The wisdom of wars can be debated on any day, and this column has not hesitated to question the thinking -- or, to be more precise, the lack of thinking -- that has led the United States to the current quagmire in Iraq.
But on Memorial Day, it is well to pause from the debate to remember those whose lives have been lost, not merely to the fool's mission of the contemporary moment but to all those battles – noble and ignoble – that have claimed the sons and daughters of this and every land.
After the bloodiest and most divisive of America's wars, the poet Walt Whitman offered a dirge for two soldiers of the opposing armies -- Civil War veterans, buried side by side. His poem is an apt reminder that, when the fighting is done, those who warred against one another often find themselves in the same place. It is appropriate that we should garland each grave, understanding on this day above all others that wars are conceived by presidents and prime ministers, not soldiers.
It is appropriate, as well, and perhaps a bit soothing, to recall Whitman's wise words:
The last sunbeam
Lightly falls from the finish'd Sabbath,
On the pavement here, and there beyond it is looking,
Down a new-made double grave.
Lo, the moon ascending,
Up from the east the silvery round moon,
Beautiful over the house-tops, ghastly, phantom moon,
Immense and silent moon.
I see a sad procession,
And I hear the sound of coming full-key'd bugles,
All the channels of the city streets they are flooding,
As with voices and with tears.
I hear the great drums pounding,
And the small drums steady whirring
And every blow of the great convulsive drums,
Strikes me through and through.
For the son is brought with the father,
(In the foremost ranks of the fierce assault they fell,
Two veterans son and father dropt together,
And the double grave awaits them.)
And nearer blow the bugles,
And the drums strike more convulsive,
And the daylight o'er the pavement quite has faded,
And the strong dead-march enwraps me.
In the eastern sky up-buoying,
The sorrowful vast phantom moves illumin'd,
('Tis some mother's large transparent face,
In heaven brighter growing.)
O strong dead-march you please me!
O moon immense with your silvery face you soothe me!
O my soldiers twain! O my veterans passing to burial!
What I have I also give you.
The moon gives you light,
And the bugles and the drums give you music,
And my heart, O my soldiers, my veterans,
My heart gives you love.
Just over a week ago, Rep. John Murtha stated that a military investigation will confirm that over a dozen Iraqi civilians were murdered in Haditha by U.S.Marines.
Today, a New York Times cover story reveals far worse: the military report finds that 24 Iraqi civilians were "killed during a sustained sweep by a small group of marines that lasted three to five hours…." Murder charges are a possible outcome.
The victims include women and children killed in two houses, as well as 5 men standing near a taxi at a checkpoint.
A separate military investigation is determining whether a deliberate cover-up led to initial false reports that the victims were killed by a makeshift bomb or caught in the crossfire between marines and insurgents.
Congressional, military, and Pentagon officials all spoke under the condition of anonymity.
John Sifton of Human Rights Watch put it plainly, "Here we have two dozen civilians being killed--apparently intentionally. This isn't a gray area. This is a massacre."
According to the Times, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Michael Hagee, flew to Iraq to lecture the troops on adhering to the Geneva Conventions and rules of engagement.
But why would the troops respect the rules of engagement when the President, Vice President, and Secretary of Defense are hell-bent on reserving the right to torture? When the Attorney General refers to the Geneva Conventions as "quaint"? When the Administration recklessly asserts that it can do whatever it wants to do so long as--in its opinion--it is acting to protect the American people?
What we see unfolding before our eyes, sadly, is exactly what Nation Institute Fellow Chris Hedges writes happens all too often in war: "One of the frustrating things for those of us who have spent so much time in war zones is to come back and see how those who are guiltiest – those who pushed the country into war, who told the lies that perpetuated the war – are never held accountable. And those who suffer the most, those who endure the trauma and have to live with the memories for the rest of their lives, are blamed unjustly."
The New York Times called those allegedly involved in the killings "a small number of marines." But just because those who sit-on high didn't pull the trigger, it doesn't make them any less guilty. In fact, they aren't the ones facing the unfathomable stress of war made worse by their own poor planning and poor allocation of resources.
They just sit in judgment of the soldiers who will end up paying the price for it. And tell the families of slain Iraqis that we are bettering their lives.
On Thursday night, George W. Bush and Tony Blair conducted a joint press briefing--which was a joint defense of their decision to invade Iraq. It seemed like Bush's advisers crafted his remarks to show that Bush is in touch with reality, for he acknowledged that things haven't gone entirely as expected in Iraq. Still, he repeatedly said "we're making progress," and his comments included assertions that were indeed reality-challenged. Here's a brief annotation of a portion of his statement.
The decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power was controversial. We did not find the weapons of mass destruction that we all believed were there -- and that's raised questions about whether the sacrifice in Iraq has been worth it.
Not everyone believed that significant and threatening amounts of WMDs were in Iraq. UN inspectors said they were concerned that previous weapons and weapons-related materials had not been fully accounted for, but they noted that did not mean that stockpiles of WMDs existed. The State Department's intelligence bureau did not believe that Iraq had revived its nuclear weapons program. Biological weapons experts were skeptical of the claim that Iraq had developed mobile bioweapons labs. Department of Energy experts disagreed with the Bush administration's contention that Iraq had purchased aluminum tubes for a centrifuge that would produce enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. Practically every individual claim that the administration put forward before the war in making its WMD case was challenged before the war.
Despite setbacks and missteps, I strongly believe we did and are doing the right thing. Saddam Hussein was a menace to his people; he was a state sponsor of terror; he invaded his neighbors.
None of these were the primary reasons Bush gave for invading Iraq.
Investigations proved he was systematically gaming the oil-for-food program in an effort to undermine sanctions, with the intent of restarting his weapons programs once the sanctions collapsed and the world looked away.
The oil-for-food program was corrupt. But at the time of the invasion, the world was not looking away from Saddam. Thanks to Bush's bellicose posturing, the UN had passed a resolution that led to the return of inspectors to Iraq. Saddam's weapons programs--as minimal as they were at this point--were even more restricted (due to the inspections and the world's attention) than they had been in years. The UN process was working--in terms of checking Saddam's power and ability to develop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. The world was hardly ignoring Saddam's potential threat when Bush ordered the invasion.
If Saddam Hussein were in power today, his regime would be richer, more dangerous and a bigger threat to the region and the civilized world. The decision to remove Saddam Hussein was right.
Given the inspections that were underway in March 2003--and given the potential that existed then to hinder Iraq further with more intrusive inspections and more severe restrictions--there is no telling if Saddam would have been more "dangerous" today had Bush not invaded.
But not everything since liberation has turned out as the way we had expected or hoped. We've learned from our mistakes, adjusted our methods, and have built on our successes. From changing the way we train the Iraqi security forces to rethinking the way we do reconstruction, our commanders and our diplomats in Iraq are constantly adapting to the realities on the ground.
Is that why the military and police forces of Iraq are now thoroughly infiltrated by sectarian militias? Or why the Bush administration has cut off new money for reconstruction in Iraq? The learning curve seems to be not steep but a flat line.
....With the emergence of this government, something fundamental changed in Iraq last weekend.
We can only hope. But after all this, should one have any faith in Bush's assessment of reality in Iraq?
This week the UN will hold a high level meeting on AIDS to review what -- if any -- progress has been made since the UN General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS (UNGASS) in 2001. I'll be writing more about UNGASS +5 in the days to come, but advance reports are not promising.
Heading the U.S. delegation will be First Lady Laura Bush, who's been making the rounds in Africa lately on behalf of her husband's controversial AIDS plan (PEPFAR). Joining her will be first twin Barbs, who's apparently taking a break from partying hard at Bungalow 8 with socialite Fabian Basabe to pursue her secondary interest: global AIDS. Yes, post-Yale, post-campaign, post-hangover, Barbs has been working with Baylor College of Medicine's International Pediatrics AIDS Initiative. Her volunteer work last year at a clinic in Cape Town was so shrouded in mystery that newspapers could only report at the time, "Bush daughter is said to volunteer" in South Africa. And lest Barbs get bored, she's dragging along party pal Maggie Betts (daughter of Bush "pioneer" Roland Betts); both are official members of the 47-person delegation. Thankfully, Jenna is nowhere in sight.
The ideological heavy-lifting, however, will be executed by stalwart Christian conservatives. As Esther Kaplan reports, the U.S. delegation includes abstinence pusher Anita Smith (Co-chair of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS), Melissa Pardue (a former policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation who promotes abstinence-only education) and Baptist minister Herb Lusk (who advises Bush on faith-based community development). (Kaplan also notes a spike in Uganda's HIV infection rate, which has doubled over the past two years as it implemented Bush's prevention plan.)
None of this bodes well for UNGASS +5. While much will be decided in the days to come, according to Naina Dhingra, Director of Public Policy for Advocates for Youth, "the U.S. is sending a signal that it is not taking the meeting as seriously as it should by putting a non-political person at the head of the delegation and by filling it with people with no experience in HIV/AIDS or who don't agree with the goals of the 2001 UNGASS declaration."
Normally, I am a "bleeding heart" when it comes to long prison terms,but an appropriate sentence for the Enron boys might be six trillion years. Kenneth Lay with hismillion-dollar smile and Jeffrey Skilling with the cold, confident eyesof a viper made their company into the symbol and showpiece for aglorious era. It was the hyper-modern and market-efficient "neweconomy," in which the concept of wealth falling out of the sky becamebriefly hip and widely believed in respectable circles.
Enron led the way. Lay and Skilling showed us how it's done. And whenEnron fell, the great national delusion turned to catastrophe.Unwitting investors lost $6 trillion overall. Millions of innocentbystanders lost much more in terms of their lives. So let Skilling andLay now serve as symbol for the shame of modern American capitalism.Let these guys do the time for all those others, the corporate titansand financial con men, who got away.
Justice sometimes proceeds in strange ways. I am opposed to publichangings and other forms of scapegoating, but perhaps this time we needa spectacular ritual sacrifice to amplify the point made by that swift,sure conviction in Texas. These men in the good suits arecriminals--criminals!--who must be made to set an example forall ambitious people who toil in business and finance.
These two thugs looted pension funds and destroyed the personal savingsof families. They stole money from the rest of us, not to mention fromgovernment and other non-glamorous business enterprises. They riggedenergy markets to drive up prices and bilk defenseless consumers (anold-fashioned swindle borrowed from nineteenth-century robber baronsand newly decriminalized by deregulation). They swallowed viable,productive companies and wrecked them, especially wrecking thelivelihoods of their employees. And, worst of all, they were best palswith politicians and political leaders as well as the most prestigiousnames in banking and finance--connections the Mafia would die for!
Sorry, am I shouting? My exuberance over this verdict is amixture of joyous fulfillment and lingering doubts about the impact.Since the meltdown of the stock market in 2001 and the avalanche ofscandalous revelations that followed from hundreds of corporations, Ihave thought the political system and the financial system and even thepublic at large did not sufficiently get the message. The pervasive rotin American capitalism is much deeper than acknowledged. The variousforms of fraud by which millions of people are separated from theirmoney continue in practice, often blessed by law itself.
Still flourishing, likewise, are the leading Wall Streetfirms--Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, JPMorgan Chase, to name a few--thatshowed Lay and Skilling how to do the fancy financial footwork,converting "debt" into "revenue," so that stock analysts could toutEnron's rising "profit". This was fraud too, but nobody from the bankswent to prison (they paid millions, even billions, for no-guiltsettlements with government and injured investors). Message to America:Don't rob the Seven Eleven with a six-gun. Rob the general public withpen and computer.
Congress, meanwhile, claimed to "toughen" financial laws, but they didnot get reform halfway done. Now the Chamber of Commerce and otherfront groups are back in Washington insisting that the rather mildreform measures be scrapped too. They may very well succeed, if thepublic is not aroused. The media can take care of that. They will bedescribing this verdict as "an end of the era."
Wrong again. Thet era of corporate corruption, financial swindling and blue-sky illusions is not over. The players are merely paused, waiting for the marks to re-enter the casino. Perhaps Kenny Boy's conviction will remind people that the game is still fixed and those guys in good suits are the dealers.
The man who paid many of the biggest bills for George Bush's political ascent, Enron founder Kenneth Lay, has been found guilty of conspiracy and fraud almost five years after his dirty dealings created the greatest corporate scandal in what will be remembered as an era of corporate crime.
On the sixth day of deliberations following the conclusion of a long-delayed federal trial, a Houston jury found Lay guilty on six counts of fraud and conspiracy. In a separate decision, US District Judge Sim Lake ruled that Lay was guilty of four counts of fraud and making false statements.
The same jury that convicted Lay found Enron's former chief executive, Jeffrey Skilling, guilty on 19 counts of fraud, conspiracy, making false statements and engaging in insider trading.
Lay, who President Bush affectionately referred to as "Kenny-boy" when the two forged an alliance in the 1990s to advance Bush's political ambitions and Lay's business prospects, contributed $122,500 to Bush's gubernatorial campaigns in Texas. Lay would later explain to a PBS "Frontline" interviewer that, though he had worked closely with former Texas Governor Ann Richards, the Democrat incumbent who Bush challenged in 1994, he backed the Republican because "I was very close to George W."
Needless to say, once Bush became governor, Lay got his phone calls returned. A report issued by Public Citizen in February, 2001, months before the Enron scandal broke, identified Lay as "a long-time Bush family friend and an architect of Bush's policies on electricity deregulation, taxes and tort reform while Bush was Texas governor."
No wonder Lay had Enron give $50,000 to pay for Bush's second inaugural party in Austin in 1999 -- a showcase event that was organized by Karl Rove and others to help the Texas governor step onto the national political stage.
After Bush gave Enron exactly what it wanted in 1999, by signing legislation that deregulated the state's electrical markets, Lay knew he had found his candidate for president.
When Bush opened his campaign, Lay opened the cash spigots.
As a "Bush Pioneer" in the run-up to the 2000 presidential election, Lay was a key member of the Bush campaign's fund-raising inner circle.Under Lay's leadership, Enron ultimately gave Bush $550,025, making the corporation the Texan's No. 1 career patron at the time the 2000 election campaign began, according to the Center for Public Integrity. Lay personally pumped almost $400,000 into Republican hard- and soft-money funds, while Enron slipped another $1.5 million into the GOP's soft-money cesspool.
But that was just the beginning. Lay sent a letter to Enron executives urging them to contribute to Bush's campaign. More than 100 of them -- including Skilling, a major Bush giver since 1993, when he cut his first $5,000 check to GW's gubernatorial campaign -- did just that. Dozens of spouses wrote, including "homemaker" and frequent $10,000 donor Linda Lay, gave as well, making the Enron "family" a prime source of the money that gave Bush his early advantage over Republican rivals such as Arizona Senator John McCain.
All told, it is estimated that, over the years prior the company's bankruptcy, Lay, his company and its employees contributed close to $2 million to fund George W. Bush's political rise.
Lay found other ways to help, as well. He put Enron's corporate jets at the disposal of the Bush campaign in 2000. He kicked in $5,000 to pay for the Florida recount fight, while a top Enron "consultant," former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, ran the Republican's recount effort. He even paid for his own bookkeeping, chipping in $1,000 to help the Bush-Cheney campaign comply with campaign-finance laws. And Lay and Enron gave $300,000 to underwrite the Bush-Cheney inauguration festivities in 2001.
Did all that giving pay off? You bet!
Lay cashed in even before Bush was sworn in as president, entering into the inner circles of the new administration and using the access he had paid for to craft its agenda on the issues that mattered most to Enron.
Bush took good care of his contributor-in-chief, appointing the Enron founder as one of five members of the elite "Energy Department Transition Team," which set the stage for the Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force and administration policies designed to benefit corporations such as Enron. A report on "Bush Administration Contacts with Enron," compiled at the request of Congressman Henry Waxman, D-California, by the minority staff of the Special Investigations Division of the House Committee on Government Reform, U.S. House of Representatives, found evidence of at least 112 contacts between Enron and White House or other Administration officials during the month prior to the corporation's very-public collapse in late 2001. At least 40 of those contacts involved top White House officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, presidential advisor Karl Rove, White House economic advisor Lawrence Lindsey, White House personnel director Clay Johnson III, and White House energy task force director Andrew D. Lundquist.
As Waxman explained in a 2001 interview, "The fact of the matter is that Enron and Ken Lay, who was the Chief Executive Officer of Enron, had an extraordinary amount of influence and access to the Bush Administration. Lay was called a close friend by both the President and the Vice President. When the Vice President chaired an Energy Task Force, Ken Lay had an opportunity to meet privately with the Vice President and to have a great deal of influence in their recommendations."
Bush and his aides have worked hard since the Enron scandal broke to suggest that Lay was just another generous Texan. But the attempts to deny linkages to the now-convicted corporate criminal never cut water with Lone Star-state watchdog Craig McDonald, the director of Texans for Public Justice.
"President Bush's explanation of his relationship with Enron is at best a half truth," McDonald said after Bush first tried to distance himself from Lay and other Enron executives. "He was in bed with Enron before he ever held a political office."
As governor and president, Bush maintained that intimate relationship.
Now that his strange bedmate have been convicted of fraud, isn't it time for the president to end the fraud of claiming that he was ever anything less than a political partner of Lay and the Enron team?
As John wrote a few days back, William Jefferson was one of the worst Democrats in the House even before he started hiding bribes in the freezer. Now he's a drag on his party and a disgrace to his district--which happens to represent much of storm-ravaged New Orleans.
Yesterday, Nancy Pelosi rightly asked Jefferson to resign from his seat on the powerful tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. Jefferson refused, writing: "I will not give up a committee assignment that is so vital to New Orleans at this crucial time for any uncertain political strategy."
What an absurd defense. If Jefferson cared about adequately representing the residents of New Orleans, he wouldn't have taken bribes to enrich himself and crooked politicians in Nigeria. As the government's case against him intensifies, how can he possibly represent his constituents effectively? Isn't helping to rebuild New Orleans enough of a full time job?
As John Maginnis, editor of the Louisiana Political Fax Weekly, told the Washington Post: "It's not a very good reflection on the state to have your congressman accused of taking bribes at the same time Louisianans are trying to get money out of the federal government."
Now, more than ever, New Orleans deserves better.
Best performance on American Idol's finale: Prince--preening, prancing and dancing.
Most astounding fact: 63.4 million votes were cast for the two finalists. Show host Ryan Seacrest boasted this was "more than any president in the history of our country has received. "
One blogger semi-facetiously suggested that maybe we should just cast votes in the next Presidential election via cell phone and text messaging. (And what, have the NSA do the vote count?) Idol's "elections" are already the focus of charges of fraud and voting manipulation. (In 2004, after millions of potential voters weren't able to register their choices in the final round when regional phone systems were swamped by the number of calls, Broadcasting & Cable magazine called the Idol voting system "about as reliable as Florida's in the 2000 Presidential election.")
This year--with suspicion more muted--Alabama's very own Taylor Hicks won. (Thereby confirming Judge Simon Cowell's prediction and ensuring that Cowell will become even more delightfully insufferable next year. ) Hicks--who the Washington Post's Lisa de Moraes likens to Captain Kangaroo--fervently thanked his "Soul Patrol" supporters who rooted for him. His victory, which kept up the South's winning streak on the show, has already inspired a wave of blogs like the one I read last night, " Aladamnabama has all the kick ass people in it. This just helps prove it."
Just what we need. Pop/rock culture Southern triumphalism.
Last night it was worth sitting through a cheesy celebration of high powered karaoke and corporate plugs to watch the grand talent assembled on stage to sing along with the Idols--Mary J. Blige. Toni Braxton. Al Jarreau. Live. Meatloaf. Burt Bacharach. Dionne Warwick. And, of course, Prince was in the building.
If there actually was an opposition party in Washington, the nomination of Air Force General Michael Hayden to serve as director of the Central Intelligence Agency would have been doomed from the start.
Hayden's involvement as head of the National Security Agency with the illegal warrantless wiretapping program initiated by the Bush administration, his role in the secret accumulation of the phone records of tens of millions of Americans for surveillance purposes, his unapologetic rejection of the rule of law and his limited acquaintance with the Constitution would surely have stalled his nomination. And the fact that a member of the military should not head the civilian intelligence agency that is charged with provided unbiased information to elected officials – as opposed to the Pentagon line – would have finished Hayden off.
In the face of a united Democratic opposition, a sufficient number of Senate Republicans, ill at ease with the administration's reckless approach and increasingly concerned about the damage President Bush and his aides are doing to their party's credibility and political prospects, would have abandoned Hayden.
Unfortunately, there is no opposition party in Washington.
There is, instead, a Democratic Party that, when push comes to shove regularly allows itself to be shoved.
So it come as little surprise that Hayden's nomination has sailed through the Senate, winning approval Friday by a 78-15 vote. Most Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, joined the vast majority of Republicans in rubberstamping George W. Bush's poke-in-the-eye pick to head the CIA.
The die was cast when the Hayden nomination was considered by the Senate Intelligence Committee. Four Democrats who should know better – California's Dianne Feinstein, West Virginia's Jay Rockefeller, Michigan's Carl Levin and Maryland's Barbara Mikulski -- voted with the united Republican majority to approve the appointment. Then, the Senate Armed Committee casually voted to reappoint Hayden as a four-star general, a move that effectively signaled surrender in the debate over whether the CIA should be headed by a military man.
In this disappointing scenario, it should be noted that a handful of Democrats did attempt to check and balance a lawless president by refusing to support his equally lawless nominee. Voting against Hayden's nomination were Democrats Evan Bayh of Indiana, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Hillary Clinton of New York, Mark Dayton of Minnesota, Chris Dodd of Connecticut, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Dick Durbin and Barack Obama of Illinois, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Ted Kennedy and John Kerry of Massachusetts, Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Ron Wyden of Oregon.
Intriguingly, the dissident Democrats were joined in their opposition to Hayden by Senate Judiciary Committee chair Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, who has been increasingly restive regarding the administration's assault on basic freedoms.
Predictably, the Senate's most diligent critic of the administration's reckless disregard for the rule of law was the most outspoken objector to Hayden's nomination.
"I voted against the nomination of General Michael Hayden to be Director of the CIA because I am not convinced that the nominee respects the rule of law and Congress's oversight responsibilities," explained Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold, who bluntly declared that, "as Director of the NSA, General Hayden directed an illegal program that put Americans on American soil under surveillance without the legally required approval of a judge."
"Our country needs a CIA Director who is committed to fighting terrorism aggressively without breaking the law or infringing on the rights of Americans. General Hayden's role in implementing and publicly defending the warrantless surveillance program does not give me confidence that he is capable of fulfilling this important responsibility," explained Feingold, who cast one of the three dissenting votes when the Hayden nomination was considered by the intelligence committee.
Noting that Hayden had failed in his testimony before the Intelligence Committee to express any reservations about the administration past misdeeds, that the general had evidenced little respect for congressional oversight and that he gave misleading testimony to the Intelligence Committee in 2002, Feingold concluded that, "The stakes are high. Al Qaeda and its affiliates seek to destroy us. We must fight back and we must join this fight together, as a nation. But when Administration officials ignore the law and ignore the other branches of government, it distracts us from fighting our enemies. I am disappointed that the President decided to make such a controversial nomination at this time. While I defer to Presidents in considering nominations to positions in the executive branch, I cannot vote for a nominee whose conduct raises such troubling questions about his adherence to the rule of law."
If there actually was an opposition party in Washington, Feingold's position would be its official stance. Instead, the man who has fought a lonely battle to censure the president for initiating and maintaining an illegal domestic surveillance program, is still dismissed by most of his fellow Democrats as too aggressive, too principled, too committed to the Constitution. So it goes, as the majority of Feingold's Democratic colleagues continue to promote the nominations and the policies of a failed president who polls tell us now has the approval of less than one-third of Americans.
If it were up to me, we'd keep religion and politics completely apart. I think one of the best things about America is the idea of the wall between church and state. But it's not a perfect world and the religious right has become a potent political force over the last twenty years. So it makes sense for spiritual progressives to organize as a counter-weight.
Historically, elements of organized religion have been at the center of fights for social justice, and many contemporary progressives of faith are drawing from the rich and varied tapestry of faith-based activism. Think the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. Or Malcolm X's embrace of Islam. Or the liberation theologians of Latin America. Or the large Quaker involvement in the nuclear freeze movement. Or the anti-poverty work of the Catholic Worker movement. In many social movements of the last 100 years, people of faith have played an important role.
So it was extremely encouraging to see more than 1,200 people signed up for the Spiritual Activism Conference in Washington, DC, where I spent some of last week. Held in the historic All Souls Church, founded in 1821 by John Quincy Adams and later used for meetings by Eleanor Roosevelt because it was one of the few places in the District which welcomed interracial gatherings, the event was organized by the Network of Spiritual Progressives, a group co-founded by Michael Lerner, Cornel West and Joan Chittister.
A coalition of people from many faiths, the NSP is trying to incorporate new values into daily decision-making; to challenge the misuse of faith by the Religious Right, and to address the anti-religious bias within parts of the progressive community. (The new Spiritual Covenant with America offers a broad outline of the new network's goals and objectives.)
Conceived and organized by Lerner and his extremely efficient Tikkun magazine staff for the second time, the conference featured four charged days of passionate and engaged conversation about how to better the world (and ourselves) plus a morning of lobbying on the Hill and a raft of networking opportunities with people looking to forge links to a better world. The decent media coverage of the proceedings is a testament to the event organizers who put something together that simply could not be ignored. And it wasn't! There were reports in the Washington Post, New York Times, the Seattle Times and Miami Herald, among other outlets.
Memorable speakers included the dynamic Jim Wallis, a fire-breathing liberal evangelical and founding editor of Sojourners magazine; the Rev. Lennox Yearwood, a powerful orator currently serving as the chairman of the Hip-Hop Caucus in Washington, DC; Matthew Fox, a member of the Dominican Order in good standing for 34 years until he was expelled by Pope Benedict XVI, who was a cardinal and the Vatican's chief inquisitor at the time; Mohandas K. Gandhi's grandson, Arun Gandhi, who is making every effort to spread the message of his grandfather; Rev. William Sinkford, the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and Reps. Lynn Woolsey and Jim Moran.
One group that impressed me was Cross Left, which works to galvanize progressive activism among young Christians. The idea is to build social networks where young people can share ideas, information, and resources. The group trains student speakers, sends progressive Christian speakers to universities, schools, and political conferences nationwide, puts organizations in touch with possible funders and imparts good lessons aimed at doing a lot with a little.
I also checked out a workshop with some folks from Creating a Culture of Peace, a new training program that prepares people to respond nonviolently, but militantly, to instances of injustice and repression. Listening to their history of non-violent direct action made it clear that pacificists are some of the toughest people around.
Two of the best policy proposals came from Lerner:
1) A Global Marshall Plan, which calls for the US to lead all advanced industrial nations in making a 20-year commitment of five percent of GDP to end world poverty. The money would not be committed to governments, but to NGOs with solid records. Not a bad place to start.
2) A Social Responsibility Amendment to the Constitution that would mandate that any corporation that nets in excess of 50 billion dollars annually would be required to renew its tax charter each decade before a panel of citizens. This would, in theory, give civil society some leverage over massive corporations who were profiting from, say, activities harmful to the environment.
These two policy ideas help form the basis of the spiritual-progressive platform that was put forth by the conference. And there were many more. If you missed the proceedings but want to get in on the NSP, the best thing to do is to buy the DVDs of what you missed--they'll be available on Tikkun's website shortly, read Lerner's new book, which offers the best distillation of the ideas animating this incipient movement, and click here to get on the Network's mailing list