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On Fence-Straddling, Or, And Now, A Few Words From Blanche Lincoln September 27, 2010

Those of you who’ve followed my work over a period of time know that I’m usually the one suggesting moderation and keeping everyone in the big tent, and, even in this most difficult year, I’m the one telling folks that sometimes you just have to hold your nose and vote for the candidate that sucks less.

And even though the last thing I’d ever want is a Speaker Boehner or a Leader McConnell (or even worse yet, DeMint), the fact remains that there are two Democratic Senators I would actually vote against, even if the candidate that sucks more does win…and those two are Arkansas’ Blanche Lincoln and Nebraska’s Ben Nelson.

One of those two is up for re-election this year, and thanks to a particularly ridiculous vote by Senator Lincoln, we found ourselves in a bit of an email exchange, which is what we’ll be talking about today.

And there is still this most difficult question of all: If we are eventually fortunate enough to find truth, who among us will know how to make good use of it?

–Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Arts and Sciences

So here’s the deal: as you may or may not know, Senator Lincoln’s was one of the Democratic votes that killed any chance of reforming the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy and also killed the DREAM Act, which would have provided a path to citizenship for non-citizens who serve in the US military…despite the fact that she is one of the Senate co-sponsors of the DREAM Act and has publicly supported repealing DADT…despite the fact that this vote hurts her in a re-election campaign, by painting her as a flip-flopper…and despite the fact that her vote hurt Democrats nationally, twice, once by not forcing Republicans to vote against the Defense Appropriations bill (“they hate the troops!”), and, secondly, by making Democrats deal with a very, very, angry base, for no good reason.

I’m part of that angry base, and, even though I normally try to be a bit more restrained, I just had to send a note to the Senator’s office to make a point; here’s that note, reproduced:

Apparently Senator Lincoln has no interest in supporting troops who are gay who are serving today, despite the flag-waving stuff on your own home page?

As a supporter of Democrats, I have to say; “nah nah na na, nah nah na na, hey hey hey…good bye!”

Have a great November…and honestly, we won’t really miss you.

The Senator was kind enough to offer a response, which arrived Friday.
Today we’ll look at what she had to say:

Thank you for contacting my campaign regarding my recent vote on the Defense Authorization bill.

The stalemate we find ourselves in today is an example of Congress’ failure to appropriately deal with issues of critical importance to Arkansans and the American people, and that is why people are so angry.

Both political parties are so focused on how they can tear each other down that they’ve forgotten that we were all elected to build our country up by coming together, finding common ground and working to move our nation forward.

So far, so good…

I voted against the Motion to Proceed on the Defense Authorization bill today because of the lack of an open amendment process. I had eight amendments to improve services and benefits for Arkansas’s veterans, Guardsman and Reservists. But under the process and time-frame established by the Democratic Majority Leader, none of my amendments will merit consideration this week.

Well, now we’re getting to something.

Apparently you felt, Senator, that Arkansans would be so grateful that you absolutely killed reforms that even you support because you couldn’t insert a few amendments, that they would ignore the fact that…you absolutely killed reforms that even you support because you couldn’t insert a few amendments.

Well, guess what? This kind of thinking is exactly why you’re gonna lose your job.

Try to imagine, Senator, if you hired me to paint your house, because I made such a great sales pitch (“I’ll paint that house, and I’ll paint it cheap, and I’ll use good quality paint!”)…and then I held a press conference to announce that I’d like to paint your house, just like I told you I would…but I can’t, because right now you won’t allow me to propose cutting the grass and redesigning the pool.

That’s appears to be what you just did…and if I came up with a story like that, wouldn’t you fire me?

However, my vote against this procedure does not in any way alter my co-sponsorship of the DREAM Act or my support for allowing the military to repeal the ‘Dont’ Ask Don’t Tell’ policy. These important issues were taken hostage by an election year political agenda at the expense of full and open debate on a $726 billion defense spending bill. I look forward to the day we can debate these issues fully and vote on them.

You might still support the DREAM Act, and you may still support DADT…but your vote killed ‘em both…which means you’re holing those issues hostage, right this very second…and since you’ll become a lame duck in November, and you won’t be around after January, you probably won’t be debating much of anything.

Transparency should be the rule, not the exception. I have heard Arkansans loud and clear, and I will continue working to ensure that we do things in an open and transparent way.

If you had heard Arkansans loud and clear, you probably wouldn’t have supported either of these reforms in the first place…but if you really believed in these ideas, what you should have been doing these past 18 months is gettin’ out there and doing a better job of explaining why, so that Arkansans would have heard you loud and clear.

That’s called “political leadership”, and that’s how you win elections, and, sad to say, a lot of other Democrats this cycle also seem to have been unable to grasp this most basic lesson from Politics 101 (Barack Obama, I’m looking at you…).

There are many important issues in this critical bill that deserve our full attention. When we are ready to get serious about debating the multitude of issues that are relevant to this bill, I am prepared to help move that debate and this legislation forward.

Translation: I hope to be the super duper important 59th vote, after the election, and I hope that y’all will get serious about making a deal so that Olympia Snowe can get something and I can get my last eight amendments, even though by then I’ll be fired and my Party will have taken a beating in the election and the reform I claim to have supported will basically die away in the night, pretty much thanks to me.

In late July, I was able to gain unanimous approval by the Senate for the most ambitious Child Nutrition Authorization Bill in the history of our country. It didn’t require a procedural motion. It was bipartisan, paid for and reflected the best of what this Senate can be. I hope that process becomes the norm.

Well congratulations to you for having the political courage to support feeding babies, and I’m willing to bet that if a “don’t strangle puppies” bill comes along, you’ll probably have the intestinal fortitude to support that as well.

Again, thank you for contacting my campaign.

You’re more than welcome, and you have yourself have a great day.

 

On Fear: The Islam Edition, Or, Do You Know My Friend Wa’el? September 22, 2010

We last got together about ten days ago, when I put up a story that hoped to explain to the Islamic world that, Qur’an burning aside, we don’t really hate either them, or our own Constitution.

I pointed out that, just like everywhere else, about 20% of our population are idiots, that this means about 60,000,000 of us might, at any time, be inclined to burst into fits of random stupidity, such as the desire to burn Qur’ans to make some sort of statement, and that the same First Amendment that protects the freedom of stupid speech also protects the rights of Islamic folks to freely build mosques…and finally, that this apparent “paradox of freedom” is exactly why the US is the kind of country that many Islamic folks the world over wish they lived in as well.

I then went off to enjoy my Godson’s wedding, and I ignored the posting until the next Monday.

On the two dozen sites where it could be found, this was apparently considered to be a fairly innocuous message…with one giant exception, which is what we’ll be talking about today.

Long story short, some portion of this country’s population has some bizarre ideas about Islamic folks…but maybe if they knew my friend Wa’el, they might see things a bit differently.

This world is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those that feel

Horace Walpole, Fourth Earl of Orford, in a letter, August, 1776

So all of this took place at Newsvine…and if you’re not familiar with how things work there, users may “seed” a story that they find of interest, so that it may attract the interest of others. What happens is that the user reposts a shortened version of the original story, along with a link back to the source.

My original posting on the site had fewer than ten comments, but by Monday Newsvine user btco’s seeded version of my story had about 300 comments; today there are more than 625.

Those who were not liking the story basically came down to one of a few categories of responders; here’s one example…

…I live a few minutes from Dearbornistan in Michigan and I can tell you that, as a place with a great deal of Muslims, they barely speak out against the Islamofacists that kill. There is outrage; however, but that outrage is aimed at America instead of the Islamofacists that should be the target of the aforementioned outrage. In fact, Dearborn has seen Muslims verbally attack Christians and forbid them for handing out Christian pamphlets, their 1st amendment right to do so, as this goes against the @!$%#ed up Sharia Law. Until Dearbornistan demands that they will abide willingly with the constitution and ignore the racist and misogynic crap that is Sharia law, then Dearbornistan Muslims side with the enemy and that enemy is Islam.

…and here’s another:

Christianity underwent reformation and was tamed by enlightenment period (during which, BTW, was harshly criticized).

Islam is in its original forms, claws and all.

And people like you, who for some dubious reason think it should be allowed to be what it is are doing great disservice for Muslims whose minds are set for the reforms and who want to live like normal, 21 century people, but are forced to “submit” to medieval dogma.

The idea that all Islamic folks worship a Moon God, that neither democracy nor any other religion can co-exist alongside Islam, that after beating them, all Islamic men send their four wives out to distribute “terror tomatoes” among the infidel population, and that, for adherents of Islam, both the Bible and the Constitution are immoral and corrupt all seems to be accepted wisdom for a bunch of the commenters (except for the “terror tomato” part, which I made up myself); it all seems to come from an apparently long-circulating email that was posted in the comments over and over that purports to prove that Muslims can’t be good Americans.

So is all this true?

Well…let’s start with the question of whether Islamic people can co-exist with democracy…and to help answer that question, let me introduce you to my friend Wa’el.

Wa’el Nawara has been trying to advance the interests of democracy in Egyptian politics for many years now, in the form of his work for the El-Ghad Party, in the face of an Egyptian Government that has been ruled, since the end of King Farouk’s reign, by just one political party, the (secular) NDP. The founder of El-Ghad, Ayman Nour, was imprisoned and tortured for basically getting 8% of the vote in a 2005 Presidential election against the current President, Hosni Mubarak.

To prevent this from happening again, it is also alleged that the Egyptian Government helped to orchestrate a temporarily successful “takeover” of the party from within. (This is not uncommon; the Egyptians security apparatus has acted against numerous parties, including the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood.)

Shortly after Wa’el and I became acquainted (I had been researching a series of stories about Egyptian politics when we were introduced) he was inside the offices of his own Party, which were burned by a mob that was allegedly associated with Egyptian State Security (an event that was recorded, live, by people across the street). Afterwards Wa’el, along with many of the 30 other people who were in the building, were arrested and detained for…you guessed it…suspicion of arson.

It’s not just Wa’el, or the other members of his Party…nor the other members of other Parties, either.

If were to take the time, you’d find out there’s a Center for Democracy in Lebanon, you’d discover that Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and even Saudi Arabia have all held recent local elections, and you’d find out there’s even a debate in the UAE as to whether adopting democratic reforms might be appropriate.

Outside the Gulf, India’s current President is their third Muslim President, Indonesia, which is 80% Muslim, elects their Presidents (even as they struggle with sectarian violence)…and all of that tells me that anyone who thinks Islam and democracy are incompatible should do some more reading.

Can Islam accept the presence of other religions?

One answer can be found in what is today’s Spain, but what used to be Andalucía (or Al-Andalus, if you prefer Arabic), where Moors ruled for centuries over Jews with far more compassion and respect than they ever received under Christian dominion; another, in today’s Egypt, where Christian Copts and Muslims have lived together for thousands of years, even as tensions have increased recently between the two groups.

Does Wa’el beat his four wives?

Not as far as I can tell—and if his one wife ever found out he had three other wives…I’m guessing that wouldn’t go so well for Wa’el.

Is the Bible corrupt to those who follow Islam?

Those who follow “mainstream” Islam believe that Jesus was the Messiah, but they don’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God, or that He was crucified. Is that corruption? I don’t know, and I guess you’ll have to decide that one for yourself.

Now we need to be fair here, and acknowledge that one branch of Islam does indeed represent much of what my most conservative friends are afraid of: Wahhabi Ikhban. Here’s what the Library of Congress has to say about the sect:

Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab was concerned with the way the people of Najd engaged in practices he considered polytheistic, such as praying to saints; making pilgrimages to tombs and special mosques; venerating trees, caves, and stones; and using votive and sacrificial offerings. He was also concerned by what he viewed as a laxity in adhering to Islamic law and in performing religious devotions, such as indifference to the plight of widows and orphans, adultery, lack of attention to obligatory prayers, and failure to allocate shares of inheritance fairly to women.

When Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab began to preach against these breaches of Islamic laws, he characterized customary practices as jahiliya, the same term used to describe the ignorance of Arabians before the Prophet. Initially, his preaching encountered opposition, but he eventually came under the protection of a local chieftain named Muhammad ibn Saud, with whom he formed an alliance. The endurance of the Wahhabi movement’s influence may be attributed to the close association between the founder of the movement and the politically powerful Al Saud in southern Najd (see The Saud Family and Wahhabi Islam, 1500-1818 , ch. 1).

This association between the Al Saud and the Al ash Shaykh, as Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab and his descendants came to be known, effectively converted political loyalty into a religious obligation. According to Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab’s teachings, a Muslim must present a bayah, or oath of allegiance, to a Muslim ruler during his lifetime to ensure his redemption after death. The ruler, conversely, is owed unquestioned allegiance from his people so long as he leads the community according to the laws of God. The whole purpose of the Muslim community is to become the living embodiment of God’s laws, and it is the responsibility of the legitimate ruler to ensure that people know God’s laws and live in conformity to them.

So what have we learned today?

Well, we learned that there is a community of Americans out there who are profoundly afraid of Islam, or anything connected with it, and the odds are that they know very little about the religion, other than what they’ve seen and copied and pasted, over and over, in a particularly ignorant email.

My friend Wa’el, on the other hand, lives a life that disproves those myths: in addition to being the target of a mob, he’s been jailed, along with many of his friends and associates, for trying to create a more democratic Egypt, he has just the one wife, who lives as an equal in their house, and his own country, Egypt, is one of numerous Islamic countries that have other religions well-established within their borders.

We also learned that numerous countries with Islamic populations are countries with varying degrees of representative democracy…and that the world’s largest democracy just inaugurated their third Muslim President.

Now the question that we’re addressing today is whether Muslims can be good Americans—and the fact is that Wa’el and his family would make great Americans…even though they’re not…and if I can point to Muslims who would make great Americans and live halfway around the world…how much you wanna bet we can find tens of thousands more in the heart of Dearbornistan?

 

On Living With Idiots, Or, An Open Letter To Islam September 9, 2010

Dear Islam,

You know, it seems like every time I write a letter I have to begin by apologizing for not having written in so long, and that’s the case again today.

We only get a few days of real summer up here every year, and I was out having fun at golf tournaments and doing a bit of climbing around the local hills—and you know, I do love doing a bit of nothing at all from time to time—but while I was away, things have gotten even crazier than usual around here…and I’m sorry to say, you’ve been on the pointy end of the crazy stick, which is something that never should have happened.

Things have been so nutty that you’re probably thinking America has something against Islam—in fact, you might be wondering if we have something against our own Constitution.

Well, we don’t, most of us, and I’ll take a few minutes today to help y’all understand just what is going on in this country.

So you’re going to be hearing a lot about this disturbed guy in Florida who thinks that he can save the world by burning Qu’rans on September 11th—and you’re going to be asking yourselves: “Why would America allow anyone to do that?”

Well, the answer’s kind of paradoxical, and it has everything to do with the same Constitution that protects freedom of religion in the first place.

You see, it also protects the concept of freedom of speech…which, in itself, probably requires a bit of an explanation.

Freedom of speech, as you can imagine, isn’t absolutely free (for example, there is the famous “yelling fire in a crowded room” example), but to a far greater extent than you might think, we really are able to say things that would shock most of you not living here.

At the moment, just to illustrate the point, we have all kinds of people suggesting the President is taking the country in the wrong direction, or a secret Muslim (as if that were somehow bad)…or even that he’s some sort of weird mixture of Stalin and Hitler and Satan Himself who was born in Kenya…and every one of them is free to stand on any street corner and hold a sign proclaiming exactly that, just as much as they want.

Matter of fact, those are the same people that are mad at you, Islam, for the moment, even if they know nothing about Islam…and that brings me right to the next thing I need to tell you.

The only reason a lot of Americans are mad at you, Islam…is because there’s an election on, and the only way Republicans can win elections is to try to scare Americans into thinking that the United States will instantly collapse from whatever useful threat they think up—unless enough of us vote Republican.

Now in normal times, Islam, Republicans would be trying to scare us about gay people trying to eat our babies, or something equally stupid, but that hasn’t been working as well as it used to lately—and what they would really like to say this election cycle, they can’t (“Those Jesus-hating liberals elected a nigger and now they’re gonna impregnate your daughters and gay marry your sons!”)…and that leaves you, Islam, as the next most desirable overt target for Republican fear-spreading professionals.

(You and, of course, those “illegal aliens” who are busily beheading people in the Arizona desert every night.)

Now there is no doubt that a portion of our population is entirely ready to jump on this bandwagon with no encouragement at all, and that’s where we get the fools who think having a Qur’an BBQ party somehow makes some kind of sense.

My guess is that about 20% of us are that stupid—and based on our current population, that means about 60,000,000 fools are bumping and stumbling their way across the American landscape on any given day, struggling, as Aimee Mann says, “with the undertaking of simple thought”.

Apparently because it’s just hanging there, many of them sort of slide down and congregate in Florida, and sure enough, a few of them did gather together in that particular State to form into the human blood clot that planned this little 9/11 protest, and that’s how we got to where we are today.

Now I’m sorry that we can’t just bring this to a stop, but we do allow idiots to say their piece in this country, whether it’s a good idea or not…so they do, even if the Government and The Not Blindingly Stupid Among The Population don’t like it…and all I can really tell you by way of consolation is that as soon as Election Day is past, much of this will come to an end—unless it works so well that Republicans keep it up for a few more election cycles, until it fails to work any more.

Anyway, Islam, try not to let it upset you too much, try to keep in mind that this is really about American electoral politics and the desperate need to create fear (which is all the Republicans have left)…and most importantly, try to keep in mind that if good old-fashioned American racial segregation was back in style then no one would even be talking about you—instead, the same people that are on your back today would all be doing their best Dr. Laura impressions 60 or 70 times a day, and they’d go right back to assuming Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs are all the same people, just like they did in happier times.

So that’s what’s been up around here, and I hope to hear from you soon as well—and of course, if you’re in the neighborhood sometime, drop me a note and we’ll go grab a coffee and laugh as the fools walk by.

Your friend,

fake

 

On Avoiding Blame, Part One, Or, Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Drill No Evil. September 2, 2010

I am one of those people who will actually watch those boring, boring, hearings on C-SPAN that most of us flip right on past while watching TV, and this past week I’ve been watching one of the longer events the channel broadcasts…but it’s been far from boring.

The Coast Guard and what used to be the MMS were in Houston looking into what caused the Gulf oil spill and they’re taking testimony from representatives of the involved parties…and let me tell you, this is more than just an accident inquiry—it’s also a warm-up for the lawsuits that are surely going to follow.

We’ve had dozens of trial attorneys basically conducting a deposition process, witnesses who can teach a master course in “plausible unawareability”©, BP employees who have taken the Fifth and refused to testify at all, and, overseeing the entire process, a retired Federal District Court Judge and a Coast Guard Captain who might very well be on the way to trading his eagles for stars one day soon.

Do you really believe all those “we’ll make it right” BP commercials?
If you watch this hearing, that impression may well change.

When I talk on the stage, people often have the impression that I make up things as I go along. That isn’t true. I know a lot of things I want to say, I’m just not sure exactly when I’ll say them.

–From Lenny Bruce’s book How to Talk Dirty and Influence People

So if we’re going to keep this story under any kind of control, we’ll have to compress a lot of detail into some rather broad and sweeping statements, otherwise we’ll be at 3000 words before we know it.

Here’s the scene: a nondescript conference room in Houston is set with a table for the several Board members, who are drawn from across the Federal Government, including the old and exceptionally dysfunctional MMS (the Minerals Management Service), which has sort of morphed into the brand-new Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (the BOEM) and the Coast Guard.

In front of them is another table for the witness and their attorney, and right behind them are three very, very, long tables that are set up for the possibly four dozen attorneys that represent all the “parties of interest” who are involved in the hearing and require a bit of desk space (among that group are lawyers for BP, Transocean, Halliburton, certain individuals involved in the incident, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands, where the now sunken vessel was “flagged”; that Nation is conducting their own investigation). Behind that are rows of “gallery seats” for the interested public.

(You can see the entire thing by visiting the C-SPAN site…but do grab a beverage and some snacks first.)

The way this all works is that the Board begins the process of eliciting information by questioning the witness themselves. Next up is the attorney for the Marshall Islands; the witnesses’ attorney and employer’s attorney then “cross examine”, and then every other lawyer in the room gets a crack at the witness, should they so desire.

Wrangling” all of this from his Co-Chair seat is retired Federal Judge Wayne Andersen; the Coast Guard has a “good cop/bad cop” team on the Board (the Board’s Recorder, Lieutenant Robert Butts, and Co-Chair Captain Hung Nguyen, respectively). Mssrs. David Dykes (the other co-chair) and Jason Matthews, who are representing BOEM on the Board, are among the technical and regulatory experts who are also asking some very pointed questions.

Since many witnesses also represent Halliburton, BP, and Transocean, there is very much a “trial of the century” atmosphere in the air…and everyone is trying to protect their own interests at the expense of the others.

As is common in these situations, the witnesses are busily playing “duck and cover”…and I have been privileged to watch what has essentially been the construction of the “pyramid of denial” by a team of master craftsmen.

Now these folks don’t deny like you or I would deny, instead, they have far more sophisticated techniques of obfuscation that they employ.

The first method: imagine a group of people, sitting in a circle, each pointing a finger at the person to their left.

Later, we saw a new approach: imagine a group of people, sitting in a circle, pointing both fingers at the people sitting to either side of themselves.

Even later, it became a three-dimensional game, as some of those in the circle began pointing either upward or downward…and the most sophisticated of all had personal attorneys available at the witness table to do some of that pointing for them.

Another effective tactic is to never be the person actually in charge of whatever it is someone wants to know about…and if your company operates worldwide, there are lots of places to move from, and to, along with lots of potential “shifting responsibilities”; sure enough, there are witnesses here who seem to be “Johnny-not-on-the-spot” over and over and over again.

The Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination can also provide a shield that’ll keep you out of the witness chair; that’s why BP engineers Mark Hafle and Brian Morel and Deepwater Horizon’s BP day shift manager Robert Kaluza have not given testimony to the Board.

Now this is not something your normal “mom and pop” denier can typically pull off, and that’s why it appears that at least some of these companies require an entire corps of specialists who don’t actually know anything at all, just so they can appear before courts and investigative boards such as this one, where they either “don’t recall”, or they spend an astonishing amount of time not looking into this “casualty”, as it’s described by those involved in the investigation.

One example that leaps to mind is a certain BP executive who, even though he’s in charge of the “drilling and completions” operations on various BP owned and leased oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, reports he has never read any information regarding this accident that BP might have developed since the April 20th event, and has never spoken to a BP investigator to enquire as to whether any “lessons learned” exist that he can apply to the operations he oversees.

There’s so much more to talk about—and apparently we’ll need a Part Two to make that happen—but for today what we need to know is that there has been another week of hearings, that if you watch those hearings you’ll have seen basically a 1/12th scale model of the lawsuits that are already piling up in Louisiana, Texas, and Federal Courts, and that if you watch certain portions of the hearings you can see bombast, tough questions…and the kind of elbow bending and finger pointing that can only lead to severe arthritis later on in life.

Next time, we’ll be talking about “command and control” on the Deepwater Horizon (did you know an oil rig is actually a ship?), about what actually happens down a well, and about why things like “centralizers” and “channeling” matter—a lot.

In the meantime, if you want to get your homework on, all the hearings, in more or less backwards order, can, as we said before, be found at the C-SPAN site…which is why we appreciate them very much.

So either get deeply buried in what will become the legal soap opera of the decade…or run away, quickly, depending on your needs…and when we meet again, we’ll have quite a bit more story to tell.