Friday, December 01, 2006

Killer whales indeed

I have at least a little sympathy for the main argument offered by the marine-park industry in favor of keeping wild killer whales captive: that they provide whole generations of children, and the public in general, with an up-close, concrete appreciation for these animals.

After all, I can date my own daughter's love of all things orca back to a visit to SeaWorld in San Diego we made back in the spring of 2003. At all of 20 months old then, she wanted mostly to spend the day at the big glass windows to the orca tanks, and of course I had to buy the stuffed orca doll. Even today her toy and book collections are riddled with killer whales.

And give the seaquariums credit: it was their exposure of orcas to the public through such venues that transformed the public perception of them from that of dangerous killers to cuddly sea mammals.

We were reminded this week, however, that the friendlier stereotype can be nearly as destructive, and that you cuddle them at your mortal peril: like Peter Pan's mermaids, "They'll sweetly drown you if you get too close." A SeaWorld orca named Kasatka injured her trainer with an unexpected display of threatening behavior:
Park trainers were examining the whale, a female orca named Kasatka, and trying to determine what made her grab her trainer, Ken Peters, Koontz said.

... Peters, 39, remained hospitalized with a broken foot after the whale grabbed him and twice held him underwater during a show. He had a fractured metatarsal in his left foot but was in good spirits, Koontz said.

Peters was hurt around 5 p.m. Wednesday during the final show of the day at Shamu Stadium, a 36-foot-deep tank.

The show's finale called for Kasatka to shoot out of the water so Peters could dive off her nose. The whale is about 17 feet long and weighs well over 5,000 pounds.

As several hundred spectators watched, the whale and trainer plunged underwater, where Kasatka grabbed Peters by the foot and held him for less than a minute before surfacing, Koontz said.

"The trainer was being pinned by the whale at the bottom of the pool," Karen Ingrande told KGTV-TV.

When they came up, Peters tried to calm the animal by rubbing and stroking its back but it grabbed him and plunged down again for about another minute.

What's noteworthy about this is that Kasatka was exerting a high level of reciprocal control over the situation. A killer whale could snuff out the life of its trainer at almost any given moment: its jaws are capable of crushing large mammals to death instantaneously. Their tails are also capable of delivering crushing blows. If Kasatka had meant to harm Peters, she could have done so easily.

In spite of the incident, Kasatka was back performing today, and whale experts agreed that it was difficult to tell what set her off:
Some experts agree the 30-year-old orca simply may have been having a bad day.

Kasatka may have been put out by a spat with another whale, grumpy because of the weather or even just irritable from a stomachache, they speculated.

"Some mornings they just wake up not as willing to do the show as others," said Ken Balcomb, the director of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Wash. "If the trainer doesn't recognize it's not a good day, this will happen."

The Humane Society of the United States, which opposes keeping orcas in captivity, issued a statement Thursday suggesting SeaWorld may one day have to kill a whale to save a person's life.

"Simply put, keeping these powerful and intelligent marine mammals in captivity and allowing people to swim with them is utterly inappropriate," said Naomi A. Rose, marine mammal scientist for the society.

Rose has more than a point, because the double-edged sword of public exposure to captive orcas is that we get to see all too clearly that keeping these large wild animals penned up in limited concrete tanks is not good for the animals. And even worse is forcing them to perform stunts for the sake of entertaining crowds of people.

Certainly, that was our experience. Having seen them in the wild, I was disturbed by the limited nature of the captive orcas' existences: circling, circling, circling constantly in a featureless concrete tank whose sides constantly echo. For a creature whose primary mode of perception -- its echolocation -- is predicated on sound, seaquarium life must represent a kind of sterile hell. Particularly for a creature accustomed to roaming open seas at will. As much as I was pleased with her interest, I was disquieted by what we saw the orcas forced to endure.

It's not that I'm opposed to viewing wildlife in captivity -- we are frequent Woodland Park Zoo visitors as well. It's also knowing, from watching the Keiko saga up close, just how exceptional these animals are. Many animals are in zoos because they were injured and rehabilitated; for most of them, return to the wild is out of the question. For killer whales, it's the question.

Keiko -- who was a particularly bad choice for any effort to return to the wild, since he was captured at such a young age he had no hunting skills, and his family group was completely unknown -- overcame tremendous odds in any event and proved himself capable of living in the wild for the better part of a year, until he succumbed to disease. If Keiko could do it without familial support (which is usually critical to orcas' survivability), then there are a number of other candidates whose family groups we have identified -- notably Miami Seaquarium's Lolita and SeaWorld's Corky -- whose chances of success seem vastly better.

The case of Lolita is especially egregious; her decrepit tank in Miami is smaller than the tank in Mexico from which Keiko was so famously rescued. Since she was captured at age 7 and probably still has at least some hunting skills; since she still uses her L pod family calls; since we know almost precisely which family group (the L25 subpod) she belongs to; and since, at age 44, she is still in the middle of life (females in the wild can live to 90 years old) and in fine health; for all these reasons, she is one of the prime candidates for the return of a killer whale to the wild.

Note in the photo of Lolita above how her trainer is riding her; this practice has in subsequent years been stopped. But it was while performing a similar kind of stunt at SeaWorld that Kasatka injured her trainer.

This underscores, as many whale experts already know, that orcas really do not like to be ridden. Yet SeaWorld evidently persists in these kinds of performances. And that raises even more serious questions about making orcas perform for crowds generally. Marine-park owners and trainers insist that the orcas like it; but there are many indications that the rote nature of the performances may just be stifling and aggravating to the orcas, who are intellectually playful by nature. Certainly the sterile, cramped life inside the tanks is stifling for them. And eventually, some of them act out.

Though there has never been a recorded attack by a wild killer whale on a human, that is decidedly not the case in captivity. Erich Hoyt has documented the negative effects of captivity on killer whales and dolphins, and he vividly recalls the one case, here in the Puget Sound, where a captive orca actually killed its trainer, in circumstances horrifyingly similar to this week's incident:
On February 20, 1991, University of Victoria marine biology student and part-time trainer Keltie Byrne, 20, slipped and fell into the orca pool at Sealand of the Pacific. She had just finished a show with the three orcas. Since Sealand trainers stay out of the water, she was not wearing a wetsuit. One whale took her in its mouth and began dragging her around the pool, mostly underwater. A champion swimmer who had competed at the international level, she was no match for three huge orcas determined to keep her in the pool. At one point she reached the side and tried to climb out but, as horrified visitors watched from the sidelines, the whales pulled her screaming back into the pool.

"I just heard her scream my name," said trainer Karen McGee, 25, and then I saw she was in the pool with the whales. "I threw the life-ring out to her. She was trying to grab the ring, but the whale, basically, wouldn't let her. To them it was a play session, and she was in the water." McGee and other Sealand staff tried to distract the whales by throwing them fish, banging on the water with steel buckets and giving them hand and voice commands. Nothing worked. Byrne came up screaming one more time and then, as the whale swam round and round the pool with Byrne in its mouth, she finally drowned. It was several hours before her body could be recovered.

She had ten tooth marks on her body, the largest on her left thigh, but was otherwise untouched. The whales had stripped her clothes off. "It was just a tragic accident," Sealand manager Alejandro Bolz told newspaper reporters. "I just cannot explain it."

There have been dozens of similar incidents, all dismissed as "isolated incidents." One of the earliest was at SeaWorld:
In March 1987, at Sea World in San Diego, Jonathan Smith, 21, was in the water performing with the orcas before several thousand cheering spectators crowded into Shamu Stadium. A six-ton orca suddenly grabbed him in its teeth, dove to the bottom of the tank, then carried him bleeding to the surface and spat him out. Smith gallantly waved to the crowd - which he attributed to his training as a Sea World performer - when a second orca slammed into him. He continued to pretend he was unhurt as the whales repeatedly dragged him 32 feet (9.8 m) to the bottom of the pool, as if trying to drown him. He was cut all around the torso, had a ruptured kidney and a six-inch (15-cm) laceration on his liver, yet he managed to escape and get out of the pool.

... In recent years, with the proliferation of cheap video cameras, a number of incidents have been recorded. They range from bitings and collisions to near drownings when whales have held trainers underwater. Many of these dangerous incidents happened when the trainers were riding whales around the pool. Some former trainers such as Graeme Ellis believe that orcas, in general, do not like to be ridden. "They may tolerate it when they're young or new to captivity," says Ellis, "but later, it can lead to problems." Yet most marine parks still feature trainers riding orcas during the shows.

We made one more visit to SeaWorld in 2004, which included a "dinner with Corky" that was more disturbing for my daughter than fun. After that I was determined to make sure that when my daughter saw orcas in the future, it would be in the wild, where they belonged. And I've followed through on that.

I'm not entirely opposed to limited captivity for killer whales, because I do recognize that they serve a genuinely educational purpose. Certainly, for orcas born in captivity, a return to the wild is not an option. Paul Spong has proposed replacing the current captivity system with an "ambassadors" program under which a limited number of whales are captured annually for a short number of years and then returned to their families; while not ideal, it would be superior to the current system, under which orcas from communities that are not as thoroughly studied as those in the Pacific Northwest -- notably those in Iceland -- are still commonly and wantonly captured for marine parks.

The marine-park industry owes it to the animals themselves to make a good-faith effort to facilitate a return to the wild for those animals that are potential candidates; and they owe it to the species to subsidize the research necessary to assess the impact of their captures on those communities (such as those in Iceland and the Antarctic) where killer whales are still being taken.

Unfortunately, the industry has been steadily opposed to any measures even potentially leading in this direction, which tends to underscore that the high-minded environmentalism they sell alongside their cuddly dolls is really just for show, like the orcas: the bottom line is still the bottom line.

Which is why incidents like this week's will crop up from time to time. These "isolated incidents" will continue until the public takes note of the real problems -- both behavioral and ethical -- posed by forcing killer whales to perform stunts for public entertainment.

Let's face it: killer whales would still enthrall and entice and educate children simply by being themselves in captivity. The performances serve no real purpose except to make money for the marine parks. Cutting them out might dilute the parks' bottom line, but it would make their captivity at least a little less stultifying and difficult.

Marine parks are a fine idea -- if executed with the animals' well-being first in mind. But the public needs to demand they do so.

Immigrants and crime

One of the key components of eliminationist rhetoric is the demonization of the target group by associating it with crime and violence. It was a staple of both Nativist and lynching-era rhetoric against immigrants and blacks. And it continues today in the debate over Latino immigration.

Probably no one this side of Tom Tancredo has been more assiduous in associating illegal immigrants with crime than Rep. Steve King, the far-right Republican from Iowa. The Carpetbagger Report points out that King is now claiming that illegal immigrants kill 12 Americans daily:
Twelve Americans are murdered every day by illegal aliens, according to statistics released by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa. If those numbers are correct, it translates to 4,380 Americans murdered annually by illegal aliens. That's 21,900 since Sept. 11, 2001.

This news was heralded by World Net Daily, which ran with this nugget of "data" to further extrapolate the incendiary charge that the government has been releasing "terror threat" immigrants into the general population.

Where did this "data" come from?

Steve King's ass, apparently.

It first appears in one of his patented anti-immigrant screeds at his House Web site:
What would that May 1st look like without illegal immigration? There would be no one to smuggle across our southern border the heroin, marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamines that plague the United States, reducing the U.S. supply of meth that day by 80%. The lives of 12 U.S. citizens would be saved who otherwise die a violent death at the hands of murderous illegal aliens each day. Another 13 Americans would survive who are otherwise killed each day by uninsured drunk driving illegals. Our hospital emergency rooms would not be flooded with everything from gunshot wounds, to anchor babies, to imported diseases to hangnails, giving American citizens the day off from standing in line behind illegals. Eight American children would not suffer the horror as a victim of a sex crime.

Funny thing about this "data": A year ago, King was claiming that the number was twenty-five Americans killed daily by illegal immigrants. And that figure is what a number of King's fellow nativists still like to bandy about.

Statistically speaking, of course, there is a huge difference between 12 and 25 murders daily. So which is it? Well, probably neither.

Colorado Media Matters reports that King cooked up the original "25 per day" figure by misreading government data:
But rather than asserting that the GAO reported this figure, King claimed in May to have "extrapolate[d]" it from a GAO study he requested that, he said, showed that 28 percent of inmates in federal, state, and local prisons and jails are "criminal aliens."

There is no GAO study reporting that 25 Americans per day are killed by illegal immigrants. Moreover, Colorado Media Matters has reviewed GAO reports addressed to King as well as figures released by the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and has found no support for his assertion that 28 percent of inmates in all prisons and jails are criminal aliens.

Indeed, the real numbers are under 7 percent:
However, data from the BJS suggest that the percentage of prisoners who are criminal aliens, at least at the federal and state levels, is far lower than King claimed. According to the BJS, 6.4 percent of all state and federal inmates at midyear 2005 were "noncitizens" -- not just illegal immigrants -- down from 6.5 percent in 2004, 6.6 percent in 2003, and 6.9 percent in 2002.

Even Captain Ed was able to sniff out that King's claims are utterly bogus.

But that never stopped a Republican demagogue before.

Government stenographers vs. journalists

The right-wing blogosphere is still whipping up a froth over the the Associated Press' reportage on the immolations of six Sunnis last week in Iraq. What's especially noteworthy about this is their selective credulousness -- especially considering that some of them claim either to be journalists themselves or knowledgeable stewards of journalistic standards.

Military authorities on Thursday went on the offensive, claiming that there is no police captain by the name -- Jamil Hussein -- given by the AP reports. Michelle Malkin typed up the details provided by the military press office:
BG Abdul-Kareem, the Ministry of Interior Spokesman, went on the record today stating that Capt. Jamil Hussein is not a police officer. He explained the coordinations among MOI, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Defense in attempting to track down these bodies and their joint conclusion was that this was unsubstantiated rumor.

He went on to name several other false sources that have been used recently and appealed to the media to document their news before reporting. He went into some detail about the impact of the press carrying propaganda for the enemies of Iraq and thanked "the friends" who have brought this to their attention.

AP did attend the press conference.

Of course, Malkin considers all this further evidence of "reckless" reporting by the AP, though of course she has never been an on-the-ground reporter -- or editor -- herself. And like all the other would-be media critics in this matter, her eagerness to parrot the government line in this case is noteworthy -- especially since they all are notably skeptical of the government when it suits their own agendas.

But as this case demonstrates, defending an increasingly indefensible war boils down to accusing the press reporting on the disaster of treasonous behavior, including running false reports that amount to "carrying propaganda for the enemies of Iraq." Even if it's the military authorities doing so -- and right-wing bloggers taking their reports at face value -- without a trace of irony.

The basic attitude was voiced by Hindrocket at Powerline:
I have infinitely more faith in the U.S. military than in the Associated Press, but that doesn't mean the military is always right or the AP always wrong. It seems that the AP believes it is in a strong position. I'm tempted to say that one institution or the other must emerge from this affair with its credibility damaged.

In cases like this, the truth always will out, even if it is then often conveniently forgotten by those who are proven wrong. Certainly, it is possible -- as the right-wing commenters at Tom Zeller's NYT blog avidly ascertained -- that Hussein "is in fact a fraud, and never existed," though it is far more unlikely than people working outside of journalism might assume.

On the other hand, consider the AP's own reportage: After questions about Hussein arose, their reporters -- who had dealt with him several times over the years in his official capacity at a local police station -- found three more independent witnesses who confirmed the immolations.

The AP had its own response to the military's claims, as E&P reported:
Today brought the Baghdad press conference and the Iraqi official, Brig. Gen. Abdu-Karim Khalaf, charging that Capt. Hussein was not a Baghdad police officer -- and denounding media reports based on unconfirmed sources and what he said were mere rumors. Carroll then responded with her statement.

After stating that AP was "satisfied" with its reporting, she continued: "AP journalists have repeatedly been to the Hurriyah neighborhood, a small Sunni enclave within a larger Shiia area of Baghdad. Residents there have told us in detail about the attack on the mosque and that six people were burned alive during it. Images taken later that day and again this week show a burned mosque and graffiti that says 'blood wanted,' similar to that found on the homes of Iraqis driven out of neighborhoods where they are a minority. We have also spoken repeatedly to a police captain who is known to AP and has been a reliable source of accurate information in the past and he has confirmed the attack.

"By contrast, the U.S. military and Iraqi government spokesmen attack our reporting because that captain's name is not on their list of authorized spokespeople. Their implication that we may have given money to the captain is false. The AP does not pay for information. Period.

"Further, the Iraqi spokesman said today that reporting on the such atrocities 'shows that the security situation is worse than it really is.' He is speaking from a capital city where dozens of bodies are discovered every day showing signs of terrible torture. Where people are gunned down in their cars, dragged from their homes or blown apart in public places every single day.

"At the end of the day, we have AP journalists with reporting and images from the actual neighborhood versus official spokesmen saying the story cannot be true because it is damaging and because one of the sources is not on a list of people approved to talk to the press. Good reporting relies on more than government-approved sources.

"We stand behind our reporting."

The AP is hardly a perfect institution; it makes mistakes like anyone else. It is also famously stodgy and deferential to institutional power, which makes it less likely to commit fraud on the scale that these critics claim. Their track record, especially in recent years, has been solid, particularly on the ground in Iraq.

This is in direct contradistinction from the track record of American military authorities in Iraq.

Remember the toppling of the Saddam statue? You know, the one that was faked for American media consumption?
As the Iraqi regime was collapsing on April 9, 2003, Marines converged on Firdos Square in central Baghdad, site of an enormous statue of Saddam Hussein. It was a Marine colonel — not joyous Iraqi civilians, as was widely assumed from the TV images — who decided to topple the statue, the Army report said. And it was a quick-thinking Army psychological operations team that made it appear to be a spontaneous Iraqi undertaking.

After the colonel — who was not named in the report — selected the statue as a "target of opportunity," the psychological team used loudspeakers to encourage Iraqi civilians to assist, according to an account by a unit member.

But Marines had draped an American flag over the statue's face.

"God bless them, but we were thinking … that this was just bad news," the member of the psychological unit said. "We didn't want to look like an occupation force, and some of the Iraqis were saying, 'No, we want an Iraqi flag!' "

Someone produced an Iraqi flag, and a sergeant in the psychological operations unit quickly replaced the American flag.

Or how about Jessica Lynch?
Some time after Lynch's rescue, several sources alleged the story of Lynch's rescue was distorted and exaggerated by the United States government in an effort to undercut public resistance to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Iraqi doctors at the hospital in question claimed Lynch was well cared for by hospital personnel and virtually unguarded at the time that she was rescued by American forces; rather, Lynch's "rescue" was a publicity stunt that was staged, and the subsequent news reports were carefully controlled propaganda, drawing on the captivity narrative genre. Though Pentagon statements claimed that Lynch emptied her rifle fighting off her attackers, later reports and Lynch herself indicated that this was not the case; in fact her rifle jammed on the first round and she did not offer any resistance to her capture. The story is now believed to have stemmed from the mistranslation of an intercepted Iraqi message which referred to one of her male fellow soldiers.

Amended reports by The Washington Post, which initially reported dramatic stories of Lynch's ordeal, indicated that U.S. officials made no attempt to downplay exaggerated or incorrect reports in the media. The dramatic rescue, with heavy force ready for an unknown situation, was videotaped at the request of military public affairs, who knew this would be a popular story. Iraqi doctors caring for Lynch told reporters that they gave Lynch the best care possible while she was kept at the hospital, and that they often bought juice that she asked for using their own money. They also said that they were not only frightened by the dramatic way US forces held them at gunpoint during the rescue, but that the forces also slashed the special sand bed that Lynch was given, the only such bed in the hospital (designed to prevent bed sores for patients suffering from serious burns) before sweeping out again. During the "raid", twelve doors were also kicked in and damaged, and a sterilized operating theatre was contaminated. No reports that the Iraqi hospital would be compensated for the damage were ever published. Doctors also claimed that Iraqi soldiers had left the hospital the morning before the rescue.

... She denied the claims that she fought until being wounded, reporting that her weapon jammed immediately, and that she could not have done anything anyway. Interviewed with Diane Sawyer, Lynch stated, concerning the Pentagon: "They used me to symbolize all this stuff. It's wrong. I don't know why they filmed [my rescue] or why they say these things". She also stated "I did not shoot, not a round, nothing. I went down praying to my knees. And that's the last I remember." She reported excellent treatment in Iraq, and that one person in the hospital even sang to her to help her feel at home.

And then there was Fallujah:
What the US said

Napalm/Mark 77s

The Pentagon denied reports it had used napalm, saying it had last used the weapon in 1993 and destroyed its last batch in 2001. "We don't even have that in our arsenal."

Cluster bombs

General Richard Myers, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said coalition forces dropped nearly 1,500 cluster bombs during the war and only 26 fell within 1,500ft of civilian areas.

White Phosphorus

"[WP was used] very sparingly in Fallujah, for illumination. They were fired into the air to illuminate enemy positions at night, not at enemy fighters." US State Department

How the US came clean

Napalm/Mark 77s

It took five months for the US to admit its marines had used Mk 77 firebombs (a close relative of napalm) in the invasion. The Pentagon said their functions were "remarkably similar".

Cluster bombs

General Myers admitted: "In some cases, we hit those targets knowing there would be a chance of collateral damage." It was "unfortunate" that "we had to make these choices".

White Phosphorus

Pentagon spokesman Lt-Col Barry Venable said this week that WP had been used, "to fire at the enemy" in Iraq. "It burns... it's an incendiary weapon. That is what it does."

And let's not forget the case of Pat Tillman:
A report described in the Washington Post on May 4, 2005 (prepared upon the request of Tillman's family) by Brig. Gen. Gary M. Jones revealed that in the days immediately following Tillman's death, U.S. Army investigators were aware that Tillman was killed by friendly fire, shot three times to the head. Jones reported that senior Army commanders, including Gen. John Abizaid, knew of this fact within days of the shooting but nevertheless approved the awarding of the Silver Star, Purple Heart, and a posthumous promotion. The citation report accompanying these awards said that Tillman was killed by enemy forces and contained a detailed account of the alleged battle which Army leadership knew had never taken place.

Jones reported that members of Tillman's unit burned his body armor and uniform in an apparent attempt to hide the fact that he was killed by friendly fire. Several soldiers were subsequently punished for their actions by being removed from their Ranger unit. Jones believed that Tillman should retain his medals and promotion, since he intended to engage the enemy and, in Jones's opinion, behaved heroically.

Tillman's family was not informed of the finding that he was killed by friendly fire until weeks after his memorial service, although at least some senior Army officers knew of that fact prior to the service. Tillman's parents have sharply criticized the Army's handling of the incident; they charge that the Army was more concerned about protecting its image and its recruiting efforts than about telling the truth.

His mother Mary Tillman told the Washington Post, "The fact that he was the ultimate team player and he watched his own men kill him is absolutely heartbreaking and tragic. The fact that they lied about it afterward is disgusting." Tillman's father, Patrick Tillman, Sr., was incensed by the coverup of the cause of his son's death, which he attributed to a conscious decision by the leadership of the U.S. Army to protect the Army's image:

"After it happened, all the people in positions of authority went out of their way to script this. They purposely interfered with the investigation; they covered it up. I think they thought they could control it, and they realized that their recruiting efforts were going to go to hell in a handbasket if the truth about his death got out. They blew up their poster boy."

He also blamed high-ranking Army officers for presenting "outright lies" to the family and to the public.

And then there were the killings at Haditha:
On November 20, 2005 a Marine press release from Camp Blue Diamond in Ramadi said the deaths of the civilians was a consequence of a road side bomb and Iraqi insurgents. The initial US military statement read:

A US marine and 15 civilians were killed yesterday from the blast of a roadside bomb in Haditha. Immediately following the bombing, gunmen attacked the convoy with small arms fire. Iraqi army soldiers and marines returned fire, killing eight insurgents and wounding another.

Soon after the killings, the mayor of Haditha, Emad Jawad Hamza, led an angry delegation of elders up to the Haditha Dam Marine base allegedly complaining to the base captain.

Marines paid a total of $38,000 to families of 15 of the civilians killed. [8]

... On February 14, 2006, a preliminary investigation was ordered by Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, after video evidence was released, which conflicted with the initial US report. On March 9 a criminal investigation was launched, led by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, to determine if the troops deliberately targeted Iraqi civilians.

On March 19, the US military officials confirmed that contrary to the initial report, 15 civilians were accidentally killed due to the US marines and not Iraqi insurgents.

... As of June 2, 2006, news outlets had reported that 24 Iraqis were killed, none as a result of the bomb explosion. The news comes in anticipation of the results of the military's investigation, which is said to find that the 24 unarmed Iraqis—including children as young as two years and women—were killed by 12 members of Kilo Company in the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.

Of course, Malkin dismissed the original reporting on Haditha as so much "hyperventilation" and attacked "the leakers," and when her story collapsed, she still managed to blame those dirty liberals. Powerline blamed Jack Murtha.

The cold reality, backed up by case after case, is that the information being released by the American military in Iraq for the duration of this misbegotten war has been not merely PR on steroids, but a psy ops operation targeting the Iraqi population only tangentially. Its chief target all along has been the American public.

The first people to come into conflict with such operatations have always been journalists, particularly those trying honestly to do their jobs. This has always been the case, and will always be so.

What's new in the mix is all the Cheetos-stained wretches back home whose "independence" leads them to swallow whole the story offered by government authorities with a proven track record of propagating false information.

And here we thought stenography was a problem with the press corps. It's got nothing on the right-wing blogosphere.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

'Boys will be boys'

-- Dave

I'm not sure how this slipped through the cracks, but I recently came across the following hate-crime case out of Bonners Ferry, Idaho, that happened earlier this month. The news is disheartening, to say the least.

The original Bill Morlin story is here. The AP story containing full details of the case, mostly culled from Morlin's reportage, have been scrubbed from the Web, but I have a copy of it, so here it is:
BONNERS FERRY, Idaho (AP) -- Northern Idaho human rights groups are decrying a 20-day sentence given to a man who picked up and then dropped a 17-year-old girl too close to a bonfire and whose words, the groups say, made the actions a hate crime.

"This is not Nazi Germany, it's Idaho in the United States of America," said Marshall Mend, a member of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations.

"We witnessed a shocking miscarriage of justice at the Boundary County Court House," the Boundary County Human Rights Task Force said in a prepared statement.

Brian Todd Davis, 21, was sentenced Wednesday to 20 days on a work detail by visiting 1st District Magistrate Debra Heise.

Davis initially faced a felony aggravated battery complaint before agreeing to a plea bargain Friday and pleading guilty to battery, a simple misdemeanor.

Some witnesses testified at Friday's hearing that at a beer keg party on July 27, Davis picked up Ilaura Fleck and said Fleck's father was Catholic and her mother was Muslim and "that makes you a Jew. All Jews should burn" and then threw Fleck into a bonfire on Katka Mountain in Boundary County.

But Davis' friend, Jock Desmaria, testified that Davis and Fleck "were joking around" and that he saw Davis "set down the victim" near the bonfire after picking her up.

Heise ruled that Fleck wasn't thrown into the fire but fell into the flames after being dropped on a log. She also ruled that a hate crime wasn't involved because Fleck isn't Jewish, The Spokesman-Review reported.

"The words used here are hate-filled but have to be examined in context," Heise said. "The words were stupid. The words were mindless, but this was not a hate crime."

She also said that "boys will be boys."

Heise did not immediately return a telephone call Friday from The Associated Press.

Fleck, who could need reconstructive surgery, suffered first- and second-degree burns on her legs, arm and buttocks.

"I honestly don't believe justice was served here," said Fleck. "What happened to me was a hate crime."

Mend said: "We have a hate crime law, and that was a hate crime when he said to her, 'Jews burn.' It's a hate crime whether she's Jewish or not."

Heise ordered restitution for Fleck's medical bills, which will be determined later.

Davis apologized in a written statement read by his attorney, Bryce W. Powell. Davis declined to comment after the sentencing.

Fleck's father, Joe Fleck, has filed a complaint with the Idaho Bar Association because the attorney he hired works in the same Sandpoint law office where the attorney who defended Davis works. Joe Fleck contends that helped Davis avoid a felony conviction because the defense received information to fight the criminal trial.

Also, Ilaura Fleck said she thought that Davis' sentence was influenced by the fact that Davis' stepfather, Mark Strangio, used to work in law enforcement in Boundary and Bonner counties, where Heise presides. Strangio resigned in May and is now working for a private contractor in Iraq.

Ilaura Fleck's mother, Haleema, said: "Justice has not been served. This is just the beginning. We're not done fighting yet."

Just on the merits of the law, it's clear from the facts of the case that:
A: Fleck was the victim of an assault that caused her to be burned, regardless of the "joking" intent.

B: The perpetrator committed the assault with a bias motivation, regardless whether it was accurate or not.

There are, it should be noted, numerous hate crimes committed annually in which the perpetrator is mistaken in the identity of the victim: non-Jews are assaulted because they were believed to be Jewish, non-Muslims are assaulted for supposedly being Muslim, non-gays are mistakenly assaulted for being gay. Yet these are all specifically hate crimes, not the least reason for which is that the terroristic intent of the crime -- to send a "message" to the larger target community -- is fully intact.

The Spokesman-Review's editorial was on point here:
The sentence was woefully inadequate, regardless of whether Davis' actions and comments meet the criteria for a hate crime. A teenage girl suffered first- and second-degree burns on her legs, arm and buttocks and faces extensive reconstructive surgery as a result of the thuggish assault. Heise's dismissive attitude toward this heinous crime raises serious questions about her judgment. So does her decision that a hate crime didn't occur because the victim wasn't Jewish. The favorable treatment given the witness by local law officers and a possible conflict of interest involving the defense attorney raise more questions.

It's especially unfortunate that this kind of hate crime is varnished over in a place like the Idaho Panhandle, which is still struggling to emerge from the shadow of having been host to the Aryan Nations for over a generation. Even worse is the judge's incredibly poor reasoning, which one hopes will be overturned on appeal, if the victims and the county choose to pursue it.

Rural areas in general, as I argue at length in my second book, Death on the Fourth of July: The Story of a Killing, a Trial, and Hate Crime in America, are particularly vulnerable to hate crimes -- both to playing host to them, and to being victimized by them:
There is a deep irony that resides in the typical response of small towns like Ocean Shores and Aberdeen to the phenomenon of hate crimes: Even as they run in terror-stricken denial from facing up to the crimes -- what Donald Green calls "the embarrassment factor" -- they are themselves chief among the victims.

The main theoretical justification for hate-crime laws -- which typically enhance punishment for crimes committed with a bias motivation -- is that the acts cause greater harm than the simple crimes (say, assault and battery or vandalism) that they resemble. Most of the time, this expanded harm is viewed in the context of the direct victim (who is usually traumatized to a considerably greater extent), the target community (that is, the minorities who typically are terrorized by the crimes), or society at large, which finds its goals of racial equity and social justice undermined by these kinds of acts.

What often goes unremarked, though, is that the communities in which the crimes occur are victimized by them as well. "It is one thing when groups are rightfully identified with the immediate offenders, for example, the association of a bias crime offender who is a member of a Skinhead organization with other members of that organization," observes Frederick Lawrence in Punishing Hate: Bias Crimes Under American Law. "It is quite another when groups [or communities] are wrongfully identified with the immediate offenders. ... In addition to generating concern and anger over lawlessness and the perceived ineffectuality of law enforcement that often follow a parallel crime . . . a single bias crime may ignite intense and long-standing inter-community tensions."

As I explained a little later, rural hate crime also has the broader effect of making those kinds of communities inhospitable to minorities:
The significant difference in the rural and urban response to bias crimes is how it affects the cultural landscape. Rural hate crimes make minorities even more apprehensive about setting foot in such places, just as urban black-on-white hate crimes compound the already common misgivings of whites in the surrounding areas about visiting the city. Likewise, the failure to adequately deal with hate crimes compounds and widens that mistrust, on all sides.

In real-world terms, there is a profound effect arising from the geographical and demographic differences between urban and rural America. The urban world, because it represents the majority of the nation's population, tends to dominate its cultural life. But cities and suburbs represent only a tiny portion of the nation's total landscape. When you get out a map and look at America, its mass is dominated by its cultural rural half. There are many more rural places in the United States than urban or suburban.

When hate crimes erupt, the racial and cultural discord they sow manifests itself in a kind of balkanization of the country: their respective target communities feel unsafe or disinclined to travel there, even in passing. For minorities who are cut off from white rural America, though, this effect is multiplied exponentially by the extent of the landscape which has become off-limits to them. This is what African American journalist Lynne Varner meant when she wrote, "Suddenly, the country seems a lot smaller."

Hate-crime expert Donald Green puts it this way: "If you had to kind of step back and ask, does hate crime pay? You'd say yes." If, as Green argues, this effect is to create "a massive deadweight loss of freedom," then it is incumbent on all Americans, right and left, urban and rural, regular citizens and law-enforcement officials, to take them seriously—to finally, after generations of grappling with the problem, grasp its enormity and bring it to heel. At some point, the debate over hate crimes must evolve beyond meaningless and distorted myths and mature into a serious discussion of how to wisely deal with them, through means that preserve our cherished rights to free speech while simultaneously standing up for the rights of equal opportunity essential for democratic society and against the bullies and thugs who would use violence to harm it.

Unfortunately, there are still small-town judges in places like Idaho who dismiss these kinds of acts as "boys will be boys." One can only hope that the Idaho Attorney General's office sees what's really at issue here.

The other kind of terror

-- Dave

Imagine, for a moment, what would have happened if a Muslim extremist with an apparent hatred of the American government had been apprehended in, say, Tennessee, and charged with plotting to blow up Congress with a briefcase bomb.

Do you suppose that the case would then be relegated to the back pages of the local papers? Do you suppose it would go unmentioned by the 101st Keyboard Kommandos in their ever-vigilant search for proof that the War on Terror is right here in our midst?

Of course not. You can be certain Fox News would have splashed the case across its broadcasts, and Michelle Malkin and Little Green Footballs would have been all over it.

Now consider the case of Demetrius "Van" Crocker, who just happens to be a white right-wing extremist:
Demetrius "Van" Crocker of McKenzie, convicted in April of attempting to obtain a chemical weapon and possession of stolen explosives, was sentenced to 30 years in prison Tuesday by U.S. District Judge James Todd in Jackson.

Crocker, who told undercover FBI agents of his desire to explode a briefcase bomb while Congress was in session, was found guilty by a jury in about 90 minutes in April.

The 40-year-old farmhand and father of two was convicted of accepting what he thought were ingredients to make Sarin nerve gas and a block of C-4 explosive from undercover agents in October 2004.

The maximum penalty Crocker could have faced for the convictions would have been a life sentence. Todd did order lifetime supervised release for Crocker once he gets out of prison.

In all, Crocker was convicted on five charges: one count of attempted possession of a chemical weapon, one count of inducing another person to acquire a chemical weapon, one count of possession of stolen explosives, one count of possession of explosive material with intent to harm an individual or damage or destroy a building, and one count of possession of an unregistered destructive device.

During the trial, prosecutors introduced video- and audio-taped conversations that Crocker had with undercover agents, laced with profanity, racial slurs and Crocker's open hatred of all things to do with the government.

Of course, this story is not even on the front page of the Jackson paper, so I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for any Fox coverage, either.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The fog of delusion

-- Dave

Bob Geiger has a little fun at the expense of those intrepid exposers of liberal-media perfidy in the right-wing blogosphere, particularly Michelle Malkin and Powerline:
And here we have so many conservative bloggers, after days of castigating the Associated Press for running what the wingnuts claimed was a fictitious story about six Sunnis being burned alive in sectarian violence in Iraq on Friday, having to once again face what a bunch of putzes they really are.

As Geiger notes, the most recent Associated Press story has confirmation not merely from the police captain but from independent eyewitnesses:
Seeking further information about Friday's attack, an AP reporter contacted Hussein for a third time about the incident to confirm there was no error. The captain has been a regular source of police information for two years and had been visited by the AP reporter in his office at the police station on several occasions. The captain, who gave his full name as Jamil Gholaiem Hussein, said six people were indeed set on fire.

On Tuesday, two AP reporters also went back to the Hurriyah neighborhood around the Mustafa mosque and found three witnesses who independently gave accounts of the attack. Others in the neighborhood said they were afraid to talk about what happened.

It continues with more details about the killings, including the burial of the bodies and the identity of at least one of the victims.

Mind you, this isn't the first time Malkin's predilection for accusing working journalists of unethical -- or even treasonous -- behavior on questionable grounds has been highlighted. As always, it raises real questions among journalists, at least, just what kind of "professional journalist" this is.

Because Malkin isn't merely questioning the data professionally: she flat-out accuses the Associated Press of running a phony story and being in cahoots with the terrorists in Iraq. She writes, with no sense of irony: "MSM credibility, R.I.P."

In this case, we'd have to create a new category: "Malkin credibility, E.S.D." [Extreme State of Decomposition] After all, her supposed professionalism has been a dubious matter from the beginning. Now its dessicated corpse is crumbling apart.

Even now, after her utter credulousness when it comes to right-wing disinformation out of Iraq has been exposed, she continues to label the "blabbermouth" New York Times as the "biggest terrorist propaganda tool" (complete with an echo-chamber poll to prove it!).

Meanwhile, in her meandering update to the Sunni-burning atrocity story, there's almost no recognition whatsoever that her entire thesis -- which was nothing less than a grossly incendiary accusation against the Associated Press -- has been blown to pieces.

What we get is this deeply insightful snippet:
Update: This is getting interesting.

No "looks like I might have been grossly mistaken, folks". No "I may owe the AP a big fat apology". Nope. Just "interesting."

To her credit, she at least publishes the AP's response:
The Associated Press denounces unfounded attacks on its story about six Sunni worshipers burned to death outside their mosque on Friday, November 24. The attempt to question the existence of the known police officer who spoke to the AP is frankly ludicrous and hints at a certain level of desperation to dispute or suppress the facts of the incident in question.

Yes, the 101st Keyboard Commandos have an infinitely better sense of what's truthful and what's not than actual reporters working on the ground in Iraq. See, those Cheetos stains have magical qualities.

You've especially gotta love Malkin's take:
Also interesting: AP's attitude toward those trying to verify its sources. "Frankly ludicrous," says Daniszewski.

It would be one thing, of course, if all the Keyboard Kommandos had done was try to verify AP's sources. But they didn't -- they, with Malkin and Powerline leading the charge, flatly accused the AP of fraudulent reporting and condemned them as having no credibility. Powerline accused them of "shamelessly" stoking "hysteria" about Iraq and said the report indicated "an abandonment of all journalistic standards" (as though they had any understanding themselves of such matters). Malkin informed journalists that they were "writing their own" obituary. Nice.

"Frankly ludicrous" was the nice description for this kind of atrocity. "Flagrantly delusional" would be more to the point.

Powerline's update plays this, in the headline, as a kind of gambling competition -- no doubt to more easily dismiss their own malfeasance, which has been their standard way of handling cases in which their own utter lack of credibility has been exposed. Their own update, at least, is slightly more forthcoming than Malkin's:
I have infinitely more faith in the U.S. military than in the Associated Press, but that doesn't mean the military is always right or the AP always wrong. It seems that the AP believes it is in a strong position. I'm tempted to say that one institution or the other must emerge from this affair with its credibility damaged. But perhaps it's just as likely that the facts will remain unresolved, lost in what sometimes seems like an epistemological fog. Or maybe it's just a fog of bad reporting.

Oh, it's a fog, all right. Or perhaps "blinkers" might be more appopriate.

You Don't Have To Be Crazy...But It Helps

Sara Robinson

Here's Andy Bromage, writing this week in the New Haven Advocate:
A collective “I told you so” will ripple through the world of Bush-bashers once news of Christopher Lohse’s study gets out.

Lohse, a social work master’s student at Southern Connecticut State University, says he has proven what many progressives have probably suspected for years: a direct link between mental illness and support for President Bush.

Lohse says his study is no joke. The thesis draws on a survey of 69 psychiatric outpatients in three Connecticut locations during the 2004 presidential election. Lohse’s study, backed by SCSU Psychology professor Jaak Rakfeldt and statistician Misty Ginacola, found a correlation between the severity of a person’s psychosis and their preferences for president: The more psychotic the voter, the more likely they were to vote for Bush.

But before you go thinking all your conservative friends are psychotic, listen to Lohse’s explanation.

“Our study shows that psychotic patients prefer an authoritative leader,” Lohse says. “If your world is very mixed up, there’s something very comforting about someone telling you, ‘This is how it’s going to be.’”

The study was an advocacy project of sorts, designed to register mentally ill voters and encourage them to go to the polls, Lohse explains. The Bush trend was revealed later on.

The study used Modified General Assessment Functioning, or MGAF, a 100-point scale that measures the functioning of disabled patients. A second scale, developed by Rakfeldt, was also used. Knowledge of current issues, government and politics were assessed on a 12-item scale devised by the study authors.

“Bush supporters had significantly less knowledge about current issues, government and politics than those who supported Kerry,” the study says.

Lohse says the trend isn’t unique to Bush: A 1977 study by Frumkin & Ibrahim found psychiatric patients preferred Nixon over McGovern in the 1972 election.

Rakfeldt says the study was legitimate, though not intended to show what it did.

“Yes it was a legitimate study but these data were mined after the fact,” Rakfeldt says. “You can ask new questions of the data. I haven’t looked at” Lohse’s conclusions regarding Bush, Rakfeldt says.

“That doesn’t make it illegitimate, it just wasn’t part of the original project.”

For his part, Lohse is a self-described “Reagan revolution fanatic” but said that W. is just “beyond the pale.”

As Stephen Colbert reminds us: Reality has a liberal bias.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Behind the mask

'Is there anyone in this rout to treat with me?' he asked. 'Or indeed with the wit to understand me? Not thou at least!' he mocked, turning to Aragorn with scorn. 'It needs more to make a king than a piece of elvish glass, or a rabble such as this. Why, any brigand of the hills can show as good a following!'

Among Peter Jackson’s more memorable creations in the film version of The Lord of the Rings was the Mouth of Sauron (played by the inimitable Bruce Spence). His broad, false smile was more a grimace, part of an incongruous mask of civility over a mouth out of which the most vicious things came writhing.

Yet as creep-inducing and vile as he appeared outside the Gates of Mordor, you had the sense that he would be twice as frightening if he removed that mask. (In the film version, Aragorn simply relieved him of his head.)

That's roughly the feeling you gets anymore whenever you come into contact with the denizens of the rabid right: The nasty face they're showing us is only half the story.

This is particularly so regarding the thugs who are creeping out of the woodwork and trying to intimidate anyone they deem insufficiently aligned with their personal ideologies -- embodied by the mouthpiece pundits whose inflammatory, eliminationist rhetoric goads them on. The Coulters, Limbaughs, Savages, and Malkins of the world.

The hate and bile they spew on a daily basis is vicious enough as it is. But you can't help get the feeling that we're only starting to scratch the surface with these people. They reveal psyches so grossly malformed that it's clear they're just putting on a barely civil front for the sake of the audience. Let them loose in a situation where they actually possessed the power to do as they wished and you'd have genuinely monstrous evil on your hands -- not just words, but actions.

Their public face, claiming the mantle of morality and decency, is belied by nearly every action they take. Their real face is revealed in their tolerance for every amoral practice from inhuman sweatshops to the overt advocacy of white supremacism. It's revealed in the incessant insistence that liberal war critics are the enemy itself -- and by their targeting those critics for outright attacks on their personal lives. It's revealed in their unmistakable misogyny. And it's revealed, most of all, in their willingness to abide torture itself, excused by the need to keep "terrorists" at bay.

Coulter, Limbaugh, et. al., are just the names most readily known to most of us. But they are only the most visible component of this growing segment of the population. Many of the leading hatemongers are actually secondary voices whose venom quotient is in direct proportion to their all-consuming desire to be noticed. They try to not only imitate the Coulters of the world, but to outdo them -- which is saying something.

Some of these are generally local or regional pundits, while others are lesser-known figures on the national scene. All of them are eager to make their marks, and the only way they know to do that is to constantly "push the envelope," shoving the national discourse ever farther to the right.

This also has an effect on those right-wing pundits already atop the heap, who have to keep up just to retain their "edge." Thus their whole business revolves around fresh ways to outrage, and as they push the boundaries, eventually even the unacceptable becomes acceptable.

On the West Coast, probably the most noteworthy of these is the Bay Area radio talk-show host Melanie Morgan, who broadcasts weekdays on KFSO-AM, which happens to be a Disney-owned station. (Gee. What a coincidence.)

Morgan recently announced that "We've got a bull's-eye painted on [Pelosi's] big, wide laughing eyes" -- a fairly overt invitation for her audience to imagine someone shooting the new Democratic Speaker of the House.

Spocko's Brain has been dogging Morgan's schtick for some time now, and has a virtual library of her vicious and outrageously eliminationist rhetoric -- all in the name of "pushing the envelope" for the sake of attracting and retaining an audience. Judging by her remarks, it must be some audience.

A sampling of Spocko's audio files:
-- Laughing with Coulter about executing New York Times editor Bill Keller.

-- Agreeing with guest Peter Mulhern as he says, "A great deal of good could be done by arresting Bill Keller having him lined up against the wall and shot."

-- Joking with "Officer Vic" as he imitates Keller being electrocuted.

-- Joking about killing a black man after torturing him. (This clip features co-host Lee Rogers talking about shooting a black man between the eyes and torturing him by attaching electrodes to his testicles while Morgan laughs.)

-- At the end of a shared rant describing their utter loathing for all liberals, her co-host, Rogers, warning that "the day will come when unpleasant things are going to happen to a bunch of stupid liberals and it's going to be very amusing to watch."

Morgan's misliberalanthropy has also been thoroughly limned by Joe Conason at Salon, who noted Morgan's role in the incredibly vicious attacks on the New York Times for its reporting on an anti-terrorism program.

Morgan is hardly alone. Some of the more notable examples of this kind of behavior come from the "Hey! I'll say any kind of crazy shit just to get noticed" bloc of the right-wing blogosphere. Take, for example, the strange case of Pam at Atlas Shrugs; as D at LG&M observes, Pam has been running pictures of atrocities from Indonesia dating back more than a decade and which are mostly related to ongoing sectarian strife (particularly aimed at the Chinese there), while claiming that they're actually part of the supposed current Muslim jihad. Just a little while before this, Pam tried to hamhandedly channel Shakespeare in darkly revealing fashion, suggesting we "kill all the diplomats (before they get us killed)."

Then there's Glenn Beck, whose record as a hatemonger is already well noted. But this latest enterprise -- his supposedly hard-hitting series on Islamic extremism -- tells us next to nothing new, and as Scott Lemieux notes, is nothing more than a stereotype-laden rant against Islam itself. It's the kind of thing, like Coulter's "convert them all to Christianity" remark, that enjoys an extended nuclear half-life in the Muslim world, repeated endlessly as evidence of the hatred among Americans for Muslims. In other words, it's the kind of remark that actually helps our enemies recruit fresh terrorists.

You know, it's really quite simple: If you want to encourage more Muslims to become radical terrorists, spend your time declaiming to the world on the necessity of wiping out the lives of millions of them. It's part of the core dynamic of the recurring cycle of war and violence: Each side names the other as the Enemy, and then sets about acting in a way that justifies that naming for the other side, and simultaneously justifies their own self-perception as heroic.

The other day Roy at Alicublog (via TBogg) caught a prime example of this kind of destructive idiocy from the relentlessly execrable Ace of Spades:
"There are those who shriek in high dudgeon when it's suggested that, at some point, it may be necessary to kill off an awful lot of the Islamic world to secure our own lives." He briefly considers the shriekers' point of view, then decides, "I think what a lot of these people mean, but won't say, is that it's actually about time to consider giving Israel to the Muslims, and let them wipe out most of the Jews."

Only the most perverse kind of illogic would produce a syllogism equating a desire to avoid one kind of genocide with a wish for another kind. Ace would have us believe we have only the choice of one act of mass murder or another. And he obviously prefers the choice that makes us the murderer rather than the spectator -- not that either choice is in any event either desirable or inevitable.

I think a key to understanding this illogic, if such a thing is possible, lies in recognizing that these people conceive of themselves as heroes engaged in a heroic task. Once a person claims that status for himself, at least in his own self-conception, all kinds of obvious contradictions are immediately resolvable, since the blunt force of the hero's moral superiority rub out any such distinctions. They are right no matter what "facts" may argue otherwise.

This was illustrated vividly, in fact, by one of Ace's commenters, whose contribution was picked up by Roy in an update:
Part of my crazy, is that I have VERY vivid dreams. I tend to remember a great many details.

After I left service, and after 9/11 I would start to find comfort in dreams/thoughts that were absolutely horrible in their brutality. I won't go into details, but it had to do with me viewing horror from above and causing that horror.

After a while, my friends at work started to ask me why I looked like hell, and I confided in them. It became a simple statement to explain why I looked like such hell (after all I'm a sexy mother fucker, and for me to look like hell, I have to REALLY look like hell) "The village?" I would nod, and whenever anyone would come at me, my friends, coworkers and bosses would interdict because they understood that I just spent a night dreaming of slaughtering villages, to teach a lesson.

I know, it's just a dream, but that cruelty has seaped into me to the point that I find comfort in believing that grotesque violence might teach these people to stop killing us in the same way.

I usually don't pay any more than passing attention to random anonymous commenters, but this post perfectly captured the operative pathology among the contingent of conservatives who populate places like Ace's, and Little Green Footballs, and Atlas Shrugs, not to mention the whole panoply of Malkinites, Coulterettes, and Dittoheads. All places where, at one time or another, it's intimated that the only way to win the war is to "do what it takes." To "get tough." No one ever says exactly what that means, but everyone has a pretty good idea. It means villages full of slain women and children.

Note, if you will, the generic quality of the fantasy. We don't know what kind of village he's describing -- somewhere in the Middle East? a South American jungle? northern California?

But more noteworthy is the purpose of all this killing: "to teach a lesson." This is the fantasy of instructive wanton violence, delivered by the hero against the enemy in order to chasten them into submission. It is precisely the same fantasy that was being pursued by Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden on Sept. 11, a fantasy that made their own heroic self-conception metastasize into a pack of demonic murderers. This same fantasy is what the mavens of the right would thrust upon us if they could.

Mind you, it's a very American thing, as all our history of eliminationism has been. We massacred thousands of Indians in the 1800s, many in acts of outright genocide that wiped out entire villages in wholesale slaughter, with the purpose of "teaching them a lesson." We set the horrific fury of the mob upon thousands of African Americans during the "lynching era" in order to "teach them a lesson."

The concept of wanton violence as a heroic duty, especially for "instructive" purposes, has been with us a long time, and appears alive and well today -- on both sides of the violence. The rabid American right is now waging war on its mirror image but is incapable of recognizing it.

For the most part, this concept has been closely associated with religious fundamentalism and its tendency toward authoritarianism, expressed in what sociologists call "exemplary dualism," which I've described in some detail previously. As Chip Berlet explains:
"Exemplary dualism" is the term originated by [Dick] Anthony and [Thomas] Robbins to identify a form of apocalyptic belief in which "contemporary sociopolitical or socioreligious forces are transmogrified into absolute contrast categories embodying moral, eschatological, and cosmic polarities upon which hinge the millennial destiny of humankind."

Anthony and Robbins argue that some people who feel their basic identity has been fractured by being buffeted by social and political forces may turn to a "totalist movement" including various "[i]deological and religious groups with highly dualistic worldviews" and "an absolutist apocalyptic outlook", where members are taught to project "negativity and rejected elements of self onto ideologically designated scapegoats."

Anthony and Robbins describe this in more detail in their essay "Religious Totalism, Violence and Exemplary Dualism":
Social movements with distinctly dualistic worldviews provide psycho-ideological contexts which facilitate attempts to heal the split self by projecting negativity and devalued self-elements onto ideologically devalued contrast symbols. But there is another possible linkage between these kinds of movements and individuals with split selves in the throes of identity confusion. People with the whole range of personality disorders, which utilize splitting and projective identification, tend to have difficulties in establishing stable, intimate relationships. Splitting tends to produce volatile and unstable relationships as candidates for intimacy are alternately idealized and degraded.

Thus, narcissists tend to have vocational, and more particularly, interpersonal difficulties as they obsessively focus upon status-reinforcing rewards in interpersonal relations. They have difficulty developing social bonds grounded in empathy and mutuality, and their structure of interpersonal relations tends to be unstable. Thus, individuals may be tempted to enter communal and quasi-communal social movements which combine a more structured setting for interpersonal relations with a dualistic interpersonal theme of 'triangulation' which embodies the motif of 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend.' Such movements create a sense of mutuality by focusing attention on specific contrast groups and their values, goals and lifestyles so that this shared repudiation seems to unite the participants and provide a meaningful 'boundary' to operationalize the identity of the group.

Solidarity within the group and the convert's sense of dedication and sacrifice on behalf of group goals may enable him or her to repudiate the dissociated negative (bad, weak or failed) self and the related selfish and exploitative self which they may be aware that others might have perceived. These devalued selves can then be projected on to either scapegoats designated by the group or, more generally, non-believers whose values and behavior allegedly do not attain the exemplary purity and authenticity of that of devotees.

What's noteworthy about movement conservatives is that their dualistic fervor is not necessarily religious, though it often is. However, some of these advocates of genocide and eliminationism, such as Coulter, Limbaugh, Morgan, or Ace, are decidedly not religious. For them, the conservative movement itself has taken the form of a religion, and thus is a kind of faith-based system of belief, resistant to logic, reason, or fact. And above all, it's deeply authoritarian.

This is why movement conservatism holds so much appeal for mentally unstable personalities such as Chad Castagana and David McMenemy. As Tom Tomorrow notes, there is actual scientific evidence connecting right-wing authoritarianism with mental illness: people with psychoses and neuroses are naturally more attracted to authoritarian figures and belief systems. That doesn't mean that right-wingers are necessarily psychotic or neurotic, but it does increase the likelihood that right-wing pundits are going to have mentally unstable people in their audiences.

The reasons for this appeal are many, but psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton has identified the national trauma of Sept. 11 as a significant wellspring of the "splitting" that Anthony and Robbins describe. For one, as he explained in The Nation, the attacks were a humiliation for a nation that viewed its superpower status as identical to a kind of invulnerability.

More importantly, as he described in more detail in his book Superpower Syndrome, it produced an actual trauma to our psyches:
As a result of 9/11, all Americans shared a particular psychological experience. They became survivors. A survivor is one who has encountered, been exposed to, or witnessed death and has remained alive. The category extends to those who were far removed geographically from the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, because of their immersion in death-linked television images and their sense of being part of a painful national ordeal that threatened their country's future as well as their own. How people deal with that death encounter -- the meaning they give it -- has enormous significance for their subsequent actions and for their lives in general.

What has distinguished movement conservatives after 9/11 -- including a number of "former liberals" -- is their constant and pronounced insistence that everything they do henceforth is informed by that horrid event. Meanwhile, those who disagree with them have "forgotten we were attacked on 9/11." These pronouncements have the effect of claiming for themselves the hero's mantle. Their task is the heroic task of national redemption itself.

Yet fundamentalist totalism, as Lifton has written elsewhere, is "always on the edge of violence, because it ever mobilizes for an absolute confrontation with designated evil, thereby justifying any action taken to eliminate the evil." Thus, as movement heroes, they are immune from niggling moral considerations and the need to reconcile the demonic aspect of their own actions.

In both Christian and Muslim cultures, the heroic task historically has entailed energetically taking up arms to redeem the world. It also entails creating an enemy and naming him; the heroic warrior, after all, needs an enemy against which to fight, something to give his life meaning. The drama that results is a holy war to drive out an alien darkness or disease, and it is a drama that has played out innumerable times throughout the long history of the West.

What these self-anointed heroes fail to see is their own certain descent into the demonic. However, as they sneer and threaten and condemn their fellow Americans as the Enemy, fit for elimination, the rest of us see it. All too well.
Then the Messenger of Mordor laughed no more. His face was twisted with amazement and anger to the likeness of some wild beast that, as it crouches on its prey, is smitten on the muzzle with a stinging rod. Rage filled him and his mouth slavered, and shapeless sounds of fury came strangling from his throat. But he looked at the fell faces of the Captains and their deadly eyes, and fear overcame his wrath. He gave a great cry, and turned, leaped upon his steed, and with his company galloped madly back to Cirith Gorgor.

Take Our Sheckels -- And Accept Our Shackles

Sara Robinson

This morning, Phil Yost of the AP writes:
The Supreme Court decided Monday not to plunge into the issue of school choice, passing up a dispute over a Maine law that bars the use of public funds to send students to private religious schools.

A conservative group, the Institute for Justice, had asked the justices to take the case. The group is representing eight Maine families who would receive public tuition funds but for the fact that their children attend religious schools.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and President Bush's homestate of Texas had weighed in, saying in filings to the Supreme Court that Maine is unconstitutionally discriminating against religion….

School districts in 145 small towns in Maine that have no high schools currently offer tuition for 17,000 students to attend high schools of their choice, public or private, in-state or out-of-state. But religious schools are no longer on the list….

In asking the Supreme Court to take the case, the Maine families cited the court's 2002 decision allowing the use of public funds in inner-city Cleveland to underwrite tuition at private or parochial schools if parents retain a wide choice of where to send their children.

If the fundamentalists pushing for school vouchers want to see where the voucher path ends up, they need look no farther than Canada.

The issue of religious education has always been a central front in the cultural conflicts between the country's two leading groups. As in the US, the mostly-Protestant English established secular public schools; but here, it's been the French Catholics (and other Catholic immigrants who followed) who have insisted that their parochial educational system deserved a similar level of public support.

Different provinces and cities have worked this out in different ways; but in almost all areas, it's come down to some form of government subsidy for both private and parochial schools. In Edmonton, for example, there's an entirely parallel public school system that's run by the Catholic Church; and parents decide which of the two systems their tax revenues will support. Evidently, it's not uncommon for Protestant parents to choose to send their kids and their tax dollars to the Catholic schools, many of which have excellent reputations and programs.

Here in British Columbia, the provincial government decided long ago that subsidizing private schools gave parents more options, while also reducing the need to build more public schools on their own dime. This is how it came to pass that my own two kids attend secular private schools on vouchers, which cover about 25% of their annual tuition bills. And we'd be getting these same vouchers if the kids were attending the local Episcopal, Baptist, or Catholic academies instead.

However: Any Canadian will tell you that taking lots of government money inevitably opens a school up for lots of government oversight as well. Locally, any school that receives public funding is bound to teach the BC provincial curriculum, or lose its accreditation. Every high school, public or private, issues the same high school diploma, certifying that their students have studied the same subjects out of the same books -- and have passed the same rigorous provincial exams to prove it.

Religious schools can hold chapel, have Bible studies, and offer electives on faith-based topics; but there's no religious revisionism in their history classes, no "intelligent design" in their science labs, no flinching from biological realities in the Health course. In the core subjects, it's exactly the same education their public-school peers are getting. It has to be: As long as they're taking public money, their curriculum must conform to public standards, and their administrators be held up to public accountability.

Contrary to the fears of American liberals, issuing vouchers hasn't reduced the overall level of educational quality. Since 2000, Canadian schools have consistently ranked among the world's top five in the rankings compiled every three years by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Within Canada, the Alberta and BC schools are the best of this best, turning out students whose performance compares favorably with their top-ranked Japanese and Finnish peers. (The US, in contrast, has typically finished in the high teens among the 31 OECD countries ranked in recent years.)

But the trade-off that's kept these numbers high has been a level of government control over the process that has essentially turned these "independent" schools into another venue for public education. Any self-respecting American private school, religious or otherwise, would find this level of oversight intrusive to the point of outrage. But almost every Canadian private school accepts it, because their survival depends on those voucher funds.

US voucher advocates are indulging in the worst sort of magical thinking if they honestly believe that taking taxpayer money won't lead, as night follows day, to a similar level of taxpayer involvement in their affairs. The Canadian example shows that their choice couldn't be starker. They can have their independence, and retain the freedom to teach flat-earth creationism and Biblical history; or they can have our cash -- and with it, accept our larger consensus on who, what, and how they teach. In a democracy, there ain't no such thing as a free lunch. (And people who think there is probably ought not be trusted with the education of the next American generation.)

The fundamentalist press may be grumbling about "activist judges" today -- but that's only because they lack the foresight to understand just how big a favor the Supreme Court has done them by pointing to the church-state wall, and telling them no.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Sugar Daddies

Sara Robinson

It appears as though the National Science Teachers Association has abandoned its search for truth and is now looking for a good sugar daddy.

Laurie David, one of the producers of An Inconvenient Truth, wrote a piece for today's Washington Post describing her efforts to make 50,000 DVD copies of that movie available to America's science teachers through NSTA.

They said no. And, more weirdly, they explained why. First, they said, they were afraid that if they started taking information from "special interests" like David, they'd have to take them from other groups, too. As though a private organization is obligated to accept and distribute any fool thing the Flat Earth Society may send them? As though they're not scientists, capable of sussing out the factual truth and relative educational value of any given piece of would-be curriculum? As though (as David points out) An Inconvenient Truth isn't already part of the required science curriculum in other countries, including Sweden and Norway?

That was bizarre enough, but then they got to their second reason: It might jeopardize their capital campaign. It turns out that NSTA gets millions each year from groups like Exxon-Mobil and the American Petroleum Institute -- who, in turn, are given access to American science classrooms to promote anti-global-warming propaganda with titles like "You Can't Be Cool Without Fuel." If they started telling kids the truth about global warming, they whined, that money might go away. And then how would that fine organization continue to support America's science teachers in their quest to instill their students with a passion for empirical truth, and teach the rigors of the scientific method to the country's next generation of technology leaders?

Memo to the Christian Coalition: The NSTA is for sale. For a mere million bucks a year, I'll bet you could get them on board with Intelligent Design, too.

Memo to parents: It might be time to find out if your kids' science teachers are members of this group, and have a word with them about it. If you -- or the teachers -- want to complain directly to the NSTA, the complaint form is here. They need to hear from everyone who still thinks that scientific truth shouldn't be auctioned off to the highest donor.

Updated with corrections