24 April 2009

re: torture...

[from daily kos...]

What We Know So Far: A Torture Timeline (Updated)

Thu Apr 23, 2009 at 09:38:04 PM PDT

(From the diaries. An incredible and valuable resource. Susan)

Share this on Twitter - What We Know So Far: A Torture Timeline (Updated)So much information about the Bush administration's torture policies and rationales has surfaced in recent days that, contrary to the secrecy meme of those days, we are now in danger of suffering from TMI - too much information.

So I thought it would be helpful to put together a timeline of known facts, reports and claims to try to give some chronological perspective to it all. As with any such collection, the selections are somewhat subjective, but I have tried to be fair (but not balanced; this isn't a sporting event) in including what is known, admitted or reasonably validated. And - for once - I will leave speculation to the comments.

It turns out there is so much information already known that just summarizing it is torture. The timeline thus focuses mainly on the torture memos themselves and the events occurring at the time they were written, tested and replaced.

[Updated] Updated to include some of the Bush administration denials, and the Red Cross report.
[Update] Include John Bolton's letter opting out of the ICC; spelling corrections.

Aug-early Sep 2001 Concerned that the administration is not giving terrorism high priority, NSC counter-terrorism adviser Richard Clarke increasingly pressures NSA Condoleeza Rice to set up a meeting with President Bush. In testimony to the 9/11 Commission, Rice will dispute Clarke's version of events. (Wall St Journal Summary of Rice, Clarke testiomny [PDF])

11 Sep 2001 Terrorists using three highjacked airplanes attack and destroy the World Trade Center, and damage the Pentagon. A fourth plane was also highjacked and was heading toward Washington, DC, possibly with the Capitol as its target, but was brought down by passengers would fought the highjackers and succeeding in crashing the plane in western Pennsylvania. After first denying involvement, Osama bin Laden will release a broadcast on 29 Oct 2004 in which he admits he and Al-Qaeda plotted the attacks.

12 Sep 2001 At a White House meeting, SecDef Donald Rumsfeld urges the bombing of Iraq in response to the WTC attack. Clarke tells him "they were certain al-Qa'ida was to blame and there was no hint of Iraqi involvement."

15 Sep 2001 At a meeting in the White House Situation Room, Bush takes Clarke aside and demands to know if there is a connection between the terror attacks and Saddam Hussein:

"The president dragged me into a room with a couple of other people, shut the door, and said, 'I want you to find whether Iraq did this.' Now he never said, 'Make it up.' But the entire conversation left me in absolutely no doubt that George Bush wanted me to come back with a report that said Iraq did this.

"I said, 'Mr. President. We've done this before. We have been looking at this. We looked at it with an open mind. There's no connection.'

"He came back at me and said, "Iraq! Saddam! Find out if there's a connection.' And in a very intimidating way. I mean that we should come back with that answer. We wrote a report."

Clarke continued, "It was a serious look. We got together all the FBI experts, all the CIA experts. We wrote the report. We sent the report out to CIA and found FBI and said, 'Will you sign this report?' They all cleared the report. And we sent it up to the president and it got bounced by the National Security Advisor or Deputy. It got bounced and sent back saying, 'Wrong answer. ... Do it again.' "CBS News 60 Minutes 21 Mar 2004

16 Sep 2001 In an interview on Meet the Press, Vice President Dick Cheney hints strongly that the administration will consider using torture:

We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will. We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we’re going to be successful. That’s the world these folks operate in, and so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.

11 Oct 2001 Former CIA Director James Woolsey is sent to England "in search of evidence that Saddam Hussein played a role in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks...."

December 2001 "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh is captured in Afghanistan. Lindh, an American citizen, was pictured blindfolded, duct-taped naked to a board.... in what is probably the first recorded instance of torture of a detainee under the Bush administration. (Hat tip to Jesselyn Radack.)

January 2002James Mitchell, a retired Air Force psychologist, and Bruce Jessen, the senior SERE psychologist at the agency, drafted a paper on "al-Qaeda resistance capabilities and countermeasures to defeat that resistance." WaPo 22 Apr 2009, analyzing the Senate ASC report

9 Jan 2002 John Yoo writes a memo (PDF) stating that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to captured Taliban and Al-Qaeda members.

25 Jan 2002 White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez accepts Yoo's argument, saying that the new war on terror "renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions." SoS Colin Powell and the JAG object to this interpretation, but their objections are ignored.

2 Feb 2002 William Howard Taft IV, the State Dept's legal adviser, sends Gonzales a memo (PDF) saying that the Geneva Convention does apply to captured Taliban and Al-Qaeda, and that rejecting the convention's protections could have serious policy consequences.

7 Feb 2002 Bush signs a memorandum stating the Article 3 protections of the Geneva Conventions do not apply to Al-Qaeda and Taliban detainees.

13 Feb 2002 Bush has decided to overthrow Hussein.

28 March 2002 Abu Zubaydah, a senior Al-Qaeda official, is arrested in Pakistan and brought to the United States for interrogation. Ali Soufan, a supervisory special FBI agent, and a second agent, with CIA agents watching, use traditional interrogation methods to question him from March through June 2002, and learn that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) was the mastermind of the 11 September attacks.

Spring 2002 Senior officials begin studying how to use SERE techniques in prisoner interrogations. SENATE ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE INQUIRY INTO THE TREATMENT OF DETAINEES IN U.S. CUSTODY 12 Dec 2008 In April, the CIA begins videotaping interrogation sessions, some of which apparently include waterboarding. It is not yet clear whether Zubaydeh was among those waterboarded at that time. The tapes have all been reported destroyed.

6 May 2002 John Bolton, at that time Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, formally informs the UN that the US "does not intend to become a party to the treaty [establishing the International Criminal Court]."

May 2002 Condoleeza Rice and "other top Bush administration officials" are briefed about "alternative interrogation methods, including waterboarding." In July, Rice tells CIA Director George Tenet he can proceed to use these techniques.

23 Jul 2002 Sir Richard Dearlove, head of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), reports to Prime Minister Tony Blair on his recent meeting with his counterparts in Washington:

Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The Downing Street Memo (Emphasis added)

1 Aug 2002 Assistant Attorney General Jay Baybee, head of the Office of Legal Counsel, issues a memorandum to the CIA telling them that "enhanced interrogation techniques" such as waterboarding do not, in the OLC's opinion, constitute torture.

August 2002 Abu Zubaydeh is subjected to waterboarding at least 83 times. A former CIA officer, John Kiriakou, who interrogated Zubaydeh (but who did not witness any of the waterboarding says that "it took only 35 seconds once the technique was employed for Zubaydah to start talking." Kiriakou says that it was torture, but it was necessary. He does not appear to be aware of the multiple waterboardings.

(Note: Kiriakou's claim that that Zubaydeh had refused to cooperate prior to the (first) waterboarding is contradicted by FBI agent Ali Soufan's report that Zubaydeh had been cooperating for months; see above. It's also not clear (yet) whether Zubaydeh was waterboarded or otherwise tortured during the period when Soufan was interrogating him for the FBI.)

August 2002 FBI officials are so concerned about the CIA's interrogation of Zubaydeh that they have a meeting with FBI Director Robert Mueller to discuss it. Mueller decides that the FBI will no longer participate in the interrogation, which he later extends as a "bright line rule" applying to all CIA interrogations of detainees.

11 Oct 2002 The commander at GTMO requests permission to use "aggressive interrogation techniques."

2 Dec 2002 Rumsfeld signs a memo authorizing 15 specific "aggressive techniques." The Senate report notes that interrogations using these techniques (including sleep deprivation) actually started on 23 Nov 2002, a week before Rumsfeld gave his approval of them.

29 Dec 2002 The US military issued a statement denying stories that its prisoners in Afghanistan were being tortured, or that the CIA had a secret base there.

2002-03 generally Administration officials, particularly Cheney and Rumsfeld, pressure the CIA to come up with a link between Saddam and Al-Qaeda.

"Cheney's and Rumsfeld's people were told repeatedly, by CIA . . . and by others, that there wasn't any reliable intelligence that pointed to operational ties between bin Laden and Saddam, and that no such ties were likely because the two were fundamentally enemies, not allies."

Senior administration officials, however, "blew that off and kept insisting that we'd overlooked something, that the interrogators weren't pushing hard enough, that there had to be something more we could do to get that information," he said. McClatchy 21 Apr 2009

3 Mar 2003 US officials report that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) has been arrested in Pakistan and transferred to US custody for questioning. KSM is subjected to waterboarding, [winning] the admiration of interrogators when he was able to last between two and two-and-a-half minutes before begging to confess. It is later revealed that KSM was waterboarded "183 times during March 2003...."

20 Mar 2003 The invasion of Iraq begins. On 1 May, Bush announced that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended." He adds: "And this much is certain: No terrorist network will gain weapons of mass destruction from the Iraqi regime, because the regime is no more."

No weapons of mass destruction are ever found in Iraq.

14 May 2003 John Yoo wrties a second memo which basically says the president can do anything he wants in time of war:

[F]ederal criminal laws of general applicability do not apply to properly~authorized interrogations of enemy combatants, undertaken by military personnel in the course of an armed conflict. Such criminal statutes, if they were misconstrued to apply to the interrogation of enemy combatants, would conflict with the Constitution's. grant of the Commander in Chief power solely to the President. Yoo memo PDF

14 Dec 2003 Saddam Hussein is captured. Although news stories at the time report that he was found in a hole in the ground after "torture lite" of captured bodyguards, later reports tell a different story, including that Saddam was captured by Kurds, who drugged him and turned him over to US authorities.

April 2004 The Abu Ghraib scandal breaks.

13 May 2004 The BBC posts one of the early stories suggesting the CIA is using "brutal" interrogation techniques, including waterboarding.

June 2004 Assistant Attorney General Jack Goldsmith orders both Yoo memos withdrawn. He directs Daniel Levin in the OLC to write a new memo. That same month, Goldsmith is forced by pressure from the White House and from Cheney counsel David Addington to resign.

23 Jun 2004 In response to the revelation of the 2002 Yoo/Bybee memo, DoJ disavows the memo. Bush denies ordering prisoners at GTMO tortured. "Let me make very clear the position of my government and our country: We do not condone torture. I have never ordered torture. I will never order torture."

28 Jun 2004 The Supreme Court rules in Hamdi v Rumsfeld that detainees at GTMO were entitled to legal due process, rejecting the administration's claim of expansive executive powers in wartime.

7 Jul 2004 Alberto Mora, general counsel for the US Navy, writes a memo (PDF) summarizing the history to date of abuse of detainees at GTMO and his office's attempts to stop it. The memo dismisses the legal arguments in Yoo's memos. Mora's memo is buried and he is forced to retire. (See this New Yorker article of 27 Feb 2006 for more on the Mora saga.)

30 Dec 2004 The OLC publishes Daniel Levin's memo, stating that:

Torture is abhorrent both to American law and values and to international norms. This universal repudiation of torture is reflected in our criminal law....

There is no exception under the statute permitting torture to be used
for a "good reason." Thus, a defendant's motive (to protect national security, for example) is not relevant to the question whether he has acted with the requisite specific intent under the statute. Memorandum by Daniel Levin (PDF)

Levin's memo replaces the Yoo memos. There is a report that Gonzalez, who was about to take over as Attorney General, blocked Levin from finishing a second memo which would have examined specific techniques, including waterboarding, to determine if they fell within the definition of torture.

10 May 2005 Steven Bradbury of the OLC issues a new memo (PDF)m, which, apparently, finish the job Levin was not allowed to do, and from what I can see replaces Levin's December 2004. In it, he finds that

although extended sleep deprivation and use of the waterboard present more substantial questions in certain respect under the statute and the use of the waterboard raises the most substantial issue-none of these specific techniques, considered individually, would violate the prohibition [against torture]."

Bradbury issues two other memos in May (PDF and PDF) further providing legal cover. But it seems clear from the timeline that in the period of June 2004, when the Yoo memos were rescinded, and certainly from December 2004 with the Levin memo, until May 2005, the issuance of the Bradbury memos, there was no legal cover from OLC allowing torture. When the existence (though not the actual content) of the Bradbury memos became known in October 2007, Dana Perino, Bush's spokesperson, denied that any torture was taking place or that the Levin memo had been rescinded.

June 2005 Philip Zelikow, legal adviser to now-SoS Rice, writes a memo in which he takes issue with each of the justifications offered by the Bradbury memos. The Bush White House attempted to collect and destroy all copies of the memo.

18 Nov 2005 ABC News learns about, and reports on, some of the specific CIA interrogation techniques being used, including waterboarding and also rendition to third-party countries. The CIA declines to comment.

26 Jan 2006 Bush insists Americans are not allowed to torture. "No American will be allowed to torture another human being anywhere in the world...."

23 May 2006 US rejects charges by Amnesty International that it is torturing prisoners at GTMO.

26 Sep 2006 The Senate passes the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which approves torture for detainees, in effect reversing Hamdan. Then-Senator Barack Obama delivered a speech on the Senate floor in which he accused his colleagues of cutting corners and betraying American values.

September 2006 The International Committee of the Red Cross visits Guantanamo and conducts unsupervised interviews with 14 "high-value" detainees.

25 Oct 2006 In a radio interview, VP Dick Cheney "endorses" waterboarding of teror suspects, calling it a "no-brainer."

28 Oct 2006 Bush denies that Cheney meant waterboarding or any similar technique, saying "This country doesn’t torture, we’re not going to torture."

14 Feb 2007 The Red Cross delivers to the Bush administration its report detailing torture of prisoners at GTMO. In keeping with standard Red Cross practice, it keeps the report (PDF) confidential until it is leaked by an unknown source in March 2009, though information in the report does make its way into Jane Mayer's book The Dark Side (New York Times 11 Jul 2008).

6 Oct 2007 Bush defends CIA tactics, saying its methods are necessary and legal and do not constitute torture.

22 Jan 2009 On his second full day in office, President Barack Obama issues an executive order requiring that treatment and interrogation of all detainees be in accord Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions - in other words, no more torture.

2 Mar 2009 President Obama orders the release of several previously classified memos, including the Yoo and Bybee memos, but not the 2005 Bradbury memos.

17 Apr 2009 As ordered by President Obama, DoJ releases copies of the Bradbury memos.


20 April 2009

it is really fucking hot in my house...

[from the new york times...]

The Bigots’ Last Hurrah

WHAT would happen if you crossed that creepy 1960s horror classic “The Village of the Damned” with the Broadway staple “A Chorus Line”? You don’t need to use your imagination. It’s there waiting for you on YouTube under the title “Gathering Storm”: a 60-second ad presenting homosexuality as a national threat second only to terrorism.

The actors are supposedly Not Gay. They stand in choral formation before a backdrop of menacing clouds and cheesy lightning effects. “The winds are strong,” says a white man to the accompaniment of ominous music. “And I am afraid,” a young black woman chimes in. “Those advocates want to change the way I live,” says a white woman. But just when all seems lost, the sun breaks through and a smiling black man announces that “a rainbow coalition” is “coming together in love” to save America from the apocalypse of same-sex marriage. It’s the swiftest rescue of Western civilization since the heyday of the ambiguously gay duo Batman and Robin.

Far from terrifying anyone, “Gathering Storm” has become, unsurprisingly, an Internet camp classic. On YouTube the original video must compete with countless homemade parodies it has inspired since first turning up some 10 days ago. None may top Stephen Colbert’s on Thursday night, in which lightning from “the homo storm” strikes an Arkansas teacher, turning him gay. A “New Jersey pastor” whose church has been “turned into an Abercrombie & Fitch” declares that he likes gay people, “but only as hilarious best friends in TV and movies.”

Yet easy to mock as “Gathering Storm” may be, it nonetheless bookmarks a historic turning point in the demise of America’s anti-gay movement.

What gives the ad its symbolic significance is not just that it’s idiotic but that its release was the only loud protest anywhere in America to the news that same-sex marriage had been legalized in Iowa and Vermont. If it advances any message, it’s mainly that homophobic activism is ever more depopulated and isolated as well as brain-dead.

“Gathering Storm” was produced and broadcast — for a claimed $1.5 million — by an outfit called the National Organization for Marriage. This “national organization,” formed in 2007, is a fund-raising and propaganda-spewing Web site fronted by the right-wing Princeton University professor Robert George and the columnist Maggie Gallagher, who was famously caught receiving taxpayers’ money to promote Bush administration “marriage initiatives.” Until last month, half of the six board members (including George) had some past or present affiliation with Princeton’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. (One of them, the son of one of the 12 apostles in the Mormon church hierarchy, recently stepped down.)

Even the anti-Obama “tea parties” flogged by Fox News last week had wider genuine grass-roots support than this so-called national organization. Beyond Princeton, most straight citizens merely shrugged as gay families celebrated in Iowa and Vermont. There was no mass backlash. At ABC and CBS, the Vermont headlines didn’t even make the evening news.

On the right, the restrained response was striking. Fox barely mentioned the subject; its rising-star demagogue, Glenn Beck, while still dismissing same-sex marriage, went so far as to “celebrate what happened in Vermont” because “instead of the courts making a decision, the people did.” Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the self-help media star once notorious for portraying homosexuality as “a biological error” and a gateway to pedophilia, told CNN’s Larry King that she now views committed gay relationships as “a beautiful thing and a healthy thing.” In The New York Post, the invariably witty and invariably conservative writer Kyle Smith demolished a Maggie Gallagher screed published in National Review and wondered whether her errant arguments against gay equality were “something else in disguise.”

More startling still was the abrupt about-face of the Rev. Rick Warren, the hugely popular megachurch leader whose endorsement last year of Proposition 8, California’s same-sex marriage ban, had roiled his appearance at the Obama inaugural. Warren also dropped in on Larry King to declare that he had “never” been and “never will be” an “anti-gay-marriage activist.” This was an unmistakable slap at the National Organization for Marriage, which lavished far more money on Proposition 8 than even James Dobson’s Focus on the Family.

The Obamas’ dog had longer legs on cable than the news from Iowa and Vermont. CNN’s weekly press critique, “Reliable Sources,” inquired why. The gay blogger John Aravosis suggested that many Americans are more worried about their mortgages than their neighbors’ private lives. Besides, Aravosis said, there are “only so many news stories you can do showing guys in tuxes.”

As the polls attest, the majority of Americans who support civil unions for gay couples has been steadily growing. Younger voters are fine with marriage. Generational changeover will seal the deal. Crunching all the numbers, the poll maven Nate Silver sees same-sex marriage achieving majority support “at some point in the 2010s.”

Iowa and Vermont were the tipping point because they struck down the right’s two major arguments against marriage equality. The unanimous ruling of the seven-member Iowa Supreme Court proved that the issue is not merely a bicoastal fad. The decision, written by Mark Cady, a Republican appointee, was particularly articulate in explaining that a state’s legalization of same-sex marriage has no effect on marriage as practiced by religions. “The only difference,” the judge wrote, is that “civil marriage will now take on a new meaning that reflects a more complete understanding of equal protection of the law.”

Some opponents grumbled anyway, reviving their perennial complaint, dating back to Brown v. Board of Education, about activist judges. But the judiciary has long played a leading role in sticking up for the civil rights of minorities so they’re not held hostage to a majority vote. Even if the judiciary-overreach argument had merit, it was still moot in Vermont, where the State Legislature, not a court, voted to make same-sex marriage legal and then voted to override the Republican governor’s veto.

As the case against equal rights for gay families gets harder and harder to argue on any nonreligious or legal grounds, no wonder so many conservatives are dropping the cause. And if Fox News and Rick Warren won’t lead the charge on same-sex marriage, who on the national stage will take their place? The only enthusiastic contenders seem to be Republicans contemplating presidential runs in 2012. As Rich Tafel, the former president of the gay Log Cabin Republicans, pointed out to me last week, what Iowa giveth to the Democrats, Iowa taketh away from his own party. As the first stop in the primary process, the Iowa caucuses provided a crucial boost to Barack Obama’s victorious and inclusive Democratic campaign in 2008. But on the G.O.P. side, the caucuses tilt toward the exclusionary hard right.

In 2008, 60 percent of Iowa’s Republican caucus voters were evangelical Christians. Mike Huckabee won. That’s the hurdle facing the party’s contenders in 2012, which is why Romney, Palin and Gingrich are now all more vehement anti-same-sex-marriage activists than Rick Warren. Palin even broke with John McCain on the issue during their campaign, supporting the federal marriage amendment that he rejects. This month, even as the father of Palin’s out-of-wedlock grandson challenged her own family values and veracity, she nominated as Alaskan attorney general a man who has called gay people “degenerates.” Such homophobia didn’t even play in Alaska — the State Legislature voted the nominee down — and will doom Republicans like Palin in national elections.

One G.O.P. politician who understands this is the McCain-Palin 2008 campaign strategist, Steve Schmidt, who on Friday urged his party to join him in endorsing same-sex marriage. Another is Jon Huntsman Jr., the governor of Utah, who in February endorsed civil unions for gay couples, a position seemingly indistinguishable from Obama’s. Huntsman is not some left-coast Hollywood Republican. He’s a Mormon presiding over what Gallup ranks as the reddest state in the country.

“We must embrace all citizens as equals,” Huntsman told me in an interview last week. “I’ve always stood tall on this.” Has he been hurt by his position? Not remotely. “A lot of people gave the issue more scrutiny after it became the topic of the week,” he said, and started to see it “in human terms.” Letters, calls, polls and conversations with voters around the state all confirmed to him that opinion has “shifted quite substantially” toward his point of view. Huntsman’s approval rating now stands at 84 percent.

He believes that social issues should not be a priority for Republicans in any case during an economic crisis. He also is an outspoken foe of the “nativist language” that has marked the G.O.P. of late. Huntsman doesn’t share “the view of some” that “the party was created in 1980.” He yearns for it to reclaim Lincoln’s faith in “individual dignity.”

As marital equality haltingly but inexorably spreads state by state for gay Americans in the years to come, Utah will hardly be in the lead to follow Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa and Vermont. But the fact that it too is taking its first steps down that road is extraordinary. It is justice, not a storm, that is gathering. Only those who have spread the poisons of bigotry and fear have any reason to be afraid.


14 April 2009

this is my easter present to everyone...

[from salon...]

America is not a Christian nation

Religious conservatives argue the Founding Fathers intended the United States to be a Judeo-Christian country. But President Obama is right when he says it isn't.

By Michael Lind

Apr. 14, 2009 |

Is America a Christian nation, as many conservatives claim it is? One American doesn't think so. In his press conference on April 6 in Turkey, President Obama explained: "One of the great strengths of the United States is … we have a very large Christian population -- we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values."

Predictably, Obama's remarks have enraged conservative talking heads. But Obama's observations have ample precedent in American diplomacy and constitutional thought. The most striking is the Treaty of Tripoli, ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1797. Article 11 states: "As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility [sic], of Mussulmen [Muslims]; and, as the said States never have entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries."

Conservatives who claim that the U.S. is a "Christian nation" sometimes dismiss the Treaty of Tripoli because it was authored by the U.S. diplomat Joel Barlow, an Enlightenment freethinker. Well, then, how about the tenth president, John Tyler, in an 1843 letter: "The United States have adventured upon a great and noble experiment, which is believed to have been hazarded in the absence of all previous precedent -- that of total separation of Church and State. No religious establishment by law exists among us. The conscience is left free from all restraint and each is permitted to worship his Maker after his own judgment. The offices of the Government are open alike to all. No tithes are levied to support an established Hierarchy, nor is the fallible judgment of man set up as the sure and infallible creed of faith. The Mohammedan, if he will to come among us would have the privilege guaranteed to him by the constitution to worship according to the Koran; and the East Indian might erect a shrine to Brahma, if it so pleased him. Such is the spirit of toleration inculcated by our political Institutions."

Was Tyler too minor a president to be considered an authority on whether the U.S. is a Christian republic or not? Here's George Washington in a letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790: "The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy -- a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support ... May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants -- while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid."

Eloquent as he is, Barack Obama could not have put it better.

Contrast this with John McCain's interview with Beliefnet during the 2008 presidential campaign: "But I think the number one issue people should make [in the] selection of the President of the United States is, 'Will this person carry on in the Judeo Christian principled tradition that has made this nation the greatest experiment in the history of mankind?'" Asked whether this would rule out a Muslim candidate for the presidency, McCain answered, "But, no, I just have to say in all candor that since this nation was founded primarily on Christian principles ... personally, I prefer someone who I know has a solid grounding in my faith. But that doesn't mean that I'm sure that someone who is a Muslim would not make a good president. I don't say that we would rule out under any circumstances someone of a different faith. I just would -- I just feel that that's an important part of our qualifications to lead."

Conservatives who, like McCain, assert that the U.S. is in some sense a Christian or Judeo-Christian nation tend to make one of four arguments. The first is anthropological: The majority of Americans describe themselves as Christians, even though the number of voters who describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated has grown from 5.3 percent in 1988 to 12 percent in 2008. But the ratio of Christians to non-Christians in American society as a whole is irrelevant to the question of whether American government is Christian.

The second argument is that the constitution itself is somehow Christian in character. On that point, candidate McCain said: "I would probably have to say yes, that the Constitution established the United States as a Christian nation." Is McCain right? Is the U.S. a Christian republic in the sense that according to their constitutions Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan are all now officially Islamic republics? What does the Constitution say? Article VI states that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust in the United States." Then there is the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ... "

True, over the years since the founding, Christian nationalists have won a few victories -- inserting "In God We Trust" on our money during the Civil War in 1863, adding "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance during the Cold War in 1954. And there are legislative and military chaplains and ceremonial days of thanksgiving. But these are pretty feeble foundations on which to claim that the U.S. is a Christian republic. ("Judeo-Christian" is a weaselly term used by Christian nationalists to avoid offending Jews; it should be translated as "Christian.")

The third argument holds that while the U.S. government itself may not be formally Christian, the Lockean natural rights theory on which American republicanism rests is supported, in its turn, by Christian theology. Jefferson summarized Lockean natural rights liberalism in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights … that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed …" Many conservatives assert that to be a good Lockean natural nights liberal, one must believe that the Creator who is endowing these rights is the personal God of the Abrahamic religions.

This conflation of Christianity and natural rights liberalism helps to explain one of John McCain's more muddled answers in his Beliefnet interview: "[The] United States of America was founded on the values of Judeo-Christian values [sic], which were translated by our founding fathers which is basically the rights of human dignity and human rights." The same idea lies behind then-Attorney General John Ashcroft's statement to religious broadcasters: "Civilized individuals, Christians, Jews and Muslims" -- sorry, Hindus and Buddhists! -- "all understand that the source of freedom and human dignity is the Creator."

In reality, neither Jewish nor Christian traditions know anything of the ideas of natural rights and social contract found in Hobbes, Gassendi and Locke. That's because those ideas were inspired by themes found in non-Christian Greek and Roman philosophy. Ideas of the social contract were anticipated in the fourth and fifth centuries BC by the sophists Glaucon and Lycophron, according to Plato and Aristotle, and by Epicurus, who banished divine activity from a universe explained by natural forces and taught that justice is an agreement among people neither to harm nor be harmed. The idea that all human beings are equal by nature also comes from the Greek sophists and was planted by the Roman jurist Ulpian in Roman law: "quod ad ius naturale attinet, omnes homines aequales sunt" -- according to the law of nature, all human beings are equal.

Desperate to obscure the actual intellectual roots of the Declaration of Independence in Greek philosophy and Roman law, Christian apologists have sought to identify the "Creator" who endows everyone with unalienable rights with the revealed, personal God of Moses and Jesus. But a few sentences earlier, the Declaration refers to "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God." Adherents of natural rights liberalism often have dropped "Nature's God" and relied solely on "Nature" as the source of natural rights.

In any event, in order to be a good American citizen one need not subscribe to Lockean liberalism. Jefferson, a Lockean liberal himself, did not impose any philosophical or religious test on good citizenship. In his "Notes on the State of Virginia," he wrote: "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

The fourth and final argument made in favor of a "Christian America" by religious conservatives is the best-grounded in history but also the weakest. They point out that American leaders from the founders to the present have seen a role for otherwise privatized and personal religion in turning out moral, law-abiding citizens. As George Washington wrote in his 1796 Farewell Address:

"Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and Citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them."

In Washington's day, it may have been reasonable for the elite to worry that only fear of hellfire kept the masses from running amok, but in the 21st century it is clear that democracy as a form of government does not require citizens who believe in supernatural religion. Most of the world's stable democracies are in Europe, where the population is largely post-Christian and secular, and in East Asian countries like Japan where the "Judeo-Christian tradition" has never been part of the majority culture.

The idea that religion is important because it educates democratic citizens in morality is actually quite demeaning to religion. It imposes a political test on religion, as it were -- religions are not true or false, but merely useful or dangerous, when it comes to encouraging the civic virtues that are desirable in citizens of a constitutional, democratic republic. Washington's instrumental view of religion as a kind of prop was agreeable to another two-term American president more than a century and a half later. "[O]ur form of government has no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious faith," said Dwight Eisenhower, "and I don't care what it is." And it's indistinguishable from Edward Gibbon's description of Roman religion in his famous multi-volume "Decline and Fall": "The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord."

President Obama, then, is right. The American republic, as distinct from the American population, is not post-Christian because it was never Christian. In the president's words: "We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values." And for that we should thank the gods. All 20 of them.


05 April 2009

great review of one of the best albums ever...

[from pitchfork...]

Album Review

Pearl Jam
Ten: Deluxe Edition

Ten may be classic rock today, but it's easy to underestimate how radical Pearl Jam sounded back in 1991, even with Nirvana ascendant. After several long years of hair metal dominance, here was a band that could jam stadium-large, texture their sound darkly and densely, and explode the blues-rock template. Here was a frontman with an entirely new stage presence, whose voice strained hard for sincerity and whose songwriting expressed grave self-reckoning without resorting to easy sentiments or self-glorifying choruses. Against the odds-- as well as against the band's wishes, apparently-- their debut became a phenomenon, an alt-rock figurehead as crucial as Nevermind in ushering in and defining the parameters for mainstream rock. Vedder's self-doubts ran as deep as Cobain's, but he expressed them bluntly and directly rather than poetically and obscurely. Oh and also, he's still alive.

Deeply invested in the cathartic possibilities of punk and classic rock, Pearl Jam seemingly made music as a form of self-therapy, an idea that took hold with nearly a decade of alt-rock acts to come. The band is routinely blamed for the self-gratifying Stone Temple Pilots, Creeds, and Nicklebacks that followed Ten, but the band naturally never set out to remake rock music in its own image. Suspicious of the hedonism of the arena rock that preceded them, Pearl Jam were a solemn band, and Ten sounds nothing if not entirely serious about animating Vedder's self-doubts. At times, it's a bit overwrought ("I don't question our existence/ I just question our modern needs"), but the earnestness with which Vedder sang and the band played these songs belies the decade's reputation as a period of pervasive irony. Ultimately, the 1990s wouldn't have been so bad if Pearl Jam's followers hadn't aped their self-seriousness so relentlessly.

Nevertheless, Ten remains impressive and occasionally moving 18 years later, even gentrified with a shiny reissue. The public perception of the album is watered down thanks mainly to the excision of "Alive", "Jeremy", and "Even Flow" as singles. The latter two may be the album's least remarkable tracks: "Jeremy" is the most pat Freudian psychodrama on an album full of them, and "Evenflow" romanticizes homelessness as spiritually transcendent. But "Alive" remains potent not only because Vedder touches on some seriously transgressive shit here (dead fathers, hints at incest, survivor guilt), but mostly because the band rock the hell out of that coda.

Today, Ten lives and dies by its album tracks, and while there are a few clunkers, most are pretty ballsy in their disdain for expectations. Granted, as a new band with few realistic prospects for the kind of success they quickly achieved, Pearl Jam were working with a very different set of expectations than the ones retroactively assigned to them. On songs like "Once", with its insistent breakdowns, and "Black", with strangely dramatic vocalizations, there's a hardscrabble dynamic that the band would be unable to capture on subsequent releases. "Why Go" is ferocious in its outrage, with Vedder delivering his most pained vocals, and Stone Gossard and Mike McCready match him on every song, translating Vedder's howls into messy, edge-of-the-precipice solos and paint-peeling riffs like the one that anchors "Deep".

In addition to the original album as produced by Rick Parashar and mixed by Tim Palmer, the new reissue includes a second disc, titled Ten Redux, that includes a new mix by Brendan O'Brien. A few of these new versions appeared on 2004's best-of Rearviewmirror, and O'Brien, who has worked with Pearl Jam on most of their subsequent albums, brings Vedder's ad libs to the forefront, sharpens some of the guitar riffs, and generally cleans up the murkiness. Sounding like 2005 rather than 1991, Ten Redux misses the point: The album's murkiness was one of its chief attractions, its flawed spontaneity feeding the songs' of-the-moment intensity. Ultimately, these new versions have less to do with Pearl Jam's music than with O'Brien's superfandom.

Ten Redux closes with a paltry six bonus tracks. "2,000 Mile Blues" is atrocious Jimi worship, "Evil Little Goat" is Vedder's best Jim Morrison impersonation, and neither "Breath" (here retitled "Breath and a Scream") nor "State of Love and Trust" sound as vital here as they did on the Singles soundtrack. These tracks are obviously intended not to overlap with 2003's Lost Dogs: Rarities and B-Sides, but flipsides like "Dirty Frank" and "Yellow Ledbetter" were surprisingly popular satellites orbiting Ten, played often on radio stations that didn't typically delve that deep into any artist's catalog and shouted at concerts by fans who weren't that fanatic. Their absence limits the reissue, creating an incomplete portrait of the band in its earliest days.

Ten deserved better than Ten Redux and the paltry bonus tracks. Fortunately, the reissue also includes a DVD of Pearl Jam's 1992 performance on "MTV Unplugged". The fashions are of course dated (nice fuzzy hat, Jeff Ament) and Vedder's stool-bound intensity can be fairly ridiculous, but the DVD is a useful and entertaining document of their intense live sets. Thanks to the tight rhythms of drummer Dave Abbruzzese and bass player Ament, the songs lose little of their momentum in this setting, which handily showcases the guitar interplay between Gossard and McCready. But this is Vedder's show-- a live, public debut for his idiosyncrasies. Taking the stage in a tight jacket and backwards baseball cap, he gradually unleashes himself during the show, first letting his hair down and then eventually losing the jacket. By show's end, he's balancing precariously on his stool and scrawling PRO CHOICE!!! on his arms with a Sharpie. Pearl Jam may have shunned the spotlight, but they were born showmen.

Stephen M. Deusner, April 3, 2009