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Who's a 'Good Catholic'?

Among the members of Congress who attended the funeral of Pope John Paul II last week was U.S. Rep. David Obey.

It would be difficult to identify a more appropriate representative than the Wisconsin Democrat who has served in Congress for the better part of four decades.

As the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, Obey is one of the most prominent and powerful members of the Congress. He is, as well, one of the most thoughtful and outspoken members of the Catholic faith in Washington. Indeed, the veteran congressman has credited his Catholic upbringing with helping to shape his values and his commitment to public service. "I was raised a Catholic," says Obey. "I know in my bones that I would not hold the views I hold today if it were not for the values I learned in Catholic school."

Yet, there are some who object to the suggestion that a progressive such as Obey is a "good Catholic."

Last year, Archbishop Raymond Burke published a public notice in the La Crosse, Wisconsin, diocesan newspaper that told Catholic legislators in the diocese who support abortion rights or euthanasia not to attempt to receive Communion and ordered priests not to give it to them. Burke, a moral hardliner who occupies the right fringe of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Biships, was then the Bishop of La Crosse; he is now the Archbishop of St. Louis.

Obey, who was widely believed to be one of the targeted legislators, responded with an opinion piece that appeared in America, a weekly Jesuit magazine that is one of the U.S. church's most well-regarded publications.

In it, Obey wrote that he would not let Burke "coerce" him into imposing the church's teachings on abortion upon America's pluralistic society. The piece, "My Conscience, My Vote," noted that, "In my view, Bishop Burke attempted to use his interpretations of theology to coerce me into taking specific positions on matters that I believe are matters of constitutional law. The difference between us is that I am not trying to force him to agree with my judgments, but he is attempting to force me to agree with his. That in conscience I cannot do."

Obey also urged that "the full texture and context of all my legislative actions" -- which includes many courageous votes to promote social and economic justice goals that parallel priorities of church leaders -- be reviewed before judging him.

Obey's bold statement was broadly circulated, and greeted with a great deal of relief by members of the faith who objected to the whole debate -- stirred by conservatives looking to derail the presidential campaign of John Kerry, who is also a practicing Catholic -- about whether politicians who did not follow the church line on abortion were "good Catholics."

Unfortunately, as the group Media Matters has noted, some in the media continue to perpetuate the "good Catholic" line.

Last week, on CNN's Inside Politics, CNN host Wolf Blitzer discussed the pope's funeral with Crossfire co-hosts Paul Begala and Robert Novak, both of whom are Catholics. Blitzer opened the segment by announcing that, "While they were united today in mourning the death of the pope, U.S. Catholics are a diverse group, as illustrated by two of our Crossfire co-hosts, the conservative Robert Novak, the liberal Paul Begala. Both good Catholics -- I don't know 'good' Catholics, but both Catholics. I'm sure Bob is a good Catholic, I'm not so sure about Paul Begala."

Noting that his son is named John Paul, after the late pope, Begala, a Democratic campaign aide, objected and, when Blitzer seemed to dismiss him, said, "I'm serious, that annoys me. I don't think anybody should presume that a liberal is not a good Catholic."

Begala continued, "The Holy Father is liberal. And in fact, when [CNN contributor] Carlos [Watson] was speaking [earlier in the program], I was in the green room. Underneath, some producer had written, 'Many Catholic doctrines are conservative.' Absolutely correct. Many are liberal as well. The Holy Father bitterly opposed President Bush's war in Iraq. He came to St. Louis -- and I was there -- and he begged America to give up the death penalty. President Bush strongly supports it, as did President Clinton and others. Many of the Holy Father's views -- my church's views -- are extraordinarily liberal. The Pope talked about savage, unbridled capitalism..."

Begala was right to challenge the casual use of the "good Catholic" label. When the national media joins the most extreme church hardliners and conservative ideologues in casting judgements about the faith of individual Catholics, they do damage to discussions about both religion and politics. And they foster the fallacy that the only issue of concern to Catholics is abortion.

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John Nichols's new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) is drawing great reviews. Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift--a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history--that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country." Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, "Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial." Against the Beast can be found at independent booksellers nationwide and at www.amazon.com.

Sweet Victory: Montana Acts Patriotic

Last week, we highlighted state minimum wage increases in Vermont andNew Jersey. This week, once again, we salute states that refuse tomarch lock-step with the Bush Administration's radical agenda.

On Monday, Montana became the fifth state to officially condemn theUSA Patriot Act. Joining Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, and Vermont--not tomention more than 375 local governments--Montana's state legislaturepassed the strongest statewide resolution against the Patriot Actyet, according to the ACLU. Inan overwhelming bipartisan consensus, Montana's House of Delegatesvoted to approve Senate Joint Resolution 19--which discourages statelaw enforcement agencies from cooperating in investigations thatviolate Montanans' civil liberties--88 to 12. Earlier this year, theresolution passed in the state Senate 40 to 10.

"I've had more mail on this bill than on any other, and it's 100percent positive," said House Member Brady Wiseman (D-Bozeman).Republican Rick Maedje (R-Fortine) said the resolution "protects ourstates' rights and is what true Republicans in every 'red state'should be doing."

SJ-19 also recommends that the state destroy all information gatheredunder the Patriot Act that is not directly related to a criminalinvestigation, and calls on librarians to inform citizens that theirlibrary records are unsafe from federal investigations.

Although the resolution does not carry the weight of the law, itsimpact is already being felt in Washington. On Tuesday, AttorneyGeneral Alberto Gonzales, speaking before the Senate JudiciaryCommittee, agreed to minor modifications of the Patriot Act, and saidhe was "open to suggestions" about additional changes, a notabledeparture from John Ashcroft's hard line stance. And on Wednesday,Senators Russ Feingold (D-WI), Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Larry Craig(R-ID) introduced the Security and Freedom Enhancement (SAFE)act.

As several provisions of the Patriot Act are set to "sunset" in December,lawmakers pushing SAFE hope to restore privacy protections and limitabusive tactics such as roving wiretaps and "sneak and peak" searches.SAFE, which was recommended to Congress in Montana's SJ-19, has drawnsupport from organizations ranging from the ACLU to Patriots to Restore Checksand Balances, a national network of conservative groups.

Both Red and Blue America agree: Better SAFE than sorry.

We also want to hear from you. Please let us know if you have a sweet victory you think we should cover by e-mailing nationvictories@gmail.com.  

Co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist, documentary filmmaker, and blogger (www.boldprint.net) living in Brooklyn.

Bush Targets Women's Sports

Coming right off of March Madness, the Bush Administration has launched its latest assault on Title IX, the law that ensures equal opportunities for men and women in schools that receive federal funds.

Recently, the Education Department issued rules that will allow colleges to use email surveys to determine interest among young women in playing sports. "Schools will be considered in compliance with Title IX legislation if survey responses suggest there is insufficient interest among women students to support a particular sport," the Washington Postreported. Such changes to Title IX "will likely reverse the growth of women's athletics and could damage the progress made over the last three decades," NCAA President Myles Brand has said.

I'm the proud mother of a thirteen year old basketball player, who's been the shooting guard for the last few years on her school team. Her dream is to make varsity this fall. She reads the sports section every morning. She knows stats I've never heard of, has watched the entire NCAA season and catches every NBA and WNBA game she can.

Millions of young women have reaped enormous benefits since Title IX was launched. The number of women playing high school sports increased in 2001 to almost 2.8 million, up from 294,000 in 1972. Over the same time colleges witnessed an almost five-fold increase in the number of women playing sports. Title IX has achieved "an explosion of female Olympic stars, college and professional women's teams playing to packed stadiums, new magazines aimed at female athletes But most of all the freedom, strength and joy of a whole generation of young women," journalist Ruth Conniff pointed out in 1997--in a special Sports issue of The Nation (yes, check it out!).

Jocelyn Samuels, the Vice President for Education and Employment at the National Women's Law Center, pointed to the larger issue that "there have been attacks on Title IX since its inception in 1972, but the Congress has rejected those attacks and the courts have rejected these attacks, and every Administration until the present one has upheld Title IX."

In the 2000 presidential campaign, then-candidate Bush told reporters that he "opposed quotas or strict proportionality" in school sports, taking a veiled swipe at Title IX. In Jan., 2002, his true agenda emerged when the National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA) filed a lawsuit against the Department of Education charging that Title IX discriminated against men by imposing "quotas" or schools, forcing schools to eliminate minor men's teams like gymnastics and wrestling to make room for women who didn't share men's interest in playing sports.

Eventually, the courts dismissed the case. (The courts have consistently declared that these arguments lack merit.) And, while the Bush Administration opposed the NWCA in court, it only defended Title IX on "narrow procedural grounds, the National Women's Law Center argued in "Slip-Sliding Away," its illuminating study of gender policy. Instead of claiming that Title IX is a "fair and flexible" policy, government lawyers argued that the schools must remedy discrimination, not the Department of Education.

Next up, the Administration signaled to its "supporters that they were not abandoning them," Samuels said, when in mid-2002 the Department of Education established the poorly-titled, "Commission on Opportunity in Athletics." Writing in USA Today magazine, Asst. Professor at the Florida Coastal School of Law "Nancy Hogshead-Makar, who won three gold and one silver medal in the 1984 Olympics swimming competition, pointed out that Bush's Commission was "hand-picked, weighted heavily against Title IX," and that its purpose was "to eviscerate Title IX's interpretive regulations via an end-run around the courts, congress and the will of the people."

Adding weight to Hogshead-Makar's charges, the commission's final report recommended drastic changes to Title IX including harmful proposals that schools be allowed to use private donors to fund men's teams; "artificially inflate the percentage of athletic opportunities they give to women," and send bogus "interest surveys" to students to determine interest levels in sports among female students, as the commissioners Julie Foudy and Donna de Varona argued in their brave minority report--a document that then-Education Secretary Rod Paige declined to enter into the public record.

Fortunately, the Administration was forced to backtrack amid a din of public outrage, and the Education Department sent a letter to our nation's schools reaffirming the mechanisms for enforcing Title IX as settled law. That happened in 2003. Fast forward to March 2005. Bush has secured a second term, the NCAA tournament was underway, and the Administration dropped its bombshell on a late Friday afternoon "with little fanfare--now schools could evade compliance with Title IX by using bogus email surveys."

There's an irony here: George W. Bush is a sports nut. He has appeared on the cover of Runner's World, is a former owner of the Texas Rangers and he lifts weights and bikes in a gym. Adding to the irony, First Lady Laura Bush recently returned from her trip to Afghanistan highlighting the drive to secure womens' rights in that long-suffering nation.

Apparently, real-life experiences are no match for the anti-democratic ideology that has dominated policy decisions in the Bush White House. Title IX, a cornerstone of the struggle for gender equality, must be defended.

The Anti-War Pope

Expect to see a lot of George W. Bush over the next day or so, as he attends the funeral of Pope John Paul II. The White House is going out of its way to hype the fact that Bush is the first U.S. president ever to attend the funeral of a pope. And don't be so naive as to think that White House political czar Karl Rove and his minions -- all of whom are deeply concerned about the president's declining poll numbers -- have failed to calculate the political advantage that might be gained by associating the president with a pontiff whose passing has drawn unprecedented attention in the U.S. and around the world.

As Bush and other global leaders pay their final respects to John Paul II on Friday, however, it is important to remember that the Catholic pontiff was not a fan of this American president's warmaking.

John Paul II was an early, consistent, passionate and always outspoken critic of the president's scheming to invade Iraq. The Pope went so far as to meet with world leaders who were close to Bush, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, in a high-profile attempt to prevent the war. Finally, the Pope sent a special envoy to Washington -- Cardinal Pio Laghi, who has long been close to the Bush family -- to try and derail the administration's rush to war.

When the war began, aides said that the Pope was "very disappointed and very sad" that Bush had ignored appeals to give peace a chance.

The Pope remained a critic of U.S. actions in Iraq, especially after it was revealed in May, 2004, Iraqi prisoners had been abused by US soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison.

"From all continents come endless, disturbing information about the human rights situation, revealing that men, women and children are being tortured and their dignity being made a mockery of. ... It is all of humanity which has been wounded and ridiculed," John Paul II said.

Those who are honoring the Pope's memory this week frequently refer to him as a man of peace. They would do well to recall that this is more than just a phrase. While the Pope was not a pacifist, he was an ardent foe of unjust and unwise wars. And hisopposition to the war in Iraq -- and to all forms of preemptive war -- is at the very heart of the legacy he has left with regard to international relations.

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John Nichols's new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) was published January 30. Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift--a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history--that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country." Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, "Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial." Against the Beast can be found at independent bookstores nationwide and can be obtained online by tapping the above reference or at www.amazon.com

Banned in Arkansas--UPDATED

I've been Ward-Churchilled. In a way.

This week I was scheduled to give a speech at Arkansas State University Mountain Home, a two-year college in the northern part of the state. But several weeks ago, Mick Spaulding, the vice chancellor for development, contacted my speakers bureau and canceled the contract. He said that the decision had been precipitated by material on my personal blog at www.davidcorn.com.

I was peeved by this. The booker at the speakers bureau had called me about a year ago and said that he often tries to coax his speakers to go to ASUMH, which is a good distance from any major airport and which does not have the money to pay the customary speaker fees. Consider this a form of public service, he said. I was reluctant but decided to do him and the school a favor. No good deed goes unpunished.

Several days after Spaulding killed my gig--which was to be part of an ongoing lecture series underwritten by trout fishing resort owners Jim and Jill Gaston--Spaulding's assistant emailed me the offending material that had appeared on my blog. It was an ad for anti-Bush gear that flashes such witty lines as "Don't blame me, I voted for Kerry," "51 percent is NOT a mandate," "He's still not my president," and "Asses of Evil."

Banned in Arkansas because of a politically-pointed ad on my blog? That sounded fishy to me. I sent Spaulding an email:

Apparently, this [ad] was the only material that affected the decision to cancel the speech.   And this causes me to be rather curious about your decision....Now why would this lead to the cancellation of my speaking engagement? I am well-known as a journalist who is critical of President Bush. That is why Fox News hired me as a contributor. It is no secret that I wrote a best-selling book called "The Lies of George W. Bush."

On my blog, I accept ads from all sorts. Advertisers have included Amnesty International, PBS and the United Church of Christ. I have an open-door policy and post ads from any person or entity, as long as the ad is not obscene or extremely objectionable. In the six months I have been publishing ads on my site, I have not rejected one.

So why would displaying an ad from an outfit peddling anti-Bush gear cause me to be banned from your campus? If this company advertised on CNN, would you not allow Larry King to speak at Arkansas State University Mountain Home?

....Can you please explain what happened?

Spaulding did not reply. A few days later, I resent the email and asked for a response. He then did answer:

The option to cancel our obligation was clearly spelled out in the contract. We followed the letter of the contract, cancelled within the thirty-day grace period, and have paid the [kill] fee that was necessary to close the business agreement.

This was not much of an explanation. I tried once more:

Thank you for responding. I was not questioning your right to cancel the speaking engagement under the terms of the contract. But I was looking for an explanation of the cancellation. Would you be so good as to tell me why you did so?

No, Spaulding essentially said. That is, he did not reply.

*****

Don't forget about DAVID CORN's BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on how the media ignored Pope John Paul's true agenda, Bush's brush with anti-Catholic bigotry, and a comedy tribute to Hunter S. Thompson.

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Am I being too sensitive if I suspect politics is afoot and that the administration of a school located deep in Red State territory pulled the plug on my appearance because of my views? Could a small university in Arkansas that boasts that it "creates an environment that encourages free expression" truly be afraid to have me speak? Hoping to have my fears assuaged, I shared my story with Max Brantley of the Arkansas Times, a fine publication that bills itself as "Arkansas's newspaper of politics and culture. (See Brantley's expose of how Wal-Mart wields its mighty influence in Arkansas.) Immediately, Brantley was on the case, pursuing Spaulding. Here's his report from the paper's blog:

Vice Chancellor Spaulding didn't return our first call. We reached him on the second. He said he was in a meeting. He at first professed not to remember anyone named David. After we said Corn had shared his e-mail with ASU, he said, "I'm going to have to get back to you on this. That's a committee decision. I don't feel comfortable being the one answering that question."

Who's on the committee?

"I don't have that in front of me."

Spaulding said that after his meeting was completed, he'd "try to run folks down." We said we wanted to discuss the political dimension of the issue.

"Political dimension?" Spaulding responded. "You're going to be disappointed." So far, he hasn't called back.

So Spaulding won't come clean, it seems. He won't reveal why I was canned, and he won't disclose the names of the mysterious committee who decided I was too hot for Mountain Home. As far as I know, I've never called any victim of a terrorist attack a "little Eichmann."

Now I'm hoping this will spawn a national controversy. Cable talk shows, radio, angry letters to the Times--you know, the whole megillah. No doubt, such champions of ideological diversity on campuses like radical-turned-rightist David Horowitz will rally to my side. And since ASUMH is a state school, I expect the free-speech-loving legislators of the Arkansas state legislature will want to get involved. Perhaps Representative Tom DeLay and other Republicans ought to consider passing "David's Law" to protect my constitutionally-protected right to speak out (for a fee).

I had been looking forward to visiting Mountain Home and was intrigued by the prospect of stirring a good political discussion in Bushland. But the closed minds of ASUMH had other plans. Yet it's not all for naught. Spaulding and his anonymous committee have taught their students a valuable lesson about hypocrisy, cowardice and censorship.

UPDATE, April 7, 2005: The banned-in-Arkansas controversy continues. Students from ASUMH report there's been something of an uproar on campus over the cancellation of my speaking engagement. In a short interview with the Baxter Bulletin, the chancellor of the school refused to provide an explanation for giving me the heave ho. (Click here.) An Arkansas state legislator contacted me and asked for more information. And David Horowitz has come riding into the storm. He and Sara Dogan, the national campus director of Sudents for Academic Freedom, an outfit Horowitz started, sent a letter to Mick Spaulding, the vice chancellor for development at ASUMH. They wrote:

Dear Dr. Spaulding,

I am the national campus director of Students for Academic Freedom, a student organization dedicated to promoting academic freedom, intellectual diversity, and civility on American university campuses. We currently have chapters at 150 institutions of higher learning nationwide.

It has come to my attention that ASUMH recently cancelled a speech that was to be given by David Corn, a political writer and editor and author of the book "The Lies of George W. Bush." Corn claims that you told him that the cancellation was brought about because of material on his personal blog www.davidcorn.com which contains ads for anti-Bush apparel, advertisements for his book, and other left-leaning items, which led him to believe that you cancelled his speech due to his leftist political views. He states that he has tried to contact you several times seeking further explanation for the cancellation, but has not been able to obtain a straight answer.

If Mr. Corn is correct that you cancelled the speech due to his outspoken leftist political views, this is a gross violation of the principles of academic freedom which call for free and open discussion on our college campuses. The Academic Bill of Rights proposed by our organization states that "An environment conducive to the civil exchange of ideas being an essential component of a free university, the obstruction of invited campus speakers, destruction of campus literature, or other effort to obstruct this exchange will not be tolerated."

However distasteful Mr. Corn's views may be to you, he was an invited speaker and has the right to his opinions. It is the responsibility of educational institutions like Arkansas State University Mountain Home to provide their students access to a wide range of views and teach them to respond in a civil and reasoned way. To withdraw an invitation from an invited speaker sends exactly the wrong educational message to students.

We believe that an apology to Mr. Corn is in order and request that your office launch an inquiry to be followed by a public clarification into the reasons why Mr. Corn's speech was cancelled.

We further recommend that Arkansas State University Mountain Home consider adopting the Academic Bill of Rights to ensure that intellectual diversity and respect for all viewpoints remain guiding principles of the institution.

Oh, to have Horowitz on my side. What a pleasant surprise. I look forward to ASUMH's reply to him and Dogan. I don't know if this will turn into a larger controversy. Paul Begala emailed to say that he was going to criticize the school on Crossfire for giving me the heave-ho. But if you want to get involved, feel free to contact ASUMH Chancellor Ed Coulter at ecoulter@asumh.edu and ask him why the school told me to take a hike. You might also suggest that he teach his students one of the most valuable lessons anyone can learn: admit when you've made a mistake. I'm sure he's a very nice fellow, so please be polite.

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IT REMAINS RELEVANT, ALAS. SO DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! An UPDATED and EXPANDED EDITION is AVAILABLE in PAPERBACK. The Washington Post says, "This is a fierce polemic, but it is based on an immense amount of research.... [I]t does present a serious case for the president's partisans to answer.... Readers can hardly avoid drawing...troubling conclusions from Corn's painstaking indictment." The Los Angeles Times says, "David Corn's The Lies of George W. Bush is as hard-hitting an attack as has been leveled against the current president. He compares what Bush said with the known facts of a given situation and ends up making a persuasive case." The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations.... Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." And GEORGE W. BUSH SAYS, "I'd like to tell you I've read [ The Lies of George W. Bush], but that'd be a lie."

For more information and a sample, go to www.davidcorn.com. And see his WEBLOG there.

Say No to Bankruptcy Bill

As early as Wednesday, your Representative in Congress will vote on a hugely important "Debt Slavery" Bankruptcy Bill (S. 256) that could literally change your life. The bill was written by representatives of the credit card industry, which made $30 billion in profits in 2004--and is now gunning for more.

The legislation would make it much more difficult for people turning to bankruptcy as a last resort to actually discharge their credit card debts under Chapter 7, which pays off debts by liquidating assets, offering a fresh start financially. Instead, it would force people into Chapter 13 with a rigid 5-year repayment plan, even after liquidating all assets.

In DC, the banking lobby's line about frivolous debtors lacking personal responsibility plays well on both sides of the aisle. But, as Robert Scheer pointed out recently in a typically strong column, "for all of the whining about deadbeats ripping off the system, credit card companies' annual pretax profits have soared two-and-a-half times in the last decade, and last year was their most profitable in more than fifteen years."

The bill is nothing short of a blatant money-grab on the part of a powerful, lucrative industry taking advantage of the current climate in Washington to push through legislation which will hurt many Americans struggling to make ends meet.

If you've got a credit card, you've got a problem with this bill. So click here to protest this legislative travesty and check out DebtSlavery.Org--a coalition organized by Democrats.com, including The Nation--for more info on the bill and how you can work to oppose it before it's too late.

Playstations for Peace

These days, kids are multitasking like mad. Two weeks ago, the Washington Post described one high school junior talking on the phone, emailing, IM-ing, listening to Internet radio and writing a paper on her computer--all at the same time!

According to a recent report released by the Kaiser Family Foundation, she's far from the only teenager with a flair for multitasking. Kids today are spending six and a half hours a day, seven days a week, with electronic media--and more than twice as much time on video games and computers than in 1999.

Let's face it: We live in a brave new world of blogging, with the iPodization of news, and kids plugged in everywhere. The Washington Post recently ran a separate story about how college students are using interactive mini blogs¨ or "wikis" to create "freewheeling, collaborative" communities, trade ideas and link to each other's essays. Progressives use new technologies like BitTorrent--a filesharing program--that let them create websites like CommonBits.org that allow kids to watch clips from television news programs like the "Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and "Democracy Now."

But one new frontier of the digital era has received almost no attention in the mainstream press.

In fact, says David Rejeski, the director of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Foresight and Governance Project, 'progressives have already occupied the space." He points to several games that are transforming what those active in this community call the "serious games" landscape, many of them with a progressive message. (No, it's not a brand name, but it's the phrase that most people in the industry use to describe the games that carry a serious message.)

Conservatives and too many liberals view video games through a jaundiced lens: they are sources of violence and mayhem that destroy the minds of impressionable teenagers. But, as Rejeski points out, "policymakers have spent far too much time focused on the effects of a small number of violent video releases and lost sight of the pedagogical function and advantages of games in general." True, violence makes video games a highly profitable enterprise.

But it's also the case that the new frontier of the serious game space contradicts those who like to fulminate against video games as a fount of evil. According to Rejeski and other experts, serious games are at a point in their history that resembles the movement towards independent film in its earliest stages. Serious games aren't big money-makers, nor have they truly entered the mainstream.

But they are starting to make waves. The controversial "Escape from Woomera" puts players into so-called "Australian detention camps," so that people will understand what it's like to be a political refugee seeking asylum. Rejeski cited the award-winning "Tropical America" that revives Latin America's past, explaining from a Latin-American standpoint how aspects of the history of the Americas have gotten lost in mainstream versions. "The Meatrix"-- an online film which spoofs "The Matrix"--stars a young pig named Leo, and teaches players about the problems associated with modern farming, as well as the benefits of eating "sustainably-raised meat." At activismgame.com, players must learn to juggle six priorities facing America like revitalizing the economy and providing college tuition relief.

There is tremendous energy and excitement about the potential benefits. Two and a half years ago, Rejeski "had trouble getting 30 people" to attend a serious games conference. In October, 500 people signed up for a serious games conference, a group so large that Rejeski was forced to start turning people away two weeks before the conference even began. Video games are earning more money than the movies--and the age of the average video game player is around 29 or 30. "This is their media," Rejeski said.

At Newsgaming.com, one finds games like "Madrid," which features men, women and children wearing t-shirts that say, "I love Madrid"; "I love New York," and other cities that terrorists have attacked. These people hold candles, as players are instructed to click on the flames so that the flames leap into the air. "Madrid" is a moving expression of hope and mourning, a bold social statement in the face of bloody politics," the Denver Post argued.

At Watercoolergames.org, you'll find a game called "World Heros" that teaches children about Unicef. Players are told that they must lead the UN organization on a relief mission in the developing world to feed people, immunize them, and purify their water.

Henry Jenkins, the director of MIT's comparative media studies program, argued that Newsgaming.com, Kuma Games and other sites are among the "very political games groups made outside the corporate game system" that are "raising issues through media but using the distinct properties of games to engage people from a fresh perspective." Such games, he said, constitute a "radical fictional work."

Rejeski says that among the first games ever developed was a serious game called "Balance of Power" that told players that they had to "keep the world from destroying itself." It was played on an Atari system.

Founder and President of the New America Foundation Ted Halstead would like, he said, to see a serious game developed featuring a "really cool" simulated candidate and then "use it as a tool to get out a bunch of new ideas in politics." Serious games are "a space of experimentation, resistance, critique, innovations, and constant pushing and churning of new content," added Jenkins.

Finally, take the game space itself, which holds great promise. Some 90 percent of children play video games, Gameboys and Playstations have become mobile platforms, and in New York and elsewhere organizers have held sessions in which they've discussed how they can use serious games to spread the messages of the NGO community. Once this vital and expanding community finds a viable business model, serious games look like they'll be the next big thing. Hell, maybe even blogs will seem quaint by comparison.

The Pope's 'Seismic Shift'

Many of the most devout followers of the most famous of all victims of capital punishment, the Nazarene who was crucified on the Calvary cross, took a long time to recognize that state-sponsored execution is an affront to their history and their faith. For close to 1,500 years, the Catholic Church taught that the state had a right to punish criminals "by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty."

For centuries, that line in the Catechism of the Catholic Church was used by Catholic politicians--and others who sought a moral justification for their actions--to place a veneer of legitimacy on even the most cavalier executions of the young, the mentally handicapped and the innocent. Even as Pope John Paul II moved the church closer and closer to explicit opposition to the death penalty during his long tenure, the loophole in the Catechism remained.

Then, in 1997, Sister Helen Prejean, the American nun and death penalty abolitionist who authored the book Dead Man Walking, asked Pope John Paul II to close the loophole. Later that year, the Pope removed the reference to the death penalty from the Catechism and, when he visited the United States two years later, he denounced the death penalty as "cruel and unnecessary." Referencing moves by countries around the world to ban capital punishment, the Pope declared in St. Louis that, "A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil."

So pointed and passionate was the Pope's message on the issue that the then-governor of Missouri, Mel Carnahan, a Baptist and a supporter of capital punishment, commuted the sentence of a condemned man who was scheduled to be put to death by the state several weeks after the Papal visit.

It is to be expected that the death of a pope will be attended by hyperbole. And the passing on Saturday of John Paul II has proven to be no exception to the rule. The late pontiff has been credited with everything from defeating communism to healing the age-old rift between Catholics and Jews, just as he faces legitimate criticism for everything from undermining the fight against AIDS by preaching against the use of condoms to consigning the women of the church to second-class citizenship.

The legacy of a pope who served twenty-six years, five months and seventeen days--longer than all the popes in history, save St. Peter and the nineteenth-century pontiff Pius IX--will, of course, be subject to debate. Wise souls will for centuries ponder the accomplishments and the missteps of the man who began his earthly journey as a Polish boy named Karol Jozef Wojtyla and ended it as one of the most recognized and respected figures in the world.

But one aspect of this pope's legacy is not up for debate. During John Paul II's pontificate, the Catholic Church closed the loophole that had served as all-too-many justifications for the taking of the lives of prisoners of the state. New Orleans Archbishop Francis Schulte said the change opened up "a whole new area (of consideration) for many Catholics." Sister Helen Prejean described it as a "Seismic shift" in church teaching. That shift had a profound influence on former Illinois Governor George Ryan, who declared the capital punishment system in Illinois "broken," and commuted the sentences of all 167 inmates sitting on death row in Illinois jails in 2003. And it continues to be felt today, as the US Conference of Catholic Bishops wages a newly launched national campaign to end the use of the death penalty in the United States.

There will be many grand eulogies to mark the passing of Pope John Paul II. But none will be more eloquent than the ongoing campaign to bar the barbaric practice of state-sponsored execution. Perhaps John Paul II was not the most modern pope, but he recognized the progress of society and moral teaching when he preached that, "Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform."

WMD Commission Stonewalls

The stonewall continues.

On Thursday, President Bush's commission on weapons of mass destruction intelligence released a 692-page report that harshly criticizes the US intelligence establishment. It notes that "the Intelligence Community was dead wrong in almost all of it pre-war judgments about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. This was a major intelligence failure." That's no news flash. The Senate intelligence committee issued a report last July that said the same. But like the Senate committee, Bush's commission--cochaired by Judge Laurence Silberman, a Republican, and former Senator Chuck Robb, a Democrat--ignored a key issue: whether Bush and his aides overstated and misrepresented the flawed intelligence they received from the intelligence agencies. As I wrote about days ago, Senator Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the intelligence committee, promised last summer that his committee would investigate the administration's prewar use (or abuse) of the WMD intelligence after the 2004 election, but more recently Roberts backed away from that vow, claiming such an inquiry would now be pointless. The commission, which claimed it found no evidence that Bush officials pressured intelligence analysts to rig their reports, notes in a footnote,

Our review has been limited by our charter to the question of alleged policymaker pressure on the Intelligence Community to shape its conclusions to conform to the policy preferences of the Administration. There is a separate issue of how policymakers used the intelligence they were given and how they reflected it in their presentations to Congress and the public. That issue is not within our charter and we therefore did not consider it nor do we express a view on it.

So two years after Bush launched the invasion of Iraq, there still has been no official inquiry into how he and his lieutenants handled the prewar intelligence. The question is whether Bush and other administration officials exaggerated the intelligence community's overstatements. And the evidence suggests they did. Bush claimed Saddam Hussein was "dealing with" al Qaeda before the war, but the CIA had not reported that. Bush said Hussein had amassed a "massive stockpile" of biological weapons, yet the intelligence community had only reported (errantly) that Iraq had an active research and development program for biological weapons. Bush and his Republican allies in Congress have so far succeeded in keeping his role in the WMD scandal out of the picture. (Democrats, where are you?)

The presidential WMD commission found numerous problems within the intelligence community. It says, "we still know disturbingly little about the weapons programs and even less about the intentions of many of our most dangerous adversaries." (This is bad news for anyone who wants to bomb Iran or North Korea.) The report is mostly depressing, as it describes severe dysfunctions within the intelligence establishment. But the commission casts little, if any, blame toward the person ultimately responsible for the intelligence community: the president of the United States. And the current president even bestowed upon former CIA director George Tenet, who was at the helm during this period of screw-ups, the presidential Medal of Freedom. (Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz received one, too. And yesterday the Rand Corporation released a report concluding that his Pentagon failed to plan adequately for the aftermath of the Iraq invasion. The Rand study says that stabilization and reconstruction issues "were addressed only very generally" and "no planning was undertaken to ensure the security of the Iraqi people.")

The WMD commission took only a few modest steps toward addressing--in the most general terms--the role played by Bush and the policymakers in the Iraq WMD intelligence failure. For instance, the commission notes,

The Intelligence Community needs to be pushed. It will not do its best unless it is pressed by policymakers-sometimes to the point of discomfort. Analysts must be pressed to explain how much they don't know; the collection agencies must be pressed to explain why they don't have better information on key topics. While policymakers must be prepared to credit intelligence that doesn't fit their preferences, no important intelligence assessment should be accepted without sharp questioning that forces the community to explain exactly how it came to that assessment and what alternatives might also be true.

It's obvious that Bush did not push the intelligence services in this fashion. As the White House has conceded, Bush did not even read the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq produced in October 2002. This was the intelligence community's ultimate summary of its intelligence on Iraq. A close reading of the document could have led Bush or national security adviser Condoleezza Rice (who also did not read the 90-page paper) to raise the sort of questions the commission suggests. But that did not happen. When Silberman was asked at a press conference if Bush had been inquisitive enough, he referred to a passage in Bob Woodward's latest book in which Bush is depicted asking Tenet if the intelligence is sound and Tenet maintains it is a "slam-dunk." That clearly was not good enough.

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Don't forget about DAVID CORN's BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on the Terri Schiavo affair, Bush's screwed-up budget for homeland defense, and other matters.

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The commission also observes,

The analysts who worked Iraqi weapons issues universally agreed that in no instance did political pressure cause them to skew or alter any of their analytical judgments. That said, it is hard to deny the conclusion that intelligence analysts worked in an environment that did not encourage skepticism about the conventional wisdom.

The commission suggests that it is partly the responsibility of the president to guarantee that conventional wisdom is questioned. But Bush did no such thing. With this report, the CIA is again cast as the fall guy. And Bush escapes merrily.

A government nonproliferation expert with experience dealing with intelligence analysts, who has read the report, sent me his/her assessment. This source asked to go unnamed, fearing retribution at the workplace for publicly blasting the report. Below is an excerpt of his/her analysis:

[The commission] focuses on how and why the dogs barked [and got it wrong]. The real point, however, is: why didn't someone look out the window? And why have no policymakers taken responsibility, anywhere, for drastically wrong assessments on Iraq?

The Commission's report is a good read and thorough. The recommendations -- to collect better intelligence, do better analysis, and communicate better -- however, reflect the absurdity of having intelligence experts tell each other how to do their job better. The users of intelligence should be involved. The Commission had 60 staff members, but only three have identifiable expertise in nonproliferation and none have nonproliferation policy experience. Why didn't the Commission include more nonproliferation experts?

There are lots of reasons....The Commission was appointed by the president and it is politically easier for this administration to focus on intelligence rather than policy failures, for obvious reasons. Nonproliferation experts might point out that even though the intelligence was flawed, someone with enough nonproliferation experience would have asked more questions. Despite the fascinating details of how and why the intelligence on uranium from Niger was faulty, an expert would point out that there were tons of natural and low-enriched uranium already in Iraq: even if Iraq got uranium from Niger, it wouldn't make a discernible difference in the quantity it could enrich. Iraq's first choice would be to take the safeguarded material (just as it planned to do before the 1991 war) and use that. Faster and less complicated. A nonproliferation expert would also know that the CIA's arguments that Iraq was reconstituting its cadre of nuclear weapons personnel were an old, tired mantra repeated since the early 1990s. In interagency meetings ten years ago, I used to ask them, what evidence do you have? "Well," the analysts would say, "we think he's doing it." Apparently their evidence never got any better.

For Bush--or the commission--to say he was misled by the intelligence community is not a sufficient explanation or defense. First, Bush didn't ensure the intelligence he received was solid. Then he and his lieutenants repeatedly said in public that the intelligence was beyond doubt, and they made dramatic assertions about the supposed threat presented by Hussein's WMDs that went far beyond what the intelligence (wrongly) claimed. In keeping the spotlight exclusively on the intelligence gang and not turning it also on the policymakers at the White House, the WMD commission has served Bush well, but not the public.

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