An unnoticed side-effect of the Republican victory in the mid-term is the decision to launch the party's own foreign policy. John Boehner, Speaker of the House, has invited the governor of Israel, our 51st state, Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress. This appears to be part of the continuing effort of members of Congress to deep-six negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran over the latter's nuclear program. The Congress has threatened to pass legislation increasing the sanctions against Iran. In his State of the Union speech, President Obama said he would veto such legislation, arguing that it would likely end the negotiations and raise the specter once again of bombing Iran's nuclear facilities. Presumably, Boehner thinks that a pep talk from Netanyahu would rally votes to override any veto.
It is not Boehner's responsibility to invite Netanyahu and the White House has objected. It is not Netanyahu's responsibility to interfere in U.S. politics. Perhaps common sense will prevail. Netanyahu will stay home. Congress will not pass further sanctions. Obama cannot therefore veto them. Talks will continue and perhaps an agreement will be reached. Stay tuned.
The Forward has this analysis: "Did Benjamin Netanyahu and the GOP just pull off a coup--or lay an egg?" Jim Lobe has a good round-up of everyone who wasn't asked about the visit, and is now angry, as well as some speculation about who actually proposed it, not Boehner or McConnell he opines.
Obviously the biggest recent story of "religion, politics & culture" -- Commonweal's "specialty" -- occurred in Paris in the last week. There have been a number of intelligent comments and more are needed. Martin Marty lists a number of "obviously's" in his regular online "Sightings" column as well as a number of links to other views. My only quibble is with Marty's use of the word "simply" in describing the murderers as "simply evil." The murders were simply evil, but murderers are almost never simply anything. To his links I would add Ross Douthat's online comment on January 7.
NYTimes offers a check-list for most of what went wrong between Mayor de Blasio and the police. Revealing.... And it quotes police sympathetic to the mayor, though not his less than "A" performance, really almost "D" minus!
The Jewish Daily Forward offers a full analysis of PM Netanyahu's off and then on again decision to march in Paris on Sunday. Let's just say President Hollande was not welcoming. And let's note Netanyahu is big on trying to convince French Jews to move to Israel. The bottom line: President Abbas, who wasn't going, went and got in the front line, a book-end to Netanyahu at the other end (at least in the front page photos). There is a nice side-bar: "Je Suis Bibi."
And, of course, the Republicans are attacking Obama for not going, but then they would have criticized him for going, if he had!
There are commentators whose name for me is always an imperative to read their reflections. Though I may finally disagree with their view, I always find their writing illuminating and an incentive to explore and question my own position. David Remnick of the New Yorker is one such, as is Peter Steinfels (whom some of you may know); a third is Michael Gerson of the Washington Post.
Here is the conclusion of the column Gerson published today:
Our ideal of democracy is not an endless cable television shouting match. It is a free society in which citizens have a decent regard for the rights and views of others. This requires a measure of self-restraint, something we teach to our children as tolerance and manners. And such self-restraint is not self-censorship; it is respect. A free country should unapologetically defend the right to jeer and taunt. This does not require everyone in a free country to find jeering and taunting admirable.
These distinctions are relevant to the broader fight against Islamism. It is important, first, to separate this violent political ideology from the faith of Islam, which an overwhelming majority of adherents find to be a source of comfort and compassion. It is also important to clarify the contending alternatives in a great struggle. It is not Islamism against the Christian West. And it is not Islamism against the secular West. The United States is animated by a vision of democratic pluralism that is fully compatible with strong religious belief, fully committed to free expression — and fully prepared to defend its ideals against fanatics.
A lot of ignorant analysis has been written about New York City's mayor, police, and race relations. The New York Times editorial page keeps huffing and puffing at everyone. The Mayor has eulogized the dead while police officers turn their backs. Traffic tickets are down, arrests are down, and alternate-side of the street parking regulations have gone by the boards. The current cold spell ("Arctic clipper" says the weather page) seems to be keeping protestors home, or maybe it's the journalists staying home and not covering them.
Inevitably someone begins to allign the pieces. George Packer at the New Yorker-on-line makes a good beginning. 1. Clearly stating what all the major players have done wrong. 2. Pointing to the effects on the police and the citizenry of class-based housing in New York City. 3. Noting how many newcomers to the city have no idea what the NYC paradise of today once was. 4. How the poor, the marginal, the hanging on by their fingertips depend more than anyone on good policing. 5. Why most New Yorkers don't want to know what the police do.
Sample of point 5: "Few people really want to know what it takes to keep them safe. Policing is the kind of work—like sewage treatment, care of the elderly, legislating, embalming, and combat—that most of us prefer not to think about. It’s both ugly and essential, so essential that it creates a feeling of shame and resentment—and to avoid being disturbed by the thought we push it out of our minds, into the shadows, where the cops who protect us go about the dirty work of using the threat of violence to enforce the law. That’s where we want them to stay, so that we don’t have to think too much about what goes on in our defense, how the job of patrolling streets, questioning suspects, and making arrests rubs everyone raw. It breeds fear and hatred on both sides of the line." New Yorker.
The funeral for Mario Cuomo was held today at New York’s Church of St. Ignatius Loyola. In addition to inspiring tributes and remembrances, his death has also prompted archive searches for items like this: A 1990 letter in which the governor took up Commonweal’s invitation to join in a reasoned debate on abortion. “Perhaps the best I can do right now,” Cuomo wrote to the editors, “is to reflect on some of Commonweal’s commentary of the past six or seven months,” which he proceeded to do, at length, using bullet points and providing detailed citations [.pdf].
Much of the recent commentary, at Commonweal and elsewhere, has focused on Cuomo’s position on abortion and whether he’d given “intellectual cover” to Catholic politicians personally opposed but not inclined to act politically against it (the editors write about this and other aspects of Cuomo’s legacy in “Mario Cuomo, Politician,” just posted on our homepage). Or, if not that, his keynote speech at the 1984 Democratic Convention, which to those then longing for someone to speak truth to the heartless power of Reagan and sense to his legions of heedless followers was (and remains) a galvanizing event.
I still have the copy of that speech that was handed to me some months later, on my first day at my first real job in New York City, as a college intern in the press office of Governor Mario Cuomo. Since I’m now also at the age where I can say things like, “this was before the internet, so getting a printed copy was a big deal,” I will: It was. Few of my friends or classmates seemed to care, most having happily—with their first-ever presidential ballot—participated in the landslide re-election of Reagan, while some of my family members liked to dismiss my new “boss” as “your friend Mario Cuomo,” when they weren’t calling him “the most dangerous man in America.”
I had exactly one personal encounter with Mario Cuomo, when during my internship I was told to write a public service announcement for him to record: Two hundred words or so on the importance of protecting Adirondack rivers and streams. “The waterways of the Adirondacks are among our state’s most precious resources,” it began. No pretentions about it rivaling a stump speech much less a keynote, but then, I had not yet heard it in Cuomo’s voice.Read more
At Mass this morning, we remembered Mario Cuomo in our prayers. May he rest in peace. He was a brilliant, thoughtful, gifted politician, and a good man. He could powerfully articulate ideals and also mediate compromises, no small abilities and all too seldom found together. He also maintained an extensive, friendly, always civil although not always harmonious relationship with Commonweal. No wonder he is being remembered as the very model of a liberal Catholic. About that, however, I have my doubts.
Of course, we won’t know the truth about this complex individual until his private papers can be plumbed by biographers, and even then I wonder if there will be one sufficiently versed in Catholic matters to get beyond the idea that anyone who disagrees with bishops about abortion is ipso facto a liberal Catholic. Especially if he or she uses words like ipso facto.
Liberal Catholic is a stance built in good part on some important distinctions about how religiously grounded moral beliefs relate to law and the state. Here Cuomo doubtlessly qualified. He made important statements about those subjects. But it was not always easy to reconcile his statements with his actions as a political leader. The difficulty became most striking in the contrast between his courageous defiance of public opinion and political expedience in the case of capital punishment and his equivocating conformity in the case of abortion. The contrast led some people to consider his views hypocritical, others to consider them just incoherent. I think that they made a lot more sense if one recognized that, for all his quoting of Teilhard de Chardin, Mario remained an old-fashioned pre-Vatican II Catholic, a variant of what Jay Dolan, writing of Catholic immigrants and their offspring, termed “devotional Catholicism.” When it comes to discerning moral teaching in this view of the church, there is a sharp division of labor. The hierarchy teaches; the laity apply—with prudence. In this view, when confronted with a complicated moral problem, one does not think with the church, one agrees with the church. It took me awhile to learn this lesson about Cuomo.Read more
"Jerusalem — Jewish settlers attacked American consular officials Friday during a visit the officials made to the West Bank as part of an investigation into claims of damage to Palestinian agricultural property, Israeli police and Palestinian witnesses say....Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said that a small number of settlers threw rocks at officials who had come to an area near the Jewish settlement outpost of Adi Ad in two consular vehicles to look into Palestinian claims that settlers uprooted scores of Palestinian olive trees the day before."
More here: Christian Science Monitor.
Gosh. Wonder if the FBI, CIA, State Department are investigating. Sanctions? Drone surveillance?
As the new year gets underway, it appears US Rep. Steve Scalise's role as Majority Whip for House Republicans remains secure despite the revelation that he addressed a convention of white supremacists in 2002. Here's some of what we know:
- During his second term as a Louisiana state representative, Scalise spoke to the European-American Unity & Rights Organization (EURO) at the Landmark Best Western hotel in Metairie, LA on the weekend of May 17-18, 2002.
- Founded by former KKK Grand Wizard (and Louisiana state representative, and losing candidate for governor in 1991) David Duke, EURO is a racist and anti-Semitic hate group that currently exists primarily as a vehicle for Duke's self-promotion.
- According to Duke (who was not at the EURO conference), Scalise was invited by Howie Farrell and Kenny Knight, two of Duke's longtime aides.
- Longtime Louisiana political columnist James Gill observes in his New Year's Day column, "To accept an invitation from Howie Farrell and Kenny Knight, then act surprised they were fronting for David Duke, is like turning up at a rally with Goebbels and Goering and wondering how come there are swastikas all over the place."
- In an interview this week with the New Orleans Times-Picayune Rep. Scalise said he detests "any kind of hate group" and said of EURO, "When you look at the kind of things they stand for, I detest these kinds of views. As a Catholic, I think some of the things they profess target people like me. At lot of their views run contradictory to the way I run my life."
- On the other hand, as conservative activist/commentator (and Louisiana native) Erick Erickson noted: "By 2002, everybody knew Duke was still the man he had claimed not to be. EVERYBODY. How the hell does somebody show up at a David Duke organized event in 2002 and claim ignorance? Trent Lott was driven from the field in 2001 for something less than this."
- Despite all this, after Scalise on Tuesday acknowledged his speech at the EURO conference as "a mistake I regret", his House Republican colleagues quickly issued strong statements of support, in part (it seems) because Scalise is good at his job.
Like most religions, it also requires a lifelong struggle to practice that faith day to day. The practice can be difficult. Today’s America is a consumer-driven society filled with endless distractions and temptations for people struggling to live by spiritual as well as material impulses. Catholics who also happen to hold political office in this pluralistic democracy-and therefore commit to serve Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, Protestants, as well as Catholics-undertake an additional responsibility. They must try to create conditions under which all citizens can live with a reasonable degree of freedom to practice their own competing religious beliefs, like the right to divorce, to use birth control, to choose abortion, to withdraw stem cells from embryos...or even to fight the belief in a God.
"I take my religion from Cuomo and my politics from O'Connor."
So said the great columnist Murray Kempton, his voice booming across the newsroom at New York Newsday. It was some time in the 1980s, and from my vantage point as a much younger reporter, it seemed that whether in church, state, media, law enforcement, politics, even ownership of baseball teams, New York was well stocked with larger-than-life characters.
One of those was former New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo. With his death at the age of 82, I recalled Kempton's remark. I don't profess to know what Murray meant, but his comment seemed to capture one of Cuomo's attributes--his knowledge of the Catholic faith. (And Cardinal John O'Connor's ability with politics, too.) I can't think of a major politician active today with Cuomo's ability to debate Catholic moral theology (which is not to say I agreed with him). And if he was at odds with Cardinal O'Connor over support for abortion rights, it didn't seem to hurt his standing with the bishop of his home Diocese of Brooklyn, Francis Mugavero.
In other ways, Cuomo's liberal politics in favor of the poor and immigrants were consistent with Catholic teaching, and he pursued these positions against an increasingly hard wind in the Age of Reagan. His opposition to the then highly popular death penalty was an act of conscience--we don't see much of that in contemporary politics--that his opponents tried hard to exploit.
Cuomo was a complicated figure, and so is his legacy. Is it simply that he built a much larger state prison system?
An editorial in Newsday sums it up nicely (the link may not be accessible):
He was a leading voice of inclusion in a nation fast choosing up sides. And he showed that it was not just possible -- but politically advisable -- to crusade for the have-nots in our society while also celebrating and abetting the strength of the middle class.
Other governors left more tangible records. Nelson Rockefeller created the state university system. Hugh Carey saved the City of New York from the brink of bankruptcy.
But in a time of social confusion, financial distress and public angst, Cuomo provided the state and the nation with a strong moral compass. Over and over again, his simple yet powerful words reminded us of who we are as a nation and where we should be going.
Among the thought-provoking comments in the lively discussion thread prompted by Kaitlin Campbell's superb post, "Thoughts on New York Protests and the NYPD", is one from Jim McCrea (12/27, 6:33 pm) raising questions about the responsibilities of nonviolent protestors (and especially, protest organizers and leaders) when confronted by violence initiated by "self-styled anarchists" marching with them.
This has been a serious and recurring problem at Oakland protests in recent weeks, according to McCrea, and I suspect it was an issue elsewhere too, even before the killings of Officers Liu and Ramos in New York and the shooting of Shaneka Thompson in Maryland by Ismaaiyl Brinsley.
Elsewhere in the blogosphere URI historian Erik Loomis has a brief, powerful reflection on "Violence and Nonviolence" in which he concludes, "It’s just hard to see what violence is going to accomplish within the American context. Even if violent resistance can be morally defended, tactically it can’t be defended."
Loomis is answering a theoretical/ideological question, but doesn't answer the practical question Jim McCrea raised: what are leaders, organizers and participants in public protest to do when others begin destroying property or attacking people?
One effective answer is clear instructions from leaders/organizers to participants (and the general public, the police and the media) about how to act when confronted by violence from within the march or protest.
For example, a couple of years ago Mexican students in the "Yo Soy 132" movement put out a list of clear, disciplined guidelines for isolating and eliminating violence from a march they were organizing:Read more
Francisco Goldman (the New Yorker) and Alma Guillermoprieto (the New York Review of Books) are among the journalists who in ongoing reports not only continue to monitor the latest developments in the case of forty-three missing (and all but confirmed dead) students from the Mexican state of Guerrero, but also work to frame the events within a particular political and economic context, which is characterized mainly by government corruption, poverty, and the rampant and indiscriminate violence of drug gangs.
The basic details: In late September, the students were abducted from one of the nation's poorest vocational schools, reportedly at the behest of a local mayor and his wife who were concerned that planned protests by the students would interfere with or overshadow their own scheduled event. According to the government, the abductees were then turned over to a gang related to the mayoral couple, who killed the students, burned their bodies, and dumped their ashes in a river. The national outcry has been such that Goldman wonders whether the case is "spark[ing] a revolution," while Guillermoprieto notes "the marches, vandalism, protests, petitions, and shame too, as the government sinks in disgrace, its inability to guarantee the safety of its citizens or prosecute its criminals more evident by the hour."
Still, three months have passed since the kidnappings, and forensic confirmation that remains discovered are in fact those of the students has been slow in coming. Parents and families of the missing have appealed for Pope Francis's intervention in urging Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto’s government to properly search for the missing students, and at a December 21 Mass in the town where the college is located, Papal Nuncio Christophe Pierre assured the gathered that "Pope Francis knows what's happening here." (Francis told a general audience at the Vatican in November, "I am with the Mexicans, those present and those at home, in this painful moment of what is legally speaking disappearance, but we know, the murder of the students.")
It was also on our about December 21 when a priest from a seminary on the outskirts of nearby Ciudad Altamirano, Gregorio Lopez Gorostieta, was abducted. He was missing for four days before his body was discovered, on Christmas, with gunshot wounds to the head. The motive and killers are unknown. Lopez Gorostieta is the third priest to be murdered in the southern part of Guerrero this year, one of whom was killed for reportedly refusing to baptize a gang leader’s child. Other priests have received death threats for refusing to perform "quickie" marriages or bless such items as automobiles, have been shaken down for protection payments, or have been targets of highway robbery attempts. One was briefly kidnapped after his preaching on "la familia" was misinterpreted by gunmen as an endorsement of a rival cartel by that name.
The Catholic Multimedia Center says Mexico is the most dangerous country in Latin America to be a priest; thirty-six have now been killed there since 1990, counting Lopez Gorostieta. Goldman notes that since 2000, one hundred and two journalists also have been murdered. These are among the quantifiable facts about violence in Mexico, but the numbers tell only so much and seem to have grown wearying besides. "The government offers to investigate, but nothing is ever known," a local priest named Jesus Mendoza Zaragoza recently told the New York Times. Or as Guillermoprieto puts it, in writing specifically about the missing forty-three: "Everyone knows what happens; no one understands why. ... What is this story we are trying to tell and cannot understand?"
Yesterday, the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, and Treasury published a proposed new rule that would require all insurance plans available on the health-care exchanges to disclose whether they cover abortion in their summary of plan benefits.
As I reported last year, and earlier this year, finding out whether the plan you're shopping for includes abortion coverage has been nearly impossible. According to the new proposed rule, an insurer offering plans on a health-care exchange must explicitly indicate whether or not elective abortion services are included. That is, if such coverage is included, the summary of benefits must list it "in the covered services box," according to the proposed rule. If abortion is not covered, the insurer must list "abortion" in the "excluded services box." Finally, "plans that cover only excepted abortions [elective abortions] should list in the excluded services box 'abortion (except in cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother is endangered)' and may also include a cross-reference to another plan document that more fully describes the exceptions."
The new rule, if adopted, would strengthen another rule, proposed by the Obama administration last month, requiring insurers to disclose their plans' abortion coverage before a customer signs up for the policy. Previously the Affordable Care Act only required insurers to disclose abortion coverage "at the time of enrollment." It wasn't clear whether that meant before a person signed up for a plan, at some point after she had begun the signup process, or after she had already completed it. These two rules, if finalized, would allow customers shopping on the exchanges to readily tell whether the plans they're considering cover abortion well before they've purchased a policy.
This is a developing story, and both heads of state are about to speak live to give more details. But in the meantime, let's note the amazing fact that Pope Francis directly brokered a diplomatic deal between the United States and Cuba.
From Evan McMorris-Santoro:
WASHINGTON — Pope Francis was instrumental in facilitating the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba, a senior White House official said Wednesday.
President Obama is expected to announce a deal with the Caribbean nation Wednesday afternoon that will pave the way for the first U.S. embassy on Cuban soil since the Kennedy administration and a relaxing of many of the American economic and travel restrictions on Cuba that have defined the relationship between the two nations for decades.
Francis played a big role in bringing the longtime rivals to the negotiating table, the official said. Francis sent what was characterized as an extraordinary personal letter to Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro over the summer, urging both parties to end their frosty relationship. Following the letter, and the negotiations, Obama and Castro had a phone conversation that helped lead to Wednesday’s announcement.
The letter “gave us greater impetus and momentum for us to move forward,” the administration official said. The Vatican was the only government that participated in the negotiations between the U.S. and Cuba. Vatican officials were “in those meetings,” the official said.
It remains to be seen what the parameters of the deal are. But what we know now is that the only other government involved was the Vatican, and that the Pope's personal letters catalyzed the process.
It resulted in the release of an American prisoner, Alan Gross, something intimated months ago by Tim Padgett, a journalist specializing in Latin America. But the release on the first day of Hanukkah is almost too good to be true.
With such promising developments in diplomacy, it no longer seems implausible that the Vatican will play a key role in facilitating the closing of Guantanamo. Secretary of State Kerry addressed just this issue in talks with the Vatican earlier this week.
We wait in joyful hope.
The Senate Intelligence Committee's "Torture Report," the 500-page report which summarizes a 6,700 page classified report, was released today.
Even for those of us who follow the torture beat closely, this report contains significant new information and corroboration of previous suppositions. Among the most alarming findings is that a minimum of 20% of tortured detainees were wrongly detained, some in blatant cases of mistaken identity.
My own research on torture in U.S. detention facilities has emphasized the religious aspects of abuse ("The Secret Weapon" and "Disgrace"). And though today's report does not contain as much along these lines as did the Senate Armed Services Committee’s report in 2009, it does analyze assertions made by CIA Director Hayden in 2007 about the role of religion in "enhanced interrogation."
Hayden argued that the CIA’s experience with detainees and “their particular psychological profile” necessitated interrogation so burdensome that the detainees would consider themselves released from their religious obligations:
Perceiving themselves true believers in a religious war, detainees believe they are morally bound to resist until Allah has sent them a burden too great for them to withstand. At that point — and that point varies by detainee — their cooperation in their own heart and soul becomes blameless and they enter into this cooperative relationship with our debriefers.
… it varies how long it takes, but I gave you a week or two as the normal window in which we actually helped this religious zealot to get over his own personality and put himself in a spirit of cooperation. (485-86)
Let's just say I am no fan of David Brooks. Usually I pass over his first sentence and move on. His column this morning got something important right (i.e., correct) and I read all the way to the end.
Spoiler alert: He mentions Ferguson and then goes on to open up a conversation we should be having about class.
"Widening class distances produce class prejudice, classism. This is a prejudice based on visceral attitudes about competence. People in the “respectable” class have meritocratic virtues: executive function, grit, a capacity for delayed gratification. The view about those in the untouchable world is that they are short on these things. They are disorganized. They are violent and scary. This belief has some grains of truth because of childhood trauma, the stress of poverty and other things....This class prejudice is applied to both the white and black poor, whose demographic traits are converging." Whole column here: NY Times.
Shortly after 5 pm yesterday, I joined with others and marched in protest. While I was marching, I had time to reflect: What brought me there? The immediate and proximate cause was of course the lack of an indictment in the Michael Brown case. I am profoundly concerned about the racialization of the criminal justice system. But an equally important commitment comes from a concern about the militarization of police power in our country. This is something I will address in forthcoming posts; I want to ask here whether any of you marched yesterday. What was your experience? What brought you there? If you didn’t march, did you find other ways of registering your protest? Where should we go from here?
As always, I welcome your comments.
In case you missed it: last week, in collaboration with Frontline, ProPublica published its must-read investigation of "Firestone, Charles Taylor, and the Tragedy of Liberia." Here's how it starts:
HARBEL, Liberia — The killers launched from the plantation under a waning moon one night in October 1992. They surged past tin-roofed villages and jungle hideouts, down macadam roads and red-clay bush trails. More and more joined their ranks until thousands of men in long, ragged columns moved toward the distant capital.
Men in camouflage mounted rusted artillery cannon in battered pickup trucks. Thin teenagers lugged rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Children carried AK-47s. Some held long machetes.
The killers wore ripped jeans and T-shirts, women’s wigs and cheap rubber sandals. Grotesque masks made them look like demons. They were electric with drugs. They clutched talismans of feather and bone to protect them from bullets. In the pre-dawn darkness, they surrounded Monrovia, the capital of Liberia.
They loosed their attack on the sleeping city. Artillery slammed into stores and homes. Mortars arced through thick, humid air that smelled of rot. Boy soldiers canoed across mangrove swamps. As they pressed in, the killers forced men, women and children from their homes. They murdered civilians and soldiers. Falling shells just missed the U.S. Embassy, hunkered on a high spot overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
A new phase of Liberia’s civil war had begun. It would whip savagely out of control over the next decade. More than 200,000 people would die or suffer terrible injuries, most of them civilians — limbs hacked off, eyes gouged out. Half the country’s population would become refugees. Five American nuns would be slaughtered, becoming international symbols of the conflict’s depravity.
Orchestrating the anarchy was Charles Taylor, a suave egomaniac obsessed with taking over Liberia, America’s most faithful ally in Africa. For the attack that October morning, he had built his army of butchers and believers in part with the resources of one of America’s most iconic businesses: Firestone.