Monday, November 26, 2007

The history of marriage

A fascinating article by Stephanie Coontz of the International Herald-Tribune ( discussing how the concept of the marriage license - the state-sanctioning of a marriage - is a relatively new concept. Born in the 16th century, it's initial purpose was to prevent marriages between children to whom their parents did not approve. Currently, the purpose is intended to be to determine who dependents are for support purposes. But with the rise of cohabitation, the author argues forcefully that the purpose of the license has outlived itself.

It's a great piece to rebut the "marriage is unchanging" argument from the hard Right about gay marriage. Always that pesky history making things difficult for the Pavlovian-like denizens of the extremes.


Why do people - gay or straight - need the state's permission to marry? For most of Western history, they didn't, because marriage was a private contract between two families. The parents' agreement to the match, not the approval of church or state, was what confirmed its validity.

For 16 centuries, Christianity also defined the validity of a marriage on the basis of a couple's wishes. If two people claimed they had exchanged marital vows - even out alone by the haystack - the Roman Catholic Church accepted that they were validly married.

In 1215, the church decreed that a "licit" marriage must take place in church. But people who married illicitly had the same rights and obligations as a couple married in church: Their children were legitimate; the wife had the same inheritance rights; the couple was subject to the same prohibitions against divorce.

Not until the 16th century did European states begin to require that marriages be performed under legal auspices. In part, this was an attempt to prevent unions between young adults whose parents opposed their match.

By the 1920s, 38 states prohibited whites from marrying blacks, "mulattos," Japanese, Chinese, American Indians, "Mongolians," "Malays" or Filipinos. Twelve states would not issue a marriage license if one partner was a drunk, an addict or a "mental defect." Eighteen states set barriers to remarriage after divorce.

In the mid-20th century, governments began to get out of the business of deciding which couples were "fit" to marry. Courts invalidated laws against interracial marriage, struck down other barriers and even extended marriage rights to prisoners.

But governments began relying on marriage licenses for a new purpose: as a way of distributing resources to dependents. The Social Security Act provided survivors' benefits with proof of marriage.

Employers used marital status to determine whether they would provide health insurance or pension benefits to employees' dependents. Courts and hospitals required a marriage license before granting couples the privilege of inheriting from each other or receiving medical information.

In the 1950s, using the marriage license as a shorthand way to distribute benefits and legal privileges made some sense because almost all adults were married. Cohabitation and single parenthood by choice were very rare.

Today, however, possession of a marriage license tells us little about people's interpersonal responsibilities. Half of all Americans aged 25 to 29 are unmarried, and many of them already have incurred obligations as partners, parents or both. Almost 40 percent of America's children are born to unmarried parents. Meanwhile, many legally married people are in remarriages where their obligations are spread among several households.

Using the existence of a marriage license to determine when the state should protect interpersonal relationships is increasingly impractical. Society has already recognized this when it comes to children, who can no longer be denied inheritance rights, parental support or legal standing because their parents are not married.

As Nancy Polikoff, an American University law professor, argues, the marriage license no longer draws reasonable dividing lines regarding which adult obligations and rights merit state protection. A woman married to a man for just nine months gets Social Security survivor's benefits when he dies. But a woman living for 19 years with a man to whom she isn't married is left without government support, even if her presence helped him hold down a full-time job and pay Social Security taxes. A newly married wife or husband can take leave from work to care for a spouse, or sue for a partner's wrongful death.

But unmarried couples typically cannot, no matter how long they have pooled their resources and how faithfully they have kept their commitments.

Possession of a marriage license is no longer the chief determinant of which obligations a couple must keep, either to their children or to each other. But it still determines which obligations a couple can keep - who gets hospital visitation rights, family leave, health care and survivor's benefits. This may serve the purpose of some moralists. But it doesn't serve the public interest of helping individuals meet their care-giving commitments.

Perhaps it's time to revert to a much older marital tradition. Let churches decide which marriages they deem "licit." But let couples - gay or straight - decide if they want the legal protections and obligations of a committed relationship.

Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history at Evergreen State College, is the author of "Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage."

Monday, November 19, 2007

Buffett defending the estate tax

Boy, you don't see this every day. Warren Buffett, mega-rich investor, appeared before Congress to advocate KEEPING the Federal estate tax, calling the "death tax" moniker and all of the rhetoric surrounding it for the bollox that it is.

Good for him. Here's a guy that would directly benefit from the estate tax going away, but he's standing up and telling Congress to keep it in place, and telling the Republicans to stop lying about it to the American people.

Thanks to Chuck Collins of AlterNet ( for a great post on the topic.


Billionaire Warren Buffett testified before the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday in defense of the federal estate tax, the nation's only tax on inherited wealth.

Buffett invoked the historical roots of the estate tax, established in 1916 during the Gilded Age to put a brake on anti-democratic concentrations of wealth and power. "Dynastic wealth, the enemy of meritocracy, is on the rise," Buffett told the panel. "Equality of opportunity has been on the decline. A progressive and meaningful estate tax is needed to curb the movement of a democracy toward plutocracy."

As a result of the 2001 Bush tax cut, the federal estate tax is being phased out and in 2010 will be completely repealed for one year. But the entire tax bill sunsets in 2011, and unless Congress takes action, the estate tax will return. The votes no longer exist for "permanent repeal," so a compromise lies ahead.

Wealthy individuals and tax cutters have always disliked the estate tax, which they labeled the "death tax." In the mid-1990s, a group of superrich families began funding organizing efforts to abolish the tax, culminating with the passage of the 2001 legislation.

For the last decade, conservative tax cutters working to abolish the tax have had the upper hand, beating up Democrats for supporting a tax that they alleged "destroy family farmers and small businesses." They put forward these farmers and small business owners as the public face of their campaign, even though research and investigative reporting have vanquished these charges. Tom Buis, president of the National Farmers Union, representing 250,000 farmers, complained, "Family farmers and ranchers are insulted by those who use farmers as the reason for eliminating estate taxes, when the real beneficiaries are the nation's multimillionaires."

After a decade of false accusations and innuendo, Wednesday's hearing was the first opportunity to set the record straight as to who pays the estate tax, how much revenue it generates and why we should retain it. Senate Finance Chair Max Baucus, D-Mont., a supporter of abolishing the tax, conceded that the "99 times out of a hundred, the tale is worse than the tax."

Republican Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, complained that "the death tax" was "fundamentally wrong." Buffett responded that use of the phase "death tax" was "intellectually dishonest" and "clever, Orwellian and dead wrong."

Buffett pointed out that tax cuts of the last decade have enabled the superrich, including himself, to get richer. "Tax-law changes have benefited this superrich group, including me, in a huge way. During that time the average American went exactly nowhere on the economic scale: He's been on a treadmill while the superrich have been on a spaceship."

Buffett noted that only one in 200 households in the United States pays the tax, and they are exclusively multimillionaires and billionaires. "Leona Helmsley's dog, Trouble, reportedly is inheriting $12 million," Buffett quipped. Without an estate tax, "Trouble could instead receive $22 million."

Abolishing the estate tax will cost over a $1 trillion in lost revenue over the next 15 years. This would shift debt further onto future generations and low- and middle-income taxpayers.

With massive budget deficits and Democrats in control of Congress, the conversation is changing from "Should we abolish the estate tax?" to "How should we responsibly reform it?"

"The estate tax is not going away," acknowledged Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who has led the effort to eliminate the tax. Those who have historically voted for repeal, like Kyl and Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., are now putting forward "virtual repeal" proposals intended to gut the law. But these proposals cost almost as much as repeal.

The fight comes down to how high the wealth exemption will rise and how low the rate will be reduced. Currently estates valued under $2 million pay no estate tax and this amount is scheduled to rise to $3.5 million in 2009. That year, the tax rate comes down to 45 percent.

Raising the wealth exemption reduces the number of estates that pay the tax. But this doesn't help the superrich families that have bankrolled the repeal movement. They care about the rate reduction and advocate for dropping the rate down to 35 percent and even 15 percent. But as Bill Gates Sr. wrote in Politico, "This would mean handing out hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks to the wealthiest five out of every 1,000 citizens."

Coalitions working to preserve the estate tax are now coalescing around a "revenue neutral" estate tax reform that retains revenue lost from raising wealth exemptions by instituting progressive rate structures on estates over $10 million and $20 million.

Warren Buffett has a few lessons for Congress on tax priorities for the coming years. He supports making the tax system more progressive. To underscore the unfairness of the tax system, he recently offered a $1 million reward to any member of the Forbes 400 who could prove that they pay a higher tax rate than their personal assistants and secretaries. So far, he has had no takers.

"Keep the estate tax and its $24 billion," Buffett proposed. "There are 23 million households in the United States with $20,000 or less of income. … Let's give those 23 million households a $1,000 annual credit. ... The cost of this would be less than getting rid of the tax on less than 12,000 estates."

Monday, November 12, 2007

The enemy is, who?

Excellent, thought-provoking piece by Robert Dreyfuss of (, trying to analyze exactly who the enemy is in Iraq. After making the disturbing point that we're not really sure any more, he goes on to make some remarkably good points about how things have in fact improved in Iraq over the last few months, and that there's no plan in place to take advantage of the improvement that we've seen.

In other words, shock of shocks, sending in boatloads of troops does in fact quell violence. And, shock of shocks, the current President has no plan in place to take advantage of the "breathing space" his surge has bought him. Why have a plan now, when not having a plan has worked so well thus far?

I very much appreciate this piece. It rightly points out the wrong-headedness of elements of the anti-war movement "rooting" for failure and refusing to take into account the facts of the improved security situation. As has been said previously, the point is not to create the secure environment, the point is whether it is possible for the current Iraqi government to do anything with that secure environment once they get it, and whether the United States can do anything to encourage that. The sad answer to both appears to be no.


Who's the Enemy?

In Iraq, It's Getting Harder to Find Any Bad Guys
By Robert Dreyfuss

Who is the enemy? Who, exactly, are we fighting in Iraq? Why are we there? And what's our objective?

Nearly five years into the war, the answers to basic questions like these ought to be obvious. In the Alice in Wonderland-like wilderness of mirrors that is Iraq, though, they're anything but.

We aren't fighting the Sunnis. Not any more, anyway. Virtually the entire Sunni establishment, from the moderate Muslim Brotherhood-linked Iraqi Islamic Party (which has been part of every Iraqi government since 2003) to the Anbar tribal alliance (which has been begging for U.S. support since 2004 and only recently got it) is either actively cooperating with the American military or sullenly tolerating what it hopes will be a receding occupation. Across Sunni-dominated parts of Iraq, the United States is helping to build army and police units as well as neighborhood patrols -- the Pentagon calls them "concerned citizens" -- out of former resistance fighters, with the blessing of tribal leaders in Anbar, Diyala, and Salahuddin provinces, parts of Baghdad, and areas to the south of the capital. We have met the enemy, and -- surprise! -- they are friends or, if not that, at least not active enemies. Attacks on U.S. forces in Sunni-dominated areas, including the once-violent hot-bed city of Ramadi, Anbar's capital, have fallen dramatically.

Among the hard-core Sunni resistance, there is also significant movement toward a political accord -- if the United States were willing to accept it. Twenty-two Iraqi insurgent groups announced the creation of a united front, under the leadership of Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a former top Baath party official of the Saddam era, and they have opened talks with Iyad Allawi, a secular Shia who was Iraq's first post-Saddam prime minister.

We aren't fighting the Shia. The Shia merchant class and elite, organized into the mostly pro-Iranian Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council and the Islamic Dawa party, are part of the Iraqi government that the United States created and supports -- and whose army and police are armed and trained by the United States. The far more popular forces of Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army aren't the enemy either. In late August, Sadr declared a ceasefire, ordering his militia to stand down; and, since then, attacks on U.S. forces in Shia-dominated areas of Iraq have fallen off very sharply, too. Though recent, provocative attacks by U.S. troops, in conjunction with Iraqi forces, on Sadr strongholds in Baghdad, Diwaniya, and Karbala have caused Sadr to threaten to cancel the ceasefire order, and though intra-Shia fighting is still occurring in many parts of southern Iraq, there is no Shia enemy that justifies a continued American presence in Iraq, either.

And we certainly aren't fighting the Kurds. For decades, the Kurds have been America's (and Israel's) closest allies in Iraq. Since 2003, the three Kurdish-dominated provinces have been relatively peaceful.

We're not exactly fighting Al Qaeda any more either. Despite President Bush's near-frantic efforts to portray the war in Iraq as a last-ditch, Alamo-like stand against Osama bin Laden's army, U.S. commanders on the ground in Iraq are having a hard time finding pockets of Al Qaeda to attack these days, though the group still has the power to conduct deadly attacks now and then. In recent weeks, General David Petraeus, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, and other authorities have pretty much declared Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) dead and buried. That happy funeral is the result not of brilliant U.S. counterinsurgency efforts, but of the determination of our newfound Sunni allies to exterminate the group. No lesser authority than General Petraeus himself now admits that Al Qaeda has been expelled from every single one of its strongholds in Baghdad. In Anbar Province, according to Crocker, "People do feel the weight's off. Al Qaeda is simply gone."

And, nearly a year after President Bush proclaimed Iran to be Public Enemy No. 1 in Iraq, blaming Tehran for supporting both Al Qaeda and Shia militias, things are even getting better on that front. Last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates declared that Iran had quietly promised to halt the smuggling of weapons and advanced roadside bombs into Iraq. "I don't know whether to believe them. I'll wait and see," he said, in what was a rather dramatic downgrading of the White House's warnings about Iran.

Confirming Gates' comments, General Ray Odierno, the commanding general of the multinational forces in Iraq, noted a sharp decline in the use of EFP's (explosively formed penetrators), the sort of IED that the United States blames Iran for supplying. In July, Odierno said, there were 99 EFP's used against U.S. forces; in August, 78; in September, 52; and in October, 53. Partly as a result, Crocker announced that he is resuming a dialogue with his Iranian counterpart, Ambassador Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, soon. At the same time, the United States announced its intention to release a number of Iranians detained in Iraq, a move seen as a good-will gesture toward Tehran.

Surge or Not, Things Are Getting Better

All in all, violence in Iraq has dropped precipitously since late summer. With Al Qaeda declared dead, former Sunni resistance fighters wearing American-supplied uniforms, and the Mahdi Army lying low, killings in Iraq are way down. The security situation in Iraq is far better than it's been at any time since 2005. Many American antiwar critics, who are invested in the notion that no good news can come out of Iraq and who (secretly or openly) revel in the Bush administration's Iraqi failures, are reluctant to admit that things are getting better.

Perhaps they worry that, if the situation in Iraq improves, the prospect of Democratic gains at the polls next November will diminish. Perhaps they've convinced themselves that Iraq's ethnic and sectarian divide is so enormous that partition is the only solution, and that Iraq doesn't deserve to be a country anyway. Perhaps their distaste for President Bush (which I share) is so all-consuming that they fear any improvement in the situation will be credited to the President -- something they can't tolerate.

If so, that's perverse. The fact is: There is a critical window of opportunity opening for the United States to withdraw and for Iraq to hold itself together and rebuild. To the extent that things are getting better, that's good news. The majority of Americans -- from the left to conservative realists -- who want the United States to get out of Iraq quickly ought to seize this news and push for an acceleration of the momentum for withdrawal. Certainly, as the polls all indicate, this is the course Americans generally want their politicians to follow.

There's really no disputing the improvement since August. According to the careful compilers at the website, both U.S. and Iraqi deaths have fallen dramatically. In May, June, and July, more than a hundred Americans were killed each month; for August, September, and October the totals were 84, 65, and 38. For Iraqis, the numbers have been even more dramatic, with Iraqi military and civilian deaths falling from 3,000 per month earlier this year to 848 and 679 in September and October. There are, of course, other counts, and reliable statistics are hard to come by in Iraq, but there's no doubt that the numbers represent something real, that the violence is down in Baghdad and most of the rest of the country.

There is other, anecdotal news to support the notion that security is better these days. Last week, Iraqi officials announced that, since the summer, 46,000 Iraqis have returned to the war-torn capital. Hundreds of shops are reopening; taxi drivers say the streets are far safer; and Christian Berthelsen and Said Rifai the Los Angeles Times report that "the booze business has rebounded" after years of puritanical suppression by Islamists, another sign that Al Qaeda has been driven from the premises. On November 3, the Associated Press reported that an entire day passed in Baghdad without a single bombing or shooting. That same day, according to Agence France Press, the U.S. Air Force, for the first time in memory, declared that it had carried out not a single bombing raid or combat mission anywhere in Iraq, due to an "improved security situation."

In Anbar Province, including its capital, Ramadi, the news is rather remarkable. In January, attacks on U.S. forces in Ramadi came at the rate of 30 per day; today, there is less than one a day. During the recent month-long Ramadan holiday, there were only four attacks on U.S. forces; during Ramadan 2006, there were 442.

None of this means that Iraq has become Sweden. It's still a violent place. There is no real government; the economy is in shambles; basic services --- electricity, water, trash collection -- are nonexistent; and most areas of the country are ruled by militias, gangs, criminal elements, or local warlords. But for the first time since the invasion in March 2003, there is a real opportunity for the two main blocs of Iraqi Arabs, the Sunni and Shia communities, to strike a deal. If such a deal were indeed struck, the Kurds would have little choice but to buy into it. Problem is, the United States cannot broker the deal. Having spent five years boosting sectarianism in Iraq, killing innocent Iraqis, busting down doors in small villages, and trying to turn Iraq into an American colony, the United States simply has no credibility left.

Any deal we broker, any leader we promote, any government we sponsor has just gotten the kiss of death. What unites Iraqi Arabs, from the Sunni resistance to the Mahdi Army, is opposition to the U.S. occupation of Iraq, as well as opposition to Al Qaeda and to Iran's heavy-handed interference in Iraqi affairs.

Next Step: A New Iraqi Accord?

A new, nationalist Iraq is emerging underneath the presence of 160,000 U.S. troops. That nationalism extends from the current and former Sunni resistance fighters to Sadr's Mahdi Army to a range of moderate, secular Sunni and Shia politicians, all of whom -- albeit under exceedingly difficult circumstances -- are talking to each other about a new political framework for a new Iraqi government.

Two urgent steps are needed in order capitalize on the reemergence of Iraqi nationalism. First, the broad-based majorities among Sunni and Shia Arabs must be reconciled under a new Iraqi constitution, with new Iraqi elections creating a new Iraqi government untainted by American oversight. Second, Iraq's neighbors -- all of them, including Iran and Syria -- have to underwrite the new Iraqi nationalism. With its track record, the Bush administration is utterly incapable of accomplishing either of these tasks. It's a job for the United Nations, the Arab League, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and other parties. And all of this, in turn, depends on the United States announcing a timetable for withdrawing its forces from Iraq.

As noted by countless observers, including official ones, the United States has so far been unable to translate the decline in violence into political gains. A recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) made exactly that point, accusing the administration of failing to take advantage of the improved security situation. With a great deal of understatement, the GAO said: "U.S. efforts lack strategies with clear purpose, scope, roles, and performance measures." (In other words, the United States doesn't know what it's doing.)

Similarly, the Center for American Progress, a thinktank that has truly distinguished itself from other establishment bodies by unequivocally calling for the total and rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, picks up on this in an astute memorandum called "Strategic Drift in Iraq." It notes (accurately in my reading): "The United States' current Iraq debate has three key dynamics: a lame duck president looking to hand Iraq off to his successor, a conservative movement promoting fear over reason for perceived political gain, and a progressive movement frustrated by a lack of change in Iraq policy and vague positions about what to do."

In fact, the "strategic drift" that the Center for American Progress refers to is beginning to look more and more like a Washington establishment with every intention to stay put in Iraq for decades to come. Even if the more rabid neoconservative calls for escalating the war into Iran and Syria are left aside, it's still clear that many centrist Republicans and moderate Democrats expect a long occupation followed by an even longer period in which the presence of U.S. forces will remain significant. Former Centcom Commander General John Abizaid, a realist-minded, anti-neocon officer, recently predicted that U.S. forces would have to stay in the Middle East "for the next 25 to 50 years," and he was pretty blunt about the importance of oil. "I'm not saying this is a war for oil, but I am saying that oil fuels an awful lot of geopolitical moves that political powers may take there." Notably, it was recently reported that U.S. legal advisers to the Iraqi Ministry of Oil helped Iraq to cancel an enormous Russian oil deal with Iraq to develop its West Qurna oil field, which the New York Times called "one of a dozen or so supergiant oil fields in the world." Not that the war had anything to do with oil, mind you.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO), in a glum forecast, put forth two scenarios for Iraqi war costs. The first -- envisioning 30,000 U.S. troops in Iraq through 2017 -- would cost an additional $570 billion over 10 years. The second -- involving a slow decline to 75,000 U.S. troops by 2013 and then the maintenance of that force through 2017 -- would cost an additional $1,055 billion, bringing the war's cost to a conservatively estimated $1.7 trillion. CBO didn't project beyond 2017, so feel free to take out your calculator.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

NU Review:Kansas 76, Nebraska 39

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

Sam Keller came to Nebraska after losing his starting job at Arizona State. He toiled for a year on the scout team, learning Bill Callahan's complicated west coast offense and earning the respect of his teammates. He won the starting job this year and was ready to take the reins and unleash the full power of Nebraska's new offense.

He was supposed to lead NU to glory. He was supposed to compete on a national stage, win big games, and prepare himself to be Callahan's first protege to go into the NFL.

Instead, he was the stoic leader expressing faith in his teammates as everything unraveled. He watched as his friends on defense got torched time and time again. And his college career ended on the sidelines in Austin, Texas, in tears and a shoulder sling as Nebraska's hope for a victory faded away in Jamaal Charles' wake.

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

Bo Ruud was the last in a line of a great 'Husker family. He was supposed to carry the torch of Blackshirt glory. He was supposed to lead his teammates on defense to a signature win, to a conference title, and to national relevance.

Instead, he lost his starting job, executing a flawed game plan week after week and watching as his beloved Blackshirts being humiliated again and again. He will end the season hurt, beaten, and a member of the worst Nebraska defensive squad in a century.

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

Bill Callahan came to Lincoln with big shoes to fill and a lot of people expecting him to fail. He had nothing to do with Steve Pederson's ham-handed firing of Frank Solich, but he bore the resentment of the 'Husker faithful who felt Solich was wronged.

He brought with him a finesse-based offense that required a complete change in the mindset of Nebraska football. He also brought a confidence that his scheme would be successful in Lincoln. Unfortunately, the line between confidence and arrogance is a thin one. Time and time again, Callahan showed he would keep hammering at his game plan regardless of the outcome.

Callahan also demonstrated a remarkable inability to develop his own talent. Players under Callahan got worse each year in the system. Playmaking athletes languished on the bench while less talented players saw the field - because they understood his system.

But the limitations of the system proved costly. As proved by the one-dimensional offensive productions of the Callahan era, even an eight pound playbook can result in a predictable offense.

To make his problem worse, Callahan demonstrated a tin ear to the needs of his fan base. Much like his boss, Steve Pederson, Callahan created a culture of arrogance in his system and his coaches. Whether he was unable or unwilling to say the things Nebraska fans wanted him to say, we will never know. Callahan was dealt a tough hand in being the guy to replace the Osborne-Devaney era. But he did himself no favors with his inability to connect with Nebraska fans, particularly this season.

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

Steve Pederson returned to Lincoln as the native son, the Nebraska boy coming home to bring 'Husker athletics to glory. He brought with him a successful resume from the University of Pittsburgh, including a new football stadium and the creation of a nationally-competitive men's basketball program.

He was supposed to have 'Husker lore in his blood. He was supposed to understand "the Nebraska way." He was supposed to be the one, like Nixon going to China, that would be able to bring a conservative fan base into the new millenium.

Instead, he created a culture of arrogance. He knew he was doing the right thing for NU. He believed that any honest discussion about his performance was dissention, and distraction, and harmful. And he believed that if he just told people to trust him and that everything was going great, that the dissent would fall away.

It didn't. And the more people saw through his Cheshire Cat smile and sunshine-pumping speeches, the more he dug in and refused to level with Nebraska fans. A downward spiral commenced, culimnating in a poisonous work environment, an alienation of the big-money "boosters of substance," and ultimately his dismissal.

And the Nebraska boy, the prodigal son returned, left the University of Nebraska in disgrace, chased by television cameras and fans cheering his dismissal.

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

In 1997, when Tom Osborne retired, Nebraska was the premier college football program in the country. Only ten years ago, Nebraska stood on the mountaintop, with a stadium renovation completed, national glory, and a future of dominance lying before them.

One short decade later, Nebraska is mired in its' worst season since 1963. Fifteen minutes after the Colorado game, Nebraska will be looking for its' third head coach in five years. Nebraska will miss its' second bowl game in three years, and have its' second losing season in five years. Nebraska fans will watch as Kansas and Missouri - Nebraska's perennial whipping boys - play for a division title and a chance at a national championship.

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

Olbermann's special comment on torture

Once again, Keith Olbermann hits it over the fence about the new waterboarding revelations, and the absolute spinelessness of the Democratic leadership in confronting the current President on the issues.

At this point, I give up. The capitulation of Charles Schumer and Dianne Feinstein on the nomination of Michael Mukasey as attorney general tells me that the Democrats in Congress will do nothing of substance to combat this renegade executive. The current President will have a free hand to conduct himself as he sees fit until January, 2009.

Assuming, of course, he and his cronies do not come up with another "creative" Constitutional interpretation to nullify the 2008 election and remain in power. Hey, it worked for Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan, a good pal of our current President's ...


This transcript comes from

It is a fact startling in its cynical simplicity and it requires cynical and simple words to be properly expressed: The presidency of George W. Bush has now devolved into a criminal conspiracy to cover the ass of George W. Bush.

All the petulancy, all the childish threats, all the blank-stare stupidity; all the invocations of World War III, all the sophistic questions about which terrorist attacks we wanted him not to stop, all the phony secrets; all the claims of executive privilege, all the stumbling tap-dancing of his nominees, all the verbal flatulence of his apologists...

All of it is now, after one revelation last week, transparently clear for what it is: the pathetic and desperate manipulation of the government, the refocusing of our entire nation, toward keeping this mock president and this unstable vice president and this departed wildly self-overrating attorney general, and the others, from potential prosecution for having approved or ordered the illegal torture of prisoners being held in the name of this country.

"Waterboarding is torture," Daniel Levin was to write. Daniel Levin was no theorist and no protester. He was no troublemaking politician. He was no table-pounding commentator. Daniel Levin was an astonishingly patriotic American and a brave man.

Brave not just with words or with stances, even in a dark time when that kind of bravery can usually be scared or bought off.

Charged, as you heard in the story from ABC News last Friday, with assessing the relative legality of the various nightmares in the Pandora's box that is the Orwell-worthy euphemism "Enhanced Interrogation," Mr. Levin decided that the simplest, and the most honest, way to evaluate them ... was to have them enacted upon himself.

Daniel Levin took himself to a military base and let himself be waterboarded.

Mr. Bush, ever done anything that personally courageous?

Perhaps when you've gone to Walter Reed and teared up over the maimed servicemen? And then gone back to the White House and determined that there would be more maimed servicemen?

Has it been that kind of personal courage, Mr. Bush, when you've spoken of American victims and the triumph of freedom and the sacrifice of your own popularity for the sake of our safety? And then permitted others to fire or discredit or destroy anybody who disagreed with you, whether they were your own generals, or Max Cleland, or Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame, or Daniel Levin?

Daniel Levin should have a statue in his honor in Washington right now.

Instead, he was forced out as acting assistant attorney general nearly three years ago because he had the guts to do what George Bush couldn't do in a million years: actually put himself at risk for the sake of his country, for the sake of what is right.

And they waterboarded him. And he wrote that even though he knew those doing it meant him no harm, and he knew they would rescue him at the instant of the slightest distress, and he knew he would not die — still, with all that reassurance, he could not stop the terror screaming from inside of him, could not quell the horror, could not convince that which is at the core of each of us, the entity who exists behind all the embellishments we strap to ourselves, like purpose and name and family and love, he could not convince his being that he wasn't drowning.

Waterboarding, he said, is torture. Legally, it is torture! Practically, it is torture! Ethically, it is torture! And he wrote it down.

Wrote it down somewhere, where it could be contrasted with the words of this country's 43rd president: "The United States of America ... does not torture."

Made you into a liar, Mr. Bush.

Made you into, if anybody had the guts to pursue it, a criminal, Mr. Bush.

Waterboarding had already been used on Khalid Sheik Mohammed and a couple of other men none of us really care about except for the one detail you'd forgotten — that there are rules. And even if we just make up these rules, this country observes them anyway, because we're Americans and we're better than that.

We're better than you.

And the man your Justice Department selected to decide whether or not waterboarding was torture had decided, and not in some phony academic fashion, nor while wearing the Walter Mitty poseur attire of flight suit and helmet.

He had put his money, Mr. Bush, where your mouth was.

So, your sleazy sycophantic henchman Mr. Gonzales had him append an asterisk suggesting his black-and-white answer wasn't black-and-white, that there might have been a quasi-legal way of torturing people, maybe with an absolute time limit and a physician entitled to stop it, maybe, if your administration had ever bothered to set any rules or any guidelines.

And then when your people realized that even that was too dangerous, Daniel Levin was branded "too independent" and "someone who could (not) be counted on."

In other words, Mr. Bush, somebody you couldn't count on to lie for you.

So, Levin was fired.

Because if it ever got out what he'd concluded, and the lengths to which he went to validate that conclusion, anybody who had sanctioned waterboarding and who-knows-what-else on anybody, you yourself, you would have been screwed.

And screwed you are.

It can't be coincidence that the story of Daniel Levin should emerge from the black hole of this secret society of a presidency just at the conclusion of the unhappy saga of the newest attorney general nominee.

Another patriot somewhere listened as Judge Mukasey mumbled like he'd never heard of waterboarding and refused to answer in words … that which Daniel Levin answered on a waterboard somewhere in Maryland or Virginia three years ago.

And this someone also heard George Bush say, "The United States of America does not torture," and realized either he was lying or this wasn't the United States of America anymore, and either way, he needed to do something about it.

Not in the way Levin needed to do something about it, but in a brave way nonetheless.

We have U.S. senators who need to do something about it, too.

Chairman Leahy of the Judiciary Committee has seen this for what it is and said "enough."

Sen. Schumer has seen it, reportedly, as some kind of puzzle piece in the New York political patronage system, and he has failed.

What Sen. Feinstein has seen, to justify joining Schumer in rubber-stamping Mukasey, I cannot guess.

It is obvious that both those senators should look to the meaning of the story of Daniel Levin and recant their support for Mukasey's confirmation.

And they should look into their own committee's history and recall that in 1973, their predecessors were able to wring even from Richard Nixon a guarantee of a special prosecutor (ultimately a special prosecutor of Richard Nixon!), in exchange for their approval of his new attorney general, Elliott Richardson.

If they could get that out of Nixon, before you confirm the president's latest human echo on Tuesday, you had better be able to get a "yes" or a "no" out of Michael Mukasey.

Ideally you should lock this government down financially until a special prosecutor is appointed, or 50 of them, but I'm not holding my breath. The "yes" or the "no" on waterboarding will have to suffice.

Because, remember, if you can't get it, or you won't with the time between tonight and the next presidential election likely to be the longest year of our lives, you are leaving this country, and all of us, to the waterboards, symbolic and otherwise, of George W. Bush.

Ultimately, Mr. Bush, the real question isn't who approved the waterboarding of this fiend Khalid Sheik Mohammed and two others.

It is: Why were they waterboarded?

Study after study for generation after generation has confirmed that torture gets people to talk, torture gets people to plead, torture gets people to break, but torture does not get them to tell the truth.

Of course, Mr. Bush, this isn't a problem if you don't care if the terrorist plots they tell you about are the truth or just something to stop the tormentors from drowning them.

If, say, a president simply needed a constant supply of terrorist threats to keep a country scared.

If, say, he needed phony plots to play hero during, and to boast about interrupting, and to use to distract people from the threat he didn't interrupt.

If, say, he realized that even terrorized people still need good ghost stories before they will let a president pillage the Constitution,

Well, Mr. Bush, who better to dream them up for you than an actual terrorist?

He'll tell you everything he ever fantasized doing in his most horrific of daydreams, his equivalent of the day you "flew" onto the deck of the Lincoln to explain you'd won in Iraq.

Now if that's what this is all about, you tortured not because you're so stupid you think torture produces confession but you tortured because you're smart enough to know it produces really authentic-sounding fiction — well, then, you're going to need all the lawyers you can find … because that crime wouldn't just mean impeachment, would it?

That crime would mean George W. Bush is going to prison.

Thus the master tumblers turn, and the lock yields, and the hidden explanations can all be perceived, in their exact proportions, in their exact progressions.

Daniel Levin's eminently practical, eminently logical, eminently patriotic way of testing the legality of waterboarding has to vanish, and him with it.

Thus Alberto Gonzales has to use that brain that sounds like an old car trying to start on a freezing morning to undo eight centuries of the forward march of law and government.

Thus Dick Cheney has to ridiculously assert that confirming we do or do not use any particular interrogation technique would somehow help the terrorists.

Thus Michael Mukasey, on the eve of the vote that will make him the high priest of the law of this land, cannot and must not answer a question, nor even hint that he has thought about a question, which merely concerns the theoretical definition of waterboarding as torture.

Because, Mr. Bush, in the seven years of your nightmare presidency, this whole string of events has been transformed.

From its beginning as the most neglectful protection ever of the lives and safety of the American people ... into the most efficient and cynical exploitation of tragedy for political gain in this country's history ... and, then, to the giddying prospect that you could do what the military fanatics did in Japan in the 1930s and remake a nation into a fascist state so efficient and so self-sustaining that the fascism would be nearly invisible.

But at last this frightful plan is ending with an unexpected crash, the shocking reality that no matter how thoroughly you might try to extinguish them, Mr. Bush, how thoroughly you tried to brand disagreement as disloyalty, Mr. Bush, there are still people like Daniel Levin who believe in the United States of America as true freedom, where we are better, not because of schemes and wars, but because of dreams and morals.

And ultimately these men, these patriots, will defeat you and they will return this country to its righteous standards, and to its rightful owners, the people.

Monday, November 05, 2007

What torture is for

Fascinating quote from an article by Jane Smiley of (, quoting Jonah Black, lecturer at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. The quote discusses the similiarities of American techniques of torture ... I'm sorry, of "enhanced interrogation techniques" ... that we learned from places like North Korea, the Soviet Union, and the Khymer Rouge.

In addition to the obvious answer of "we don't want to be like the Khymer Rouge," Black suggests yet another reason why torturing isn't a good idea for getting intelligence. All these techniques we are using - waterboarding, stress positions, water torture, etc. - were not used by the Soviets or the Khymer Rouge to get intelligence. The purpose of these techniques was to extract a confession from their victim. Such confession had propaganda value for a totalitarian state, because it didn't matter if it was true or not.

Even the Soviets knew better than to torture people trying to get useful intelligence. But here we are, with the current President further soaking the American flag in blood in an attempt to protect his own "legacy."


The crux of the issue before Congress can be boiled down to a simple question: Is waterboarding torture? Anybody who considers this practice to be "torture lite" or merely a "tough technique" might want to take a trip to Phnom Penh. The Khymer Rouge were adept at torture, and there was nothing "lite" about their methods. Incidentally, the waterboard in these photo wasn't merely one among many torture devices highlighted at the prison museum. It was one of only two devices singled out for highlighting (the other was another form of water-torture -- a tank that could be filled with water or other liquids; I have photos of that too.) There was an outdoor device as well, one the Khymer Rouge didn't have to construct: chin-up bars. (The prison where the museum is located had been a school before the Khymer Rouge took over).

These bars were used for "stress positions"-- another practice employed under current US guidelines. At the Khymer Rouge prison, there is a tank of water next to the bars. It was used to revive prisoners for more torture when they passed out after being placed in stress positions.

The similarity between practices used by the Khymer Rouge and those currently being debated by Congress isn't a coincidence. As has been amply documented ("The New Yorker" had an excellent piece, and there have been others), many of the "enhanced techniques" came to the CIA and military interrogators via the SERE [Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape] schools, where US military personnel are trained to resist torture if they are captured by the enemy. The specific types of abuse they're taught to withstand are those that were used by our Cold War adversaries. Why is this relevant to the current debate? Because the torture techniques of North Korea, North Vietnam, the Soviet Union and its proxies--the states where US military personnel might have faced torture -- were NOT designed to elicit truthful information. These techniques were designed to elicit CONFESSIONS. That's what the Khymer Rouge et al were after with their waterboarding, not truthful information.

Bottom line: Not only do waterboarding and the other types of torture currently being debated put us in company with the most vile regimes of the past half-century; they're also designed specifically to generate a (usually false) confession, not to obtain genuinely actionable intel. This isn't a matter of sacrificing moral values to keep us safe; it's sacrificing moral values for no purpose whatsoever.

These photos are important because most of us have never seen an actual, real-life waterboard. The press typically describes it in the most anodyne ways: a device meant to "simulate drowning" or to "make the prisoner believe he might drown." But the Khymer Rouge were no jokesters, and they didn't tailor their abuse to the dictates of the Geneva Convention. They -- like so many brutal regimes -- made waterboarding one of their primary tools for a simple reason: it is one of the most viciously effective forms of torture ever devised.