Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Bigger Question

The publication of American diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks has caused considerable uproar and controversy. A great deal of debate is going back and forth on the issue but much of the media and government attention is not on the most damning implications of the leaked cables. Instead they are chasing the much smaller story of the leak itself. This is hardly surprising; the mainstream media has consistently avoided embarrassing American government officials since 9/11. In the midst of all the chatter of the leak itself the bigger question has been ignored.

In government, business, and many other places privacy and secrecy have an important place. Whether they are trade secrets, military strategies, or medical information keeping confidence is a necessity in many facets of modern life. The situations when truly vital secrets should be exposed are very limited and in the eyes of the law dictated by necessity. One cannot, for example, have one's psychiatric records examined by the authorities without a warrant or probable cause. A business does not have the power to force another business to divulge trade secrets. A counselor cannot be forced to share their discussion with a client unless those discussions reveal a clear danger. Private information that is protected by law is by and large the kind of information whose access must be protected for reasons of need.

Secrecy in matters of government is much more complex. There are many pieces of information that government needs to keep quiet to do its job. We live in a dangerous world with people who would love to have access to truly valuable information so they can bring harm to the United States. Military operations are the most obvious as are any other activities like espionage that by necessity requires tight control of information. These necessary secrets are hidden because they must be, otherwise they become weapons others can use against us. The public does not have a right or need to know such necessary secrets. It is when government actively obfuscates public policy it has crossed a very dangerous line. For our representative government to function the citizens must be well-informed on matters of public policy including how our representatives are executing that policy. When government denies access to information central to issues of public interest they cut the voting public out of the discussion.

The real bombshell in the leaked cables was not the juicy tidbits of Foreign Service gossip, that several Arab leaders have been pushing the US to bomb Iran, or that China probably hacked Google. It is in the exposure of the stark divide between the administration's narrative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in public and what is in black and white in their own documents. Obama has said from the beginning of his campaign that the war in Afghanistan is a war of necessity. We have been assured it is a war we must not leave prematurely or run the risk of destabilizing Central Asia. Our president also promised openness and transparency in his administration. He promised honest, adult discussion of the issues. Our government assures us in public that the mission is on track having given deadlines for withdrawal justifying each based on the “opinion of commanders on the ground” asking always for our patience in spite of declining support. In private they are agonizing over a deteriorating situation where their most crucial ally is a government they do not trust which is paralyzed by corruption at every level.

The leak of the State Department's private cables did more than confirm how dire the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan truly is. They have proven that our government does not trust we, the people to make informed decisions about our country's foreign policy. In refusing to honestly debate the issues these cables bring to light in Afghanistan this administration has crossed a line it should never approach. There is a place for secrets, but those secrets are ones that must be kept for the sake of matters of need. Saving face is definitely not one of them. Agree or disagree with the leak, the United States is not harmed by the administration admitting that the Afghan government is highly corrupt, the war is not going well, our contractors have made things worse, and the reconstruction money has virtually disappeared. Those are the facts not to mention public knowledge. Refusing to talk about these serious issues with the public and insisting we are making progress is not going to change that any more than positive thinking is going to make anyone a millionaire. Keeping up a good image when it is anything but true is not strength. Telling the public not to believe their lying eyes and to just trust them strikes at the foundations of representative government.

The question that has been batted around in the media has been what to think about WikiLeaks. In the midst of the 24-hour drone the bigger question has been lost: why does our government feel the need to lie to us about what is painfully obvious?

Also published at http://politics.pagannewswirecollective.com/2010/11/30/the-bigger-question/

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Mapping the Religious Right: the Arlington Group

The Religious Right is a powerful force in American politics and society, tipping elections and making themselves one of the most powerful voting blocs in the country. Their objectives are worn on their sleeves; their zeal unquestionable. Yet for everything that is known far more remains just out of common knowledge. In this series we will delve into this unknown tracking down more on their most powerful players, money, influence, and how they achieve their goals.

With a name so generic and mundane the Arlington Group would hardly be the first organization to come to one's mind when you think of the Religious Right. Organizations like the American Family Association, the Family Research Council, the National Association of Evangelicals, and Focus on the Family are the ones out in front grabbing the headlines and making the power plays. These groups share many things in common on matters of politics and ideology. They also share a less publicly-known bond: they are all alleged members of the Arlington Group.

The Arlington Group was founded in 2002 thanks largely to the efforts of prominent New Right activist Paul Weyrich and Donald Wildmon, then President of the American Family Association. The Arlington Group was founded to coordinate the efforts and resources of social conservatives to oppose gay marriage. Aside from their membership and their public goals not much is known about the Arlington Group. It is not registered as a political action committee in any state. There is no record of an organization called the Arlington Group in the IRS database of non-profit organizations, churches, and charities. Membership in the Group is by invitation only and they do not keep any records of what is discussed at Group events. Yet the membership list of this incredibly obscure group, care of a fax to the Bush White House sent in 2005, is a literal who's who of the most powerful people and organizations in the Religious Right.

The Group has a history shrouded in secrecy. Following their founding in 2002 the first major announcement made by the Group relating to an election was their support for propositions banning gay marriage in 2004. They briefly had a website in 2006 which included a list of organizations willing to declare their membership but since then it has been shut down for reasons unknown. This has not seen an end to their activities, far from it.

Behind this wall of secrecy the Arlington Group exercises considerable political influence and power. In 2004 the Arlington Group made their first major coup by organizing the drives to bans gay marriage by Proposition in eleven states. In 2005 they threatened to withold support for Bush's push to privatize Social Security if he did not push their fundamentalist objectives. Further campaigns in 2006 and 2008, spearheaded by members of the Arlington Group, would see continued electoral successes for the Christian Right's anti-gay crusade. In 2008 they privately interviewed each of the Republican Presidential candidates to determine who would be the best to advance their cause. The eventual choice of Sarah Palin as Vice Presidential candidate was a decision that was supported by the members of the Arlington Group who had refused to throw their support to any of the candidates during the primaries. This act which many believe cost John McCain the presidency was done to appease this incredibly powerful organization.

The Arlington Group is unique among the broad coalitions in the Religious Right for its secrecy. Previous groups that filled a similar role, such as the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, were filed with the IRS as religious non-profit organizations. Even the similarly secretive Council for National Policy has a legal paper trail. Their secrecy begs the question: what do they have to hide? The members of the Arlington Group have long openly campaigned against the so-called gay agenda. If the official reason for their existence is all there is to the Group then why operate in the dark? Whatever the rest of the agenda of the Arlington Group is clearly it is one they do not want the American people to know about.

Also published at http://politics.pagannewswirecollective.com/2010/11/11/mapping-the-religious-right-the-arlington-group/

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Looking Forward to 2012

The recent midterm elections have been a hard reversal for Obama and the Democratic Party. That is the media narrative and it is correct. While correct it is far from being the whole story. The current political climate in the United States is very volatile and the election was a very clear message sent by the voters. The voters were not just rejecting Obama and the Democratic Party's lackluster performance. They cast a vote of no confidence on the federal government and business as usual in DC.

Going into the election Obama and the Democrats were down in the polls across the board. Just as misery loves company the majority party was not alone in their lack of support. Congressional Republicans are in surprisingly enough a worse position in the polls in spite of their victories on November 2nd. A recent Rasmussen poll found 59% of all Americans believe that the new GOP Congress will disappoint them by 2012. This isn't a liberal front group of some kind saying this. Rasmussen is a polling group that has worked with the Republican Party and Fox News for decades. Congressional job approval is at record-setting lows casting the approval ratings of both parties into a harsher light. With voter turnout at 42% coming on the heels of the record-breaking turnout of the 2008 elections the majority cast their vote of not worth the effort. When you take a step back from the manufactured message it becomes clear that people no longer believe government or the political parties in Washington genuinely represent or care about their interests.

This lack of faith in federal government is not surprising. The past decade has been a serious rollercoaster regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum starting with 9/11 and ending with the financial market crash. During the first decade of the millennium partisan conflict became a much larger part of the business of government on both sides of the aisle. With the mediocre efforts of the Democrats providing little relief and Republican policies having been responsible for the crash in the first place the disapproval of both parties by the public is completely justified.

The circumstances that created the Tea Party and energized the Republican Party have their own consequences. Promises of investigations, confrontations on spending and the debt ceiling, and opposition to Obama could quickly backfire. As much as the Tea Party rails against government spending that same spending in R&D, the military, law enforcement, infrastructure, and basic bureaucracy leads to a lot of paychecks. If there was a serious disruption in the ability to pay these workers that would take more money out of an already fragile economy. The debt ceiling is an equally thorny issue; if the US were to fail to raise it and defaulted on our debt that would be an economic catastrophe. As the primary season and the defeat of Sharon Angle and Christine O'Donnell has shown the Tea Party is willing to go after Republicans who fall short on their expectations even if that means losing the seat in the general election. This is likely to encourage confrontation instead of negotiation leading to gridlock and continued federal impotence.

Ironically enough this federal gridlock will make it much easier for state and local elected officials to stand out if their methods are successful. With the federal government in all likelihood bogged down in partisan bickering lower levels of government will need to take on greater burdens and come up with new solutions to their problems. By necessity, and thanks to increasing access to information given by the Internet, the political center of gravity is going to shift away from Washington and to state and local governments. This is not to say some kind of new civil war is brewing on the horizon. More than anything else people are trying to get by and will take any port in a storm.

So what does this mean for our community? All in all its going to be pretty messy regardless of your political persuasion. An extended recession, one that might get worse, is going to be hard on our community. More than ever we need to turn to each other with open arms and leave petty partisan bickering to the professionals in Washington. We need to work together, find ways to help each other, and do what is best for our communities. Our shared spirituality and experiences are far greater ties that bind than any letter next to a candidate's name can cut. Times like these are ones where we need any who can do their part to step up and work together regardless of who they voted for. The road is rough ahead but as long as we stand together we'll be ok.

Also published at http://politics.pagannewswirecollective.com/2010/11/04/looking-forward-to-2012/

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

I'll Pass on the Tea

With the election today there's quite a few opinions shooting around the web particularly about the Tea Party. With all the rhetoric flying around the issues at stake have mostly flown under the radar. I think its time we really sat down to take a look at the Tea Party, some of its more well-known members, and their campaign platform.

First off let's take apart the platform the Tea Party has chosen to stand on. They have defined it by five broad slogans in the Contract From America that they will identify the constitutionality of every new law, demand a balanced federal budget, simplify the tax system, audit the federal government for constitutionality, and finally repeal Obamacare.

Now identifying the constitutionality of every new law is a great sounding idea and auditing the federal government for constitutionality dovetails with that perfectly. Who wouldn't like hearing that a party is promising to demonstrate where the constitutionality of their actions come from, on its face that stance is perfectly reasonable. This of course assumes this plank is only what it says on its face. The question not answered by this nice slogan is a pretty basic one: who determines constitutionality? There are multiple competing schools of thought as to what interpretations of the Constitution are the right ones. This plank practically begs the question of who is the final arbiter and by what measure are they determining something to be Constitutional. After all there is that pesky little "necessary and proper clause" which gives Congress the power to take any action that is deemed necessary for the United States.

Now most Tea Partiers will respond, "We'll interpret it exactly as written and not take anything out or put in things that aren't supposed to be there." If that is the case then why does Christine O'Donnell doubt the constitutionality of separation of Church and State which is clearly spelled out in Article VI section 3 and again in the First Amendment? If the Constitution is inviolate holy writ then why are there so many Tea Party candidates clamoring for an amendment to remove birthright citizenship? How can one claim on one hand the Constitution is sacred and untouchable one minute then the next start trotting out their plans to edit and rewrite very important parts of the allegedly untouchable document? It also leads me to question how consistent the Tea Party and its candidates really are on what is and is not a valid interpretation if they are so willing to break out the whiteout.

Now demanding a balance federal budget is one of those perfectly reasonable things to say on its face. In this one especially the devil is in the details. For all the shouts of "Cut spending!' and "the deficit is out of control!" or "People are tired of runaway federal spending!" there are very few that actually detail how this balanced budget is going to happen. When coupled with the cry against excessive taxes adds an additional element to the campaign for a balanced budget. Once you take one half of the budget process, namely raising revenue, off the table then all you are left with is cuts. Lots of cuts. Namely several hundred billion in cuts.

So what elements of the federal government are going to be rolled back that won't cause further pain and harm down the road? If you cut unemployment you are going to make several million people homeless in very short order. If you cut Medicare you'll end up with a lot of seniors going into bankruptcy thanks to medical expenses they can't afford. If you cut Social Security, the sacred cow of American politics, then you can bet those seniors who would have been badly off with the Medicare cuts are going to be even worse off now. "But we'll eliminate waste and pork!" the deficit hawks cry. The largest source of waste, the Pentagon, has been clearly made off-limits and never touched by the Tea Party. Once you take the Five Sided Pork Palace out of the equation then you're left with nowhere near enough waste to bring the budget close to balancing. Pork spending, for example, is estimated by the CBO to constitute maybe 5% of the federal budget. Cutting pork from the federal budget would have about the same effect for balancing the budget as repainting the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Simplifying the tax system is another great slogan. When asked about how they would do it the common Tea Party response is to replace the allegedly unconstitutional income tax (which by the way is authorized by Constitutional amendment) with a nationwide flat tax. The biggest problem with this idea is that implementing it would kill any possibility of a balanced budget. A flat tax code, unless it had rates of at least 35%, would not be able to pay all of the federal government's outstanding obligations for basic things like the deficit, the interest payments on the national debt, or even keeping the lights on. For such a system to work most of the federal government would have to be eliminated. That includes things like funding for the Interstate highway system, the military, funding for already cash-strapped schools, veterans' benefits, money for food inspections to make sure that Oscar Meyer doesn't decide to slip sawdust into their hot dogs, federal law enforcement, and of course keeping federal prisons open and the lights on.

Now to get to the big ticket one: repealing Obamacare. First off this is an empty promise. There are no election projections that show the Tea Party as having any shot at capturing 2/3rds of both chambers of Congress, the number needed to override a presidential veto so the odds of this happening can be safely said at least for the next two years as being somewhere between slim and none. The blanket repeal of Obamacare ignores a lot of the details in the law in the drive to overrule what has been defined as a "socialist" program, little things like kids being able to be on their parent's coverage until they're 26, banning denial of care based on pre-existing conditions, excessive rate hikes, and other nasty practices that the insurance industry loves so much. Now I think the health care reform act falls far short of where it should be and didn't do enough to address the issue I DO like those provisions. I like them very much. Throwing out all of HCR would toss out what reform is worth mentioning in the bill.

What gets me most about the Tea Party is those five slogans is their entire list for how to fix the country. No concrete proposals, no specific ideas for actually addressing the issues in front of us, just lots of great marketing slogans. Running a government is far more complicated than just shouting, "protect the Constitution!" and "No new taxes!" until you're blue in the face. The claims of taking back government from a Marxist Fascist (two mutually contradictory ideas) dictatorship tend to ring hollow when you have candidates who refuse to speak to the press, have journalists arrested by private security, regularly allude to using "Second Amendment remedies" or that "violent uprising is on the table", and that we are a Christian nation regardless of little things like freedom of religion. When you have candidates who shout for freedom and stifle it on the campaign trail or worse yet call for open violence as an acceptable political option that makes me question if their stances are nothing more than a handy pose to get into power. Talk is cheap, action is not.

Now as far as Pagans are concerned I think the forces that brought the Tea Party to center stage are a serious danger to our community. The demagoguery of people like Glenn Beck has incited fear of America being taken over by invisible enemies, that the rats are in the walls and chewing their way in. They cry we must go back to our past, to being a truly Christian nation, and reclaim America from the alleged plotters. They encourage a naked us vs. them kind of thinking that is very good at excluding people from the public process, particularly those who are already on the fringes. People like us.

Whether the Tea Party calls for it or not, their us vs. them, all or nothing rhetoric, campaign stances, and actions have inflamed dangerous passions in our country. This kind of politics requires an Other to oppose. Unfortunately, given the relative poverty and lack of influence in our community, that makes us all too easy a target.

Also posted at http://politics.pagannewswirecollective.com/2010/11/02/ill-pass-on-the-tea/