Posts Tagged ‘Controversies’

Pope Francis has been making waves even after his first few months as leader of the Catholic Church — as much for what he is saying as what he is doing; while some critics point out that there’s nothing “technically” revolutionary about his statements, the cardinal rule of rhetoric has never applied with more force: It’s not what you say, but how you say it. Indeed, a large percentage of the reaction to Francis has had to do with the nonverbal aspects of his rhetoric.

Item 1: Coming down off the pedestal. Francis has made a habit of mingling with the common people, to the chagrin of his security detail (and Brazilian traffic cops).

Item 2: The popemobile. First he rode the bus to work. Then got rid of the bulletproof glass on the Benz. Then he started driving a Ford Focus. Deciding even that was too snazzy, he recently accepted (as a gift) a 1984 Renault with 186,000 miles on it.

Item 3: The chair. Compare Benedict’s throne to Francis’s seat of choice.

Pope Thrones

To be sure, it’s also about what he’s said, including his first appearance before the faithful, where he pretty much said “Hi folks, here I am!” And then all of the comments about how the Church needs to stop “obsessing” over homosexuality, abortion, and birth control. He even seemed to say that he’s OK with atheists. His wide-ranging interview with the Jesuit magazine America triggered raised eyebrows as well.  (Needless to say, this caught Bill Maher’s attention…)

Some observers have suggested that Francis’s words (and actions) could even have implications for American politics — threatening to peel off typically conservative Catholics from the rest of the (increasingly extreme) religious right.

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bill_hillary_rectMy review, published yesterday in the Greensboro News & Record, of William Chafe’s joint biography of Bill and Hillary Clinton. A solid piece of work with some provocative analysis of the personal and public lives of these two remarkable partners in power.

And yes, that’s the Clintons. (Great hair, Bill!) Chafe’s book has no photo section, so I dug around to find this one, used in the Salon article by Chafe about the various stories concerning the Clintons’ first meeting, at Yale in 1970.

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McCrory-nc-flagMy op-ed today, written along with Scot Faulkner, on the controversial comments from North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory about liberal arts education — and how McCrory seems to be just one more conservative shouting into the know-nothing conservative echo chamber. Plenty of folks have commented on this, including many friends and colleagues in academia. Our take is a bit different: That McCrory is actually betraying conservative principles. But then again, as Scot and I have been writing over the past weeks, there’s not much left of the conservative movement.

Today, McCrory’s trying to walk back his statements but refuses to acknowledge what he actually said.

Article first published in the Raleigh News & Observer on January 31, 2013.

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The latest incident of a politician calling a rhetorical gaffe a simple case of “I misspoke” is Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin, whose comments about “legitimate rape” have erupted into a national firestorm.

I’ve never quite understand what it means to “misspeak”; the term reminds me a bit of Richard Nixon’s press secretary declaring certain presidential statements “inoperative.” Huh? As Time magazine headlined ironically a t the time, “they misspoke themselves.” Whatever that means.

Akin certainly “misspoke himself.” Setting aside the moral debate, the rhetorical one is pretty clear: Saying there are “legitimate” rapes necessarily suggests there are “illegitimate ones.”

And in his apology he ignored this central matter, instead saying he “used the wrong words in the wrong way.” There is, in fact, nothing confusing about his original statement. As everyone from Mitt Romney to Rush Limbaugh has now said, it was just ignorant (or worse).

As the Democrats scurry to tie Akin to the presidential ticket, their clearest path seems to lead to Paul Ryan, who cosponsored abortion related legislation with Akin. And, once again, odd rhetorical formulations are the key. The Ryan “personhood” legislation included restrictions on abortions in cases of rape, creating a new legal category: “forcible” rape. I didn’t realize there was any other kind; as with Akin’s “legitimate” comments, the recognition–in an explicit legal context–of “forcible” rapes necessarily means there is a category of “unforcible” rapes.

Wouldn’t it not then be a rape? Ultimately voters will have to decide what’s going on here. Be prepared for some highly charged rhetorical assaults. And more misspeaking.

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On the same day last week that we learned about an Arizona high school baseball quitting a championship game because there was a woman on the opposing team, President Obama delivered a commencement address to the graduating class at Columbia’s Barnard College that could have served as a pep talk to the walk-off team. Make no mistake: This is part of a theme that’s shaping up around social issues including women’s and minority rights.

“After decades of slow, steady, extraordinary progress, you are now poised to make this the century where women shape not only their own destiny but the destiny of this nation,” Obama told the graduating class. “Never underestimate the power of your example.”

Paige Sulzbach, Second Base, Mesa Prep, is one of those examples. As it happens, my sister was one of those examples too — the first woman to play on her high school baseball team. (That’s her on the left, in the photo below.) She told me she wouldn’t have done anything differently than Paige. “She proved herself a competitor, the same as any other,” my sister said, reiterating homage for the game she still calls “chess on grass,” our national pastime.

It’s unfortunate when examples are met with prejudice. But the chess metaphor also applies to politics.

The President should reach out to Sulzbach, as he reached out to Sandra Fluke, the woman recently berated for speaking out about reproductive rights. The contexts are different but the impact is the same. Radical conservatives stand in the path of social equality. The President spoke out against bigotry last week regarding marriage and sexual orientation; he spoke out last Monday against sexism in general.  He spoke to the progress of equality over past decades and also under his presidential watch: Just as a woman should be paid equally for their work, she should be able to qualify for fielding second base. On the boy’s team. If she chooses.

It doesn’t matter if  you feel the GOP’s efforts amount to a “war” in their initiatives on contraception, Planned Parenthood, or responses to extremist talkers like Rush Limbaugh, who called Ms. Fluke a “slut” for suggesting a woman’s had the right to control her own body. What matters is that some of us still don’t look at each other equally. Men can only imagine what women who choose to play on the boys’ team get called. I’m sure my sister caught some of it.

“Paige and her teammates have all had a valuable experience that will serve them well both on and off the field and for years to come,” my sister said. It would serve us all well.

“Until a girl can…picture herself as a computer programmer, or a combatant commander, she won’t become one,” the President said Monday. Add playing baseball to that list. “Persevere,” the President advised the graduates.

Let’s hope the team that walked off the field in Arizona will also try to persevere, overcome their biases. It would make us all a stronger team.

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The outbursts of malignant misogynist rhetoric from Rush Limbaugh, aimed at the Georgetown 3L woman who testified before Congress on women’s health issues have truly moved beyond the pale. Read my thoughts here on POLITICO.

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Here’s a link to the podcast of my interview discussing the GOP candidates with John Barron of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, whose “Inside America” program provides a different perspective on American news.

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There has been a boom of chatter in the media today, coming on the heels of comments from prominent Texas Pastor Robert Jeffress over the weekend. Jeffress, who is closely associated with Rick Perry, referred to Mormonism as a “cult” and explicitly said he does not consider Romney a Christian. And that while he considers Romney a “moral man,” he would prefer a Christian president to a non-Christian one. Jeffress is not backing down, continuing a media barrage and not issuing backtracking “clarifications.”

So here we go.

Comment was solicited promptly from the other candidates, including Perry, whose only response thus far was to answer “no” when asked if he believes Mormonism is a cult.

Michele Bachman refused to answer any questions in a CNN interview. Herman Cain, on ABC and then CNN later Sunday morning, revealed a bit more. Candy Crowley: “Is Mitt Romney a Christian?” Cain: “He is a Mormon. That much I know. I am not going to do analysis of Mormonism versus Christianity.”

Versus. This was not a dodge.

So what’s the upshot going to be? On POLITICO today, there’s an interesting debate over whether the anti-Mormon rhetoric could create a Romney sympathy vote. I said no — at least among hard core evangelical Christians. After all, isn’t it the position of the right wing that squishy moral-relativistic ideas like religious diversity are destroying civilization? And if Romney wants to play the victim-of-intolerant-theocrats card, the most he should hope for is a cameo spot in Bill Maher’s sequel to Religulous.

Maher had an insightful (and of course irreverent) comment on the matter on his most recent HBO programIn typical fashion, he asked: What is the difference between accepting latter-day revelation (e.g. Joseph Smith) and earlier-day revelation (e.g. Moses)? In the interest of intellectual consistency, there are only four positions one can take on the matter: 1) Accept the concept of religious revelation and allow for its variation across time and among faiths; 2) Accept religious revelation and do not allow for its variation; 3) Reject the concept of religious revelation; 4) Reject the relevance of the question.

Unfortunately, presidential politics places a limited emphasis on intellectual consistency. What we are witnessing and will continue to witness is a rhetorical criss-crossing of these four positions, particularly among those competing for Romney’s front-runner status. As epitomized in the Cain interview, people will take position 4 (the question isn’t relevant) but implicate positions 2 (Pastor Jeffress).

And wait for it: Just as some on the right respond to the Obama-is-a-Muslim conspiracy theories, “If he says he’s a Christian, I take him at his word.”

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The horrific terrorist attack in Oslo has led to a flurry of controversial accusations among commentators and critics over whether the anti-immigrant, anti-Ismlamic right wing extremism favored by the accused Anders Ehring Breivik are symptomatic—or even directly linked to—other movements on the political right in this country and in Europe. On the one hand, the lone gunman theory (actually the proper term is “lone wolf,” within the community of those who sturdy hate crimes); on the other the environmental and cultural argument. This holds that whether or not Breivik was or was not technically acting alone, he was also acting out crimes justified and enflamed by rhetoric and activism that speaks of “Islamification” of the west, “invasions” of immigrants, and the rejection of modern government as at once Marxist, fascist, multiculturalist, and socialist.

Yes, we have heard much of this before. And many on the left are pointing to the Tea Party. To anti-Islamist crusaders like Frank Gaffney, the group Citizens for National Security, and various conservative columnists.

Is this fair?

I’m going to dodge, and raise another point, about national sovereignty.

Beyond the rhetoric of Sharia-law takeovers and immigrant invasions is a more serious, legal and even philosophical dispute about the nature of nations and national sovereignty. About borders and citizenship. Especially since the Bush era, a cadre of intellectuals on the right have been advancing a “New Sovereignty” theory that is related to this current debate.

At its core, the New Sovereigntists argue that nations and their laws stop at their borders; thus the important of citizenship and immigration are implicated. Sovereignty and rights are enforced by nations and governments, set down in constitutions and codes by responsible governments, ideally democratic ones. Hence these thinkers harbor deep skepticism of “human” rights of “universal” rights, which they see as empty concepts, devoid of real legal meaning and thus potential tools of distant organizations such as the United Nations, which are not elected and therefore cannot be held accountable by the peoples of sovereign nations. A similarly deep skepticism of international bodies such as the U.N. and International Criminal Court usually follows. As does a similarly fierce defense of Israel’s absolute sovereignty–which is seen as perpetually under attack not only by Islamic terrorists on its own soil, but by Islamic nations and their allies at the United Nations.

New Sovereignty found many acolytes in the George W. Bush administration. Much has changed since the foreign policy of the United States has moved away from the his “preemption” doctrine championed by the neoconservatives then in government, who asserted we didn’t need anyone’s permission, thank you very much, to act in self defense. At least self defense as they understood it. In fact the war in Libya is almost Sovereignty in reverse. The United States sought and gained the approval of international bodies, but not the Congress of the United States.

New Sovereignty has interesting and substantial intellectual roots, some interesting, and surprising. One being Carl Schmitt, a German legal philosopher and Nazi collaborator who mostly rehabilitated himself after the war and is now being reexamined by postmodern scholars. Schmitt believed that the only distinction that matters in politics is friend and enemy; this blunt and Bismarckian idea grew in his later scholarship to a view of human and political history that encompassed the “Nomos of the Earth.” Nomos is the Greek word for the concept of rule of law on territory owned by a sovereign power.

“The friend and enemy concepts are to be understood in their concrete and existential sense, not as metaphors or symbols, not mixed and weakened by economic, moral, and other conceptions.” -Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political

What we hear today on the right about the incursion of foreign laws into our courts and invasions of foreigners into our communities, diluting our culture and the rule of law has parallels to this. It is happening here with the Tea Party movement and it is happening in Europe as well, in organized and sporadic fashion. I am not, to be clear, proposing a cause and effect scenario. Many of the New Sovereigntists’ arguments are intellectually and legally persuasive. They are important arguments worthy of consideration; my own critique of President Obama’s handling of the war in Libya is, actually, influenced by this thinking to a strong extent.

But ideas, and their followers, do not exist in a vacuum. I do not know if Breivik was reading Carl Schmitt, or anyone else. Or secretly in league with Tea Party Minutemen on the Arizona border. For my purposes, those are only some of the relevant questions. The underlying ideas matter as well, and they go far beyond what a deranged Norwegian scribbled in a manifesto.

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Michele Bachman gets migraines. And this should disqualify her from running for, or being, president?


She isn’t my candidate, but this seems off key, uncomfortably like piling on. Jack Cafferty is on CNN now describing how Bachmann had to take the extreme step of seeing doctors for the symptoms, and that she even had to turn off the lights and retreat for a spell when the symptoms hit. “Serious, potentially debilitating health conditions”: Jack asks whether this should be a “political issue.”

She’s even had to get a note from her doctor.

Does Jack and the rest of the crew not recall that John F. Kennedy dealt with debilitating pain throughout his life and his presidency? His severe back problems, heavy medications, and Addison’s disease did not prevent him from being the leader he was (see Cuban Missile Crisis).

It seems strange to be reacting with such a truism, but: those who suffer from medical ailments don’t choose to do so. JFK did not choose to have back pain or Addison’s; Franklin Roosevelt did not choose to have polio; Ronald Reagan did not choose to have Alzheimer’s. As detailed by historian Joshua Wolf Shenk in his book, Abraham Lincoln did not choose to suffer from depression; in fact Shenk concludes that it “challenged a president and fueled his greatness.”

Shenk reports that upon taking office, Lincoln was “in the dumps” and around the period of Fort Sumter was observed “keeling over with a heachache” (p. 175). Maybe even a migraine.

This is not to make comparisons between the Congresswoman from Minnesota and the 16th President of the United States in terms of stature. None applies. But it is to make a comparison about physical health and personality and perseverance. We all face physical challenges in our lives, some more than others. It does not stop us from being who we are, or realizing our potential.

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