Tuesday, 31 January 2006

Petition Available for Cory Maye

Please consider signing this petition on behalf of Cory Maye.

Sunday, 22 January 2006

TV Quote of the Week

From ABC's Lost; Eko speaking to his brother who is a priest:
Yemi, I understand that you live in a world where righteousness and evil seem very far apart, but that is not the real world.
In a flashback from years earlier when they were only children, Eko rushed forward to take a gun from his younger brother who is being compelled to shoot an old priest, and shoots the priest himself in order to preserve his brother's innocence.

Saturday, 21 January 2006

Death With Dignity - Relief & Concern

This week the Supreme Court turned aside the old Ashcroft challenge to Oregon's voters' initiative to allow doctors to prescribe lethal doses of medication to their patients who want to keep their options open for controlling their own deaths. I wrote with some concern about this in October when Miers was Bush's nominee to replace O'Connor. As I hoped at that time, Kennedy sided with Oregon which eliminated any temptation to defer the decision until O'Connor's replacement, since a 6-3 decision would not be affected by a change of one justice.

My relief of course stems from the decision, my concern from Roberts' siding with the dissenting opinion in this case.

Aside from my gross lack of legal qualifications, I could never be on the SCOTUS. I would always want to rule in favor of the most aggrieved party, precedent or Constitution be damned. I understand the importance of moving cautiously when precedent IS being set, but the Court does have an important function in setting boundaries based on common decency as well. I heard Breyer explain it very well one evening when describing what the job of the court really is. The legislative branch is charged with defining the particulars of law, and the Supreme Court must only set the parameters within which those laws should operate. If public opinion has overwhelmingly moved to find certain restrictions or lack thereof repugnant, then it is not outside the purview of the Court to limit what lawmakers can do, but they are still obliged to find some Constitutional basis for it.

Personally I find it repugnant that some folks believe that other suffering people should not be given a dignified manner of ending their own life - in ANY state. I may or may not be in the majority, but I'm certainly not in the overwhelming majority in that regard. The SCOTUS cannot properly mandate that states create Death with Dignity provisions, though the current court can see that Ashcroft was overreaching in claiming that the Oregon law violated Federal drug laws. If Congress writes a more specific law outlawing doctor assisted suicide, however, we may be forced to take a step back from compassion. I must remind myself though, that in the long arc we as a society have been moving toward compassion more than away from it, and with an engaged citizenry I must believe that such a general trend will continue in the long run.

Friday, 20 January 2006

Chilean election portends hope for US progressives

Chile's election Monday of socialist and former political prisoner Michelle Bachelet is being largely ignored by the U.S. press, but it is quite significant and hopeful on several fronts. The right in America probably wants to ignore it because they fear it signals a continuing leftward shift in Latin American politics following the election of Bolivian populist Evo Morales and the continued popularity of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, whose anti-American and anti-Bush rhetoric has drawn not only outrageous commentary from Pat Robertson, but a consistently hostile treatment by a majority of printed opinion in the states.

Whether one buys the usual denigration of Chavez as a Castro-style ideologue or not, Bachelet is clearly cut from a different cloth, and could serve as a unifying force in acknowledging the importance of free markets, at the same time as insisting on fairness to those of less means.

My favorite part of this story is the clear about-face from the brutal dictatorial regime of Augusto Pinochet from 1973-90. As a former victim of his brutality (Bachelet was imprisoned, then exiled to Argentina, and her father died in prison), the president elect, like Mandela did in South Africa, is speaking the language of reconciliation which is all too rare in politics:
Because I was the victim of hatred, I have dedicated my life to reverse that hatred and turn it into understanding, tolerance and -- why not say it -- into love.
American progressives would do well to study this victory as an antidote to the naysayers who contend that the Republican talking points of the last two decades have eliminated any chance of a true progressive being elected to the U.S. Presidency. Chile remains a quite socially conservative nation, and yet it has elected an agnostic, divorced, socialist woman as president. To me this shows that an electorate is able to think past simplistic formulas, and acknowledge forward thinking which may diverge from their own in the particulars. It is also worth noting that constitutional reforms have eliminated designated military senators, which should enable the new center-left majority in both houses to enact most of Bachelet's anticipated reforms. Maybe this can presage a development in the US in which a progressive's message can ring true to the electorate in spite of an association with a few particular ideas thought to be "out of the mainstream". The faulty equations which have gained currency here between liberalism and decadence, or progressivism and extremism, or conservative religiosity and morality won't be simple to break down, but they can be broken down because they are false.

Like Chile, America in her internal policies has a history of moderation, rather than fluctuating between violent extremes like so much of the world. The recent experience with Pinochet was an anomaly for Chile, sadly brought upon her with the complicity of the United States. Ariel Dorfman, in his essay The Black Hole speaks to his almost giddy anticipation in the wake of the election of Salvador Allende, before that dream was cut short by Pinochet's rise to power.
It was then, in the midst of that multitude of men and women I had never met and did not know, it was then, as I breathed in the air that they were breathing out, that I had an experience which I hesitate to call mystical but which was as near to a religious epiphany as I have had in my life.

Allende was making a brief speech, something about how we were now going to be the masters of our own destiny, the owners of our own land and the metals under the ground and the streets we walked through...
Times have changed, and Bachelet's brand of socialism is likely to more aggressively seek accommodation with capitalist partners, fending off any immediate backlash. Both Bachelet and her conservative opponent catered to the middle in this election, and the conservative opponent was even gracious in defeat.

What a dream that would be! Proponents of distinctly different policies competing democratically without stooping to demagoguery and ridicule. Oh wait! That's what we're supposed to have. Let's make it so!

Remember the Hostages

Jill Carroll's life today is in the hands of madmen. It may be a fool's errand to expect that they will listen to voices of reason, but Carroll's parents continue their pleas. Whatever 'cause' the hostage takers may think they have, cannot be well served by their carrying through on their threat to end Carroll's life. My heart goes out to Jill Carroll and her friends and family, as it does to the friends and families of the Christian Peacemaker Team's hostages, Tom Fox, Norman Kember, James Loney, and Harmeet Sooden who have not been heard from since early December.

It is a tragic modus operandus that abductions often target the noblest and best of humankind's ambassadors to conflict, as the assassination of Margaret Hassan reminded us in November of 2004.

The CSM article on Jill Carroll has links to her outstanding reports about the war and its tragic effects on ordinary Iraqis.

Tuesday, 17 January 2006


The dictionary defines orthogonal as simply "pertaining to or composing right angles". Orthogonality, though, is a concept which can help us evaluate how well an action's effect carries out its supposed intent. I'm not trying to be obtuse, and I don't think it's a difficult concept, so I'm laying out what I mean by it here. Most of the time orthogonality is to be avoided.

Suppose Group B is people who have committed violent crimes and Group A is everybody else. We will trust that in such an example the Group B box is actually much smaller. If 10% of the people were expected to have committed violent crimes, and based on that the government were to institute a program whereby lots were drawn and 10% of the population were imprisoned, we could be pretty sure that the effect of the action was orthogonal to the groupings. 90% of the guilty would remain free while 10% of the innocent would be imprisoned.

Of course many countries, including our own, do much better than that. But there are instances where the effect of a law or regulation may be more orthogonal to the intended effect than most are willing to admit. And when the unscrupulous gain power, there is even a danger that the effect will be worse than orthogonal, and the meritorious are more likely to receive punishment while the transgressors are protected. I fear that punishment in far too many dictatorships can be worse than orthogonal for some transgressions. Of course even the worst leaders want to subdue the murderers in their populace when their murders don't serve the ends of the dictator. But orthogonality is a useful concept for far more than just regulation and justice.

Monday, 16 January 2006

King Still Germane Today

Extraordinary vision retains its relevance across conflicts and issues spanning generations. The American hero whose legacy we celebrate today was a prophet whose vision remains eerily germane today. From his essay Testament of Hope published posthumously we find:
Today's problems are so acute because the tragic evasion and defaults of several centuries have accumulated to disaster proportions. The luxury of a leisurely approach to urgent solutions--the ease of gradualism--was forfeited by ignoring the issues for too long. The nation waited until the black man was explosive with fury before stirring itself even to partial concern. Confronted now with the interrelated problems of war, inflation, urban decay, white backlash and a climate of violence, it is now forced to address itself to race relations and poverty, and it is tragically unprepared. What might once have been a series of separate problems now merge into a social crisis of almost stupefying complexity.
The lists of particulars have changed somewhat, but the insight remains germane to issues of civil rights today, as it is transferrable to issues such as the environment. Like others I have little doubt that King would have continued to challenge our moral edges boldly and creatively.

His assassination rocked my consciousness as a child in a white Atlanta suburb in the sixties, so today I commemorated that memory by taking my own child to Seattle's rally and march in his memory. He was embarrassed by the volume of my chanting--"I should use the voice I have", I told him--but remained a trooper in the rainy two mile march, carrying his own sign much of the way. Present were the provocateurs trying to bend the rally to their own leftist ends, but they were largely unsuccessful. I observed the scorn of a young black woman, whose reaction to the attempted "Bush is a fascist" chant of one young white guy with a bullhorn, was "I'm not going to say that!" Perhaps I share the indictment of Bush, but there are better ways to dignify the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. Sans bullhorn, I shouted and shout still, "We're keeping the Dream alive!"

The fascist chant may have been off the mark, but not by nearly as much as the inclusion of fighter jets at the San Antonio MLK March, agreed to by their commission chairman Rev. Herman Price. Thanks to Jeanne at Body and Soul, Benjamin Greenberg and Tommy Calvert, Jr for their perspectives.

Saturday, 14 January 2006


This should be obvious, but it seems that some folks just don't get it.

The desire to find and place blame after tragedy is certainly understandable. The assignment of blame where it exists is often desirable. But the existence of tragedy does not mean there is always blame to be found, and when there is blame the extent of culpability is not proportional to the enormity of the tragedy.

There is an instinct among many that the size of the punishment should be proportional to the size of the hurt. But such a standard is clearly unjust. This is easiest to see if we look at the mistakes of children. A two-year-old might knock over a candle leading to an awful tragedy, but we don't blame the child. We might blame adults present for allowing the dangerous situation to exist, but not in proportionality to the awful result. In contrast, an heir to a fortune who is caught attempting the murder of his benefactor is guilty of an imprisonable crime even if no one is actually hurt. He's also likely to lose his inheritance in short order.

So why is it that those of us who insist on evaluating the context of the situation and the background of the perpetrator in determining the severity of a punishment are so often mocked as being soft on crime. For some people it seems, that once ANY culpability is established, then the extent of the punishment should be proportional to the pain of the victim. If we decline to blame the two-year-old at all, then the extent of the blame and hence the severity of the punishment should also depend on the intent and future dangerousness of the perpetrator. This is acknowledged in our laws in many ways, such as the concept of pre-meditation for defining murder in the first degree. The victim of the un-premeditated murder is just as dead, but the intent of the perpetrator should be paramount in setting their punishment. It's often bothered me that there is any legal difference between murder and attempted murder. Perhaps the failed murderer is seen as less dangerous because they are less likely to succeed in the future. I also suppose our jails would be overcrowded fast if driving drunk became the equivalent of vehicular homicide.

But the issue at hand is the growing vindictiveness promoted by sensationalist local reporting which goads the public into a desire for vengeance. I expect juries to use their common sense, but sometimes it is lacking, and sometimes tragically so. This thread is to be continued, but in the meantime read this by Laura Denyes, and explain to me what was going on in the heads of the jurors to convict Cory Maye of any crime, much less sentence him to death.

Friday, 13 January 2006

In Bush We Trust

I generally avoid satire. Whether that's mostly because I'm worried I can't pull it off or because I just can't stand being misunderstood by those who don't get it, I'm not sure. But I just couldn't resist this mildly sardonic excursion into that realm.

I'll certainly never be a Jesus' General, even though I thoroughly enjoy his comic offerings. I can also appreciate smart satire from the other side, such as seen at ScrappleFace, or even when you're not quite sure where it's coming from*, such as at Less People, Less Idiots. Generally what you'll read here is pretty much what I really mean.

As for trusting Bush, though, I'm really quite serious. It's his trustworthiness that perhaps is scariest.

*Actually I have a pretty good idea.

Wednesday, 11 January 2006


Aside from revenue questions, in judging what government should do, really the fundamental question is what should government prohibit. Extreme libertarians or anarchists sometimes feign a belief that prohibition is always bad, but I don't really believe them. Everybody has some things they want prohibited.

On the other side, extreme authoritarians want to prescribe a very narrow band of behavior that everyone should adhere to, often following the dictates of some particular religious practice.

But most people recognize, whether consciously or not, that things work best if people and institutions are granted considerable latitude in their choices, but prohibited from making a defined set of choices that are widely considered "bad".

Public debate about what should and should not be prohibited is a good thing, because we benefit from multiple perspectives. How people and institutions are defined politically is largely based on which activities they want to see prohibited and to what extent. Sometimes people get very passionate fighting over tiny distinctions, while at other times behaviors which most would find abhorrent are blithely ignored, while others which most would think to be no big deal are quietly disallowed.

Drawing lines for criminalization

Speaking generally, I believe in granting as much latitude as is practicable to human behavior, but defining clear lines beyond which certain behaviors are absolutely disallowed. For the smaller peccadillos, it is best if the morés of society do the job of regulating behavior. For really objectionable acts, though, the government should intervene, and assess punishment sufficiently severe to provide an unquestionable deterrent. This way government resources aren't wasted fussing with the small stuff, while people are legally allowed to push the limits of societies norms a little, with a strong deterrent from going too far.

This doesn't work for everything. It is vitally important for safety's sake that drivers not careen down residential streets at 70 miles per hour (110 kph), but the posted limit needs to guide the driver, who may not be familiar with the road, toward a truly safe speed, for instance 30 mph (50 kph). Hence we need a graduated punishment schedule ranging from a warning to a fine to a jail sentence depending on extent to which the limit is broken. But it is expensive to hire the cops to enforce these graduated punishments, so for most misbehaviors it is better to rely on the norms of society, rather than law, to encourage goodness, while relying on law to forcefully deter the clearly undesirable behaviors.

The rub is in determining what is clearly undesirable. As a liberal, I am inclined to draw the line more restrictively with respect to corporate and institutional behaviors, and less so with respect to personal behaviors. Often lost in the unnecessary rancor of these necessary debates is the fact that most liberals and conservatives agree on the overwhelming majority of which behaviors should be prohibited and which should not. Murder, rape, property theft, dumping lethal doses of toxins in rivers, forced labor, and blatant consumer fraud should be illegal. Personal insults, bad hygiene, hatred, leveraging a competitive advantage to drive smaller companies out of business, overcompensating executives, and creating waste in manufacture may all be undesirable, but most would agree that criminalizing them is not the appropriate measure for their control.

Examples of even the most blatant offenses on the corporate/institutional side of the equation are more awkward to describe, and so unfortunately defining the best reasonable lines for what should and should not be allowed is complex and nuanced. Where a simple law comes reasonably close to disallowing the undesirable while allowing mostly free commerce, that is preferable to a complex suite of regulations with multiple dependencies. It is reasonable to suggest that law should prohibit the blatant behaviors while industry should self regulate the details where complexity requires that. Unfortunately many industries become controlled largely by the bigger players, and the power they obtain in setting the rules mandates the need for independent oversight. Sometimes that means government intervening to look out for the interests of those without the power to insist on fair treatment.

Unequal Power

My liberal inclination to legislate corporate and institutional behaviors more strictly than personal behaviors has its basis in the fact that larger institutions and corporations accrue power as they grow. This does not make them a priori any more evil than an individual, but common sense dictates that it does make them more dangerous, and if they do misbehave the consequences are magnified. The corporate executives who are tempted to believe the report that the toxic release which would save their company millions over the alternative may not have the murderous intent of the criminal punk who has been hardened by years on the street, but if that report is wrong their choice may be far deadlier.

Economic conservatives often mock liberal "anti-corporatism", but I see their trust that the market is sufficient to control corporate excesses as frighteningly naive. I actually agree with them that the market is a good tool for directing the production of goods toward items which have actual value, but even if the market were truly free, which it isn't, that tool is certainly not sufficient for reining in excesses. And in an age where increasing monetary inequity exacerbates the power inequity, a healthy distrust of corporations should inform our politics. I'd like a show of hands - who thinks that corporations don't have enough power and influence? And yet the tired out Reaganesque arguments about burdensome regulations quashing innovation persist. I'm all for eliminating regulations which don't make sense, and am happy to stipulate that many exist, but give me a break, corporate behavior which is unseemly and ought to be stopped is rampant in our world.

We are hostages to Corporate Personhood & stockholder primacy

Two simple changes to U.S. law could go a long way toward righting the power imbalance between the common people and the mega-corporations. One would be the elimination of the concept of Corporate Personhood (not to be confused with the protection against liability afforded by incorporation), which was created out of a gross misinterpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment (pdf) in multiple court rulings late in the nineteenth century.
While society was grappling with bringing former slaves into U.S society, the power and influence of corporations was also on the rise. While very few people were turning their attention and energy to bringing former slaves into society – indeed, far more energy was being put into NOT bringing them into society – corporations were using a great deal of their wealth to hire lawyers to advance their interests in the courts. The Fourteenth Amendment offered an opportunity to advance corporate interests, and the corporate attorneys set out to exploit it.
Of the 150 cases involving the Fourteenth Amendment heard by the Supreme Court up to the Plessy v. Ferguson case in 1896 that established the legal standing of “separate but equal,” 15 involved blacks and 135 involved business entities. The scope of the Fourteenth Amendment to secure the political rights of former slaves was so restricted by the Supreme Court that blacks won only one case. The expansive view of the Fourteenth Amendment that comes down to Constitutional Law classes today is the result of corporations using the Fourteenth Amendment as a shield against regulation.
These cases sought to establish personhood for corporations, culminating in a statement by Chief Justice Waite in 1886 commenting on Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railway:
The court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are all of opinion that it does.
Who believes that an amendment written to grant equal protection to all races really meant that corporations should be protected as citizens? Again I'd like to see a show of hands on that one. Call me a judicial activist, (ok, I AM a judicial activist), but this is one precedent that needs to be shot down, stare decisis be damned.

Stockholder primacy is the other concept which works in concert with a myopic devotion to free market principle to not only work against ethical behavior by corporations, but arguably to legally require it. Lawsuits by investors against corporations frequently cite actions which might go against the interest of investors. Taken to the extreme, such arguments suggest that where money can be saved by doing so, corporations are required to push right up to the limits of the law, even if moral compunctions might argue otherwise. Of course, such arguments can be countered by pointing out that long term investor interest is actually positively served by the good will generated by corporate responsibility. Still, I find it offensive that the interests of stockholders should take precedence over the interests of the workers, the consumers, and the communities where the corporations exist.

I love to imagine a million people marching on Washington holding signs "Eliminate Corporate Personhood" & "Our Interests Trump Stockholder Interests". Not exactly slogans there for a populist groundswell, I know. But the impact of these two legal principles are enormous, and I dare to believe that if you forced every civic minded person to learn about these issues and vote on them, both would be overturned by whopping majorities.

Tuesday, 10 January 2006

From Holly Near's - Edge

I've long been predisposed to like Holly Near, but acquiring music has taken a back seat to other interests over the last decade. Thankfully there's no reason I cannot enter a new discovery phase. Besides, there is no shame in tardy discoveries of music, art, or literature that's been around for centuries - or for six years. My wife's Christmas request for 1000 Grandmothers and I Ain't Afraid by Holly Near, led to my giving her the 2001 album Edge, which I've happily discovered is chock full of wisdom which is at once radical and hopeful. The opening song, Fired Up!, features Near's beautiful anger, because hers is an anger that refuses to deny hope - the possibility of a yet better world which she paints in the second song, Planet Called Home
Can you call on your imagination
As if telling a myth to a child
Put in the fantastical, wonderful, magical
Add the romantic, the brave and the wild

Once upon a time there was a power
So great that no one could know its name
People tried to claim it and rule with it
Always such arrogance ended in shame.

Thousands of years would pass in a moment
Hundreds of cultures would come and go
Each generation with a glorious calling
Even when they were too busy to know

Then one day after two millennia
Which after all was a small part of time
Hundreds of souls found their way out of no where
To be on earth at the threat of decline

Let's all go, they moved as one being
Even though each would arrive here alone
They promised to work in grace with each other
To brave the beautiful planet called home

There was no promise that they could save it
But how exciting to give it a try
If they each did one or two actions beautifully
Complex life forms on earth might not die

And so they arrive in a spectrum of colors
The population on earth did explode
Some threw themselves in front of disaster
Others slowly carried their load

Some adopted small girls from China
Some lived high in the branches of trees
Some died as martyrs, some lived as healers
Some bravely walked with a dreadful disease

They mingled among each class and culture
Not one of them could be identified
But together they altered just enough moments
To help the lost and the terrified

To step outside our egos and bodies
To know for once that we truly are one
Then quickly we would forget to remember
But that's OK, their job was well done

And earth went on for another millennium
And now its time for my song to end
This magical story of hope and wonder
Invites you all to wake up and pretend to be

Fabulous creatures sent from the power
Souls that have come with a purpose in mind
To do one little thing that will alter the outcome
And maybe together we can do it in time

Can you call on your imagination
As if telling a myth to a child
Put in the fantastical, wonderful, magical
Add the romantic, the brave and the wild

The Souls are coming back

Copyright 1999 by Hereford Music (ASCAP)

Near's indictment of human error is matched by her celebration of humanity and its potential, transforming anger into hope by stating that which is obvious to her, and inviting us to join her in a transformative hope for a better future. Her words are a fitting complement to my mission here at Choosing Hope.

Those more familiar with copyright law, do let me know if quoting lyrics in full runs afoul of any proscriptions against that.

Sunday, 8 January 2006

The Crux of the Matter

Expressing dismay at the way ideals are marginalized, while brutality and darkness are stoicly accepted in the name of realism, Jeanne at Body and Soul does not shy away from stating the obvious in one beautiful post from her beautiful weblog:
Pacifists have never gotten much respect, but one of the most depressing things of the past four years has been the way they've been completely shut out of the conversation. I'm not an absolute pacifist, mainly because I'm not an absolute anything. But I know that pacifists are more often right than wrong, and, more important, that they ask the most important question: Is there another way?

Friday, 6 January 2006


Opponents of the Kyoto accord or the teaching of evolution to school children sometimes claim to ground their opinions in healthy skepticism, pointing out that the holdings of scientist do shift over time as deeper understandings displace shallower ones. Well skepticism is great, and the best of scientists are always skeptical, but this skeptic's eyebrows are raised far more by the claim that human activity is not the major contributing factor to the current rate of global warming, than by the much more widely accepted claim that it is.

As Gavin Schmidt at RealClimate writes:
Absolute credence in one obscure publication while distrusting mountains of 'mainstream' papers is a sure sign of cherry picking data to support an agenda, not clear-thinking scepticism.
The quote works just as well in reference to supporters of the teaching of Intelligent Design. Schmidt's worthy article draws on the logic of one of my own favorite skeptics of the last century, Bertrand Russell.

Sure the Kyoto Accord had flaws, and yes it would be foolish to sign onto it and believe our job was done. But to defiantly refuse to sign it with dismissive rhetoric, given the difficulty of getting multiple nations to agree to any small positive steps, is the height of irresponsibility. Fortunately numerous American cities are going around our now fully regressive federal government and instituting emission limits on their own.

I was reminded of RealClimate by a newly discovered site What is Liberalism? after one of its writers, Lawrence Krubner, was kind enough to drop by and leave a comment on Choosing Hope related to the shocking injustice being perpetrated on Cory Maye in the state of Mississippi. And yes Lawrence, I will be doing something with one of Laura's buttons in the very near future. Unfortunately, Cory Maye's is but one of many cases of prosecutorial misjustice involving a capital case. Tonight PBS's NOW featured the case of Anthony Graves in Texas. It's bad enough that these people are not freed tomorrow -- that they are on death row is an utter outrage. Fodder for another post, but more importantly a call to action. Stay tuned.