Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Sunday Reading

Yesterday, I raved about the Times. Today, I'm not so pleased. An old friend, who referred to the Sunday Times as her "woobie," nonetheless opined of that edition of the Grey Lady that it was basically equivalent to Cosmo in all its fashion advertising and its dearth of hard news. The Op/Ed page, however, has some real gems today.

First, Frank Rich, whose Sunday columns I'm growing to like ever more, does a great job of putting the Newsweek debacle into perspective. In a column entitled "It's All Newsweek's Fault" he argues that while Newsweek's reportage on the flushing of the Koran before detainees to arouse a particular degree of misery in Islamic prisoners might have been flawed, it hardly reflects innacuracy with regard to the military's general conduct toward Iraqi and Afghani detainees, the excesses of which have been reported extensively over the past year or so and which are entirely undeniable.

Let's stipulate flatly that Newsweek made a serious error. For the sake of argument, let's even posit that the many other similar accounts of Koran desecration (with and without toilets) by American interrogators over the past two years are fantasy - even though they've been given credence by the International Committee of the Red Cross and have turned up repeatedly in legal depositions by torture victims and in newspapers as various as The Denver Post and The Financial Times. Let's also ignore the May 1 New York Times report that a former American interrogator at Guantánamo has corroborated a detainee's account of guards tossing Korans into a pile and stepping on them, thereby prompting a hunger strike. Why don't we just go all the way and erase those photographs of female guards sexually humiliating Muslims (among other heinous crimes) at Abu Ghraib?

Even with all that evidence off the table, there is still an overwhelming record, much of it in government documents, that American interrogators have abused Muslim detainees with methods specifically chosen to hit their religious hot buttons. A Defense Department memo of October 2002 (published in full in Mark Danner's book "Torture and Truth") authorized such Muslim-baiting practices as depriving prisoners of "published religious items or materials" and forcing the removal of beards and clothing. A cable signed by Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez called for interrogators to "exploit Arab fear of dogs." (Muslims view them as unclean.) Even a weak-kneed government investigation of prison abuses (and deaths) in Iraq and Afghanistan issued in March by Vice Adm. Albert T. Church III of the Navy authenticated two cases in which female interrogators "touched and spoke to detainees in a sexually suggestive manner in order to incur stress based on the detainees' religious beliefs."

About the Newsweek matter Donald Rumsfeld had a moral to bequeath the land. "People need to be careful what they say," he said, channeling Ari Fleischer, and added, "just as people need to be careful what they do." How true. If one of his right-hand men, Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin, hadn't been barnstorming American churches making internationally publicized pronouncements that his own Christian God is "a real god" and Islam's god is "an idol," maybe anti-American sentiment in the Middle East, at record highs even before the Newsweek incident, would have been a shade less lethal. If higher-ups had been called to account for the abuses of Abu Ghraib, maybe Newsweek might have had as little traction in the Arab world as The Onion.

Hallelujah, seriously. This tempest in a teapot is as diversionary as the crucifixion of Dan Rather for misreporting an almost certainly true story. The reporter became the story, and we forgot to address the true premises at the heart of the story. Given the narrow escape CBS's sloppiness provided the administration in that case, why wouldn't we expect them to employ the same culpability loophole in the current case. The entire column is an excellent read. But if you prefer the shorter version, this cartoon (toggle to the fourth of fifteen) pretty much sums it up.

Meanwhile, David Brooks bemoans the Senate's diminishing cadre of moderates for their ineffectuality in averting the disaster almost certain to commence this week when the GOP endeavors, in all likelihood successfully, to radically shift the balance of power in the Senate humbly abdicating much of its power and constitutional mandate to the aggrandizement of the most irresponsible, power-hungry executive since Nixon. "Trench warfare" is coming, he says.

The leaders of both parties sound like the cheerful generals at the start of World War I, who had their own happy fantasies of victory before Christmas. Neither party is prepared for the quagmire and for how the public will react.

As we descend down this path, the moderates are being serenaded for their valiant efforts to find a compromise. I'm all for valiant efforts, but why do the independent types always have to be so ineffectual? Why do they always have to play their accustomed role: well-intentioned roadkill?

The answer, to be blunt, is that some of the moderates are moderates out of conviction. They do have courage. But many moderates are simply people who feel cross-pressured by different political forces, and their instinctive response is to shrink from pressure. They lack spirit to take risks, to actually lead.

Without attempting to undermine this cursory observation by my own research, which would be boring and require work, I nonetheless have serious questions about the way Brooks frames this criticism. Aside from the breadth of the generalization, which is sort of astonishing, Brooks's conclusion begs various questions, such as what is risk-taking in this context when a near supermajority of the American people would not have the Senate eliminate the filibuster. Moreover, what is conviction, and courage? Of course, Brooks doesn't name the names which would enable us to assess the validity of the perjorative terms he throws around.

Even so, he's of course right that moderates are not winning the day. The question is, are the democrats really being immoderate in forcing the GOP to decide whether to make the naked powergrab that the "nuclear option" entails? I would submit that one could be a moderate Democrat and reject any compromise that results in the seating on the federal appellate bench of various ideologues with dubious intellectual and jurisprudential credentials. If the Republicans want to enshrine with lifetime tenure various Grinches, let them do it in the light of day, without any Democrat imprimatur. And when the first of the moderate Republicans start seeing the values they hold dear under attack at the hands of these extremists, perhaps they'll vote their interests for a change.

This illustrates a more general problem for the left, I think: whether to set up camp within its ideological home, batten the hatches, and ride out what might be a decade-plus storm of revanchist backlask against the Clinton era, or fight for precisely the incremental concessions that aren't that might enable the right to stay in power for the foreseeable future, its most radical goals obfuscated by the compromises of the left.

It isn't going to be pretty, but increasingly I find myself believing that all out war is the only way. Let the right exhaust what minimal credibility it still retains among its base until finally nobody knows what it stands for anymore. That day isn't so far off, and then, perhaps, a truly progressive revolution can begin that will radically improve this country's life domestically and its reputation abroad.

Or maybe I'm just so fed up I can't see straight anymore. Who knows.

And while we're on the topic of left-wing causes, novelist Robin Cook has changed his mind: in light of the heretofore quiet breakthrough represented by the decryption of the human genome, he has come to believe single-payer nationalized health care is the only way to go.

As a doctor I have always been against health insurance except for catastrophic care and for the very poor. It has been my experience that the doctor-patient relationship is the most personal and rewarding for both the patient and the doctor when a clear, direct fiduciary relationship exists. In such a circumstance, both individuals value the encounter more, which invariably leads to more time, more attention to potentially important details, and a higher level of patient compliance and satisfaction - all of which invariably result in a better outcome.

But with the end of pooling risk within defined groups, there is only one solution to the problem of paying for health care in the United States: to pool risk for the entire nation. (Under the rubric of health care I mean a comprehensive package that includes preventive care, acute care and catastrophic care.) Although I never thought I'd advocate a government-sponsored, obviously non-profit, tax-supported, universal access, single-payer plan, I've changed my mind: the sooner we move to such a system, the better off we will be. Only with universal health care will we be able to pool risk for the entire country and share what nature has dealt us; only then will there be no motivation for anyone or any organization to ferret out an individual's confidential, genetic makeup.

There are plenty of compelling arguments for a national, single-payer, universal access plan - like every developed industrialized country has one. But those arguments have so far seemed insufficient. And none of them is nearly as cogent and persuasive as the growing impact of genomics and bioinformatics. Of course, far too many wealthy stakeholders in the current system (thanks to 15 percent of our gross domestic product being thrown at health care) are eager to lobby members of Congress to keep things as they are. The basic challenge is to blast the public and their elected representatives out of their shared apathy toward what the decipherment of the human genome has brought.

Not that the convictions of smart people with relevant experience ever have much of an effect on the formation of policy, these days. But it's nice to dream.


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