Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Mushroom Cloud over Nevada scheduled for June 2, 2006

This is not a joke. The mushroom cloud will not come from a nuclear explosion, but it's a big step in that direction: An April 14 AP story reports:
LAS VEGAS - A huge non-nuclear explosion expected to generate a mushroom cloud in the Nevada desert will meet state air quality regulations, officials said Wednesday.

State regulators have raised questions about pollution and hazardous materials from the planned June 2 detonation of 700 tons of an ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, an official with the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection said.

But the Nevada Test Site has a blasting permit, and state officials said they had no plan to try to block the Defense Threat Reduction Agency's experiment, dubbed "Divine Strake.''
When even Sen. Orrin Hatch questions the sanity of this move, you know there's a problem:
SALT LAKE CITY U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch wants reassurances that a massive explosion test planned for Nevada this summer won't disperse radioactive material from past nuclear weapons tests.

Hatch, R-Utah, has joined a group of Congress members voicing concerns about "Divine Strake," the detonation of a 700-ton ammonium nitrate and fuel oil bomb scheduled for June 2 over the Nevada desert.

Although the bomb isn't nuclear, there are concerns that it could shake loose radioactive material from past tests at the Nevada Test Site, about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
Can we say Bad Idea Jeans?

I got my start in activism at the Nevada Test Site. I went with my poetry class, of all things, on a field trip. I saw my first "men in black" who drove by us protestors, filming us. (Somewhere in some vault, the government has a picture of what I looked like at 20.) It was right before Easter, and Daniel Ellsberg was there, tall, handsome, and somewhat stiff and imposing. He gave a marvellous speech that moved me, the details of which have long since been forgotten. But the gist was that nuclear weapons make us less--not more--safe.

I couldn't agree more, especially since this particular test seems related to our upcoming actions regarding Iran. The entire world outside the Bush administration and a few defense contractors opposes the use of any and every kind of nuclear weapon. But Bush and his cronies are determined to try out their new toys, even if they have to destroy the last shred of America's credibility as a compassionate nation to do so.

Could they really be that insane? Iran does not have nuclear weapons. It will not have them for many more years even if we did nothing at all in the immediate future. There is plenty of time to seek diplomatic solutions.

But Bush doesn't have plenty of time. Thanks to Presidential term limits, we will finally be free of the worst president ever in 2008. Unless, that is, he finds a way to declare himself Chancellor (see V for Vendetta for the reference). Remember how his administration floated a balloon to cancel the 2004 elections if a terrorist event happened? I can't help but wonder if somewhere, someone isn't working on a plan to keep Bush in office past his time. Whatever the case, he seems determined to be not the "education president", but the "nuclear president."

But back to "Divine Strake." (And how dare they declare a device whose purpose is to destroy "divine" - I can't think of anything more oxymoronic!) According to Global Security:
The DIVINE STRAKE full scale test is planned to be a large-yield, buried burst detonated at the Nevada Test Site. Divine Strake would appear to be associated with the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator RNEP, or possibly the B61-11 Earth-Penetrating Weapon, a fact that is obscured in most press coverage. Divine Strake is a high-explosive (HE) test sponsored by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) at the Nevada Test Site (NTS). The test is a detonation of a 700 ton buried heavy AN/FO charge above a tunnel structure. The main purpose of the test is to study ground shock effects on deeply buried tunnel structures. Of secondary interest is the airblast produced by a buried charge and its modification as it propagates over the local terrain. Scheduled for the summer of 2006, as of 01 April 2006 the test was planned for 02 June 2006.
In other words, this is clearly a test related to the planned upcoming use of the infamous nuclear "bunker buster bombs." This was hinted at in the budget for 2006. According to the same site:
DTRA's FY2006 budget request including funding to "Conduct the Tunnel Target Defeat Advanced Concept and Technology Demonstration(s) (ACTD) Full-Scale tunnel defeat demonstration using high explosives to simulate a low yield nuclear weapon ground shock environment at Department of Energy's Nevada Test Site. Deliver validated analysis and planning tools to conduct the end-to-end use of nuclear planning tools to characterize and "weaponeer" the full-scale Tunnel Target Defeat Advanced Concept and Technology Demonstration(s) (ACTD) event. ... The Tunnel Target Defeat Advanced Concept and Technology Demonstration(s) (ACTD) will develop a planning tool that will improve the warfighter’s confidence in selecting the smallest nuclear yield necessary to destroy underground facilities while minimizing collateral damage. The focus of the demonstration is to reduce the uncertainties in target characterization and weapon effect/target response. Target characterization uncertainties include those related to determining the target function, layout, operational status, and the geological and geotechnical features. Weapons effects/tunnel response uncertainties are associated with predicting ground shock and tunnel response in layered and jointed media."
Translation: They really are that insane. They are hellbent on using their nuclear weapons. They think if they make them smaller they will be okay.

And why should that be a surprise? This is the team that doesn't believe in science, that believes that reality is whatever they want it to be.

And if they lived in a padded cell, that would be perfectly fine.

But their belief now imperils hundreds of thousands if not several million, because make no mistake - if we use nuclear weapons offensively for any reason, they will be used on us. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of our lives, because radiation is forever, nearly. Just ask the people from Chernobyl.

Or, for that matter, Scotland.

20 years later and 1500 miles away, the radiation from Chernobyl keeps 10 farms in Scotland under quarantine from still too high radioactivity from the fallout of that explosion.

Maybe we should ask Bush to have a meal at one of those farms. Or several. He should know what it's like to live with radiation sickness personally, before he inflicts it on another innocent populace. Hey, if it's so safe, maybe he should move his family there. Plant a garden there. Drink the water there...Okay, enough fantasizing...

And maybe it's not stupidity. Maybe they're just really that evil. Maybe they want a way to thin out the world's population. Maybe they think it's their personal duty to bring about the apocalypse.

Whatever their reasons, the Divine Strake test should be read as the most serious indication yet that this administration is determined to use nuclear weapons offensively on a first-strike basis.

And that is an idea that should make us take to the streets in very large numbers to protest.

Using nukes offensively under any circumstances should never, ever, be an acceptable option to any true American. If you feel otherwise, there's some farmland in Scotland I'd like to show you.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Election Lawsuits Looming?

All over the country, election officials are having to choose between complying with HAVA and breaking state laws. State laws typically require electronic voting machines to be certified for use. But HAVA, the Help America Vote Act, requires that punch card and lever voting machines be removed by the 2006 elections. HAVA also promised millions of dollars in funding for states that switched to computerized voting machines. And therein lies the rub. As states have rushed eagerly to purchase systems from Diebold, ES&S, Sequoia, and Hart Intercivic, to name the major vendors, activists around the country and a hacker from Finland have been exposing the numerous points of vulnerability these systems present.

Now, county registrars face tough choices. If they stick with older systems, they risk being sued for non-compliance with HAVA. But the HAVA-created Elections Assistance Commission has not been able to certify - for very good reasons - many of the voting machines currently being sold. But if they purchase new systems, most of them are not yet federally or state certified, meaning, they are untested, unproven technologies. And using uncertified software in an election often violates state law. So Registrars are truly caught between a rock and a hard place, with no easy solution.

Here are a list of concerns rasied by these systems:
  1. Who is checking the software? In most cases, the vendors are certified by "ITAs" - "Independent Testing Authorities." But how independent are they? They are selected, paid for by, and answerable only to the vendors themselves.
  2. Even if ITAs were trustworty, and we have no reason to believe they are, machines that have not been certified by ANY authority are being purchased in Los Angeles County in California, in Allen County in Indiana, Adams County in Illinois, and in many other counties all over the country.
  3. Even if the uncertified software was trustworthy, registrars typically have no expertise in computers and trust the vendors' employees to run the election. Even if software was tested and certified, registrars would not know if a vendor's employee substituted new software at the last minute. The checks simply aren't in place for an "inside job". Most security breaches in software companies are not from outside hacks, but from the employees themselves.
  4. Votes can be changed after the fact in a digital system. Even if you vote on paper ballots, they are scanned into a computer and coutned by a system that can be altered as easily as the DRE systems. The presence of a paper record means nothing if the paper record is never examined. And even if the DRE or scanning system records the vote accurately, the vote is eventually tallied in the "central tabulator", a system which takes votes from different machines and ostensibly spits out a summary. I say ostensibly because as Howard Dean showed, under Bev Harris' tutelage on TV, anyone with minimal training can alter the votes within one of the most common central tabulator systems, the Diebold GEMS program, and alter the votes without leaving a trace.

But there is a solution! All is not lost. ALL of these problems could be mitigated by a rigorous audit.

The problem is, few states beyond California have a a provision for a mandatory surprise manual audit. And In California, state election code requires that 100% of the votes cast in only 1% of the precincts be audited. To date, even this 1% audit has not been properly conducted. Many counties have already been using DRE or Direct Recording Electronic machines that produce no paper record. The only way to recount the votes for an "audit" has been to reprint the (possibly already altered) results again. Hello, that is NOT an audit.

An audit means counting paper records by hand, with all political parties on the ballot represented, in front of numerous people. And while a 1% audit would have a 99% chance of catching fraud if some 15% of the precincts had been altered, it would have only a 78% chance of catching fraud if the fraud was grouped into 5% of the precincts. (I'm basing this on the audit calculator provided by US Count Votes, but have been unable to find a recent link to this spreadsheet on their site.)

A 2% audit, such as the bill HR 550, proposed by Congressman Rush Holt, would raise the chances of finding alteration in 5% of the precincts to 96%. A 3% audit would have a 99% chance of catching fraud in 5% of the precincts. NOTE: the numbers change slightly based on the number of precincts in a state. So a 2% audit would have less of a probability of finding fraud in smaller states containing fewer precincts than California.

There have been vigorous and sometimes rancorous debates among voting activists as to whether we should support Rush Holt's legislation or not. I've been listening to these arguments for 15 months, looking for a single fact that would cause me concern re Holt's bill. But the sum of the arguments against Holt's bill is that 1) it doesn't go far enough and 2) it will give people a false sense of security. That's not, for me, reason enough to oppose this important legislation.

The benefits of Holt's bill are: 1) a paper record would be mandated for all states. This battle would no longer need to be waged on a 50-state basis, as is the current case. And 2) Holt's bill would provide the vast majority of states that have no audit with a decent - not perfect, but decent - audit with a good chance of finding fairly small scale fraud. (Try altering a statewide election by changing votes in only 5% of the precincts - it's tough, because you'd have to have visibly huge swings from normal precinct behavior. It's easier to spread low-level fraud among a number of precincts than to commit high level fraud in just a few precincts.)

Passing Holt's bill does no harm beyond the psychological. And no law is ever permanent. Is some legitimate, numerical reason why Holt's bill wouldn't work surfaced, it could be amended or changed by future legislation. WITHOUT Holt's bill, however, we are faced with waging a 50-state battle when the activist community is not evenly spread out among the states. We saw in the last election how one state could alter the effect of an entire election. Holt's bill allows us to force paper records and a minimal audit upon all states at once. No perceived or expressed harm in my opinion can yet outweight that highly desired result.

MyDD ran a good summary recently outline the key points of the debate, with links to the arguments pro or con. If you are unsure, please read more. The future of our democracy depends on whether or not our votes count. Surely the issue is worth a few minutes of your time.

I hope you will take a minute to write your Congressional representative to ask them to support Rush Holt's bill HR 550. If we don't get some FEDERAL legislation in place THIS YEAR, it will be too late to address the 2008 election. And that should scare us all into action. 2006 is already at risk. Dare we carry the risk forward to the next presidential race?

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Remember, remember the fifth of November....

"Remember, remember the fifth of November
the Gunpowder, Treason and Plot
I see no reason why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot"

I knew nothing about the film V for Vendetta going into it. Ideally, you shouldn't either, so I'll warn you before I get to any spoilers. You must see this film. It is the most interesting, subversive, and important film I've seen in decades.

When this English child’s rhyme was uttered by the lead character, known only as V, early in the movie, I sat upright, alert, because I suddenly knew what this movie was going to be about. 9/11. Metaphorically at least. How did I get that from a reference to the Gunpowder plot? Read on, MacDuff.

Most Americans don’t know the story behind the Gunpowder plot. It is surprisingly relevant to our time. It was a huge event, one that continues to echo to our present, as this film ably demonstrates. And like all important events that change the course of history, there is a measure of controversy as to what we really happened. Who were the plotters and who were the victims?

According to the official account prepared for the King (i.e.., the Warren Report of its time), on the fifth of November in 1605, a team of conspirators planned to blow up the House of Parliament in London on opening day of the new session, killing King James in the process. The plot was foiled by the November 4th arrest of Guy Fawkes (pronounced “Fox”), a hapless conspirator found in a cellar under the House of Lords while guarding thirty-six barrels of gunpowder. Under torture, Fawkes gave up the names of his co-conspirators.

The episode became known as “The Gunpowder Plot” and is marked every year with fireworks and bonfires in which, on occasion, Guy Fawkes is burned in effigy. For a few hundred years, the government required that its citizens celebrate the exposure of the plot and the protection of its government. The law requiring celebrations was repealed in 1859, but ad hoc celebrations continue to this day every November 5, although some revelers will tell you they are celebrating the planning of the plot rather than the foiling of it.

So why was the plot hatched? Therein lies the rub. To understand the plot, and the controversy, we need to examine a brief part of English history.

The Gunpowder plot was born, ultimately, from the hubris of King Henry VIII, or the rigidness of the Pope – take your pick. This is a complicated chain of events, but bear with me. As Stephen Rea’s character voiced in V for Vendetta during a particularly brilliant sequence, “everything is connected.”

In his search for a male heir, Henry VIII married and divorced six women. When the Catholic Church would not grant him his much needed divorce(s), he split with the Roman Catholic Church and set up the new Church of England with himself as head. One of his wives, Anne Boleyn, bore him the daughter Elizabeth. When Anne, like his other wives, fell from the King’s favor, he had her beheaded and stripped of her title. By that action, he bastardized his own daughter, and she was declared illegitimate. After Henry VIII died, Elizabeth’s half-sister Mary took the throne. Mary was a Catholic who wanted to reverse what Henry had done. When she died, Elizabeth, herself a dedicated Protestant, took the throne. Technically, the position should have gone to her cousin, the granddaughter of her father’s sister, a different Mary, called commonly “Mary, Queen of Scots” since she was from the age of six days old the Queen of Scotland by birth. Mary should have been Queen of England too, through the rules of succession. Elizabeth, however, had a will from Henry VIII, the authenticity of which was questionable, in which she was named the preferred heir to the throne. More importantly, Elizabeth was in town and Mary was in Scotland. Thus Elizabeth became the Queen of England.

Mary was accused of murdering her husband, and married the man accused of being her co-conspirator a couple of weeks later. This infuriated the Scots, who locked Mary up. She managed to escape, and sought the protection of Elizabeth. But Elizabeth saw in Mary a threat to her rule, and locked her up for 19 years. During this period, Elizabeth’s advisors repeatedly suggested Elizabeth kill Mary, but Elizabeth was satisfied with keeping her from the throne, and feared perhaps a Catholic rebellion if she killed the woman they believed was their true leader.

So Elizabeth’s chief of security devised a way to get rid of Mary. He set Mary up in a purported assassination plot. Through manipulations and machinations, Mary was ultimately presented a letter from Anthony Babington, in which the assassination of Elizabeth was suggested. Mary did not condone the plot, but that didn’t matter. It was argued that she had foreknowledge of the plot and had done nothing to stop it. She was eventually tried and convicted by the English court, and beheaded. Ironically, her son, James, would ascend the throne when Elizabeth, “the Virgin Queen,” died heirless.

King James was raised Protestant, but had sympathies for the Catholics, like his mother. (Curiously, the man who gave us the King James bible may have been bi-sexual!) He adopted a liberal policy towards religion. But he was surrounded by the same forces that had worked with Elizabeth. They wanted to get rid of the Catholics, and there is quite a bit of speculation that one close advisor in particular was involved in setting up the Gunpowder Plot, and then exposing it. James feared a violent end, and when he heard of the plot, he was, naturally, terrified, and supported actions that would have been unthinkable before the discovery of the plot. Was that, perhaps, the point?

The official story of the Gunpowder plot has Guy Fawkes interacting with a set of Catholics who wished to overthrow a government increasingly hostile to their religion. Ostensibly, they wanted to set events in motion that would restore Catholicism to what they felt was its rightful place in England. But some, including Webster Tarpley and Barrie Zwicker, fellow speakers from the 9/11 tour I participated in last summer, believe that the plot was a false flag operation set up by the Protestants to discredit the Catholics as a justification to going to war with Spain, which was, in any case, the result.

Zwicker, in an article for Canada’s Globe and Mail on November 5, 2005, quotes from Adam Nicolson's book God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible:

The fallout from the plot is uncontestable. “The English became fixated on homeland security,” Mr. Nicolson writes. “An inclusive, irenic idea of mutual benefit (between Spain and England, which had recently signed a peace treaty and between which trade was growing) was replaced by a defensive/aggressive complex in which all Catholics, of all shades, never mind their degree of enthusiasm for the planned attack, were, at least for a time, identified as the enemy. . . . The state had invaded and taken over the English conscience.” War with Spain ensues. England's course is set for a century of wars against the Spanish and Portuguese empires, out of which the British Empire emerges. In 1917, the British add Iraq to their empire after the defeat of the Ottomans. Neo-colonial turmoil in Iraq continues to this day. The official story of “gunpowder treason” set much in motion.
The parallels from that event to 9/11 resound. Whether or not 9/11 was a domestically inspired plot, the result was that the Bush Administration seized that event and made it the cornerstone for launching the very “Pax Americana” President Kennedy and his brother Bobby refused to pursue. Bush starting running the playbook written by PNAC – the Project for a New American Century. The result: a horror story of unprovoked aggression in Iraq in the guise of stopping WMD. When no WMD were found, Bush invoked that old fallback position: we went into Iraq to spread Democracy, a move which has produced to date not democracy, but civil war.

At home, people handed over their freedoms for a measure of protection, a gift which has already been criminally, impeachably, abused. As Joyce Appleby, professor emerita of history at UCLA, and former Senator Gary Hart co-wrote:

When President Nixon covertly subverted checks and balances 30 years ago during the Vietnam War, Congress passed laws making clear that presidents were not to engage in unconstitutional behavior in the interest of "national security." Then, Congress was reacting to violation of Fourth Amendment protections against searches and seizures without judicial warrants establishing "probable cause," attempts to assassinate foreign leaders, and surveillance of American citizens.

Now, the Iraq war is being used to justify similar abuses. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, providing constitutional means to carry out surveillance, and the Intelligence Identification Protection Act, protecting the identity of undercover intelligence agents, have both been violated by an administration seeking to restore "the legitimate authority of the presidency," as Cheney puts it.

The presidency possesses no power not granted to it under the Constitution. The powers the current administration seeks in its "war on terror" are not granted under the Constitution. Indeed, they are explicitly prohibited by acts of Congress.
So take the events of the recent past, fast forward a few years into the future, and you’re smack in the middle of “V for Vendetta.”

If you haven’t seen the film, get thee to the theater; do not pass go, and DO NOT READ BEYOND THIS POINT. SPOILERS AHEAD.

The movie presents a parable for our times, a post-9/11 world in which freedoms have been traded for security with disastrous results. The “former United States” is a mess. The UK has become a fascist regime enforced through the near-total surveillance of its citizens. One man, a literate, intelligent, but vengeful man, who goes by the name of “V” for reasons revealed as the film progresses, has a vendetta, indeed, but it's much more than a personal one. Knowing that he has the power to change things, possibly for the better, he decides to take matters into his own hands. V cloaks his identify behind a Guy Fawkes mask, and becomes a terrorist.

Or is terrorist the right word? He isn’t trying to terrorize the citizens of London. He’s trying to rouse them from their fear-induced slumber. He tells them that if they are unhappy with the way things are going, if they are looking for people to blame, they need to start by looking in the mirror, as they were the ones who stood by complacently as their world disintegrated. He invites them to join him at Parliament a year from that date, the next November 5, so that they can witness the act Guy Fawkes never got to finish. Why? Because there's something wrong with the country, and everybody knows it.

Natalie Portman portrays the character Evey (“E V”, V articulates with relish, noting that there are no coincidences). Throughout the film, after every new revelation about V, Evey asked my own questions. Was V a good guy or a horrible guy? Should one support his choices or not? Would I choose his path, given similar circumstances? At what point is the law the problem, when the law is used to justify heinous deeds? At what point is one justified in breaking it?

As someone who believes in the power of nonviolent, legal, collective action, the film was both disturbing and intriguing in its implications. The act of blowing up Parliament in the film had nothing to do with violence, and everything to do with symbolism. As Evey noted, the people needed hope more than they needed the building. And the blowing up of Parliament was a show of strength. As V had said early in the film, "People shouldn't be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people." Blowing up Parliament was a way for the people to reclaim their power. And feeling that power, they might yet right the wrongs that had been done in their name.

I loved the story and movie on so many levels. The writing was brilliant, even Shakespearean at times. (Indeed, the Bard was nearly a character in the film, so often was he quoted.) The images were sleek and dark and sterile, like the world in which the story takes place. V’s underground home was strange yet inviting, and warmed considerably by the slow jazz emanating from his jukebox. And everything had a meaning, including the signature roses V left with each of his vendetta victims.

The acting was compelling. You wouldn’t believe a man in an immobile mask could make you feel so many emotions. Through his voice, his body, and somehow through that masked face, I felt every joy and anger and pain that V did. I will be forever in awe of Hugo Weaving’s impeccable, faceless performance, as well as Natalie Portman's moving portrayal of a woman who came to discover ultimate freedom by choosing integrity over fear. And the love story between them was incredibly compelling. I was falling in love with V too, even as I deplored some of his actions.

It’s remarkable to see any interesting movie made in the age of cookie cutter remakes of shows that weren’t that good the first time around. But what really sparked my interest was the way this film melded the real past into an all too scary near future. I was surprised at the fairly overt parallels to the 9/11 controversy, especially given that the graphic novel on which the film is based was written in the 1980s, well before the attacks. In the film, the big “terrorist attacks” that resulted in the newly fascist society came in the form of a virus unleashed in the UK which wiped out hundreds of thousands of people. At one point, one of the government investigators searching for V, portrayed by the always interesting Stephen Rea, starts to open his mind. He asks his fellow investigator a question to which he requires no answer. In his world, the act of asking the question was itself a very bold step: “If our government was behind the attacks, would you really want to know?”

My personal conclusion, after years of such discussions, is that a lot of people don’t want to know such truths. They don’t mind believing them. Belief does not require action. But true knowledge does. And most people don’t want that burden. And yet, by not taking action, we are still responsible, and for things we wouldn’t support, if asked. V is right, in that regard. To find the villains, we need only look to our own inaction.

Perhaps my favorite sequence was the one in which Rea suddenly starts seeing all the puzzle pieces fall into place, how "Everything is connected." In a brilliant series of intercuts, he glimpses the past, present, and future--the throughline of history. As V says, "for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." That's a well known principle of physics. But it goes for government and personal actions too. Everything we do--and don't do--has a consequence. And we have to be aware of those so we can choose more wisely. Interestingly, the future Rea envisions in that moment does not entirely come to pass, but might have, had he been successful in his effort to capture V. Ironically, his failure to stop the "terrorist" ends up saving an untold numbers of lives.

The most thrilling part of the film, for me, came at the end, as masses of people come out to stand in support of V’s actions. There’s something about people taking massive, collective action that inspires me to no end. We have the power to do amazing things, together. No force on earth can resist the masses when we act righteously in unison. As V said, in a quote I’m badly mangling, you can kill people. But you can’t kill ideas. And ideas carry tremendous force.

But ideas need advocates, and outlets. Ideas need to be shaped into words that people can read, hear, and understand. And that is the reason bad governments turn repressive. Controlling the media, controlling the publishing houses, controlling the distribution of films and books is the goal of every illicit government. It is the only way they can stay in power. The degree to which those efforts succeed or fail depends on the integrity of the people working in those systems. Good governments do not need to resort to control. Only bad ones do. But bad ones are aided by people who refuse to see the implications of the small steps they allow to be taken. And one day, we find ourselves past the tipping point, with no way out but armed rebellion.

Our nation, at its founding, was, I believe, one of the greatest ideas of all time. Just imagine. At a time when most people were still answering to a monarch, the people rose up, threw away their wealth--in the form of tea--into the harbor, declared they would no longer tolerate taxation without representation, and fought their way to freedom. They created, by means of the Constitution, laws designed to guarantee a place where people could be free from tyranny and prejudice. That the initial drafting allowed for slavery and kept women from voting is more a reflection of the time than a lack of vision of the founding fathers. For its time, it was revolutionary, and the language of the Declaration of Independence still moves me. In that moment, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and John Adams created a new form of government, one answerable to the rule of law, and not the whims of man.

Or so our founding fathers envisioned. Today, we have a president hell-bent on extending the power of the president far beyond the checks and balances so carefully provided for by the Constitution. The president is attacking the very idea of who we are as a nation. As this article by Joyce Appleby, professor emerita of history at UCLA, and former Senator Gary Hart states:

When President Nixon covertly subverted checks and balances 30 years ago during the Vietnam War, Congress passed laws making clear that presidents were not to engage in unconstitutional behavior in the interest of "national security." Then Congress was reacting to violation of Fourth Amendment protections against searches and seizures without judicial warrants establishing "probable cause," attempts to assassinate foreign leaders and surveillance of American citizens.

Now the Iraq war is being used to justify similar abuses. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, providing constitutional means to carry out surveillance, and the Intelligence Identification Protection Act, protecting the identity of undercover intelligence agents, have both been violated by an administration seeking to restore "the legitimate authority of the presidency," as Cheney puts it.

The presidency possesses no power not granted to it under the Constitution. The powers the current administration seeks in its "war on terror" are not granted under the Constitution. Indeed, they are explicitly prohibited by acts of Congress.

So what are we going to do about it? Are we going to sit silently and watch as our country becomes distorted into something we no longer wish to support? Do we resort to violence? Or do we simply, as a people, stand up and march? The immigrants recently gave us a demonstration of what real power looks like. 500,000 people marching in unison in downtown Los Angeles is no small thing. When will America experience its first general strike to protest the destruction of our Constitution? We still have the power, should we decide to use it.

As some reviewers have noted, with a sentiment I want to echo, we should all take heart in the fact that a major studio (Warner Brothers) backed and released this film. If we were truly living in V’s world, such would not have been possible.

The movie is a warning, not a reflection. But we would do well to examine the road we are on.

And then do something about it.

Remember, remember the fifth of November....

[Note: in an earlier edition of this, I mistakenly wrote that James was raised Catholic. He was sympathetic to the Catholics, but his mother fled to England before he was 2, and he was raised Protestant.]

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Bobby Kennedy's speech upon the death of Martin Luther King

38 years ago today, Bobby Kennedy got off his campaign plane in Indiana to find, to his horror, that Martin Luther King had just been shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Warned that, for his safety, Bobby Kennedy should not go out that night, Bobby did what he always did. He ingored the advice of all but his conscience. And his conscience told him he had a responsibility to the people of Indianapolis. He had something important to say.

He improvised what is now considered one of the 100 best speeches ever. His own pain from the loss of his own brother five years earlier was palpable, and compelling. Joe Scarborough, a right-wing commentator who attributes his start in politics in part to the inspiration of Bobby Kennedy, noted that as riots burned fires in many cities that night, as the African American population wailed in grief at its collective loss, Bobby Kennedy managed to keep the peace in Indianapolis:
Kennedy was in the middle of his final, ill-fated campaign and prepared to go into the most dangerous part of Indianapolis. Just before heading to the event, his press secretary got the word that King had been shot dead by a white man.

Immediately, staff members scrambled to cancel the event. Ghettos were sure to explode in violence across Indianapolis and America. But when Kennedy chose to ignore the warnings, the Indianapolis Chief of Police weighed in.

His men could not provide protection. It was simply too dangerous.

So Bobby Kennedy went in alone that night to deliver the greatest speech of his life.

He told that broken crowd of Americans how it was not the time to embrace violence but rather to live the very values for which Martin Luther King had died.

Later that evening, riots did break out in over a thousand cities and towns across America. Parts of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago burned long into the early morning. Countless other cities and towns were engulfed in violence and rage. But that night, Indianapolis went to sleep in peace.

It was the story of how one man made a difference.

It is a reminder of how one person can still bend history.

It is a challenge sent through the ages of how we can still save a dying world.

Here the speech Bobby gave that tragic night. I remain in awe of his eloquence at such a painful moment.
Ladies and Gentlemen: I'm only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening, because I have some very sad news for all of you -- Could you lower those signs, please? -- I have some very sad news for all of you, and, I think, sad news for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world; and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it's perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black -- considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible -- you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization -- black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion and love.

For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.

But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond, or go beyond these rather difficult times.

My favorite poem, my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote:

"Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God."

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King -- yeah, it's true -- but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love -- a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.

We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We've had difficult times in the past. And we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it's not the end of disorder.

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.

Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.

Thank you very much.
On April 29, we will have the opportunity to speak out in unison, to tame the savageness of man, to call for an end to the immoral war in Iraq. I wish Bobby and Martin were here to lead us, but in their absence, we must find the courage to lead ourselves.

As the line in V for Vendatta goes, artists use lies to reveal the truth. Politicians use lies to cover it up. I'll leave the last word then to Dion Demucii, the artist who wrote these lyrics, which summed up the grief of a nation:
Has anybody here
seen my old friend Abraham?
Can you tell me where he's gone?
He freed a lot of people but it seems the good die young
I just looked around and he's gone.

Has anybody here seen my old friend Martin?
Can you tell me where he's gone?
He freed a lot of people but it seems the good die young
I just looked around and he's gone.

Has anybody here seen my old friend John?
Can you tell me where he's gone?
He freed a lot of people but it seems the good die young
I just looked around and he's gone.

Didn't you love the things they stood for?
Didn't they try to find some good in you and me?
And we'll be free Someday soon
It's gonna be one day

Has anybody here seen my old friend Bobby?
Can you tell me where he's gone?
I thought I saw him walking up o'er the hill
With Abraham, Martin and John
King is dead. Long live King.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Dark enough to see the stars

38 years ago tonight, Martin Luther King gave the last speech of his life, and it was a great one. Reading it tonight, after my second viewing of V for Vendetta, it rang even more true. What's becoming clear to me is that the great hope of mankind is collective action. King understood that, more than most people. The 500,000 Latino immigrants marching on City Hall in Los Angeles understood that. The writers of V for Vendetta understand that. The French understand that.

But most Americans don't march. We're all busy pulling in different directions, trying to feed our families, trying to get ahead in our careers, trying to just survive without going insane in a world that makes less and less sense.

But reading Martin Luther King's words again tonight, I was inspired. The lesson is clear. We must either stand together or fall separately. King said it far more eloquently:
if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of general and panoramic view of the whole human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, "Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?" — I would take my mental flight by Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn't stop there. I would move on by Greece, and take my mind to Mount Olympus. And I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality.

But I wouldn't stop there. I would go on, even to the great heyday of the Roman Empire. And I would see developments around there, through various emperors and leaders. But I wouldn't stop there. I would even come up to the day of the Renaissance, and get a quick picture of all that the Renaissance did for the cultural and esthetic life of man. But I wouldn't stop there. I would even go by the way that the man for whom I'm named had his habitat. And I would watch Martin Luther as he tacked his ninety-five theses on the door at the church in Wittenberg.

But I wouldn't stop there. I would come on up even to 1863, and watch a vacillating president by the name of Abraham Lincoln finally come to the conclusion that he had to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. But I wouldn't stop there. I would even come up to the early thirties, and see a man grappling with the problems of the bankruptcy of his nation. And come with an eloquent cry that we have nothing to fear but fear itself.

But I wouldn't stop there. Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, "If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy." Now that's a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. That's a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a away that men, in some strange way, are responding — something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same — "We want to be free."

And another reason that I'm happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we're going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demand didn't force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it's nonviolence or nonexistence.

That is where we are today. And also in the human rights revolution, if something isn't done, and in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed. Now, I'm just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period, to see what is unfolding. And I'm happy that He's allowed me to be in Memphis.

...Now, what does all of this mean in this great period of history? It means that we've got to stay together. We've got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh's court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that's the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity.
This was King's famous "I've been to the mountaintop" speech, in which he talked of rumors of plots against him. One of those plots would succeed in taking his life the next day, on April 4, 1968. And reading the speech again, it's as if he knew. But he didn't stay home. He didn't live in fear. He didn't stick his head in the sand and say hey, not my problem. He talked about the need to stop asking "what will happen to me" and start asking "what will happen to others if I don't do what needs to be done."

King is dead, but not his ideas. Not his dream. He had a dream he shared with all of us, a dream for a better world, where people treated each other with the respect and dignity that every being deserves. He dreamt of a world at peace, in prosperity, where children did not have to sniff glue to sleep through their hunger. He had a dream that should never die. He had a dream that should no longer be a dream, but a reality. We have the power, but not yet the will.

King had the grace to see that even in the darkest times, there was something positive. You could see the stars.

When Pandora opened her box and let the evils out into the world, she closed it in time to save the last thing in the box: Hope. King harnessed the power of hope and changed years of oppression nearly overnight. We can too. If all of us who felt the war in Iraq was wrong took to the streets together, we could end this madness.

Love. Peace. Hope. In all the world, these are the only things worth having, the only things that ever really matter. Take those into the darkness with you tonight. Watch them glitter.

Previews of Coming Attractions

My time has not been my own of late, but when I regain the upper hand, I want to talk to you about "V for Vendetta", one of the most interesting films I have ever seen. It's a parable of our post 9/11 world. I don't want to say more yet - you should see it. But I'll blog about it extensively in the next few days.

I just saw it tonight and came home dying to talk to others about it, which is exceedingly rare. Most filmes are forgotten before I've even left the theater. This one will be with me for a while. I'm stunned by how much the reviewers of this film didn't get one of the central connections, so I want to fill in some of the missing picture.

See it. SEE IT! Then let's talk. It's not only interesting politically, it's just a great film in any case.

P.S. I shot off a letter to the LA Times in response to their article about how a new voter ID system here has dumped thousands of voter registrations because the Driver's license records and voter registration records did not exactly match. I didn't even know my letter had been published until someone else thanked me for it!