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Sunday, May 28, 2006

Searching the House

You know the story by now: FBI searches the office of a congressman. Congress raises a stink. Bureau chief and Attorney General threaten to resign if search is ruled illegal.

A couple of interesting thoughts present themselves. One is the studious secrecy of the Bush Administration itself. These people claim "executive privilege" at the drop of a hat, even for such basic details as which industry lobbyists the Veep meets with before making policy. Never mind the outright lies that Scott "Pudgie" McClellan used to tell in his effort to stonewall the Plame investigation. So is it just me, or is there a faint aroma of hypocrisy here?

After all, executive privilege exists so that the President and his team can do their work without coercion from the other branches. Although Article 1, Section 6 of the Constitution doesn't specify that a congressman's chambers shall be off-limits to an Executive Branch investigation, it certainly tends in that direction. It exempts them from prosecution, or even questioning, for things they do on the floor of Congress. As with soveriegn or diplomatic immunity, legislators are freed from certain kinds of scrutiny in order to let them function independently. So you can see why Speaker Hastert and Minority Leader Pelosi, strange bedfellows to be sure, are ticked off at the White House.

But let's give the devil his due. Rep. William Jefferson of Louisian is accused of accepting bribes. Does anybody actually doubt his guilt? I mean, the guy's a congressman. From Louisiana. Of course he took the money. So you can also see why he was under investigation in the first place, and why AG Gonzales and FBI Guy Mueller are ready to quit over this. He probably broke the law, they know it, and they want to put him in jail. Rightly so, if only the search were legal.

And oh my stars and garters, will you look at this. President Bush actually arranged a compromise -- a 45-day period for both sides to cool their jets. While it is a pleasant novelty to type the words "Bush" and "compromise" in the same sentence, let's be honest about this. Washington in general, and the House in particular, are places in which a lot of old grudges remain in play, seemingly without terminus. The two parties are still pissed at each other over Vietnam and Watergate, disasters which predate the birth of the average blogger. The Whitewater investigators spent six years looking into allegations that were already a decade old. The power elites have gotten over Teapot Dome, but only just.

So jets are going to cool in six weeks? We think not. This time-out is probably just a chance for both sides to marshall their forces. And remember, the sides in question aren't Republican versus Democrat. They are Executive versus Legislative -- or, it sometimes seems, autocrat versus .

But here's the silver lining: Gonzales and Mueller threatened to resign if they don't get their own way. So if Bush were a really smart politician, this could be a great opportunity. He could simply insist that the privileges of Congress be respected, and the seized documents be returned -- simultaneously striking a blow for the Constitution and forcing out the single most articulate spokesman for the illegal and immoral practice of torture that has helped to taint his administration's place in history and the good name of the United States.

Win-win, Mister President. Win-freaking-win.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Neuhaus Defends Sex Abuser

To its credit, Benedict XVI's Vatican has done what John Paul's dared not: publicly disciplined a highly-placed figure accused of abusing young men under his religious care. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, has been "invited" to refrain from any public exercise of his priestly office, and turn to a life of "prayer and penitence." (Read the Vatican's press release).

The Times article gives details, but the bottom line is that at least nine former seminarians claim Maciel molested them. He denies the claims, as do his supporters -- well, of course he does. It seems John Paul was believed those denials. And Benedict, as a cardinal, had personally ended a 1999 proceeding against Maciel.

But as the monstrous reality of Rome's coverup culture has become more apparent, Cardinal Ratzinger re-opened the Maciel case, and talked about getting rid of "filth" in the Church. The Vatican statement expressly stated that, due to his age and ill-health, Maciel would be spared a trial -- but the implication is clearly that a trial might otherwise be forthcoming.

To be sure, some people don't think Benedict has gone far enough. "They have negotiated with a criminal," says one former priest. Well, yes. But district attorneys do that every time they offer a plea bargain -- and the guilty still get punished.

Here's the part that kills us, though. Maciel has a number of prominent defenders in the Catholic neo-con camp: think George Weigel, Bill Bennett, Mary Anne Glendon. (Where is Michael "Warmonger" Novak, we wonder?) One of these is Richard John Neuhaus, who seems to be getting a little weirder in his old age. Here are the money quotes:

On Friday, Father Neuhaus . . . said he still believed that the charges against Father Maciel were unfounded. "There is nothing in the Vatican statement that suggests that the word penance is meant as a punitive measure," he said.

Asked why the Vatican would take any action, he said, "It wouldn't be the first time that an innocent and indeed holy person was unfairly treated by church authority."

A little disingenuous, don't you think?

First, let's remember what penance is: turning to God and asking forgiveness. For what? For sins. The Vatican doesn't specify which sins -- nor would we ask it to -- but the invitation to penance is clearly offered as the result of an investigation and the alternative to a trial. So yes, there is something in the statement which suggests a punitive measure, even if it doesn't make such a claim expressly.

And second, if we are going to extend charity toward our neighbors, should we not begin by assuming that nine men are less likely to lie than a single one, and to assume that the Pope knows something about his own affairs?

Friday, May 19, 2006

Giuliani Proves Shakespeare Wrong

Rudy Giuliani, in a campaign speech for Ralph Reed, declared heterosexual marriage to be "inviolate." Oy, vey. Where to begin?

First: As the
Times notes, Giuliani was finessing his long-standing support for gay civil unions. One has to assume that Reed's conservative supporters will see through this pretty quickly. And in a just world, support for Reed would alienate Giuliani's own moderate base.

Second: Giuliani is selling his soul by supporting Reed's homophobic Christianist campaign in Georgia. No surprise there; as we ramp up for the '08 Presidential campaign, souls are going for cheap. Anybody remember McCain's little visit to Liberty U.?

But here's where the rubber hits the road, people --

Third: Inviolate? What does this guy know about keeping marriage inviolate? Let's review.

(a) Giuliani's first marriage was to his second cousin, Regina Peruggi. Under canon law, this is grounds for an annullment, which he sought and received. Not right away, mind you, but after fourteen years together. Fourteen years. And -- key concept here -- he "learned" about the blood relationship and got the annullment while he was in the middle of an adulterous affair with TV personality Donna Hanover, whom he later married.

(b) Giuliani's second marriage, to Ms. Hanover, was an ugly thing. During his tenure as Mayor of New York, he was generally believed to be engaged in an affair with one of his subordinates, press secretary Crystyne Lategano, who later got a plum political appointment. They denied it all, to be sure, but nobody believed them. So there -- if the speculation is true -- we have adultery coupled with abuse of power coupled with nepotism and topped with an icing of lies.

(c) Even if the first affair isn't certain, the second is. While still married to Hanover, and still mayor, Giuliani started sleeping with Judith Nathan. (They marched in the St. Patrick's Day Parade together, for crying out loud -- the way normal mayors usually do with their wives. Oh, and he later married her.) Giuliani and Hanover had an ugly, public squabble over who could live in Gracie Mansion -- and of course, their kids got caught in the middle. In the divorce proceedings, he accused her of "cruel and inhuman treatment," while she accused him of "open and notorious adultery." Which argument was more convincing? Well, she gets a million dollars a year in alimony.

So. Rudy Giuliani is a serial adulterer, a liar, a man who doesn't mind dragging his kids through the mud that he creates with his disdain for marriage vows. And, since Rome won't annull his second marriage, he is also presumably unwelcome to receive communion in his own church.

So maybe this guy should keep his big mouth shut on the subject of making marriage "inviolate." In any case, his speech in Georgia proves that Shakespeare is wrong -- conscience doth NOT make cowards of us all. Or does that only work if you have a conscience?

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

"Code" Encourages Interfaith Cooperation

Three cheers for "The Da Vinci Code!"

Sure, it's a crock of lies packaged as trashy fiction. Sure, the "Priory of Sion" doesn't exist, despite Dan Brown's claims. Sure, Opus Dei -- dubious though it may be -- is nothing like the organization the book depicts. Sure, albino monks all over the world feel personally discriminated against. And sure, I'll never again walk through the front door of a Gothic church without squirming.

But the book manages to tick off not only the usual Christian crowd -- the Catholic League, TV preachers, etc. -- but also a fair sample of the moderate mainline. By uniting the extremists and the moderates, it strikes a blow for Christian unity.

And better yet, it also ticks off Muslims. (Remember, Jesus PBUH is a prophet.) And we all know what Muslims do when they get angry, don't we? Hide your ambassadors and intelligence attaches -- embassies will burn.

In fact, with the respect for freedom we have come to expect from our Asian neighbors, there are loud calls to ban the movie version in India and Korea. What tickles the Egg is that these calls come both from Christians and from Muslims "in support of our Christian brothers."

As Isaiah says, the lion shall burn embassies with the lamb.

So let's hear it for the Code -- a media product so objectionable it can turn age-old enemies into riot-prone enemies of free speech.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Two Dumb Complaints

A Sri Lankan bishop postpones his trip to Britain because he believes that being fingerprinted at the embassy is "humiliating" and "discriminatory." Get real. At various foreign borders, I have been searched, probed, detained, lied to, denied a passport stamp, held at gunpoint, and robbed. Friends have had drugs planted in their baggage so that they could be forced to pay a bribe (the Peruvian police take credit cards). Those were humiliating and discriminatory. But offering my fingerprints in an effort to make international travel safer strikes me as the least a person of good consciece can do in these parlous times. Or, put bluntly: Wake up and smell the terrorism, Your Grace.

A Navy chaplain complains of religious persecution. He argues that the Navy wants to discipline him for praying in uniform. But this is disingenuous; he happened to pray while appearing in uniform at a politically-motivated press conference. And -- as the Right has recently taking to reminding retired generals -- there are strict rules governing the involvment of the military in civilian political affairs. (The difference being that the said generals have returned to civilian life, while Lt. Klingenschmitt remains on active duty. For now.)

Oh, and be alert: Friends in military chaplaincy have been worrying for years about the grpwing dominance of fundmentalists with a a hard-right political agenda. (See under: Air Force Academy). Klingenschmitt is a symptom, not the problem.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Episcopalians Dodge Bullet.

For now.

The California Diocese elected Mark Andrus as its next bishop. There were seven candidates; of those, two were gay men and one was a lesbian. One of the men was black. So this was, as these things go, a very diverse slate.

[Note to self: Aren't you sick of using "diverse" so superficially? For all I know, the whole group held the precise same social and theological views, exercised the same leadership in the same way, and so forth. There are other kinds of diversity than race, sex and nookie -- but mainline American Christianity doesn't care about anything else anymore.]

Anyway, the Spirit moved the diocese to choose Andrus, thereby postponing -- sorry, I meant averting -- a schism in the Anglican Communion. That was, surely, not the purpose of the vote -- the people needed a bishop, and sought the best person for the job. Averting schism was just a happy side effect. (Which is why, sooner or later, there will be a schism.)

Meanwhile, the
Anglicans in Canada have come out against the proposed Nigerian law that would restrict basic human rights not only for gay people but for churches that serve them and newspaers that write about them. They "disassociated" themselves from the Church of Nigeria, which supports the law. Oh, yeah. There's a schism coming.

David Blain is an Idiot.

There. It had to be said.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

How "Opal Mehta" Got Published, Got Revealed, and Got Yanked Off the Shelves

By now you've heard about 19-year-old Kaavya Viswanathan and her novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life. The big news is that Viswanathan plagiarized sections of her book from another writer, Megan McCafferty. Now it turns out she also lifted a few chunks from Sophie Kinsella's The Princess Diaries and Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories.

That's the big news. But let's talk about the smaller, but still interesting, parts of the story.

First, money. Her publishers paid Viswanathan something like $500,000 as an advance. She's 19 years old. There are some very, very good writers in this country who never earn a dollar for their work, and many of the best never make a living at it. So whose bright idea was it to ante up half a million dollars for a teenager's first novel?

Second, Harvard's literary standards. I hope her English professors take note of the fact that she's ripping off crap. (Not you, Salman.) If you're going to steal, baby, why not steal from Flaubert?

Third, Harvard's ethical standards. (And everybody else's.) I recently taught course at an up-and-coming third-tier private college. Two sections, 25 students each. I had four cases of plagiarism. In each case, the boneheads had simply pasted in material they copied from the Internet -- Wikipedia, mostly, and one Wiccan site. (Something about that "wick" sound, I guess). They cried crocodile tears when I gave them "D"s, not seeming to understand (despite my rather stern comments and repeated references to both Turabian and the student handbook) that the normal punishment for plagiarism on a college term paper is expulsion. Or at least it was when I was a young 'un.

"What do you expect from these kids," I said to myself. "They're studying at Party U.; it's not like this place is ... I dunno ... Harvard." Except it turns out that it IS as though that place were Harvard, with less money.

My students claimed, without exception, that nobody had ever explained to them why it is wrong to take credit for things that somebody else has written. They had, by the way, gone to good high schools, several of them church-affiliated. So from the middle of American higher education to the top, it appears that there is a student culture which takes for granted what we old fogeys still call plagiarism. Call it hommagerie, or the age of sampling. Call it by the polite Biblical-studies term of pseudepigrapha. But either way, look for many sequels to Opal Mehta.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Nigerian Bishop Hates Sin AND Sinner

"Hate the sin, love the sinner." That was the mantra of my conservative seminary classmates, tossed around so blithely in discussions of homosexuality that it came to induce instant nausea. And yet, let's be honest, it does describe a defensible position, in discussions far more wide-ranging than those of mere sexual morality.

The anti-gay crowd has hewn to this line in the debates which are slowly dividing worldwide Anglicanism (here's the New Yorker's take, reasonably good by secular-press standards). They have inisted that while they consider homesexuality sinful, they continue to care pastorally for gay people, and object to any legal or civil institutions which "victimize or diminish" them.

Or at least they did. Seems that Nigerian archbishop Peter Akinola, a leader of the anti-gay forces, "recently threw his prestige and resources behind a new law that would criminalize same-sex marriage in his country and deny gay citizens the freedoms to assemble and petition their government. The law would also infringe upon press and religious freedom by authorizing Nigeria's government to prosecute newspapers that publicize same-sex associations and religious organizations that permit same-sex unions."

The quotation is from an op-ed piece by Bishop Chane of Washington, which has appeared in the WashPost and on the Episcopal Life website.

Apparently, the man who has become the living symbol of the global south's position on sexual morality is also happy to associate himself with the global south's endemic contempt for human rights. I hope that conservatives within America's Episcopal Church think long and hard about whether Akinola is somebody they want to, er, climb into bed with. Even proverbially.