Livin' it up, American style

Friday, February 23, 2007

Maybe Nancy Pelosi is secretly a member of al-Qaeda?

Vice-president Dick Cheney has been claiming this past week that Nancy Pelosi's position on the Iraq war benefits al-Qaeda. He was referring to attempts by Pelosi and other House Democrats to register opposition to the recently announced troop surge. The opposition measures include a non-binding resolution (which passed the House on Feb 16), and increasing restrictions on funding for the war. But Cheney thinks that advocating for less troops or a withdrawal from Iraq is admitting defeat to al-Qaeda, by showing that their campaign of violence succeeded in scaring America away.

Unfortunately, the vice president's reasoning is misguided propaganda (what? Cheney engaging in misguiding propaganda? that's so.......typical). First off, I'm a little confused at the idea that drawing down troops from Iraq would mean a victory for al-Qaeda. Despite the publicity of false evidence to the contrary, al-Qaeda did not have operations in Iraq prior to the 2003 US invasion. Let me repeat that-Saddam Hussein was not working with al-Qaeda operatives, and al-Qaeda had a very small presence in Iraq under Saddam's authoritarian regime. Saddam was a Shi'ite heading a secular government, al-Qaeda is a Sunni Islamist organization. Those two things don't mix well, and with Saddam's tight grip on his nation, al-Qaeda wouldn't have found it easy to establish a presence undetected.

In fact, it has only been since the US invaded Iraq, deposed Saddam, and watched the country dissolve into chaos and civil war that al-Qaeda has managed to establish itself as one of the leading terrorists groups in the region. The real victory for al-Qaeda was when the US rushed to dethrone Saddam and created a war zone that is the perfect breeding and recruiting ground for terrorists. Leaving American troops in Iraq in order to make the point that al-Qaeda has not 'won' will only lead to more US and Iraqi deaths by leaving the troops in a place where they make an easy and obvious target for insurgents and terrorists.

I also don't know how passing a non-binding resolution in the US House will somehow 'embolden' al-Qaeda. I just can't really picture a bunch of young Arab men with AK-47's huddled around the TV watching al-Jazeera and then giving each other big high fives when they hear that the House of Representatives doesn't think the US should send more troops. Heck, I think hearing that America is increasing troop populations would be more of an 'emboldener', spurring the insurgents to work even harder at recruiting and bombing and buying weapons. If your enemy starts building up their forces, you sure better respond by improving your own forces too. But hey, at least America is winning the moral victory here, by showing that even if a hundred thousand troops and Iraqi civilians have to die, nothing is going to scare us away from promoting peace in Iraq.

Friday, February 16, 2007

NASCAR cheaters, another Middle Eastern war, it's all in a day's news.

Just when you thought the use of illegal steroids and performance enhancers couldn't get any more rampant among American athletics, a new scandal pops up. This time, the 'athletes' involved are some of NASCARS biggest names- including Jeff Gordon and Michael Waltrip. This weekend is NASCAR'S most famous event, the Daytona 500. After one of the races qualifying runs, an illegal additive was found in the fuel of Waltrip's Toyota, specifically in his intake manifold. Think steroids for car engines. He was docked 100 championship points, and his crew chief was fined and suspended.

Jeff Gordon, probably the most recognizable NASCAR driver, (that guy in the orange suit on every other Pepsi vending machine), is in trouble because his car was found to be almost one inch too low. Evidently this is illegal in NASCAR, though I have no idea why. Four other drivers were also charged with lesser violations recently. First corked bats, then Barry Bonds, then Floyd Landis, and now NASCAR drivers. Next thing you know, the president of the United States will start cheating and lying to...uhh...oops.

Continuing our fight for peace
The Bush administration has been actively excoriating Iran lately, over more than just their nuclear program. On Wednesday Bush said that groups in the Iranian government were responsible for giving Shiia rebels in Iraq roadside bombs that were used in a recent attack that killed American troops. Bush admitted he did not know if these bombs were distributed at the direction of the top echelon of the Iranian government, even though a top Defense Department analyst claimed it was so the previous week. All this confusing talk resembles a few years ago when Bush was building his case for war against Iraq, using what we now know was faulty evidence to justify the invasion based on the presence of WMD's. The Bush administration denies it is planning to attack Iran, but I wonder then why they are so determined to keep showing the public how Iran is responsible for some of the violence in Iraq. Why weren't they so enthusiastic in displaying how Saudi Arabia was responsible for producing most of the 9/11 bombers? Bush clearly intends to do something about Iran, but with an already overextended military, his choices may be limited.

I tried to find some funny news to write about, but everything today seemed kind of gloomy. But here's a link to a great website- Cute Overload. I especially recommend the pictures of kittens and hedgehogs.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Will she be leaving on a jet plane?

There's been a big hullabaloo about Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi asking for a large, luxurious Air Force plane to fly her and her family and friends non-stop between DC and California. According to some conservative spinmasters, this plane would hold 40-some people and have a crew of 16, which is an obvious reflection of how out of touch the wealthy and spoiled Pelosi must be with the common middle-class person. But this story is really just a prime example of how easily news stories can get exaggerated and spun to serve an agenda.

First off, conservatives are leaving out the little detail that former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, a Republican, also used a big Air Force plane to travel between DC and his home district of Illinois. Not because he didn't like to fly commercially, but as a security measure enacted after 9/11. After all, the Speaker of the House is 3rd in line for the presidency after the Vice President. It's not like Pelosi suddenly decided she wanted to have her own tax-payer funded private jet; it just happens to be a perk of this dangerous job, no matter which party is in power.

It is also a security concern that her plane be able to fly non-stop to California and not have to stop somewhere for refueling along the way. This is where some of the controversy has arisen. Apparently, California is a little further away from DC than Illinois is, so in order to fly non-stop to California (like Hastert used to fly non-stop to Illinois), Pelosi needs a bigger plane. I don't know a lot about planes, but seems kind of obvious to me that a bigger plane would have a bigger fuel tank, just like cars do.

Another perk of being a congressperson is the House Members' Representational Allowance. This fund pays for congressional travel to and from DC and the member's home district. So if someone were to be outraged that Pelosi gets to travel across country on the taxpayer's dime, then they need to be outraged at all 535 members of Congress. Also note that only congresspeople get to fly for free; if Pelosi wanted to shuttle around family and friends, she would have to reimburse the Air Force for their travel costs.

There's also the very important point that Pelosi did not actually request the use of this military plane; it was Bill Livingood, the House sergeant at arms. He put in the request for a larger plane that could fly non-stop for security reasons. It wasn't even Pelosi who requested a bigger plane! She actually said she would be willing to fly commercial if the Air Force didn't have a plane that could get her coast to coast. Even the White House came out defending her, with Press Secretary Tony Snow calling the story 'silly' and saying that Pelosi is 'entitled to military transport.' Yet this mostly mundane story has still been all over the news the past few days because of the creative way it was twisted to sound so juicy and negative.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Megachurches making mega-mistakes.

When driving into Memphis from the east on I-40, one sees the normal fast food restaurants, hotels, and strip malls. But among these trappings of suburbia rises something you don't see in every town, 3 gigantic white crosses. And I mean gigantic, you couldn't miss these crosses if you were blind. These crosses mark the site of the
Bellevue Baptist megachurch, which currently has 27,000-30,000 members, making it one of the largest churches in America.

But like numerous other churches in America, Bellevue is suffering from a scandal relating to some of its ministers. A man who had been a pastor and staffer for 34 years was placed on administrative leave on December 18, and the reason why has just become public. He had sexually abused his young son back in 1980's. In June of 2006, he and his wife had gone to the head pastor and he admitted the abuse and said he was attending counseling. But it was not until December that the head pastor decided that maybe this other pastor should go on administrative leave. There have been demands for the head pastor to resign, not only over this issue, but accusations of mismanagement of church money and a consolidation of pastoral authority.

There are many aspects of this news to get upset over, such as the head pastor's very questionable decision to wait 7 months before placing the offending pastor on leave. There is also the issue of lack of transparency regarding the governance of the church, as the people of the church did not find out for a month and a half why this particular pastor had been placed on leave. Then there is the issue of how someone can preach about morality and forgiveness, while having committed a transgression much worse than most of his congregates ever will, and waiting 20 years before confessing.

But I want to touch on the increasing frequency of news stories such as this chronicling the downfall of priests and pastors in churches across America. There are the high profile ones, like Ted Haggard, and various priests and bishops in numerous dioceses of the Catholic Church, and the lesser known instances like this Memphis church. I guess I could pontificate on how sad it is that these scandals seem to be happening more often lately, as though people are becoming more degenerate as time goes on. But instead I want to focus on the positive thing about these scandals, and that's the fact that we're even hearing about them at all. It shows that churches are less likely and less able to sweep dirty incidents into an abandoned closet. Hypocrisy among ministers who rail against people who are gay, then visit male hookers is no longer going to be ignored (Ted Haggard). You can't transfer a priest to a new parish and hope his child molestation problem will just end, unless you want to get hit with some lawsuits. (perhaps America's litigious society has a positive side?)

I think it's good that these stories get out, and causes people to reexamine their own beliefs, and challenge the organizational structure of their church. In response to the scandal at Bellevue, a group of church members formed a non-profit group with the aim of restoring more control of the church to the congregation. A more decentralized church government will allow increased participation by a wider group of people, instead of concentrating all church power in the hand of one or two people. Often these people may become more concerned with maintaining their own power and avoiding any scandal, instead of doing what the congregation would want. A governing body that has concentrated, centralized power may be the most efficient kind, but when it deals with the issues of people's faith- openness, participation, and understanding should be the leadership's role. If more churches reexamine the way they distribute power and authority to their leadership, and decide to create a more democratic system, then some small good will have come from these scandals.