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The Notion

Unfiltered takes on politics, ideas and culture from Nation editors and contributors.

Band of Brothers--Brother!

Following up on Ari's post about the Band of Brothers, those military veterans running for Congress as Democrats.

The theory is that as former soldiers they will be immunized against Republican charges that Dems are unpatriotic girly-men who are "soft on defense." (As "Mask" points out in the comments section of Ari's post, running as a vet worked so well for Max Cleland and John Kerry!)

One thing the Band of Brothers strategy will do if it succeeds is to help keep Congress white and male. Of the 56 candidates currently marching under the brotherly battle flag, only three are women. (One of the three, Mishonda Baldwin, is also the only African-American).

So I guess the Dems are giving up on that whole gender-gap equality thing. Remember when Patty Murray ran for Senate as a "mom in tennis shoes"? A mother had better wear combat boots if she hopes to attract the attention of the DNC today!

Do we really want to promote the idea that military service is some kind of necessary item on apolitical resume? That personal machismo is a qualification for office? The BOB strikes me as a gimmick, if not an outright pander to militarism and sexism--time for the daddies to retake the mommy party! Chaaarge! And yet more proof, ladies, that the Dems are writing you off.

Rove Comes Calling


Is the White House coming begging to Senate Minority Leader HarryReid? "Karl Rove's back and there's no doubt about that," Reid remarkedat a one-hour on-the-record breakfast sponsored by The AmericanProspect that I attended today. "He's so desperate he's called methree times in the last few weeks." The White House knows it's going toexceed the government's debt limit, Reid said, and they want his help.But there's little agreement between Rove and Reid on the deficit ormany other issues these days. "I don't think Karl Rove's message, ifhe's still out of jail [in 2006], will have the same sound as it did."



Reid, a pro-life, pro-gun Mormon from Nevada, vacillated betweenthe left and the center before the group of progressive journalists. Herepeatedly praised Russ Feingold as an example of a Democrat who standsup for what he believes in but refused to endorse a timetable for thewithdrawal of troops from Iraq, as Feingold advocates. "I met with theJoints Chiefs of Staff recently and troops are gonna be pulled out ofIraq this year," Reid said, without specifying whether all the troopsshould leave. Feingold was "still really upset" about the compromise reached on the Patriot Act last night, Reid indicated,and will try to slow its passage.



After the unveiling of their anti-corruption "Honest LeadershipAct," Senate Democrats will focus on "real security," including a planby Indiana Senator Evan Bayh to increase the size of the Army by100,000 troops. "On a number of different directions we're going afternational defense," he said. "We'll be more competitive on that issuethan ever before."



Reid dismissed an Associated Press story linking him to lobbyist Jack Abramoff, alleging that"no one that gave me any money did anything wrong," though he jokedthat billionaire financier Howard Hughes did hand him $10,000 in cashat the beginning of his political career. He indicated that hesupported the efforts of Senators Dick Durbin and Chris Dodd to promotepublicly financed elections.



And he seemed downright buoyant about the prospects for Democraticgains in the Senate this year. "If the election were held today theSenate would be tied 50-50," he boasted. "I used to say it would be amiracle to take the Senate. It's not a miracle any more." As to whenthe Democrats would actually unveil a comprehensive agenda, Reid notedthat the GOP's "Contract with America" in 1994 didn't come out untillate September of that year. "We'll roll out one [issue] at a time. BySeptember it will all be out."



Until then, he'll have his hands full stalling the GOP'slegislative priorities and keeping his divided Democratic caucus inline.



Our Own 'Downing Street Memo'?


For those who had any doubts that the Bush Administration manipulatedintelligence to take us into a disastrous, unprovoked and unnecessarywar, Walter Pincus's front page story in today's WashingtonPost is must reading. Pincus's fine reporting in the monthspreceding the invasion exposed the divisions about the war within theintelligence community and its anger about how information was beingpoliticized. But his stories were almost always buried in the Post'sinside pages.



Today's story, in my view, is the equivalent of America's Downing Street Memo. PaulR. Pillar, the former CIA official who coordinated US intelligence onthe Middle East until last year now publicly accuses the Bush WhiteHouse of "cherrypicking" intelligence on Iraq to justify its decisionto go to war. "Intelligence," Pillar asserts, "was misused publicly tojustify decision already made..." This is an eerie echo of the famouswords from the Downing Street Memo--in which Britain's MI-6 DirectorRichard Dearlove told British Prime Minister Tony Blair that "theintelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. "



As Pincus notes, this is the first time that such a senior intelligenceofficer "has so directly and publicly condemned" Bush & Company'shandling of intelligence. Pillar's critique is also one of "the mostsevere indictments of White House actions by a former Bush officialsince Richard C. Clarke , a former National Security council staffmember, went public with his criticism of the administration's handlingof the September 11, 2001, attacks."


About that Ban on Drawing Muhammad...

Most comments about the Danish cartoons of Muhammad assert that Muslims believe it is completely taboo to depict him, period. But is the ban on depicting the prophet really so severe? At Zombietimeyou can view dozens of images of the prophet, including some from the Muslim world: medieval Persian miniatures; a portrait of Muhammad as ayouth by the contemporary Iranian woman painter Oranous (okay byShi'ites because he wasn't the prophet yet); posters being sold in Iraqright now.

From the Middle Ages on, Muhammad has appeared in Western art not in frequently--in drawings, paintings, book illustrations, comics, advertisements, and on the covers of books and magazines, including arecent issue of Le Nouvel Observateur.

Muhammad has been portrayed by the cartoonist Doug Marlette and has appeared on South Park. And get this: Muhammad appears on the North Frieze in the courtroom of our very own Supreme Court! He's the man withthe scimitar, between Justinian and Charlemagne.

Some of this art is respectful; some fanciful and playful; some satirical or even crude and vicious. Only once, however, has any of it seemed to bother believers: in 2002 police uncovered a jihadist plan to blow up the church of San Petronio in Bologna, site of a fresco by Giovanni da Modena showing Muhammad being tortured in Hell (this scene,from Dante's Inferno, was also depicted by Gustav Dore, William Blake,Auguste Rodin and Salvador Dali).

I don't know where exactly this clarification takes us. Maybe I'm just irked by lazy pundits who talk about the global uproar as if everyoneshould have known this is what happens when you draw Muhammad: Naturally, believers would go round the bend!

But wait, a solution may be at hand to this whole clash of civilizationsthing. Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical weekly which reprinted the Muhammad-mocking Danish cartoons, says it will publish cartoons satirizing the Holocaust. I guess they didn't want to be upstaged by Iran, where President Ahmadinejad an announced a a contest for Holocaust-mocking cartoons. (This is an advance on his previous position, which was to deny the Holocaust occurred. Now, it happened, but it's funny.). At last Muslim fundamentalists and free-speech-loving Europeans have found common ground: Anti-semitism!

Beyond Chanukah

So George doesn't know Jack? How then to explain the emails between Abramoff and Washingtonian editor Kim Eisler, published today by Think Progress?

First, Abramoff explains his decision not to travel to Bush's Crawford ranch after he received an invite in 2003:




Second, Abramoff describes nearly a dozen meetings with Bush:




I guess the scandal's moved beyond Chanukah parties. Let's see Scotty spin this.

'Leave No Child Behind'?

President Bush can't seem to tell people enough times, in enough ways, about his self-proclaimed determination to "leave no child behind." The most recent occurrence came, predictably, during his State of the Union address, when he offered this bit of faux-wisdom, "If we ensure that America's children succeed in life, they will ensure that America succeeds in the world."

He then promptly cut Department of Education funding by $2.1 billion and shortchanged No Child Left Behind by $15.4 Billion. He froze Pell grants for the fifth straight year, despite the fact that average tuitions and fees at public universities have risen 40 percent since 2001, pricing more and more young people out of college every day. 19,000 children face elimination from the Head Start Program as his funding fails to keep pace with inflation.

Arlen Specter called the cuts "scandalous." One wonders what the President might say if he dropped the platitudes and actually spoke the truth about his values when it comes to young people. How might that read exactly? I welcome submissions.

Fightin' Dems

Those critics who systematically caricature the Democratic Party as "soft on defense" should've headed down to the National Mall in Washington on this brisk Wednesday morning. Against the backdrop of the US Capitol, 40 of the 55 veterans running as Democrats for Congress in 2006 assembled "to take the flag out of the hands of Karl Rove and his political assasins," said Eric Massa, a 24-year Navy Officer vying for a seat in upstate New York.

These "Band of Brothers," including nine Iraq veterans, saluted their country but implored the need for a "change of course" on the war, Congressional corruption, VA health care and basic bread-and-butter issues.

The Fighting Dems include:

** Bill Winter, a 10-year Marine Corps and Navy vet who's running against the vile immigrant-basher Rep. Tom Tancredo in suburban Denver, Colorado.

** Jim Nelson, a self-described "military veteran, Methodist minister and moderate Democrat" who's seeking the Georgia seat of Rep. Jack Kingston, one of Tom DeLay's closest allies in the House.

** Joe Sulzer, a Vietnam vet and mayor of Chillicothe, Ohio, who wants to oust the soon-to-be-indicted Rep. Bob Ney.

** Mishonda Baldwin, a Desert Storm vet who's trying to become the first African-American woman elected to the House from Maryland.

GOP attack dogs may have been able to swift boat the hapless John Kerry. Let them try and do it to over fifty vets. As Tim Dunn, an Iraq war vet from Fayetteville, North Carolina, put it: "It's time to take the Hill."

George's Curious Tricks and Gimmicks

Despite his best efforts, George Bush's recent budget places his values in plain view for all of America to see. Mr. Bush plans to cut $65 billion from domestic spending on programs like Medicare and Medicaid, low-income housing, education, and food stamps, while extending his favorite petproject--tax cuts for the very wealthy. Even worse, in order to make the claim that he will cut the deficit in half before leaving office, Mr. Bush asks that Congress adopt a brand new approach to budgeting. Under this plan, Congress would not treat an extension of Bush's permanent tax cuts as having any cost!

As Robert Greenstein, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said in the New York Times, "[This] is the most flagrant gimmick in the history of the U.S. budget. It's so flagrant," Greenstein added, " that I don't think even Congress will give it to them." (Here's hoping that we see some spine in these next days and weeks.) But there are some things Mr. Bush just can't hide: like not counting the costs of the war in Iraq; cutting food programs for the elderly; reducing spending in poor schools, job training, and on Pell grants that make college affordable. Even his pledge to end "our addiction to oil" seems to have slipped by the wayside as this budget actually cuts funding for energy efficiency. Let's keep this conversation going… find all the ways Mr. Bush betrays his so-called "values" in this budget, while also trying to slip real costs under the rug.

To Bash Or Not To Bash?

Los Angeles-based Gay Republican activist and blogger Scott Schmidt worries that his party –-in the run-up to the November elections-- is about to take a suicidal turn toward immigrant bashing. He remembers the Republican electoral disaster that ensued after then-Governor Pete Wilson tried to ride a xenophobic wave: Wilson got re-elected but the state GOP as much as imploded under a Latino backlash.

Currently, the national GOP seems split over what to do about immigration. President Bush and the more corporate wing of the party who have endorsed at least some tepid immigration liberalization, are under attack from their restrictionist right flank. While some analysts believe the Republicans are more interested in winning over the growing Latino vote than they are in pandering to xenophobes, Schmidt fears the opposite. He points to the virulent public comments made by L.A. GOP Chairwoman Linda Boyd to last week's State of the Union response offered in Spanish by Angeleno Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Schmidt writes:

Chairman Boyd's "scorecard" on Villaraigosa's record blamed illegal immigrants for the City's failing healthcare system, astronomical high school drop-out rate and prison overcrowding. As a member of Boyd's Executive Committee of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County, I blushed in embarrassment when she compared Villaraigosa to the dictators Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro.

And if you doubt that immigrant-bashing isn't on the GOP Agenda in 2006, take a look at the agenda for this weekend's Conservative Political Action Conference. It's the first, second, third and fourth issue to be discussed.

Let's hope Schmidt is wrong and the temptation to immigrant-bash will be foresworn. More than ever, we need comprehensive immigration reform and for the first time in a long time a lot of Republicans – from John McCain to Jeff Flake are supporting the idea. Let's hope that in the internal Republican debate they prevail over the Minuteman-types.

Also, take a moment to check out my personal blog for a tribute to Neil Postman.

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."

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