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The Sacred and the Profane

Christine's last post on the American Family Association's successful scuttling of "anti-Christian" television programming makes an interesting counterpoint to much of the media coverage of the Danish cartoon demonstrations. Cast as "a contest between...immutable religious beliefs and uncompromising freedom of speech" (see Mahir Ali on Znet for the full critique), mainstream media have played the protests off as another "clash of civilizations." But freedom of speech is a poor framework for such a global and complicated story because "freedom of speech," however abstractly and absolutely put, is realized in local-national contexts. Critics have pointed to European and Canadian laws that prohibit varieties of "hate speech" (including bans on anti-Semitic and pornographic material). And as Christine's post reminds us, "freedom of speech" in the US doesn't mean media outlets are immune to boycotts and political protests, particularly from the Christian right. Think of the controversy over Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" or Chris Ofili's "The Holy Virgin Mary."

One way to think of this all is as a struggle to define and control sacred texts and images (the Prophet Muhammad, the Virgin Mary, the crucifixion of Christ) whose religious power derive from their segregation from other cultural and political symbols. The Prophet is not drawn, and he most certainly does not carry out suicide bombings. Jesus does not endorse a cooking show or swim in urine for kicks. Such attempts at religious control are fraught enough in mono-religious cultures, but become tragicomic in multicultural contexts (as the brouhaha over Ofili's painting of the Virgin Mary made in part by African elephant dung reminds us). Secularism proposes to be that neutral ground that resolves the sacred and the profane (in part by censoring and limiting both), but the mainstream is having a hard time digesting this one.

Finally, I'll just point out that religious roots acknowledged, at least in Afghanistan, Christian Parenti writes that the protests are fueled both by anti-Western sentiment stirred up by occupation and by "specifically local political and economic grievances."

McCain vs. Obama

In case you weren't paying attention, since yesterday there's been a very public war of words between the Senate's two most hyped members, Barack Obama and John McCain, over lobbying reform.

Rather then tell the entire backstory, which you can read here and here, I'll make three points.

1. McCain's lobbying reform bill is incredibly weak compared to the Democrats "Honest Leadership Act." That's why only two Senate Democrats, Joe Lieberman and Bill Nelson, have signed on.

2. As Josh Marshall noted today, it was McCain who assured anxious Republicans that his Indian Affairs Committee investigation of Jack Abramoff wouldn't touch any prominent elected officials in his own party, including Tom DeLay.

3. McCain's a political opportunist. He only became a "reformer" after he was implicated in the Senate's Keating Five scandal. And as my profile of him last November made clear, there's no greater opportunity than the Presidency in '08. Which helps explain why he's acting like such an ass.

Christians Dodge Spears

NBC has abandoned, in the words of the American Family Association website , its plans to "Attack Christians with Spears." Britney Spears, that is.

The pop sensation turned trailer trash baby momma was to guest star in an upcoming episode of Will and Grace as a Christian conservative with a cooking show on which she made "Cruci-fixins." (No question that Will and Grace has seen better days, but you have to admit it's not a bad pun.) She'll still be on the show, but the offending material has been written out of the script.

NBC had previously been in hot water with angry Christian viewers over The Book of Daniel which portrayed a doubting Episcopalian minister. The show only ever made it three episodes before the network yanked it.

The whole thing smells a bit like the fracas around ABC's reality show Welcome to My Neighborhood which the New York Times reported on in late January. The show featured a slew of oddball families--gays! Wiccans! people with tattoos! and gasp! non-Whites!--trying to win the hearts and minds of neighbors and a McMansion in their tony Austin cul-de-sac to boot. The two gay dads won, and in the process inspired one of the neighbors to make amends with his own gay son. But ten days before the first episode was scheduled to be aired, ABC cancelled the show.

ABC, the Times pointed out, is owned by Disney. The same Disney that was targeted by Southern Baptists for hosting Gay Days ; the same Disney that has raked in over $281 million dollars in Narnia box office sales. Some have surmised that Disney didn't want to risk losing any of those who had newly forgiven its policies by showing Christians and gays holding hands. As Paul McCusker, Vice-President of Focus on the Family said, "''It would have been a huge misstep for Disney to aggressively do things that would disenfranchise the very people they wanted to go see 'Narnia.'"

I never thought I'd say this, but Why can't more people be like Mandy Moore? She was a comic genius in Saved!, in which she--a real-life Christian--poked fun at evangelicals. She proved that it's possible to hold a belief and still be comfortable making a joke at its expense. All these boycotts and protests of network TV are driven by fear--fear that faith can be lost forever if it's challenged at all. I think it's kind of sad.

At least we still have HBO.

Bush and Blair's Secret Pact

A new memo leaked to the British media last week asserts that George Bush and Tony Blair agreed in January 2003 to go to war in Iraq--not March 2003, as they insist. It also suggests that the leaders knew there was no legitimate case for war, and that Blair told Bush that he was "solidly" behind US plans to invade Iraq before he sought advice about the invasion's legality. Most shocking, it reveals that Bush was so desperate to provoke a war that he proposed painting US planes to look like UN aircrafts and flying them low over Iraq in hopes of inciting an Iraqi attack. (Bush to Blair: "The US was thinking of flying U2 reconnaissance aircraft with fighter cover over Iraq, painted in UN colours. If Saddam fired on them, he would be in breach.")

As with the Downing Street Minutes last spring, international media are covering this story thoroughly, while US counterparts are sitting on their hands. (Click here to see a collection of media commentary to date.)

Public education and outrage have forced the US media to pay attention before. Let's do it again! Check out David Swanson's useful how-to guide for garnering media attention and then click here to email your local newspaper editors and talk-radio hosts, asking them to look into this story.


Hansen Speaks Out

My last post was about the gagging of scientist James Hansen by the Bush Administration. This Friday, February 10, at 10:00am Hansen will speak out publicly at the New School in Manhattan (66 West 12th Street, First Floor). Click here for info and watch The Nation online for a report from the talk.

It's Ken (Mehlman) Who Has Anger Management Problems

GOP Chairman, Ken Mehlman, made the talk show rounds on Sunday in order to dismiss Hillary Clinton as a woman who "seems to have a lot of anger." And what was Mehlman's evidence of Clinton's deep-seated anger? Her assertion that the Bush Administration is one of the worst in history and clearly out of step with mainstream America. Hmmm.... Do Clinton's conclusions reflect anger, or an accurate assessment of an administration which has gutted the treasury, eroded the environment, added millions to the rolls of those without health insurance, botched this medicare prescription drug plan, increased those living in poverty, divided our society, rolled back our hard-earned civil rights and liberties, ruined our reputation, frayed our military, undermined our security, and overall weakened America? Perhaps, Mr. Mehlman, the Senator's onto something. I think there are a lot of citizens who are mad as hell about what's happening to a nation they love. Have you checked out the polls on how many folks believe this country is heading in the wrong direction?

Mehlman's crude remarks are ridiculous in another way. He claims that the senator has "a very leftwing record" and that it does not reflect the values of most Americans. Hillary Clinton is against setting a timetable for withdrawal from the disastrous occupation of Iraq, and she hasn't fought for universal health care. These two issues, as Paul Krugman points out in his strong column in yesterday's New York Times, are majority positions. It is this extremist administration which is out of step with the values of most Americans. But, instead of tending to the nation's needs, this White House sends out lockstep attack dogs like Mehlman.

It's Ken (Mehlman) Who Has Anger Management Problems

GOP Chairman, Ken Mehlman, made the talk show rounds on Sunday in order to dismiss Hillary Clinton as a woman who "seems to have a lot of anger." And what was Mehlman's evidence of Clinton's deep-seated anger? Her assertion that the Bush Administration is one of the worst in history and clearly out of step with mainstream America. Hmmm…. Do Clinton's conclusions reflect anger, or an accurate assessment of an administration which has gutted the treasury, eroded the environment, added millions to the rolls of those without health insurance, botched this medicare prescription drug plan, increased those living in poverty, divided our society, rolled back our hard-earned civil rights and liberties, ruined our reputation, frayed our military, undermined our security, and overall weakened America? Perhaps, Mr. Mehlman, the Senator's onto something. I think there are a lot of citizens who are mad as hell about what's happening to a nation they love. Have you checked out the polls on how many folks believe this country is heading in the wrong direction?

Mehlman's crude remarks are ridiculous in another way. He claims that the senator has "a very leftwing record" and that it does not reflect the values of most Americans. Hillary Clinton is against setting a timetable for withdrawal from the disastrous occupation of Iraq, and she hasn't fought for universal health care. These two issues, as Paul Krugman points out in his strong column in yesterday's New York Times, are majority positions. It is this extremist administration which is out of step with the values of most Americans. But, instead of tending to the nation's needs, this White House sends out lockstep attack dogs like Mehlman.

Why We Fight

The twin headlines on the front page of the Washington Post today, "Gonzales Defends Surveillance," and "Bush's Budget Bolsters Pentagon," made me think of Eugene Jarecki's stirring documentary about the military-industrial complex, Why We Fight.

Jarecki not only provides a historical overview of an arms buildup that dates back to President Eisenhower--who warned of the military establishment's "acquisition of unwarranted influence"--he shows how a lack of opportunities at home helps drive enlistment for foreign interventions abroad. Bush's appalling new budget will only exacerbate this trend by starving domestic programs, cutting taxes and boosting defense spending to a record $439.3 billion at a time of ever-increasing deficits. Defense spending has grown by 45 percent since Bush took office, accounting for more than half of all government programs. And that doesn't include the $120 billion needed this year to pay for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What has over half a trillion dollars bought in terms of America's security? Shoddy intelligence, quagmire in Iraq and a nucular (née nuclear) Iran? Bin Laden's still alive and Hamas is running Palestine.

Democrats (and a few sensible Republicans) are rightfully incensed about Bush's proposed spending and tax cuts. "More deficits, more debt, and more denial," said John Spratt, ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee. But these criticisms contain nary a peep about the size and scope of America's bloated and wasteful military budgets. Out in Abilene, Kansas, General Eisenhower is rolling over in his grave.

Going Postal

Did you see last week's horrifying stories about the shootings at the Southern California mail distribution center? A 44 year old woman shot three employees in a parking lot, and three more inside the postal building, and then turned the gun on herself. Experts in workplace killings have called it the nation's deadliest act of workplace violence ever committed by a woman.

For those who track such things, workplace violence by postal workers was more frequent in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In fact, it brought a new phrase into the American vocabulary: "going postal."For those who want to go beyond the headlines and understand the roots of this phenomenon, I recommend Mark Ames' Going Postal: Murder and Rebellion from Reagan's Workplace to Clinton Columbine and Beyond (Soft Skull Press, 2005). The book places so-called "rage murders" in the American workplace and schoolyards in the context of the brutal socio-economic changes following the Reagan Revolution. Ames ties together a massive shift of wealth over the past 25 years--from the lower and middle classes to the wealthy--as well as the change in corporate culture in which companies have squeezed their workers dry for more hours of work at less pay, with less health care and ravaged pensions. He dissects a workforce that has faced massive layoffs, and workers who find themselves scraping by while their bosses live like kings. Ames never excuses, but he does try to understand why we've seen such brutality in the workplace.

This is grim reading --especially in these bleak times-- but as The Toronto Eye Weekly puts it, Ames "writes like a breezy, barroom Foucault while building an alternative history of 'the office' andGoing Postal is audacious, necessary reading...though perhaps not while transiting to work."

Disclosure: Ames is a friend who, with the inimitable Matt Taibbi--now a regular writer at Rolling Stone--co-founded the eXile, an incendiary English-language Moscow-based newspaper. He tells me that the strangest, positive review he received was in Forbes.

Check out Going Postal.

Lieberman's Lapdog Act Not Playing Well

It is no secret that Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman is President Bush's favorite Democrat. With his see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, admit-no-evil defense of the administration's frequent betrayals of public trust before the U.S. invaded Iraq, with his refusal to recognize that the occupation of that country has degenerated into disaster, and with his regular repetition of neoconservative spin on every foreign-policy concern that arises, the man Democrats nominated for vice president in 2000 is a more loyal ally of the president than are many Republicans.

But Lieberman's lapdog act is not playing well in his home state, where grassroots Democrats are furious about the fact that their senator is propping up a failed Republican president. "I think it is one thing to be an independent thinker. It's another thing to be a Democratic senator who is acting as a lobbyist for King George and his Chancellor Cheney," Dorothy Brindamour of Manchester told a meeting of Democrats that gathered last month to take the senator to task.

Since the start of the year, Democratic town committees in two communities have officially chastised Lieberman for providing bipartisan cover for Bush's policies. Town committees are the backbone of Democratic political activism in Connecticut, and these rebukes of Lieberman -- an embarrassing development in a year when he is seeking reelection -- are making 2006 a more contentious year than anyone had expected for the veteran pol.

In January, Democrats in Manchester overwhelmingly endorsed a resolution that declared: "We, the Manchester Democratic Town Committee, do not believe that Sen. Joseph Lieberman is acting in the best interest of the American public or the Democratic Party by supporting President Bush in the handling of the Iraq conflict."

The resolution, which questioned whether Lieberman "fully appreciates the human cost of war" and expressed concern that the Iraq war has "served to galvanize the Arab world against the United States," was blunt in its demand.

"We respectfully ask Sen. Lieberman to reconsider his unconditional support of President Bush," the committee announced.

The censure of Lieberman by Manchester Democrats has now been echoed by the Windsor Democratic Town Committee, which on February 2 voted 34-2 for a resolution expressing frustration with Lieberman's support of the Bush administration in general and his support of the war in particular.

"My goal is to seek a pattern -- a groundswell -- of Democratic town committee motions in Connecticut that will really get the senator's attention," explained Len Swade, a committee member in Windsor, who sponsored the resolution there.

Lieberman does seem to be paying attention. His aides have been trying to promote him as a progressive in communications to town committee members that note the senator's support for abortion rights and environmental protection. And Lieberman has volunteered to discuss the issue of the war with his critics on key town committees.

None of this means that Lieberman is preparing to change his position. But it does suggest that he is feeling the heat in an election year when he might yet face an anti-war foe in his Democratic primary or a general election challenge from Lowell Weicker, a former Connecticut senator and governor, who has entertained the prospect of challenging Lieberman as an anti-war independent.