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19 April 2005

Breaking News

Pope John Paul II is still dead.

Posted by Tim W at 4/19/2005 11:55:00 PM

Heretic, Heal Thine Own Soul

How I long for the days when a Catholic President of the United States had to reassure Americans that he would not be taking orders from the Vatican.

Instead, we had the vision today of a Methodist, who routinely attends and presumably communes at an Episcopal church, reminding us all of his ties to the pontiff.

Laura and I offer our congratulations to Pope Benedict XVI. He's a man of great wisdom and knowledge. He's a man who serves the Lord. We remember well his sermon at the Pope's funeral in Rome, how his words touched our hearts and the hearts of millions. We join with our fellow citizens and millions around the world who pray for continued strength and wisdom as His Holiness leads the Catholic Church.

Posted by Tim W at 4/19/2005 11:50:00 PM

I Can't Believe I Section 8 the Whole Thing

The understandable debate about President Bush's vaporware Social Security proposals is, and should be twofold, both on policy and process. It is truly amazing that proposals vital enough that the President need address myriad groups of supporters are never so concrete that they constitute actual policies that the Bush White House would have to acknowledge the criticism of the press or the opposition. Is this the best that actually existing compassionate conservatism can do? It is not for nothing that Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo calls Bush's road show the Bamboozlepalooza Tour.

Lost in this debate are some truly wretched Republican ideas that have a greater chance of seeing the light of day. Remember that the Republican methodology for getting bad laws passed is fourfold: first, delay House consideration of a far-reaching or controversial bill long enough so that the members have only a few hours to read a stunningly long document; second, set aside as little time as possible for debate, lest any members actually learn anything about the bill; third, make sure that the Senate passes a bill along the same lines; fourth, do lots of markup in the conference committee, and repeat the second step so that there is as little debate on the revised bill as possible. It's just like making sausages, only that the casing isn't scrubbed clean of fecal matter first.

The folks at Recapitalization Advisors in Boston are concerned—and rightly so—that the Republican plans to alter how Section 8 housing assistance, the primary source of rental assistance for poor American families, are the first step to decimating that program. Their analysis of Senate bill 751 foresees many public housing authorities opting to help higher-income families at the expense of the extremely poor. How will the poorest Americans find decent housing without governmental assistance? For the most part, they will not. For over three decades, some, not many, Republicans in Congress have joined with most, but not all, Democrats, to try to safely house poor Americans in safe, decent, housing. This session of Congress will determine whether Republicans are at all proud of that legacy.

Posted by Tim W at 4/19/2005 11:22:00 PM

12 April 2005

What Are You Going To Do When They Come For You?

The New York Times reports today that prosecutors have abruptly dropped all charges against a number of individuals accused of inciting a riot and resisting arrest at last year’s Republican National Convention. In all, 1,806 people were arrested during the convention. Videotape shot by a documentary filmmaker effectively rebutted the charges against many of these individuals. In one case, the Times reports that a New York City officer gave detailed testimony, after signing a complaint against one demonstrator, but “was nowhere to be seen in the pictures. Nor was the officer seen taking part in the arrests of four other people at the library against whom he signed complaints.” The Times also implies that the prosecution office spliced the tapes that they had, cutting out evidence that was exculpatory, in order to support its case.

Martha Stewart was sent to prison for lying about money. Here, we have an organized effort on the part of the police and prosecution to lie and doctor evidence to convict individuals that were only peaceably assembling in demonstration against government officials. One would expect that conservatives would be aghast at the abuse of power demonstrated by the New York City Police Department and the prosecution office. Any chance the Feds will use RICO statutes to prosecute the police and local prosecutors? Don’t hold your breath. We can at least be thankful that “the Police Department's tactics in controlling the demonstrations, parades and rallies of hundreds of thousands of people were largely free of explicit violence.” We have evolved since 1968 and the police riot in Chicago.

Update:

Check out the Freeper thread on this story. To their credit, a number of Freepers support civil liberty, in particular, "Mr. Pinette". Pinette's head spins at the bizzare rantings of "Pondman 88". What is most telling is the relative non-response to this thread.

Posted by PAUL at 4/12/2005 06:25:00 AM

11 April 2005

The Taxpayers are Coming!

Paul Revere rode by my house on the night before the battles of Lexington and Concord—or, rather, he rode by the empty land on which my house now sits—so I take a certain interest whenever the Minutemen's name is taken in vain.

Today, some self-styled Minutemen are patrolling the United States border in southeastern Arizona. They hope to protect hard-working Americans from the illegal immigrants who are ruining the country.

Organizers say they want the patrols to call attention to what they say is the federal government's failure to secure the border against illegal immigrants, smugglers and potential terrorists....

Law enforcement officials have said they fear that the project will lead to vigilante violence, an accidental confrontation between armed volunteers and authorities, or a dangerous encounter with the violent smugglers who use the area.

What could lead local law enforcement to worry about vigilante violence? Could it be that the Minutemen were the paramilitary group founded by the John Birch Society to fight those evil Communists who were sure to invade any second?

Besides the creepy name, the Minutemen are forgetting how vital many of the immigrants that they fear are to the American economy. Not only do illegal immigrants make the California and Arizona agricultural sector function, they play an important role in keeping Social Security solvent. Yes, many illegal immigrants pay taxes, including Social Security taxes, on legitimately earned income.

While it has been evident for years that illegal immigrants pay a variety of taxes, the extent of their contributions to Social Security is striking: the money added up to about 10 percent of last year's surplus—the difference between what the system currently receives in payroll taxes and what it doles out in pension benefits. Moreover, the money paid by illegal workers and their employers is factored into all the Social Security Administration's projections....

It is impossible to know exactly how many illegal immigrant workers pay taxes. But according to specialists, most of them do. Since 1986, when the Immigration Reform and Control Act set penalties for employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants, most such workers have been forced to buy fake ID's to get a job.

Currently available for about $150 on street corners in just about any immigrant neighborhood in California, a typical fake ID package includes a green card and a Social Security card. It provides cover for employers, who, if asked, can plausibly assert that they believe all their workers are legal. It also means that workers must be paid by the book—with payroll tax deductions.

IRCA, as the immigration act is known, did little to deter employers from hiring illegal immigrants or to discourage them from working. But for Social Security's finances, it was a great piece of legislation.

Starting in the late 1980's, the Social Security Administration received a flood of W-2 earnings reports with incorrect—sometimes simply fictitious—Social Security numbers. It stashed them in what it calls the "earnings suspense file" in the hope that someday it would figure out whom they belonged to.

The file has been mushrooming ever since: $189 billion worth of wages ended up recorded in the suspense file over the 1990's, two and a half times the amount of the 1980's.

In the current decade, the file is growing, on average, by more than $50 billion a year, generating $6 billion to $7 billion in Social Security tax revenue and about $1.5 billion in Medicare taxes.

In 2002 alone, the last year with figures released by the Social Security Administration, nine million W-2's with incorrect Social Security numbers landed in the suspense file, accounting for $56 billion in earnings, or about 1.5 percent of total reported wages.

Social Security officials do not know what fraction of the suspense file corresponds to the earnings of illegal immigrants. But they suspect that the portion is significant.

"Our assumption is that about three-quarters of other-than-legal immigrants pay payroll taxes," said Stephen C. Goss, Social Security's chief actuary, using the agency's term for illegal immigration.

I humbly suggest that we leave the Minutemen name and attitudes to the Revolutionary War reenactors: they at least know what they are doing, why they are doing it, and what its effects are.

Posted by Tim W at 4/11/2005 12:32:00 AM

Our Mister Brooks

David Brooks almost exactly, almost precisely explained in his column on Thursday what was wrong with current American party politics.

First, there's the Terri Schiavo case. Republicans charged boldly forth to preserve her life and were surprised by how few Americans charged along behind them. Fewer than a third of the American people opposed removing her feeding tube....

Then there is Social Security reform. Republicans set forth with a plan to give people some control over their own retirement accounts. Here, too, Republicans have been surprised by the tepid public support.

Then there is the Tom DeLay situation. Conversations with House Republicans in the past week leave me with one clear impression: If DeLay falls, it will not be because he took questionable trips or put family members on the payroll. It will be because he is anxiety-producing and may become a political liability.

Then there's the lavish public spending, which offends the conservative sensibility. Then there is the talk of going to the nuclear option on judges' confirmations, which smacks of the radical confrontationalism that led to last decade's government shutdown.

Wow. Could David Brooks really be expressing what anyone to the left of Christopher Shays is thinking, that the American public is experiencing the political equivalent of buyer's remorse? Or could he be worrying that the Republican party needs to get its house (and its House) in order before the 2006 elections? Or does he sense a political realignment in the air, because it would be easy for Democrats to argue that they are the party of respecting personal decisions, the party of sustaining Social Security, the party of governing honestly and fairly, and the party of spending responsibly?

Of course not: this is David Brooks! But even knowing the byline, it was inspiring to consider the mental contortions to read these next sentences.

This does not mean good news for Democrats. That party is at risk of going into a death spiral. The Democrats lost white working-class voters by 23 percentage points in the last election, and now the party is being led by people who are guaranteed to alienate those voters even more: the highly educated and secular university-town elites who follow Howard Dean and believe Bush hatred and stridency are the outward signs of righteousness.

The party that won 48 percent of the vote in the last presidential election, and has steered clear of the politically knackered policies and decisions that Brooks outlined is "at risk of going into a death spiral"? Brooks must have found some truly righteous chronic taped to the underside of William Safire's old desk.

Posted by Tim W at 4/11/2005 12:02:00 AM

10 April 2005

Indefensible

If there was one thing that everyone should have agreed upon after the 11 September attacks, it was that the United States military and intelligence services needed to get a lot more people learning Arabic—and pronto.

In the real world, of course, the Army was more concerned about its collective discomfort about homosexuality than national security, because since 1998, it has discharged at least 20 Arabic linguists because they they did not confirm to the military's fetish for heterosexuality.

And it gets worse. Fred Kaplan at Slate reports that the Pentagon's action plan for improving its language capabilities is a pathetic pile of bureaucratic sludge, worthy of a Heller novel but, alas, all too real.

"To increase the pool of potential language personnel...ensure the automated Defense Language Aptitude Battery is available at appropriate locations...including recruiters, military entrance processing stations, ROTC staff, and Service Academy staffs, to identify recruits/cadets with language learning potential." Deadline: January 2007.

"Establish 'crash' or 'survival' courses for deploying forces." Deadline: September 2007.

"Develop and sustain a personnel information system that maintains accurate data on all DoD personnel skilled in foreign-language and regional expertise. Work closely to ensure stabilized data entry and management procedures." Deadline: September 2008.

And keep in mind: All of these tasks are simply to set up a management system for improving the military's language skills—not actually to begin improving the skills.

Kaplan found this astounding document on the consistently excellent and amazingly comprehensive Global Security site (set aside a few hours and go explore there). Be sure to ask yourself, why is it that Donald Rumsfeld, of all of the supposed grownups in Washington, still has a government job.

Posted by Tim W at 4/10/2005 11:46:00 PM

09 April 2005

The Authority Has No Clothes

President Bush offered a not so subtle rebuttal to former president Clinton’s statement that Pope John Paul II would have a "mixed legacy." No doubt, Bush saw himself and the pope as the world leaders in the fight against tyranny and as the key promoters of democracy. The world was their flock. Thank God, if you will, the flock is not as submissive to its patriarchs as both men would hope.

Bush and John Paul talked the rhetoric of democracy but often walked the walk of reactionary politics. Given the choice between Church dogma and human rights, the pope consistently chose dogma. As president, Bush has created the greatest threat to the separation of Church and State in my lifetime. Still, true democracy in a secular society provides individuals with the freedom to think and act in the moral manner they choose. Freed from tyranny, individuals will make up their own minds despite the media’s willingness to deliver the unfiltered propaganda of powerful men.

Despite the dogma, across the United States and Europe, individuals are making decisions that make sense in their lives. Birth control, divorce, abortion, are here to stay. What rational person condemns masturbation as a sin? What rational person believes that it is a greater moral abomination to use contraceptives than it is to allow millions to die from AIDS that could be prevented through the use of condoms?

Bush administration support for democracy was proved illusionary when the Turkish government followed the will of its people, and not the directive of Washington, by not only not joining the "Coalition of the Willing" but by also refusing our military the right to pass through Turkey in the war on Iraq. In that case, Washington was furious that a subordinate state would follow democratic principles and not its directive. We see in Spain, for example, the rapid dismantling of Roman Catholic influence despite the pope's celebrity. Where the Vatican sees the emergence of a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah the average Spaniard sees personal freedom. In the United States, despite the propaganda pumped into US homes in recent weeks, over 80% of citizens polled rejected the reach of the Religious Right and moralists on the Left that would invite government into traditional rights to die that Americans have made for themselves for years.

Let's hope the new pope and the next American president not only talk the talk of democracy but that they promote it in the truest sense of the word. If not, don't fret. Individuals will continue to rebel against authoritarian leaders that want to dictate adherence to archaic doctrine. Social evolution may not be a linear progression, which we are reminded by recent events in the Sudan, but we will continue to progress. Authoritarian popes and reactionary presidents may resist, but the people's will will be done. Respect for the office of religous and secular leaders, and the affection for the men who hold it, notwithstanding.

Posted by PAUL at 4/09/2005 11:10:00 PM

Conflict Resolution

Ted Rall hits for extra bases this week by wondering who really was the single-handed destroyer of soviet Communism, because it cannot be both Reagan and John Paul II, can it?

When that man is on, he is really on.

Posted by Tim W at 4/09/2005 12:48:00 AM

We Interrupt This Beatification for an Historical Bulletin

I stumbled today across an intriguing article by Thomas Sheehan, written in 1980 for the New York Review of Books, that puts paid to the notion that the late Pope was universally loved, perpetually gentle soul. The passage of time surely makes it easy to forget that Pope John Paul had a nasty, reactionary side that permeated many of the policies of his church.

Although papally mandated executions have been outlawed in Italy since 1870, it seems that the spirit of the Inquisition is a gift that goes on giving. In Rome last December the Vatican's watchdogs of orthodoxy were hard at work interrogating the sixty-five-year-old Flemish theologian Edward Schillebeeckx, professor of theology at the Catholic University of Nijmegen, Holland, for alleged heresy in his recent work Jesus, An Experiment in Christology. One of the inquisitors, the arch-conservative priest and theologian Jean Galot, came to the hearings fresh from a Vatican Radio broadcast (inside Vatican sources say it had the prior approval of the "highest consultants" to the Pope) in which he condemned Schillebeeckx and others for denying the divinity of Jesus and—this was the lowest blow of all—for being publicity hounds...

Although Schillebeeckx will have to wait several weeks before learning whether he is a heretic, the Sacred Congregation waited only seventy-two hours after his trial before condemning another progressive theologian, fifty-one-year-old Hans Küng. Because of his "contempt for the magisterium of the Church" on the issue of papal infallibility?expressed most recently in his Kirche—Gehalten in der Wahrheit?—as well as on the issues of the divinity of Jesus and the virginity of Mary, the Congregation declared Küng barred from his chair of dogma and ecumenical theology at the State University, Tübingen, in West Germany. "I am deeply ashamed of my church," he told reporters, and a day after the decree was announced he defied the Pope by holding a public lecture in which he told two thousand cheering supporters that he would fight the Holy See's Lehrverbot.

The reaction among Küng's backers was immediate and strong. The day after the congregation's actions and in direct contradiction to its declaration, seventy American Catholic theologians published a statement in which they declared that, even though they did not necessarily agree with Küng on every point, they did indeed consider him "a Roman Catholic theologian." A few days later fifty Spanish theologians issued a similar declaration. For almost two weeks the local bishop of the Tübingen area, Georg Moser, refused to serve official notice of the dismissal. But on December 28, after consultation with Moser and conservative members of the German Conference of Bishops, Pope John Paul II reiterated his censure, albeit in softer tones. The warrant has been served, and the beleaguered Küng is officially removed from his chair of theology.

Because of his international renown (last August he lectured on God at the Peking Academy of Social Sciences?the first Western theologian ever to be so invited), the case of Hans Küng has become a cause célèbre. However, it is only the latest in a series of inquisitorial actions undertaken since Karol Wojtyla became Pope.

Go read the entire article: Sheehan accurately foretells the declining influence of the Jesuits and a wholesale repudiation of liberation theology. It is doubtful that many mainstream publications will dwell on what happened early in Wojtyla's tenure as Pope. Seriously addressing a person's legacy requires serious examination of a person's deeds—and today's mainstream media does serious things exceedingly poorly.

Posted by Tim W at 4/09/2005 12:28:00 AM

08 April 2005

Archival Quality

On Thursday, Slate posted a generally good article on Brewster Kahle and a couple of his pet projects, including the Internet Wayback Machine.

The Wayback Machine is a huge and useful thing, but it has a real flaw that the author, Paul Boutin, only hints at.

As a time-travel device, the Wayback Machine is far from perfect. Many sites blocked Kahle from crawling them—thanks for nothing, Hotwired—and lots of copyrighted material has been removed at the owner's request.

Not that it matters much to Brewster Kahle, but our other site, Bear Left, is one of the sites that blocks Kahle's Internet Archiver from accessing its pages. Our problem was not with Kahle's project, or with him, but with the Internet Archiver itself. When we had roughly 100 pages of material on Bear Left, it was fairly common for the Internet Archiver spider to pull several thousand pages of information from our site. No other spider acted with anything near that sort of determination. Alas, Kahle's most excellent project used the most egregious of building blocks.

Posted by Tim W at 4/08/2005 11:54:00 PM

Not What I Meant

Only last week, I noted that the Bush administration was certainly more generally egregious than the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church.

If the Bush administration were controlling the College of Cardinals, I would fully expect that Bernard Law would be in the running either to succeed Pope John Paul II, or to be the Holy See's new Director of Priestly Ethics.

Alas, I was not too far off from what Bernard Law gets to do this week. Gentlemen, that is not what I meant by my analogy!

The New York Times reports today that everybody's favorite enabler of pedophiles is getting rewarded for his service to Catholicism by serving as one of nine priests to preside over funeral masses for the late pontiff.

To many American Catholics, Cardinal Law is best known as the archbishop who presided over the Boston archdiocese as it became the focus for the sexual abuse scandal involving priests.

But to Vatican officials, Cardinal Law is a powerful kingmaker who traveled internationally for the church and whose favorite priests were regularly appointed bishops by John Paul. After he stepped down in Boston in 2003, he was given a spacious apartment and a prestigious although honorary post in Rome as archpriest of the Basilica of St. Mary Major.

It is by virtue of this position that he was given the high-profile role of celebrating Monday's funeral ritual, the third in the nine-day mourning period that follows a pope's death. It is expected that most of the cardinals will attend the Mass, which will be open to the public. Cardinal Law will deliver a homily that many Vatican watchers will parse for clues about the cardinals' thinking on who should be the next pope.

By permitting Cardinal Law to take the limelight in Rome just when the church is mourning the death of John Paul, the cardinals have reminded American Catholics that their most painful recent chapter barely registered in the Vatican.

A scandal that threatened not just the financial solvency but the moral standing of the Catholic Church can safely be ignored in public by the leaders of that church. Euripides or Sophocles would know exactly how to treat that sort of hubris. A just God would ensure that the next act of this particular tragedy is especially spectacular in its denouement.

Posted by Tim W at 4/08/2005 11:23:00 PM

Not Dead Yet

Tom Lehrer famously stopped writing satirical songs when Henry Kissinger won the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize. I can understand his thinking that satire died on that dark day.

But sometimes events simply prove that the world has a dark humor all its own. Yes, sometimes, truth is both stranger and sillier than any song, novel, or play could ever be. Here is proof that neoclassical economics is truly full of horsepuckey.

A Harvard economics professor has been accused of neglecting the standard market practice of paying for goods and services by trying to steal a truckload of manure from a horse farmer.

Stable manager Phillip Casey says Martin Weitzman, Harvard University's Ernest E. Monrad Professor of Economics, has been stealing manure from Charlie Lane's Rockport farm for years.

Police said Casey found Weitzman on the property last Friday, so he blocked in Weitzman's pickup truck and called police. Weitzman got angry, Casey said, then offered to pay for the manure he'd already taken. But Casey said he wouldn't budge because he wanted the thefts to stop.

Yes, Professor Weitzman lists as one of his specialties environmental economics.

Posted by Tim W at 4/08/2005 12:30:00 AM

07 April 2005

Celeb Wrecks

In October of last year, Pfizer bought time on the radio to try to scare users of acetaminophen and ibuprofen into buying Celebrex instead. (These-the-counter drugs are notably cheap, notably effective, but also liable to cause gastric bleeding or ulcers in some patients.) The ads directed listeners to a website, safepainrelief.com. At the time, that site warned potential customers that "[T]he latest news shows that over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers are not as safe as you think." The website whataretherisks.com redirected customers to the selfsame place.

On Wednesday, 21 December, the websites were still up and running, even though Pfizer has promised on Monday, 19 December, to stop all consumer advertising for Celebrex. By the next day, however, going to either address now sends one to a "temporarily unavailable" site, arthritis.com. Apparently, Pfizer's lawyers recognized an easy lawsuit when they saw one.

Why do I rehash all of this history? Because yesterday, Pfizer and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agreed to pull a related drug, Bextra, off the market, and to put new warnings on Celebrex.

The new warning from the FDA on Celebrex hardly bolsters Pfizer's marketing of "safe pain relief":

Celebrex has been associated with an increased risk of serious adverse cardiovascular (CV) events in a long-term placebo controlled trial. Based on the currently available data, FDA has concluded that an increased risk of serious adverse CV events appears to be a class effect of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) (excluding aspirin). FDA has requested that the package insert for all NSAIDs, including Celebrex, be revised to include a boxed warning to highlight the potential increased risk of CV events and the well described risk of serious, and potentially life-threatening, gastrointestinal bleeding. FDA has also requested that the package insert for all NSAIDs be revised to include a contraindication for use in patients immediately post-operative from coronary artery bypass (CABG) surgery.

What an amazing turn of event. The "safe pain relief" peddled by Pfizer not only raises the risk of heart trouble, but the FDA warns about gastrointestinal bleeding when using it—yet the lack of gastrointestinal bleeding was supposed to make Celebrex safe.

Pfizer's customers cannot be happy about this turn of events. And Pfizer's shareholders are unlikely to benefit. But at least Henry McKinnell, Pfizer's Chief Executive Officer, can sleep easily. As Forbes noted last month, he at least had a great year.

McKinnell's impressive haul of $16.6 million was made up of a base salary of $2.2 million, a healthy bonus of $3.9 million, plus a restricted stock award of $4.3 million. Sharp-minded number-jugglers will notice that these figures don't quite $16.6 million make. Well, throw in $5.81 million in common stock as part of an incentive program, and $307,454 in retirement savings, and all becomes clear. McKinnell's 2004 salary dwarfs his 2003 earnings of $9.7 million. With seemingly bathetic timing, the New York-based pharmaceutical manufacturer will hold an analysts meeting next month to discuss how to reduce costs by $2 billion...

And it gets even better for McKinnell if he can wait a few years before taking early and cushy retirement:

Consider Mr. McKinnell, 62, the chief executive of Pfizer and the chairman of the Business Roundtable, an organization of chief executives from prominent companies. If he steps down from Pfizer in three years, as expected, his supplementary pension benefits have an estimated lump-sum value of $80 million, Professor Bebchuk said. The typical executive retirement plan is based on average salary and bonus, as well as years of service; Pfizer's plan is based on certain long-term incentive awards and grants of restricted stock, too.

Of course, it's hard to decipher that from information in the proxy. But when those performance payouts and one-time awards of restricted stock are treated as annual pay, they greatly inflate the value of the pension. Without them, Mr. McKinnell would be entitled to only about $37 million in retirement.

Imagine what he would have earned had his world-class arthritis drugs actually outclassed the competition.

Posted by Tim W at 4/07/2005 11:55:00 PM

04 April 2005

Thank You, Financial Times!

Have you read the editorial in the Financial Times today: The mixed legacy of Pope John Paul II? It is an outstanding piece, what fair and balanced is in reality and not just as a slogan. Compare this to the writings, left and right, that have tried to co-opt association with the pope for political advantage. Compare it as well to the blather the networks and cable news programs ran endlessly over the weekend. As Americans, we should not have to turn to a British financial newspaper for such analysis and opinion.

Just a taste of what you will read in this piece that you did not hear on the Sunday morning talkshow circuit: "Yet, while unswerving in his opposition to communist despotism, and despite his championing of the poor, he often seemed indifferent to Catholic-inspired tyrannies in Latin America, where he set out to smash the alliance between the Church and the poor articulated by 'liberation theology'."

Posted by PAUL at 4/04/2005 06:52:00 PM

03 April 2005

Antihero

How discouraging it is to read that George Bush deemed the late Pope John Paul II a "hero for the ages". Even if it were true, it would say a great deal about Bush the man that a Catholic pope who was a "hero for the ages" could not convert a Methodist to Catholicism, even a Methodist who frequents Episcopal services when it suits him.

But it is hardly true that John Paul II was a heroic figure--indeed, it is hard for a pope, any pope, to be truly heroic. Heroes are men and women whose courage, achievements, or nobility are inspirational. The papacy is not an institution filled with stories of deprivation or great moral courage. As a Catholic bishop in Communist Poland, Karol Wojtyla certainly provided inspiration to millions of people, but the real heroes in his country were the men and women of the Solidarity movement who dared directly challenge Soviet-style Communism.

In contrast, the hurdle for courage at the top of the Catholic hierarchy is so low that it was considered shocking to break with tradition and elevate a non-Italian to the papacy.

As pope, Wojtyla did indeed perform many noble deeds. He was the first pope to acknowledge inherent evil of anti-Semitism; under his guidance, the Vatican recognized the state of Israel in 1993 and he visited Israel in 2000. As pope, he reached out to Orthodox Christians and Moslems in ways unprecedented in modern times. These were noble deeds that reflected an innate sense of morality, but it takes only a little morality to treat Jews, Moslems, or Orthodox Christians as worthies and not as scapegoats. His positive ecumenical actions were noteworthy most by their absence in the previous millennium.

One truly unheroic aspect of Wojtyla's papacy was the systematic cover-up of sexual abuse in many of the church's dioceses. Those in the media who are writing the secular version of beatification papers ought to remember that the pope must share responsibility for the actions of his subordinates if the authority of the Catholic Church really does stem from his position.

There is one truly heroic aspect of Wojtyla's papacy—the Catholic Church's outright condemnation of nuclear weapons. In a famous 1983 pastoral letter, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops took the Second Vatican Council's condemnation of modern warfare and updated it, in very stark terms:

The crisis of which we speak arises from this fact: nuclear war threatens the existence of our planet; this is a more menacing threat than any the world has known. It is neither tolerable nor necessary that human beings live under this threat. But removing it will require a major effort of intelligence, courage, and faith. As Pope John Paul II said at Hiroshima: "From now on it is only through a conscious choice and through a deliberate policy that humanity can survive."

As Americans, citizens of the nation which was first to produce atomic weapons, which has been the only one to use them and which today is one of the handful of nations capable of decisively influencing the course of the nuclear age, we have grave human, moral and political responsibilities to see that a "conscious choice" is made to save humanity. This letter is therefore both an invitation and a challenge to Catholics in the United States to join with others in shaping the conscious choices and deliberate policies required in this "moment of supreme crisis."

Alas, while official Catholic teaching about nuclear weapons has not changed, nuclear weaponry has become less a target of opprobrium from the pulpit and the various bishoprics. In 2004, the selfsame National Conference of Catholic Bishops was criticizing not the utter failure of the world's nuclear weapons state to perform anything approximating disarmament, but was instead bewailing continued use of contraceptives and the gradual acceptance of gay marriage. Paying lip service to combating the greatest danger ever to face humanity is hardly heroic. Decrying contraception—including condoms, which are the best defense against millions more contracting HIV—is hardly heroic. And deciding that gays and lesbians have no right to the same sort of sexual congress that the Catholic Church abets and encourages among heterosexual couples, is hardly heroic.

Save the appellation of hero for someone who actually deserves it.

Posted by Tim W at 4/03/2005 11:22:00 PM

Act, Don't Just Talk, In The Pope's Name

It has been widely reported that President Bush called Pope John Paul II a "champion of human dignity and freedom" just prior to the announcement of the pope's death.

In the name of Pope John Paul II, may we call upon President Bush to secure the dignity and freedom of all Americans by directing the great wealth and power of the United States to provide its citizens and residents with:

  • Free and responsible enterprise;
  • Safe and affordable housing;
  • Full medical care and benefits;
  • Affordable education;
  • Adequate retirement benefits;
  • Freedom of association and union; and
  • Full civil liberty.

Our great country has the ability to deliver on all of these objectives. We lack only the will and leadership. Achieving these objectives, even making a good faith effort to achieve these objectives, would make the United States the true moral leader of the world and provide a blueprint for a democracy that every nation would wish to copy.

Posted by PAUL at 4/03/2005 12:53:00 PM

02 April 2005

More Francis-Wright, Less Fools

Two great posts on Saturday from my cohort, Tim Francis-Wright. It is my honor to be cast in his shadow on this page.

How often do you see a reference to Marx's critique of religion, simply stated, in the mainstream media? Odd, they have no problem giving time and space to the rantings of fools. Imagine, if you would, the passage Tim references outlined in The New York Times with just as brief a commentary from 50 well-known politicians, academics, media figures, and religious leaders. They would be falling all over themselves to deny the common sense Marx exhibited over 160 years ago.

Why? Fear, cowardice, and ignorance come quickly to mind, but the main reason would be responsibility. To admit Marx's premise that we are our own creation, which even religious notions of Free Will allude to, would require those in power to take responsibility not only for the advancement of the species (astonishing in most respects) but also for war, inequality, and intolerance. Alas, those who are so certain that there will be Pie In The Sky When We Die seem to need the biggest piece of pie here on earth, especially the social status and power that piece of pie gives them. Their first order of business is to maintain that hegemony over power and status, not to prepare for the after-life.

I love the juxtaposition of Paul Wolfowitz and Cardinal Bernard Law. Let's not forget, this man who covered-up the wholesale sexual abuse of children by members of the clergy will vote for the next pope (of course, the cover-up was dictated by the Vatican but that is too long a story). As to Wolfowitz, the idea that responsibility is only for the worker bees is certainly not the sole domain of the Bush administration. It is the status quo that the managerial class (and their associates in politics, religion and the media) evades responsibility for failure and takes credit for success. The Bush administration has just taken that fact to an astonishing level of absurdity (granted, they have no real success to take credit). Those in power write history. Those in power distribute the spoils.

If The New York Times or The Boston Globe truly wanted to open their op-ed page to thoughtful opinion not often found in the work of their current columnists they would honor themselves and their readers by adding Mr. Francis-Wright to their staff.

Posted by PAUL at 4/02/2005 11:25:00 AM

Riddle Me This, Batman

What do you call a religion that has at the very core of its doctrine eternal life for the good in heaven—but whose elders encourage and entertain widespread obsession about how to prolong the last agonizing, painful days and hours of its leader?

Whatever you call it, this description seems quite apt.

[It] is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

Posted by Tim W at 4/02/2005 01:28:00 AM

Meretritocracy

Just how badly can a Bush administration minion screw up and still wrangle a bg promotion? Paul Wolfowitz, the intellectual engine behind the amazingly painless, cheap, effective, and successful military operation in Iraq—you might have heard something about it in the last two years—is now the confirmed head of the World Bank. Perhaps his lack of substantial experience in international development will give him that Midas touch that he so displayed at the Pentagon.

An analogy best describes how foolish our dear leaders look. If the Bush administration were controlling the College of Cardinals, I would fully expect that Bernard Law would be in the running either to succeed Pope John Paul II, or to be the Holy See's new Director of Priestly Ethics.

Posted by Tim W at 4/02/2005 01:16:00 AM

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