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Archives for Politics and Religion

A Vote From The Grave

Apr
3
2008

Drink a health to the wonders of the Western world, the pirates, preachers, poteen-makers. . . .John Millington Synge, The Playboy of the Western World

John McCain has two advantages over Barack Obama. Whereas Barack has only one spiritual advisor, John has three – one of whom is dead and two of whom say nuttier things than Obama’s pastor Jeremiah Wright. McCain’s three advisors, are, however, supporting a Republican and thus, based on the silence from the right, one can only conclude their comments need no explanation. That may be because their sort of nuttiness is indigenous to a party whose biggest present to the United States in the 21st Century is George W. Bush.

John Hagee is the most prominent supporter and where the Lord has led him was explored here earlier. John McCain’s statement that he was “very proud to have pastor Hagee’s support” tells you more about McCain than an 800-word column can. So does McCain’s acceptance of Rod Parsley as his religious advisor.

Rod is a bible-college drop out who began preaching to small crowds some 20 years ago. Today he is the chief pastor of the World Harvest Church of Columbus, an organization that has 12,000 members.

One week before the Ohio primary, Senator McCain appeared with Rod Parsley at a campaign rally in Cincinnati in which Rod described McCain as a “strong, true, consistent conservative.” Accepting the description and with Rod standing next to him the senator described Rod as a “spiritual guide.” That occupation does not, however, enable Rod to live up to his full potential. Rod would make an excellent Secretary of State since he knows a fair amount about foreign policy as his writings show. Mother Jones writer David Corn describes some of the things Rod has written that lend weight to my suggestion.

In his book 2005 Silent No More Rod describes the fact that there is a war between “Islam and Christian civilization.” As quoted by Mr. Corn, Rod writes: “The fact is that America was founded, in part, with the intention of seeing this false religion destroyed and I believe September 11, 2001, was a generational call to arms that we can no longer ignore.”

Of course a Secretary of State has to understand history as well as current events in order to be effective, and Rod has the appropriate background for that as well. In his book, Rod says Columbus: “dreamed of defeating the armies of Islam with the armies of Europe made mighty by the wealth of the New World. It was this dream that, in part, began America.”

Rod’s dislike of Muslims is not irrational. Rod has discovered, he says, that “Islam is responsible for more pain, more bloodshed, and more devastation than nearly any other force on earth at this moment.” (Lest he appear naïve it should be observed that the book was written before Mr. Bush trumped Islam by invading Iraq.) Furthermore, Rod continues, Islam is not simply evil. It is actually the “anti-Christ religion.” Muhammad “received revelations from demons and not from the true God. Allah was a ‘demon spirit’.”

In his book Rod calls himself a “Christocrat”, wants to prosecute folks who commit adultery (but probably not for past offenses since that would include Senator McCain if Bernard Shaw’s uncontradicted statement to Mr. McCain during a 1999 CNN interview that the senator had an affair while married, is to be believed) and compares Planned Parenthood to Nazis. There are no reports that McCain has disavowed anything Rod has said.

The third endorsement comes from a corpse and one is forced to rely on a blog called BuzzFlash for the report of that endorsement.

According to the blog, shortly after the primary season voting started, the McCain campaign announced that the senator had been endorsed by Jerry Falwell. When a reporter asked how that news had been imparted since Jerry had gone on to his great reward some months earlier, the spokesman said the endorsement was a matter of controversy “you know, like global warming . . .. following Senator Brownback’s lead, and indeed that of Gov. Huckabee, about what counts in life, we take the Falwell endorsement on faith.”

It’s not surprising that the campaign welcomes the endorsement. A corpse is considerably less likely to say things publicly that embarrass John McCain than either of the two self-proclaimed representatives of the Lord he has adopted as spiritual advisors. Of course, John being elderly, may not even notice.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 6:32 AM | Permalink

Preacher Politics

Mar
30
2008

Longhaired preachers come out every night; Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right. – Joe Hill, The Preacher and the Slave

As John McCain and his presumptive vice-presidential running mate, Joe Lieberman, toured the Middle East together (Joe to remind John of who is on first in Iraq so as to correct gaffs born of John’s ignorance or old age, and John to demonstrate that notwithstanding his occasional gaffes, he still has the intellectual ability to be president of the United States) it was useful to keep in mind the words of one of John’s recently announced supporters, John Hagee.

It was especially useful since instead of hunting and exposing the fox as responsible media should do when in pursuit of truth, the media has been docilely led and influenced by the fox in the fox’s unceasing attempts to savage Barack Obama because of the words of his friend and pastor, Jeremiah Wright. A reading of the sermon that inspired the fox’s incessant diatribe reveals that the sermon is no worse than, and in many respects considerably more thoughtful than, the hatred expressed by John McCain supporter, John Hagee (Hagee) over the years.

Hagee’s calumny has made anything even hinted at by Reverend Wright seem bland. He has explanations for just about everything bad that has ever happened and, amazingly, and as MediaMatters, the press watchdog site has noted, they all relate back to God’s and Hagee’s view of current events.

Interviewed by Terry Gross on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air on September 18, 2006 Hagee explained his and God’s thinking. About Hurricane Katrina he said that on the day of Katrina’s arrival, a homosexual parade had been planned in that city. As a result of that and a generally dissolute life style pervasive in that city, he explained: “I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God, and they are-were- recipients of the judgment of God for that. . . . And I believe that the Hurricane Katrina was, in fact, the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans.” Asked by Ms. Gross whether Muslims have a mandate to kill Christians and Jews he replied that the Quran “teaches that very clearly.” Muslims and gays are not the only groups that have received the benefit of the Lord’s thinking as explicated by Hagee.

On February 28, 2008, Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League For Religious and Civil Rights, commented on the Hagee’s endorsement of John McCain the preceding day saying: “[F]or the past few decades, he [Hagee] has waged an unrelenting war against the Catholic Church. For example, he likes calling it ‘The Great Whore,’ an ‘apostate church,’ the ‘anti-Christ,’ and a ‘false cult system.’ . . . In Hagee’s latest book, Jerusalem Countdown he calls Hitler a Catholic who murdered Jews while the Catholic Church did nothing. ‘The sell-out of Catholicism to Hitler began not with the people but with the Vatican itself’ he writes.” Of course Mr. Donohue is not totally objective. He’s a Roman Catholic.

Hagee also knows how to raise money. On July 27, 2006, in a longer profile of the minister, the Wall Street Journal reported on a fund-raiser sponsored by Hagee’s 16,000 member Cornerstone Church. In the church bulletin, “The Cluster”, the fundraiser was announced with a catchy lead-in. It said: “Slavery in America is returning to Cornerstone.” The teaser ended with the sentence “Make plans to come and go home with a slave.”

John McCain was delighted to be endorsed by Hagee. Following the endorsement he said: “All I can tell you is I’m very proud to have pastor Hagee’s support.” He was not asked to explain whether that meant he, too, shares that John’s feelings about Muslims, Catholics, and the joys of slavery. A few days after the endorsement and told of Hagee’s comments about Catholics, John McCain partially followed Barack Obama’s lead and repudiated any of Hagee’s comments if they were “anti-catholic or offensive to Catholics.

John McCain’s acceptance of the endorsement by the other John may well have been influenced by his mentor, Joe Lieberman. Joe is a big fan of both Johns. He hangs out with the John who’s running for president. He admires the other John.

In July 2007, Lieberman was a speaker at a convention of “Christians United for Israel,” a group of which the other John is founder and national chairman. In thanking the other John for inviting him, Joe said: “I would describe Pastor Hagee with the words the Torah uses to described Moses, he is an “Eesh Elo Kim,” a man of God because those words fit him; and, like Moses he has become the leader of a mighty multitude in pursuit of and defense of Israel. . . . If ever there was a man who will be blessed because he has blessed Israel, Pastor Hagee, it is you. . . .”

Whether John McCain is blessed because John Hagee blessed him – only time will tell.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 2:54 PM | Permalink

Holding Back The Flood

Oct
18
2007

The idea of a sun millions of miles in diameter and 91 million miles away is silly. The sun is only 32 miles across and not more than 3,000 miles from the earth. . . . God made the sun to light the earth, and therefore must have placed it close to the task it was designed to do.
-
Wilbur Glenn Voliva, leader of the Flat Earth Society.

It seems only fair. From Europe we have received Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, to name but a few and to Europe we are now exporting the learning of the illustrious members of today’s equivalent of yesterday’s Flat Earth Society. News of the exportation of their beliefs comes at an inopportune time coinciding, as it does, with news that one of its leading exponents and the head of one of the institutions of education associated with it, has just been charged with bilking the institution of millions of dollars in the furtherance of the Lord’s work.
According to a suit filed by three former professors of Oral Roberts, University, Richard Roberts, the offspring of its founder, spent lavishly from the institution’s coffers in order to remodel his Dwelling Place and repeatedly took private trips on a university plane and engaged in assorted other activities that ill become one occupying a position as exalted a position as the one he held.
But this is not about him and anyway, those are simply allegations in a civil suit that may or may not be proven when the trial occurs. This is about exportation.
On October 4, 2007, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, mustering more courage than many school boards in the United States, condemned efforts to teach creationism in European schools by a vote of 48 to 25. Adopting recommendations of a report prepared by Guy Lengagne, a senior French member, the Assembly decried the advocates of creationism saying they were seeking to “impose religious dogma” and were promoting “a radical return to the past”. In a bit of chauvinism the Assembly pointed out that the notions of creationism were “an almost exclusively American phenomenon”. The Assembly said that denying pupils knowledge of evolution was “totally against children’s educational interests” and that creationists support a “radical return to the past which could prove particularly harmful in the long term for all our societies.”
In Poland, Deputy Minister of Education, Miroslaw Orzechowski, a member of the ultra-conservative league of Polish Families dispensed with the notion of evolution by calling it a “lie”. In Serbia, Liliana Colic was “forced to resign after ordering schools to stop teaching the Darwinian theory of evolution if creationist ideas were not also part of the school curricula”, according to a report from the International Herald Tribune. Russia, too, has families making similar demands. Nonetheless, Europe still has a way to go if it hopes to catch down with the United States.
No one in Europe has yet suggested, as the educational leaders of Cobb County, Georgia, did some years ago, that books describing evolution have stickers placed in them advising students to carefully evaluate its tenets before placing much stock in them. (A federal court ordered the stickers removed.) Nor have there been reports that movies have been withdrawn in Europe because they suggested evolution took place. That’s what happened in some Imax theaters in the South where, among others, the movie “Cosmic Voyage” was removed from the screen. The description of the movie, nominated for an academy award in 1997, says it “explores some of the greatest scientific theories, many of which have never before been visualized on film.” Through some oversight it failed to include depictions of God creating the world in 7 days and was, accordingly, not shown in parts of the South.
“Volcanoes of the Deep Sea” that the National Science Foundation and Rutgers University had a role in producing was not shown in the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History after an audience that was given a preview of the film pronounced it “blasphemous,” according to the New York Times. The film suggested that life might have begun in the undersea vents in an undersea volcano. Among the viewers’ responses, said the Times: “I really hate it when the theory of evolution is presented as fact” and “I don’t agree with their presentation of human existence.”
Some movie producers have expressed the fear that if sufficient numbers of theaters turn down movies that treat evolution as fact, future production of such movies will be inhibited. That would please those who don’t believe in evolution. If evolution is not presented as fact it may eventually go away. It’s hard to argue with them. They are living proof that not all living things have evolved. They’ve not.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 8:14 AM | Permalink

Imprecatory Prayer

Aug
31
2007

When you ask God to send you trials, you may be sure your prayer will be granted.
— Léon Bloy, Pages de Léon Bloy

For those who are skeptical about the power of prayer, to say nothing about the existence of God, it was an encouraging development. Indeed, it may well have turned a number of atheists into devout Christians. And an unlikely path to conversion it was. Although at first blush his critics might have labeled Mr. Wiley S. Drake a kook, closer inspection reveals that his suggestion is in fact more civilized than the practice followed by the Crusaders of the 13th century and their contemporary counterparts who believe that in slaying the infidels lies the path to salvation. Not that Crusaders had the IRS, al Qaeda or the Iraqis to deal with. Nonetheless, Mr. Drake’s suggestion is a better way to deal with the problem than that employed by the Crusaders and Mr. Bush.

Mr. Drake is the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Buena Park, California. He has used church stationery and his Internet radio program to encourage his followers to support Mike Huckabee’s campaign for the presidency. The Internal Revenue Code, which is read with far greater reverence and taken more seriously by its readers than the Bible, proscribes the involvement in political campaigns of religious organizations that are known as 501(c)(3) organizations. By using his church, a 501(c)(3) organization, for political purposes, Mr. Drake (who presumably finds it easy to obey the 10 Commandments) was violating one of the thousands of commandments found in the Internal Revenue Code.

In response to Mr. Drake’s activities, the organization Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AUSCS) asked the IRS to investigate and consider revoking his church’s tax-exempt status. Mr. Drake was understandably upset with the AUSCS. Unlike George Bush, who upon becoming upset with Saddam Hussein embarked on a course that left hundreds of thousands of Iraqis homeless and resulted in the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, Mr. Drake embarked on a far more pacific route. He invoked something called “imprecatory prayer.” In a “media advisory” of August 14, Mr. Drake says that having been unsuccessful in attempts to talk to AUSCS, “we must begin our Imprecatory Prayer, at the key points of the parliamentary role in the earth where we live. . . . The righteous have dominion, but only through imprecatory prayer against the ungodly. . . . David, as our Old Testament shepherd, gives us many Imprecatory prayers, and can be found to be in best focus in Psalm 109.” He closes by saying: “Please join us, with Bible in hand, and let us do battle against the enemies of God.”

In the media advisory Mr. Drake asks his followers, in their prayers, to specifically target Joe Conn or Jeremy Learning, who are apparently the signers of the letter to the IRS. In explaining his action Mr. Drake said that “The prayer does call for serious, serious punishment on people. But I didn’t call for that, God did.”

Psalm 109 that Mr. Drake offers as a guide to the kinds of things one might ask the Lord to consider has many good suggestions for getting even with one’s enemies, but the beauty of it is, the Lord takes care of doing it all and man does not have to get involved beyond praying for bad things to happen. Among the bad things the Lord might want to consider inflicting on the psalmster’s enemies, the psalmster suggests (on the off chance the Lord won’t think of them Himself) “May his days be few; may another seize his goods! May his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow!. . . May the creditor seize all that he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil!” etc. Those are, of course, exactly the consequences of what George Bush, acting, he would have us believe, as God’s surrogate, has done in Iraq. The difference between Mr. Bush and Mr. Drake, is that whereas Mr. Bush took it upon himself to do the Lord’s work, Mr. Drake is content to simply ask the Lord to do those things and leaves the rest up to him. There are hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who wish that George Bush had incorporated all of Psalm 109 in his prayers, asked his subjects to do the same, and left the rest up to God. Mr. Bush, of course, declined to follow this route. There may be a reason.

Sister Thomas Bernard MacConnell, founder of the Spirituality Center at Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles explains: “It is very possible that my enemies are not God’s enemies.” It is likely Mr. Bush didn’t want to take a chance on that being the case, which explains why he took things into his own hands rather than leaving it up to God. That’s too bad. If imprecatory prayer was good enough for King David one might have thought it would be good enough for King George.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 6:44 AM | Permalink

Defective Religions

Jul
20
2007

Everybody talkin’ bout heaven ain’t getting’ there,
Heaven, heaven.
I Got Shoes, spiritual

At first it seems like incredible intolerance. Reflection reveals it’s nothing more than a space problem. I refer to Pope Benedict’s latest pronouncement.

In what seemed like yet another foray into the World of Complete Insensitivity, Pope Benedict XVI took aim at all the religions in the world, thus showing himself to be a man who was in his prejudices nothing if not ecumenical. Until his latest pronouncement his comments had led to the conclusion that he was not big on Muslims but there was nothing to suggest he harbored any animosity towards the rest of the world’s religions.

The first revelation of his Papal animus towards Muslims occurred in 2006 when Pope Benedict organized a conference to correct the actions of his predecessor, John Paul II, who had used the occasion of the 2000 Millenium celebration to ask “pardon” for the Crusades. At the conference, the Italian historian, Roberto de Mattei, said the Crusades were a “response to the Muslim invasion of Christian lands and the Muslim devastation of the Holy Places.” The Crusaders, said he, were “martyrs” who “sacrificed their lives for the faith”. At a time when tensions were already running high between Christians and Muslims, the timing of the conference seemed awkward.

In a lecture delivered a few months later, the Pope quoted the 14th century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, who wrote that Mohammad had brought things “only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” “Violence” said the Pope, “is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul.” He was comfortable saying that since the conference on the Crusades laid to rest any thought that the Crusades were an attempt to “spread by the sword the faith [they] preached.” Had the events described occurred in reverse order, his comments would have seemed absurd since until the conference everyone, including John Paul II, believed that the Crusades had been an attempt to spread the faith by the sword.

April 20, 2007, was the day the International Theological Commission said there were “serious” grounds to hope that unbaptized children might get into heaven. If the report lives up to its promise, billions of infants who over the millennia have not been baptized and have, therefore, been in limbo, will now be heading off to heaven. And that brings us to the present flap.

On July 10 Pope Benedict made the startling statement that there are defects in all religions that are not part of the one he runs. (The pronouncement about “defects” was made just a few days before it was disclosed that the Roman Catholic Church in Los Angeles was paying $660 million to settle sexual abuse lawsuits against members of its clergy for conduct that seemed defective.) The document says if it’s salvation you’re after, the only way you’ll get it is through the Roman Catholic Church. His comments related back to a 2000 document drafted by a group he then headed entitled “Dominus Iesus.” It said, among other things, that the Church is “necessary for salvation.” Although recognizing that for those who are not formally part of the Church “salvation is accessible by virtue of a grace,” the document goes on to say that it would be “contrary to the faith to consider the church as one way of salvation alongside those constituted by the other religions seen as complementary to the Church or substantially equivalent to her, even if these are said to be converging with the Church toward the eschatological kingdom of God.”

To the non-theologian the new document is a touch confusing, and may have confused Benedict, since it says the “separated churches and Communities, though [suffering]. . . from defects, are deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of salvation. In fact the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as instruments of salvation, whose value derives from that fullness of grace and of truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church.” That would seem to suggest that contrary to news reports these other folk may still get to heaven, although it’s not clear how.

Be that as it may, this is not a theological treatise and I would suggest that the reasons for saying those not members of the Church may be denied salvation have nothing to do with theology but everything to do with heavenly over-crowding thanks to the advent of the unbaptized infants. It is clear that if heaven becomes overcrowded (as is much of the world from which its denizens come), heaven and the Church (the means by which one gets to heaven) will lose much of their appeal. The Pope is simply being, as the vernacular has it, proactive, to make sure it remains a nice place for his flock. Non-Catholics should not take offense. There’s nothing personal about it.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 6:43 AM | Permalink

King George

Jul
6
2007

That the king can do no wrong is a necessary and fundamental principle of the English constitution.
— Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries

It was not enough to elect him president. Now they’ve gone and crowned him king. Of course he’s been acting like a king for some time now. The Supreme Court simply formalized it.
It happened in the case with the cumbersome name of Hein, Director, White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, et al. v. Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. et al. The cumbersomeness of the name could not hold a candle to the cumbersomeness of the conservative majority’s reasoning as it explained why, if the king does wrong using his own money – even though provided by taxpayers – the king’s subjects cannot challenge him. It was not the king’s first foray into the world of the unbridled.

That started with what are informally known as signing statements. His royal highness, President George Bush, has adopted the practice of appending a signing statement to whatever legislation sent to him that offends the royal nose. In the signing statement he lets it be known that he may ignore the law signed by him. The most famous signing statement was appended to a law that forbade torturing enemy combatants. That law was passed following the 2005 hearings to determine the suitability of Alberto Gonzales to become the chief law enforcement officer in the United States. During those hearings it was learned that Mr. Gonzales believed that torturing people overseas was permissible since the U.S. Constitution does not apply at overseas prisons.

Senator John McCain, who knows better than any other legislator now serving what torture is like, promptly introduced a bill explicitly banning cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees in U.S. custody anywhere in the world. When the legislation passed with a veto-proof majority notwithstanding the opposition of Messrs. Bush and his vice president Dick Cheney, Mr. Bush donned his nicest turncoat, called a press conference and with Mr. McCain at his side praised the legislation. After the press conference, when everyone had gone home, he doffed his turncoat and appended a “signing statement” in which he said in so many words he would construe the law as he saw fit.
Speaking anonymously, because he wasn’t supposed to be speaking at all, a palace spokesman said: “Of course the president has the obligation to follow this law [but] he also has the obligation to defend and protect the country as the commander in chief, and he will have to square those two responsibilities in each case. We are not expecting that those two responsibilities will come into conflict, but it’s possible that they will.” Having learned of the wonders that can be wrought by the signing statement, we have now been introduced to the privileges of the Executive Order (EO).

By means of an EO the king can expand his authority. When Cheney asserted for convoluted reasons that an EO mandating oversight of the handling of classified materials in White House offices did not apply to him, its express language notwithstanding, the president announced that as its promulgator he knew what it meant and it did not apply to the office of either the president or the vice president. The Supreme Court has now gone him one better. It has said that the king’s subjects may not challenge the king’s use of funds of the exchequer when they are spent in furtherance of an EO.

In the Hein case the court said that taxpayers as taxpayers did not have standing to challenge the president’s use of taxpayers’ funds in support of faith-based activities in violation of the establishment clause of the Constitution when the funds were spent pursuant to an EO and not from funds specifically allocated by Congress for purposes proscribed by the Constitution. As the Court explained: “[T]he expenditures at issue here were not made pursuant to any Act of Congress. Rather, Congress provided general appropriations to the Executive Branch to fund its day-to-day activities. . . . Those expenditures resulted from executive discretion, not congressional action.”

The dissent explained why the majority was wrong even though the majority opinion is now the law of the land. Speaking for the rational branch of the court, Justice David Souter said: “When executive agencies spend identifiable sums of tax money for religious purposes, no less than when Congress authorizes the same thing, taxpayers suffer injury. And once we recognize the injury as sufficient for Article III, there can be no serious question about the other elements of the standing enquiry: the injury is indisputably ‘traceable’ to the spending . . . .” Continuing, Justice Souter said: “[I]f the Executive could accomplish through the exercise of discretion exactly what Congress cannot do through legislation, Establishment Clause protection would melt away.” The majority would like that. So would George Bush. Then we might truly become a Christian nation, like the country from which we got our independence more than two decades ago, as Mr. Bush said when addressing the West Virginia Air National Guard on July 4, 2007.

Editor’s Note: Spot-on’s Mike Spinney has written on this issue as well. That post is here.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 5:48 AM | Permalink

The West’s Test

Jun
19
2007

Exciting news: a pal’s become a pawn of Chinese “democratic” reforms.

I got word a couple weeks ago from the small city of Langfang, an hour’s drive from Beijing. There this friend heads up a division of the city’s livestock department. She also belongs to the Jiu San Society, one of eight little-known democratic parties formed prior to the 1949 Revolution that “accepted” the monopoly rule of the Communists. In return, their members, like women and ethnic minorities, have always been treated to a tiny fraction of seats in the government. Sounds like just another ruse of Maoist coalition-building, right? Except these days we’re seeing “non-Party” cadres gain promotions to higher-level posts than before. One of them was named the new science minister last month – the first to head a ministry. Word is that another could become the next health minister. As for our friend, she was named vice-chairman of a district-level branch of the People’s Political Consultative Conference – a mere talk shop in the twiggy legislative branch, though a prestigious and increasingly vociferous one. “A lot of people pay big money to buy these posts,” as this friend’s younger sis pointed out. “But Big Sister was hand-picked.”

Americans have come to think of China as the big “test case” of the axiom advanced by Francis Fukuyama and others in the wake of Soviet disintegration: that capitalism and democracy come about in symbiotic succession. China, it’s become popular to argue of late, has been failing this test. So are a lot of countries; so many that the theory itself may be failing.

Yet we continue to cling to it. It’s more than an axiom. It’s a cosmic ideal.

In fact, if you listen to the rhetoric of reform, China submits itself quite readily to the West’s test. In the 18 years since the government crushed pro-democracy demonstrations Tianamin Square, the Party has done a frighteningly good job of de-stigmatizing the concept of “political system reform”. Current Chinese leaders have had to learn to riff freely on the lexicon of the free world. “Democracy” is not nearly the unmentionable it once was. Rather, these leaders assert, it’s something inevitable.

But what kind of democracy? How fast? On whose terms? These are much pricklier questions. Party leaders have only tinkered with low-level elections, a few internal checks and balances, and other tokens of political pluralism – boosting the profile of democratic party technocrats like my pal, for one. The supremacy of the Communist Party remains a sine qua non making “inner-party democracy”, the most exciting plank of procedural reform, seem a paradox nonetheless.

So every time official rhetoric or semi-official debate heats up over democracy, China watchers take sides. The purists regard any conversation as meaningless innuendo, a striptease, designed to defer hardcore action. The romantics sees it as meaningful foreplay, a mood-setter, communicating the impulse, at least somewhere in Party-state, to take things to the next level. Truth is, the geopolitics of resurgent nationalism have become about as much of a stumbling block as the realpolitik of Party control. The liberal democratic models of the West are China’s suitors. And Beijing’s mandarins are stuck playing a highly self-conscious game of hard to get.

This summer, particularly, the West’s test – democracy, yes or no? – is playing on their psyche. Come autumn, Party will convene the most decisive event in China’s political cycle, the Party congress, held once every five years, which seals not only policy direction but also personnel shifts at the top. Paramount in the run-up to it are two questions: who will succeed Hu Jintao, who is slated to retire in 2012; and what reforms will mark his political legacy? The outcome of the congress will offer preview, and many expect the issues to intertwine somewhat over the next five years, perhaps in the form of electoral experiments at the Party’s highest echelons. For the leadership to be decided by 100 or 200 people rather than 10 or 20 – in China, that would be a genuine breakthrough.

Intellectual voices across the political spectrum are trying to influence the outcome of the coming congress. Veteran liberal scholars and newspaper editors are pushing hard for change, none harder, naturally, than the infirm who might not survive to see the next one. One of them is 72-year-old Wang Guixiu, a retired professor from the Central Party School in Beijing. In the Beijing Daily in May, he wrote:

For a long time now, we have been overly guarded or even terrified of the West’s “tripartite separation of powers”, and often have avoided mentioning “separation of powers”. This has given rise to the following understanding in people’s minds: political power in our party and government can only be centralized, not decentralized.”

“In fact, this is the ultimate misunderstanding…Marxism has never been opposed in general to separation of powers, and even less so rational separation of powers.”

“There are certain old or rigid views that only block development,” Wang told me recently, in a phone interview syncopated by his rib-wrenching coughs. Wang was hopeful the Party Congress would endorse deeper democratic reform within the Party. ”Naturally, I’m hoping that there will be more people appealing for that.”

But on the left are wary conservatives and diehard socialists. In the pages of the People’s Daily, they stand by the mainstream Party formulation of “socialist democracy,” which is best understood in precisely that sequence: the people’s needs – order, stability, material well-being – come before their basic individual liberties. It’s the Communist dynasty’s spin on the ancient Confucian credo of minben, which stresses the ruler’s paternalistic obligation to the people. Given the perilous levels of corruption and inequality China is grappling with, the lefties have a point. Intellectuals of the New Left, in particular, think the solution lies in taking back power from wanton “sesame officials” in the provinces.

There’s an emergent middle in the discourse as well. Moderate progressives are trying to build consensus and synthesize the divisive debate, in effect, by blurring the nationalistic stripes of democratization. At a press conference in March, Premier Wen Jiabao went to unusual lengths to call for “large-scale” reform. Capitalist societies do not enjoy a monopoly over democracy, human rights and a just legal system, Wen said. “They are common values pursued by mankind.” A known adviser to Wen and Hu, named Yu Keping, raised eyebrows earlier with a piece aimed at clearing the air. The title said it all: “Democracy is a Good Thing.” For Yu and Wen, the issue is when and how – not if.

The when and how of democratization is not just a developmental question but a semantic one. Democratizing the Chinese political system is going to require just the sort of theoretical breakthrough – and the corresponding gymnastics of propaganda – that Deng and his cohorts used to justify market reforms after Mao. But on the ground, China is doing a much better job at passing the West’s test: society is opening up with its markets – just not strictly within the guaranteed framework of political and legal institutions. People are asserting their power through less-than-guaranteed channels, the Internet particularly. The country is liberalizing, in this regard, by force of happenstance.

Case in point: Before a monumental new law to protect private property passed in March, leftist critics carped that it would only safeguard the rich and the crooked. But if properly enforced, it also should stop officials from illegal land requisitions – a non-stop source of social turmoil. Right after the legislature passed it in March, newspapers and bloggers alike swarmed to a “test case” – a couple in Chongqing who refused to vacate their condemned home, perched like a chimney rock in a canyon of construction. City leaders stepped in and a fat settlement was negotiated. In an interview, Liu Chun, director of the politics and law department at the Central Party School, cited the property as an example of Fukuyaman evolution.“The most direct motivation for legal and political reform is not a set group of leaders or decision-makers, but social and economic development.”

A few intrepid individuals within the system are making a difference, too, making my friend’s appointment a less trivial that it might have seemed just a few years ago. The state’s environmental watchdog, SEPA, has exploited “storms” of publicity in the state-owned press and unilateral policy directives to stop formidable polluters in their tracks. The rainmaker behind the relentless P.R. effort is deputy minister Pan Yue, a Tiananmen-era liberal who ironically was transferred to SEPA – then considered ineffectual – after he advocated speeding up democratic reform ahead the 2002 Party congress. “He was supposed to be sidelined,” a colleague of Pan’s told me recently. “No one expected he’d make SEPA itself a force for democracy.”

The latest case SEPA has taken up is that of the citizens of the southeast port of Xiamen, who two weeks ago led successful protest to suspend a huge petrochemical factory slated to move in just over four miles from the city center. The person who raised national attention to the project and led the fight to relocate was a woman named Zhao Yufen, a leading Xiamen scientist named and delegate to the CPPCC – the national-level organ of the body which my pal now represents.

Back in Langfang, I asked my pal what she thought about that case. She was impressed that someone in a position similar to hers could make a such a difference. Meanwhile she was preoccupied with more basic concerns. Her new sub-legislative post would pay her $130 less a month than she was making as a technocrat. She might not have as much time or freedom to do business on the side, either. But alas, her father had been a top local official in Langfang before her. She was urged by relatives to accept the honor and carry on the family legacy. “As my uncle said, it’s good for networking.”

Posted by jansfield at 3:44 PM | Permalink

Focus Through a Broken Lens

Jun
7
2007

An Army of Devils is horribly broke in upon the place which is our center . . . . And the houses of the good people there are filled with the doleful shrieks of their children. . . tormented by invisible hands. — Cotton Mather (1692)

The Puritans are back and who more worthy to lead them than Cotton Mather and John Hathorne (now known as James Dobson and Bill O’Reilly) renown witch hunters of the 17th century whose successes were hanged and in one case, pressed to death.
James Dobson is the founder of Focus on the Family. Focus on the Family as its name suggests, is a reincarnation of the 17th century Puritan tradition. It and its leader focus on things going on in other people’s lives as the Puritans did, alerting a fearful populace to signs of witchcraft and other heretical activities among their friends and neighbors.
In 2006 Mr. Dobson campaigned against four bills proposed by the California legislature which he perceived to be dangerously tolerant of homosexuals whose practices invoke his wrath, if not the wrath of his boss, the Lord who, after all, created the homosexuals and bears them no animus. Mr. Dobson said that if the proposal became law, the legislature would be delivering California children “straight into the arms of the homosexual activist community.” Continuing he said: “If these bills are signed into law, who knows what the liberal courts in California will be able to make out of this in the years to come? There goes the next generation of children.” His crusade successful, all but one of the bills was vetoed.
Continuing in his search of other places from which the Devil could be driven, Mr. Dobson then discovered Boulder High School in Boulder, Colorado. Boulder High School sponsored a panel discussion with participants from the University of Colorado Conference on World Affairs, an annual conference that this year featured, among others, lectures by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, Sen. Joe Biden and former Sen. Tim Wirth. The conference is celebrated nation-wide for bringing together distinguished scholars from around the world to engage in spirited discussion and debate.
The panel selected by the students for presentation at the high school was entitled “STDs: Sex, Teens and Drugs.” To everyone’s great surprise the panelists discussed sex, teens and drugs. The language and responses to questions from students by some of the panelists were provocative, and designed, at least in part, to stir students’ bile, as lecturers frequently do. Her bile riled, a student complained that the panel discussion was a one-sided discussion that discredited religious views and abstinence. She reported her dismay to her mother. Her mother complained to the school board. The complaints were reported in the media. Mr. Dobson read the reports and he and Bill O’Reilly, a television personality of empty mind but head full of words, appointed Mr. O’Reilly to serve as judge in a media trial of those who permitted this devilish invasion of the halls of education.
Hearing of the trial, a Republican mob consisting of 10 state legislators demanded that the superintendent of schools (who is to retire in three weeks) be fired, together with the school principal (who is not retiring). Mr. O’Reilly put on trial not only school officials, but the town and, for good measure, its district attorney. He reminded listeners that the murderer of JonBenet Ramsey remained at large and that another criminal case involving a dead child had not yet come to trial. Summing up his indignation, Mr. O’Reilly said: “This is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen. It epitomizes what happens when secular progressives take over.” Thanks to the Devil hunters, the Devil may soon find Boulder an inhospitable place.
When the Dobson-O’Reilly empty heads met to exchange vacuities on Mr. O’Reilly’s television show, Mr. Dobson said: “In this stage of my life, little makes me angry. But this is outrageous and I can’t believe it.” Of course he does believe it and intends to put a halt to it. Powerless to organize a mob to take all offenders to the public square for an informal hanging, Mr. Dobson has suggested another, although less efficient way, to drive the Devil out. He is exploring the possibility that the school board, the superintendent and the principal violated the criminal laws of the state of Colorado. If so, he will demand that the district attorney (who, though Mr. O’Reilly believes her to be incapable of prosecuting murderers, may have more luck with witches) prosecute the Devil’s disciples.
I’m sure Messrs. Dobson and O’Reilly regret that those who have conspired with the Devil can’t just be hanged without a trial. It would be faster and would avoid cluttering up the courts with the kinds of justice that Messrs. Dobson and O’Reilly routinely dispense.

Editor’s Note: Spot-on’s Mike Spinney has some observations about religion and politics here.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 9:51 AM | Permalink

Anatomy of a Quiet Scandal

May
31
2007

On May 17 at 11:01 a.m., your correspondent received a text message purporting to clear up a recent political intrigue in the capital. To this point, it hasn’t. And that is pretty much the point. Increasingly, China can be shamed into purging bad leaders. But the moral is still all too often lost in the non-transparent process of the purging. Does this condition signify a system disposing of its political waste in more enlightened ways, or less?

The cell-phone tip I got was unsolicited. It came from a well-connected source in the media industry who has proven reliable in the past. Written in Chinese, it read: “As of last night, former Press and Publication director Long Xinmin was under ‘double regulations’” – a form of house detention.

The message appeared to be news. Until late April, Long, as head of the government press watchdog agency, was the equivalent of chief executioner in China’s censorship apparatus. But after just 15 months on the job, he was unexpectedly reassigned to the Communist Party center of historical research – a far less glamorous post. In a one-sentence report, official media noted Long had retained his rank but gave no explanation for the reshuffle. The question, ever since, was why?

Americans have become used to regular Washington scandals that drag on without due justice or resolution: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is the latest example. But the lesson of wrongdoing generally comes clear either way. Not so in Beijing, where we often witness punishments of senior officials that are fast-tracked – or alternately, delayed for years – with but a smidgeon of the facts emerge about what exactly they did or how their cases were decided.

There are still clear-cut cases of old-fashioned draconian justice, mind you. Just yesterday, China sentenced the long-time head of the State Food and Drug Administration, Zheng Xiaoyu, to death for corruption and dereliction of duty. His trial came just as his bureau stank up the world with revelations toxic toothpaste in Panama and pet food in the U.S. Bad timing sealed his fate.

Without openness and due process, however, we’re often left to ask: what’s the – ahem – moral? The only lesson consistently learned is that the system is endemically unlawful, and “party politics” decides who is saved, and who sacrificed. Which makes the case of Long Xinmin an intriguing example of business as usual.
There were essentially three running theories, according to those I’d previously quizzed. The one the Western press led on was the most temptingly “democratic”. It had to do with government accountability.

In the months leading up to his transfer, the agency Long led encountered open and unprecedented defiance from veteran writers and journalists whose work it had banned, condemned or otherwise restricted. Their protest letters and behind-the-scenes accounts leaked onto the Internet – damning in a country long accustomed to policing speech mostly by stealth means.

The historian Zhang Yihe, whose books depict the Mao-era political persecution endured by her father and his contemporaries, had pressed a legal claim to repeal the ban against her. So when Long’s transfer was announced, headlines blared: Censor sidelined/sacked after book ban row. Not that Long was the bungling butcher at the eye of this particular storm – that honor fell to one of his deputies who remains in his post. Nor was Long the mastermind behind the orders – that was the party propaganda department, inspired by members of the Politburo. It would indeed seem a bit peculiar, from the party’s perspsective, to punish the censor over cases of censorship. At the same time, Long had gained notoriety as a minion of hardliners. The current party leaders have established new internal accountability regime intended to hold the ministerial yi ba shou – or “number one man” – responsible for embarrassingly big-time screw-ups, in this case letting news of actual censorship become known. Long might have been the fall-guy for this leaky mess. Ms. Zhang, a fine interview with London’s Telegraph, claimed no knowledge of the connection between her case and his. But she delighted victoriously in his removal.

Another theory, harder to diagnose and hence less-talked about, involved personal politics. Long, who built his entire career in the Beijing city media bureaucracy, is associated with Politburo members who owe their loyalties to former leader Jiang Zemin. The man who took Long’s place, an aging deputy named Liu Binjie, got his start in the Communist Youth League propaganda circuit, making him a protégé of China’s current leader, Hu Jintao. The theory is that Hu’s designs on consolidating his power might to some extent have motivated the swap, as has been supposed in the case of other senior personnel moves and corruption shakedowns. Hu’s aims may involve not only tighter political control but also personal confidence and a somewhat cleaner, by-the-book bureaucratic culture heading into a five-yearly Party Congress this year. But even if this theory held water, it would likely be a corollary factor to the other two.

The third theory was the least staggering – corruption. Hong Kong and Chinese-language media overseas quoted sources saying that Long, who served as Beijing’s municipal propaganda minister and vice-party secretary before become head press censor was also implicated in corruption probe dating back to that time. A week after Long was reassigned, his wife was reported to be under “double regulations” over her activities at a major state-owned company.

Party disciplinary agents typically use to hold state officials while investigating them. So the message that Long himself was under “double regulations,” would have lent credence to this lattermost explanation for his transfer. Your correspondent sent a message back to the source: Why the “double regulations”?

A reply came immediately: “Gehua Corruption Case”.

Beijing Gehua is an advertising, entertainment, and digital TV conglomerate linked to the Beijing city propaganda department. Its controlling shareholder is the Beijing Youth Daily newspaper group, the first state-owned media entity to list an arm on the stock market. But after an IPO in Hong Kong in late 2004, its reported net profits shrank by 99.76 percent in the first half of 2005, a tip-off that books were cooked beforehand. Within months, half a dozen of managers of Youth Daily were detained for economic crimes. According to the respected Chinese financial magazine Caijing, a contractual dispute between Youth Daily and Gehua hastened the dragnet. Details of Long’s involved are fuzzy, said the source. But his wife was a major player with Gehua. And from the IPO through the beginning of the graft case, “Long was the city propaganda bureau chief and party vice-secretary directly in charge,” said. Still, if his wife alone was found to be at fault – or if was protected by higher-ups – he could settle for being sidelined.

Funny thing is, unravelling the “reasons” for Long’s downfall might not tell us “reasons”. Under Beijing’s one-party system, enforcing justice is not a matter of transparency and due process but, bottom line, of sending the right signals to the right people. Zheng Xiaoyu’s sentence of execution – a response not just to corruption itself but the international headlines it generated – is a dramatic example. And, viewed in this light, the different theories about Long may in reality co-existently hold. Long’s could be in trouble for different reasons to different parties, all using his situation to telegraph signals to their constituencies. The lesson relayed to the public and the foreign press, is: the censor pays. To the party (hypothetically): the mismanaging, nepotistic official pays. To the factionally inclined senior leadership: the uncontrollable servant pays.

Of course this is all complicated by spin from different quarters. My attempts to confirm the tip hit a dead-end.

I asked a magazine publisher friend who’s a blood relation of a senior publishing official: “I don’t know. It’s not easy to ask.”

I pressed him. “No one’s saying! No one will say!”

I asked another publisher friend who previously told me he knew Long.

“If he was under double regulations, no one had heard about it. And I asked some people high enough to know.”

So I went back to the original source: “Are you certain?”

“Very certain.”

How do you know? “Heh…I had dinner with Liu Binjie (Long’s replacement). He told me. Liu was planning to retire soon. He never expected this.”

By this time, over a week had passed since this alleged dinner. I decided to ring the bureau of historical research, and got the number to Long’s office. When I called, a man answered. I told him what I’d heard.

“How is that possible? I am his secretary. He’s been coming to work all along. Where did you hear that?”

He said mumbled something to the effect of “all is normal” and hung up the phone.

Posted by jansfield at 12:39 AM | Permalink

In Limbo No Longer

May
11
2007

Theology is the effort to explain the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing.
— H.L. Mencken

From time to time events ecclesiastical eclipse things political. It’s happened before and will happen again.

On October 31, 1992, it was reported that Pope John Paul II was prepared to close an investigation into the condemnation some years earlier of Galileo. In 1632 Galileo published his proof of the Copernican theory of the solar system, a proof that put him in bad odor with the church since it contravened the Ptolemaic theory that all heavenly bodies orbit the earth. Unsuccessful at convincing the powers that were that his findings did not constitute heresy, on June 21, 1633, he was found guilty of having “held and taught” the Copernican doctrine and was ordered to recant. Recanting, he was nonetheless placed under house arrest where he remained until his death at age 77; his study of the solar system was placed on the list of church-banned books where it remained for 122 years. His rehabilitation was delayed until 1992 when Cardinal Paul Poupard, who was the head of an investigation by the church into Galileo’s theory, said: “We today know that Galileo was right in adopting the Copernican astronomical theory.” Galileo, wherever he now is, was undoubtedly delighted. Shortly after his restoration to the ranks of the reputable, Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution, which had once given the church ecclesiastical heartburn, were also embraced. That happened in 1994.

That was the year in which the Pope announced to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences that Darwin’s theories are sound so long as they take into account that creation as described by him was the work of God. The Pope said that “fresh knowledge leads to recognition of the theory of evolution as more than just a hypothesis”.

Commenting on the two rehabilitations, Francesco Barone, a philosopher on scientific issues said: “With Galileo’s recent ‘rehabilitation’ and with this message by Pope John Paul II, the tear between the church and science has been strung together.”

The most recent good news from the Vatican was Pope Benedict XVI’s approval of a Vatican report released April 20 by the International Theological Commission that said there were “serious” grounds to hope that unbaptized children might get into heaven. Prior to this report it was believed that unbaptized children went to a place called “limbo.” Theologians (none of whom, I have it on good authority, has ever visited) describe “limbo” as a place where children enjoy an eternal state of perfect natural happiness. It almost certainly has enough teeter-totters and swings for everyone, as well as cotton candy, lemonade, computer games and all the other things children enjoy. According to those in the know, the only thing lacking in limbo is communion with God, which in the vernacular means the children there have no adult supervision, a condition that most of the children would find very much to their liking and in many cases probably comports with their idea of heaven.

If the International Theological Commission in its continuing studies of this issue concludes that the unbaptized can go straight to heaven without passing limbo and that view becomes church doctrine, there are two obvious questions. Will the new policy be retroactive and will there be an age or geographical cutoff?

With respect to the first question, it seems likely that in the divine order of things there are a certain number of unbaptized infants who die each year and if they are now permitted to enter heaven, their entry will occur in an orderly fashion. Those presently in limbo present an entirely different problem. There are surely billions of unbaptized infants cavorting about in unsupervised perfect happiness in limbo. Although all may not want to leave their perfectly happy state, others may welcome the chance to get to heaven which, even though none of them has been able to visit it, almost certainly enjoys as good a reputation in limbo as it enjoys here on earth. If billions decide all at once that they want to go to heaven, the question is can heaven accommodate what might be described in today’s parlance as a “surge”.

The second question is whether there is an age or geographical cutoff for invocation of the dispensation. At what age does failure to be baptized become an offense that warrants limbo or, worse yet, hell, and is there consideration of where the child is located geographically? It is a lot easier to get baptized in Manhattan than in a remote village in Tibet. Those are questions that I, being a columnist and not a theologian, cannot hope to answer. I suspect the Vatican will appoint yet another commission with an appropriate Latin moniker to study the question and make appropriate recommendations to the Pope. The children in limbo as well as those still on earth will eagerly await its conclusions.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 9:48 AM | Permalink

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