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Friday, November 04, 2005

Here is the piece heard on KOPT Friday morning, BUSH EXPLAINS ROBE PICK

It's a 1.1 meg download. The (hilarious) piece runs 2:25.

Download the MP3 (right click and "save as"):


The second winter gale is blowing in. Time to batten down the hatches..

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Yesterday's column generated some email, and I thought I'd address it, as a way of getting into something that's been bothering me about American political dialog for a long time now: we are so used to frankly specious arguments as carrying validity in response to real arguments that I wonder whether 'debate' is even the issue anymore. Welcome to the Reptile Brain States of America.

One of the these days, the Killer Puke is gonna hit. We're ripe for it. In the first place, there are so many of us, and we're so crowded together, that we've become in effect a biological monoculture. Remember that beetle that tore through the Doug firs "forests" (read: farms) not so many years ago? Same principle here: It's easier to spread an infestation or infection when the susceptible organism is tight-packed, and the number of other species which might otherwise act as a sort of buffer has been reduced. Add to that the resistance many strains of nasties are developing to our fanciest biocides, thanks to an evolutionary process (sorry, fundies) driven by our unnecessary over-use of those same chemicals (which, of course, means big-ass profits for the pharmaceutical companies), and it's a wonder we haven't succumbed by now.

So...is birdie flu, or some strain of it, gonna be the big one? Damn if I know. But a global pandemic is certainly right up near the top as a quite-possible mass H-sap-icide; it's certainly a lot more of a credible threat than Saddam's WMD's ever were. Really, as long as we continue to over-populate the planet, it's a toss-up as to what's gonna bring this whole bunch of cards we call "modern civilization" crashing down in the biggest die-off since the dinosaurs ate comet.
With which I entirely agree -- almost. Our eloquent correspondent has put it into words far more elegantly than I have, thus far, managed. In 1970, we recognized that there were two looming crises that we either mastered, or which would painfully master us. One was the environmental degradation that threatened to literally poison us ....

We have, obviously, paid some attention to that one. Whether too little, or too ineffectively, or successfully, we do not know. But we HAVE paid attention.

The other problem was overpopulation, to which we've paid no attention whatsoever.

And what is our national debate? Whether to make abortion illegal? Whether to deny condoms to Africa, school children and sundry others? Whether to allow the "morning after" contraceptive to be sold over the counter, or whether pharmacists should be allowed to NOT fill women's contraceptive prescriptions?

Good show, America. In China, as the problem has overwhelmed the society, the debate became whether or not to make abortion MANDATORY. (Optional lost out to a rationing system, which has turned into generations of mostly male babies, which is going to be trouble, as we've noted herein before).

And, as we know from nature, any animal that overruns its foraging capacities is thinned via starvation and disease. (Malthusian rat population experiments also noted two contradictory behaviors in overpopulated cages: most rats became astonishingly passive, while a few became insanely aggressive.)

So, we really don't have to worry about overpopulation: if we don't, it will take care of itself. But it just might be your mother and brother that get thinned from the herd. It might just be you.

There is a coming biological holocaust. Nobody, I will note, seems to think it's front page news that recombinant DNA experiments are taking place at every land-grant university in the USA. All it takes is one drunken graduate student and a little carelessness to inadvertently loose, say, a viral mutagen that attacks a broad spectrum of species, resulting in another mass-extinction event (of which we seem to have had several) or, nightmare scenario, something that attacks the shared DNA of every life form on the planet.

That's a lot scarier than a bunch of loose nukes.

Or consider that we have these incredible mountains of petrie dishes in every landfill in the nation: sealed plastic bags filled with nutrients and bacteria. The vast majority die, of course, but consider the billions of petrie dishes, and ask yourself how long it will be before ONE of them produces something that eats, say, plastic?

And what about asteroid strikes? We're going to have one pass between the orbit of the Earth and the Moon, and it's not the first in this decade.

These are legitimate concerns. They are "real" concerns. But they are NOT real.

What separates them from the equally hazardous POTENTIAL of bird flu? The fact that the Administration is beating the drum again, and the ever-compliant (or, should I say, merely pliant?) press is picking up those press releases and running with them. Rebroadcasting the sound bites. Interviewing congresspersonnel. Showing Bush's concerned brow beetling as he lecterns us on the potential threat.

[Parenthetical: ask yourself WHY he has decided to address this issue and not the hurricane response, "poverty," or the indictment of the first White House official so charged in over a century? Where's that Nixonian speech on "Morality" in the White House, and how, "AS YOUR PRESIDENT, I am going to get to the bottom of this. If crimes were committed, then the guilty parties will face the FULL CONSEQUENCES of the law. There must be no QUESTION about the integrity of this White House." (With apologies to Safire)

My only problem with the writer of the letter is that, taking Yogi Berra's advice, when he came to the fork in the road (possible versus actual), he took it.

But it is not a malicious or intentional error. Unlike most of what passes for "public debate" the only disagreement here lies in the seeming presumption that because I fail to take the "potential" or "hypothetical" fork of the disaster road in favor of the "real" or "actual" branch, that I am discounting the problem entirely.


I am pointing out that shoving the body politic's metaphorical SUV onto the "potential" fork denies the "real" fork any inspection, alleviation, and attention. We need to remain citizens in the Reality-Based Community before we explore terrors that have not yet visited us, and never may.

And that's the point. To paraphrase Eisenhower, every fiction that we debate on the airwaves and in print these days, is in a very real sense, a theft from the myriad of real problems and issues facing us. Every new speech, report, news item about the potential of bird flu is a theft of time from the debates about the real problems.

I will leave it to you, Gentle Reader, to decide who the thieves of time might be.

It's ironic, with twenty-four-hour news cycles, that we have become so addicted to blather that a cycle requiring twenty-four-coverage is so reflexively buried in blather that the news itself gets short shrift.

And the blather becomes the ritual recitation of specious, fallacious and phony arguments.

Here's an example: The Democrats in the Senate were "playing politics" but using a "political stunt" to demand the completion of the Intelligence Committee's promised investigation into the untruths that led us into war.

Now, this presupposes that "playing politics" and "political stunts" are, by definition, bad.

But the argument is just as disingenuous as the argument that suggests that the indictment of White House official Scooter Libby is, in essence, frivolous, because it is only about perjury, lying to investigators and obstruction of justice.

As we recall, using that favorite technique of the Right, Clinton's impeachable offense was 'perjury.'

And Bush's speech on the bird flu -- the one that was knocked off by the "political stunt" in the Senate -- wasn't THAT a "political stunt," ergo, "bad"?

We call it "hypocrisy" but, really, it is mendacity, dishonesty, lies, deception, fabrication, deceit, falsehood, untruthfulness, duplicity, fraudulence, trickery -- oh, and did I mention? -- and mendacity.

Here is another mendacity, locally:

Bonnie Bettman and various opponents of the West Eugene Parkway were on KOPT's Morning Show today, answering the argument that the Parkway had been put to a vote twice, and had been approved both times.

Watch as the opponents of the Parkway (and, note, I do not have a position on the Parkway one way or another) place forward the following arguments against beginning to implement some sort of response to the "yes" votes.

[My favorite] "It isn't going to be built anyway."

Then, I might ask, where is the problem? If it's not going to be built, the point is moot. Why keep arguing? [How does one oppose a non-occurrence? Doesn't that create an occurrence? And doesn't that, then cause the Universe to implode in a matter/anti-matter extinction cascading CF?]

"The first vote was in 1986, so it doesn't apply."

But that is a non-responsive argument. The only reasonable conclusion that can be drawn between the 1986 and 2001 votes is that voters have supported it twice over seventeen years. And there is something disquietingly elitist about sending past voters into rhetorical ovens merely because they're politically inconvenient. There is an unspoken mean-spiritedness in this argument that troubles me.

"The project was misrepresented to the voters."

But, given that the vote was advisory (as opponents note), what does it matter? And, wasn't there an obligation during the debate ON that vote for the opposition to have raised the point? But, worse, the opinion of the opponents, specifically Bonnie Bettman, is considered to carry more weight than the vote. The vote is, therefore, explained away, which is good, because we've only just now cleared the ashes out of the rhetorical oven from the last batch.

In both arguments, the only demonstrable "facts" that no one disputes, are that "yes" votes were obtained in both elections. The opposition argument is based on discrediting the voters who said "yes."

[And, yes, Virginia, I'm fully cognizant that I've chosen a Holocaust metaphor here. The choice is not entirely extreme. Why? Because if this reasoning were a trolley car, the end of the route would be Auschwitz Station. I would suggest that arguing fairly and truthfully virtually never leads to archipelagoes colored "gulag," but that the opposite does all too often.

[Which reminds me: I'm not going to mention the breaking news on the system of secret CIA prisons in eleven countries -- ten of which issued statements denying the existence of secret prisons today -- and which the White House said they wouldn't confirm or deny, BUT, IF such prisons existed, prisoners were being treated humanely. Forget that I mentioned it. But ask yourself: was it honesty and fair debate that created or didn't create such facilities, and which affirmed, denied, or was non-responsive as to their existence? And do you believe that the facilities whose presence won't be confirmed or denied are ACTUALLY treating their prisoners humanely?]

"The vote was close. It was virtually a tie." (Scott Bartlett and Mark Robonowitz)."

The speciousness of this argument is grave: we vote using a simple binary system. You win. You lose. "Close" only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. But, by implication, since the vote was "close," therefore it really wasn't a "yes" vote. Therefore, the vote was inconclusive.

"I am committed to trying to implement what I think the voters wanted." (Kitty Piercy).

But this is in defense of being the swing vote in a 5-4 City Council decision to essentially negate said election.

I'm sorry. I love Kitty, and have known her for years, but this is a classic political dodge (even if it is, by comparison with the rest of the rhetoric on this, deft). I am in favor of what I think the voters wanted -- which just happens to coincide with my position. (Even though my position is "no" and the voters' only recorded statement of intent is "yes.")

I will not go into our Oregonian tradition here -- venerable and hoary though it is -- that YOU vote until WE win. I will not bring up the nine votes against the sales tax (with the number of "no" votes increasing with every election), or the five "no" votes on the new library (you know, that one that they "suddenly" found "urban renewal funds" for and built ANYWAY, then put another measure on the ballot to fund it, which passed?). No. I will not mention this phenomenon herein, except to say that I'm looking forward to the "best of three" election ... that will "prove" that voters actually meant to say "no" when they inadvertently marked "yes."

I might add the reverential tones used in the argument for "wetlands." These sacred earth spaces might carry a different weight if they were termed (with equal precision), "swamps," "marshes" or "bogs."

I leave the determination to you, but note that a common, more subtle tactic of current political debate is to seize the characterization, as in "death tax" versus "estate tax," "unlawful sex with a teenager" versus "rape of a child" or even "pedophilia," or even "stop loss" versus "involuntary servitude," or "back door draft."

If government is language, and we place our faith in honest debate and compromise, we cannot accept the continual repetition of conscious lies and distortions to control that debate.

As I said, I have no position on the parkway. But the refutation of the fundamental point -- that voters had said "yes" twice -- was as phony as a three dollar bill. Bring me some actual arguments and I'll be glad to listen to you. I also bring it up to contrast how local liberals and national righties both use the same sorts of lies, distortions and fallacies to push their positions. But both are equally mendacious, both are equally convinced of the unquestioned rightness of their stance, and both are equally full of that stuff that digested food finally becomes in our gastro-intestinal system.

Here are some favorite fallacies, in no particular order, beginning with a Golden Oldie:

"Bill Clinton did it." (Or, for you nostaligic Nixonians, "Lyndon Johnson did it.")

This is the classical fallacy of "two wrongs don't make a right." Just because Al Capone knee-capped a judge and got away with it doesn't mean that it's all right, OK, or acceptable. Bringing Al Capone (or, in this case, Bill Clinton) into it is a red herring, in essence, a subtle non-sequitur.

There is not time today to fully explore the many-splendored world of pure and hybrid fallacies. So, instead let me quote from my favorite college text, a tome on fallacious reasoning that remains in print, in new and revised editions, although its author passed away a couple of years ago, LOGIC AND CONTEMPORARY RHETORIC, by Howard Kahane, PhD. (He didn't have the PhD. when he wrote it, beginning -- ironically -- it when he taught logic courses at the University of Kansas in the late 1960s.) 1st Ed. 1971:
Today's students demand a marriage of theory and practice. That is why so many of them judge introductory courses on logic, fallacy, and even rhetoric not relevant to their interests ...

[NOTE: We seldom use that buzzword of 'sixties- and seventiespeak "Relevant," just as we no longer speak of the "Establishment" and the "Establishment press." - HW]

The focus of this text is the avoidance of false belief, and in particular fallacy, because today as always, most public rhetoric deceives by means of fallacious argument ... since we all engage in a certain amount of self-deception, we all to some extent must be classified as verbal con artists, at least able to con ourselves when it is comforting to do so. But few of us can compare with the professionals, the men who are paid to persuade on a large scale by words and pictures.

Most of the professionals are probably honest. Some may even be unaware of the fact that they employ verbal trickery. Undoubtedly, many do their work with malice aforethought. But for whatever reason, the fact is that most of the persuasion used in politics and advertising is a strange complex mixture of cogent and fallacious argument. The job of the rational man is to sort out this conglomeration as best he can, so as to fend off verbal con artistry as much as possible. Failure to do so makes rational decision-making impossible. The verbal con artist, in ourselves and others, is our natural enemy.
Here, I have to note that my edition predates the de-genderization of language, and instead of saying "rational person" he inadvertently says "rational man."

So, I guess you ladies are on your own.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

We need to do an epistemological reality check here.

Epistemology means "how do I know what I know?"

Reality means those things that you experience, or that other people experience -- at least for our purposes here.

The reality is that we've seen two of the three most powerful hurricanes ever recorded slam into the Gulf Coast of the United States in the past two months. And we've had a third that wasn't anything to sneeze at.

How we know is simple. The news media. What we know is more problematic. Ever since Bird Flu hit the media, the ongoing concerns about reconstruction, looting, out of control cops; the return of New Orleanians, the suspension and hasty re-imposition of Davis-Bacon (prevailing wages) for those working on government contracts to rebuild the devastated areas, the continuing scandal of Mike Brown at FEMA, and the latest embarrassment of FEMA in Florida, well, those stories seem to have slipped off the radar, even though they affect millions of Americans directly, millions more indirectly, and all five states bordering the gulf.

No. How we know, we know. What we know is damned little, in a way.

Which brings us to the much more important story about a disease that not one single, solitary American has ever heard about. A disease that we've had to be educated BY the media (and their patron, the U.S. government, but I'm getting ahead of myself) to fear.

It is a disease that the layman can do absolutely nothing about, may not occur, and affects us, at present, not at all.

But we know quite a bit about this disease which has, thus far, killed sixty human beings in a total population base of six billion human beings, or one one hundred millionth of the entire gene pool, a toxicity amount that would generally be acceptable as a trace element of most poisons in drinking water.

More people are killed each year, in the United States alone than, respectively, bee stings, snake bites, lightning strikes, bowling accidents and accidental decapitations.

So, one must ask, as a simple matter of priorities, why does this problem, affecting .000000001 percent of world population, totally overwhelm the media coverage, when the very real plight of the unprecedented number of disaster victims on the Gulf has all but vanished as a story?

The question might seem to suggest its own answer.

Think about it. I think you just might find, if you dug a little, that these three hurricanes have created the largest disaster-affected population, spread over the largest area in American history, pre- or post-Columbian.

And that's EMBARRASSING to those who are mired in endless scandals about their administration of disaster relief.

Then again, let's take a moment to try and understand why the media would have trumpeted the Impending World Menace of The Dreaded Scourge, The Bird Flu. After all, as noted earlier, it's current "impact" hasn't been that great.

As I reported a full two days before CNN picked up on it, certain Turkish turkeys, and some Romanian birds were found to have the Awful Boogieman Disease. No one has, thus far, died.

Last week, an INFECTED PARROT was found in Great Britain.

Surely the manliest man must feel the blood in his veins turn to icewater, even as his knees melt like butter on a hot griddle. An infected parrot was danger enough that the President of the United States made a major speech (alas, pushed to the back of the News Cycle Bus by what Republicans are characterizing as a "political stunt) at the National Health Center for The Epidemiological Defense Against Dreadful Scourges and the Bird Flu Pandemic. As I write this, NPR is reporting vaccine rationing, shortages, experimental vaccines and desperate measures relating to the Dread Scourge of the Bird Flu.

And I ask you, again: why has this pressing Disaster-In-The-Making been driving the national debate? Why does it dominate the front pages of our land, and why do stock images of chickens endlessly cackle across our television screens (now in HIGH DEFINITION!)?

I have listened, in vain, for any mention of all those displaced Louisianans. And I have strained to hear any whisper of the Floridians, Texans, Mississippians and Alabamans still struggling with luxuries like potable drinking water, electricity and impossibly high gasoline prices -- prices, I might note, that raised in several sections of the country that were utterly unaffected by the drilling and refining facilities located in the Gulf.

One might wonder, when these difficult-to-explain gasoline prices literally affect my choice of where and when to attend (or, more often, NOT to attend) events on a DAILY basis: why is this not news?

The answer is simple. It is the Dreadful and Horrible Pox of the Pandemic (regularly recurring, like Halley's Comet) of the Influenza Virus, Mutated into yet Another Devastating and Terrifying Form.

That is why talk show hosts and news commentators, reporters and self-styled journalists have swarmed, like bees after a new Queen, all over this story, covering it like a living, quivering mat.

Which is why, when I saw Wolf Blitzer on the new "multimedia" ADD-inspired multiple-screen format of "The Situation Room," I had to wonder at the intriguing juxtaposition of George W. Bush's Bird Flu podium (with the obligatory backdrop of an endlessly repeated message, probably something like: "Protecting America from Colonel Sanders") that the standard footage of clucking, head-bobbing chickens was run on one of the other screens.

Apt as the juxtaposition of images might have been, I cannot believe that CNN could have done it, other than inadvertently. The increasing tendency of televised news to present itself as a series of rebuses (rebii?) has created a whole new category of inadvertent visual puns. The Dubya-Chicken image is only one amidst an entire species.

I laughed myself silly, seeing it, anyway, delighted at the strange irony of CNN actually getting something right for a change. The sheer novelty of it provoked the laughter, I must admit.

And I am suitably terrified about the Bird Flu. I am now convinced that debating genetic, medical, institutional and funding issues by a nation utterly unqualified for such a debate has advanced our readiness against the Terrifying Specter of Corpse-Strewn Streets in the Wake of Plague Foghorn Leghorn.

[That's actually a good it, come to think of it. In order to maximize our ability to empathize with, anthropomorphize and then to fear "pandemics," "epidemics," "plagues," "pestilence," "less than optimal viral distribution events," or whatever other gibberish we decide to use, let's NAME our plagues, like Hurricanes or Bush-inspired military operations: "Operation Chicken-Coughing Shield" and its follow-up, "Operation Chicken-Coughing Freedom."]

I am only asking. After all, in a world of nearly infinite diversity, your priorities determine your world.

Now, should our national priority be to re-invent a century of public health medicine? (I would argue that it's wise to work on vaccine production and distribution, and that's pretty much it); or, should our national priorities be focused on other, more immediate, flesh-and-blood priorities?

George W. Bush is holding a knife to my son's throat. He has killed two thousand (plus) OTHER American children -- and tens of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan mothers' children.

But you go ahead and listen to as much coverage and speculation on Bird Flu as you want. There is, after all, a surfeit of it. And your educated opinion on this Devastating Potential Possible Catastrophe will undoubtedly be worth its weight in platinum, 1.000 fine.

Me? I'll just sit this one out. I've got my own priorities.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The worst week in the Bush presidency, it is tacitly admitted, was this past week: a week culminating in the indictment of someone named Scooter and the announcement that the investigation into this ham-handed act of political retribution and cover-up will continue. Speculation will undoubtedly continue to mount as to who "Official A" is.

But there is one thing that must be done for the prosecutor to be able to unravel the conspiracy, if conspiracy there is.

If there is no conspiracy, then George W. Bush has no problem making this pledge.

If there IS a conspiracy, then George W. Bush MUST make this pledge:

He must pledge not to pardon anyone found guilty, as a result of the investigation. He must swear it on a Bible, and he must look straight into the eyes of the American people and say "I will NOT pardon anybody."

We already know that he weasels from such promises: the "reframing" of his answer that he would "fire" anyone involved to he would fire anyone "convicted."

So it is important that he pledge, straight up, that he will not issue any pardons.

Because, you see, if the conspirators want to get away with it, only one of them has to "take a bullet for the team," maintain the code of Omerta -- remain silent and loyal -- and he can be pardoned on Bush's way out the door in '09. Or even after the election in '08 (although his father did it right as Clinton was being inaugurated, pardoning all the convicted Iran/Contra thugs, including Ollie North and Admiral Poindexter and Neil Bush, Dubya's feckless brother).

Pardoning cronies and family members is all a part of the Bush family tradition, and, if we are ever going to get to the bottom of this, Bush has to be backed into a corner with the question: Are you willing to pledge NOT to pardon anyone involved in this investigation?

Without that, the law has no teeth. The people have to be the law, in order for law to be done, ironically enough. Usually, we, the people, are more than willing to hire people in uniforms, suits and robes to handle the messy details of the "rule of law." This time, we have to force Bush to promise not to issue pardons. The media have to do it. Public opinion has to do it. The Democrats have to do it. Because, without that pledge, without that promise, the law is hollow.

If he is NOT part of a conspiracy then he has no reason not to make such a promise.

And if he IS part of a conspiracy, then he will fight tooth and nail NOT to make such a promise. And if the ensuing attention mounts (as it tends to do), then he will HAVE to make the promise, take the pledge, as a matter of political necessity.

And the conspirators can twist slowly, slowly in the wind.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Welcome to Halloween, or, in the original coinage, the Irish pagan festival of worship to Samhain, Lord of the Dead. The Canadian Broadcasting Company offers this note on the pagan roots of Halloween:

Ancient pagan Celts first performed Halloween-like rituals on the Nov. 1 feast of Samhain, lord of the dead. On that night Celtic priests or Druids believed Samhain assembled the souls of those who had died the past year. In Samhain's honour the Druids sacrificed a human, usually the village fool, crowned king for a day and paraded around town in a wicker cage.

At nightfall they set the cage ablaze, roasting him as a sacrifice to the god of the dead. Romans outlawed the rite in 61 AD but the Druids persisted, burning black cats instead, believing they were servants of witches. It wasn't until 834 AD that Samhain became a Christian festival, incorporated into the calendar as All Saints' Day (also called All Hallows) by Pope Gregory III.

In the new world, Gaelic immigrants held farmhouse gatherings on Oct. 31.

Apples and nuts, plentiful at harvest, became yearly traditions at the gatherings. Revelers ducked for apples and carved pumpkins into jack-o'-lanterns. The lusty immigrants of the 1800s enjoyed practical jokes, turning All Hallows' Eve into a night of trickery. In the morning, farmers awoke to a wagon on the roof, the front door hanging from a Sycamore or a tipped outhouse.
Alas, this year, the village fool decided to celebrate Samhain in a different horrific manner. But we'll get there presently. And, According to the Philadelphia Inquirer:

All Hallows Eve, commonly called Halloween.

Earth-based Samhain, the main festival of the year for adherents of Celtic belief. On Samhain night, they say, "the veil between the two worlds" is thin, and the dead are available to share their experiences and advice. Groups recite the names of people who have recently died or been born.
Today marks a key date in Western Christianity, as well. It's Reformation Day:

The History of Reformation Day

(JND) - Reformation Day is a red-letter day in remembrance of the Protestant Reformation. It takes place on October 31 and is official holiday in a lot of countries. It coincides with Halloween.

On this day in 1517, according to popular history, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany.

Within the Lutheran church, Reformation Day is considered a major church holiday, and is officially referred to as The Festival of the Reformation. The Sunday before Oct. 31 (or the day itself, if it falls on a Sunday) is known as Reformation Sunday, and is celebrated with a special mass. One tradition that practically all Lutheran churches carry forward to this day is holding a special performance of "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" during this mass.
According to the Los Alamos (NM) Monitor:

Lutherans celebrate Oct. 31 as "Reformation Day," on which Luther nailed the 95 theses to the church door in 1517. He changed the Christian church by translating the Bible and writing hymns in the common language of the German people, and emphasized educating people in the Christian faith.
And that is why it seems astonishingly strange that George W. Bush would nominate the potentially fifth Catholic judge to the Supreme Court today.


Well, consider that the Reformation was the precursor to the Enlightenment, and that, if the "Religious Right" is correct that the United States is a "Christian nation," then it is surely a Protestant nation.

And, on the 488th anniversary of the Reformation, George W. Bush has decided to hand the ultimate judicial power to a majority of extremely Catholic jurists -- an astonishing historical development in a country in which the first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, was nearly overwhelmed by anti-Catholic sentiment, and went so far as to PLEDGE that he would govern according to the Constitution, and not according to the dictates of Rome.

I am going to walk into a buzzsaw here, so I want you to understand that I do so consciously, volitionally and intentionally.


Because no one is going to dare bring up the fact that a five Catholic Supreme Court justice majority is, frankly, unacceptable. I'm going to tell you why. I'm going to tell you a little about the strong history of anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States, and about the dangerous position that Bush has put us into.

But first, you need to understand that George W. Bush, embroiled in a criminal matter involving an astonishing abuse of the powers of the presidency (whether he was or was not personally involved) in compromising national security as a "payback" for having been exposed lying in the State of the Union address, yes, THAT George W. Bush purposely chose on this day to pick a fight, to start a firestorm of controversy about a radical judge, seemingly to deflect attention from his corruption problems, and to literally set brother against brother, and our nation ablaze -- as a diversionary tactic.

Whether he understood that he had now nominated a majority of Catholic jurists to the Supreme Court on Reformation Day was a matter of astonishing synchronicity, or, whether he was celebrating his "higher father" the Lord of the Dead, I cannot say.

Now, before I talk about the long American history vis a vis Catholicism, I want you to remember Sir Thomas More, "A Man for All Seasons." I want you to remember his dilemma, and WHY it was, finally, that, rather than take a simple oath affirming the right of the King to divorce one wife and take another, More chose, instead, to accept sentence of treason and have his head lopped off in the Tower of London.

More had been asked to choose between his God and his King, and, in the final analysis, he chose his God. We cannot second guess his decision. Nor should we mock his integrity: it is that selfsame integrity that our legal system is heir to, and which we celebrate, even in the history of our own nation after we broke from More's parent stem.

What I want you to consider is this: we now have a Pope in place who may or may not begin wholesale excommunication of Catholics who stray from his definition of their true course. That is fine: it is HIS interpretation of HIS God, and his word IS God to his sect.

But America is NOT a Catholic nation. And so, we run the severe risk of setting up five Thomas Mores, except that while the Pope can excommunicate them, deny them an afterlife, relegate them to eternal damnation (and it doesn't matter that YOU disagree with the idea, THEY take it as a matter of fundamental faith) there is nothing on OUR side to balance the equation. We do not -- in a real sense -- have the hangman's gibbet to compel loyalty, though Rome retains hell. You see the problem?

[Recall that when he was Cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger stated that John Kerry should be denied Communion for acceptance of a woman's "right to choose."]

Now, look at the dilemma of the devout Catholic in service to our government. From the Catholic League:

[Kenneth D. Whitehead is a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education, who now works as a writer, editor, and translator. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Catholic League.]

In view of the enormity of the evil of legalized abortion in America today -- it claims more victims every year than have been killed in all the wars of American history (1.3 to 1.5 million abortions per year over the past quarter of a century, compared to 1.2 million total American deaths in all of our wars)-- it is a tribute to the Church that the pro-life movement in the United States was begun primarily by Catholics. Since then, thanks be to God, many Protestants and Evangelicals, Jews, Muslims, and others have joined the pro-life ranks.

Nevertheless, it remains true that no other political position except a pro-life position is even logically possible for a Catholic who properly understands and practices his faith. Moreover, the pro-life position is regularly articulated and re-enforced by such outstanding Catholic Church leaders as Pope John Paul II and Cardinal John O'Connor -- rightly. No doubt this is exactly what the pro-abortionists find so galling and intolerable; these religious leaders thus become fair game to be branded as themselves "murderers." "Pro-choice" does apparently also mean "anti-Catholic."

In addition, since 1993, I have been regularly writing and publishing articles and commentary on the political aspects of legalized abortion and on the progress of the pro-life movement; these writings have been based in part on my knowledge of the Washington scene and of how Washington works -- knowledge which came from many years as a federal official engaged in public policy questions, in testifying before congressional committees, and in monitoring and promoting legislation.

In October, 1998, New Hope Publications brought out as a quality paperback book a collection of my articles published between 1993 and 1998 dealing with the political aspects of legalized abortion and related topics. Entitled Political Orphan? The Prolife Movement after 25 Years of Roe v. Wade, this book contains chapters dealing with the abortion holocaust, Title X and other government-subsidized family planning and population control programs, U.S. government machinations against the pope and the Church in the international arena, the pope's encyclical Evangelium Vitae, the president's choices for surgeon general, partial-birth abortion, non-violence, and other topics --including especially the continuing efforts of the pro-life movement to deal with the enormous problem of legalized abortion in a climate in which even many declared "pro-life" politicians too often continue to try to run away from the issue.

The book also deals more seriously than almost any other current book with the volatile issue of the now well-established "linkage" between the abortion issue and the issue of government subsidized birth control. Anyone who has followed this knows how hard the pundits in the media have attempted to turn this into a purely "Catholic" issue, simply because of the Church's well-known teaching on the subject.

In general, Political Orphan? chronicles the fortunes of the pro-life movement during the Clinton years and lays out clearly where the pro-life movement needs to be going from here. In particular, the book makes a case --and a plea --for greater organized Catholic participation in the pro-life movement, this in spite of the opposition of bigots who would apparently deny Catholics any political voice on the most important political and moral questions of the day precisely because we are Catholics....
And remember that that selfsame devotion to their faith is, in large measure, what has made them GOOD jurists!

Remember what he says: "'Pro-choice' does apparently also mean 'anti-Catholic'."

The biblical admonition (and recall that prior to the Reformation, no one but priests were allowed to READ the Bible, lest they fall into "misinterpretation") is simple: Lead them not into temptation.

Given the power to decide this issue, with all the moral weight of the Church behind them, can they NOT sell out the majority of Americans? Will they not question whether their devotion is to the Constitution or the Most Catholic Church?

Would you want to make them choose between the Constitution and the Papacy? After all, Pope Benedict will surely realize, given a Catholic majority on the High Court, that he can exert extreme pressure on the justices, and Rome has never been loathe to meddle in the affairs of other states. And to Rome, our secular belief that a woman is not a brood mare is a "holocaust" of baby murdering. Indeed, that brings us neatly to the history of America and the Papacy:

Today the Roman Catholic Church has sewn itself firmly into the crazy-quilt pattern of American society. Although prejudice and hostility towards Catholics continue to exist in various forms, no longer does any intelligent person believe tales of Vatican intrigues against the United States. Witness the popular effusions during the 1979 visit of Pope John Paul II to this country. In the nineteenth century, however, the nation's capitulation to Roman legions appeared an imminent possibility to thousands of American Protestants.

Although a conspiracy to subjugate the United States to Papal authority never existed, this belief constituted reality to many anti-Catholic nativists. Anti-Catholic literature played an important role in the growth of nativism by reflecting and helping to shape public opinion about Catholicism.

American anti-Catholicism and fears of Papal conspiracy did not suddenly spring full-blown from the feverish brains of Protestant ministers and nativist propagandists. Nativist literature found a ready acceptance in part because anti-Catholic xenophobia and conspiracy theories traced back to the first English colonists.

Two forms of anti-Papal rhetoric existed in colonial society. The first derived from the heritage of the Protestant Reformation and the religious wars of the sixteenth century. These writings depicted the Pope as the Anti-Christ, the "Man of Sin" and the "Whore of Babylon" described in Revelation, who schemed to deliver the Christian world into the hands of his master, Satan.

This primarily Scriptural argument dominated anti-Catholic thought until the late seventeenth century. More secular writers then proposed political anti-Papal theories to supplement religious polemics. John Locke, John Milton, John Trenchard, and Thomas Gordon influenced British subjects to view Rome as a center of intrigue intent on extending its medieval despotism worldwide. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 upheld the triumph of English government and liberties over Vatican cabals.

Revolutionary America inherited this twin tradition of conspiracy theory. The founding fathers, in part, reflected these fears by their insistence on separation of church and state, freedom of the press, and public education as fundamentals of republican government....
So, it's kind of odd to see Hangin' Judge Robert "Original Intent" Bork headlining at Red Masses given how the founding fathers viewed Roman mischief, but that's just par for the course.

I'm not going to pursue the long and ugly bouts of anti-Catholicism herein. I just want you to be aware that for a long time, Americans have been extremely distrustful of Roman Catholic designs on the United States, and, while that suspicion is backed up by 2000 years of European history, the expressions have too-often been vulgar, hateful, and violent.

Which is the buzzsaw that I was speaking about.

I don't hate Catholics. Nor do I hate the Catholic Church. Indeed, our family (I have learned) WERE Catholics at the time of my mother's parents but before her birth. I know and have known many wonderful priests, nuns, brothers, lay ministers and altar boys. (I've been familiar with more than a few Catholic girls, as well.)

But I DO know this: The Church has a long history of anti-Semitism, of anti-science, of meddling in the politics of sovereign nations, and of believing that only THEY hold the truth.

They are, no matter how many Mother Teresas, no matter how many Pope John XXXIII's, still fundamentally and utterly intolerant of any beliefs but their own. And that runs EXACTLY contrary to our freedom of religion, Amendment One. While we permit ALL religions, they would be more than happy for us to outlaw all religion but their own under pain of death, and if you don't believe that, then read up on the Spanish Inquisition -- begun 1492 -- sometime.

And, Catholics form a decided minority in this country. Which is why I believe that suddenly having a conservative majority of Catholic justices as the final arbiters of the Constitution is just plain wrong. It is wrong for the Constitution, and it is wrong for the Catholics.

Again, there is that buzzsaw. Why? Because I SOUND like an anti-Catholic (who once had their own, substantial political party in the Nineteenth Century). And, because the entire rhetoric of "intolerance" can be marshaled against me, and against anyone who raises the objection that five Catholic jurists on the Supreme Court is WRONG, there sits the buzzsaw.

Don't believe me? Listen to People for the American Way, as they explain how it has already been refined as a tactic, during the Judge Pryor and Pickering hearings:

September: Right-Wing Religious McCarthyism
Right Wing Watch Online
September 25, 2003

Right-Wing Religious McCarthyism

As part of their relentless campaign to promote the confirmation of the Bush Administration's most ultra-conservative federal judicial nominees, some Senate Republicans and their right-wing allies have engaged in a variety of troubling and dishonest tactics. From seeking to tie the confirmation of nominees to the war on terror to threatening to drastically and unilaterally alter Senate rules, they have sought to reduce the Senate to a mere "rubber-stamp" for President Bush's judicial nominees. Despite the fact that the Senate has already confirmed more than 150 of the president's nominees, some Senate Republicans and their right-wing allies recently sunk to a new low when they launched a slanderous campaign to intimidate Senate Democrats and their political allies by accusing them of being anti-Catholic.

These allegations first surfaced rather quietly, but with the nomination and Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on William Pryor, accusations of anti-Catholicism were, for the first time, openly leveled in Senate chambers. From there, the fight spilled out into the media and the right-wing echo-chamber and quickly exploded into a smear campaign replete with insulting allegations that any Democrats who oppose their extremist agenda cannot consider themselves to be "real Catholics."

Quiet Beginnings

In late 2001, the Right first began test-marketing their "anti-Catholic" smear. In December, while complaining about the blocking of the confirmation of Eugene Scalia, the son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, to the Labor Department, Sen. Orrin Hatch alleged that opposition to Scalia was due, in part, to anti-Catholic bigotry. "If [Democrats] don't like Mr. Scalia, for any reason at all," said Hatch "including the fact that he is a pro-life Catholic or the fact that he's Justice Scalia's son, then vote against him and you can show your bigotry that way."

Several months later, Douglas Kmiec, the former Dean of the Catholic University School of Law, took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to pre-emptively defend himself in case the rumors that President Bush intended to nominate him to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals turned out to be true. Kmiec has not been nominated by Bush, but while seeking to explain his judicial and constitutional philosophy, he began laying the groundwork for the future anti-Catholic smears by demanding that Democrats "[j]udge me by my work, not my faith." While there were already rumblings of opposition to Kmiec, none of it was in any way based on his religion. Nonetheless, he saw fit to frame his op-ed as an attempt to answer a question entirely of his own making: "Can an avowedly pro-life Catholic actually serve on such court?"

Clearly the answer to this question is "of course," as evidenced by the fact that many, if not most, of Bush's nominees confirmed by the Senate are anti-abortion.


Catholics Need Not Apply

In the days leading up to Pryor's hearing, Douglas Kmiec was back in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, honing his "Democrats are anti-Catholic" message by claiming that opposition to 11th Circuit nominee William Pryor "comes dangerously close to a religious exclusion."

And when the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on Pryor's nomination, the Right's anti-Catholic baiting reached a fevered pitch. Pryor, the Attorney General for Alabama, has a well-documented history as a right-wing extremist. This is evidenced not only by his lament that Roe v. Wade was "the worst abomination of constitutional law in our history," but also by his extreme legal views on "states' rights," civil rights, and other issues. For example, opponents contend, Pryor strongly advocated views on "states' rights" and his attempts to overturn federal laws are so extreme that they were rejected unanimously by the Supreme Court on three occasions, even by Justices Thomas and Scalia. As such, a wide array of progressive groups and Senators opposed Pryor's confirmation, not because of his religious beliefs but because of his extreme views on the constitution, law, and privacy rights....
So, I am willing to be the one to say, IT IS WRONG, even though we already know what will be said by the Right Wing in "defense" of Bush's divisive, combative and brutal nomination. (Blind, vengeful Samson comes to mind, for some reason).

I don't care to find out what this "Little Scalia" thinks. I don't intend to care what his "judicial philosophy" is. He would be the fifth Catholic on the Supreme Court, and, as such, would create historic tensions that could only harm the court, the constitution and the nation.

And so, at the risk of being called a Pope-basher, or intolerant, or an anti-Catholic bigot, I will pass over the horror of Bush's intentions in nominating this fellow on Reformation Day. And I will pass over the question as to whether Bush is a Christian, a Catholic, or the true son of Samhain, the Lord of Death. Whether it was an accident or a conscious act of deliberate malice, I do not know.

I will only state that it is wrong for any one religious minority to control the law of this land, without any possibility of appeal or check on its power. It is not fair to freedom of religion, freedom from religion, and, most importantly, it is not fair to Catholics.

Here, let them have the last word:

America, The National Catholic Weekly, March 25, 2000, Vol. 182 No. 10

The Last Acceptable Prejudice?
By James Martin

To understand the roots of American anti-Catholicism one needs to go back to the Reformation, whose ideas about Rome and the papacy traveled to the New World with the earliest settlers. These settlers were, of course, predominantly Protestant. For better or worse, a large part of American culture is a legacy of Great Britain, and an enormous part of its religious culture a legacy of the English Reformation. Monsignor John Tracy Ellis, in his landmark book American Catholicism, first published in 1956, wrote bluntly that a "universal anti-Catholic bias was brought to Jamestown in 1607 and vigorously cultivated in all the thirteen colonies from Massachusetts to Georgia." Proscriptions against Catholics were included in colonial charters and laws, and, as Monsignor Ellis noted wryly, nothing could bring together warring Anglican ministers and Puritan divines faster than their common hatred of the church of Rome. Such antipathy continued throughout the 18th century. Indeed, the virtual penal status of the Catholics in the colonies made even the appointment of bishops unthinkable in the early years of the Republic.

In 1834, lurid tales of sexual slavery and infanticide in convents prompted the burning of an Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Mass., setting off nearly two decades of violence against Catholics. The resulting anti-Catholic riots (which included the burning of churches), were largely centered in the major urban centers of the country and led to the creation of the nativist Know-Nothing Party in 1854, whose platform included a straightforward condemnation of the Catholic Church.

By 1850 Catholics had become the country's largest single religious denomination. And between 1860 and 1890 the population of Catholics in the United States tripled through immigration; by the end of the decade it would reach seven million. This influx, largely Irish, which would eventually bring increased political power for the Catholic Church and a greater cultural presence, led at the same time to a growing fear of the Catholic "menace." The American Protective Association, for example, formed in Iowa in 1887, sponsored popular countrywide tours of supposed ex-priests and "escaped" nuns, who concocted horrific tales of mistreatment and abuse.

By the beginning of the 20th century fully one-sixth of the population of the United States was Catholic. Nevertheless, the powerful influence of groups like the Ku Klux Klan and other nativist organizations were typical of still-potent anti-Catholic sentiments. In 1928 the presidential candidacy of Al Smith was greeted with a fresh wave of anti-Catholic hysteria that contributed to his defeat. (It was widely rumored at the time that with the election of Mr. Smith the pope would take up residence in the White House and Protestants would find themselves stripped of their citizenship.)

As Charles R. Morris noted in his recent book American Catholic, the real mainstreaming of the church did not occur until the 1950's and 1960's, when educated Catholics -- sons and daughters of immigrants -- were finally assimilated into the larger culture. Still, John F. Kennedy, in his 1960 presidential run, was confronted with old anti-Catholic biases, and was eventually compelled to address explicitly concerns of his supposed "allegiance" to the pope. (Many Protestant leaders, such as Norman Vincent Peale, publicly opposed the candidacy because of Kennedy's religion.) And after the election, survey research by political scientists found that Kennedy had indeed lost votes because of his religion. The old prejudices had lessened but not disappeared....
When I suggested, a few columns back that the Bushies were not merely against the Enlightenment, but, perhaps the Reformation as well, I thought I was merely being arch. Instead, it turns out that I was being factual.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

This is a true story, or so it was presented to me by a source whose credibility is impeccable. But it wouldn't matter whether it were true or not, as we'll see. First the tale:

In the early 1960s, during the Kennedy Administration, in a large North American city, a fairly well-known writer was attending an event at a large hotel. He was contacted -- my source is not certain whether he knew the contact or knot, but inductive reasoning would suggest that he did -- and told "Come with me. There's somebody I want you to meet," or words very close to that.

He was taken to the penthouse suite. There, he was introduced to a very wealthy, powerful and influential gentleman, the occupier of the suite, seemingly. And the wealthy gentleman said the following, quote, unquote:

"I have just bought the next president of the United States and I want you to write his speeches."

This was an astonishing claim, and there is evidence that some time was spent presenting the case, in one of those "Don't answer until you've heard me out," scenarios. The money was exceptional. The writer was told how he would be able to influence the (diametrically opposed) politics of the candidate through his brilliant writing, what a fine writer he was, et al, etc. There was no doubt as to the veracity of the wealthy gentleman. This wasn't an elaborate practical joke. This was deadly serious.

Nor is there any doubt as to who the "next president" so recently purchased was. The wealthy gentleman informed the writer that it was Ronald Reagan, then not in politics.

And the writer said, no thank you, and left. Period.

End of story, almost.

Turns out that the wealthy gentleman was only wrong in his timing. There were five presidents to go before his investment would pay off.

But the point is made. If you don't believe me, so be it. I vouch for the story as having come straight from the horse's mouth.

The point is only this: The wealthy and powerful recognized something very important about politics that the Democratic party has not only forgotten, but, seemingly, has even minimized: that good writing wins elections. Good writing gets messages across. Good writing trumps bad oratory.

More importantly, good writing trumps bad writing.

It is a sad fact to live in an increasingly subliterate society, but I do. It is a sorrowful fact that our inability to construct elegant, informative, powerful rhetoric hamstrings us, but it does.

Why is any of this important? Because -- and listen most carefully -- ALL government is language, from the dry language of torts, courts and judicial decisions, interpreting even dryer laws, to the slogans, buzz-words, speechifying and "message" of the campaigns, to the utter necessity of precision in order writing for the military whose power undergirds the power of the state.

Government IS language.

And, on the political campaign level, those millionaires understood that all too well. Whatever you might think of Reagan, the speeches were delivered magnificently FROM magnificently written speeches. With Bush, it is often the case that the poor delivery so undercuts the grandiloquence of the writing that many of his major speeches border on the absurd.

Were the delivery and the material closer in quality, Bush might seem eloquent, unless -- as with Reagan, significantly -- the "orator" is left to his own devices to ad lib rhetorically. There are books and endless comic routines that have been based on Bush or Reagan attempting to improvise. They were NOT the writers.

The writers, alas, labored in obscurity, but their contribution was essential to the conduct of the "government" of whichever administration we're pointing to. I think it's a sad thing that so many seemingly-educated and intelligent people maintain that Bill Clinton was a great public speaker.

No. He was a charismatic speaker, perhaps, and he engages with both his charm and his intellect, but he is NOT a great public speaker. His speeches go on interminably, and you could scour every page of his collected remarks, speeches and addresses in vain for a ringing phrase, or a stunning rhetorical flourish.

He is just a much BETTER orator than anyone else in the party -- save, perhaps, for Robert Byrd, whose voice grows as frail and sub voce as the coverage of his speeches on the floor of the Senate has.

The Democrats have presumed that the ability to babble intelligibly is the same thing as speaking cogently, effectively, or cogently. They are addicted to pronouncements from the department of redundancy department, and tend to issue endless utterances as dry as the dunes of Death Valley on an August afternoon.

Words have more than just meaning. They also have SOUND. This is much more important in speaking than in writing, and too many speechwriters write writey words and not speaky words. Too many words. Words too wooden, too turgid, in prose too purple.

I find it astonishing that Teddy Kennedy, brother to two of the finest political orators of the Twentieth Century (if sonically quite shrill) is at once more mellifluous in timbre and disastrous in utterance. I have agreed with nearly everything he's said this year, and yet I have shuddered every time I've heard him.

It is EMBARRASSING to listen to Senator Kennedy. He SOUNDS like an idiot, and it is because his speeches do not match manner to matter. He is often too shrill rhetorically, too willing to yowl "wolf" to the entire countryside when less stridency might be more effective. His prose is leaden, stolid, stodgy and, did it not evoke cringes (or, in the case of his opponents, howls of derision), it would suffice as a cure for insomnia.

The art of oratory isn't flourish. I merely entertain these Gordian knots of language because I invested in the deluxe vocabulary model of American English, and I have to get some reasonable return on the investment. The art of oratory is measured by its effectiveness.

Hemingway was often said to have brought a "classic" tone to his writing. In the sense that we see among the Romans, I would agree. Hemingway's language embraces the terseness of Cato, and not the flourish of Shakespeare. But we have to remember that Cato is remembered for his oratory: the ability to move audiences with a simple message, simply stated.

And that is precisely what the Democratic party has forgotten. There is an (incorrect) intellectual presumption that simple equals simplistic. This is not true. Simplistic thinking lies along the axis of "we must fight them over there so we don't have to fight them here."

Simple rhetoric lies along the perpendicular axis, as in: "You cannot borrow your way to prosperity."

Democrats can explain what that means, but they cannot formulate the statement that precipitates, that crystallizes the essence upon which they explicate.

Right now, the alleged "leadership" of the Democratic party are woo-woo about a book by a Berkeley semanticist (a fellow engaged in a decades-long academic battle with Noam Chomsky, I will note as a bit of ephemera, in the hopes that you can use it to win a round of "Trivial Pursuit: The Tenure Edition").

But the central thesis of the book is the same thesis that I propound herein, save that I am doing it with a four-banger, and he's saying it with a twelve-cylinder, fuel-injected rhetorical engine: the message needs to be simple and direct.

They call it "framing."

Cato would have snorted. Aristotle would have snorted his latte out through his nose. You don't need a deep semantic theory to understand that an abstruseness of language springs from an abstruseness of thought; that the perceived intellectual dithering of the Democrats has frightened the electorate into the faux-Republican camp, and that the Republican propaganda machine is based on getting the best rhetoric that money can buy.

The "on message" lockstep, the focus groups, the mailing fundraisers and the rest of the apparatus is secondary.

Rush Limbaugh has been the generator for many years (underwritten to the tune of how many millions by how many shadowy zillionaires we will never know), expertly fashioning philosophies and positions that always fit neatly on a bumper sticker.

When was the last time you heard a Democrat (and ESPECIALLY our local yokels) speak in a compelling, laconic and terse manner? When will the Democrats realize that in a world of sound bites, less is more?

And when will they start investing in the creation of language? Consider how potent the relabeling of the Estate Tax as "the DEATH tax" has been. Language isn't an incidental, it isn't a BY the BY.

Language IS government, and them what can't speak, won't govern. They won't be afforded the opportunity.

I remember Robert Heinlein once writing that the single most valuable course he ever took was when, as a Midshipman at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, he had been in a class on order writing.

To write a clear, crisp and precise order; one that can't be misinterpreted, misconstrued or misunderstood was an incredibly difficult thing to do, and Heinlein attributed a lot of his writing to having had to take apart, on the blackboard, word by word, and phrase by phrase, the orders that the students wrote.

An imprecise order can lose a battle, kill a regiment, cause utter havoc.

And, an ambiguously written law can create social maladies just as deleterious in their way as a badly written order.

So, finally, poor rhetoric has brought us to this terrible pass in American politics, just as surely as specious, but expertly crafted rhetoric has sold us this bill of goods.

I was listening to Lars Larson the other day (it is a dangerous absurdity NOT to listen to the opposition), and I was struck by a commercial that Lars read for something called "Oregon Rain," which turns out to be bottled water.

But the commercial stressed that it was 'mineral free' and how important it was to top athletes and the chronically ill, because they "hydrated" more quickly. The phraseology was eloquent, and there was even a tagline and a jingle (neither of which I can remember) and even that it was the "official" water of the Pendleton Roundup, the "largest and oldest rodeo in the west."

Well, that awakened me from my giggles. This grandiloquent sophistry was all in service to selling ... WATER!

Good ghod.

And, as someone who learned to read, walk, talk, and control my own bowel movements in Cheyenne, Wyoming, I recall that the oldest and first rodeo (and very likely largest) is Frontier Days in Cheyenne: "The Granddaddy of 'Em All."

The rest of it was artfully constructed bovine ordure, I will hazard, as well.

But it was rhetorically powerful, and probably sold a lot of bottles of distilled water to rubes.

And that's the point. Good rhetoric can be used for good or for ill. But the Democrats, while representing "good" in our current formulation, are on the bottom with rotten rhetoric. And the Republicans, even while they represent an almost Satanic impetus to rob from the poor to give to the rich, have spent the money necessary to hire the very best speechwriters.

I think the results speak for themselves.

We must formulate a superior rhetorical attack if we wish to take back the White House, the Congress and the Courts. And that does NOT mean endless, dilatory prose, no matter how grandiose or ululating. No: Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was written on the back of an envelope and took barely two minutes to deliver. But no one remembers what the finest orator of the age said in the two hours following Lincoln's terse masterpiece.

It is a sad commentary on American politics that our orators can no longer write their own eloquence, but must hire anonymous scribes to churn the waters.

Still, it behooves us to recall that, in a purely rhetorical battle, the best of intentions cannot win out over exceptional writing, even if that writing is in the service of fallacious reasoning, specious argument, and the dream-logic of the demagogue.

Government IS language, and we'd better start talking a lot better than we have been.


hart williams
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