Friday, June 30, 2006

Coulter on Evolution

Apparently, Ann Coulter has turned her (nonexistent) talents toward a consideration of the theory of evolution in her new book. Here's a little gem of her amazing reasoning power:

"As I understand the concept behind survival of the fittest, the appendix doesn't do much for the theory of evolution either. How does a survival-of-the-fittest regime evolve an organ that kills the host organism? Why hasn't evolution evolved the appendix away? (Another sign that your scientific theory is in trouble: When your argument against an opposing theory also disproves your own.)"

For the record, there are lots of explanations for why the appendix hasn't "evolved away." (For instance, scroll to the bottom of this article).

But what's really ironic here is the last sentence, since her appendix argument, which doesn't make a dent in the evidence for evolution, is a strong argument against Coulter's preferred "theory" of Intelligent Design. Because, after all, what "intelligent designer" would design "an organ that kills the host organism?" That would be, well, just dumb, wouldn't it? Perhaps Coulter is arguing for unintelligent design as a new challenge to evolution?

Jeesh. Do you think she even reads over this stuff before she sends it to her publisher?

The Fight Against Gay Marriage = the Fight Against Slavery?!?

I won't bother to point out and refute all the stupid things our friend Focus on the Family chief James Dobson says in this article, and instead will just say something about this, which has to be one of the stupidest things I have ever read:

"So where does the issue go from here? Time will tell. It took William Wilberforce more than 30 years to bring about an end to Britain's slave trade in the 1800s. Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of a protracted victory."

So, ending slavery and banning gay marriage are equivalent? Hmm... well, the fight to end slavery was a fight to overturn a thousands-of-years-old biblically-sanctioned institution, while, according to Dobson himself, the fight against gay marriage is a fight to protect a thousands-of-years-old biblically-sanctioned institution.

The fight against slavery was a fight to end an institution which robbed people of their rights and freedoms, while the fight to ban gay marriage is a fight to rob certain people of the right and freedom to participate in one of the fundamental institutions of our society.

Those seeking to end slavery were progressives trying to change the social order and were opposed by the conservatives of the day. Those seeking to ban gay marriage are conservatives seeking to maintain what they see as the social order and are opposed by progressives.

When you look at it, the fight against slavery and the fight to ban gay marriage are not simply not equivalent, but actually the polar opposites of each other, making Dobson's attempt to equate the two without a doubt one of the stupidest things I have ever read.

Kangaroo Courts

Thank God the Supreme Court ruled against the Bush regime's so-called military tribunals. Reporting on this story yesterday, NPR interviewed a former Navy Judge Advocate who said something to the effect of, "This ruling is good because these tribunals smacked of kangaroo courts."

Smacked of kangaroo courts? Methinks the good gentleman is a bit shy here. Tribunals conducted in secret in which the accused can be convicted based on evidence he or she hasn't seen and therefore had no reasonable opportunity to defend him or herself against? That doesn't smack of a kangaroo court: That is the very definition of a kangaroo court!

Cynical Satire

I heard an interesting piece on NPR today about how Ann Coulter and her ilk have managed to further lower the level of political discourse in this country through a technique I have chosen to call "cynical satire."

"Cynical satire" works like this: Coulter (or Hannity or O'Reilly or whomever) makes an outrageous and horrific statement, such as Coulter's comments about how 9-11 widows are fame-seeking golddiggers using their tragedy to get over, or how she wishes Tim McVay had blown up the New York Times building instead of a Federal building, or how someone should murder Supreme Court Justice Stephens. Then, when anyone becomes indignant at the monstrousness of their remarks, they claim that their comments were intended as satire, and that anyone expressing indignance simply lacks a sense of humor.

But, of course, Coulter's remarks, and those of her ilk, aren't satirical. She's not exaggerating something true about her targets in order to make a humorous point, the way, say, Stephen Colbert does in his over-the-top version of Bill O'Reilly, or when SNL made fun of Clinton for being a womanizing hick (because I recognize real satire whether it's directed at the left as well as the right). What true aspect of the New York Times is she exaggerating for humorous effect when she wishes McVay had blown up the Times building? What characteristic of Justice Stephens is she exaggerating for effect when she muses that someone should kill him?

The fact is, Coulter and others like her are simply stating their actual tasteless and immoral opinions, and then falsely claiming 'satire' when anyone confronts them with their tastelessness and immorality. It's a neat trick, and Coulter does it well. But it's really just cynical bullshit.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

If All You Have is a Hammer...

In case you hadn't heard, Bush has been using something called 'Presidential Signing Statements' as part of his war on the constitution and its system of checks and balances. He has been appending statements to bills he signs in which he says that he isn't going to enforce some of their provisions on the grounds that they violate executive power. That is to say, he has been exercising a very quiet line-item veto, something that isn't allowed for in the constitution and has been explicitly ruled unconstitutional by a Federal court:

"The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Lear Siegler v. Lehman, 842 F.2d 1102 (1988) explained: 'Art. I, section 7 is explicit that the President must either sign or veto a bill presented to him. Once signed by the President,...the bill becomes part of the law of the land and the President must "take care that [it] be faithfully executed." Art. I, section 7 does not empower the President to employ a so-called 'line item veto' and excise or sever provisions of a bill with which he disagrees. The only constitutionally prescribed means for the President to effectuate his objections to a bill is to veto it and state those objections upon returning the bill to Congress. The 'line item veto' does not exist in the federal Constitution, and the executive branch cannot bring a de facto 'line item veto' into existence by promulgating orders to suspend parts of statutes which the President has signed into law.'"

Arlen Specter has been holding hearings about Bush's use of these Signing Statements. Conservative legal scholar Bruce Fein, testifying at the hearing, proposed as a remedy to Bush's use of these statements as de facto line-item veto that Congress to pass a bill giving legislators standing to sue the President in court for failing to enforce provisions of legislation the President has signed. At first, I thought this was a good idea. But, as a poster over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars notes:

"The second part of Fein's suggestion (suing the president over the signing order) would be a potential way to get past the presidential blockade of the new law, but that would put the decision in the hands of the courts. The ability to override the veto is a power that Congress has.

So, Fein's suggestion would give the president a new veto-like power, but the ability to override the new power would not reside with Congress."

Which is correct. And it occurred to me that the constitution already provides Congress a power to deal with the situation where the Chief Executive refuses to carry out his or her constitutionally-mandated duties: impeachment. Unfortunately, given Congress' continuing failure to use its powers to act as a check and a balance to executive authority*, there is no chance whatsoever that Congress will impeach Bush for failing to carry out his constitutional duties.

Fein is, basically, suggesting that, since Congress has utterly failed to use its own constitutional powers to check the powers of the President, it give itself the power to run to the Judicial branch to force the Judiciary to act as the check. But, what I think even Fein himself may not realize, is that this suggestion is an indictment of Congress, not the President, and is evidence that the problem here is more with the legislative branch than the executive. Because, while we're all focused on Bush and his misuse of power and trying to figure out what should be done about it, it is the failures of Congress that have allowed him to do it.

Chief Executives, be they of nations of corporations, always seek greater power. With or without Bush, sooner or later a President would have come along who tried to give himself a line-item veto power through these signing statements. That's the nature of things. Focusing on Bush and his lust for greater power makes it seem that the cancer is in the White House. For once, it's not.

The cancer is in a legislature that, by failing to carry out its own constitutional duty to act as a check on executive power, has fostered an environment where the President knows he can create new powers for himself with impunity. They say that, "When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." But, if you're like Congress, and you're afraid to use the hammer, it seems that instead nothing looks like a nail.

*For instance, Congress has completely given up its sole power to declare war by allowing the President to engage in wars without its consent, by calling them "police actions" and other such nonsense, and, more egregiously, by outright abrogating that power to the President before the invasion of Iraq.

If You Can't Win, Just Change the Rules of the Game!

That seems to be the strategy of the religious right in pushing this bill in the House. As noted by Ed over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, the idea is to stop awarding attorney's fees to winners in establishment clause cases, that is to say, in cases where a citizen claims the government is violating the separation of church and state. And only in establishment clause cases. The obvious intent is to make it too expensive for people to sue the government when it violates the separation of church and state.

But what I love is this line from a guy defending the bill:

"Where violation of these clauses is truly egregious, the plaintiffs should not need a hell of a lot of legal representation." !?!?

What? This is wrong on so many levels. In essence, this guy is saying, essentially, "If you have a good case you don't need good representation."

Wouldn't it be great if that were true, but it's not. Heck, if that were true, why let plaintiffs have lawyers at all? If the violation is "egregious" enough, then any shmoe should be able to prove it in court, right? Wrong. Poor or insufficient representation can lose the best case. Take the OJ trial.

Besides, since when were only "truly egregious" violations of the constitution worthy of being corrected? Is it okay for the government to violate citizens' rights as long as they don't cackle evilly while they do it?

And, isn't the whole point of taking the government to court to prove that it committed an "egregious" violation of citizens' rights? If it were obvious beforehand what was and wasn't a violation, let alone an "egregious" one, then we wouldn't need the courts to decide these cases at all. But, lo and behold, often not everyone agrees on whether citizens' rights have been violated. And, therefore, we have a mechanism to decide who is correct: the courts. And we already have a mechanism to encourage plaintiffs to only bring cases they believe have merit to the court: the fact that only winning plaintiffs get attorney's fees.

Here's the simple fact: the religious right believes that the possibility of paying out large amounts of money in plaintiff's attorney's fees is creating a chilling effect on governments trying to get away with violating the establishment clause. Only governments trying to break down the wall of separation of church and state or trying to test the boundaries of that separation are in any danger of paying out attorney's fees in establishment clause cases.

With this bill, the right is basically claiming that the specter of large attorney's fees bills is making governments wary of violating the constitution, and they don't think governments should have to worry so much about foolish things like the Bill of Rights. But the whole point of the constitution and the Bill of Rights was that governments can and will violate the rights of the people given half the chance, and the philosophy of those documents is therefore to err on the side of protecting the rights of the citizens rather than the powers of the government. This bill seeks to stand those protections on their heads.

Of course, the right's agenda here is even less subtle than that. They don't like losing establishment clause cases, which they so often do, because they want to establish an American theocracy. This is just their way of changing the rules of the game. Or rather, since they can't win the game, this is their way of making it too difficult for their opponents to play.