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Welcome to The NeoProgressive, where people of all political persuasions can debate vigorously within a framework of basic American values and mutual respect -- NeoProgressivism.

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(NeoProgBlog, The Neoprogressive, The Neoprogressive Magazine, and original material © 2005, 2006.)

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Watching the Watchers: A Good Journalist Keeps Digging...

Some people may think that the New York Times' disclosure that the National Security Agency has been conducting warrantless surveillance of American citizens jeopardized national security. Others, noting that the Times had the story at least a year ago (possibly before the 2004 Presidential election) and bowed to Administration pressure not to run it, consider the Times to be in dereliction of its journalistic duty.

Meanwhile, Byron Calame, the Times' public editor, is intent on doing his job -- even if that means exposing his own bosses' misstatements and evasions. We need more professionals like Calame, who understand that their job is to learn and share the truth even if it makes those in power uncomfortable. The old Progressive "Muckrakers" would be proud.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Can't Have Democracy Without Knowing The Facts

Implicit in my earlier posts on the tenets of Neoprogressivism, but not discussed yet, is the idea that citizens in a successful democracy must base their decisions on facts, not opinions or "spin." Ideology is great, but too many people ignore any facts that contradict their ideology -- and doing so is not only unwise and intellectually dishonest, it's poor citizenship.

Do you believe that "No Child Left Behind" is a good idea? Then you should want to know whether that program did or did not work in Texas, where it has been tried for about a decade (long enough to start generating results). Do you think the President lied us into the Iraq War? Then you're concerned with knowing what facts were available to the President, when, and to the Senate, when.

Stephen Colbert, on "The Colbert Report," did a great parody of some demagogues' manipulation of our emotions disguised as facts. He promised his viewers:

"There are those who think with their heads and those who know with their hearts... But the gut's where the truth comes from...I know some of you may not trust your gut yet. But with my help you will. The truthiness is that anyone can report the news to you, but I promise to FEEL the news AT you."

Unfortunately, neither our citizens nor our mainstream media are sufficiently focused on identifying and communicating the facts that we, as citizens, as voters, need to make sound decisions. A new survey shows that while things are getting better, there's still a lot of misinformation out there:

-- Forty-one percent (41%) of U.S. adults believe that Saddam Hussein had "strong links to Al Qaeda." (The truth, as determined by the 9/11 commission, is that there were no operational ties between the two. Hussein was a secular dictator who idolized Josef Stalin and often jailed or killed religious zealots; Bin Laden is (was?) a theocrat who detested Saddam and wanted him overthrown so that an Islamic state could be created.)

-- Twenty-two percent (22%) of adults believe that Saddam Hussein "helped plan and support the hijackers who attacked the United States on September 11." (Again: simply not true.)

-- Twenty-six percent (26%) of adults believe that Iraq "had weapons of mass destruction when the U.S. invaded." (Neither the weapons inspectors who were in place before the war, nor our own troops, found any evidence of actual WMDs, and there is no evidence at all -- no intel, no satellite photos, nothing -- that Saddam smuggled any to Syria, as some conspiracy theorists have theorized.)

-- Twenty-four percent (24%) of all adults believe that "several of the hijackers who attacked the United States on September 11 were Iraqis." (None were. Most were Saudi citizens. Saudi Arabia, which says the Koran is its constitution, still executes women accused of promiscuity, and continues to fund fundamentalist Islamic madrasas around the world, is considered a U.S. ally.)

Of course some politicians will lie about things like this. But what excuses our media's failure to correct those misimpressions, and some of our citizens' refusal to set aside what they believe in order to see what truly is?

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

My Daughter Comes to My Defense

I need to share how blessed I am.

Last week my local paper, the Eugene Register-Guard, published an opinion piece decrying the illusory “War On Christmas” that (without any prompting) I had submitted to them. Since then, I have received numerous letters, emails, and blog comments, almost all complimentary beyond my deserving, a few critical, and some just baffling (one gentleman keeps mailing me envelopes full of sheets of Bible verses, which I appreciate as showing a kindly concern for the state of my soul).

Today, I received the following letter from a critic:

Dec. 19, 2005

To Mr. Bellows, “Christian”

I feel compelled to point out just a few fallacies in your newspaper article ‘The Truth About Christmas.’

First of all, there isn’t much truth to your article and it’s obvious you live in your own liberal bubble as they all do at the Register Guard. How quaint they found a ‘Christian’ they could use to propogate their secularist, close minded and predictable opinions. You pointed out that the Register Guard actually prints a ‘one size fits all’ religious article called ‘Heart to Heart.’ Big wow! You gotta be kidding. Most newspapers in this country have full two page articles regarding religion.

Like all liberals, you also have a big time problem with Bill O’Reilly. Tsk. Tsk. You headlined “O’Reilly promotes commercialization.’ Yeah. Right. You do an excellent job of twisting and manipulating what O’Reilly has said to your [sic] fit your own needs and opinions. Is that all yo can come up with? Let’s see. Who am I going to agree with – a small town, very provincial, clueless ‘Christian’ or O’Reilly who happens to have the NUMBER ONE highest rated, cable program on TV and has had for 5 years running now. More people are watching and listening to him than all the other news shows combined. If you go by your articles, you didn’t even know he was on TV. All O’Reilly wanted was for people to have the freedom of expression to wish people a Merry Christmas if they chose to do so.

There is a war against Christians in this country and there is a war against Christmas. I have lived in may different parts of this country. No where have I seen such Christian intolerance that exists in the sol called open minded, diversity tolerant town of Eugene. One excellent example is how the city council drove their own hospital out of town just because it is a Catholic Hospital. Now the city council is bending over backwards to place a for profit hospital ANYWHERE in this city. As a neighbor recently told me, ‘We’re lucky they’re not shooting Christians in this town.’ ----- Not yet.


Kimberly DeChoates

My wife, whose birthday it is and who was in a festive and amused mood, read that letter aloud to the family after dinner over decaf and port. My eleven year old daughter Elizabeth was offended and decided to come to my defense; she penned the following response:

Dear Ms. DeChoates,

My Dad is very informed on what is going on in the world, thank you very much, and he keeps me informed on everything. I am writing this on my own free will, my Dad is not the type of person to force something on anybody. Yes he is a liberal, and so is my mother, they are very proud of it.

My IQ is120, and so I am very smart and I know when somebody is being rude and inconsiderate. I am angry with you for disrespecting my family, and Madam, although I am only eleven, I am appalled with your behavior.

Merry Christmas is not suitable for this time of year, because there is also New Year, Kwanza,, Hanuka, and also Solstice. I also noticed that you used it almost like a curse. Tsk, tsk.

Happy Holidays, Kimberly.


Elizabeth Bellows
Age 11
Liberal Young Lady

Elizabeth is such a good child that she asked my permission to mail it. Since it meets our family’s standards for children’s conduct toward adults – honestly sharing her opinions and beliefs while showing the respect we require they show every adult – I told her she was welcome to send it. It'll be in tomorrow's mail, hand-addressed by her.

And I feel blessed, blessed, blessed. My daughters have been practicing all day on the new used piano that Santa brought us. I just finished an excellent dinner to celebrate my loving and lovely wife’s 51st birthday, am listening to Erroll Garner, Eva Cassidy and Laurindo Almeida in rotation on the stereo, and have lively and intelligent daughters who are quick and articulate in coming to my defense. What more can a man ask?

Thank you, God, whoever you are. You are very, very good to me.

Happy HannuSolstiKwanzaMas, everyone.


Sorry, but... more War On Christmas

As Christians who attend traditional, mainline, liturgical churches know, Christmas Season is finally here. It started on Sunday, December 25, and in the fabled Twelve Day countdown, today I’m expecting my true love to give me Three French (oops... I mean, Freedom) Hens.

So, while I’m anxious for the War on Christmas to recede into an uneasy truce for eleven months or so, liturgical honesty forces me to admit that it’s still Christmas, and skirmishes are still being fought.

What makes me flog this sorry horse is two articles that are worthy of attention.

The first is an Op-Ed in the Eugene Register-Guard by Norm Fox, a conservative church elder in my home town who disagrees with my opinion piece from the week before. I don’t agree with what he has to say, mainly because his opinions are based on John Gibson-style rumors that don’t bear out when factchecked – but I’m glad to provide a link to his article so folks can decide for themselves. (I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll research and write a point-by-point rebuttal – I’m more interested in teaching my daughters to play the new used piano that Santa brought.)

The second is a nice article in The New Yorker by Hendrik Hertzberg, giving a great history of the War’s antecedents. I wrote that before the War On Christmas there was Christmas Under Siege, but was surprised to learn that in 1959 the John Birch Society was warning about an Assault On Christmas. The more things change, the more they stay the same, but today the Birchers, whom 90% of Americans used to shun, have a lot more pull than they used to.

And if you don’t want to read any more about the War, good for you. Just say no. It's far more important that everyone simply do what they can to have, and help others have, a Merry Christmas, a fruitful Kwanzaa, a Happy Hannukah, and a healthy, prosperous New Year.

Poor People vs. Beet Farmer Subsidies... Hmmm...

Fiscal responsibility is an old tenet of the Republican Party (now largely ignored), a relatively new tenet of the Democratic Party (about time!), and a fundamental tenet of Neoprogressives.

The Senate just passed a spending reduction bill. Great. Over the next five years, it will save an amount of money roughly equal to what we're spending every four months in Iraq. Not so great: like trying to lose weight by switching from whole to skim milk but still eating a quart of ice cream every evening while watching TV. And the bill makes most of its cuts in social programs, which, after the Clinton-era welfare overhaul and five years of Republican control of both the White House and Congress, aren't exactly overgenerous. I'm glad to see spending cuts, but real reform will take courage, and this bill shows none.

A story from the L.A. Times on December 24 shows the kind of courage this bill required of our political leaders. (The site requires membership, so I'm posting the entire article below for those who don't want to jump through those hoops.) The playbill: Gordon Smith is a moderate-right senator from my home state, Oregon. Norm Coleman is a far right senator from Minnesota. Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, is a physician whose family owns a chain of hospitals.

Let's see how sausage is made, and whether the interests of ordinary Americans are being taken care of:

Last-Minute Swap Let Spending Bill Through
Senator gave his vote to save a farming subsidy. It's a stark example of political horse-trading.
By Joel Havemann
Times Staff Writer

December 24, 2005

WASHINGTON — The 770-plus page budget-cutting bill that went to the Senate floor this week was considered a political must-pass by Republican leaders, who were loathe to go home for the holidays without demonstrating at least some concern about the red ink that has swamped the federal government. Because every budget cut hurts some people while sparing others, lining up votes usually comes down to horse-trading.

This year, the process turned into an unusually stark demonstration of how the game is played.

As they prepared to send the spending cuts to the floor, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and his GOP lieutenants realized they were headed for defeat unless they secured one more vote. And to get that, Frist had to meet the asking price of one of two GOP senators, Norm Coleman of Minnesota or Gordon H. Smith of Oregon.

Smith vowed not to support the bill unless it was changed so that proposed savings on Medicaid, the federal healthcare program for the poor, were achieved at the expense of drug companies and other providers instead of coming in the form of lower benefits for Medicaid recipients.

Coleman's price for supporting the package was removing from the bill a provision that would have eliminated $30 million in subsidies for sugar beet growers, many of them in his home state.

In the end, sugar farmers got to keep their subsidy and Frist got Coleman's vote. With the Minnesota lawmaker on board, the bill passed: 50 senators in favor of it, 50 against, and Vice President Dick Cheney cast the tie-breaking yes vote — as is his prerogative as president pro tempore of the Senate.

It was the sort of deal, involving a call to Coleman by top White House political aide Karl Rove, that politicians usually prefer not to talk about. In this case, however, Frist laid it out in public by issuing a press release. "Sugar farmers will not face any cuts in this important budget agreement," he said, "and Sen. Coleman will support the package."

Every budget bill involves making trade-offs — money for bombers or bridges, perhaps, or environment or education. As they try to put together majorities, legislative leaders consider what it will take to get each vote they need.

In this case, the House and Senate had passed very different versions of the budget-cutting bill. In particular, the House voted to cut Medicaid benefits and increase co-payments that beneficiaries would have to pay when they received care. The Senate achieved its Medicaid savings by letting the government negotiate more favorable rates from drug manufacturers and managed care facilities.

As House and Senate negotiators labored to write a compromise bill that both chambers could support, it was clear that the 100-member Senate was almost evenly divided. The Senate's Republican leaders figured they could not count on the support of any of the 44 Democrats or the one independent; that meant they could afford no more than five defections from their own ranks.

Coleman was one of seven Senate Republicans who wrote a letter expressing concern over "the impact to America's lowest income and most vulnerable from policies implemented to secure budget savings." In this group were the five lawmakers who had voted against the original bill, plus Smith and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who had voted for it.

For the compromise bill, the administration and House Republican leaders were insisting that the Medicaid savings come in the form of lower benefits, not negotiations for lower prices from drug companies and managed care systems — a step that would probably cost them Smith's vote. Smith had voted for the original Senate budget bill because its Medicaid cuts landed on the drug and managed care companies and held the beneficiaries themselves harmless.

With Rove's help, the House-Senate negotiators in effect swapped Coleman for Smith in the ranks of Republicans supporting the bill. They did it by stripping the original bill's $30 million worth of cuts to the sugar beet industry.

"Karl Rove called me and asked me what I wanted," Coleman told Congress Daily. "A few hours later, it was out of the bill."

After the vote, Coleman said in a statement: "I could not stand for a budget … package that singled out sugar farmers."

Specter also ended up voting for the bill, saying the Medicaid provisions gave the states the flexibility "to ameliorate hardships resulting from the proposed reductions."

Medicaid supporters felt outmaneuvered.

"It certainly sounds to me that they made a calculation to get Coleman's support," said Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "With Coleman, they no longer needed Smith. And if they no longer needed Smith, they could cut Medicaid recipients instead of the pharmaceutical companies and managed care providers."

The bill is still not quite ready for Bush's signature. After the House passed the compromise bill and adjourned for the holidays, the Senate made some minor changes that require another House vote. That will have to wait until House members return to Washington in January.

Greenstein said the episode provided a case study of the importance of money in politics. There were 568,000 Medicaid recipients in Minnesota last year, and 40,000 people whose livelihood depended on sugar beets.

But in the contest between Medicaid recipients and pharmaceutical manufacturers to avoid budget cuts, drug company political action committees have made $107,000 in campaign contributions to Coleman since his successful election campaign of 2002. Medicaid recipients have no PACs.

And the pharmaceutical industry has long been a major contributor to Republicans. "You can see the political clout of the moneyed interests," Greenstein said.

Efforts to reach the sugar beet growers organization for comment were unsuccessful.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Alito and the Slippery Slope to Totalitarianism

Two memoranda written by Samuel Alito in the 1980s were released yesterday. They show why the President chose to nominate Alito to the Supreme Court, and why it is IMPERATIVE that Americans who value checks on the unfettered power of the Executive – Americans who want the kind of diffused democracy the Founders wanted instead of the centralized power exercised by Kings and dictators – need to contact their Senators and demand that Alito not be confirmed – that he be filibustered, if necessary. Here’s why:

For the past five years, the current Administration has been stretching the concept of Executive Privilege to the limit. They assert the power of the President and his advisors to do what they want, free from Congressional, judicial or public oversight, so long as they (no one else) believe it is necessary to do so. The last President to rely so heavily on assertions of Executive Privilege was Richard Nixon, who used it in efforts to keep the Pentagon Papers (revealing the misrepresentations that led to the Vietnam War) and the Watergate Tapes (disclosing his administration’s complicity in Watergate) from being given to the public or to prosecutors. Back then, the Supreme Court properly put limits on Executive Privilege and allowed both the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate Tapes to be released.

Bush and Cheney have claimed Executive Privilege to deny Freedom of Information Act requests by citizens and Congress. They have used it to conceal the agenda of, and even the identities of the participants in, Cheney’s Energy Task Force (although we do know, from a leak, that those energy company executives were looking at a map of Iraq’s oilfields as part of planning America’s energy strategy – before 9/11!). Various officials have cited Executive Privilege to stymie prosecutors’ and Congress’ efforts to unravel the Administration's leak of the name of Valerie Plame, a formerly-covert CIA operative – a crime that not only stopped Ms. Plame from doing her important work (she broke up international WMD-smuggling rings), but also revealed the true identities of dozens of other American agents and foreign spies who were working with her, making them useless as well (and making America less safe).

Most recently, the President has admitted authorizing espionage on American citizens located here in the U.S. without a warrant, which is a crime under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (“FISA”). He claims it was his privilege to do so.

The question is not whether such spying sometimes needs to be done, or done quickly. FISA already gave law enforcement and intelligence agencies remarkable power. It set up a special court solely to review requests for search warrants in spy cases. Its judges’ identities are kept secret, and its offices are located literally down the hall from the Attorney General. When intelligence agencies need a search warrant to spy on a possible terrorist, all they need to do is walk down the hall and ask for it. The warrant can be issued in minutes. In 2004, the government asked the FISA judges for secret surveillance search warrants 1758 times; none were denied. Since FISA went into effect in 1979, over 19,000 requests for search warrants have been made; only five of those requests were denied.

So: the government is constitutionally and legally obligated to obtain a search warrant before conducting surveillance inside the U.S., it can obtain such a warrant merely by walking down the hall and asking for it, and the warrant will be issued, no questions asked, 99.97% of the time. In fact, in emergencies where there isn’t even time to walk down the hall, FISA even allows the government to do domestic surveillance without a warrant, as long as it asks for the warrant within a reasonable time after the surveillance starts. So even the “Jack Bauer”-type scenario – where a federal agent sees the bad guy’s car and has thirty seconds to slip a handy bug inside before it drives away or else Los Angeles will be blown up – is permitted by FISA.

Yet the President now admits that, over thirty times, he has authorized U.S. intelligence agencies to ignore FISA and do domestic surveillance without getting a warrant either beforehand or afterward. Under FISA, that is a crime, and a serious crime, because the Constitution bars government surveillance of citizens without a warrant. Period. It’s beyond partisan; it implicates fundamental American values – specifically, the right of Americans to be free in their persons and property from unreasonable governmental searches and surveillance under the Fourth Amendment.

Bear with me; I promise I’m getting to the Alito connection.

The President’s supporters are claiming that the President gained the power to order warrantless surveillance on September 14, 2001, when the Senate passed a resolution authorizing the President to go to war against the people responsible for 9/11. That resolution permitted the President "to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed or aided" the Sept. 11 attack.

The President is claiming that “all necessary and appropriate force” includes the authority to spy on American citizens inside our own borders. Undercutting that argument is a new revelation by former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who has disclosed that minutes before the Senate voted, the White House tried to add new language allowing domestic operations. That language would have given the President authority to use "all necessary and appropriate force in the United States and against those nations, organizations and persons" responsible for the attacks.

With the requested language, the President arguably would have had authority to use military and intelligence forces against people both inside and outside the United States, without warrants or due process of law. But the Senate rejected the effort to add “in the United States and” to the resolution, and as passed, the resolution only gave the President authority to wage war overseas. Domestically, the President remained obligated to abide by the laws and Constitution of the United States. Which wasn’t exactly onerous, because, again, to do domestic surveillance, all his lawyers need to do is walk down the hall and ask a secret judge, who will rubber-stamp a warrant within minutes.

The Presidentially-authorized domestic wiretaps will eventually be brought before the Supreme Court, which will be asked to interpret both FISA and the September 14 resolution in deciding whether the President acted illegally. Normally, in interpreting statutes, courts look both at the precise words of the statute and also try to decipher what Congress’ intent was when it passed the statute. Congress’ intent here was clear: it intended to authorize the President to exercise “necessary and appropriate force” overseas, but to comply with the (still-easy) requirements of FISA here at home, to protect our citizens’ rights. To any first-year law student, it’s a no-brainer: the President did wrong. The legal issue is so clear under current law that one of the FISA secret judges -- a man who has worked "undercover" and authorized thousands of surveillance search warrants and may have denied none -- has resigned in protest of the President's actions.

But what if – what if – some judicial activist decided to change the rules, and look, not at what Congress’ intent in passing legislation was, but at the President’s intent in proposing and/or signing that legislation? In that case, the President could simply state what his subjective intent was: “I intended it to mean such-and-such.” The intent of Congress is reflected in committee reports, conference reports, and interminable floor speeches; there’s lot of contemporaneous information about what various representatives thought. But the President doesn't generate that kind of legislative history. He doesn’t need to discuss his thoughts with anyone, let alone write them down, and if he does discuss them with people, he can keep those discussions secret by invoking Executive Privilege. The only evidence of what the President was thinking is what he says he was thinking – and, as we all know, a politician’s explanation of his actions seldom reflect his true motives.

If the Supreme Court adopted a “Presidential intent” rather than a “Congressional intent” approach in the upcoming domestic surveillance cases, the President could say simply that he intended the September 14 resolution to include the power to do domestic surveillance regardless of what the Congress thought, and the Court, which would have no legally-admissible reason not to take him at his word, would rule such surveillance lawful.

This legal argument -- Alito's legal argument -- eventually cuts Congress out of the picture entirely, and allows the Executive Branch to spy, or even use military forces against, American citizens on American soil without restraint. And that, as all historians know, is how democracies end: a threat arises; a panicked population and parliament or congress cede power to the executive, and the executive never gives it back.

Thanks for being patient. Here, finally, is the Alito connection:

Yesterday, the White House released two memos written by Judge Alito in the 1980s, when he worked for the Justice Department. In one, Judge Alito argued that the attorney general should be immune from lawsuits when he illegally wiretaps Americans. Recognizing that this proposal would be anathema to all right-thinking judges, Alito also advocated an incremental –read "sneaky" – approach to establishing the principle that government actors are immune when they invade Americans’ civil rights. Each case would move only a little way in that direction, he argued, but we'd get there eventually. (Judge Alito has argued for a similar approach to overturning Roe v. Wade, as I’ve noted before; scroll to the bottom of the post under “SUPPLEMENT, NOV. 30, 2005".)

Luckily, the Rehnquist Court flatly rejected Judge Alito's view of the law, holding in 1985 that the immunity Alito advocated would be an invitation to deny people their constitutional rights.

In the second memo released yesterday, Judge Alito proposed incrementally shifting court’s analysis of statutes from “Congress’ intent” to “the President’s intent” by having the President issue a "signing statement" about what the law means whenever he signed a bill into law. Again, he was trying to incrementally – again, read “sneakily” – undercut bedrock principles of American jurisprudence and give increased power to the President.

Alito’s preference for looking at Presidential rather than Congressional intent is especially salient because, as I posted yesterday, it is the agreement between the branches that makes it proper for Presidents to be subject to the laws: Congress writes bills, Presidents sign them into law, and the joint nature of that exercise deprives the President of the right to say that he is immune from having to follow them. If Alito has his way, the President will have grounds to argue – as Bush is arguing now without justification – that he is not obligated to honor any legal restraints placed on him.

Under legal principles that have been in place at least since Blackstone wrote his Commentaries ten years before the American Revolution, the President acted illegally and must stop spying on American citizens without obtaining a FISA warrant (which, again, are available on short notice and are issued 99.97% of the time). But under Alito’s theories, which are new and therefore constitute judicial activism, warrantless searches would be legal as long as the President said they were legal, and even if they weren’t, the President and his men would be legally immune from any consequences. To any student of history, to any true patriot, that’s very, very scary.

Stalin was allowed to spy on Russian citizens without any court or parliament exercising oversight. Hitler was allowed to spy on German citizens without any court or parliament exercising oversight. But we are America, and we are better than that. We believe in checks and balances; that’s the brilliance of the Constitution the Founders were inspired to create, one in which the President cannot become a dictator. But if Samuel Alito is confirmed to the Supreme Court, and if his views are adopted by his ideological colleagues Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy, and Roberts, then the America we knew will be lost.

And, under Alito's "incremental change" strategy, we won't even notice our democracy slipping away until it's too late. Whatever his goal is -- criminalizing abortion, granting immunity to government officials who violate Americans' civil rights, allowing Presidents to exercise whatever powers they feel they need to exercise -- Alito consistenly recommends an "incremental change" strategy to keep people from protesting. It's like the adage about boiling a frog: toss a frog into boiling water and he'll jump right out; put him in cold water and slowly increase the heat, and he won't notice until it's too late. Alito would move our democracy little by little toward the hell of totalitarianism, and we wouldn't recognize we were being nudged that way until, someday in the future, we noticed the flames and wondered how we got there. Every democracy in history has eventually walked, incrementally and willingly, out of fear, from democracy to totalitarianism. This is what it looks like, and true patriots should do what they can to stop it now.

There’s a link on the left to the U.S. Senate’s webpage. There, you can look up your Senators’ phone numbers and addresses. Please, call and beg them not to confirm Judge Alito. Our democracy – no kidding – may be hanging in the balance.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Link re: Domestic Spying and the Limits of Executive Power

Glenn Greenwald has posted a nice essay summarizing the legal issues surrounding the “domestic spying” brouhaha. I am still digesting what he wrote, but do want to add the following, for clarity and not as criticism:

Glenn’s article contains these passages:

absurd and dangerous proposition that the President has the right to violate a criminal law passed by Congress.

...that the law be made by parliamentary deliberations

The President's defenders are pretending this is a conflict between the President and Congress, and that in times of war, the President's authority prevails. The language I quoted above inadvertantly supports that false distinction by saying, basically, that the President is subject to Congress' laws.

This misses an important point: that the laws passed by Congress are also signed by the then-President. In other words, the laws that Bush violated represent a prior agreement between the Congress and the Executive that they are right and good; the President (in the form of his predecessors) has already agreed to be subject to them.

This makes the "Congress vs. Executive" distinction false and misleading. Bush violated laws that both branches enacted. To claim that the Executive Branch is not subject to a law that the Executive Branch already endorsed is disingenuous – and illegal. And, not to put too fine a point on it, impeachable as a “high crime.”

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Redux: On the Proper Role of Government in a Democratic Society

Unlike most blogs, I see the NeoProgBlog less as a fast-moving, topical newspaper and more as an online interactive magazine: The NeoProgressive Magazine online. The news of the day is important mainly as it illuminates larger issues: what is the proper role of government, how should Americans deal with good-faith conflicts over cultural and religious values, etc.

What I want from my readers, more than anything, is input and feedback on those larger issues, and posts that come and go in a day or two just can't generate that kind of deep discussion.

So, every now and then I will resurrect an older post, and invite readers to chew on it a little. Over time, we should come up with pretty thorough analysis.

Today's selection is a perennial favorite of all political philosophers. Ever want to join the illustrious company of Plato, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Marx, and both Roosevelts? Now's your chance! Please, check out On the Proper Role of Government in a Democratic Society and let me know your thoughts!

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

I Think We Won... A War That Wasn't (?!!?)

On The O'Reilly Factor, host Bill O'Reilly apparently reversed his previous position that the phrase "Happy Holidays" is offensive, stating, " 'Happy Holidays' is fine, just don't ban 'Merry Christmas.' " O'Reilly has previously claimed the term "Happy Holidays" is offensive to "millions of Christians" and 'insulting to Christian America."

O'Reilly Retreats

I do have to ask: if neoconservatives can't even win a nonexistent war against a holiday, why does anyone think they can successfully prosecute a war against real terrorists, or stabilize Iraq?

But I'm being snarky. Good for O'Reilly. Now if John Gibson will remove all copies of "The War On Christmas" from store shelves and donate all profits to the Anti-Defamation League, and the U.S. House will pass a resolution apologizing for H. Res. 579 (and for refusing to include Hannukah in its language), then everything should be pretty much OK.

Now Anarchists Get Into the "War."

OK, this is just surreal: Santarchy.

But, sadly, no more surreal, no more artificial or disingenuous, than the bill "protecting" Christmas that passed the House, or the whole "War On Christmas" itself. It's all tendentious, self-serving, and irrelevant to the religious or spiritual holy day.

Props to NTodd from Eschaton.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Eugene Register-Guard Runs NeoProgBlog Op-Ed

I'm pleased and humbled that the Eugene (Oregon) Register-Guard is running an expanded version of my essay on the War On Christmas as an Op-Ed style piece on the front page of their Commentary section today. I knew this was coming, but was flabbergasted to see my essay taking up 2/3 of the page, accompanied by two large editorial cartoons, and sharing space with a (shorter) piece by Salman Rushdie. I also was surprised to notice that, according to the R-G's count, the War On Christmas was the number one topic of Letters to the Editor last week. Apparently a lot of people are turning on to the issue, and I'm honored that a MSM editor chose to place me front and center.

Thank you, Jack Wilson.

Readers of that piece, please let me know your thoughts by commenting below.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Congress Enters the Nonexistent War on Christmas

It isn't taking His name in vain if you're seriously imploring Him for help, so:

Jesus help us.

The House of Representatives is voting on a resolution to save "the symbols and traditions" of Christmas.

And, to make sure no one wrongly accuses them of serving ALL Americans, without regard for religion, the resolution's sponsors refused to include protection for the "symbols and traditions" of Hannukah in the same bill.

Thank God, again literally, that someone was able to point out, humorously, how life-wastingly, sinfully, deeply silly this is, at a time when our nation faces real enemies and needs real leadership from our Congress.

Of course, the bill’s sponsors are calling for a roll-call vote, so that anyone who votes against it as being too damned silly to waste Congress’ time on can be accused of being “anti-Christmas” the next time they’re up for re-election.

I am very, very angry. This Congress' work year is about to expire, and there is much pressing business for them to do, including deliver relief for the over 1,300 children who are still separated from their parents following Hurricane Katrina and funding delivery of vehicle armor that still, after all this time, is needed by our troops in Iraq. What a cynical, political, sinful waste of resources.

I am telephoning my Congressman to ask him to vote no. You can find out who your Congressperson is here. The Capitol switchboard can be reached at 202-224-3121.

UPDATE: H. Res. 579, which criticizes "attempts to ban mention of Christmas" and "recognizes the importance of the symbols and traditions of Christmas", passed the House on December 15 by a vote of 401-22.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The War On Christmas

Intolerant, unspiritual people have declared a “War On Christmas.” As a Christian, I feel a moral obligation to fight back.

It began last year with a series of Fox News reports called “Christmas Under Siege.” Earlier this year, Fox News host John Gibson gave the movement its name when he published The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought. Fox News aired 58 segments covering the supposed “War” between November 28 and December 2. CNN and MSNBC have run stories on the “War,” a group backed by Jerry Falwell is offering legal representation to anyone “facing persecution for celebrating Christmas,” and ads have appeared promising that Samuel Alito will protect Christmas if his Supreme Court nomination is approved. Bill O'Reilly is leading the charge.

All of which might be great if anyone were actually attacking Christmas, but this “War,” like others I can think of, “defends” Christmas against a nonexistent threat.

Believe it or not, the main thing that has O’Reilly up in arms is the phrase “Happy Holidays,” which really is just good manners. Christmas is not the only December holiday: every culture and religion has a December or Solstice festival of some kind. Christians celebrate Christmas. Jews mark the year’s shortest, darkest days with a Festival of Lights. Hindus brighten the night with firecrackers and lamps on Diwali, Buddhists celebrate Buddha’s enlightenment on Rohatsu, and many African-Americans celebrate Kwanzaa. Wishing well to others who don’t share our faith is exactly what Jesus, who taught us to treat others as we wish to be treated, would expect. Not to mention Emily Post.

I’m especially open to acknowledging non-Christian holidays at this time of year because Christmas has many non-Christian roots. The Bible doesn’t say Jesus was born on December 25; Luke’s description of flocks in open fields suggest He was born during Spring lambing. The early Church neither knew nor cared what Jesus’ birthday was: Origen and Arnobius thought only pagans should celebrate the gods’ birthdays, and other Church Fathers thought Jesus was born on various dates in January, April, or May. The first Christmas masses were celebrated on January 8, but in 336 A.D. Christmas was moved to December 25, the Roman Winter Solstice, to coincide with the birthday festivals of the Phrygian, Persian and Roman sun-gods and the national Roman holiday, Saturnalis.

Likewise, non-Christian rituals underly most Christmas traditions. Evergreens and Christmas trees are rooted in Germanic solstice celebrations. The Viking god Odin left gifts of food on poor people’s hearths. Pre-Christian Scandinavians celebrated “Yule” by decorating their homes with prickly holly to snag evil spirits. Druids hung mistletoe over their doorways, and kissing under that mistletoe originated in Norse mythology.

Christmas was not an important Christian holiday until relatively recently. The Puritans discouraged Christmas celebrations as unbiblical; Cromwell and some New England colonies banned Christmas celebrations altogether. Scrooge, in expecting his employee to work on Christmas Day, was in the majority. In America, workplaces, schools and the U.S. Congress were open on Christmas Day until the 1800s, and in the South, Christmas was an adult drinking celebration – wassailing – similar to today’s New Years Eve. Christmas trees weren’t common in America until 1850, when a fad was started by a popular magazine showing Queen Victoria and her German-born husband decorating one. New York didn't erect its first community Christmas Tree until 1912.

According to the Christian liturgical calendar, we shouldn’t even be celebrating Christmas yet: it is Advent. Christmas carols aren't sung in liturgical churches until the 25th. Christmas, to a Christian, begins on Christmas Day. Until then, “Merry Christmas” makes little sense.

Knowing all this, I am glad to share the season with others. It’s both accurate and courteous, and not at all irreligious, to wish others “Happy Holy Days” rather than assume they celebrate “Christ’s Mass.”

All of which would be merely amusing, except that it’s turning mean-spirited. The “War On Christmas” has the potential to do real harm.

For one thing, O’Reilly is denigrating Jesus’ teachings by contributing to the commercialization of Christmas. The Bible says “every knee shall bend and every head shall bow” in honor of Jesus. O’Reilly turned that on its head by saying “[e]very company in America should be on its knees thanking Jesus for being born. Without Christmas, most American businesses would be far less profitable.” That’s blasphemy. (It’s also hypocrisy: O’Reilly publicized a blacklist of retailers whose advertisements say “Happy Holidays” while his own website advertised “Fox News Holiday Ornaments.”)

Buying and giving gifts isn’t itself bad. Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol to encourage charitable giftgiving during an economic depression. However, he was advocating buying a goose for a poor family, not a widescreen TV for your own child. Today, retailers’ profitability depends on a robust Christmas shopping season, and The Economist magazine estimates that emotionally-charged purchases lead Christmas shopper to pay $4 billion more each year than their purchases are actually worth. That’s unhealthy, both economically and spiritually. It would be better to abandon the pagan custom of giftgiving, or spend our money charitably, than allow Christmas to deteriorate into a secular Saturnalia.

As a Christian, I’m also astounded and bothered by O’Reilly’s own efforts to turn Christmas from a spiritual holiday into a secular one. Not only does he emphasize shopping above all else, but he describes Christmas as “a national public holiday... Federal holiday, everybody gets off, no mail delivered, everybody shuts down. Federal holiday.... To honor a philosopher, Jesus... A man was born, his name is Jesus, he had a philosophy, the philosophy was incorporated by the Founding Fathers to make up the United States of America, U.S. Grant signs into law the holiday, Christmas.”

Memorial Day is a “public holiday.” Christmas is something more. Even if Jesus wasn’t born on December 25, it is a “holy day” to us; President Grant had nothing to do with it. And to many Christians, Jesus was more than a philosopher, but a unique Savior whose existence changed the world. O’Reilly is entitled to believe in a watered-down, government-sponsored, Jesus-as-mere-philosopher "Christmas," but that's different than the Christmas I celebrate, and he should not pretend to speak for me.

Worst of all, the “War” is deteriorating into antisemitism. Burt Prelutsky, a columnist and writer on the conservative website who, remarkably, is himself Jewish, has taken O’Reilly’s side by framing “The War on Christmas” in blatantly antisemitic terms: “I blame my fellow Jews. When it comes to pushing the multicultural, anti-Christian, agenda, you find Jewish judges, Jewish journalists, and the ACLU, at the forefront.... [M]any Jews won’t be happy until they pull off their own version of the Spanish Inquisition, forcing Christians to either deny their faith and convert to agnosticism or suffer the consequences.... This is a Christian nation, my friends... I say it behooves those of us who don’t accept Jesus Christ as our savior to show some gratitude to those who do.”

Our nation was founded on the principle of religious pluralism. Thomas Paine thought the word “tolerance” didn’t go far enough: he didn’t want any religion to be in a position to “tolerate” or judge another. Ben Franklin contributed money to every church in Philadelphia, including a synagogue, and even raised money to build a hall for itinerant preachers so that, in his words, "if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service." In the late 1700s George Washington, John Adams and a unanimous Senate negotiated and approved a treaty with a Muslim nation promising that “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” The Founders were men of faith, but not of one particular faith, and a narrow insistence on the primacy of one holiday or one religion over all others runs completely counter to the Founders’ spirit – is, in fact, unAmerican.

I don’t want Christmas banished from the public square, but I don’t believe there’s any chance of that happening. My non-Christian neighbors, on the other hand, risk having their faith ignored and diluted in the hoopla of “my” holiday. As the dominant religious group, Christians should be gracious enough to share the limelight with others who also offer messages of hope and grace. Such selflessness is what St. Paul meant when he wrote, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way....” We are at our best, as Christians and as Americans, when we do not insist on our own way; when we treat others, even others of different faiths, with generosity and love.

The greatest lesson of 9/11 was that religious intolerance is itself intolerable: those who insist that their religion is superior, and arrogate to themselves the right to judge or demean those who believe differently, understand neither us nor God. The best response to such intolerance is to demonstrate its opposite, by embracing those who are unlike us. Here in Eugene, for example, Christians responded to 9/11 by joining with a startling array of Muslims, Jews, Sufis, Buddhists, and others in monthly interfaith prayer services that are still taking place, over four years later. That’s faith. The Register-Guard newspaper supported this interfaith dialogue with a regular feature showcasing the faith stories of diverse people. Heartfelt religion in a fairly liberal daily newspaper: that’s courage. Readers, in turn, open their hearts and minds to those different faith perspectives without judgment or prejudice. That’s love. There is no war against anyone’s religion here, just sincere and pluralistic and emotionally brave responses to a terrible and misguided act of anger and intolerance. How wrong it seems, in comparison, to see faith as a war to be won against the other, and how silly to waste our lives worrying about the way we are greeted in stores.

Of course, there always have been demagogues who pretend to be holy men; the Bible particularly warns Christians to be on guard against such charlatans. “The War On Christmas” is one such deception. It’s O’Reilly and his friends, not an imaginary, faithless, liberal cabal, who are undermining Christmas. People of sense and goodwill, of all faiths and no faith, need to resist that disingenuity. We can start by simply listening to those who believe differently than we do, and learning what this season means to them.

SUPPLEMENT, DEC. 12, 2005: Well, President Bush and the G.O.P. have taken sides in the “War On Christmas,” and at least on the surface, it looks like the right side. As he does every year, the President has sent greeting cards to supporters – 1.4 million of them this year, paid for by the Republican Party. And they wish people... drum roll please...

A “Happy Holiday Season.”

”This month, as in every December since he took office, President Bush sent out cards with a generic end-of-the-year message, wishing 1.4 million of his close friends and supporters a happy "holiday season."”

Of course, those cards were ordered and printed long before Bill O’Reilly unleashed the Reindeer of War, but even so, can our diligent and highly professional “serious” television media stop running stories about the nonexistent “War” yet, so it can focus on the issues that really affect America?

Saturday, December 03, 2005

"Must Reads," December 2005

To get the ball rolling this month, I'm happy to note that the embattled Christian minority in America is finally getting a little help as they struggle to defend their little-known, little-celebrated holiday, "Christmas." Soon I'll do a post outlining a neoprogressive framework for honestly and sincerely discussing religious issues, but until then here's grist for the mill: a story about what goes wrong when spirituality is distorted by politics, propaganda and just plain ignorance.


“Jews Against Anti-Christian Defamation was organized because we recognize that Christians are the last remaining obstacle to the moral deconstruction of America.” – Don Feder

[I]f the Ku Klux Klan was marching with a symbol that said 'Merry Christmas,' it certainly wouldn’t be allowed.” – Comedian Jackie Mason


Flipping channels last night, I landed on a Christian Broadcasting Network News story on how the "war over Christmas" is heating up and introducing a group called Jews Against Anti Christian Defamation that came out on December 1 "defending" Christmas against liberal attack.

So, I googled, and here's what I found:

The founder is former Boston Herald columnist Don Feder, author of A Jewish Conservative Looks at Pagan America and Who's Afraid of the Religious Right?, who describes himself as follows:

“I’m to the right of Sharon on Zionism, to the right of Pat Buchanan on immigration and Americanism, to the right of Mother Angelica on abortion, to the right of Chuck Heston on Second-Amendment rights, and generally make the legendary Atilla look like a limousine liberal.”

The same article notes a strong anti-Islamic tilt to the organization.

Others involved with the group include “popular talk-show host Barry Farber,” David Horowitz (Center for the Study of Popular Culture), Morton Klein (Zionist Organization of America), “syndicated talk-show host Michael Medved”; and Ted Baehr, who runs a site called Movieguide ("a ministry dedicated to redeeming the values of the mass media according to biblical principles").

Other great quotes:

Feder: "Particularly pernicious is the leftist idea that it's legitimate to base your politics on anything EXCEPT religion. You can say that my politics are based on the views of Marx or Jan [sic] Fonda, but as soon as you say your worldview is based on the Bible, that's considered an illegitimate basis for embracing certain political views. Part of America's future hinges on whether or not Christians - and I mean authentic Christians (in other words, not the Religious Left) succeed in the political arena."

(So a non-Christian is judging which Christians are "authentic" and which aren't. Hint: Pat Robertson is; I'm not, at least according to Feder. Funny: I've never had the gall to decide whether Conservative, Reformed, or Orthodox Judaism is better... but I suppose Feder is wiser than I.)

Feder: “[B]y and large, Israel today is getting more support from Christians than from the Jewish community in this country. Now, I want to make it clear that we're not doing this as a quid pro quo. This is not our way of thanking Christians for supporting Israel, although we do appreciate Christian support for Israel. If evangelical Christians weren't pro-Israel, then the Jewish state would really be in a perilous positioneven more than it is. We're appreciative of Christians' support for Israel on a scriptural basis.”

(So a man who describes himself as "to the right of [Ariel] Sharon" on Zionism is not trying to reward or encourage conservative Christians' support for Israel, but is acting simply to show the extent to which conservative Jews appreciate conservative Christians theologically. Um hmm...)

From a blog about the group: "Jews can now understand that there actually ARE two kinds of Christians--those who love them and those who do not. To reach this point has taken hundreds of years."

(Don't even know where to begin on the substance of this one, so I'll settle for a passing, snarky question: isn't it thousands of years?)

And the full Jackie Mason quote, from above:

“Mason is also perplexed by the different treatment afforded to patently offensive forms of speech and religious expression. He noted that the First Amendment protects the right of the Ku Klux Klan to march. ‘But,’ Mason observed, ‘if the Ku Klux Klan was marching with a symbol that said 'Merry Christmas,' it certainly wouldn’t be allowed.’

(Legal note: wrong. Just plain, first-year-law-students-know-this wrong. We need to get a pro-Christmas Klan parade organized to prove it. Email me if you have the connections...)

Further resources:

Article about the group's "defense of Christmas" press conference on Dec. 1

Anti-Defamation League response (opposition) to this group

SUPPLEMENT, DECEMBER 9, 2005: Both above and in a subsequent post on the so-called "War On Christmas," I've passingly noted the fact that some Zionist Jews are articulating support for conservative Christianity, not, imho, out of sincere love for Jesus' followers, but to curry favor with a politically powerful group that strongly supports Israel. Don Feder's denial of any connection between Jews Against Anti Christian Defamation and his desire for continued conservative Christian support for his pro-Israel agenda is particularly laughable.

It's merely human for people to curry favor with those who are politically more powerful than they are; a little sad, but understandable. It's not OK, though, for those with power to demand subservience. That crosses the line from toadyism to oppression, and neither conservatives nor liberals, not Christians nor Jews nor atheists, can morally stand by and do nothing while it happens.

But intolerance and oppression are exactly what are starting to happen (which, of course, is why toadyism like Feder's and Prelutsky's tends to be self-defeating: people who demean themselves are more readily demeaned by others):

Donald E. Wildmon, founder and chairman of the American Family Association (AFA), used the occasion of the December 5 broadcast of AFA Report, his daily program on AFA-operated American Family Radio (AFR), to suggest that some members of the religious right would withdraw support for Israel if a prominent activist against anti-Semitism did not cease his criticism of it.

During the broadcast, Wildmon stated that Anti-Defamation League (ADL) President Abraham H. Foxman "got himself kind of in a bind" by criticizing the religious right. "[T]he strongest supporters Israel has are members of the religious right -- the people he's fighting," Wildmon said. "[T]he more he says that 'you people are destroying this country,' you know, some people are going to begin to get fed up with this and say, 'Well, all right then. If that's the way you feel, then we just won't support Israel anymore.'"

Shame on Wildmon. Is his support for Israel based on his faith and his reading of the Bible? Then it should be unmovable. If it can be altered, then it's just a ploy to increase his political base and suppress those who disagree with him. Either way, Wildmon is a hypocrite. And people who truly believe that Jews want to be wished a Merry Christmas, or that people like Wildmon hold sincere beliefs, need to wake up.