Thursday, December 20, 2007

Are We Electing a President, or a Pastor-in-Chief?

The Republican presidential race seems more like a competition for national pastor-in-chief than chief executive. During one recent debate, candidates were asked if they believe every word of the Bible. Not one politician dismissed the question as irrelevant or out of bounds. Earlier in the year, John McCain asserted that the Constitution established the United States as a Christian nation (despite the fact that the words “Christian” and “God” appear a grand total of zero times in the nation’s founding document). The supposedly socially liberal Rudy Giuliani proudly accepted an endorsement from Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson, the televangelist who has claimed that some Christian denominations embody the spirit of the Antichrist, and agreed with Jerry Falwell that gays and lesbians caused the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

As the Iowa caucuses approach, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney are fighting over which one has the best religious credentials. Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister who has surged to top of the heap in Iowa, has run one ad invoking his status as a “Christian leader” as a reason to vote for him. In another ad, released for Christmas, he tells voters that what really matters at this time of year is “celebrating the birth of Christ.” Elsewhere, he has explained that “faith doesn’t just influence me, it really defines me. I don’t have to wake up every day wondering “what do I need to believe?” The implication is that people who are not sufficiently faithful are morally adrift, unable to string together coherent, consistent beliefs from one day to the next.

Mitt Romney gave a recent speech meant to address concerns about his Mormon faith. The speech was an attempt to demonstrate that Romney, like Huckabee, sees religion as central to his presidential campaign. Romney said that he believes “Jesus Christ is the son of God and the Savior of mankind” and declared that his oath of office would be his “highest promise to God”. Perhaps some evangelical voters will find these statements comforting. They shouldn’t. Whether you’re religious or not, the marriage of religion and politics is cause for concern.

For one thing, with religion a central part of the presidential campaign, it is only natural that candidates will be asked specific questions about their beliefs. That is disturbing; no one should have to answer questions like “does your religion teach that Satan and Christ are brothers?” (a question Huckabee has raised about Romney) or “how would your church’s doctrine about the apocalypse influence your Middle East policy?”

Both Romney and Huckabee have tried to dodge questions about their specific beliefs. But the cat is already out of the bag. Since these men have made faith a central part of their pitch, it is too late for them to declare that details of precisely what they believe are off limits. It is ludicrous for Huckabee to put forth his religious beliefs as a credential, question Romney’s beliefs, and then refuse to answer a question about whether creationism should be taught in public schools.

Romney, for his part, says he won’t publicly delve into Mormon doctrine because, “to do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution.” Too late for that Mitt. We already have a religious test. That’s why Romney was forced to give a speech aimed at making his Mormon faith less scary to voters-there is a question as to whether Romney is himself a real Christian, whether he meets the de facto religious test applied to all presidential candidates.

In order to be a serious candidate, in either party, one must be a Christian, of some denomination that doesn’t seem too weird to evangelical voters. It is of course unfathomable to imagine a Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, or agnostic becoming president (in fact, a whisper campaign that Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim, helpfully highlighted by the Washington Post on its front page a few weeks ago, depends on the reality that actually being a Muslim would disqualify someone from running for president in 2008).

In his speech pleading with voters not to dismiss him because he is a Mormon, Romney argued that “the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgement of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life.” Romney’s argument is completely baseless - no serious candidate for the presidency, no serious leader in either party, would dare to suggest that religion has no place in public life. No mainstream politician could say what Thomas Jefferson said in 1814, that “our particular principles of religion are a subject of accountability to God alone. I inquire after no man’s, and trouble none with mine.” If this principle applied to modern presidential politics, there would have be no need for Romney, or anyone else, to answer questions about his or her faith.

This piece also appears at

Monday, December 17, 2007

Is There Anything We Won't Do?

Earlier this week, ex-CIA agent John Kiriakou confirmed what we already knew. The United States of America has waterboarded terrorism suspects. We have used a technique practiced during the Spanish Inquisition in an attempt to extract information from suspects who, one would logically reason, would say anything to stop the waterboarding, which makes you feel like you are drowning, unable to breath.

Kiriakou says that the decision to waterboard “was a policy decision that came down from the White House.” And, by the way, there is not one documented case of this technique actually saving even a single life.

But let’s assume that waterboarding does have the potential to save lives. Is that the criterion by which we judge our actions? If it is, then why not subject terrorism suspects to mock executions? That doesn’t cause organ failure --one of the standards the Bush administration uses to define when something is torture. The infamous Bybee memo, sent to then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, claimed that, to be torture,the physical pain caused by an interrogator must be"equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death." So,why not pull out a suspect’s toenails? Why not tell a suspect that, unless he talks, you will hunt down,torture, and kill his family. That’s not torture—especially if the interrogator doesn’t actually intend to kill anyone (in order to qualify as torture under the Bush standards, the physical pain inflicted must have been the “specific intent” of the interrogator).

I know the Bush administration primly refuses to discuss specific interrogation tactics. But, by their logic, why wouldn’t it be ok to burn a suspect with lit cigarettes, or to hold a pillow over a suspect’s face until he reaches the brink of suffocation (again, no problem at all if the intent is not to kill, cause organ failure or impairment of bodily function). Why not dangle a suspect outside a window 10 stories above the ground? For a public accustomed to Jack Bauer, this would probably make sense—make the bastard talk if he knows something. Or, if we want to use another fictional work as our guide, why not send people to areal life version of George Orwell’s Room 101, where starving rats are let loose on the bound suspect. Again, not torture by the Bush administration’s standard, as long as you intend to stop the rats, eventually.

Why not take any of these actions? Ten years ago, one might have thought the conclusion Kiriakou ultimately reached was obvious. As he put it, “we’re Americans,and we’re better than this.” Somebody needs to get the Bush administration to understand this. Fear is not reason enough for these barbaric practices, this torture committed in our name.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Conservatives an embattled minority in academia?

(jn response to this piece in the Washington Post: )

Although (or perhaps because) I am a dyed-in-the wool liberal, I agree with Robert Maranto that a diversity of ideas and debate between opposing viewpoints shouldbe central to university life. However, I think it is this very debate in the marketplace of ideas that explains why Maranto finds himself and other right-of-center academics in the minority. They are losing the argument.

Don’t just ask me—ask the American public. According to polling by the Washington Post and ABC News,President Bush’s approval ratings haven’t seen 50%since March 2005 and have been stuck in the low 30s all year. 51% have a favorable view of Democrats, 39% have a favorable view of Republicans. Similarly, a recent CNN poll shows 68% oppose the war in Iraq. Other polling shows 66% think there should be stricter laws regarding handgun sales. 78% believe that people who are in the U.S. without documentation should still be given a chance at citizenship. Just a small minority, 27%, believes that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances (and those numbers come from a Fox News poll). A substantial majority, 73%,thinks we should make it easier for women at all income levels to obtain contraceptives. By a 57-38% margin, Americans believe it is the government’s responsibility to make sure Americans have adequate health care.

If the right wing is losing on all these issues before the public, is it so odd that only a minority of academics support the right wing view on these issues? But polls don’t tell us everything of course. Let’s think logically about why the right wing might be underrepresented in academia.

First, a central tenet of learning and of academic endeavor is that you have to back up your position with evidence. It’s not enough for someone to say I believe in creationism, not evolution, or I think that whenever you reduce taxes there is a consequential increase in revenues. You have to back up your views with evidence, with reasoned argument.

Maranto mentions the war in Iraq, complaining that a conservative friend of his who wanted to publicly debate the decision to invade was told it could complicate his tenure decision. I would support a debate on the war in Iraq, but I also think that someone supporting the invasion would have some explaining to do, both before we invaded and now. Before the war, there was not evidence to support the arguments for invasion—to the contrary, the “evidence” presented was full of holes. In short, the president and others who argued for invasion were not telling the truth, as the Washington Post reported in an October 22, 2002 piece by Dana Milbank entitled “ForBush, Facts Are Malleable”. The Milbank piece explained that President Bush was making specific arguments in support of war, including claims aboutIraq’s ability to launch a chemical attack on the U.S. and the time it would take for Iraq to develop a nuclear weapon, that were simply and demonstrably not supported by the very evidence the president cited. I don’t know what arguments Maranto’s friend would have offered in support of invading Iraq, and perhaps he had something better to offer than the president did. But someone in the academy making the intellectually bankrupt arguments President Bush made for the war shouldn’t be surprised if those faulty arguments have consequences—just as there would be consequences formaking an unsupported argument in favor of a liberal viewpoint.

Iraq is not the only issue on which facts expose the flaws in conservative argument. For much of the past25 years, Republicans have insisted that lower taxes produce increased revenues. The first President Bushonce called this “voodoo economics”. He was right. Supply side economic theory has been debunked by evidence. Contrary to conservative arguments,Clinton’s tax increases in the early 1990s did not sink the economy. While Republican presidential candidates continue to insist that tax cuts mean increased revenue, the results of the Bush tax cuts do not bear this out. Even Treasury Secretary HenryPaulson concedes that “as a general rule, I don’t believe that tax cuts pay for themselves.” On economics, the conservative viewpoint, at least on these central issues, is not supported by theevidence. Does Maranto think economists who support these views should be sailing to the top of academia on the merits of their arguments?

Maranto may be engaging in intellectual relativism. He complains that conservative papers and books areless likely than liberal papers to be published. Butall ideas are not created equal. Perhaps conservative writing contains weaker arguments than liberal papers. Perhaps liberal publications predominate because they are more interesting, more likely to be supported by evidence, more conducive to learning and thoughtful discussion.

If Maranto favors the idea of “balance” on all questions, that view too has been discredited. Conservative politicians have become adept at exploiting the media’s desire to present two sides of every issue—no matter whether both positions have anything close to equal evidentiary support. This leads to coverage that presents arguments for creationism (or its dressed-up sibling “intelligent design”) on the same footing as evolution, or stories giving equal time to global warming skeptics.

I don’t mean to be dogmatic, however, and I certainly don’t think any of this is the end of the story. Hey,I’m a liberal -- I really am interested in differentideas and different ways of looking at things. I don’t think I have all the answers. But I wonder if Maranto has fully considered why the academy isn’t clogged with supporters of President Bush and the war in Iraq. The answer might not be that universities have abandoned reasoned inquiry and debate, as Maranto suggests. It may be that his side is losing the debate, on the merits. None of this means there is no place for conservatives in universities. It just means they have to come up with better arguments.