Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Michael Winship on Dublin

The Celtic Tiger, Declawed and Defanged

By Michael Winship

DUBLIN -- The last time I was here in Ireland, eight years ago, the Celtic Tiger was still roaring. The country had zoomed from poverty to wealth, enjoying an unprecedented economic boom, with unemployment down to 4.5 percent and consumer spending and average wages at all-time highs.

But now? I stood on board a restaurant ship docked along a bank of the River Liffey with my friend and colleague David Kavanagh, executive director of the Irish Playwrights and Screenwriters Guild. His hand swept along the shore as he used the panorama of the city skyline to describe what has happened to the country’s economy in just two short years.

To the left, he pointed out the beautiful new Samuel Beckett Bridge, opened in December, shaped like an Irish harp placed on its side, and designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. (In this city that reveres writers there are bridges named after Beckett, Sean O’Casey and James Joyce – a Calatrava design as well. He’s also the imagination behind the new World Trade Center Transportation Hub, under construction at Ground Zero in Manhattan.)

The Beckett Bridge cost 60 million euros to erect – about $80 million US (and no Waiting for Godot –like jokes about a bridge to nowhere, please). Near it stands Dublin’s brand new national convention center, built for 380 million euros – that’s almost half a billion dollars. Both structures epitomize the spending spree that once characterized Ireland’s booming prosperity.

Torn down to make way for the convention center were red brick Victorian warehouses where trains delivered goods for transfer to the cargo ships that once docked here. A handful of them still stand. But next door, rising jagged like a broken tooth, is the unfinished building that was meant to be the new headquarters of the Anglo Irish Bank.

When all seemed flush, and foreign capital was rolling in, the Anglo Irish Bank lent billions of euros to property developers, including the builders of the convention center. The building boom went bust, exacerbated by the burst of the global housing bubble, and the bank has gone belly up, nationalized by the Irish government, a bailout that according to an analyst at Standard and Poor’s may wind up costing Irish taxpayers more than $47 billion American.

In January 2009, The Irish Times editorialized. “We have gone from the Celtic Tiger to an era of financial fear with the suddenness of a Titanic-style shipwreck, thrown from comfort, even luxury, into a cold sea of uncertainty… the future now is not just uncertain but has suddenly become a threatening place.”

Last year, when I spoke with David Kavanagh, the running joke was that the difference between Ireland and Iceland was one letter and six weeks.

In 2009, the economy sank 7.1 percent. Emigration levels are at their highest in more than twenty years, with a 50 percent increase in Irish nationals leaving the country.

Ireland now has close to 14 percent unemployment and the biggest deficit in Europe -- proportionately higher than that of Greece. It could reach around 20-25 percent of its gross domestic product, but the country has not yet gone to the International Monetary Fund and the European Union for a financial rescue, as the Greeks have.

But despite government denials, that may be unavoidable. And Wall Street hedge funds aren’t helping. According to Ireland’s Sunday Independent newspaper, “The International Monetary Fund estimated that up to [about $4 billion US] of Ireland’s debt was being targeted by speculators through the use of derivatives. This practice is likely to have increased in recent weeks over growing fears that Ireland may default on some of [the Anglo Irish Bank] debt.” As one newspaper columnist wrote, “It’s contempt for how badly we do things allied to a gleeful determination to make easy money out of it.”

As in the United States, citizen anger has been vehement and vocal, with Anglo Irish and other financial institutions the regular target of raucous demonstrations, hurled tomatoes and rotten eggs. Rage, too, has been directed at the country’s politicians, the papers filled with constant reports of oversized salaries and expensive perks (nearly $30,000 spent by a government delegation for one night’s stay at an expensive Italian hotel during Pope John Paul II’s funeral; trips to the Cannes Film Festival and a St. Patrick’s Day celebration in Los Angeles; more than a million dollars of termination fees and pension payments to four members of the legislature who have decided not to stand for reelection).

The days of Brian Cowen, Ireland’s beleaguered prime minister – or Taoiseach, as they say here – are probably numbered, too, although he appears to have survived a mini-scandal after a somewhat befuddled and slurred interview on Irish radio that seemed hangover-induced. His already waning popularity nosedived even further but seemed to boomerang back after an apology and his appearance at that most Irish of events, the National Ploughing Championships.But curiously, despite the financial calamity and public indignation, there has been less here of the unfocused and often ill-informed fury typified by the Tea Party movement in America; in fact, most Irish with whom I spoke were perplexed by what’s happening in the United States. “America is going through an age of misinformation,” Irish journalist Una Mullally theorized in her column this past Sunday. “Fox News is sublime at creating an Orwellian arena of doublethink, but false information is being spread everywhere… The US is becoming increasingly polarized: politics, religion, money… But the biggest polarization is that of the truth.”

In a Dublin museum, I saw on one wall the words of a great truthteller, the sublime Dr. Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, and long ago dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral here. When he died in 1745, he left the bulk of his estate for the founding of a psychiatric hospital. He wrote these lines for his native Ireland, but I couldn’t help thinking they apply to us, too:

He gave the little wealth he had,
to build a house for fools and mad:
And showed by one satiric touch,
No Nation wanted it so much.

Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Fighters, Not Bankers

As the saying goes, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. The president is right to deride Democrats who are disenchanted with his job performance nearly two years after inauguration day. Maybe the problem is, enchantment is optional with the vehicle.

Those whose vision of Obama was as a shaman, messiah, savior, or all of the above, were bound to be disappointed when the potion wore off. It's so much easier to invest all our energy into hoping someone will do our work for us, but it doesn't work that way, and never has.

Really, doesn't this president have enough to worry about without having to concern himself with being an entertainer, too?

Frankly, I don't know which is worse being called an Obama apologist, or an America apologist. Granted, all too often, they intersect, but for a moment, yes, and not that long ago, the whole world celebrated the ushering in of an era.

The $60 million question is, what happened to that era?

Like many, I'm disgusted that, while this White House touts civilian control, the military has all but run away with the war in Afghanistan. Like many, too, I'm concerned that CEO's are feeding off the working poor, a category under which too many of us now fall. I, too, long to see a rebirth of a middle class that has been laid to rest by a generation of trickle-down deregulated delusion. But, unlike many, I'm unwilling to throw in the towel on a president who has accomplished more in two short years than a generation of other presidents before him.

We must join him, and prepare to fight--fight those forces who want to turn back the clocks, and enable private institutions to bar people from their lunch counters like they did a half century ago. We must fight to ensure that women continue to have the right to determine not merely their reproductive destiny, but an equal wage in the workplace. We must fight to ensure that the upper one percent doesn't abscond with our pension plans, and our grandchildren's future.

This country was founded by fighters not bankers. The authors of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights raised their fists to oppression, tyranny, and religious intolerance. They didn't just roll back and say "here it is, dude, come and get it."

The attitude of the pioneers who laid the groundwork for a representative government was not just can-do, but will do, but what of the heirs to their republic? Well, look at us. We're a lazy lot. We think all we have to do is go to the polls on election day, pull a lever, or tear a chad, et voila---instant government.

If there isn't enough food in the refrigerator, blame leadership. If we can't make the car payment, blame leadership. If our children come home from fighting illegal wars, blame leadership when it was us who sent them there to fight in the first place.

The men and women who came to this continent to make a plan for a better future didn't intend for us to govern by remote control, but to arm ourselves with ideas not guns. Look where we are now. We have all these guns, but not many ideas. We're so into recycling, we even recycle our thoughts.

We recycle our revolutions, too. Couldn't Rand Paul be Newt Gingrich's son? '

Thomas Jefferson warned about the bankers. He predicted that it was the bankers who would pose the gravest threat to a burgeoning democracy, and he was right.

Those who raise their voices the loudest about reclaiming what they mistakenly claim to be their heritage are the ones who have, for generations, worked to put the Bill of Rights on life supports. The tea partiers have been around, in one form or another, almost as long as the American flag, and have worked in tandem with this corporate interest or that.

Nothing has changed except this: we have turned into a nation of bankers, and banker wanna-be's. We have lost the appetite for risk, except when it goes to venture capital, and look where that has gotten us.

We no longer value hard work, and are unwilling to put our shoulder to the wheel. We know only one word: "me," and the word "we" has taken on an increassingly narrow meaning.

We are as devout in our disbelief as we are in our religion. What we can't put on a credit card, we don't want. We have paced ourselves right out of the global marketplace.

So, what do we do when we're told we must roll up our sleeves, and get to work? Head for the door. Well, guess what. The door is closed, and only you can open it. The president, and Congress, they're elected to represent and represent only as, in the end, it is only the people who can act in the people's interest.

Be the change you can believe in, and for any concerned about this president's faith, worry about your own.

To those who still believe there are rights worth fighting for, get to work, prepare to get your hands dirty, walk away from euphemisms, and the illusion that you can elect anyone to do your work for you. Prepare to get thick with the struggle. For, as a wise man once said, "you're either part of the solution, or you're part of the problem."

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Ahmadinejad steals the show, but Citigroup is the real bandit

All the furor, and media feeding frenzy over Ahmadinejad's comments at a meeting of the United Nations on Thursday couldn't have been better timed.

When Iran's Machiavelli decided to vent about the U.S. exploiting the bombing of the World Trade Center as a pretext for invading and toppling sovereign states in the Middle East, members of the U.S. delegation and those of several other European nations reportedly headed for the door. This makes for good copy, but does it make for good diplomacy? More to the point, such high theatrics steal the show rendering any other news coverage impossible.

So, when Ahmadinejad told FOX News, that it was time for a "fact finding mission" to find out who the real culprits were behind 9/11 as, in his opinion, the U.S. government was behind the attack, he was clearly stoking the fire of middle America by saying "such an insane and nutty thing." He was also driving up the ratings of all the major television news networks that covered the story.

While the president might consider the Iranian leader's comments "hateful" and "offensive," he allowed what was predictable, and won't even wind up as a footnote in history books, to hold America's attention captive for 48 hours.

What's more, the president did not deny Ahmadinejad's claim, as the Associated Press reports, that the U.S. has allocated $80 billion to upgrade our nuclear arsenal nor the hypocrisy of working with Russia, India, and Israel on their nuclear arsenals in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. He merely went along with the drama by instead focusing on the shamefulness of those remarks, especially so close to ground zero. What's really shameful is that the claim can't be refuted.

Nobody is defending Ahmadinejad's statements which were, at best, wildly inappropriate, but something else is being lost in the shuffle. The Obama administration and the mainstream media enabled furor over Ahmadinejad, as well as all the hooplah over the building of a Muslim community center at ground zero, at a time when Texas has decided to limit the number of references to Islam in future history textbooks. If we treat people as enemies, do they not become enemies?

Moreover, the news that poses the greatest threat to national security was eclipsed, deliberately or otherwise, by the visit of a the man who is, and has always been, essentially the fall guy for the Ayatollah.

On Friday, when most of America was preparing itself for the weekend, and after nonstop news coverage of Ahmadinejad's follies, it was announced that the feds have taken over three major credit unions.

It was also announced, on Friday, that Citigroup is awarding many of its executives with millions of dollars of salary raises in stocks. Citigroup, as you know, is partly owned by the government, and was the recipient, according to the AP, of $45 billion in Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) or government bailout money. So, in essence, your tax dollars are again going into the pockets of top executives with the stock market being used as a money-laundering operation.

While there is a federal pay cap on how much any chief executive can earn, one can supplement their compensation by awarding them millions in stock options which is precisely what Citigroup has done.

British deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, told the General Assembly that Ahmadinejad's "remarks were intended to distract attention from Iran's obligations and to generate media headlines."

The response by the United States and representatives of 27 other European countries who walked out of the United Nations, and those news outlets that covered the story nonstop, effectively deflected attention away from the fact those who have been sticking their hands into our pockets to enrich themselves are still at it.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Nov. 18, 1961

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Nixon/Kennedy presidential debates, and are within ear shot of marking a half century since that fateful day in Dallas, we must be reminded of the prescience, and vibrant intelligence that was John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

In a speech delivered two short years before he passed, President John F. Kennedy's words eerily resonate, and must not be forgotten by those who entertain the notion that the Tea Party, so-called, is a new entity, but is instead a vestigial appendage of the John Birch Society of Mr. Kennedy's time:

"Now we are face to face once again with a period of heightened peril. The risks are great, the burdens heavy, the problems incapable of swift or lasting solution. And under the strains and frustrations imposed by constant tension and harassment, the discordant voices of extremism are heard once again in the land. Men who are unwilling to face up to the danger from without are convinced that the real danger comes from within. They look suspiciously at their neighbors and their leaders. They call for a 'man on horseback' because they do not trust the people. They find treason in our finest churches, in our highest court, and even in the treatment of our water. They equate the Democratic Party with the welfare state, the welfare state with socialism, and socialism with communism. They object quite rightly to politics' intruding on the military -- but they are anxious for the military to engage in politics."

For the full speech, please go to:


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Michael Winship on Edwin Newman

Where’s Ed Newman When You Need Him?

By Michael Winship

I was in London last week when news came of the death of the great NBC newsman Edwin Newman, 91 years old. Turns out he and his wife had been living in England since 2007to be close to their daughter, but I suspect part of him chose to be there for the same reason the late American humorist S.J. Perelman migrated to the UK back in the 1970s. The courtesy may be only skin deep, he said, but that’s deep enough for me.

Disillusioned, Perelman wound up coming back to the States; Newman did not, which is a shame for the rest of us, as our bickering, divided, slaphappy nation could have used more of his perceptive objectivity, dry wit and profound sense of fair play. We certainly need all of those qualities now.

He was that rare thing, a gentleman, although "genteelly rumpled" and "genially grumpy" as his New York Times obituary described him. He also held an unusual record -- the only person in the world who had hosted two presidential debates and two editions of Saturday Night Live.

Ed and I got to know each other in the late eighties when he hosted a PBS documentary series I wrote and co-produced on the history of television. He also wrote the introduction to my book on the same subject. We spent a lot of time together, both in a post-production studio as he recorded narration and later on the road as we jointly traveled around the country promoting the TV series.

A strict grammarian and authority on the English language -- he wrote two best selling books on its use and abuse -- the only argument he and I ever had was on the difference between the words "perimeter" and "parameter." Ed, of course, won.

To him, precise language and journalistic accuracy were essential; part of what made him such a good reporter. In his life after retiring from NBC News in 1984, he enjoyed playing himself as a newscaster in movies and sitcoms. But he told me how incensed he was when the producers of The Golden Girls handed him a script in which he referred to Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev by the wrong title. He kept correcting it, yet the producers insisted on keeping it the way it was, because, they
argued, it was a dream sequence and the character having the dream wouldn’t know the difference. I thought Ed’s head would come to a point.

Newman’s first full-time job in journalism was as a dictation boy in the Washington bureau of the old International News Service, transcribing stories reporters phoned in from the field.

The wire service was owned by William Randolph Hearst and Ed loved to tell the story of the day one of Hearst’s deputies showed up at the bureau while the movie Citizen Kane -- Orson Welles’ devastating, satiric portrait of a Hearst-like publisher -- was playing at the RKO Keith’s movie theater just around the corner.

"Any of you boys seen Citizen Kane yet?" the man demanded. Ed and the other newsmen fell over themselves proclaiming total ignorance of the film.

Hearst’s deputy looked around the room and said, "Too bad. Damned fine portrait of the old man."

I suspect that even the legendary Hearst, who was no stranger to exploiting xenophobia and fear to peddle papers, would have been flabbergasted by our current toxic diet of hate radio, Fox News and Internet hyperbole. And I know Ed Newman would have been appalled, as illustrated by a story told in his Washington Post obituary.

On the Today show in 1971, Newman interviewed the 73-year-old comedian Georgie Jessel, one of those older entertainers like Bob Hope, Martha Raye and Kate Smith who were staunch supporters of Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War. During the interview, Jessel compared the Post and The New York Times to the Soviet government newspaper Pravda.

"You are a guest here," Newman told him. "It is not the kind of thing one tosses off. One does not accuse newspapers of being Communist, which you have just done."

Jessel responded, "I didn't mean it quite that way... I won't say it again."

Newman replied, "I agree that you won't say it again. Thank you very much, Mr. Jessel."

Jessel said, "I just want to say one thing before I leave." Newman said, "Please don't," and cut to a commercial.

As the Post reported, "When he came back on the air, Mr. Newman said television had a responsibility to uphold 'certain standards of conduct.'

"'It didn't seem to me we have any obligation to allow people to come on to traduce the reputations of anyone they want,' he said, 'to abuse people they don't like.'"

Alas, since then, as the progressive historian and journalist Rick Perlstein has written, "Conservatives have become adept at playing the media for suckers, getting inside the heads of editors and reporters, haunting them with the thought that maybe they are out-of-touch cosmopolitans..."

There was a time, he continued, when "the media didn't adjudicate the ever-present underbrush of American paranoia as a set of 'conservative claims' to weigh, horse-race-style, against liberal claims. Back then, a more confident media unequivocally labeled the civic outrage represented by such discourse as 'extremist' -- out of bounds."

Such was Ed Newman’s time -- and that of many other print and broadcast journalists with the knowledge, experience and bravery to speak the truth. Their erudition, skill and dedication to separating fact from fiction, right from rant and legitimate grievance from bellicosity are woefully absent from all too much of today’s misshapen, mainstream media.

Years ago, when we were promoting that PBS series and my book, he and I often would autograph copies together. One night in Seattle, a woman who had just gotten Newman’s signature was trying to make up her mind whether mine was worth having as well.

"Are you Ed’s sidekick?" she asked. Sidekick? I thought for a moment and answered, proudly, "Yes."


Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New
York City.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Jimmy Carter's 60 Minutes Interview: The Scandal That Wasn't

Okay, I admit it. Everybody's got a weakness. For some, it's Godiva chocolates. For me, it's Jimmy Carter. How can one not like a man who says things like "Usually a president's image is enhanced by going to war. That didn't appeal to me?"

Okay, so he may surround himself with more controversy than secret service, but no one will ever accuse the former peanut farmer, and president of being a phony. He has antagonized just about every important political figure of our time, including his immediate successor Ronald Reagan. He alienated many by calling Israel an "apartheid state."

Remember that it was then President Carter who refused to go along with pagan chants to bomb Iran when those 52 American hostages were taken, a move that may have cost him reelection.

As a form of timed release as Mr. Carter's "Diary" comes out, Jimmy Carter sat down for an interview with Leslie Stahl (no relation) and, true to form, shocked yet again by saying that it was he who had what he called "comprehensive" health reform legislation first, and that his then political rival, Senator Ted Kennedy, "killed the bill." He portrayed the lion of the Senate as "abusive," and Stahl read selections from Carter's "Diary" that suggested Kennedy had been kicked out of college, and other scurrilous things.

Disclosure number two: I'm also a big fan of Ted Kennedy's.

This is not about liking or disliking. This is not about defamation of character. This is not about speaking ill of the dead. In his book, and during the interview, it was pointed out that Mr. Carter roundly criticized Ronald Reagan, suggesting that a renaissance in racism happened on Reagan's watch.

But, the obvious is often the most elusive element in the equation. Jimmy Carter was being interviewed about his newly published diary which he wrote while he was president of the United States. Ostensibly, each day he was in office, he recounted his experiences, his ruminations, events of importance, any trials and tribulations.

Forget location, context is everything. Should his "Diary" be an autobiography, or a memoir, it may be fair to question the judgment of a president, and a man, who would speak poorly of a former colleague, but no one should be expected to redact, or bury any personal complications that arose with one of his peers.

At the close of the 60 Minutes interview, correspondent Leslie Stahl made sure to note that whatever enmity may have existed between Carter and Kennedy was resolved, and the two worked closely and amicably after Carter left the White House.

Ultimately, it comes down to this. If you don't want to hear what he really thinks, don't ask Jimmy Carter. That's one of his great virtues. He calls them as he sees them as did Senator Kennedy. Ted Kennedy was no stranger to speaking his mind. That is what I respect most about both men.

Mr. Carter's outspokenness on the subject of Ted Kennedy is not the stuff from which a scandal emerges. They are the reflections of a man who maybe resents having the four years he presided over a peaceful country seen as a failed presidency. These are the words of a man who wants to set the record straight more than to demonize any past political rivals

Should Jimmy Carter be made to retract, or recant his statements about Ted Kennedy or anyone else, it would be a huge disservice to history, and one that Mr. Kennedy himself would abjure.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Accidentally For Purpose

Would it be considered naive or delusional to suggest that sometimes "bad" things that happen to one can be transformed alchemically into something good?

When life deals you a bad hand, do you just throw in your cards and walk away from the table, or do you step outside to look for the north star then come back, and go another round?

There is something to be learned even from the gravest adversity.

Having been prescribed bed rest for the entire Labor Day weekend was, for me, tantamount to torture, but it provided me the opportunity to unpack my head of all the unnecessary baggage I've been carrying around, mostly other people's demands, needs, and expectations.

Being remanded to rest for 72 hours provided the luxury of much-needed meditation, if you'll pardon the expression, on where I'm going, what I want, and most of all where I want to be. What do I want to do with the rest of my life? Yes, these kinds of thoughts may seem like a luxury, but are ultimately the only ones that count.

Yet, we fill our lives with so much distraction: shopping, cinema, television, politics, pointless conversation, bombarding ourselves with newsreel footage of everyone else's personal tragedies but our own. We spend our time playing with friends on social networking sites, trying to talk over the gaping hole of loneliness, doing everything but confronting the haunting reality, as poet James Dickey suggested that we are wasting our lives.

Some have bcome so adept at carrying other people's baggage that they don't need any help lifting it. Others will try to convince you that the baggage you are carrying is your own, but it's not. They bought it hook, line, and sinker, and only they can pay for it.

One longs for awakening in a world that worships sleep. Oh, and what an awakening it is to dream of stained glass, flying over the Atlantic, finding one's way in a foreign country, only to awake to headlines about Sharron Angle, Newt Gingrich, and Afghan civilians killed for protesting "mosque" protest in New York. I have been known, like many, to lose myself in headlines, and in other people's news.

So, an accident, and a temporary suspension of higher order thinking helped me to clear the cobwebs out of my vision, and to see, roundly and clearly, just how important it is to drive with the road in sight. Where this journey will take me, I honestly can't say, but movement has been the only divinity I've known, and what was an accident renewed a sense of purpose that was lost in the noise of car alarms, fire engines, and endless chatter of all types

Only those who refuse to answer when destiny knocks have wasted their lives.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

"Escaping Tolerance"

Escaping Tolerance

By Michael Winship

Gentlemen, start your defibrillators. To baby boomers like me it’s gives the heart a bit of jolt to realize that 2010 marks the 50th anniversary of the presidential campaign between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon.

I visited the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum out on Columbia Point in Boston late last week for the first time since shortly after the permanent collection opened in 1980. Right now, they’re paying special attention to the 1960 election anniversary. Memories flooded back.

I was nine years old when JFK was elected, living in a house divided. My mother and I supported Kennedy; my father and older brother professed allegiance to Nixon -- I still have their Republican Party tie clip featuring a cheap gold caricature of Tricky Dick, an exaggerated ski nose making him look more like Bob Hope than the twitchy misanthrope we all knew and loved.

For a kid, that brief thousand days of the Kennedy presidency were a heady mix of exhilaration and despair: I was alternately captivated by the family’s youth, energy and charisma; terrified at the prospect of nuclear annihilation during the Cuban missile crisis; thrilled by the early flights of the space program; devastated by the assassination in 1963.

The Kennedy Library and Museum’s reflect all of that and more; displays filled with campaign paraphernalia, newspaper front pages, video clips, documents and other assorted, historic ephemera -- even the coconut on which Kennedy scratched a message to rescuers in the South Pacific after his PT 109 was cut in half by a Japanese destroyer. It sat on his desk in the Oval Office.

In one of the clear plastic display cases were two typewritten pages from one of the most important speeches John F. Kennedy ever delivered: his address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960, exactly fifty years ago this week, with words as relevant, in the face of today’s Islamophobia and other fears, as they were then.

Dogged by misperceptions about his Catholic faith and scurrilous allegations that his dedication to country would be superseded by allegiance to the Pope, Kennedy tackled the separation of church and state head on, with words as relevant, in the face of today’s Islamophobia and other unreasoned fears, as they were then.

"I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish," he said, "where no public official either requests or accept instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials, and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

"For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been -- and may someday be again -- a Jew, or a Quaker, or a Unitarian, or a Baptist. It was Virginia's harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that led to Jefferson's statute of religious freedom. Today, I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you -- until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped apart at a time of great national peril."

Fifty years later, as political journalist Steve Benen noted on his Washington Monthly blog, "Political Animal," little attention was paid to the speech former Republican Senator Rick Santorum delivered last week to mark the anniversary of Kennedy’s landmark address. It turned what JFK believed on its head. "Kennedy chose not just to dispel fear, he chose to expel faith," Santorum declared.

"... Kennedy's speech was historic because it did offer a teachable moment. In the short term it accomplished a great good by helping to put an end to Catholic bigotry. Unfortunately, its lasting impact not only undermined the essential role that faith has successfully played in America, but it reduced religion to mere personal 'belief' and helped launch a cultural revolution, proclaiming loudly that on matters of moral consequence, reason has no truths it can discern, nothing of moral significance it can claim to know, much less contribute to the public debate."

A wildly untrue exaggeration. As Benen wrote, "The right-wing politician who'd like to be the second Roman Catholic president made his case that Kennedy's commitment to First Amendment principles was a big mistake."

Santorum proclaimed Kennedy’s principles rooted not in good old American belief but on "a model used in countries like France and until recently Turkey." This, of course, is a popular form of right wing attack -- associating the opposition with, gasp, some foreign country. Witness Newt Gingrich’s embrace of a recent Forbes.com article, "How Obama Thinks," by Dinesh D’Souza, in which the right wing commentator links the president’s political philosophy to his Kenyan father in ludicrous, derogatory fashion.

D’Souza writes, "Incredibly, the U.S. is being ruled according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s. This philandering, inebriated African socialist, who raged against the world for denying him the realization of his anticolonial ambitions, is now setting the nation's agenda through the reincarnation of his dreams in his son. The son makes it happen, but he candidly admits he is only living out his father's dream. The invisible father provides the inspiration, and the son dutifully gets the job done. America today is governed by a ghost."

Gingrich called this the "most profound insight I have read in the last six years about Barack Obama," to which former Bush speechwriter David Frum replied, "With the Forbes story and now the Gingrich endorsement, the argument that Obama is an infiltrating alien, a deceiving foreigner -- and not just any kind of alien, but specifically a Third World alien -- has been absorbed almost to the very core of the Republican platform for November 2010… When last was there such a brazen outburst of race-baiting in the service of partisan politics at the national level? George Wallace took more care to sound race-neutral."

Years ago, I interviewed the great American comic writer and satirist Larry Gelbart. I asked him why, during a large part of the 1960s, he had chosen to live in Britain rather than the United States. He joked, "To escape religious tolerance."

As time goes by, the joke wears thin, its premise false. Increasingly, what we tolerate instead is prejudice, ignorance and just plain damned foolishness.


Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Ever Notice

how fast
when you’re
not watching

(c) jayne lyn stahl

Saturday, September 11, 2010

That other "Koran" story

Wonder why, during the nonstop Koran burning debacle, no one has mentioned the reports from Newsweek, back in 2005, that US service members were allegedly flushing Korans down the toilet at Gitmo.

On Memorial Day of that year I wrote to then Pentagon spokesman, Larry Di Rita, about it, and below is my e-mail followed by his response.

After a week of incessant coverage of a maniacal Florida minister's threat to burn the Koran, I find it remarkable that the mainstream media has had such an egregious memory lapse on this subject. Notably, Larry Di Rita no longer works for the Pentagon and has been replaced by Bryan Whitman:

May 29, 2005
>Dear Mr. Di Rita:
>On the eve of Memorial Day, with heartfelt respect for our troops in Iraq, and elsewhere, who have given their lives, and continue to give their lives so that we may barbeque, visit with friends, and write letters like the one I'm writing to you, I call upon you, as has an editorial in today's Washington Post, to provide all citizens of this great country with an independent investigation into the multiple accounts of prisoner abuse at Guantanamo Bay.
>Regrettably, at the moment, documents that reveal heinous acts against detainees at the base may only be found on the Web site of the American Civil Liberties Union who obtained this information as a result of a lawsuit against the government under FOIA. That the release of information that speaks to the integrity of our armed forces, and their command, could only come about as a consequence of litigation in a country that purports to export democracy around the world is not merely ironic, it's egregious.
>These documents which reveal beatings, strippings, and "abuse of the Koran" are even said to include instances in which the Koran was flushed down the toilet, an assertion that you, sir, fervently dismissed as did White House Chief of Staff, Scott McClellan. The revelation of this desecration of the Koran which you have dismissed as "fantastic charges," and for which Newsweek has taken a public, and undeserved, beating require that amends be made. With all due respect, Mr. Di Rita, I believe you owe the editorial staff of Newsweek, and the journalists involved, an apology as these documents show that the reported insult to the Koran, for which they were so flagrantly censured, was, in point of fact, authentic and true. More to the point, on the eve of this most significant holiday, I believe you owe the American people the truth.
> As we pay our respects to the men and women who honor our country's uniform, we must also pay our respects to the principles for which many have given their lives, and continue to give their lives, for the free flow of information, for principled investigation and, most essential of all, for the release of those documents requisite to ensure that justice come to those who abuse, and defame human rights, our Constitution, and international law. I urge you, as the principal spokesperson for the Pentagon, to acknowledge the veracity of the Newsweek article, make a most necessary, and warranted, apology, as well as initiate an independent inquiry, in open session, into the allegations of prisoner abuse at that naval base in Cuba known as Guantanamo Bay.

Most importantly, when the investigation is complete, I urge you to work with the Defense Secretary, and all those to whom our men and women in combat report, to see to it that your findings come out for, as today's Washington Post editorial rightly suggests, "The American public has a right to know what mistakes are being made in its name, as well as what improved procedures have been instituted in response."
>Yours sincerely,
>Jayne Lyn Stahl

From: Di Rita, Larry, CIV, OSD-OASD-PA
>Date: Thu, Jun 2, 2005 at 2:46 AM
>Subject: RE: on the eve of Memorial Day...
>To: Jayne Stahl
> Dear Ms Stahl:
>Thank you for taking the time to write, and to share your thoughts. This is an important issue, and one that the Department of Defense takes seriously.
>I stand by what we said about the Newsweek story. It was egregious, and it turns out it was wrong. There is no evidence that U.S. forces did what they were alleged to have done in that story. In fact, Newsweek itself has acknowledged that and retracted the story.
>Trying to establish the veracity of that story, the commanders at Guantanamo have conducted a fairly extensive review of our procedures there. You should feel proud as an American of the cautious and respectful approach toward religious items and religious practice U.S. forces are taking. They fly into the island every day large quantities of specially prepared foods so that the detainees can have meals appropriate to their faith. Thousands of Korans have been issued so that detainees may practice their faith. Prayer times are respected, and prayer rituals are respected.
>The commanders have established detailed procedures for the handling of the Koran, precisely because detainees have expressed concerns about it. The procedures for handling the Koran by U.S. forces at Guantanamo run three pages long.
>In short, quite contrary to the impression left by the Newsweek story, U.S.forces treat the Koran in particular, and the practice of faith by the detainees in general, with respect.
>There have been some instances in which the Koran was mishandled apparently. Those are being looked into. Thus far, the review of the matter has uncovered some five or six such instances. This is gleaned from tens of thousands of pages of documents that detail precisely how the detainees are being treated. Five or six instances out of thousands of hours of contact with hundreds of detainees over three years hardly demonstrates a pattern, but we take each instances seriously.
>The International Committee of the Red Cross has offered its assessment and suggestions to ensure we manage this aspect of our operations carefully. Hundreds of members of congress have visited Guantanamo and observed operations there. Thousands of members of the press corps have reported from Guantanamo.
>The facts are as I have described them above. These facts have been provided to the public via the media. There is a great deal of oversight of U.S. operations at Guantanamo, from Congress, the media, and the courts.
>It is important to remember, too, that the people at Guantanamo are suspected, for very good reason, to be members of Al Qaeda. There are individuals there who have acknowledged playing a part in planning the 9/11 attacks that killed 3000 people. There are people there who provided intelligence that interrupted planning for additional terrorist attacks.
>The United States is fighting a war against violent extremists who use terror to kill women, children, the elderly, without discrimination. We are fighting this war consistent with our principles and values as a free, democratic nation. I am proud to be in government at this time, serving the country in my small way.
>Again, I thank you for the time you took to express your thoughts. If you care to get additional information about these matters, I would be only too pleased to provide it.
>All the best...
>Larry Di Rita




A cat has
nine lives
how many
does a
country have
on this day
nine years after
the twin
towers fell
I look around
and see
only silence and
the young man who
lives below me
whose friends are
visiting from
they are here for
a football
it could be 1955, but
it isn't as if
nothing has
happened in
America's parking
lot where
car alarms
constantly go
off where
somewhere in
lower manhattan
a maniacal
minister is
threatening to
burn the holy book of
another tribe.
we are all other
tribes even
the small birds
I feed from
my balcony who think
the sun
owes them

(c) Jayne Lyn Stahl

Thursday, September 09, 2010

By Michael Winship

9/11: The Rest Should Be Silence

By Michael Winship

This past Sunday was beautiful, bright and warm, not unlike the sky blue day when those two airliners hit the World Trade Center in 2001, just a mile or so from where I live. That day, a Tuesday, was a bit hotter, a bit more humid, yet just as sunny and promising.

But this Sunday morning’s silence was broken by the sound of a bell and a small, organized crowd of friendly people chatting quietly among themselves, walking south down Seventh Avenue, the street that runs beneath my apartment windows, escorted by police and fire vehicles. With a prompt from the news on my radio, I remembered that this was an event that now takes place every year on the Sunday before the anniversary of 9/11.

The people walk in memory of Father Mychal Judge, the Franciscan priest who died at the World Trade Center, the attack’s first officially recorded death, designated Victim 0001. Chaplain for the New York City Fire Department, Father Judge had rushed to the disaster scene, delivered last rites to the dying, then gone inside the lobby of the north tower, praying for all those at Ground Zero but especially for his friends, the firefighters.

"Jesus, please end this right now! God, please end this!" he was heard to exclaim. And then the south tower collapsed. Debris came crashing through the north lobby. Father was struck and fell, dead – “blunt force trauma to the head,” the coroner’s report read.

It would be foolish to pretend to know what Father Judge would make of the controversy over Cordoba House, the proposed Islamic center downtown a couple of blocks from Ground Zero, but there may be a clue in the words of the homily he delivered just the day before 9/11. "No matter how big the call, no matter how small, you have no idea what God is calling you to do," he said. "But God needs you, He needs me, He needs all of us."

All of us. Not just Christians or Jews, but Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, atheists, the right, the left, everyone. Father Judge himself was both gay and a recovering alcoholic, struggles that gave him particular insight into the plight of all too many misunderstood souls working to make their capacity for love, compassion and courage known and accepted as equal to anyone else’s.

So all of us have a role to play and none of them should involve inflaming hatred and prejudice among us, none of them should involve violating the rights of others or considering oneself superior to another or burning the scripture of those the ignorant and opportunistic want us to believe are evil or unholy.

Writing in Wednesday’s New York Times, Feisal Abdul Rauf, chair of the effort to build Cordoba House and imam of the Farah mosque already in lower Manhattan, said, "These efforts by radicals at distortion endanger our national security and the personal security of Americans worldwide. This is why Americans must not back away from completion of this project. If we do, we cede the discourse and, essentially, our future to radicals on both sides. The paradigm of a clash between the West and the Muslim world will continue, as it has in recent decades at
terrible cost. It is a paradigm we must shift."

Just returned from two months in the Middle East on behalf of the State Department, seeking conciliation between Muslims and other religions, Rauf continued, "Let us commemorate the anniversary of 9/11 by pausing to reflect and meditate and tone down the vitriol and rhetoric that serves only to strengthen the radicals and weaken our friends’ belief in our values."

Reflect and meditate in silence, please. Many have urged that September 11 this year not be a time of demonstrations for or against Cordoba House or any other issue; rather, let it be a quiet day of commemoration and mourning.

The last time I attended the September 11 ceremonies at Ground Zero, on the fifth anniversary in 2006, as the names of the dead were read, solemn tranquility was disrupted and disrespected by those who tried to use the occasion to draw attention to themselves, crassly intruding with their conspiracy theories and raucous agendas.

And quiet, please, not only because it is a mark of respect for the deceased and their friends and families, but also because it is the sound of silence that many New Yorkers find so evocative of those days just after the attacks. Our streets closed to regular traffic, patrolled by police and the National Guard, we wandered in mute disbelief at what had happened, at the enormity of our loss. Even the
emergency vehicles that raced along the empty streets did so without their sirens. We murmured softly amongst ourselves, looking for answers as many of our fellow citizens still searched for news of their missing loved ones.

Let our loss be what we remember on Saturday. That, and the words of St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the order of friars to which Father Mychal Judge devoted himself: "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy."

Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City

Thursday, September 02, 2010


"Nothing is true, everything is permitted,' William Burroughs