Monday, January 31, 2005

The Morning After the Party

So, it's back to sobering reality -- this article, "What I Heard About Iraq" has been making the rounds, outlining all the lies we were told all along about the Iraq War. Don't get me wrong; I'm still happy the election yesterday went well, but let's see how those enthusiastic blue-fingered voters feel when it gets down to the nuts and bolts of putting that country together. However important the election was symbolically, nothing concrete has changed yet. All of the problems that were there a couple of days ago are still there, and they aren't going to be solved easily or quickly.

Celebrating democracy is easy; making it work is the hard part.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

The Election in Iraq

Looking around at the various news sites and weblogs, the feeling out there is like a big celebation, with only a few party-poopers, on the Left, of course. Iraqis turned out to vote in numbers better than expected, and although there were violent incidents, and dozens of people killed, it wasn't as bad as expected. At least one polling station that I heard of didn't open up, and voting was light in Sunni areas -- although I'm seeing contradictory reports on that.

Now, these things are bad, but I think folks worried that there would be a bloodbath, with hundreds killed, or that Iraqis would stay away in droves, out of fear.

Somewhere in the depths of my American heart, I can't help but be touched by the stories of Iraqis proudly voting freely for the first time in their lives. But my more practical side knows that voting alone does not a democracy make. The results of the election have to be seen as legitimate by a solid majority of Iraqis, and it is too soon to tell if that's the case yet, or not. The reason that you and I, and the multitudes who deeply dislike our current president aren't rioting in the streets is that, at bottom, we accept the legitimacy of the system. We also have the faith that we will have the opportunity to make our voices heard again, at the ballot box, in a few years. If, however, significant numbers of Iraqis don't have that faith, and don't regard the election as legitimate, then that country is in big trouble -- and the party poopers would be right.

But, for right now, I feel like enjoying the moment.

Baha'i Stuff on a Historic Day Like This?

Yes, folks, I know the long-awaited election in Iraq is going on, but it's early morning, and I haven't had time to do more than scan the headlines about it. Most of the news seems very optimistic, at this point, except for on Juan's Informed Comment.

Anyway, I plan to return today, after looking over what those in the blogosphere have had to say.

Opposition to Baha'i Temple in Chile

As most Baha'is know, one of the recent projects of the Baha'i world community is the building of another House of Worship (mashiq'u'adhkar) in Santiago Chile. As was the case in the other temples, it will be an impressive structure, meant more to be a "silent teacher" of the Baha'i Faith than a practical place of worship. As some folks online have pointed out, the mashriq was meant, scripturally, to be the center of local community worship, but the way history has played out, we have ended up building only a few of them world-wide: Wilmette, IL; Germany, Samoa, India, Uganda, Australia. They are generally described as "mother temples", and the hope is that sometime in the future, the majority of Baha'is will have local places of worship. (Right now, the larger communities have Baha'i Centers, which are administrative in nature, although they are used for worship, and the small communities which make up the majority generally meet at somebody's house.) So, the idea of the mashriq'u'l-adhkar and what it means, and what it is supposed to be, has been the subject of some controversy online.

Well, as my good friend Baquia pointed out on Baha'i Rants , some Chileans are less than thrilled at having a Baha'i temple in Santiago, especially in the initially proposed location in Metropolitan Park. I ran across another blog, written in Portuguese, and including links to the Spanish-language press, that speaks about the controversy, as well. Don't be daunted by the foreign language. Altavista has a pretty decent translator, which gives you the sense of what's going on, even if somewhat inelegantly. One thing that struck me is that, unlike Baquia, Marco at Pova de Baha'i denies that there was significant opposition by the Catholic Church, instead insisting that it was largely evangelical Protestant groups, and Muslims that have opposed the building of the temple.

The debate looks to be pretty hot; I myself had a private inquiry by a Chilean journalist, before I even knew anything about the conflict. Besides asking specifics about Baha'i teachings, he also asked me about the economic and social influence of the Baha'i Faith, which tells me that there are rumors down there about the ability of the Baha'is to pull behind-the-scenes strings to get things done. Baha'i institutions offically take a non-political stance, but they generally try to cultivate warm relationships with current governments -- which is not always a good thing, since it has sometimes meant that Baha'is have got themselves hooked up with leaders who are oppressive or otherwise unsavory. However, I don't believe that Baha'i "influence" should be exaggerated -- the Baha'is just hope to have friendly relationships with governments so they are free to practice and promote their religion. (Some might fantasize about converting influential figures, but that remains a fantasy, except in a few select cases.) Overall, Baha'i communities need the government, far more than the government needs them -- and you don't have "influence" unless you have something to trade. A temple like this could bring in tourist dollars to Santiago, certainly, but that doesn't mean that the Chilean NSA gets whatever it wants. In fact, the deal for building the House of Worship in the Metropolitan Park fell through, and they are still looking for a location, even though construction is supposed to start this year.

Both Marco and Baquia, in typical Baha'i fashion, are sanguine about the controversy on the principle that "no publicity is bad publicity" -- at least people are hearing of the existence of the Baha'i Faith.

Mock UHJ Election Replaces Retirees With Women

Baha'i Angst, the only Baha'i satirist to be active in the last few years (yes, some of us remember Al Marbig's *Brave New World*, as the first satirical Baha'i site), after a long haitus has emerged once again -- and, among other things, held an election last week for the two recently-vacated positions on the House of Justice. The two top vote-getters, out of 17 candidates, were Starr Saffa and Susan Maneck, two very different ladies from the ideological point of view, but more to the point is that two women won. In typically Angst fashion, he then turns serious and writes an open letter to the UHJ, which I won't link to, because he insists that folks see the vote results first. He takes that august body to task for its exclusionary policy towards women and its general rigidity, then calls upon all of the incumbents to retire. Worth checking out for a laugh, or maybe a cry.

Yours truly came in fourth place, which I'd brag about, except that Elvis came in fifth. :-)

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Sifting Through the Intel

I was thinking, with this recent incident, how much being a Baha'i cyberspace dissident is to being a dissident in a totalitarian society -- with the major difference being, of course, that no one is in any sort of physical danger. But the whole dynamic is similar: You only get told what upper echelons think you need to know, through official channels. The information that is released is worded vaguely, making heavy use of familiar buzz phrases. If you want to have a clue about what is really going on, you have to become adept at reading between the lines. Sometimes people refer to "receiving intelligence" -- which can be insider information from administration contacts, leaked or purloined documents, or based on stories from Baha'is who are in a bad situation but who must remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. Sometimes disinformation is deliberately spread, usually orally by people who have authority enough to be believed in the community at large -- and since it is "unofficial", then there is always plausible deniability. Disinformation filters through cyberspace too, which is notoriously rumor-prone. And, of course, there is "spin" where facts are twisted in a direction the poster wants them to go, and most difficult of all for me to get used to, outright lies. I 'm not just talking weaselly lies meant to get the teller out of a tight spot, but vicious lies completely invented out of thin air, and intended to wound and/or discredit the victim.

The administration collects information and keeps files on those that it thinks might cause trouble, and in an odd sort of turn-around, most prominent cyberspace dissidents do the same to the administration. Each bit of information has to be weighed and measured for its value and plausibility, whether it comes officially, unofficially, or through one's own contacts. It is difficult to get absolute proof of anything, unless one is lucky enough to get something in documented form -- even then, there can be endless arguments about what such a document means.

Some of it is the result trying to maintain a closed society, where the administration works behind closed doors and has no accountibility to the community. The Internet works as a kind of underground press where the people attempt to make the invisible workings of the administration, which has an impact on real people's lives, visible and comprehensible. And, like the underground press, what you get can be pure gold and a solid revelation of what's going on, or it can be total crap. What happens in Baha'i cyberspace is, after all, a form of politics -- with all the positive and negative things that come along with it.

So how did I get into this? At first, it just came out of my own desire to figure out what had gone wrong with the Baha'i administration. After all, this is my religion, which I committed my life to. Then, I did research for articles. But mostly it came about, just because my name is out there, and disillusioned Baha'is contact me in the expectation that I will be sympathetic. Sometimes people who are afraid to speak want me to speak for them -- and some just want to take advantage of the fact I'm well-known out there. There are times when it all just seems a big headache; there are other times when I've been able to do some solid good for somebody.

At the moment, I'm finding myself hoping there is something out in the wider world that I can get into.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Baha'i Administration Denies Deportation Story

Inquirers asking their NSAs, or other Baha'i officials, about the press release concerning two foreign Baha'is arrested and deported from Iran are being told that the administration knows nothing about these people, and doubts that the story is true. So, at this point, I don't know what to think. Somebody is lying, but I'm not so skeptical of the Baha'i administration that I would think it more untrustworthy than the government of Iran, which is where the story originated. A journalist friend of mine told me that the Iranian government wouldn't hesitate to invent a story out of the whole cloth, where Baha'is are concerned. On the other hand, there were certain details that made the story plausible, and it was reported in the opposition press, who you think would be careful of something likely to be sheer propaganda. The economic assistance outreach to young Iranian Baha'is was very much an "unofficial" program, carried out on the instructions of individual UHJ members -- it may be that the administration as a whole doesn't know about this. If two deported Baha'is arrived in London, after being involved in a "secret mission", so to speak, it might never become generally known, even at the higher levels of the administration. Even the Baha'i administration only knows what is reported to it.

So, folks, take your pick. I've told you all the information I've been given at this point.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Bush's Ethics

This article is a review of a book by Peter Singer, called The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush. Singer examines Bush's ethical decisions from the point of view of different schools of thought and finds him inconsistent from the perspective of all of them. The chilling conclusion:

The conclusion Singer finds most plausible regarding George W. Bush's ethics may be the most disturbing. Singer notes that a high number of key Bush administration officials are disciples of a philosopher called Leo Strauss. Strauss, who taught at the University of Chicago until his death in 1973, argued that many of the great ancient philosophers, particularly the Greeks, wrote in a kind of code. Only a select intellectual elite were capable of absorbing the esoteric meaning latent in the texts, while the hoi polloi took everything at face value. The Straussians believe that the masses are simply not equipped to handle the often-grim truths that underlie political and world affairs (remember the old saying: there are two things you never want to see being made, sausages and legislation). But according to Singer the Straussians go even further, suggesting that sometimes the ‘aristocratic gentlemen' charged with governing a polity lack the sophistication to handle the truth. In such cases the elite advisors must be prepared to mislead not just the masses with noble lies, but also the leader. Singer points out that this might explain why Bush's false assertion that Iraq was trying to acquire uranium from Niger stayed in his State of the Union address while other agencies like the CIA and the State Department regarded it as untrue. It might also explain why Bush appeared on Polish television telling viewers that the U.S. had discovered mobile weapons labs in Iraq, a story disproven weeks before. However, the idea that Bush could claim in the presence of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan that “we gave him [Saddam] a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in,” strikes Singer as almost too bizarre for belief – Bush had, after all, recalled the inspectors himself before their job was completed. Singer goes so far as to speculate that Bush was intoxicated, on drugs, or perhaps out of his mind when he uttered such obviously preposterous statements. But Singer quickly discounts such explanations, finding it far more plausible that the president may in fact be a patsy or a puppet – with the Machiavellians pulling the strings on the man from Mayberry.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Baha'i Deportations from Iran

This article, from *Iran Focus*, has one small but significant difference from the translations of the Fars News Agency article -- this article says that the deported Baha'is had been offering economic incentives for young people to convert, while the other article said only that they had been using business affairs as a cover.

This morning I was told, by a source I trust, that there has been an ongoing effort by individual members of the UHJ, to funnel money from wealthy Baha'is to young Baha'is in Iran for the purpose of setting them up in business, as part of Haifa's policy of discouraging emigration. It is done unofficially, through the London office, and the governing committee of the Iranian community.

I suspect that what has occurred is that some of these young people, of Baha'i background, are actually quite distant from the Faith, and this financial incentive was used to draw them back into the community -- hence the charge that the foreign Baha'is were attempting to convert young Iranians.

The economic situation in Iran, whether one is Baha'i or not, is extremely bleak for young people, with rampant unemployment and attendant social ills -- drugs, promiscuity, depression, abuse -- that Baha'is are not immune from. The burden is made heavier on young Baha'is, both because of the persecution of the government, and the insistence of their religious authorities that they should not leave the country.

I would call the effort to render financial assistance to young Baha'is altruistic, except for the ulterior motive of keeping them in Iran. I am relieved to hear that there probably hasn't been an attempt to prosyletize among Iranians at large -- which quite upset me as being an unnecessary risk to innocent Baha'is over there. That is something that would have been scandalous and controversial enough to explain sudden resignations in the upper levels of the Baha'i administration. However, with this new information, the chances of a connection between this and the recent retirement of Semple and Martin are slight.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Baha'i Missionaries Arrested in Iran

I have now heard, from two different sources, that two foreign Baha'i missionaries, have been arrested and expelled for teaching the Faith in Iranian universities. The story came from the Fars News Agency, and a translation of the article appears here.

It is, of course, a blatant human rights violation, to arrest people for practicing or promoting their religion, and the rights of Iranian Baha'is have been abused terribly -- and that has been the case ever since the revolution in 1979. What is new and shocking about this story is the actions of the Baha'is themselves. I have been told, ever since I became a Baha'i in 1985, that it is absolutely forbidden for Baha'is to teach the Faith to anyone from the Middle East, even those living in the U.S., because it could be dangerous for the friends in those countries. The two arrested do not appear to be independent mavericks (a rare breed among Baha'is anyway), because the article says they are "based in London", which is where the Baha'i Office of Persian and Arab Affairs in located. This office works at the direction of the UHJ, who appoints the liason officer to countries in the Middle East. According to the article, this project has been going on for five years.

There are two rumors associated with this story -- both of which sound plausible, but which I am unable to confirm at this moment. The first is that several Iranian Baha'is have been arrested in connection with this missionary activity. This is certainly very likely; a planned teaching effort coordinated from the outside would depend on help from Iranian Baha'is, and a wider government crackdown would be the expected result.

The second rumor is that yesterday's announcement of the resignations of Ian Semple and Douglas Martin is associated with these arrests i.e. that these two UHJ members, independent of the others, arranged for this dangerous project and have been asked to resign. It is something of a Baha'i myth that decisions can only be made by institutions as a whole and that individual members have no power. UHJ members wield enormous influence, and if one of them called up a Baha'i office anywhere in the world and said "The House wants you to do this", I can't imagine anyone asking for proof that it was indeed a House decision and not just the action of an individual. NSA secretaries have similar power, and commonly act on behalf of the entire body. Anyway, the attitude of obedience that Baha'is have towards their institutions is wide open for abuse that way.

The other factor that makes this plausible is that I know that at least some members of the UHJ harbor a belief that the Baha'i Faith is destined to reform Iran; this has been recently mentioned in a letter to Iranian Baha'is discouraging them from leaving their country. This hasn't been the first statement like that; it seems the UHJ fears that the Iranian Baha'i community will shrink to nothingness, and won't be able to fulfill its prophetic "destiny". This could very well be the motivation behind covert efforts to convert Iranian youth. I know of other policies that have been guided by obscure prophetic expectation -- the impetus behind the extravagant building projects in Haifa was directly connected to a saying of Shoghi Effendi's that their completion would coincide with the Lesser Peace, which was thought to be due in the year 2000. There is nothing in Baha'i scripture that endows the Guardian with perfect prophetic insight, and other predictions of his have failed to occur.

While I may be able to get confirmation of the first rumor, it will probably be well-nigh impossible to get confirmation of the second. If Semple and Martin are resigning over this, it is almost certain that it won't be announced publicly.

The more I think about it, the more plausible this rumor seems to me: Somebody authorized these two Baha'is to coordinate teaching activity in Iran, and that "somebody" had to be at the international level.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Two UHJ Members Resign

The news has just been released that Ian Semple and Doug Martin have resigned from the Universal House of Justice. Semple had been a member since the first election back in 1963, and he really was past due for retirement. Martin's resignation comes as something of a surprise, though, and cyberspace being what it is, that's already a matter for some speculation.

These two gentlemen are not well thought of among the Baha'i intellectual crowd, since they both played a pivotal role in trying to suppress academic views of the Baha'i Faith. Ian Semple was one of the two UHJ members who grilled Denis MacEoin (or, as he put it, played "good cop, bad cop") about his academic writing -- pressure which ultimately led to his withdrawal from the Baha'i Faith in 1980. Semple is also said to have played a role in the Talisman crackdown of 1996, and to be a strong proponent of theocracy.

Juan Cole has written some stuff on the history of Doug Martin, who apparently was calling Juan a covenant-breaker as early as the 1980s.

It is very difficult to verify all but the most basic information on members of the UHJ; most of the information I have about individual members' views ultimately comes back-channel, or from the talks they sometimes give. Before I came onto the Internet, I probably couldn't have named three members of that body. Some Baha'is actually pride themselves on this kind of ignorance, insisting that the actual composition of the House doesn't matter, since it only acts as a body, and its decisions are infallible. However, it is just magical thinking to believe that the attitudes and views of the men serving there don't have any influence on the course the Baha'i Faith takes, or that the House just acts as a kind divine conduit where personalities suddenly cease to exist once consultation begins. I have actually heard this view, though -- I recall a poster saying that it wouldn't matter if the House consisted of nine Westerners or nine Eskimos, the decisions would be the same because they all come from God.

Anyway, the Baha'i World now has the opportunity to choose some better men for the job. One frequently-mentioned area of concern is that, since 1993, all of the members of the UHJ have come from the International Teaching Center -- that is, Counsellors from the appointed wing of the Faith, who very often have a strong "protection" mindset, since that's their job. Before this, members where usually elected from the National Spiritual Assemblies of the larger Baha'i communities. So, a kind of incestuous relationship has been set up, where the UHJ appoints the ITC members, which provides the candidate pool for the UHJ. It amounts to the UHJ members appointing their own successors. Since this issue has been frequently and openly discussed over the past several years on the Internet, I'm hoping that some of the NSA members will reconsider, and break this pattern. We did, in the US, elect some more moderate people to the NSA in recent years, and I'm hoping the same can be done at the international level.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

If I'm Not Blogging, I'm Probably Not Thinking

Or, at least, if I'm not writing, somewhere. That's been the problem all along with maintaining a weblog; it's not the only place I write. It's been a slow weekend. Oh, I posted a little on Beliefnet, and I've had some private correspondence, but overall my brain has been as slow as this month's molasses.

My Unenrolled Baha'i group has been mysteriously shut down in what is probably one of Yahoo's frequent technical difficulties; the message says to contact them if it continues for 48 hours. I'm very proud of that group, which is primarily for the support of disillusioned Baha'is. I pretty much said all I had to say about issues concerning the Baha'i administration, and quite some time ago felt that I was just becoming repetitive, but the need that some folks have out there for support is ongoing. Even if I've heard similar stories, and it's not necessarily new to me, the experience of being able to speak openly to someone about these problems, without fear of somebody putting them down for it, is new and liberating to them. The group has between 100 and 120 subscribers, and there never seems to be a lack of new ones. Besides writing, offering that kind of support is what I do best, and it's one of the things that keeps me out here.

I have noted the creation of weblogs by some of the more radical folks that hang in Baha'i cyberspace, which is all to the good, since these folks like to rant more than they like to converse, and a blog is the perfect place for that.

I was trying to summon up the energy to do a bit on the various protests that are planned for the inaugeration -- which I think are mostly silly. You know, folks, we lost; we can at least be good sports about it. (Just because the Right would have been even nastier if Kerry had won is no excuse.) If one wants to protest against Bush, I can think of better things to do it about than the lavishness of his inaugeration expenditures. My favorite idea comes from
Publius at Legal Fiction
, who plans to mark the day by watching the entire Lord of the Rings series and eating pizza. The picture of the Eye of Sauron atop the White House was a nice touch.

Hoping for better thoughts soon.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Following Orders

Graner is claiming that he followed orders when he was torturing prisoners, and that he complained repeatedly about it. To me, it's important to find out if this is true, and how far up the ladder it went. Was he told just to "soften up" prisoners in a general way, or was he told to do things like make the prisoners masturbate, or to sic dogs on them? Who knew and approved that this was going on? According to the army report, Karpinski didn't have a clue, and it primarily condemns her for negligence, not for approving or encouraging abuse.

I find it hard to believe that Graner was doing this reluctantly; he's just making excuses for himself. Even if he is a fall guy, it's tough to feel sorry for him. If you really feel that something is wrong, then you don't just say "Yes, sir" and keep it going. After all, the whole reason we know about this is that someone with a conscience leaked the photos.

It looks to me like an environment was created where the prison staff felt that they could get away with virtually anything, since these prisoners were supposed to be given a rough time -- and it's that vague green-light that higher-ups should be held responsible for, but they probably won't be.

Word on the street is that
Iraqis feel the sentence was too lenient
, and that he should be on the receiving end of the kind of torture he dished out, or even be given the death penalty. On an emotional level, that's completely understandable, but when law and order reigns, Americans don't get to do stuff like that. Ten years in a military prison is no picnic anyway; I think prisoners still do hard labor in those places.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Reports on Abu Ghraib

Yes, I know the big news today is that Graner was sentenced to ten years for his abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and he's claiming that he was following orders. But my attention was was caught by the report from the Army investigation into the situation. One of the highlights picked out by the Washington Post is the finding that the chain of command was not directly involved in approving the abuse, but "circulated policy memos led indirectly" to abuse.

Gee, Heather MacDonald said those memos were never seen by the folks on the ground and therefore had no influence on what happened. The Army says differently.

The report also says that the abuse was not due to "one single factor", but a combination of problems from "individual criminal propensities" to "dysfunctional relationships among commanders."

The entire report is also available, from which I'll pick my own highlights:

*There is a wide variance in standards and approaches at the various detention facilities.Several Division/Brigade collection points and US monitored Iraqi prisons had flawed or insufficiently detailed use of force and other standing operatingprocedures or policies (e.g. weapons in the facility,improper restraint techniques, detainee management, etc.)

*The management of multiple disparate groups of detained people in a single location by members of the same unit invites confusion about handling, processing,and treatment, and typically facilitates the transferof information between different categories of detainees. [This refers to the fact that common criminals were kept in with those suspected of being terrorists or insurgents.]

*The prison was understaffed, with no procedures for replacing staff.

*Military Police, though adept at passive collection of intelligence within a facility, should not participate in Military Intelligence supervised interrogation sessions. Moreover, Military Police should not be involved with setting "favorable conditions" for subsequent interviews. These actions, as will be outlined in this investigation, clearly run counter to the smooth operation of a detention facility.

*That between October and December 2003, at the Abu Ghraib Confinement Facility (BCCF), numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on several detainees. This systemic and illegal abuse of detainees was intentionally perpetrated. The report then goes into detail about instances of abuse. It includes things approved of by Rumsfeld, like stripping prisoners naked.

*There is a general lack of knowledge, implementation, and emphasis of basic legal, regulatory, doctrinal, and command requirements within the 800th MP Brigade and its subordinate units.

*The handling of detainees and criminal prisoners after in-processing was inconsistent from detention facility to detention facility, compound to compound, encampment to encampment, and even shift to shift.

*Basic Army Doctrine was not widely referenced or utilized to develop the accountability practices throughout the 800th MP Brigade's subordinate units. Daily processing, accountability, and detainee care appears to have been made up as the operations developed with reliance on, and guidance from, junior members of the unit who had civilian corrections experience Of course, we don't, in civilian corrections, do the kind of things that were done there, either -- although I don't doubt that some cops would if they thought they could get away with it. The report also speaks of lack of training and preparation of the staff, generally.

*The Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca detention facilities are significantly over their intended maximum capacity while the guard force is undermanned and under resourced. This imbalance has contributed to the poor living conditions, escapes, and accountability lapses at the various facilities. The overcrowding of the facilities also limits the ability to identify and segregate leaders in the detainee population who may be organizing escapes and riots within the facility. There is a whole section of the report devoted to the problem of escapes at the prison, which is something I wasn't aware of. I do know that an old, inadequate facility contributes to the ease of escape -- we had that both at our county jail and juvenile hall until more modern facilities were built.

* Concerning the officer in charge: BG Karpinski was extremely emotional during much of her testimony. What I found particularly disturbing in her testimony was her complete unwillingness to either understand or accept that many of the problems inherent in the 800th MP Brigade were caused or exacerbated by poor leadership and the refusal of her command to both establish and enforce basic standards and principles among its soldiers. She apparently blames "the ideas" for the abuse on Military Intelligence. However, the person who wrote the report is clearly skeptical of much of what she said to try to excuse herself, and he found no evidence that she did anything either to adequate train her staff, or to prevent or stop the abuse. In fact, she doesn't appear to have even been in contact with them that much. There is a long list of recommendations for disciplinary action against those involved, from Karpinski on down.

A helluva way to run a war -- what a mess!

Friday, January 14, 2005

The Results of Another One of Those Silly Quizzes

Congratulations! You're Sam!

Which Lord of the Rings character and personality problem are you?
brought to you by Quizilla

New Link

I like this group blog, put together by three students in the UCLA history program, each of whom has a different perspective. Besides Chris Bray, who I referred to in my entry on "Here are the type of Conservatives I know", Michael Benson did a good critique of Heather MacDonald's article that I referred to earlier.

Of course, part of what I was doing with MacDonald's article was less a critique, and more an effort to figure out what happened. Once you get past the initial shock, then you have to start putting things together in order to explain it. As time goes by, I find myself more concerned with what happened in Guantanamo than in Abu Ghraib -- as horrifying as that was. But the abuses in Abu Ghraib can be explained by a breakdown in discipline, with untrained people letting their sadistic instincts run free in a situation where they had more prisoners and less supervision than expected, along with the message being passed down that they needed to go beyond Geneva Convention limits with suspected terrorists. (Today's news is that the jury's deliberating on Graner, who is definitely one sick puppy.)

But what's Guantanamo's excuse? I haven't seen a decent explanation for that. MacDonald's article ignores it entirely, even though the abuses went well beyond the kind of "stress techniques" that she was describing. And, as Michael Benson points out, even those techniques, which sound so moderate, can amount to torture if pushed too far. This is supposed to be a well-run prison, with a 1:1 staff-to-prisoner ratio. In some ways, it is scarier to think that a well-disciplined facility, obeying orders, was torturing people than a chaotic place where those soldiers were treating it all like a big, warped party.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

How to Argue Like a Right Wing Pundit

To be scrupulously fair, I probably ought to find the equivalent making fun of how liberal pundits argue; they can get pretty shrill, too. I have no use for anybody, right or left, who can't laugh at themselves a little.

Really, very few people know how to argue well -- although bloggers do much better than email posters, on the whole. The amusing thing is, some of them aren't even aware of it. I don't know how many times somebody will claim to have "proven" something, when they haven't proven it at all. The flip side is to dismiss evidence that you don't like as irrelevant. Denial is an easy technique to pull out of the hat; you can drive your opponent to distraction by resp0nding to everything with "No, that's not true" a dozen times. Then, when you get tired of that, you can go ad hominem.

It's a rare poster that doesn't go the ad hominem route, at least some of the time. Even I have been known to do so in moments of exasperation -- although it is usually of the "go jump in the lake" variety, rather than name-calling. (Yes, I know I called Pipes a crackpot, but I think that's a comparatively mild epithet, considering what he was saying.) Sometimes the technique appears to be to overwhelm with simple nastiness so that the opponent abandons the field and you can declare victory. While there's plenty of nastiness in blogs, at least you don't run into that kind of directed viciousness. I don't think anybody closes up their blog because opponents get mean, but forum posters will frequently decide that an argument turned into a slinging match is not worth their time. Also, the slugfests are shorter-lived on blogs. There may be blogs out there that consist of nothing but attacks; I'm still new to this. But I've seen flame wars on forums last for months or years to the point where there is no substantive argument at all, except about who is the biggest asshole, which is of scant interest to observers.

My favorite comment on ad hominems comes from Michael McKenny, who has long maintained that one should respond to them by thanking the attacker for conceding the superior strength of one's argument. If, after all, they are resorting to personal insult, they probably haven't got anything better to counter you with. But in the heat of the moment, I seldom remember to take that good advice.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Open Arms vs. Moral Purity

I ran into this article, written by a conservative Christian concerned about the lack of morality within the Christian community itself. Well, o.k., one can dismiss this as a Mrs. Grundy-type scolding, but what struck me is that , unlike the Christians who so often present their faith as a matter of just "accepting Jesus into your heart", this guy actually believes that one ought to live it. Not only does he address the familiar bugaboos about sexuality, but laments that Christians also are too often racist, neglect the Biblical injuctions to take care of the poor, and have rates of spousal abuse similar to that in the society at large.

When it comes right down to it, there are very few people who actually try to live what their religion teaches -- simply because it's really difficult to do so. People use religion to feel more secure; struggling with spiritual issues in your own life makes you less so. Religion is a way of giving meaning to your life, and comfort over the rough spots, where true spirituality means that you are constantly measuring yourself against the ideal and are aware of where you are found wanting. For "born-again" Christians, especially, who are certain they are heaven-bound based simply upon belief, there is scant motivation to get serious about changing one's life. (Historically, Christians weren't so certain about getting into heaven; the Puritans used to agonize over whether or not they were of the elect, and most Catholics assumed they'd have to struggle through Purgatory first.)

But, the problem is that most people are not saints, and never will be. If you want your religious community to consist only of those who approach moral perfection, then it will remain very small indeed, and even of those few, some significant portion will not abandon their sinful doings, only keep them secret. The Baha'i community runs into this all the time: Seekers are attracted by the ideals of religious tolerance, then turn tail and run when they discover the strictness of the laws. This is particularly difficult in the case of homosexuality, where it is viewed even by straight people as a form of discrimination to forbid it, especially among the liberal spiritual seekers who are most attracted to the Baha'i Faith. But sometimes it is personal issues: People living together without marriage, or even those who don't want to give up alcohol lose their enthusiasm for the Faith pretty quickly. And so it would happen in the Christian churches, if congregations were taken to task for their lack of chastity and charity; you'd see the pews empty out pretty quickly.

It is the dilemma of every missionary religion: If you want to reach the world(in the sense of humanity), then you can't simultaneously keep the world (in the spiritual sense) out of your faith. Every convert you make brings the world in, right along with him. Maybe he will try to live according to the teachings, and maybe he won't. This applies not only to the obvious sins, but the more subtle ones like spiritual pride and ambition for power that inevitably crop up in religious leadership. One of the great causes of disillusionment in the Baha'i Faith is the discovery that we really aren't all that different in this regard than other religions. You see this, to a lesser extent, in Sider's article; he is pained that Christians aren't doing any better morally than the rest of us.

I think it's a mistake to worry about it; let sinful humanity in, with open arms. In the meantime, each of us, individually, must keep our eyes focussed on what *we* are supposed to be doing. I don't think it does much good to take people to task for this sin or that, but the message does need to be proclaimed that God is easy to please, but hard to satisfy i.e. we don't get to declare our belief, then sit on our laurels, sure that God is just happy as heck with us, as opposed to those awful unbelievers. People need to be taught to take *themselves* to task, to continually measure themselves against the ideals they hold, and realize that they really aren't doing so great. Because none of us are.

Monday, January 10, 2005

A Defense for Torture

A lawyer for Charles Graner, accused ringleader in the Iraq prisoner abuse scandal, on Monday compared piling naked prisoners into pyramids to cheerleader shows and said leashing inmates was also acceptable prisoner control.

I think this guy needs a better lawyer, but I'm glad he doesn't have one. I know that some people are just plain evil, but it still amazes me when I see it.

Emotions Create Decisions

I thought this was interesting. It is fairly common online, for people to claim they are being rational and make their decisions accordingly, when they aren't making any sense at all. People go with their emotions, then make up rational explanations later. In fact, I generally suspect interlocutors that pridefully assert how rational they are of being afraid of their own emotions, and I tend not to believe them anyway, when they say they are only being "logical".

Where rationality comes in handy, in decision-making, is to prevent one's emotions from leading into something really foolish. There are times when I know I have to keep my head in charge, because if I "listened to my heart", I'd end up in a world of hurt. However, if I am dealing with something *wholly* on a rational level, I often end up arguing myself into indecision-- and a lot of the time dealing with something purely on a mental level means mostly that it isn't all that important to me in the first place. There are always two sides to every argument, as the saying goes, and probably more. You risk doing something stupid when you're led by your emotions, but at least you'll do *something*.

Actually, I was just thinking tonight that if one has two choices, one can never go wrong by choosing the most compassionate way -- and that's not necessarily the direction one's emotions will lead. Compassion has nothing to do with sloppy emotion; it means you do the best you can for the other person, given the set of circumstances you are in. Justice and mercy are good guideposts in decision-making, too. Mostly folks do what they want to do, then convince themselves that it's right, or even that God wanted them to do it. Principle is a middle way between cold rationality and hot emotion; it partakes of both.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

The Torture Files

*Time* has a good article about how the loosening of standards for the interrogation of prisoners ended up escalating into torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Here's some selections that I thought were important:

In December 2002, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld signed off on 16 additional measures for use at Gitmo, including stress positions, such as standing for long periods; isolation for up to a month; hooding during transportation and questioning; removal of clothing; and "exploiting individual phobias, e.g., dogs."

In January 2003, owing to concerns from the Navy's top lawyer, Rumsfeld abruptly rescinded his December order, pending a study, and ordered that the tougher measures could only be applied with his approval. Three months later, the study group recommended the use of some of the new interrogation techniques at Guantanamo. Dropped from the list were hooding, nudity and use of phobias. Left in place or added were isolation, giving detainees rations instead of hot meals, sleep deprivation and the use of rapid-fire questions.

Just about everything. Rules that were intended for Guantanamo, where the prisoner-to-guard ratio was 1 to 1, "migrated" during 2003 to Iraq's biggest prison, where the ratio was 75 to 1. Those rules were applied to a prison population that, according to the Schlesinger report, was made up "all too often" of Iraqis who were not valuable targets but bystanders caught in random roundups. Add to that the facts that the Army's intelligence units were poorly trained and badly managed, and the military police units assigned to Abu Ghraib were filled with reservists who showed poor judgment--and some of whom are now the subject of courts-martial.

What it seems like is that these memos were like the camel's nose under the tent i.e., once you are willing to stretch the rules, the door is open, and you can't necessarily control how far it goes. It doesn't seem like a big deal to make a hostile and uncooperative prisoner uncomfortable turning up the temperature in his cell; however, by allowing it, you pave the way to having a prisoner left for so many hours that he is nearly unconscious and pulling his own hair out. Some sleep deprivation makes a prisoner uncomfortable; too much can drive him into madness. Obviously, it wasn't made clear where the line is.

I am not necessarily opposed to making life a bit unpleasant for some of the worst prisoners -- even in our own prisons there are isolation cells, and giving these guys MREs instead of a hot meal doesn't seem excessive. However, even some of the things approved by Rumsfeld, while not precisely torture, certainly are abusive. Stripping a person naked is uncalled-for, especially since it is known that Middle Easterners are particularly modest, and it left prisoners vulnerable to sexual abuse. Hooding is cruel, unless it is only for very short periods. Exploiting a prisoner's known fears can verge on sadism. Heather MacDonald's article describes an interrogation where a prisoner is made to stand, and when he fell, he was just put back into position again. Clearly the interrogator felt this was no big deal, but if a person is falling down from exhaustion, surely the limit has been passed.

But I think the important thing here is that once harsh treatment is considered allowable, an attitude is cultivated that virtually anything is permissible -- whatever the intention was in the first place, clearly they had no control over how far it went.

Iraqi Body Count

A friend of mine was asking today if I knew how many Iraqi civilians have been killed in the current war. I said that I couldn't remember off the top of my head, but I knew of a website that does keep such a tally. It's a lazy Sunday, and rather than look up his email, I'll put the info here -- for him, and whoever else would like to know. The Iraq body count currently stands between 15, 094 and 17, 299.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

How to Interrogate Terrorists

I ran across this article, by Heather MacDonald, which is published by the Manhatten Institute, a conservative think-tank. At first, I was impressed; the article is well-written and well-argued, and could not simply be dismissed as the rantings of another right wingnut.

MacDonald's arguement runs like this: The Pentagon-approved techniques, once believed effective 95% of the time, were not working. First in Afganistan, later in Cuba and Iraq, they found that the various psychological games used to ferret out information simply weren't effective with suspected al-Qaeda prisoners. The frustration about this was where the discussions of the use of "stress techniques" came about. MacDonald denies that this, or the memos trying to find a way around the Geneva Convention led to the abuses that were found in Abu Ghraib and Guanatanamo. In fact, she argues that the Pentagon's reaction to the scandal has now tied the hands of interrogators, who now find it difficult to use even standard methods.

The article gives an interesting history of how the discussion developed -- starting with Afghanistan, where they found that prisoners, some of whom had resistence training, simply refused to cooperate when faced with the familiar psychological techniques, such as "good cop/bad cop" or promises to allow the prisoners to see their families in exchange for cooperation. The prisoners were unruly and contemptuous, even threatening towards, their captors.

So, the decision was made to try to keep them "off-balance" and uncertain about how far the interrogator would go, with a slight breaking of the rules i.e.mild physical contact (like poking or pushing), when would be intimidating to prisoners who have been told that, according to American rules, they cannot be touched. Another rule-of-thumb that evolved was that prisoners could be treated no worse than the Army treated its members, which allowed interrogators to use sleep deprivation, standing for long periods, and other stressing situations that were common in Army boot camp. And, it worked -- prisoners started giving information. But this treatment is against the Geneva Convention, which is where the discussion of how to get arounds its provisions comes from. MacDonald points out that none of the the things, with the exception of the CIAs use of "waterboarding", that so horrified the country about Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo were ever approved. She also points out that interrogators on the scene were not aware of the Justice Department and White House memos.

MacDonald says "the abuse at Abu Ghraib resulted from the Pentagon's failure to plan for any outcome of the Iraq invastion except the most rosy scenario, its failure to respond to the insurgency once it broke out, and its failure to keep military discipline from collapsing". The prisoners at Abu Ghraib weren't even scheduled for interrogation, because they had no valuable information to give. In other words, the abuse wasn't policy; it was part of the general screw-up in the way this war has been carried out.

However, I am puzzled as to why she would characterize the recent FBI memos as merely confirming "that the FBI opposes stress methods" -- unless she considers allowing prisoners to lie for hours in their own excrement an acceptable example. The FBI memos reported other abuses, like sticking a cigarette in a prisoner's ear, that are certainly torture. In fact, MacDonald seems to completely gloss over the known abuses that occurred at Guantanamo Bay, painting a picture of a mild and humane imprisonment for the "worst of the worst" al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners.

While interrogators may have never seen the memos debating whether or not the Geneva Convention had to be followed, I'm not so sure that the attitude that the rules can be bent didn't trickle down in some way from higher up. If the Justice Department didn't approve of using torture, somebody did -- and that somebody must have felt that superiors would turn a blind eye to it. Another thing is that many of the abuses were too deliberate just to be attributed to a breakdown in discipline -- the sexual humiliation, for example, or forcing prisoners to eat pork or drink alcohol -- these are things that were deliberately designed to show contempt for the prisoners' religious beliefs. The whole reason those now-infamous pictures were taken was so they could be used as a threat: "Talk, or we'll show this around your neighborhood." The same types of abuse appeared both in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo -- that wasn't an accident, a spontaneously made-up game by bored and undisciplined soldiers. In fact, when the scandal broke, the story was that this treatment was authorized in order to "soften them up for interrogation" -- a very odd justification for the degrading treatment of prisoners that MacDonald claims were not scheduled for interrogation.

Another point that Grandma, who saw Heather MacDonald interviewed on t.v., made this morning was that she apparantly got most of her information from the interrogators, and the same is true of this article. If she had asked at Abu Ghraib, before the scandal broke, I doubt they would have provided her complete information about what was going on, and would have put the mildest face on it possible. What we have is a complex picture; I'm sure some of the interrogators are telling the truth when they say that they were extremely careful not to stretch the Geneva Convention too far, but obviously this was not true of all interrogators, some of whom are responsible for the abuses.

So Heather MacDonald's article really just amounts to an unusually articulate denial of what has happened. We know that there was abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and it really stretches crudulity too much to claim that this was unknown and disapproved of by upper echelons. The question is how far up did the approval go? We know that pushing past the restraints imposed by the Geneva Convention was allowed, even MacDonald admits that. The question is, how much was officially allowed? And how much were they willing to wink at?

First Mention of UHJ Contribution to Tsunami Relief

This press release, dated yesterday, mentions that "The international governing council of the Bahá'í International Community, the Universal House of Justice, has made a contribution to the United Nations relief efforts, and Bahá'í communities in the countries most affected by the disaster have also made contributions to national relief organizations."

Which is terrific -- it was starting to be an embarrassment, that there was no news, and I wasn't the only one upset by it. I do, however, have some questions.

1. Why is there no reference to this is either the public or administrative websites of the US NSA, or even on the Baha'i News website?

2. What about contributions from the US or Canadian National Spiritual Assemblies?

3. Why is no dollar amount mentioned?

However, all in all, I'm pleased, and glad to have something good to announce for a change.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Have Website, Will Travel

I just discovered that the very first essay I ever wrote on Baha'i issues, my own story of why I resigned membership in the Baha'i Faith appears in a syllabus for a religious studies class on NRMs -- specifically in a unit on leaving these religious groups.

This story was really my first introduction to Baha'i cyberspace; I actually wrote it just to get it out of my system I really had no notion that very many people would read it. My website began as a required project for a computer literacy class I had to take as part of my teaching credential.

But I contacted Juan; he put the story on Talisman and it circulated all over the place. By the time I started posting on talk.religion.bahai, people were already familiar with it.

I still get emails about it sometimes -- which I have mixed feelings about because I've traveled so far since then. It was, after all, written more than five years ago, and people who have just discovered it will write me as if I had just resigned last week. But I suppose that's inevitable; I know I initially formed an impression of Juan based on early stuff he wrote right after his resignation. Life goes on, but what you've said remains in cyberspace forever -- unless you get embarrassed about it and delete it.

I actually don't like deleting my earlier stuff; it has been part of my development, and reflects who I was at the time, even if it looks a little uninformed or simplistic now.

I wonder if any enterprising students in that class took a look around to discover the "story after the story". It is, after all, not really a tale of leaving a New Religious Movement. I left the organization, but maintained belief; I wonder how common that is, or if that's a phenomenon that has been studied.

But, for sure, when you send something out into cyberspace, you never know where it might end up. My story ended up as required reading for Learning Activity #4 in Religion 265.

Tsunami Donations Per Capita

I thought this was interesting -- twenty nations are donating more per capita than the U.S.

Andaman and Nicobar Update

I'm sure glad I posted that letter from the NSA of that island country, because it isn't even listed on CNN's account of the death toll. I did find this story. There was great concern that some of the tribal societies there had been wiped out, but they were shooting arrows at a relief helicopter, which was more a cause of relief than concern. Obviously, if these people can shoot arrows, they have survived.

The other news I found came from the Tsumani help page:

Car Nicobar Island The area around the airfield was the hardest-hit, with an area of approximately 5km of coastline virtually wiped out up to 500m inland. At least one road was destroyed. To the south of the airfield, there was a village that was spared the most severe damage, but a surge reached inland approximately 1km over a stretch 1km wide. The road circling the island was wiped out in an area about 40m long, and damaged along a stretch almost 800m long. There were a dozen small villages along the north side of the island that were damaged. Damage ranged from minimal to severe, depending on their distance from the shoreline. Along the south side of the island and to the southwest, there was evidence that the wave had struck, but not much indication of damage.

The accounts about this island really point up how critical infrastructure is -- the place was devastated, but since they had an airfield there, aid was able to reach them quickly, and it is starting to recover.

Baha'i Recovery Efforts in Andaman and Nicobar Islands

I just found this letter, dated January 5, from the NSA of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands; it appears that the government and NSA are working together on this. The following is an extract of a letter sent to the Universal House of Justice. I have not yet been able to uncover any participation in the relief efforts by the UHJ itself.

We will try to provide you with an update on the current position in our Islands in the aftermath of the Tsumani and earthquake that hit us on 26/12/04. We were not able to send you a report earlier, because communication to most of the Islands had been totally cut off and reports received here did not sound very dependable. Two days ago, a team consisting of 7 of friends (i.e. Baha'is) visited the island of Little Andaman to distribute the relief supplies sent there by the Government. This visit was made at the request of a senior Government Official and 8 members of the Catholic Church were also part of the team. Relief material was distributed and a general survey of a part of the island carried out. The team was able to get an impression and co-relate with the reports that were being received from all over the islands.

As far as I'm concerned, no one deserves our respect more than those who actively work in the relief efforts. All of us can write a check; only a few are able to actually do the hands-on work.

I'm including the rest of the letter as well, since it is a description of how things are going in that country, and this is an area that has not been as much reported on in the press as some others.

The tremor, measuring 8.5 on the Richter scale hit the Islands at 0636 hrs (Indian Standard Time) on 26/12/04 and, although it sent everyone out of their homes, it did not claim any lives but caused some minor damage to properties and buildings.

The Tsunami hit the chain of Islands almost immediately afterwards. The Islands in the Nicobar group have been almost completely devastated. We give you below a picture of the situation island wise:

1. Great Nicobar: The low-lying areas have been totally washed out and all the houses destroyed. The loss of life is approximately 300 but all our believers (Baha'is) are reported to be safe although most of them have completely lost their homes and all their belongings. Road communication in the island has yet to be established.

2. Nancowry group: Here also there has been total destruction in the low-lying areas. We have no report regarding the status of our believers. Loss of life has been great.

3. Car Nicobar: This Island witnessed large-scale destruction of complete villages because it is relatively flat and most of the villages were situated a few meters from the shore. Relief and supplies was very quick in reaching this island because of the presence of the Air Force Base and an airfield. At the time of reporting, life on the island is limping back to normal.

4. Little Andaman: Hut Bay and its surrounding areas have been completely devastated. The friends have lost their homes and all their belongings but all of them are safe. They are at present living on the hillocks in small temporary shelters.

5. South Andaman: There has been relatively little damage in this area although in certain villages the friends have lost their entire crops.

6. Middle and North Andaman: This entire belt has not been affected by the Tsunami.

At the time of reporting the total casualties has been put at 6842 which is 6, 010 missing and 832 dead. Although this figure does not seem very hgh compared to other countries as well as the initial reports that were coming in it amounts to approximately 1.5% of our population.

In this lonesome night of despair our eyes turn toward you beseeching you to offer prayers at the Sacred Threshold that the Blessed Perfection may shower His blessings upon our Community.

I'm going to check the news to see if there are any more recent reports from that country.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Now *Here* are the Kind of Conservatives I Know

So, this caught my eye:

I humbly beg anyone who thinks that Michelle Malkin and Daniel Pipes are "conservatives" -- and that everyone criticizing them are therefore necessarily "leftists" -- to take five minutes and read Barry Goldwater's 1964 acceptance speech to the Republican National Convention.

The difference in vision -- in what constitutes a "conservative" vision -- is profound. Malkin calls for a massive network of federal "internal enforcement agents" and the suppression of local police autonomy in favor of central state control, disloyalty trials (with secret evidence) for internal enemies, and a belief that "civil liberties are not sacrosanct."

Goldwater argued, though imperfectly and with some careful evasions, for freedom, freedom, freedom, and freedom:

And I was corrected by my husband; he isn't a "paleo-conservative", he says, because he's not isolationist. He says he's "Old Right". Besides him, I live in a red county in the rural hinterlands of a blue state, where "constitutionalists" are popular enought to have got one of their number elected as a county supervisor. (She was nutty enough, though, that she was recalled.) Constitutionalists are the folks that think laws that require you to get a dog license are oppressive, and that it's really a military court if a the courthouse flag has a fringe on it. O.K., so that's off the deep end, but the point is that you don't have to be a lefty to be into the rule of law and cherishing civil liberties. My father's side of the family are devout economic conservatives, of the "less taxes and regulation" variety. I was scared to death that one of my kids might let it slip to my grandparents on their last visit that I didn't vote Republican; there was a real possibility of my being disowned. :-) However, my aunt is so enraged by the Patriot Act that she voted Libertarian. (Voting for Kerry was, of course, out of the question.)

Now, I'll admit to drifting further left than any of them, but I was not upset with Pipes and Malkin's vision because of any sort of generally leftist outlook, but because I want folks like them to keep their grimy mitts off my rights and freedoms -- and out of simple fairness, I would expect them to do the same to any other citizen as well.

There was another
in the same blog that mentions just how vague this sort of "increased monitoring" of Muslims they are advocating is. How, exactly, are we supposed to keep an eye on the six million or so Muslims in this country? No matter how you slice it, it still comes back to targetting people who you would have some real reason to suspect -- other than their just being Muslim.

In fact, I ran into a
partial transcript of Pipes' radio interview
, where he complains that at airports they randomly check people that are very low-risk, refusing to go for the people who are more likely to be a danger. Since he admits that Muslims could be of any ethnicity, he apparently wants airline passengers to be grilled about their religious beliefs, and I would assume, anybody who admits to being Muslim to be searched for weapons. Oh, yeah, like any potential terrorist is going to have any compunction about lying about what his religion is.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Pipes, Malkin and Me

Cyberspace is an amazing place. I've just been thinking lately that perhaps, if I want to build a readership, I should focus my blog a bit more -- this mixture of personal rants, political commentary, and religious musings is no way going to be to everyone's taste. Folks that like one aspect are bound to be bored by the others. But then, I enjoy having this space where I just talk about whatever happens to be on my mind at the moment; it's a much freer and broader experience that what I've had on the various groups I've posted on.

When I came home from work today, I found that my counter had gone sharply up. I thought maybe folks who have known me in Baha'i circles have caught onto the fact that I'm posting more regularly on my weblog and have decided to check it out. But, lo and behold, when I checked at Technorati, I found that Michelle Malkin, a conservative political commentator had linked to my article about Daniel Pipes and his enthusiastic support for targetting Muslims as a securty threat. She thinks I'm a "smear merchant".

I can't possibly be insulted by that. Her blog appears in the top 100 at Technorati, and if she sees a reason to link to my little blog that only makes an occasional foray into politics, I can't help but see it as a back-handed sort of compliment. If Daniel Pipes is wounded because a substitute teacher from the hinterlands thinks he's a crackpot, then he's a bit too thin-skinned to be making political commentary. People have called me worse things, and I'm only a "public" figure on a small circle of email lists. It's the price of taking a stand.

And I did *not* say that he advocated the rounding up of Muslims into concentration camps; I thought that upon the first reading of his article, but then about an hour later realized he didn't precisely say that in so many words, and I re-wrote my blog entry and had to sacrifice some great firey rhetoric in order to produce a more accurate version -- and I presume, since Malkin's article is dated today, that it is the revised version she saw.

However, when Pipes, in one breath says that we need to be able to target Muslims because they are threat to national security, then in the next quotes from Malkin's book about Japanese internment camps to provide an example of how such targetting was successfully and justifiably done, then it just seems a bit odd to go into all kinds of outrage because people have the impression that Pipes thinks locking up Muslims would be a good idea. Personally, I'm not all that convinced that either he or Malkin thinks it a *bad* idea. If, after all, "civil liberties are not sacrosanct", presumably any measure thought to be necessary for our security is not beyond consideration, no matter how brutal or unjust to the innocent. That's not the kind of country I want to live in. YMMV.

Top-Secret Charity and Other Tall Tales

Life has gotten back to the old back-to-school, back-to-work routine, with my online time limited accordingly. I've been subbing in a fourth-grade class; the word "orphan" came up as a vocabulary word and I used brought up the children orphaned by the tsunami disaster as an example. Immediately, the kids piped up with reports of what their family members were doing to help. I don't think I've ever seen anything like this, where there has been such an outpouring of charity, so much talked about.

What little online time I've had has been spent over on Beliefnet, where I started a thread initially to get information on what, if anything, the Baha'i administration is doing to help, because I sure haven't been able to find anything. The up side has been that I have run into other Baha'is who are very disappointed in the lack of response. Then you've got your cynical types who say "Of course, the s.o.b's won't do anything." Of course, the AO-defenders swing into operation. First they say that the Baha'is are being "encouraged" to help -- well, I think the NSA letter stops a little short of "encouragement", but at least that's a statement close to the ballpark.

Next, I'm being told that the UHJ is helping, it just isn't talking about it. I've been a Baha'i for almost 20 years, and I've never known a Baha'i body, from top to bottom that wouldn't jump at the chance for positive publicity. Besides, it's tough to see charitable activity as being a top-secret operation, especially when the press releases of most churches in the country are full of news about what they are doing for the relief effort. But I am, apparently, a bad girl for not just "having faith" that funds from Haifa are being secretly funnelled over there.

Then there is the old song-and-dance about how desperately low on money the administration is. Well, I don't know any religious organization that is absolutely rolling in the dough, but most of them are contributing and actively raising funds for the relief effort. It was suggested that the latter would be the prohibited "solicitation of funds", but I can't see where it would be any different from the endless appeals to contribute to the Baha'i funds that all enrolled Baha'is are subject to. Both the American NSA and the UHJ are multi-million dollar organizations, and they can't spare anything for the hundreds of thousands left homeless and vulnerable by the tsunami. Yeah, and I've got a bridge to sell.

There was also the idea floated that since the Baha'i Faith has no clergy, they can't tell us what to do. They "tell us what to do" with every Plan they come out with, what would be the difference now?

The most ridiculous argument of all is that the administration *can't* spend funds on charity, because it is meant only for Baha'i administrative purposes. 'Abdu'l-Baha' was knighted by the British for his charity during WWI, and Shoghi Effendi directed the LSAs of Iran to establish charitable funds -- and all of a sudden charity is not considered a legitimate use of Baha'i Funds? Care for the poor is commanded in scripture.

Then, if all else fails, bring out the ad hominems -- it is impossible for me to actually care about something; it's just that I get a kick out of bashing Baha'i institutions. Let's see -- the leadership of my religion has not bothered to do anything about the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time, and there's not supposed to be anything to critique here? This gives me no joy; I really was hoping that somebody would point me towards information about what they are doing.

This is why I've largely given up arguing with Baha'i fundamentalists; the only reason I'm doing it now is because this issue is important to me. Service to mankind is fundamental to the message of Baha'u'llah, and if the administration refuses to be of service now, exactly when does it plan on doing so?

Waves of Prayer

Baha'is are forwarding requests through email to recite the Tablet of Ahmad at 7 p.m. on Sunday, January 9, for the victims of the tsunami. It has also been suggested that we recite the verse from the Kitab-i-Aqdas for fearful natural occurances: Dominion is God's, the Lord of the seen and unseen, the Lord of Creation.

Just passing that on.

Monday, January 03, 2005

To Heck With 'Em

I'm shy of time today, so I'll just repeat my post today on the thread on Beliefnet's Baha'i Debate board:

Actually, M., I don't think getting ordinary Baha'is to cough up their $20 is a problem; it looks to me like that's happening. It's getting upper echelons to come up with their $20,000 or $200,000 or $2 million.

Yeah, it does seem silly that some folks feel the need to check it out with the NSA first -- although I suspect some of those letters were asking if there was going to be any specifically Baha'i fundraising effort. But, Baha'is *are* responding, and that's the important thing. We can't do a whole lot about what the NSA or UHJ decides to do. We can, however, decide for ourselves, and recommend projects at the local level. If the upper levels of the administration want to sit on their hands, let 'em -- show them what Baha'is can do without them. Bring it up at Feast and LSA meetings; do some local fundraising; connect with other local organizations that are helping. Or just mail in your $20 check, and try to get your LSA to send $100. All of us can do something.

When I asked for some evidence that the Baha'i institutions are doing something, someone sent me this link. It's a lovely web presentation encouraging folks to donate to the tsunami relief effort. However, I couldn't find out who sponsored this; the return email is to a private individual, and I could find no reference anywhere to any Baha'i insitution, which would be unusual if it was instititutionally-sponsored. I asked for more info, but haven't received it, yet. And, quite frankly, blogs all over cyberspace have links to relief agencies and have been calling for folks to donate; if all that's being done is a website, no matter how well it pulls at the heartstrings, that's really not all that impressive. Just the news out there is pulling at heartstrings of people all over the world, and one can hardly run into a prominent weblog that doesn't have a link to relief agencies.

Anyway, I think it's great that individual Baha'is and local communities are responding to the disaster. If the Baha'i administration thinks it can't afford to spare a donation to help in the biggest natural disaster to befall our fellow human beings in our lifetime, then, to heck with 'em. Baha'is can join the world relief effort without them.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Still Waiting for Response from Haifa

This morning, on
Baha'i Beliefnet
somebody said they were "confident" that the Baha'i institutions were responding to the disaster in South Asia, and that they had a "good record" in this area. I'm not convinced of either one.

I received a press release from the Baha'i World News Service this morning, and the big story is about the golden anniversary of the Faith in Burundi; this is the first news that's come out since the tsunami. If the UHJ is doing anything, it sure is keeping it quiet. So far, I haven't even seen a statement of condolences or anything.

Tsunami News Updates

Here's a weblog that is what it says, and is worth checking out.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Little Shop of Horrors

[Warning: This is a personal rant; if you want insight,wisdom, or serious news, you'd better skip on down to earlier entries.]

Remember the recommendation to the sadist, in the musical Little Shop of Horrors? "Be a dentist!"

I hate dentists -- actually I hate doctors in general, but dentists have my particular ire. My husband, Jim, just says I have a problem with authority figures. Mostly, it's because I don't like being messed with, or being lectured, and when I go to visit a medical person, I have to submit to both, and pay for the privilege. I also object to a lot of unnecessary follow-up i.e. your kid is given antibiotics for his earache, and after that is complete you are supposed to go back to the doctor so he can look in the kid's ear and say "Yep, the infection's gone.", when you know that already, because you have a well child.

That's just one example -- it just seems like a whole lot more medical care is considered necessary than once was the case. I can't remember seeing a dentist before I was eleven -- now they want you to bring your four-year-old, who has to be sent to a special children's dentist because the whole experience is so scary and they won't sit still. That means, in a rural area, an out-of-town trip, and when our kids were little, we were a one-car family, so that was a major inconvenience. And you are a bad parent if you don't do it. Medical people always act like you have infinite leisure and money to do this stuff.

Before I had kids, I had excellent teeth. That first dentist visit when I was eleven found me cavity-free. I got some through my teens and 20s, but not very many. Then, when my babies were born, it became difficult to go to the dentist -- I discovered from experience that bringing a toddler with you is a bad idea, and I didn't always have babysitting. So, I put it off. I had what I thought was some tooth sensitivity, that I ignored. I have a history of tooth sensitivity, which is made worse by the fact I grind my teeth at night. Finally, by time I went back, one tooth had a deep cavity that required a root canal.

The root canal was a harrowing experience, partly because I had a cold and couldn't breathe well --it left me shaking and sick, and I had to call my husband to take me home. (The large doses of antibiotics I was given after, though, cleared my sinuses within a day.) Then it took four follow-up visits to complete the operation; my late mother-in-law shook her head, sure I was being ripped off. I changed dentists eventually, because he kept telling me I had gum problems and made me come back every three months. I now see a dentist who really is a very nice man-- except for his being a dentist. He doesn't make me come back every three months to have my gums looked at.

However, several years later, the root canal abscessed -- all those multiple trips still failed to get all the tissue out of there. My dentist kind of wanted me to go to an endodontist, but I preferred simply to have the tooth pulled, and swore then and there that if I ever had a tooth go bad again, I would never get another root canal, but simply have the thing pulled. My regular dentist put a bridge on, which is excruciating on my sensitive teeth when he paints the glue on there -- but, as I am told, you have to have a bridge or your teeth get out of alignment. Most older people I know find that notion ridiculous; in their day, dentists didn't make you get bridges. You just waited until you had enough teeth pulled so you could get false teeth. Grandma swears that the teeth around her bridgeless gap haven't budged at all.

That's not the end of the story: My dentist had made my bridge out of some snazzy new material that, as it turned out, wasn't so snazzy, because it deteriorated. He built me, for free, another bridge, but I still had to deal with getting glue painted on my teeth. This second bridge, practically from the time I got it, was loose on one side, but I was damned if I was going to go back and face the glue brush again -- I'd already done it twice. So, I waited until the bridge came completely off, which it did last summer.

The tooth underneath the loose end of the bridge was very badly decayed, but the dentist thought he could probably fix it and put a bridge on it without needing to do a root canal. The bad news was we'd have to pay out of pocket for the new bridge, because we'd reached our limit with both the insurance and the dental credit card. I really didn't want another bridge; I'd had it with the whole mess, but this bad tooth would have to be capped somehow or it would hurt, so I consented, and paid the $2600. (It was a sheer stroke of luck I had the money; I couldn’t do it now.) He gave me Valium to get through the long procedure of getting rid of the decay on the bad tooth and affixing the bridge. I'm a very bad dental patient.

It turned out that this tooth was a very close call, with a better-than-average chance of abscessing -- my dentist, who is a devout Seventh Day Adventist advised me to pray that it didn't. "Literally, pray", he said, to emphasize that he was quite serious about getting God to personally preserve the health of my tooth.

Because if this tooth goes bad, it means another root canal. I said, absolutely not, it was a root canal that landed me in this ridiculous mess in the first place. With my hard-earned wisdom I consider my decision to allow a root canal instead of getting that first tooth pulled one of the worst of my life; second-worst was ever getting a bridge. He says I have to have a root canal; to pull the tooth means the bridge which I just paid cold, hard cash for would have to be taken off, and couldn't be replaced. A root canal could be done through the bridge by a very nice out-of-town specialist, and my devout dentist said, that root canals almost never go bad, and that I'd just had an unusally bad experience. I think I just have unusually difficult roots; unless my mother-in-law was right and the first dentist was ripping me off. Besides, if root canals go bad so rarely, what keeps these endodontists in business?

The tooth under the new bridge has never stopped hurting. The pain can be usually be controlled by analgesics, but I've had to take them nearly every day. Lately, I feel discomfort deeper in my jaw, and I'm very afraid this tooth isn't going to make it. It's January; the insurance will now pay, and I have the choice between throwing away a $2600 bridge and having a root canal, which will require multiple follow-ups to an out-of-town dentist, loss of work, and the possibility that it will go bad and I'll have to have it pulled anyway -- although I suspect my dentist would try mightily to get me to the endodontist first, in order to save the bridge. I’m way past the point of taking the dentist’s advice and hoping things will be o.k.; I just want it to end.

I’ve spent a decade, a lot of pain, and thousands of dollars -- and the more I get worked on, the worse things get. Hmm -- years ago I had a copy of Jeanne Rose’s Herbal; she cured a tooth abscess with garlic. She didn’t like dentists, either. It’s worth a shot.

Baha'i Administration Response to Disaster

I've been sending queries out about what response the Baha'i institutions have had to the tsumani disaster in South Asia. So far, all I've got is this letter from the US NSA:

December 28, 2004

Dear Friends,

The National Spiritual Assembly has received requests for guidance
from many Friends who wish to make donations to organizations that are
helping with relief efforts in Asia, following the recent devastating
earthquake and tidal waves. Individuals and Local Spiritual Assemblies
may wish to consider making donations to relief organizations. Below
is an illustrative list of organizations that are directly involved
with the relief efforts:

American Red Cross: 1-800-HELP-NOW,

Direct Relief International: 1-805-964-4767,

Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres: 1-888-392-0392,

Mercy Corps: 1-888-256-1900,

Operation USA: 1-800 678-7255,

Unicef: 1.800.4UNICEF,

The Friends should not feel obligated to contribute to these
organizations, and are of course free to choose who they send their
money to.

With loving Bahá'í greetings,

Office of External Affairs
The National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United

Several things strike me about this:

1. The response is pretty lukewarm; Baha'is are not encouraged to donate, they are "allowed" to. I suspect, knowing Baha'i culture, that they fear any stronger wording than that would be taken as an order.

2. The idea of "requesting guidance" before doing humanitarian aid is normal for Baha'is, but downright weird for anybody else. However, I think at least some of those letters were inquiring if there was going to be any specifically Baha'i disaster relief fund.

3. The NSA does not appear to have any intention of sending its own donation, leaving it up to Baha'i individuals and Local Spiritual Assemblies.

Now, I'm very aware that many ordinary Baha'is have been quite concerned about this disaster and have generously contributed to relief efforts and encouraged others to do so. I have said for a long time that there is a strong charitable impulse among Baha'is which often does not find outlet through the religious organization. I hope all Baha'is everywhere get involved in the humanitarian relief efforts and encourage their local communities to do so.

I am still waiting for any sort of response to the disaster from Haifa.

Compassion Deficit

According to Bill Berkowitz, at Working for Change, the Christian Right websites are strangely silent about the tsunami disaster. He says:

These powerful and well-funded political Christian fundamentalist organizations appear to be suffering from a compassion deficit. Organizations which are amazingly quick to organize to fight against same-sex marriage, a woman's right to choose, and embryonic stem cell research are missing in action when it comes to responding to the disaster in southern Asia. None of their web sites are actively soliciting aid for the victims of the earthquake/tsunami.

I should emphasize, however, that evangelical churches -- in fact, all kinds of churches, have responded to the disaster much as just about everyone else has, with concern and calls for donations. A couple of years ago I got the notion it would be good to subscribe to religion newsletters -- and my email got passed around to several of these, but I get far more than I can read, and found it a real struggle to get my name off of them. However, it's clear from the subject lines that the disaster has caught their attention. But not much of a response from the Christian political groups, it looks like.

I have not yet heard of any response from the Baha'i administration yet. Please, somebody, tell me there is one.