Daily Archives: March 29, 2004

"Under God"–Or Not? Part II

Phaedrus replies to my argument that leaving the phrase “under god” in the Pledge is justifiable if not warranted by coming over all outraged that anyone could agree with Ted Olson about anything. I am not unaware that Olson’s history hints strongly that he is little more than a fire-breathing, right-wing, scum-sucking pig, but even a broken clock is right twice a day. I said he was right and Phaedrus wants to know: “Olson’s right? Right about what?” Here’s what Olson said:

Solicitor General Olson told the justices that the appeals court misunderstood the pledge. The phrase “under God” did not place the pledge in the category of religious expressions that the Supreme Court has found unconstitutional, he said, for example “state-sponsored prayers, religious rituals or ceremonies, or the requirement of teaching or not teaching a religious doctrine.”

Absolutely correct. The mere insertion of the word “god” in the Pledge does not create or even suggest the establishment of a state religion without further modification. If the phrase were to be reworded “under Christ” or “under Buddha” or “praise be to Allah”, then Phaedrus would be right. All of those forms would be unConstitutional. Phaedrus asks, “That ‘under God’ in the pledge is not a religious statement?”, and my answer is: a) not necessarily; and b) even if it is, that’s not prohibited. Without further emphasis, all it does is acknowledge the role of religious faith both in the founding of the country and in the past and present life of the country, and that is far from unConstitutional.

P: …any way you look at, including maja’s way, it’s an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

Nonsense. It establishes NOTHING. “God” is a generic term, owned by nobody and by everybody. Every religion in the world uses it, and they all mean something different when they do. To argue that its mere use by the govt constitutes “establishment” is as if Heinz was arguing that using the word “ketchup” on its label constitutes Heinz’s established “ownership” of any and all companies that make ketchup. It’s ridiculous.

NO clause in the Consitution prevents public acknowledgement of religion, nor would the Framers have stood for such a clause. Why? Once again, Olson:

Rather, Mr. Olson said, “under God” was one of various “civic and ceremonial acknowledgments of the indisputable historical fact that caused the framers of our Constitution and the signers of the Declaration of Independence to say that they had the right to revolt and start a new country.” He said the framers believed “that God gave them the right to declare their independence when the king has not been living up to the unalienable principles given to them by God.”

Every word in that graf is historical fact (except the phrase “civic and ceremonial acknowledgement”, which is arguable) and a perfectly fair and accurate characterization of both the Declaration and everything you will find on the subject in the Federalist Papers. The Founders were all religious men of one stripe or another, and they wanted to ensure that the public life of the new United States was tolerant of all religious viewpoints. They realized that to do that meant preventing the new state from establishing its own religion or adopting one it would then force everyone to follow, as in England. It never occured to them to banish acknowledgement of a deity from governmental discourse, and if it had, they would have rejected it outright.

Jefferson wrote in his letter to the Danbury Baptists (the origin of the phrase “a wall of separation between Church & State”), “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship….” (emphasis added). With that phrase, Jefferson defines precisely what “makes no establishment” in the Constitution means: that the govt will not be allowed to do anything that either abridges or promotes the free expression of one religion at the expense of others. The words “under god” in the Pledge do neither. You’d have a much better case–and cause–if you wanted to ban the daily Senate Invocation, which is the closest we’ve ever come to establishing a govt religion (so far).

Phaedrus again:

And how about this? If it’s not meant as a profession of faith, if it’s really there to honor the faith of our Founding Fathers, how ’bout we change to something a little more accurate and drop even the appearance of a profession of faith? Something like, “. . . one Nation, acknowledging the beneficial beliefs of the Founding Fathers . . .”

Fine with me. Avoids the whole problem of religion and lands the honor where it belongs. If you wanted to get close to what the Deists meant, you could change it to “under Nature”, which could be a real problem for developers. Also fine with me. “Under Reason” would work, too. Personally, I like that even better, though it has the drawback of not giving developers apoplexy.

I mean, if “under God” really honors the beliefs of the Founding Fathers, shouldn’t we say that. What the hell is this, a guessing game? “Bobby, what do you think ‘under God’ means in the pledge?” There, that should satisfy everyone. Whadda ya mean it won’t? Why the hell not?

Oh, bull. It’s not that confusing, and anyway if the question is asked it’s a great lead-in to a discussion of what the Founders believed and how those beliefs affected their decision to break away from England and what kind of country to have once the break was made.

Let’s cut to the chase. The phrase isn’t confusing to anyone, but some atheists find it offensive. Understandable and maybe a better argument, but “offensive” does not an establishment make, no matter how much you’d like it to. What it implies or infers is irrelevant: it establishes NOTHING; it is an expression of religious belief and the Constitution does not forbid the public expression of religious feeling even if that expression may offend someone else–in fact it protects that freedom especially when the expression offends those who do not believe the same way. In refusing to allow the state expression of religion as distinct from its state establishment–a very different thing–you are in effect seeking to do to others what you claim to be trying to prevent for yourself: banning an expression of religion that you find offensive because of where it comes from.

Nobody knows, so it doesn’t make a fuck. I don’t know what the fuck it is these days with people saying (Deepish voice, projecting through the nose [kinda like milk, when you were a kid]), “We must follow the intent of the Founding Fathers.” What?

Now now, since you’re arguing with me, please stick to what I say without imputing to me the words or motives of other people for whom I am not responsible. I said, If the phrase is included in a National Pledge we must take the reference to be to the word as used by the people who formed the Nation. It cannot rightfully be taken in any other context without violating logic. It is far more illogical to assume it means something else. Why would it? Your argument seems to rest on origin:

Macpherson Docherty presented an idea to his congregation. He came upon the idea independently and apparently not realizing any other effort was underway. From his pulpit that faithful day, he explained, “It struck me [while talking with my son about the Pledge] that it [the pledge] didn’t mention God,”. “I was brought up in Scotland, and in Scotland, we sang, ‘God save our gracious king.’ It was everybody’s belief that God was part of society.”

Well, I’m arguing that in this instance origin and motivation are irrelevant because there are reasons to include it that surpass its humble beginnings. But even if we accept that origin is relevant, we are still left with the fact that, religiously-motivated or not, the phrase–absent specific qualifiers–may express religion but doesn’t establish one. The weakness in your argument isn’t that “god” is primarily a religious word, it’s in the assumption that simply saying it establishes an official religion. The onus is on you: How does it do that?

I’m gonna take on maja’s argument on the Declaration of Independence, but not because it has anything to do with “under God” in the pledge. It doesn’t. Maj, how can the Declaration be unconstitutional? It’s not a law, it’s not part of the constitution, for purposes of American government it doesn’t even exist.

Jeez, I hope you’re not trying to tell me that the Pledge is. Reality check? If your criteria for unConstitutionality is in the quote above, you just lost the argument.

Even if “under God” “must” be taken to mean the God of the Founding Fathers, how does that make it OK? Government is professing faith in the God of the Founding Fathers.

Not “professing”; “acknowledging”. There’s a difference, like the difference between “expressing” and “establishing”.

The only dog that should count in this fight is the Godless Constitution. How in the world can it be constitutional to inflict upon people a profession of faith and to ascribe to the government a submission to faith. Under God. It means subjugation to God. And it is, without a doubt, unconstitutional to make it a part of government.

As I said before, this is absolutely the weakest part of the argument for removing the phrase. Let’s refresh with the actual wording:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion….

That’s all it says. It doesn’t say the govt can’t express religious feelings or thoughts or beliefs. It says it can’t establish one in preference to others, in other words, a state religion. The words in the Pledge don’t establish because they don’t single out one religion over the rest. Your problem is that they single out religion over non-religion. Well, sorry, but there’s no Constitutional prohibition against doing that. You may not like it, but there isn’t. It ain’t there, and the fear that allowing expression of religion by the state is the thin end of the wedge driving toward establishment, true or not, doesn’t count until the wedge crosses the line.

The First Amendment, contrary to your apparent belief, doesn’t prevent religion in government. It prevents one religion from dominating and using the power of the state to subjugate other religions. And that’s all. Even if you could make a successful case that “under god” establishes that govt considers itself somehow “submissive” to some generic religious principles, so what? That’s not prohibited until and unless it shows a preference for a decidedly specific, non-generic set of religious principles belonging to only one sect. The phrase “under god” isn’t specific enough, as I said at the top, to rise to that level.

You wanna put an honorific in about the Founding Fathers’ beliefs, I got no problem with that. But you are not honoring the Founding Father’s beliefs when you profess their belief’s. You’re professing their beliefs, which is a religious act.

As I said already, I don’t think “professing” is the right word, but even if it were that doesn’t alter the fact that the Constitution doesn’t forbid it in general form. If you want it to do that, you’re going to need to amend the First Amendment so it says that.

Suppose you and me go around asking every kid in America between the ages of 5 and 11 what they think “under God” in the pledge means, how many are gonna give us your spiel about the Founding Fathers?

Oh, come on. Are we to pass laws now only if they can be understood by children 5-11? If you’re referring to the fact that kids in school say it, ban it from schools. I’ve never thought it should be there. It’s indoctrination when you force kids to pledge “allegiance”–wanna go around with me and ask those same kids what the word “allegiance” means?–when they don’t understand what it is or why they’re doing it. I have contended for a long time that the Pledge should a) not be compulsory; and b) not be in schools below college level (where, ironically, it isn’t found at all) because that’s when you first become truly capable of understanding what you’re doing when you “pledge allegiance.” Maybe the last 2 years of high school…. But that’s a separate issue.

It’s plainly a religious expression and plainly unconstitutional.

I’m repeating this because it’s your whole position in a nutshell. So I’ll put mine in one as well.

Religious establishment is unConstitutional. Religious expression is not, not even when it is the govt doing the expressing.

You’d have to torture the First Amendment to get your interpretation out of it.

State-Sponsired Terrorism Is a Myth

Can we talk about an actual issue here for a minute instead of having to spend valuable blog-time debunking the latest swarm of lies about the issue from the Bush Admin? Cause if we can, I think that might be good.Josh Marshall noted that Richard Perle unaccountably hasn’t joined the chorus of Clarke-drubbing BA flacks and gives him credit for accurately stating the differences between Clarke and the neocons, which Marshall summed up this way:

[Perle] focused on what really is the central issue — whether the war on terrorism is principally a battle against states (which sponsor terrorist groups or, we might say, launder violence through them) or transnational terrorist organizations who are not fundamentally reliant on state sponsors.

This is, indeed, the key difference and the crucial question to be answered if we are to have an effect on them. Baldly put, if terrorists exist primarily on the largesse and with the approval of states, then one cannot beat them without destroying or at least undermining that state support. If, on the other hand, terrorists have stopped relying on state support and are now no longer either centralized or primarily regional, then attacking states supposedly supporting them will be futile. So which is it?

Marshall points to a Newsweek article by Mid-East reporter Fareed Zakaria for a look at what the 9/11 Commission’s documents show, particularly the staff reports.

Before the mid-1990s, almost all terrorism against the United States had been backed by a state. The Soviet Union had financed and trained terror groups around the world. Syria, Iran, Iraq and Libya had all sponsored terrorism. The most dramatic attacks on Americans—the Beirut Marine-barracks bombing in 1983, and Pan Am 103 in 1988—had both been encouraged if not planned by governments. Even Saudi Hizbullah, the group that bombed Khobar Towers, the American barracks in Saudi Arabia, got support from Iran.Around 1997, members of the intelligence community—and others, like Richard Clarke—began focusing on a Saudi man, Osama bin Laden, who they realized was the financier and leader of a new group, Al Qaeda. Few in government shared their concern. In 1997 Al Qaeda was not confirmed to have executed a single terrorist attack against Americans. “Employees in the government told us that they felt their zeal attracted ridicule from their peers,” the commission’s report on intelligence says.

But a series of events and personalities linked to the attempted WTC bombing back in ’93 began to show investigators a different picture which the unraveling (and interdiction) of the millenium plots confirmed: something new was going on. States were getting out of the business of sponsoring terrorism.

I asked an American official closely involved with counterterrorism about state sponsorship. He replied, “Well, all that’s left is Iran and to a lesser extent Syria, and it’s mostly directed against Israel. States have been getting out of the terror business since the late 1980s. We have kept many governments on the list of state sponsors for political reasons. The reality is that the terror we face is mostly unconnected to states.” Today’s terrorists are harbored in countries like Spain and Germany—entirely unintentionally. They draw on support not from states but private individuals—Saudi millionaires, Egyptian radicals, Yemenite preachers.

The states were probably bailing out because, like Qaddaffi, they had reached the conclusion that terrorism didn’t work, that it wasn’t going to get them what they wanted and that instead they were losing respectability and influence on the world stage–the opposite of the result they had hoped for. But whatever the reason, terrorists like bin Laden were now working almost entirely outside the sponsorship of any state as independent entities with independent goals.

So much had the CTC (counter terrorist community) learned–the hard way–by 2000. Both Sandy Berger, Clinton’s National Security Advisor, and CIA Director George Tenet were slow to come around, but when they did they became advocates. All of them tried very hard to pass on what they now knew about the radical shift in terrorist tactics, but the Bush Bunch had its own agenda.

The Bush team, distrustful of anything Clinton’s people said, did not see Al Qaeda as an urgent threat. They held few meetings on it and in other ways were inattentive to it. One example from the panel’s report: the senior Pentagon official responsible for counterterrorism is the assistant secretary for special operations and low-intensity conflict. Even by September 11, 2001, no one had been appointed to that post.The Bush administration came to office with different concerns. During the 1990s conservative intellectuals and policy wonks sounded the alarm about China, North Korea, Cuba, Iran and Iraq, but not about terror. Real men dealt with states.

Even after 9/11, many in the administration wanted to focus on states. Bush spoke out against countries that “harbor” terrorists. Two days after the attacks, Paul Wolfowitz proposed “ending states that sponsor terrorism.” Beyond Iraq, conservative intellectuals like Richard Perle and Michael Ledeen insist that the real source of terror remains the “terror masters,” meaning states like Iran and Syria.

Afghanistan would appear to support that contention, but Zakaria points out that Afghanistan was, in reality, a major role-reversal, a real tail-wagging-the-dog situation.

[Afghanistan] was less a case of a state’s sponsoring a terror group and more one of a terror group’s sponsoring a state. Consider the situation today. Al Qaeda has lost its base in Afghanistan, two thirds of its leaders have been captured or killed, its funds are being frozen. And yet terror attacks mount from Indonesia to Casablanca to Spain. “These attacks are not being directed by Al Qaeda. They are being inspired by it,” the official told me. “I’m not even sure it makes sense to speak of Al Qaeda because it conveys the image of a single, if decentralized, group. In fact, these are all different, local groups that have in common only ideology and enemies.”

Not only not a state-sponsored group, not even a single vertically-integrated group but a collection of indie-cells loosely organized and often acting on their own initiative with the help, advice, and “inspiration” of the parent group as a guide. If this picture of the new reality is accurate–and there is every reason to think it is–then the Bushies’ refusal to take it into account in their planning wasn’t just wrong but spectacularly wrong, the equivalent of criminal negligence.

Blinded, deafened and cut off from the real threat by their insistant reliance on Cold War models with which they were comfortable but which were hopelessly out of date, it could be argued that Bush, Rice, Wolfowitz, Perle, Cheney and the rest were as responsible for allowing 9/11 to happen as the mother whose child dies when left unattended in a closed car on a hot day because she didn’t believe that excessive heat hurts children despite being told by her doctor that it was dangerous. In law, her ignorance of science is no excuse and her refusal to take her doctor’s advice would lead to a manslaughter charge at the least. In BushLand, they think she should win a new car.

Peter Ustinov Dead at 82

Ustinov was always one of my favorite actors. He had the wit of Robert Morley and the range of Peter Sellers. As a comic actor there were few in his league and even fewer who surpassed him. He is perhaps best known nowadays (if he is known at all) for his three runs at playing Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s eccentric Belgian detective with the outrageous moustaches, the prickly pride, and “the little grey cells” that invariably solved the crime. I love Ustinov’s Poirot, but he had almost nothing to do with Christie’s Poirot. Christie’s was, well, Albert Finney in Murder on the Orient Express, if you want to see him in the flesh. Finney didn’t want to repeat the role for the sequels (one of the great losses of film history, detective film history, anyway), so they got Peter, who couldn’t help but pour charm and heart into a character that was supposed to be all mind. Finney’s performance will forever be the one true film Poirot and a singular achievement, but it’s Ustinov’s Poirot I want to see again and again.

Peter had a knack for finding the humanity in every character he played, even his Nero in Quo Vadis. A mad tyrant in the script, in Ustinov’s hands he becomes more than a monster. He becomes a recognizable human being, spoiled and ignorant, frightened and selfish, using arrogance and bluster to cover over his nagging fear that something is very, very wrong with him. It’s a marvelous performance, one of the few times an actor has penetrated far enough into the mind of a monster to find the core of the child he once was. I should add that he managed that little feat with almost zero help from the script, which was a fairly standard Roman epic. For non-actors: it is one thing for an actor to bring a great script to life, worthy and a joy to watch; but it is quite another for an actor to bring life and depth to a poorly-written script that has neither. That is a true test of talent, and it was a test Peter never failed in his life.

But more important than being a great actor, Peter was a good man. He understood that life outside theater and film was real life, not the other way around, and he devoted himself to activities and organizations that tried to make that life a little better for people who weren’t as lucky or–as he would have said–“blessed” as he was. He worked tirelessly for UNESCO and UNICEF, was always available for charity events and fundraisers, and boosted any number of NGO profiles with credibility and renown.

He was a good writer, too, but his stuff has never played well here, I’m not sure why. Maybe it isn’t “big” enough. His humor is droll rather than arch, subtle rather than broad and brassy, character-driven rather than joke-driven. In fact it’s virtually impossible to find a single line in one of his comedies–even lines that had audiences screaming with laughter–that is funny all by itself, the kind of gag Woody Allen’s writing is full of. Peter’s funniest lines require that you understand the person who’s saying them well enough to know why they’re being said; out of context, they usually don’t make any sense.

Peter will be greatly missed, at least by me and by everyone who actually knew him. He lived, as they say, a long and valuable life, and seems to have got everything right – a very difficult trick to pull off. I am by nature a “black Scot” – moody, pessimistic and cynical. I see the dark glow of human greed and rage stalking us in the shadows wherever we go, making a planet that could be Paradise into a parking lot, the culmination of our own childish fears, short-sightedness, and ignorance. To a man like me, a man like Peter was an invaluable reminder that it doesn’t have to be that way, that goodness, mercy and grace are still possible, still desirable, still powerful even when spoken quietly and with a wry humor. It’s going to be harder for me to feel that now that he’s gone.

Do yourself a favor and rent a couple of his movies in his honor. I would recommend Death on the Nile, Topkapi, Hot Millions, Billy Budd (which he also wrote and directed), Romanov and Juliet, Barefoot in Athens, and/or A Storm in Summer. Any one of them will enrich your life in ways that you don’t expect, and which of us couldn’t use a little of that?

I’ll leave you with a couple of random Ustinov quotes:

“Beliefs are what divide people. Doubt unites them.”

“Love is an act of endless forgiveness, a tender look which becomes a habit.”

“Her virtue was that she said what she thought, her vice that what she thought didn’t amount to much.”

“It is our responsibilities, not ourselves, that we should take seriously.”

“If the world should blow itself up, the last audible voice would be that of an expert saying it can’t be done.”

Requiescat in Pace, Peter.