Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Cruel and usual punishment

New scientific evidence suggests that supposedly humane executions by lethal injection are medically and morally suspect because some prisoners remain conscious, and experience intense pain, through all or part of the procedure.

In particular, the three components of lethal injections may not work together as intended to cause prisoners to lose consciousness before dying of paralysis and cardiac arrest. Some unknown percentage of prisoners may appear to be in a comatose state when in fact they remain or become conscious (a phenomenon known as "anaesthesia awareness") as their lungs stop functioning and they slowly die of "chemical asphixiation."

All this from a study reported in PLoS (Public Library of Science) that found:
Most US executions are beset by procedural problems that could lead to insufficient anesthesia in executions. This hypothesis has been supported by findings of low postmortem blood thiopental levels and eyewitness accounts of problematic executions. Herein we report evidence that the design of the drug scheme itself is flawed.
The study concluded that:
Execution outcomes from North Carolina and California together with interspecies dosage scaling of thiopental effects suggest that in the current practice of lethal injection, thiopental might not be fatal and might be insufficient to induce surgical anesthesia for the duration of the execution. Furthermore, evidence from North Carolina, California, and Virginia indicates that potassium chloride in lethal injection does not reliably induce cardiac arrest.

We were able to analyze only a limited number of executions. However, our findings suggest that current lethal injection protocols may not reliably effect death through the mechanisms intended, indicating a failure of design and implementation. If thiopental and potassium chloride fail to cause anesthesia and cardiac arrest, potentially aware inmates could die through pancuronium-induced asphyxiation. Thus the conventional view of lethal injection leading to an invariably peaceful and painless death is questionable.

...potentially aware inmates could die through asphyxiation induced by the muscle paralysis caused by pancuronium.
...even if lethal injection is administered without technical error, those executed may experience suffocation, and therefore... “the conventional view of lethal injection as an invariably peaceful and painless death is questionable.”
Lethal injection is currently authorized for use by 37 states, the federal government and the military. Its use has recently been suspended in 11 states due to questions about its efficacy and possible violations of the Eighth Amendment's ban on "cruel and unusual punishment."

Only one of 53 executions in the U.S. during 2006 utilized a method other than lethal injection. The PLoS report makes it clear that lethal injection became the most widely used method of execution in the U.S. despite the lack of peer-reviewed scientific evaluations on the effects of the three chemicals. In fact, the methods used on animals have received far more attention, resulting in strict guidelines:
In the United States and Europe, techniques of animal euthanasia for clinical, laboratory, and agricultural applications are rigorously evaluated and governed by professional, institutional, and regulatory oversight. In university and laboratory settings, local oversight bodies known as Animal Care and Use Committees typically follow the American Veterinary Medical Association's guidelines on euthanasia, which consider all aspects of euthanasia methods, including drugs, tools, and expertise of personnel in order to minimize pain and distress to the animal. Under those guidelines, lethal injections of companion or laboratory animals are limited to injection by qualified personnel of certain clinically tested, Food and Drug Administration–approved anesthetics or euthanasics, while monitoring for awareness.

In stark contrast to animal euthanasia, lethal injection for judicial execution was designed and implemented with no clinical or basic research whatsoever [my emphasis]. To our knowledge, no ethical or oversight groups have ever evaluated the protocols and outcomes in lethal injection. Furthermore, there are no published clinical or experimental data regarding the safety and efficacy of the three-drug lethal injection protocol. Until the unprecedented and controversial use of bispectral index monitoring in the last two North Carolina lethal injections, no monitoring for anesthesia was performed.
The biologist who led the study commented: "You wouldn't be able to use this protocol to kill a pig at the University of Miami" without more proof that it worked as intended. The researchers also found that doses were not adjusted to reflect a prisoner's weight or other variables. In cases where the dosage was wrong:
"The person would feel either asphyxiation or the burning sensation associated with the potassium," said Dr. Leonidas Koniaris, a surgeon and co-author at the University of Miami. "The potassium would cause extreme discomfort, something like being put on fire."
The study was limited in scope to just four states and about 40 prisoners due to "the secrecy surrounding lethal injections" in the U.S. The authors propose "that the secrecy surrounding protocol design and implementation should be broken. The available data or lack of data should be made public and deliberations should be open and transparent."

A prosecutor in Indiana described a response that many people, faced with this evidence, would probably share: "It doesn't matter a whole lot to me that someone may have felt some pain before they were administered poison as a method of execution." I always thought that the intentional infliction of significant pain on someone is a form of cruelty. Apparently this prosecutor's Con Law class bypassed the last half of the Bill of Rights.

Others have protested that the evidence supporting the study is a bit thin, reflecting a Catch-22 paradox: the execution protocols have never been seriously evaluated by scientists in the first place, and much of the limited data has been kept secret, so there's precious little evidence available for study.

Capital punishment is a travesty in itself no matter how it is implemented. But this latest study suggests that its basic moral infirmity is compounded by a reckless and inexcusable failure to make sure that executions do not result in prolonged agony for unknown numbers of prisoners.

PHOTO: A gurney used for executions by lethal injection in Florida.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Performing conflatio in Michigan

In a speech in East Grand Rapids, Michigan, on April 20th, George W. Bush mostly talked about events in Iraq and his boundless hopes for his current escalation of the conflict. He managed to mention September 11th eight times, continuing his efforts to meld Iraq, al Qaeda and 9/11 in the public imagination.

Bush and Cheney should spend more time reading the official publications of the U.S. Army. In his indispensible Fiasco (2006), Thomas E. Ricks quotes a study of the Iraq "war of choice" published by the Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) of the Army War College:
Of particular concern has been the conflation of al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's Iraq as a single, undifferentiated terrorist threat...

"This was a strategic error of the first order because it ignored crucial differences between the two in character, threat level, and susceptibility to U.S. deterrence and military action. The result has been an unnecessary preventive war of choice against a deterred Iraq that has created a new front in the Middle East for Islamic terrorism and diverted attention and resources away from securing the American homeland against further assault by an undeterrable al Qaeda. The war against Iraq was not integral to the GWOT [Global War on Terrorism] but rather a detour from it...

[The occupation of Iraq] has stressed the U.S> Army to the breaking point.
Ricks adds, in case we missed it the first time: "This was not some politician or pundit offering that assessment but an official publication of the U.S. Army" [though a disclaimer in the report's introduction states, in familiar boilerplate language, that the views expressed "do not necessarily reflect the offi cial policy or position" of the Army, Defense Department or U.S government].

The SSI report (available online) also notes:
The administration has postulated a multiplicity of enemies, including rogue states; weapons of mass destruction (WMD) proliferators; terrorist organizations of global, regional, and national scope; and terrorism itself. It also seems to have conflated them into a monolithic threat, and in so doing has subordinated strategic clarity to the moral clarity it strives for in foreign policy and may have set the United States on a course of open-ended and gratuitous conflict with states and nonstate entities that pose no serious threat to the United States.
The SSI report, published in December 2003, has proven all too prophetic.

PHOTO: Aftermath of a suicide bombing in Baghdad, August 2006.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Lowering the flags — again

A visitor from Neptune might easily conclude that, unlike other national flags, the Stars and Stripes were meant to hang only at half-staff. Or so it often seems. There's almost always some good reason to mourn: the slaughter in Blacksburg, the death in Iraqi combat of another member of the Oregon National Guard. But something is seriously amiss in a country that devotes so much time to mourning the violent deaths of its citizens.

Lately The Oregonian, our newspaper of record, has published numerous letters echoing familiar themes, and the usual clichés, on the seemingly dormant issue of gun control. The Democrats have apparently surrendered the field to the four million members of the National Rifle Association and their many sycophants in the GOP. Those who even raise the issue are accused of disrespecting the dead during a time of national mourning. So no one has to answer pointed questions like: why should a person with a history of mental illness, like Cho, be allowed to own semiautomatic pistols like the Walther P22 and the Glock Model 19 9-millimeter. Not to mention popular assault rifles like the AR-15.

Walther's website glowingly describes its P22:
Whether you are looking for a pistol for affordable training or simply the excitement of shooting, the P22 is the pistol for you. The WALTHER P22 is fascinating in its compact size, while still maintaining all of the features of a full-size pistol.
"Affordable training" to do what, exactly? Guns & Ammo's Handguns site adds that "this little rig would make a great way to get the next generation started."

As for the Glock 19, one admirer notes that "it's 100% reliable, and easy to shoot well, and very simple to operate. Small enough to conceal, but big enough to kill." As we now know.

The endless profusion of rifles and handguns, now numbering some 200 million, may have created a lethal feedback loop—a kind of arms race. As the number of weapons increases, owners feel compelled to buy ever more powerful guns to protect themselves from perceived threats. All this plays into the constant reinforcement of the notion, so widespread in movies, television and computer games, that violence is an effective and even acceptable way to resolve conflict.

In response to the VT killings, Congress will soon be looking at a bill that would place further restrictions on gun purchases by those with a history of serious mental illness. The reintroduction of the assault weapons ban (HR 1022) in Congress is likely to lead to another political dead end. Larger questions will be buried with Cho's victims.

Meanwhile, George Bush deigned to speak at a memorial service at VT after four years of not attending a single funeral for those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Frank Rich of the NY Times pointed out this weekend:
President Bush has skipped the funerals of the troops he sent to Iraq. He took his sweet time to get to Katrina-devastated New Orleans. But last week he raced to Virginia Tech with an alacrity not seen since he hustled from Crawford to Washington to sign a bill interfering in Terri Schiavo’s end-of-life medical care. Mr. Bush assumes the role of mourner in chief on a selective basis, and, as usual with the decider, the decisive factor is politics. Let Walter Reed erupt in scandal, and he'll take six weeks to show his face — and on a Friday at that, to hide the story in the Saturday papers. The heinous slaughter in Blacksburg, Va., by contrast, was a rare opportunity for him to ostentatiously feel the pain of families whose suffering cannot be blamed on the administration.
As for Cho, too many of these mass murders have been perpetrated by young men who, like Tim McVeigh and the killers at Columbine, have been marginalized in one way or another. Cho was shy, spoke with a Korean accent, had acne and lacked minimal social skills—not to mention his history of psychosis. Years of humiliation led to his isolation and final eruption in a catharsis of murderous rage.

Now I have no intent whatsoever to make excuses for Cho, or any other murderers, but it still might be useful to consider what in our culture might be promoting this kind of alienation and extreme violence. After all, this is a culture that worships financial success and celebrity and disdains those who stumble into the ditch. The cultural icons of the day are CEO's, celebrities and arrogant billionaires like Donald Trump who all demonstrate that, as some say, "money is life's report card." It's a culture that rewards CEO's, even unsuccessful ones, with "executive pay packages that typically equal 500 times the salaries of workers at those companies."

As for the rest, especially those who aren't on the make in their careers or personal lives, Randy Newman (in Bad Love) has a line: "I only know we're living / in an unforgiving land." And another:
Just like I'm glad I'm living in the land of the free
Where the rich just get richer
And the poor you don't ever have to see
There are signs that this harsh ideology, best described as a kind of social Darwinism founded on extreme individualism, has begun to erode. Disasters in Iraq and New Orleans, combined with the absurdity of 46 million people with no health insurance, have shifted the political focus to collective solutions for a few persistent national problems.

Though it's often overlooked in the minutia of legal interpretation and "strict construction" of its language, the Constitution unequivocally proclaims overarching collective goals in its preamble:
We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Individual solutions to collective problems are appealing for the wealthy minority that can afford them. But the Founders, through their Constitution, have declared that we have a certain responsibility for each other, commonly known as compassion. That's precisely what's missing in the current state of our culture.

PHOTO: Flag at half-mast outside the U.S. Supreme Court (apparently in mourning over the erosion of women's right to choose in last week's 5-4 abortion decision).

Saturday, April 21, 2007

McCain confronts McCain

Apparently McCain is taking his cues from George Allen, who was YouTubed during last fall's gubernatorial campaign in Virginia. Does McCain think no one's paying close attention to these contraditions? Meanwhile, he grimly supports the Bush surge, apparently in the belief that a miracle in Iraq will save his campaign in time for Iowa and New Hampshire.

The 1,000-year R majority hits some bumps

As Alberto Gonzales nears the end of his career as Attorney General, thanks to his bumbling performance before a Senate committee last week, maybe the focus will shift to the broader issues that got him in so much trouble: the radical politicization of the Department of Justice, along with every other branch of the federal government, in pursuit of long-term Republican dominance. The firing of U.S. Attorneys who resisted the White House's political agenda only revealed a small slice of this agenda, notably Karl Rove's obsession with pursuing spurious "voter fraud" prosecutions as a way of intimidating the political opposition.

In his column for the New York Observer, Joe Conason described the "broader scheme" that was designed to nurture fantasies of a thousand-year Republican majority:
Developed by deputy chief of staff Karl Rove, the President’s top political aide, that scheme was evidently designed to advance his objective of discouraging minority voters and others with the bad habit of supporting Democratic candidates. In Republican parlance, such attempts to hamper registration, intimidate citizens and reduce turnout in targeted communities are lauded as “combating voter fraud.” Several of the fired U.S. Attorneys had angered party operatives, including Mr. Rove, because they had shown so little enthusiasm for trumping up fraud cases against Democrats.

Following the 2004 election, David Iglesias, then serving as the U.S. Attorney in New Mexico, set up a task force to investigate Republican allegations of fraud. Those accusations boiled down to a single case where a woman had created a handful of phony registrations. (She did so for financial reasons, rather than out of any desire to manipulate the election.) When Mr. Iglesias declined prosecution for lack of airtight evidence, local Republicans began to demand his replacement with a more pliable and less professional prosecutor—a demand eventually fulfilled by Mr. Rove and President Bush.
The Biskupic case in Wisconsin, as noted in a previous posting, fits the overall pattern nicely:
In Wisconsin, by contrast, U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic prosecuted voter-fraud allegations regardless of merit, winning big headlines when he indicted 14 black Milwaukee residents for casting ballots illegally. Nine of those cases were either tossed out or lost in court—an awful result compared with the normal conviction rate of over 90 percent. But at least the mediocre Mr. Biskupic—whose conviction of a Democratic state official was just overturned on appeal—managed to remain in the good graces of the White House and keep his job.

The Republican cry of “voter fraud” is a specious complaint, amplified by right-wing hacks to conceal the fact that in recent years, the most sustained efforts to interfere with orderly elections and voting rights can be traced to the Republican National Committee.

Harassing minority voters with bogus claims of fraud is a venerable tradition in the G.O.P., as anyone familiar with the career of the late Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist would know. Back in the early 60’s, when Rehnquist was just another ambitious young lawyer in Arizona, he ran a partisan campaign to confront black and Hispanic voters over their “qualifications.” Along with many of today’s generation of Republican leaders, he was a stalwart of the Goldwater campaign in 1964, which garnered its handful of electoral votes in the South by opposing the Voting Rights Act.
Karl Rove came on the political scene during the Nixon era. Conason notes:
Under his leadership, the G.O.P. has repeatedly been disgraced by conspiracies to diminish voter participation.
In 2002, Republican operatives used a telemarketing firm to illegally jam Democratic phone banks in New Hampshire to win the U.S. Senate seat now held by John Sununu. In 2004, Florida state officials sent armed officers into certain Orlando neighborhoods to scare elderly black registrants, while Republicans sought to challenge minority voters en masse in communities in Kentucky, Nevada, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and Ohio, and paid for the destruction of Democratic voter registrations in Nevada and Oregon.
Actual voter fraud of the kind decried in Republican propaganda is rare, according to nonpartisan experts. Although the White House recently rewrote a careful federal study by the Election Assistance Commission to hide that basic fact, it remains true that very few individuals intentionally seek to fabricate a registration or cast an illegal ballot.
Naturally there are exceptions, as Conason is quick to observe, "most notably illustrated by Republican celebrity Ann Coulter:"
When the far-right columnist and television personality registered to vote in Palm Beach, Fla., in 2005, she wrote down the address of her realtor’s office rather than her own home address. She then signed the form, despite its plain warning that falsifying any information on it would make her liable to felony prosecution—and which she, as a lawyer, surely understood. According to Palm Beach County election officials, she also voted in the wrong precinct the following year, disregarding a poll worker who explained her error. (Coulter fans can view her dubious voter-registration form online at [And a lot more here.]

If proved, those acts would be crimes punishable by prison terms of up to five years, but Ms. Coulter has stonewalled the ongoing investigation. (She says the Palm Beach officials are syphilitic and mentally defective.) No charges have been filed so far, perhaps because her lawyer is a prominent Republican who worked on Bush v. Gore in 2000—and whom the President then appointed as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida. He must know a lot about voter fraud.
But now back to Wisconsin and USA Biskupic's humiliating attempt to prosecute Georgia Thompson on corrupation charges.

The three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago has just (April 20th) issued a unanimous 14-page opinion supporting its extraordinary decision to free Thompson on April 5th. She was accused of obtaining a "private benefit" from her decision to award a state contract to a travel agency which had made a political contribution to a (surprise!) Democratic candidate for governer. The court held (on page 13) that "neither an increase in salary for doing what one’s superiors deem a good job, nor an addition to one’s peace of mind, is a 'private benefit' for the purpose of [a federal criminal prosecution]." The opinion concludes:
This prosecution, which led to the conviction and imprisonment of a civil servant for conduct that, as far as this record shows, was designed to pursue the public interest as the employee understood it, may well induce Congress to take another look at the wisdom of enacting ambulatory criminal prohibitions. Haziness designed to avoid loopholes through which bad persons can wriggle can impose high costs on people the statute was not designed to catch.
In the end, the Thompson case demonstrates the effects of combining overly broad federal laws with a zealous prosecutor who has transparent political motives.

PHOTO: Ann Coulter spewing venom at the Republican convention in 2004.

Blues Break: NIN travels to Mars - "Sunspots"

NASA's Mars Exploration Rover makes its way across the solar system, accompanied by Nine Inch Nails'/Trent Reznor's "Sunspots." Outstanding animation by Daniel Maas.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Protecting the "inerrant Bible"

The ever-alert Digby at Hullabaloo has turned up a bill designed to protect "intellectual diversity" that recently passed the Missouri House of Representatives. It contains a clause that requires state colleges to file an annual report on their progress toward goals that include the following:
(e) Include intellectual diversity concerns in the institution's guidelines on teaching and program development and such concerns shall include but not be limited to the protection of religious freedom including the viewpoint that the Bible is inerrant [my emphasis];
The annual report must describe the colleges' general progress as well as the specific steps it has taken to achieve "intellectual freedom." The criteria for evaluating the reports include whether they:
(g) Develop hiring, tenure, and promotion policies that protect individuals against viewpoint discrimination and track any reported grievances in that regard;

l) Hold meetings periodically with students to determine if the students believe they are receiving a sound and respectful education; or

(m) Create an institutional ombudsman on intellectual diversity.

Much of the bill seems entirely reasonable, but its implications seem clear enough: a fundamentalist Christian student, for example, could file a formal grievance or appeal to the "ombudsman" because he feels that his zoology professor hasn't taught evolution in a way that acknowledges the "viewpoint that the Bible is inerrant."

Biblical literalism, then, becomes just another "viewpoint" that deserves consideration in a science class alongside evidence that the Vishnu Schist at the bottom of the Grand Canyon is two billion years old. In a philosophy class on epistemology (the theory of knowledge), a professor could be challenged under the Missouri "diversity" code if she fails to teach the doctrine of biblical infallibility along with empiricism, constructivism and rationalism. A physics professor teaching the Big Bang could be denounced by any student who feels that he hasn't been sufficiently "respectful" of the biblical notion that the universe was created in six days.

As much as the proposed law seems to disfavor "viewpoint" discrimination, it takes an aggressive role in doing exactly that by specifically promoting biblical literalism. And the bill's political context is clear enough: the Missouri House has joined David Horowitz's hysterical assault on the perceived—perceived by the right, that is—domination of academia by leftist faculty members.

With 81% of the U.S. population describing itself as "Christian," the Missouri House's anxieties about the infringement of religious freedoms seem misplaced. The non-Christian and atheist minorities would have a lot more to worry about if this Missouri bill is ever signed into law.

The bill was prompted by a lawsuit filed by a grad student against Missouri State University based on its alleged retaliation for her refusal to sign a letter (part of a class project) supporting gay adoption. That lawsuit was settled out of court last November.

Whatever the merits of the lawsuit, the bill directly injects the state legislature into curriculum management for Missouri's public colleges and universities, with a specifically Christian agenda. That's both an infringement on the religious freedom of non-Christians and the kind of "law respecting an establishment of religion" that's forbidden by the First Amendment.

PHOTO: The Missouri House in session. The state motto on the podium,
"Salus populi suprema lex [esto]," means "the welfare of the people shall be the supreme law." Not the Bible?

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Geaghan: Sunday Snippets from the paper of record

Since she began writing a regular column for the New York Times in 1995, Maureen Dowd's career has been distinguished by an almost indiscriminate series of personal hit pieces on everyone from the Clintons to Al Gore to the Bush dynasty and, this week, Paul Wolfowitz. Her name has even become a verb in some quarters, as in "to dowdify." If she has ever written a kind word about anyone in politics, I must have missed it. (I readily admit, however, that there may be few reasons to write anything positive about our political classes.)

Wolfowitz, the neocon who played a central role in selling and quickly botching the Iraq war, is now embroiled in a scandal involving nepotism, among other things, in his new gig as president of the World Bank. As with Iraq, he seems incapable of recognizing his mistakes. Dowd, as she often does, skewers her target nicely:
Like W., Wolfie is dangerous precisely because he’s so persuaded of his own virtue.
Not surprisingly, people who are so convinced of their own infallibility can do no wrong and are not bound by the same limitations (including the law) that constrain the rest of us. Or so they believe.

Meanwhile, Frank Rich's columns can be equally (and appropriately) devastating for his subjects, except he frequently transcends personal vilification and shifts his focus to the culture at large. In today's column, for example, he explores the fallout from last week's firing of Don Imus by CBS:

The biggest cliché of the debate so far is the constant reiteration that this will be a moment for a national “conversation” about race and sex and culture. Do people really want to have this conversation, or just talk about having it? If they really want to, it means we have to ask ourselves why this debacle has given permission to talking heads on television to repeat Imus’s offensive words so insistently that cable news could hardly take time out to note the shocking bombing in the Baghdad Green Zone...

If we really want to have this conversation, it also means we have to have a nonposturing talk about hip-hop lyrics, “Borat,” “South Park” and maybe Larry David, too.
Though we've been hearing rumors about a national "conversation" on racism for decades, it's not happening now and won't even begin unless our political, cultural or religious leaders are willing to confront some very difficult questions about both our history and current social realities.

Instead, we're seeing a sustained reaction against "political correctness" and "victimology" that's analogous to, and part of, the opposition to feminism documented by Susan Faludi in 1991 in Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (1).

That reaction is based on a simple premise: women, blacks and other minorities may have had some legitimate complaints about systematic discrimination in the past, but American society has evolved towards greater equality. So their litany of complaints is entirely out of proportion to current realities and, thanks to programs like affirmative action, serves only to victimize the white majority (and especially white males). As long as that all-too-convenient perception exists, any "conversation" will be impossible or, at best, unproductive.

The right has added its own variation on this theme: the inequality of African Americans is the result of years of paternalistic federal programs created by Democratic administrations and congresses. These programs have created an unhealthy dependency that has prevented blacks from taking initiatives that might allow them to enter and thrive in the free-market system. As the inflammatory Dinesh D'Souza once wrote, "the American obsession with race is fueled by a civil rights establishment that has a vested interest in perpetuating black dependency" (4).

The reasons for the backlash? Faludi's comments in a 1999 interview still seem valid today:
Look, it's hardly a time of great jubilation for anyone. But it's much harder for men in many respects because they have this feeling that women are rising just as men are falling. The truth is, of course, that women are moving from the subbasement to the basement. By any objective measure -- pay, representation in boardrooms, status -- men are still ahead. But psychologically it's much harder to fall than to climb, even if you land at a higher point than those who are just beginning to rise.
By most measures, of course, African Americans haven't experienced even the limited social and economic mobility that Faludi describes for women (2). Until we have our national "conversation," that reality seems unlikely to change.


(1) Followed by Faludi's Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man in 1999.

(2) The scope of the problem, contrary to popular perceptions about minority preferences in hiring, was revealed by a 2003 study conducted by researchers from MIT and the University of Chicago. They submitted a large number of job applications that were substantially the same in terms of education and prior experience, but they differed in one respect: half the "applicants" had names that "sounded" African American. Those applicants were 50% less likely to be invited in for interviews, and the percentage was even lower for better paying, more responsible positions. [See also this article by Tim Wise and our posting on the U.S. "Punishment Culture."]

(3) In a January posting, we attempted to apply the academic construct known, awkwardly, as "cultural pseudosubspeciation" to Iraq. That concept has equal application to racial, ethnic and gender relations in the U.S. and elsewhere. Our friend Ellis at Disambiguation (which has been far too quiet of late) has privately expressed some disagreement with our use of that notion. Maybe we can elicit a comment from him, or our hordes of readers, on this subject.

(4) In his lengthy analysis of race relations in The End of Racism (1996), D'Souza also wrote: "Activists recommend federal jobs programs and recruitment into the private sector. Yet it seems unrealistic, bordering on the surreal, to imagine underclass blacks with their gold chains, limping walk, obscene language, and arsenal of weapons doing nine-to-five jobs at Procter and Gamble or the State Department."

PHOTO: The gleaming new headquarters of the New York Times, designed by Renzo Piano, on 8th Avenue in Manhattan.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Geaghan: Turd Blossom comes to town for F13

Karl Rove—or "Turd Blossom," as he is affectionately known by George Bush—dropped by on Friday the 13th for a Republican fundraiser at an Embassy Suites hotel next to a shopping mall in suburban Tigard, Oregon. No doubt this location was selected, in part, to avoid the rollicking demonstration that would've taken place if he had come to nearby Portland instead. After all, George Bush the Elder once described Portland as "Little Beirut."

About 50 protesters gathered outside the event, a small but respectable showing for an urban area that produced the largest antiwar demonstration in the world in March, 2006—though much smaller demonstrations in places like New York and Rome received far more media attention.

One of the demonstrators said: "We wanted to make sure Mr. Rove had a proper Northwest greeting." And so he did. No arrests were reported.

About 200 Republican attended, paying the relatively modest sum of $40-60 for finger food and the chance to hear a relentlessly upbeat speech in which Rove predicted that his party would get up "off the mat" and win the election in 2008. He declined to answer questions from the media about the mysterious disappearance of four years' worth of his emails .

One question: how could the Washington County Republicans make any money from this appearance? The event raised a mere $10,000, which is presumably far less than the cost of delivering Mr. Rove to PDX and paying his expenses. Maybe the party is willing to take a financial hit in order to rally the GOP loyalists in Oregon's second largest county, which has been tilting toward Democrats lately.

Meanwhile, the lost Rove emails are certain to be a topic of some interest when Attorney General Gonzales testifies before the Senate Judiciary Cmmittee next Tuesday. Some of those emails might be relevant to the investigation of last fall's purge of eight U.S. Attorneys, and a 1978 law requires the White House "to keep documents that relate to presidential actions, decisions and deliberations." Rove has dodged the bullet, so far, in the Valerie Plame/Scooter Libby and other investigations, but maybe his Teflon armor is finally wearing thin.

If they can "lose" thousands of emails that they're required to preserve, you have to wonder how scrupulous Rove and the White House staff have been in making sure that taxpayer money isn't used for partisan junkets like the one to Oregon.

Meanwhile, the administration gave Congress another 2,400 pages of requested information on Friday, including documents showing that the purged USA's were evaluated on political grounds. For example, one spreadsheet assessed their "political activism" and whether they were members of the right-wing Federalist Society (see the footnote on this subject in our posting for April 9th).

As for Gonzales, you can stick a fork in him—he's done.


For earlier postings on the Justice Department scandals, visit here and here and here.

PHOTO: Rove and his boss in happier times for the GOP.

[For a truly disturbing video (on many levels) of Rove at play, take a look at his performance during this year's Radio-Television Correspondents' Association dinner.]

Blues Break: Iron & Wine - "Naked as We Came"

Maybe it's not blues, strictly speaking, but this fine song by Sam and Sarah Beam deserves a larger audience. I&W's next album, Shepherd's Dog, will be released on September 25th. My son assures me that their performance was the highlight of last spring's Sasquatch festival in Washington State.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Innate or acquired?

The debate over "nature vs. nurture" rages on anew among sociologists, psychologists and philosophers, often couched in the strict polarities of genetic or environmental determinism. The following essay—actually some long excerpts from a French blog—suggests that the controversy has long been settled in the U.S. in favor of a strong and highly judgmental religious sensibility: humans are born with innate tendencies toward good and evil, within which freedom of choice can only play a minor role. In fact, this freedom of choice is just enough to create personal responsibility for our bad decisions, bringing with it shame and punishment.

The essay, from a philosophical blog linked to Paris Libération, will probably raise three instant objections: it's rather long, it's rather dry, and it was written by a French observer who has lived in the U.S. for several years. But, living as we do in a narcissistic culture, it's always worthwhile to seek out other perspectives. [Besides, some of the themes came up in a posting on March 31st.] Entitled "Innate and acquired seen from the U.S." (No. 198) and written by Corinne Narassiguin, the essay was posted on April 12th from New York (my translation from the French): the U.S., the idea of a genetic predisposition to certain social behaviors is very widespread. For decades American scientists have sought to identify a gene for violence. The fatalistic attitude of the average American toward criminality in society allows us to identify how this ideology became established in this country. The fervor of the ultraconservative Christian movement has surely contributed to the acceptance of the idea that some are born good, others evil...

[I]n reality, no serious American scientist denies the importance of the environment and nurture in the development of individual personalities. The majority of American sociologists, psychologists and politicians don't believe that everything is fixed from the cradle onwards. Even if they think that most of our behavior is the result of genetic predispositions, they continue to insist that the environment can counterbalance those predispositions. If the average American is ready to believe that some are born under the sign of divine grace, others under the mark of the devil, they believe nonetheless that most of us can exercise our freedom to choose between Good and Evil, either in spite of or because of our genetic heritage.

It should still be noted that theories about a gene for addiction, obesity, homosexuality, violence and mental illness find a resonance in the general population. In the U.S., as in France, in these uncertain times, people are seeking certainties.

How does this philosophy, which privileges genetic determinism over educational, social, and environmental factors, translate politically in the U.S. in terms of the treatment of criminals?

Politically and socially, the predominance of genetic determinism as a philosophy translates itself into a certain fatalism concerning criminality. [The fundamental idea] is that there are genetic predispositions to criminal behavior, that the role of education and society is to neutralize those predispositions by blocking their expression. Unfortunately, they think, when proper conditions don't develop early enough, and the evil gene has therefore profited from fertile ground to assert itself, it is very difficult to go back.

This is the source of a justice that privileges punishment and almost completely ignores the necessity of rehabilitation. Of a population which has never learned to see the difference between justice and vengeance. Of a country which doesn't openly question itself over capital punishment unless there's some risk of judicial error, but rarely concerning any ethical issue. The American prison: a place for punishment, where you deserve everything that happens to you, because you made the bad choice to give in to your criminal leanings. Rehabilitation is reserved as a last chance for those who haven't yet taken the plunge into serious criminality.

Prison as a school for crime? Rape, rackets, gangs in prison? In the the media, TV serials and political campaigns they speak of such things as an established fact. They rarely speak of them as a source of shame for the country, as a problem to remedy. Because, in the end, what do you expect to happen in a prison—a place full of criminals and deviants? Good people can do nothing about it, except perhaps to find alternatives to prison for delinquents who are not yet seen as incurable criminals, and who are still judged capable (by what criteria?) of being saved from that school of vice...

Work in prison is seen first as a supplemental way for criminals to pay their debt to society, to earn the food and care to which they have a right while there.

Prison is only seen secondarily as a way of reintegrating [into society]. Otherwise, for those guilty of serious crimes, the only acceptable form of rehabilitation for the majority of Americans is the (re)discovery of religious faith—the Born Again, the converted, who repent and place themselves, body and soul, before the destiny that God has decided for them. Because only divine grace can, in the eyes of the majority of Americans, deliver a criminal from his innate Evil and give him a second chance*.

I can't speak about American prisons without mentioning the overrepresentation of blacks. This tragic situation is certainly the direct result of a long history of discrimination, which largely continues today (in education, housing, hiring, professional advancement). But in the southern states in particular, where the memory of segregation remains strong, painfully for some and nostalgically for others, this overrepresentation of blacks in prison is associated with a possible genetic determinism that can only reinforce racial prejudices...

It is evident that in the U.S., as in Europe, genetic determinism as an intellectual position on the human condition is more dominant on the right than the left. One finds that Democrats have a greater will to develop policies of reinsertion, to fight against prison abuses, a greater capacity to believe in rehabilitation—with or without a religious epiphany. But it is interesting to note that, even for the Democrats, the vocabulary of Good and Evil has currency, and that prevention, education and equality of opportunity are seen above all as ways to reduce the effects of a genetic determinism that demands to express itself.
But this worldview isn't unique to the U.S. It has its extreme political expression in France itself, in the form of the current presidential candidacy of Nicolas Sarkozy, from the conservative Union for a Popular Movement. Another French writer and philosopher, Michel Onfray, describes his recent encounter with the candidate (my translation again):
He makes a gesture with a tight fist drawn to the right side of his abdomen and speaks about evil like it's a visible thing in the body, the flesh, even the viscera of one's being. I am led to believe that he thinks evil exists as a separate entity, clear, metaphysical, objectified, like a tumor, without any relation to the social, to society, politics, historical conditions. I questioned him to confirm my intuition: in fact, he thinks that we are born good or evil and that, no matter what happens, no matter what one does, everything is already regulated by nature.
Between the polarities of nature and nurture, there seems to be a highly complex middle ground where some traits and proclivities can be assigned to one's genetic heritage, while others are acquired (or perhaps reinforced) through one's environment.


*As it did for George Bush, whose born-again claims gave him a pass with conservative voters, who then ignored his history of drug/alcohol abuse and the fact that he is the only U.S. president who has been convicted of a crime. [My note, not Narassiguin's.]

[DISCLAIMER: By reproducing parts of Narassiguin's essay, I don't mean to indicate approval or agreement with everything she writes.]

PHOTO: Nicolas Sarkozy with his soulmate George Bush.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)

"The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever."
Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

Now hiring: War czar - inquire at White House

The London Guardian's Ewen MacAskill reports today, under the headline "Top US generals reject war tsar role for Iraq and Afghanistan" (and the subhead "Bush struggles to find candidate for new post; Chaotic approach and Cheney attitude blamed"):
Three retired generals approached by the White House about a new high-profile post overseeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and reporting directly to the president have rejected the proposed post, leaving the administration struggling to find anyone of stature willing to take it on.

One of the four-star generals said he declined because of the chaotic way the war was being run and because Dick Cheney, the vice-president and the leading hawk in the Bush administration, retained more influence than pragmatists looking for a way out.

The deputy White House spokeswoman, Dana Perino, confirmed yesterday that George Bush was considering restructuring the administration to create a new post, dubbed the war tsar by US media. It would involve co-ordinating the work of the defence, state and other departments at what she described as a critical stage in the wars. One of the retired generals approached, Marine General John Sheehan, told the Washington Post: "The very fundamental issue is they don't know where the hell they're going."

The unwillingness of the generals to take the job undermines recent attempts by the Bush administration to put a positive spin on the Iraq war...

Gen Sheehan said Mr Cheney and his allies "are still in the positions of most influence" in spite of two leading pragmatists, the defence secretary, Robert Gates, and the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, winning support in the past four months for a diplomatic approach. After two weeks of discussing the job with Mr Hadley, Gen Sheehan rejected it: "So rather than go over there, develop an ulcer and eventually leave, I said, 'No, thanks.'"
Meanwhile, Dick Cheney remains even more delusional than Dubya, his nominal boss, as the Guardian story goes on to suggest:
Mr Cheney last week reiterated claims of links between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein's Iraq in spite of newly released US intelligence assessments saying there had been no evidence. Mr Cheney, unlike Mr Gates and Ms Rice, also favours air strikes against Iran's nuclear sites.
As Kurt Vonnegut—may he rest in peace with the spirit of Bokonon—wrote, in Mother Night (1961),
Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile.
Meanwhile, NPR's Day to Day reported on Thursday that "recent graduates of the West Point military academy are leaving active duty at the highest rate in more than 30 years," despite the expenditure of $1 billion in bonuses by the Pentagon last year to retain members of the military. The rate of attrition for West Point graduates has ranged from 10-30% over most of the past three decades, but the dropout rate has risen to around 50% for recent classes.

This news comes at a time when the Pentagon has just extended tours of duty in Iraq from 12 to 15 months.

* * * *

All of which leads me back to what the incomparable Vonnegut once wrote*:
True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.


*Source unknown, but widely attributed to him.

GRAPHIC: Nicholas II of Russia, the last czar.

Monday, April 09, 2007

The curious case of Georgia Thompson

Last November— coincidentally, no doubt, just before the election—state purchasing agent Georgia Thompson was sentenced to eighteen months in a Wisconsin federal prison after being convicted of official corruption: namely, steering a lucrative government contract to a company that donated $20,000 to Democratic Governor Jim Doyle for his hard-fought campaign for re-election. The trial judge refused to release Thompson from prison while her appeal to the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago was pending.

In their attack ads, Republicans relied heavily on the fresh Thompson conviction as proof of Doyle's corrupt administration. Nonetheless, Doyle won the election with 53% of the vote.

So far this sounds like a routine white-collar prosecution with a political twist, but on further examination the facts get more interesting:
  • The competing bids were close (a "statistical tie"), but Thompson's final decision favored a Wisconsin firm over one that was out-of-state.
  • Georgia Thompson was appointed to her position in 2001 by a Republican, and she was sentenced by a Republican appointee to the federal bench.
  • The U.S. Attorney (USA) in Milwaukee, Steven Biskupic (a Dubya appointee), survived the Justice Department's purge of eight USA's who were deemed insufficiently partisan in their prosecutions of official corruption and "voter fraud" (1) by Alberto Gonzales and Karl Rove (as described previously here and here, and all over the net).

  • Most critically, legally speaking, there was no evidence at trial that Thompson had any knowledge whatsoever of the campaign contribution to Doyle that allegedly motivated her decision.
Thompson's conviction demolished her reputation, led to the loss of her job and cost her at least $300,000, mostly in legal fees and lost salary (2).

Faced with the trial record, a three-judge panel (including one Democratic and two Republican appointees) of the 7th Circuit held last week that "no reasonable jury" could have convicted Thompson on the evidence presented. One of the judges told the Assistant USA at the hearing that “it strikes me that your evidence is beyond thin." The written order of the court in Case No. 06-3676 was terse and direct:
"The judgment of conviction is reversed, and the case will be remanded with instructions to enter a judgment of acquittal... Thompson is entitled to immediate release from prison, on her own recognizance. The United States must make arrangements so that she may be released before the close of business today."
It is unclear whether the government will appeal to the full panel of the 7th Circuit.

Appellate courts usually remand cases back to the trial court for further proceedings; they rarely acquit defendants on the spot and order their instant release from prison (after just 26 minutes of oral argument). This extraordinary result came "with a swift, blunt decisiveness almost never seen in the legal system," and "struck a blow to the credibility" of Biskupic and his office.

A Democratic state senator said:
"I think it's right out of the Karl Rove playbook... I never thought I'd see a prosecution like this. That woman is innocent. He's ruined her life."
As Congress investigates the purge of the eight USA's, the prosecution of Thompson presents a larger question: (as noted in a NY Times editorial): "what did the surviving attorneys do to escape the axe?" Is it just a coincidence that only 17.8% of federal prosecutions for official corruption have been directed against Republicans by Bush's Justice Department?

Ordinarily the motivation to prosecute isn't legally relevant if the evidence shows that a crime may have been committed. But the evidence suggests that Thompson may have been "railroaded" based on scant proof of guilt. How many other convictions in federal court are vulnerable to attack because of partisan motives? And how many federal prosecutions were actually blocked for partisan reasons? The scandal in the Justice Department will be playing itself out for the remainder of Bush's interminable presidency.


(1) Sure enough, Biskupic led a "joint inquiry" into voter fraud last year that found:
...clear evidence of fraud in the Nov. 2 election in Milwaukee, including more than 200 cases of felons voting illegally and more than 100 people who voted twice, used fake names or false addresses or voted in the name of a dead person.
But even with a reported discrepancy totaling 4,609 in the Milwaukee voter rolls, none of the alleged fraud occurred on a scale that would have affected the statewide election results for governor or president.

Biskupic seems to have a reputation for impartiality, but it remains to be seen whether he was unaffected by the political storms within the Bush/Rove Justice Department.

(2) Gov. Doyle didn't help Thompson's cause by stridently dissociating himself from her after her conviction, saying that he had "zero tolerance for ethical lapses in government." Now he proclaims that she was "a political football" and "an innocent woman who was imprisoned for more than four months just for doing her job." [This analysis has been disputed—see comment below.]

NOTE: A high-quality audio version of the oral argument is online at the 7th Circuit's site. It's easy to see where the court is headed as it takes the case under the briefest "advisement" before issuing its order.

PHOTO: Biskupic speaking at the Federalist Society, the source of many right-wing appointments to the federal bench (including Justices Scalia and Thomas) and prominent conservative attorneys like Kenneth Starr. The NY Times notes that:
...much of the [Society's] influence, and most of the intrigue, flows from an informal social network, which members use to advance one another's causes and careers. Openly and behind the scenes, members have played prominent roles in the most pitched political battles in recent years, including the impeachment of President Bill Clinton and the Florida recount fracas in 2000 that led to the election of Mr. Bush.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

A winner no matter what

The conventional wisdom (here and here, for example) is that the "surge" strategy in Iraq is, so far, a success—as demonstrated just last weekend by Sen. John McCain's tour of the Shorja market in Baghdad, guarded by a hundred heavily-armed U.S. soldiers and five helicopters (1). Overlooked in most of the reporting on this April's Fool tour was the death of six Americans in the Baghdad area that same day and the murder of 21 Shorja market workers and merchants the following day.

But, of course, the surge can't lose, no matter what happens, for all the reasons expressed by Robert Farley at Lawyers, Guns and Money (April 8th):
Remember now; if the Mahdi Army lies low, then the Surge is working. If the Mahdi Army fights back, then the Surge is working. If the Mahdi Army has already dissolved, the Surge is working. If Sadr cooperates, the Surge is working. If he runs, the Surge is working. If he orders attacks, the Surge is working.

It's magical, this Surge; no matter what happens, the evidence demonstrates that the Surge is working. It can't fail! Any behavior taken by anyone in Iraq is a positive by-product of the Surge. I mean, sure, the Surge hasn't dented American casualty rates or Iraqi casualty rates for the country as a whole, but that also is evidence that it's working; the enemy is clearly desperate, which is why he's attacking us.
In fact, U.S. and "coalition" casualties have risen since the surge began, according to the detailed information compiled by the Iraq Coalition Casualties (ICC) site. In the first week of April, for example, 35 Americans and 6 Brits have been killed in Iraq, an average of 5.12 per day compared to 2.65 per day in March and 3 per day in February. If the fatality rate for the first 14 weeks of the year continues, 2007 would be by far the deadliest year for the U.S. since the war began (2):

YearUS Deaths
Extrapolating from these numbers, over 1,000 U.S. fatalities could be expected this year. Since the surge relies heavily on aggressive short-term urban combat by Americans embedded in neighborhoods with Iraqi police, the casualty rate could easily go higher as the number of troops in Baghdad increases.

Which, for the Bushies, would only prove that the surge is working.


(1) Frank Rich's account of this media event for the New York Times (April 7th) skewers both McCain and the surge very nicely, but you can only read it if you subscribe.

(2) From the ICC site, last updated on April 8, 2007. Since then, as reported on tonight's news, six more U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq.

PHOTO: The Shorja market in Baghdad on a day last August when Sen. John McCain and his protective task force were elsewhere.

Blues Break: Joan Baez & Bob Dylan - "Railroad Boy"

From the Rolling Thunder Revue tour (1976), this song is based on a 1928 recording by banjoist Buell Kazee. [The audio skips a bit, so rent the DVD for good quality and some fine performances by these two artists.]

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Geaghan: Empty heads at MSNBC

Don Imus has outdone himself, yet again one more time ad nauseum, as you can readily see from Wednesday's entry on the indispensible Media Matters site. He referred to Rutgers' women's basketball team, with its eight African American and two white players, as "some nappy-headed hos." I was tempted to embed the YouTube footage of Imus' blather in this post, but for some reason my hand trembled uncontrollably each time I tried to do it. (You can see it at Media Matters, along with a revealing account of recent similar statements by Imus and others on his show.) Imus has apologized for his "stupid" comment, predictably, after receiving a flood of free publicity for his disturbingly popular show.

Imus is part of a nauseating (and apparently growing) cultural phenomenon founded on an in-your-face racism, sexism and homophobia that proudly flaunt what they call their "political incorrectness." In reality, "politically incorrect" is nothing more a euphemism for language and symbols that are meant to hurt other people, especially minorities and women. When someone objects, they're accused of being "hypersensitive" and urged to get over it.

PHOTO: Tennessee's Candance Parker claims the net after her team beat Rutgers for the NCAA women's title by a score of 59-46 on April 3rd.

UPDATE (4/9/07): Digby at Hullabaloo hosts an interesting discussion on this question: is it better to ignore the Imuses and Limbaughs of the media world? My view: confront them, ideally without too many histrionics, which can damage credibility. Ignoring them won't work, as Kerry proved with the Swift Boat slanders. I like the variation on Voltaire that goes: "I may disagree with what you say, but I'll defend to the death my right to ridicule you."

Not responding would only encourage them and, even worse, likely be considered an admission that they're right.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The scar on the tree

In earlier posts (here and here), I noted that rehabilitated neocon Francis Fukuyama has emerged as a scathing critic of the movement that he helped to found with his book The End of History and the Last Man and his participation in the Project for the New American Century.

In a piece for Monday's London Guardian, it's even more clear that Fukuyama's political evolution places him in direct conflict with Paul Wolfowitz, Elliot Abrams and other former soulmates (and thanks to Digby at Hullabaloo for the link to that article). His Hegelian views on the inevitable triumph of American democracy and hypercapitalism are barely recognizable now.

Yesterday, in an op-ed piece in Le Monde of Paris, he discusses the resurgence of Japanese nationalism and the persistent failure of that nation to examine its role as an aggressor, and perpetrator of war crimes, during World War II. He writes (my translation from the French):
Unlike Germany, Japan has never clearly recognized its responsibility in the Pacific war. Although in 1995, the first socialist minister of our time, Tomiichi Murayama, had officially presented some excuses for the war to China, there has never been a true debate inside Japan on its responsibility and there has never been a real attempt to present a version of events that differs from the one shown in the Yasukuni Museum.
Whatever its many virtues, Clint Eastwood's "Letters from Iwo Jima" is unlikely to initiate any debate over Japan's conduct of the war (as discussed in a post last week).

The Yasukuni shrine and attached war museum have been a source of controversy ever since 1978, when 14 war criminals were interred among the 2.5 million people whose remains had already been deposited there. Visits to the shrine by successive prime ministers have incited protests in Korea and China—and in Japan itself, primarily from those who favor the separation of the state from the Shinto religion. Fukuyama notes:
Past the exhibits of the Mitsubishi Zero fighter, the tanks and the submachine guns, one comes across a description of the Pacific war which reaffirms "the truth of Japan's modern history" from a nationalist point of view. Japan becomes the victim of the European colonial powers, seeking to protect the rest of Asia from that influence. The colonial occupation of Korea by Japan is described, for example, as a "partnership," and one searches in vain for a single line about the victims of Japanese militarism in Nanking or Manila.

It might just be a question of one point of view among others in the tallies of a pluralistic democracy, but no other museum exists in Japan that presents the history of the country during the 20th century in a different light. In addition, since this museum is the responsibility of a private religious organization, successive governments have denied all responsibility for the ideology that is expressed there.

Denial of one's wartime history is hardly unique to the Japanese. For most of the combatants during World War II, including France and the U.S., there have been no "truth and reconciliation commissions"—on the models of South Africa, Argentina and Chile—to closely examine the behavior of the authorities and individuals in waging war. It has largely been left to historians and journalists to assess the bombings of Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the forced relocation of 120,000 Japanese Americans to "resettlement" camps, the role of the French government in the deportation of its Jewish citizens to Nazi death camps.

But Japan seems to be uniquely resistant to a close examination of its wartime behavior. The recent uproar over the "comfort women"appropriated as sex slaves by the Japanese army (primarily in Korea and China) was compounded by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's incredible claim on March 1st that "there was no coercion in a narrow sense of the term" in the "recruitment" of the women.

Takashi Oda, of the Daily Yomiuri, defends Abe with this "clarification:" "Abe's statement was simply meant to explain the fact that no official documents have been found to substantiate the allegations of coercion by the Japanese military in recruiting the women—the crux of the comfort women issue" [my emphasis]. Apparently Mr. Abe has given little credence to the mountain of evidence that investigators have accumulated on this issue.

On March 11th, in response to the outrage over his earlier remarks, Abe said: "I would like to sincerely apologize for Japan's causing a large number of people [abroad] to suffer great mental anguish in the wartime past..." To the "comfort women" and others subjected to atrocities by the Japanese Imperial Army, "great mental anguish" barely touches on the pain they experienced.

Takashi Oda concludes:
Political leaders, however, should leave the task of finally settling the problem to historians and other intellectuals, while doing their best to calm the outcry over the issue... The chances of Japan securing a political win in its foreign policy in connection with this problem are very slim... The U.S. side should be aware that this highly sensitive problem has so far not taken on the appearance of a mudslinging match due mainly to the rational attitude Japan has taken to avoid such a development (1).
So, according to Oda, the role of Japanese political leaders is to abandon hope for a "political win" and "calm the outcry" rather than look beyond the deficiencies of the "official documents" and force an examination of what really happened, followed by a genuine apology and significant reparations. Oda also suggests, by using the term "mudslinging," that blame could be easily cast on both sides—as if there's a rough moral equivalence between Japan and the U.S. on this question. In fact, Japan's "rational attitude" even allows it to claim the moral high ground.

Why is Japan so resistant to examining events that took place six and seven decades ago? Maybe, in part, this reluctance is a remnant of the samurai code of bushido, as described by Inazo Nitobe in Bushido: The Soul of Japan (1905):
A good name--one's reputation, "the immortal part of one's self, what remains being bestial"--assumed as a matter of course, any infringement upon its integritywas felt as shame, and the sense of shame (Ren-chi-shin) was one of the earliest to be cherished in juvenile education. "You will be laughed at," "It will disgrace you," "Are you not ashamed?" were the last appeal to correct behaviour on the part of a youthful delinquent. Such a recourse to his honour touched the most sensitive spot in the child's heart, as though it had been nursed on honour while he was in his mother's womb; for most truly is honour a pre-natal influence, being closely bound up with strong family consciousness...

All the sartorial ingenuity of mankind has not yet succeeded in sewing an apron that will efficaciously hide our sense of shame. That samurai was right who refused to compromise his character by a slight humiliation in his youth; "because," he said, "dishonour is like a scar on a tree, which time, instead of effacing, only helps to enlarge."
The scars certainly don't just go away if they're relegated to "historians and other intellectuals," as Oda proposes.

Meanwhile, here in the U.S., our own tree has its many scars, and they're not getting any smaller either.


(1) Oda points out, quite accurately, that the U.S. occupation authorities asked Japan provide "comfort stations" to its officers in 1945 and during the Vietnam war, and that U.S. troops have been convicted of rapes in Okinawa and elsewhere in Japan. While U.S. forces occupying Japan certainly were involved in prostitution, I'm aware of no evidence that Japanese prostitutes, unlike the "comfort women," were "recruited" at the point of a gun or bayonet. Some of the rapes mentioned by Oda, but certainly not all, led to prosecutions, convictions and punishments. Compared to Japanese war crimes involving some 200,000 "comfort women," there are large differences in both the scale and the nature of the offenses by U.S. troops. To condemn Japan for this aspect of its postwar history is not the same as condoning the crimes of U.S. occupiers.

PHOTO: The Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Update: ERA reintroduced in Congress

The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), as mentioned in an earlier post, was approved by Congress and 35 of the 38 states necessary for adoption back in the 1970's. On March 15th it was reintroduced with a new title, the "Women's Equality Amendment" (WEA). There are 194 co-sponsors in the House and 10 in the Senate. Supporters, including Ted Kennedy, have apparently conceded that the earlier ERA "lapsed" because it failed to gain approval by 1982. So the process begins all over again, in the face of predictable misrepresentations from the right (as revealed here and here).

Though George Will argues that the new WEA is constitutionally "redundant," the reality is very different. While courts must apply a high standard of "strict scrutiny" to "suspect classifications" such as race, religion and ethnicity, they will only apply the much lower standard of "intermediate scrutiny" in cases involving gender discrimination. Passage of the WEA would elevate gender to a "suspect classification" comparable to the others.

The strict scrutiny standard is applied to the existing "suspect classifications" like race and religion as follows:

"Strict scrutiny is the most rigorous form of judicial review. The Supreme Court has identified the right to vote, the right to travel, and the right to privacy as fundamental rights worthy of protection by strict scrutiny. In addition, laws and policies that discriminate on the basis of race are categorized as suspect classifications that are presumptively impermissible and subject to strict scrutiny.

"Once a court determines that strict scrutiny must be applied, it is presumed that the law or policy is unconstitutional. The government has the burden of proving that its challenged policy is constitutional. To withstand strict scrutiny, the government must show that its policy is necessary to achieve a compelling state interest. If this is proved, the state must then demonstrate that the legislation is narrowly tailored to achieve the intended result."

Without the WEA, gender classifications won't receive this level of scrutiny. The "intermediate scrutiny" standard means that gender classifications, in order to be valid, need only "serve important governmental objectives and must be substantially related to the achievement of those objectives" (1). The presumption of unconstitutionality only applies to cases involving suspect classifications.

Bottom line: gender is not a suspect classification like race or voting rights. Laws creating gender classifications will not be presumed to be invalid. Legal equality for women still doesn't exist in the U.S.


(1) Craig v. Boren, 429 U.S. 190, 97 S. Ct. 451, 50 L. Ed. 2d 397 (1976).

(2) Brief discussions of rights tend to get abstract. For more specifics on the evolution and application of "intermediate scrutiny," see the cases discussed in here and here.

PHOTO: Some of the 194 congressional sponsors of the WEA outside the capitol.