are saying that bin Laden's new tape proves that Iraq is in cahoots with al Qaeda — but they can't be serious about the inference they clearly want Americans to draw. ("Whoa! That settles it. Osama is hiding in Baghdad!") Bin Laden is using the crisis with Iraq to dramatize the conflict he wants Muslims to embrace; he's doing a bit of rebranding.

It doesn't serve bin Laden's purpose to pretend (or admit) that Saddam Hussein is the new Mullah Omar, but it does serve his purpose to make himself out to be the savior of the Iraqis in their time of need. Al Qaeda + the Taliban = a rogue state harboring a terrorist patron. We really did need to break that equation apart. But the Bush administration wants us to see Al Qaeda + Saddam Hussein the same way. A better analogy for their "partnership" would be Saddam Hussein + the Palestinians. Michael Scott Doran's Foreign Affairs article explains:

The anti-status quo states [in the Middle East] have inevitably played the Palestinian card in order to deny the Western powers loyal allies in the region. In the Middle East today, three major actors (Iraq, Iran, and Syria) and two minor ones (Hizbollah and al Qaeda) are all doing something similar. Their primary goal is to drive a wedge between the United States and Saudi Arabia. They fear the imposition of a Pax Americana in the region and regard Israeli-Palestinian violence as a tool for keeping the United States at bay. For them, in fact, the revolt in Palestine is, among other things, a proxy war against the United States.

This is the dynamic that bin Laden's tape illustrates. He fears the imposition of a Pax Americana in the region; he regards a war between the U.S. and Iraq as a tool ultimately to keep the United States at bay — if he can turn Muslim anger into support for al Qaeda. For him, war with Iraq is fuel for his war against the U.S.

(Incidentally, Jeffrey Goldberg goes into a lot of detail about the murky state of intelligence about an Iraq-Qaeda connection. Gleaned: that U.S. intelligence reports now include not only "What we know," but also "What we don't know." Bin Laden's ties to Saddam Hussein are evidently in the "What we don't know" category.)

Posted by Philocrites, February 12, 2003, at 05:55 PM | 0 comments

Bush to Pope: You're wrong.

The U.S. government sponsored conservative Catholic theologian Michael Novak's trip to Rome, where Novak argued that the pope has "just war" theory all wrong. The government is now sponsoring theology conferences?

Although it might seem that the government shouldn't be telling the Vatican how to interpret a Christian doctrine, a debate about just war theory is exactly the sort of place where religion and politics should meet. I examined David Gushee's comparison of "hard" and "soft" just war theory back in October; his Christian Century article is a good place to get started in understanding what theologians and policy makers mean when they talk about just war.

Posted by Philocrites, February 12, 2003, at 12:58 PM | 0 comments

Long-term damage.

Josh Marshall believes "it's quite possible that the damage we are doing to NATO right now will turn out to be the most profoundly damaging legacy of this administration."

If NATO goes down the drain, the fact that the French or the Belgians or the Germans were petulant won't make it any less of a loss for us. Perhaps getting UN approval for invading Iraq was never in the cards. But taking action in Iraq without forcing a NATO train wreck should not have been that hard. . . .

The president and his crew are acting like that not-as-smart-as-he-thinks-he-is high school kid who's always running into reverses and always blaming it on someone else. At first you think he's getting a bad shake until you see the same thing happening over and over again. It's always someone else's fault. The South Koreans are lame. The Europeans are lame. Our Arab allies are lame. Everybody is lame. We're given excuse after excuse. But at the end of the day the result seems to be our historic alliances, if not in shambles, then at least thoroughly beat-up. After all, what profiteth a man if he gain regime change in Iraq, and yet lose the whole world order in the process?

Long-term strategy?

Meanwhile, John B. Judis looks for an explanation for Bush's focus on Iraq. What he finds is not "an explanation that will satisfy anyone looking for a single cause such as 'blood for oil,'" he writes, but his account of how an isolationist anti-"nation-building" president ended up marching off to pre-emptive war is helpful.

"Bush's September UN strategy was a hodgepodge of contradictory intentions," made up of compromises from Cheney's conservative isolationism, Powell's realist multilateralism, and Wolfowitz's neoconservative interventionism. The contradictions didn't all come out in the wash:

Bush appears to have squandered an opportunity either to avoid a war or to fight one on the most favorable terms. If the administration had made clear that it would accept a disarmed Iraq without Hussein's ouster, it might have eventually forced the Iraqi dictator to comply with UN Resolution 1441. If Hussein still refused to comply, the administration would have enjoyed the broad support of a powerful coalition with which to go to war. Instead, the United States is likely to obtain at best a grudging acceptance of its war plans. And erstwhile allies, as well as implacable foes, will characterize the war as George W. Bush's attempt to take over the Middle East. In this interdependent world, that's not a reputation the United States wants to have.

A lot of people are betting that Bush's real intentions coincide with their own — Kanan Makiya and the pro-democracy Iraqis come to mind — but it is hard to shake the unsettling feeling that Bush has blustered all of us into a confrontation that presents many more dangers than benefits.

Posted by Philocrites, February 12, 2003, at 12:27 PM | 0 comments

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

Anti-Semites against the war.

Here's yet another wake-up call to the antiwar movement:

Rabbi Michael Lerner has been banned from speaking at the antiwar rally in San Francisco this Sunday, February 16. One of the rally organizers, Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER), has stated that it will not allow a "pro-Israel" speaker to take the stage — despite the fact that Rabbi Lerner has been an outspoken critic of Israeli policy in the occupied territories, has endorsed ANSWER's antiwar rallies in the past, has signed the Not in Our Name petition against the war, and is widely known to be among the most progressive of American rabbis.

Lerner is the editor of Tikkun magazine, a leading left-liberal Jewish voice. The disturbing part of this story is that the other antiwar organizations in San Francisco didn't complain more about ANSWER's "anti-Zionist" ban. The Nation's David Cone has the full story. (He took aim at ANSWER back in November, too.) Remember, folks: the enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend. Liberals — especially religious liberals — have no friends at ANSWER, no matter how much you hate war. If going to protests is your thing, great — but anti-Semitism is an ugly thing, whether it pops up on the left or the right.

Posted by Philocrites, February 11, 2003, at 05:28 PM | 0 comments

The Rev. George W. Bush.

What exactly does President Bush's religious rhetoric mean? He clearly believes that God helped him stop drinking. He also embraces the old notion that God has a providential purpose for the United States. (What president hasn't?) But David Gergen tells Laurie Goodstein that Bush "has made it clear he feels that Providence intervened to change his life, and now he is somehow an instrument of Providence." God bless America, sure, but God bless Bush's agenda? Come on.

As William Saletan wrote about Bush's "God-talk" in the aftermath of the Columbia disaster, the president sometimes talks as if God watches over us but lets us choose our own fate, while at other times he talks as if God actively chooses sides in human affairs. There's a significant difference between the two:

Look back at Bush's speeches after Sept. 11 and you'll see him wrestling with these two ideas of God. On the day of the attacks he spoke of a God who watches over us in a passive sense: "I ask for your prayers for all those who grieve. . . . I pray they will be comforted by a power greater than any of us." But nine days later, Bush invoked a God who would "watch over the United States" in an active sense: "The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them."

It's reassuring to think that God will protect us from tragedy or defeat. But that belief has two dangerous implications. One is that courage is unnecessary and unreal. The crews of Challenger and Columbia weren't actually taking risks or showing bravery, as Reagan and Bush supposed, because their fate was in God's hands. The other implication is that tragedies are God's will. That's what Bush rebuked Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell for suggesting when they speculated that Sept. 11 had happened because God had removed his protection from the United States.

Apart from theological inconsistency, what else is going on here? I'm not opposed to religious rhetoric in the public square. Many people express their most basic values in religious language, and asking people not to bring their religiosity into civic life is really asking them not to take politics seriously. But just because someone says he really, really believes something doesn't make it true. It should never insulate a person from criticism.

And that's the basic problem with Bush's insistence that God has chosen sides. Bush gets that sincerish catch in his voice, his eyes dew a bit, and he talks about the goodness of America, and while I don't want to be churlish, I think his God-talk is frankly blasphemous. He is blessing his own policies in an attempt to end the conversation; he has the pulpit, his administration is doing God's will, and he wants the congregation not to ask questions.

Politics in God's name always poses a danger. Call it idolatry, hubris, megalomania — it comes down to the danger of mistaking your own purpose for God's purpose, and forgetting that there will always be a gap between them.

President Bush's Christianity strikes me as a species of "all about me" theology: God saved me, God loves me, and God endorses my desires. But Bush is forgetting something. God's love is a promise to the penitent, not the arrogant. The president only invokes God's manifest destiny for the United States. He ignores what the Bible actually teaches: "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" It's the humbly part that is most notably lacking in Bush's religious rhetoric.

Liberal theologian James Luther Adams is famous for saying, "An unexamined faith is not worth having." This is too coy. Bush's Christianity is a free pass; it involves no self-criticism, no repentance, no humility. His unexamined faith is dangerous to us all.

Posted by Philocrites, February 11, 2003, at 08:27 AM | 0 comments

Monday, February 10, 2003

Fall of the House of Sarah.

After sixteen years, House of Sarah Books closes shop in my Cambridge neighborhood. How did it ever last so long? You couldn't buy a John Grisham novel or a self-help book there; its collection of used books — including a section of shelves in back from other dealers — was tilted toward religion, scholarship, literary fiction, and rare books. I considered it the best used bookstore in this book-dense city.

The store's last day is Valentine's Day, so here's a love letter to the shop and the books I've discovered there over the years. I found novels like Frederick Buechner's The Son of Laughter, Sarah Willis's Some Things That Stay, and John Kenneth Galbraith's A Tenured Professor — which anyone who has spent much time around Harvard Yard must read. I first heard the album "Boomerang" by The Creatures at House of Sarah, but I especially enjoyed listening to Red Sox games while browsing through the stacks on sweltering afternoons. The cat was unimpressed by customers, of course, but sometimes stayed put when one of us sat down on the couch.

I picked up histories like Bernard Bailyn's The Peopling of British North America (which is very good) and The Transformation of Theology, 1830-1890: Positivism and Protestant Thought in Britain and America by Charles Cashdollar (which, I'm sorry to say, didn't hold my attention for long). I bought books on jazz, Bach's piety, Genesis, and the architectural history of Mid-Cambridge. I spend a lot of time in Cambridge bookstores — I browse for novels and history at the Harvard Bookstore, art and design at Wordsworth, poetry of course at the Grolier — but House of Sarah often had just what I needed. I am especially grateful to have found George Packer's memoir Blood of the Liberals in the political science section last summer, never having heard of him before. (Every liberal should read it — and his more recent essays.)

I have no idea how a used bookstore survives, especially one as dedicated to high quality books as House of Sarah. I loved my neighborhood bookstore, and I'm sorry to see it go.

Posted by Philocrites, February 10, 2003, at 11:38 PM | 0 comments

Sunday, February 9, 2003

Saudi reform plans.

"Crown Prince Abdullah will ask President Bush to withdraw all American armed forces from the kingdom as soon as the campaign to disarm Iraq has concluded," according to a front-page New York Times story today. A diminished U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia — which could reduce Muslim anti-Americanism — would be accompanied by pro-democratic reforms. "[T]he departure of American soldiers would set the stage for an announcement that Saudis — but probably not women, at least initially — would begin electing representatives to provincial assemblies and then to a national assembly, Saudi officials said."

This is great news, even if it only signals the monarchy's dawning awareness that its alliance with ultra-conservative clerics is undermining its own legitimacy. The goal of these reforms is ultimately the emergence of a new base of support for the government and a sharply diminished role for the Wahhabi clerics. But of course the only way for the U.S. to pull out of Saudi Arabia in the near future is for the U.S. to find another base — and for this all signs point to Iraq.

Posted by Philocrites, February 9, 2003, at 01:49 PM | 0 comments

Thursday, February 6, 2003

'A deadline helps concentrate the mind.'

The liberal Boston Globe believes that Colin Powell presented a compelling case for U.N.-sponsored military action against Iraq. "[T]he Iraqi people, the region, and the world would be a better, safer, more humane place with Saddam disarmed or out of power," the Globe says — adding that the costs of disarming Iraq can only effectively be borne by the international community. The U.S. cannot take on Iraq alone.

There comes a point when inspections cannot simply go on and on. An uncooperative nation can play cat-and-mouse with U.N. inspectors indefinitely — just as Iraq has done for years. But as the Globe pointed out last week, even France is quietly moving into position to assist military action. Even the Europeans most reluctant to act apparently see the need for a deadline.

As awful as war is, opponents of military action have lost this round. Congress has already approved military action. The U.N. has already told Iraq that it must comply or face "serious consequences." Only if the Security Council raises substantial doubts about the case Powell presented yesterday about Iraqi non-compliance are there grounds for the U.N. to "give inspections more time."

Time's up.

The inspectors' report later this month will be the last. At this point, responsible liberals ought to turn their attention toward insuring four outcomes:

  • International commitment to minimize the humanitarian catastrophe of war and to insure Iraq's successful reconstruction after the war.
  • Improved security for Afghanistan. After all, the war with al Qaeda isn't over. Hamid Karzi's government still needs tremendous support from the rest of the world. Critics are right to ask, What about Osama bin Laden?
  • Democratic and economic reforms in the Middle East, especially in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. This requires U.S. support for resolving tensions between Israel and the Palestinians.
  • Electing a Democrat in 2004. Bush's foreign policy achievements are coming at an extraordinary price. Liberals must come up with a viable foreign policy that provides real security. They must stop letting Republicans dominate military and foreign policy discussions; it isn't just about the economy.

Meanwhile, religious people are confronted by the fact that even our best options in this situation are evil. I see no way around this. (Leaving Saddam alone would be evil; maintaining the sanctions would be evil; what option would not be? We must choose.) I pray not only for the victims of our continued human failure to establish real peace, but also for insight and courage. There is a long road ahead in the effort to guarantee the human rights of all our brothers and sisters.

Posted by Philocrites, February 6, 2003, at 09:05 AM | 0 comments

Does a biologist need to accept evolution?

Creationists are certainly clever. A student is suing Michael Dini, a Texas Tech biology professor, for discrimination because Dini will only write letters of recommendation for students who "''truthfully and forthrightly affirm a scientific answer'' to the question: ''How do you think the human species originated?'' The creationist-minded student, with help from right-wing groups, contends that discrimination against creationists violates his civil rights — and of course, John Ashcroft seems to agree.

Ellen Goodman describes the creationists' tactics, and points out the absurdity of treating fundamental theories in a scientific discipline as matters of personal preference. A biologist who doesn't have a scientific explanation for the origin of species is not a biologist. "It's like refusing to recognize someone who doesn't believe in gravity for a PhD program in physics," she writes. What's next? "Astrology for astronomers? Feng Shui for physicists?"

Posted by Philocrites, February 6, 2003, at 08:09 AM | 0 comments

Tuesday, February 4, 2003

Were Saddam's attacks on the Kurds genocidal?

Stephen C. Pelletiere made waves this weekend by arguing that Saddam Hussein didn't gas the Kurds in Halabja in 1988 — the Iranians did. The New Republic's Spencer Ackerman picks Pelletiere's argument apart — especially Pelletiere's contention that Bush couldn't find support for war if Saddam had not in fact gassed his own subjects:

[W]hile Bush invokes the Kurdish genocide in his brief against Saddam, the president does so to establish Saddam's willingness to use weapons of mass destruction, not to argue that, as Pelletiere ludicrously puts it, "we go to war over Halabja."

Update 2.5.03: Slate's Timothy Noah examined the argument for Saddam's innocence in Halabja last April. Curiously, the other advocate for Saddam's innocence is supply-side guru Jude Wanniski. Noah laments that Wanniski and Pelletiere's effective denial "that Iraq is a bloody and vicious regime just makes the dove position look idiotic." But in the face of the overwhelming evidence that Iraq did in fact gas the Kurds — from Physicians for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch, among other investigations — it looks like Pelletiere is grasping at straws.

Posted by Philocrites, February 4, 2003, at 05:35 PM | 0 comments

Reality reruns.

On a lighter note: My TV's rabbit ears bring me NBC and Fox, but never WGBH. (What suburban conspiracy makes PBS impossible to pick up without cable here in Cambridge? I have never once been able to pick up channel 44.) So I turn on my television three nights a week for "The West Wing," "The Simpsons," and — ah! guilty pleasure! — "Joe Millionaire." Or I did, until I discovered that "reality TV" is even better as literature!

Let us praise Flak, the e-magazine where Lindsay Robertson dishes up the latest episode so you don't miss a thing even when you can't be bothered to watch. I enjoyed episode 4 in its written form so much, in fact, that I tuned in for Fox's "encore presentation" on Thursday. A rerun of a recap of a "reality show," with scenes like this gem:

Evan decides to ask Melissa a tough question — what would she do if she suddenly had unlimited funds?

"I wanna go to a Third World country?" she says. "And bathe their children and give them shots." And presumably teach them all of the stock answers to all of the dumb questions in the world.

And then, and then: "I'm a mercenary kind of person." She finishes, beautifully.

Reality show? This is pure satire.

"The West Wing" has its high-brow West Wing Watch (from the good folks at Government Executive Magazine); Slate's psychoanalysis of "The Sopranos" means nothing to me, VHF plebe that I am; thank goodness Flak has found its niche!

Posted by Philocrites, February 4, 2003, at 12:26 AM | 0 comments

Monday, February 3, 2003

Buehrens on Iraq today.

"The resolutions of the United Nations must be enforced," wrote John Buehrens, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, when Iraq defied the U.N. and a U.S. president threatened to go to war. And Buehrens added: "In my judgment, the consequences of diplomatic failure will belong squarely with Saddam Hussein. . . ."

When Buehrens wrote this letter in February 1998, he framed his support for a military strike against Iraq in terms of the legitimacy of the United Nations itself: "The failure of the UN's predecessor, The League of Nations, was a direct result of its failure to enforce its resolutions against aggressive dictators and terrorist regimes." If Saddam Hussein could violate with impunity not only the terms of the 1991 cease-fire but the inspections regime set up by the U.N. to monitor his compliance, what really was the purpose of the United Nations? If the U.N. could not enforce its own laws, who would? At issue was the international community's willingness to take responsibility for international order.

In many respects, the situation today is the same. The United Nations has failed to make Iraq comply with the disarmament it agreed to at the end of the 1991 Gulf war, and as awful as the sanctions have been for the people of Iraq, it is still true that Saddam Hussein is the one to blame. (There are some, like Scott Ritter, who say that Iraq has disarmed — but when Iraq has consistently lied about its programs and thwarted efforts to verify its disarmament, one can only doubt Saddam's intentions. Hans Blix's report makes this much clear: Saddam is not committed to disarmament.)

And the United Nations seems remarkably uninterested in enforcing Security Council resolutions. If the legitimacy of the United Nations was in question in 1998, today President Bush is disarmingly explicit in his threat to go after Iraq alone. As Serge Schemann puts it in Sunday's New York Times, Bush's message is: "Either you're with us, or you're irrelevant." As unpleasant as the prospect is, the U.N. is being forced to ask whether it wants to enforce its rules, or whether it wants the United States to enforce rules of its own devising.

Buehrens's characterization of Iraq's predicament is also still valid: "The crisis in Iraq seems to me like a police hostage crisis. Saddam Hussein holds innocent men, women and children within his country, along with weapons of mass destruction dangerous not only to them, but to the entire neighborhood and to the world community." Everything in this statement is still true.

But Buehrens now vigorously opposes war against Iraq. What has changed? For one thing, the humanitarian consequences of a war to bring down Iraq's government will be appalling — even if U.S. war plans follow the "clean" plan leaked to the New York Times this weekend rather than the "shock and awe" scenario (leaked earlier) that could involve obliterating Bagdad on the first day. (Thanks to Dan Kennedy for raising the alarm on this plan.) Buehrens and most other religious leaders say the human cost is simply too high.

But there is a second reason: Buehrens supported President Clinton's threat to go to war against Iraq because the U.S. explicitly characterized its goal as enforcing international law. President Bush, on the other hand, openly mocks the United Nations. Bush insists on treating Iraq as a threat to American security — a shrewd political move domestically, but one that has alienated popular sentiment in allied nations that cannot be seen simply to endorse U.S. goals. Countries that could endorse a more carefully assembled international alliance through the U.N. cannot enthusiastically join an American "posse." The difference is not in whether international order depends on U.S. military power — it does — but on whether the U.S. believes it can achieve its goals without the legitimacy of international law. In the long run, it can't.

The tragedy of our predicament is that until American liberals come up with a foreign policy that not only offers greater domestic security but also improved international cooperation — in other words, until the Democrats find a presidential candidate who can beat Bush on foreign policy — nothing stands in the way of Bush's misguided unilateralism. If Gore had become president, we might very well be considering war with Iraq as part of the war on terror — but the explicit goals of the campaign would be much more like those that Buehrens supported in 1998.

Posted by Philocrites, February 3, 2003, at 09:12 AM | 0 comments

Saturday, February 1, 2003

Buehrens on Iraq, five years ago.

When Saddam Hussein refused to allow the U.N. weapons inspectors access to high-security sites in January 1998, President Clinton considered going to war to force his compliance. Last-minute diplomacy postponed a strike until the end of the year, when the U.S. launched a retaliatory strike, leaving Saddam in power but damaging approximately 100 military targets in Iraq. During the initial crisis, on February 18, 1998, John Buehrens, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, sent the following message to members of the UUA:

Like many of you, I finished listening to President Clinton's statement concerning Iraq and was reminded of what Thoreau said at the time of the Mexican War: "Blessed are the children, for they have not read the President's message."

Many Unitarian Universalists will oppose the use of military force. For many in our family of faith, such opposition is a matter of consistency and conscience. Like conscientious objectors in other eras, such opponents of militarism deserve our respect and support.

Unlike Quakers and other religious communities committed to a consistent peace witness, Unitarian Universalism also includes many individuals who believe that military force is sometimes, sadly, necessary. I am one such person.

In recent decades three Unitarian Universalists have served as U.S. Secretary of Defense — Elliot Richardson, William Perry, and now, William Cohen. Those who take on such daunting responsibilities also deserve our respect and support, as do all the men and women who serve in our military.

The crisis in Iraq seems to me like a police hostage crisis. Saddam Hussein holds innocent men, women and children within his country, along with weapons of mass destruction dangerous not only to them, but to the entire neighborhood and to the world community.

The resolutions of the United Nations must be enforced. The failure of the UN's predecessor, The League of Nations, was a direct result of its failure to enforce its resolutions against aggressive dictators and terrorist regimes. The Secretary General, responding to members of the Security Council reluctant to see force used, will use every diplomatic tool available to him to resolve the crisis. Let us hope that he is successful. If he is not, let us pray that the use of force is as it should be: proportional to the goals of the UN, with minimal impact on civilians. In my judgment, the consequences of diplomatic failure will belong squarely with Saddam Hussein, as will those of any attempt to use civilians as human shields. Such tactics are truly those of a ruthless dictator.

I do not ask every Unitarian Universalist to think alike in this complex matter. I do ask that we maintain the bonds of love and respect within our family of faith and in every public discussion. May freedom of conscience, reasoned discussion, and tolerance of differing perspectives be the method by which we teach one another to be persons of moral character and spiritual leadership. And may we serve, each in our own way, that world of justice and peace for which we all yearn, together.

Now, Buehrens clearly opposes military action against Iraq. What are the key differences between his position in 1998 and today? More soon . . .

Posted by Philocrites, February 1, 2003, at 08:48 PM | 0 comments

When our tools fail and words do not console.

The loss of the space shuttle Columbia this morning cuts deeply. I was ten years old, an avid space fan, when I got up before dawn to watch the Columbia's first launch in 1981. I watched almost every shuttle launch as a boy, until they had become so perfunctory, so flawless, that they weren't televised anymore. And of course I remember the shock that swept through my school, where so many of us were watching when the Challenger exploded. That disaster was a generation-defining event for us; our dreams had accompanied schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe that morning, and our own teachers struggled to help us comprehend the fireball, the wayward rockets, the shock on the faces below.

Our tools have made it possible for human beings to go so far beyond our animal limits that we are tempted to believe we have transcended them altogether. And then a simple failure — the vessel breaks, the machine falters — and human beings are left beyond the limits of their endurance. The rest of us, watching dumbfounded, ache with the loss of what we love most — not the tools, not their victory over nature, but human beings on their way home to us. The shock on the faces of the astronauts' families is what we ultimately feel most. Our tools, and our words, are humbled by this final reality, and we grieve.

Posted by Philocrites, February 1, 2003, at 05:11 PM | 0 comments

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