Thursday, May 31, 2007

Brownback on Faith and Reason

In a recent Republican Presidential debate, three candidates raised their hands when asked if they did NOT believe in evolution. I initially shook my head at the response of these three candidates, one of which is a former governor of my home state.

But after a little more thought, it occurred to me that this issue, like many others, really should not be forced by the media or a debate moderator into a nice neat yes/no box. (A more fair and meaningful yes or no question would be if the candidate supports the teaching of creationism in schools).

If forced to pick one side in the oversimplified debate, I would side with belief in the theory of evolution without hesitation. But, in my mind, the word "evolution" simply acknowledges that species have undergone gradual changes over time due to natural selection.

The word "evolution", to me, does not suggest the absence or non-involvement of a Creator or divine force in the design of nature or humanity. Yet to many people, particularly when asked in a manner that does not give or allow clarification, I think a belief in "evolution" does imply that absence.

Senator Sam Brownback wrote a strong defense of this line of thought in the New York Times today.

I am recommending it as an example of elevated debate and reasoning in this campaign. I found it refreshing, even when I disagreed with certain points.

I think it is an important read for people sitting farther on the left of the political spectrum.

Deeply conservative people like Senator Brownback are often written off as unreasonable or even unintelligent when known only through minimal media coverage such as this "vote" on evolution. They are perceived to have low intelligence and/or a decision making process that relies more on blind faith than reason, logic and/or observable facts.

Yet often, if not most of the time, this is simply not the case.

Recognizing this misperception is essential if the country is ever going to remember the substantial amount of common ground that still exists among all Americans (and build on it to make the overdue progress we need on a range of social issues).

Monday, May 28, 2007

Dangerous Honesty

In the recently held first Democratic Presidential Debate, two legitimate candidates, John Edwards and Joseph Biden, did not raise their hands when asked if they believed in the existence of a “global war on terror”.

After reading an article that discusses their positions in more detail, I have two statements to make.

First, Biden and Edwards are absolutely right.

Second, it is foolish for them to admit this belief while they are Presidential candidates.

To defend my first statement, let me use Biden’s own words.

"Terrorism is a means, not an end, and very different groups and countries are
using it toward very different goals. If we can't even identify the enemy or
describe the war we're fighting, it's difficult to see how we will win."

This makes perfect sense to me.

We are indisputably at war, but to say we are at war with “Terror” introduces a dangerous ambiguity that could – and many would say already has – led to actions that could reduce our capacity to accomplish our internationally endorsed mission to destroy al-Qaeda. For example, consider the likelihood of capturing, killing or disrupting the activities of Osama Bin Laden and his lieutenants if a substantial fraction of the troops securing Baghdad could be diverted to the Afghan-Pakistani border.

One could argue that September 11th resulted in a mandate to destroy or disrupt other organizations besides al-Qaeda and the Taliban. If this is the case, then these organizations, groups or individuals should be listed explicitly. Are we at war with Hamas? With Hezbollah? With Chechen Muslims that attack Russian soldiers? The answer seems to be no, though all of these organizations execute attacks that many would agree are designed primarily to produce terror among specific populations.

Clearly the Bush Administration decided that we were at war with Saddam Hussein – or at least that he was at war with us (hence the threat he posed that needed to be preempted). The Bush Administration now considers Iraq the ‘central front in the war on terror’. Today, that statement is correct. However, it was not before we arrived.

But I raise Iraq not to question the fundamental merit of the invasion and occupation, only to illustrate the dangers of an ambiguously defined “War”.

The Bush Administration has since tried to redefine this war as one against “Islamic Fascism”. This seems slightly more correct, but it still begs the question: who is an Islamic Fascist and who is not? Better we should explicitly declare war on each entity or organization that threatens us. If there are residual elements or individuals that do not fit into a nice neat box, then they probably don’t need a public title to deal with anyway. Let the CIA and/or the FBI root them out and employ discreet special forces or even domestic law enforcement personnel as necessary and appropriate.

Now, on to my second statement.

Despite its merits and basic validity, Democratic presidential candidates are the last people that should be advancing the argument I have just articulated. Many, if not most, Americans still equate the phrase “War on Terror” with a war against al-Qaeda and/or a shadowy group that wants to harm us and has in the past.

For this reason, a denial of the “War on Terror” as presented in media sound-bites, is easily interpreted (or presented by an opponent) as a denial that we are at war with Osama Bin Laden and his collaborators. Such a misperception will cost a candidate dearly in the coming election. People may want to disengage our military from Iraq, but I doubt that any rational American wants to diminish the pressure on al-Qaeda one ounce. My instincts tell me that a “surge” to Afghanistan to finally hunt down Bin Laden would be welcomed by most Americans if we weren’t facing our current struggle in Iraq.

All that being said, let me be clear about one additional point: if one of these candidates is actually elected President of the United States, it will then become their obligation to define and articulate a more accurate vision of the war we are fighting to the American people (and certainly to govern by it). Fortunately, the Presidency provides a pulpit to do this, whereas the campaign trail does not.

However, to do so now play into the hands of Republicans who have tried – very successfully – to portray Democrats as weak, defeatist and/or na├»ve when it comes to security and foreign affairs. These charges were not particularly effective in the 90’s after the Soviet Union dissolved and the stock market soared, but today it is once again a potent political weapon.

It pains me to advocate a candidate holding his/her tongue on such a critical issue in a Presidential election, but I feel that in this case, the end justifies the means.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Absent Courage

Sorry that posts have been so scarce lately. My road trip will be over in a week and significant entries will follow shortly thereafter.

I'm still keeping up with the news while on the road, and I found an article that I wanted to promote while I have a moment of internet access.

If you've spent any time at all reading this blog, then you know that climate change is a topic that I hit fairly often. Just when I think I don't have anything more to say, something new comes up that I feel compelled to comment on.

The latest is today's op-ed by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Continued remarks on the President's questionable skepticism of the science and/or the need for further research seem almost futile at this point, and this is not why I am writing. Though Gov. Schwarzenegger expresses this frustration quite directly in his essay, he raises a new problem with the President's policies that I was not previously aware of: the EPA's decision to block progressive legislation by the states.

Specifically, California and 10 other states have decided to enact tougher tailpipe emission standards. Schwarzenegger's justifies this action with the following words:

Since transportation accounts for one-third of America's greenhouse gas
emissions, enacting these standards would be a huge step forward in our efforts
to clean the environment and would show the rest of the world that our nation is
serious about fighting global warming.

He then outlines the reason I am writing:

...for the past 16 months, the Environmental Protection Agency has refused to
give us permission to do so. Even after the Supreme Court ruled in our favor last month, the federal government continues to stand in our way.

This could not be more unacceptable. Apparently, President Bush has given the EPA until the end of 2008 "to continue studying the threat of greenhouse gas emissions and determine what can be done about them".

It's one thing for President Bush to avoid tough action on global warming (how convenient that "studies" will not be complete until he leaves office). It would have difficult political implications and, if done meaningfully, would not be well received by the oil companies to which he and many in his Administration have numerous personal connections.

But it is entirely another for him to block states taking action on their own. This is simply unjustifiable and I applaud Schwarzenegger for publicly calling him out on it.

I am still willing and able to give President Bush credit when he deserves it and I think that he has demonstrated some substantial political courage on occasion as President. For example, he genuinely tried to financially secure social security. He is sustaining increasing scorn for his refusal to abandon Iraq and he has rejected the ultra-conservatives in his party that refuse to consider a humane immigration reform policy. While one could argue the merits of any of these examples, it is difficult to fairly say that they did not take political courage.

But this courage is no where to be found on climate change... and its absence is jeopardizing our future.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

The Coming Dry Spell...

Readers -

I'm taking off for a roadtrip today and wont be back until the beginning of June. So, entries will be few and far between this month. But I'll be back!

Don't miss the new post today right below this one.

Have a good month!


A Glimpse at the Early Talking Points...and my Reactions

I found this graphic fascinating. It only takes about 30 seconds to look at and digest.

It brings an interesting perspective on the contrast between Democratic and Republican campaign tactics and priorities. I’m not sure how much is says about the candidates’ actual worldviews, so I wont speculate on that here.

I encourage all of you to take a look and draw your own conclusions, but here are my initial reactions after my first glance. (**Please take a look at it before you read further – otherwise this will seem like a totally random rant).

1. I am increasingly annoyed by the Republicans focus on taxes. We have structural deficits that absolutely cannot be addressed purely by economic growth. We are also fighting two wars that Republicans want to continue into the foreseeable future. To continuously champion tax cuts (or categorically swear off any form of tax increase) in the face of this reality is either a disgusting political move to (literally) buy votes, or it reveals an extreme level of incompetence with respect to both basic fiscal management and the 10 to 15 year financial context the United States is facing.

2. “Change” is (not surprisingly) a big theme for the Democratic candidates. I recommend that they work to couple the notion of change with a more specific vision as time goes on. I say this for two reasons. First, the state of this country – at least beyond the war – is going to be increasingly associated with their party as we get closer to the election. They control Congress now and have to be ready to assume the responsibility that goes with it. A blanket call for change will not be as compelling if the voters don’t think it actually means anything. I'm not saying that voters will have forgotten that 12 of the last 14 years have had Republicans controlling Congress, just that they will have to have something to show for themselves by the next election in order to make any vision credible. Second, and more importantly, once the general election begins, I think the Republicans are going to embrace the same theme. No Republican is going to trumpet the philosophies of a President with 30% approval ratings – certainly not candidates (Giuliani, McCain, Romney) that don’t really have that much in common with him anyway. (I know some of you think McCain has morphed into a Bush successor. I still don't buy it.)

3. The Republicans better start talking about health care more. This is no longer just a moral discussion about everyone deserving health insurance and 47 million Americans lacking it. The real issue is the exploding cost of care that is making the price of insurance a substantial financial strain for every middle class family. It is now a day to day concern for a large fraction of voters. If the Republicans fail to realize this, they will pay dearly.

4. Similarly, the Democrats need to start talking more about immigration. They are talking a lot about “security” already but for many Americans, these two issues are inextricably linked. There is so much at stake on this issue with respect not only to security, but also to our economy, basic human rights and our international image. If we are going to end up with a meaningful policy here, both parties must be fully engaged as I think both of them have very useful ideas to contribute (this discussion could be a series of posts so I will stop here).

5. Nothing at all on education. Nothing.

Anyway - these are my immediate reactions. Thoughts, anyone?